Testing, testing

On September 6, I wrote about radical acceptance and the peace I think it’s giving me. Maybe the universe thought I needed to be tested on this, or simply brought down a peg or two.

I don’t really think that. I don’t believe things work that way. But if they did, I’d tell myself that maybe that’s the reason the blows started coming fast and furious in the days since.

The fires and the 10 or so days of unhealthy air quality, some so toxic they were literally off the chart. The pain and struggle of so many colleague friends as we attempt to provide quality distance learning while managing grief over all that we’ve lost in our work with children, as well as that of so many friends supporting their children’s engagement with distance learning. Signs of continued (likely increasing) instability in the district I work for. My daughter’s work visa from Sweden finally coming through, which means that in weeks she will be leaving to live half-way around the world, with the hope of permanently making her life there. A jump in Rocky’s decline that’s forcing me to think long and hard about what’s best for him now, what constitutes “quality of life.” The return of insomnia and migraine. The continuation of our bungled response to the pandemic (hey, remember the pandemic?) that puts so many people (more than 40% of school workers, for example) in significant danger.

And then Ruth Bader Ginsberg died.

I sat on my couch on Friday afternoon, minutes after learning about Ginsberg’s death and seeing that McConnell had already put out a statement about how her seat will be filled before the end of Trump’s term, holding Rocky who had required holding all day, my head dull and achey because I’d worked all day on computer screens while nursing a migraine hangover, looking out to still-hazy air, thinking of all the people I love (including myself) who could lose rights and protections so hard-won, and of the absence that will soon, again, fill my home, an absence that will be caused in part by my daughter’s not unreasonable assessment that she can make a better future for herself in a different country, and of how I really want Rocky to be able to hang on until after his girl leaves but I don’t know if he can or if I should let him, and I could do nothing but sit and cry.

Things are terrible.

I look back at early 2016 me, who could see the possibility of what was coming (but tempered her words because she hoped that she was over-reacting) and somehow, naively, thought that civil dialogue could save us. 2016 me was kinda sweet in her hope and good intentions, and I regard her with some tenderness, but she was foolish and in denial, which made her unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

We need to see clearly. We need to accept what is happening, what’s been happening–not just in the last two weeks or four years, but always.

When the rain came on Friday all I could see in my social media feeds were expressions of joy–which I get–but the air quality was still unhealthy. I was happy to see the rain, too, and grateful for the relief it was bringing, but the air quality was still unhealthy. We still could not safely go outside, and all I could see in all of us was how quickly and easily we’d become accustomed to a terrible new normal and how that made us nearly giddy for something that was still bad but not so terribly bad.

I want more than that for all of us.

We must see clearly, which means acknowledging contradictory truths: Yes, it was great that the air was better AND it was true that it was still not good. Since Friday morning, the rain has washed away the smoke and as I write these words, the air is now safe again. But we aren’t. The underlying causes of so many recent tragedies that seem beyond our control (fire, hurricane, derecho, pandemic deaths, continued injustices of all kinds that result in death) haven’t moved, and so we will return to them again and again and again until we address those causes.

This isn’t just about air quality. I suspect you know that, but I need to make sure that I am clear.

We need to grieve. We need to mourn. We need to cry because crying is part of accepting that things are terrible and we need to accept that things are terrible. Crying and feeling pain are not contradictory to radical acceptance. I think it’s essential to it, and our attempts to numb ourselves from pain is part of our undoing.

As news of Ginsberg’s death moved swiftly on Friday, I saw a slew of reactions along lines I’ve come to expect in the aftermath of any perceived political threat: “Of course they can’t fill her seat until we have a new President!” (Yes, they can, if enough Republican senators toe the party line, which they have done unfailingly for the past nearly four years.) “Now we really have to get out the vote!” (Sure, of course, but with respect to the question of the Supreme Court in general and Ginsberg’s seat in particular, that ship really left the dock in 2016.) Inspirational memes about coming back to fight another day. (Without any acknowledgement of how unfair the fight is, or how the unwritten but fundamental rules of engagement have changed, or how losing this fight might make future fights almost impossible to win.)

Initially these responses filled me with frustration because they remind me of 2016 me and because I cannot understand how anyone paying real attention now can think any of those responses are grounded in reality. Later, they filled me with sadness because that is just where a lot of people are, and it’s how they hang onto hope, and I have to accept that reality, too.

Please don’t misunderstand. I know that hope is crucial and that we are truly doomed if we all lose it, but it needs to be a critical hope. Our hope needs to be grounded in what is actually true right now today, not in what used to be true or what we wish or believe to be true–which means facing and feeling our sorrow and fear rather than pushing them away with half-truths that make us feel better. We need to accept the contradictory truths that things are terrible and that hope is reasonable so that we will take actions that might actually make a damn difference in our fight to make a better world, one in which we can all live and work without threat of death and raise children who believe they can make good lives for themselves on the soil from which they sprang.

(If you read only one link in this post, please make it this one: Why Critical Hope May Be the Resource Kids Most Need from Their Teachers. Plenty of wisdom in it for all of us, not just teachers and kids.)

Working from home with my old friend on Friday afternoon.

