This week I received a survey from the State Library and my state’s school library association, with a long list of questions about how the pandemic has affected library services and my work. After inquiring about ebooks, budgets, programming, teaching, safety, staffing, learning management systems, instructional technology, and more, there was this question tucked in near the end:
I first tried watching it a few years ago, and I hated it. Didn’t even finish the first episode. I tried it again last spring because everyone was talking about it, and I kinda hated it again. I just didn’t like those people, the Roses. They felt like caricatures more than characters, and were of people I’d never choose to spend time with.
“You have to get past the first season,” people said. “It gets better in season two.”
So, last fall I went back for a third time, telling myself I would get through season 2 before giving up.
Now I’m in season 4 and doling out the episodes so they’ll last longer. Somewhere in season 3 it occurred to me that the Roses’ story is a perfect one for this time, when so many of us felt our lives turn upside down almost overnight. (I think March 13 will, like September 11, be a date I never forget.) Can’t we all relate, at least a little, to a family who lost almost everything they took for granted? And can’t we all take some comfort and pleasure in watching the process of them acclimate and put down roots in a place they never would have seen themselves in, much less chosen? It’s already clear to me (if not them) that they are far happier than they ever were in their old life. I hope that by the end of the story, it becomes clear to them, too.
I’d say the same is true for me, as well, living in Pandemic Land. This week, I was in a long Zoom meeting with a colleague/friend I’ve hardly “seen” this year but who was in the school I worked for last year. We had a lot of conversations before March 13 about how to manage the challenges of our jobs and lives. “How are things going?” she texted me afterward. “You look much less stressed somehow.”
I answered: “Sometimes reaching a point of awful you really can’t do anything about gives you a permission to let go that is freeing.”
That night, I fell asleep in front of Netflix’s The Minimalists, but not before hearing and thinking about its primary message: We are so consumed with having physical things that we forfeit the intangible ones that make us truly happy–time, community, creativity, meaningful accomplishment, rest, health (personal and global). There are some things in my life that are hugely challenging–more challenging than they’ve ever been, maybe–but my friend was seeing something true: I am less stressed. I have fewer obligations and fewer life chores and more time than I’ve ever had for long conversations, leisurely meals, neighborhood walks, and serious contemplation. I’ve begun moving through my days at a slower pace, doing what I reasonably can rather than what some unreasonable voice is telling me I should. (No one seems to have noticed or, if they have noticed, to have cared.) That voice has gone mostly silent.
My life–not unlike the Roses’–is much smaller than it once was. There are people and places I deeply miss, but most of what has fallen away I do not. My connections to what and who remains are deeper. I don’t know that I am happier; the departure of Busyness made it easier for Hard Things to come in. But on the whole, I am calmer. I am finding that letting some of those hard things claim space has been easier than fighting to hold the door against them.
I’m glad I went back for a third try with this story, and I’m glad I watched it from the beginning. As is always true, you need the dark to more fully appreciate the light. I’m beginning to love these characters it was easy to hate before I got to know them. I love them more for seeing how they’ve grown. I love the reminder that stories and time have to intersect in the right way; 2017 wasn’t the right time for this story for me. I love, too, a corollary reminder about story: That you just need to tell the story you need to tell, wherever and however you can tell it. The Levys were developing and shopping this story well before the time Roses’ fall might be seen as metaphorical for so many things that have fallen in recent years, and they had a hard time selling it. Once they started telling it, it took a good while to catch on. They just kept telling the story, though, trusting (I imagine) that it was reaching who it needed to.
So, in addition to listing “holding boundaries” and “reciting the Serenity Prayer” as self-care that’s working for me, I also listed “binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.” Spending time with this story is good for me. I hate to think of it ending, but I suspect that by the time it does, I won’t need it in the same way. It’s already imprinting upon and shaping my own. It’s clear that they will never go back to what they once were, and over the past few weeks, as vaccines and political pressure on schools are harbingers of another set of new changes coming my way, I’ve realized that I won’t, either.
The day before the biopsy; 1,453 days after the last inauguration and 8 days until the next one:
I wake up with the tightness on the right side of my skull that always means migraine is coming. I email my doctor to make sure that I can take my meds before the biopsy, if necessary. I’ve learned that I should always assume it could be a migraine day, rather than that it won’t be.
Still, the tightness is light. Maybe I slept wrong. Maybe it will go away. Maybe I just need to drink some water. Maybe if I stay off screens all morning.
As I open the bedroom door and enter into my day, I remind myself: It’s never if, it’s always when. There is nothing I can do to hold it off forever.
The biopsy will be in the morning, but I am going to take the whole day off work. I plan to get groceries and clean the house. I’m having a hard time getting these things done on the weekends. I’m having a hard time getting through the week days. The previous week, the first one back from winter break, I had a 3-day migraine following an emotional meltdown and the insurrection at the Capitol.
I’m trying to figure out how to finish this school year in one piece.
The day of the biopsy; 7 days after the insurrection at the Capitol, 7 days before the inauguration:
On the morning of the biopsy, I watch a short film in which 5 women at different stages of life reflect on their bodies.
I remember being a girl and loving my body. I was fast and strong. (In 4th grade, I ran faster than every boy on field day.) My body was me and I was it. I don’t remember feeling that way about my body at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I can see I felt that way about it. It was before I was aware of my body as an object.
As a teen-ager, I cleaved from my body. It was a thing admired by boys and men. It was a thing for me to fight against. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to, but it looked the way it was supposed to. I was supposed to be grateful for it, looking that way. I learned that I wasn’t allowed to complain about it to other women. I felt it separate me from some of those who should have been my compatriots, my allies. I tried to appreciate my luck that I could eat whatever I wanted and never get fat. I ate to kill hunger. I ate for the pleasure of taste. I did not feed my body.
I think about all of this on the morning of my third ultrasound and an aspiration biopsy. Regardless of the results, which are likely to be reassuring, something has already changed for me. It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, that my body can spontaneously grow something we think it shouldn’t. My body has been doing things we think it shouldn’t since adolescence, when endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome made their presence known. (Not that I knew, then, what they were or that anything was really there–as opposed to in my head, which was suggested as the source of my pain, cementing for me an idea that my head was, in some important sense, a thing separate from my body. I did not have those names, those diagnoses, those frames with which to understand my body’s experiences for more than a decade, when my inability to conceive finally made doctors take my body seriously.) Still, it is a surprise, and now I look at my body differently. I feel differently about it.
I remember