Smoke gets in your eyes

What the hell is going on?

A. Climate change.

B. Forest mismanagement.

C. Irresponsible and/or malicious humans.

The answer is D, all of the above.

Our increasing inability to accept complexity and reject singular narratives is going to be the death of us.

(Still waiting on some rain.)

On fire in the eye of a hurricane

The photos started showing up in my feed late Monday, neighborhoods shrouded in what looked like dark yellow fog. As the days have gone on, the photos have turned darker and darker, orange skies and thicker and thicker fog that wasn’t fog, but smoke. I tried to take my own photo, but I couldn’t capture it, the eeriness of the light.

It is getting harder and harder for me to hold up my end of the continual conversation I’m having with my daughter in which I argue that it is reasonable for her to have hope for her future.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, hot and strident. Wednesday I had to clear the driveway of branches before I could back the car out to drive my daughter to her new job. She’s supervising two kindergartners and a preschooler while their moms work from home, supporting their online school and keeping them safe. I’m glad she was able to graduate without student loan debt.

Thursday morning the vast expanse of dead lawn in my backyard was littered with leaves and branches. I noticed my neighbor watering his, and I figured I should do the same thing, though it felt like a futile sort of gesture.

I started sprinklers in the morning, picked up the kitchen, and got to work in my home office. I’ve settled into our not-normal new normal. I’ve been relishing what feels like an almost eerie calm these past few weeks. I had a little hiccup the first day or two back, but other than that I’ve been calm like I’ve never been calm in my life. Things that would have set my teeth grinding and my insomnia flaring in earlier years have rolled right off me.

Those things just don’t matter any more.

I mean, I suppose they do. Or they never did. Hard to say. They just don’t matter right now, though.

By Thursday afternoon my house was filled with smoke. My nostrils were parched, and my head felt not achey, but heavy. My eyes wanted to stay closed.

I am not in an evacuation zone, not even level one, but they aren’t far from me. If I lived in my old neighborhood on the mountain–the one in which my children grew through a nearly idyllic childhood, in what I presumed was likely the precursor to a similarly charmed adult life–I would have my car packed with all the things they recommend we pack, ready to go. Or, like some of my old neighbors, I might already be gone, unwilling to risk getting trapped in traffic on the highway that becomes choked with cars at the beginning and end of every three-day weekend.

By Thursday afternoon, I had to concede that our not-normal new-normal was no longer normal. Our school buildings were closing because of poor air quality and the numbers of staff who were in the process of evacuating their homes. Chromebook distribution would have to wait for another day.

And still, I felt calm.

I had a conversation with an old friend, and we talked about evacuation plans, our children’s futures, whether or not we should buy guns and learn how to use them.

If you’d told me even ten years ago that I would think seriously about buying a gun I’d have told you to shoot me now. That I would never want to live in a world where I’d find myself thinking seriously about whether or not I should buy a gun.

But Thursday was the day rumors started to fly that the wildfires in Oregon were set by antifa and BLM supporters (spread by far-right talk radio and dubious web sites and hordes of ignorant, scared people), and I read from a valid news source that our country’s vice president was planning to address a meeting of QAnon supporters as a campaign event, and my house filled with smoke, and our already-closed schools closed more, and it felt like a reasonable conversation to be happening.

“It’s not like I feel like I need one now,” I said to L. “But I don’t think we should wait until we feel like we need to do some things. I think if we wait until then, it might be too late.”

The first thought that came into my head upon waking Thursday morning was that I should photograph everything in the house that I might want to submit in an insurance claim, if we had to leave and the house burned. I know my house isn’t going to burn now, but that seems like it might be a good thing to have.

Still, I felt calm. I still feel calm.

I think Thursday was the day I went over an edge I’d been getting closer and closer to. It might have happened after I dropped my daughter off at work and drove down a street and noticed that the line of tents camped along it had grown over the past few days. Two years ago we reported such camps to some agency, and a few days later we’d see them disappear. Now I can’t remember how long they’ve been permanently there. They are everywhere, modern-day Hoovervilles.

“I think,” I said to L., “that whoever gets to look back on this year will see it as a turning point, the time in which a fundamental shift happened. I don’t think we are ever going to go back to what we think of as normal.”

Some day, if I get to be far enough away to look back, I might pinpoint the Thursday of my second week back to school in 2020 as the day I realized that all of the not-normal is the new normal. Not just wondered if it was, but accepted it, all of it: extreme weather, dangerous divisiveness, failing societal systems, rampant ignorance, growing inequality of all kinds, fear as a thrumming undercurrent of public life.

I’ve never been in a hurricane (yet), so I don’t really know what one is like, but I wonder if, the past few weeks, I’ve been hanging out in the eye of one. I know uprooted things are swirling all around me, just out of view, but I am in a calm place. I made pizza Thursday night and we watched the crime procedural my daughter is currently binging, and I knew that others I know were packing up or already gone from their homes and that whole towns have already burned to the ground, but we had a pleasant-enough evening.

I have been curious about this calm I seem to be floating in. I’ve been wondering about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I wonder how much of my struggle in life has come from writhing around at the top of his pyramid, scratching to gain a foothold in self-actualization.

Self-actualization feels like a luxury these days. I am so damn grateful to feel and be secure right now in the middle of his triangle, grateful for love and belonging, knowing that I am safe and do not (today) have to worry about food and shelter. All of my thoughts these days are focused on love and belonging, identifying my people and keeping them close and caring for them. (But I’m keeping an eye on those more fundamental needs. Wouldn’t it be folly not to?) I miss taking for granted that those things were a given. Maybe, when I look back on this Thursday of the second week of the 20-21 school year, I will realize that what I accepted is that nothing is a given. What I accepted is knowing that it never was, and that I have been living most of my life in a beautiful illusion.

I never watched The Matrix. My children were young then, and the one time I tried to watch it I fell asleep. I know there’s something about a red pill and a blue pill, though, and one shows you reality and the other allows you to remain in some kind of ignorant (but controlled) bliss. Perhaps I’ll look back on this Thursday as the day I swallowed not a red pill or a blue one, but an orange one.

Perhaps the orange pill is the one we’ll need to have some hope for our collective future–one that allows us to see clearly and accept what we are seeing.

I don’t really know, and I’m out of time to ponder it. As my employer told me, school offices are closed, but we are expected to work from home and contact HR if we need to use any leave to deal with evacuation or fire issues. Time to get on with it.

Complex radical something, in simple terms

As I returned to work this past week, I thought I was the only one crying every day.

Turns out I wasn’t.

Do you know how many different types of grief there are? There are a lot. Complicated, anticipatory, chronic, delayed, distorted, secondary, masked, collective. Oh, and normal. (There’s more, but I got tired of typing them. Grief is tiring.)

I found lists of types of grief when I went looking for information about “complex grief”–a term I thought I’d read somewhere along the way–but that seems to be the same as “complicated grief,” which is what mental health professionals use for grief so long-lasting and severe that it interferes with normal functioning.

I didn’t find a word for the kind I’ve been seeing and feeling, not just at work but all around me. I wanted a word for the grief that comes from bearing witness to all the varied types of grief being carried in those surrounding you, while carrying your own, while still carrying on with what is expected of you. If there were, I suspect a lot of us would be suffering from it.

I spent too much time on Friday and Saturday trying to write about this, but the draft I labored over has too many words. They exhaust me. (I took a long, deep nap on Saturday afternoon.)

The grief isn’t just about schools and teaching. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s all of it, the whole big ball of change and instability.

Friday night I watched a pre-2010 romcom, something I’ve been doing throughout this summer. These movies fill me with nostalgia for a pre-smartphone world. They fill me with nostalgia for a time when I took for granted things I didn’t even know I had, that I now know the contours of through the spaces made by their absence. I see many of those things in the subtext of these movies that are silly and unrealistic and fun and oblivious to so many, many things. (They are a lot like pre-2010 me.)

I watch them to escape. I watch them also to ground myself in what’s real now. I watch the beautiful (almost always white) actors and actresses (can we still use “actress”? probably not) who were born in the same decade I was dance their way through familiar cinematic choreography, and, in the cases when something in the plot hinges on communication that is not face-to-face, send an email or whip out a flip-phone and talk, and I cannot pretend that we are not now living in a fundamentally different time. The things that were so vitally important to them! The sources of their anguish! While watching, I usually Google the cast of the movie so I can see what they look like now. They almost all look old now in the ways I do, their beauty fading or faded. (My god, we were so beautiful! Why can’t we see, when we are young, how beautiful we are?) On my phone I see the physical manifestation of time passed, which grounds me in the truth that the era in which those movies were made and made sense is not the one in which I’m currently living.

I think the romcoms are part of my attempt to embrace radical acceptance. The opposite of radical acceptance is denial, and that’s a road I’ve followed to far more poor life choices than I’d like to admit.

Radical acceptance of the world we’re living in now is painful, but not as painful as it is to fight the world as though we’re still living in the one we once had (or thought we did).

Radical acceptance is bringing me a kind of peace and calm I’ve never experienced before.

Peace and calm does not mean I’m OK. It does not mean I’m happy. It does not mean I am without pain. (It comes with pain, but the right kind.)

It does mean I am no longer beating my head against walls that will not be moved by my brain splatter.

Radical acceptance might look like defeat, but I’m finding it brings a different kind of power that is keeping me in the fight.

On the last day of the first week of my return to school/work, I didn’t cry once. This felt like progress. Educator friends and I posted funnynotfunny comments on FB about using crying as a metric in setting our annual professional goals.

This is how we are going to get through. Community. Empathy. Humor. Truth-telling. It’s how people have always gotten through hard times, though some of us have lived such fortunate lives thus far that we haven’t had to learn that until now.

My colleague friends and I will all write official goals that won’t matter much to the real work we’ll be doing this year. That we’ll have to do that doesn’t really matter. What matters is creating real strategies for meeting this time we’re in.

There’s a lot I don’t know any more, but these are my goals, driven not by any set of data but by what I need to do good for those I serve:

Know what’s true.

Own my truth.

Take care of myself.

Love my people.

That’s it. It’s enough.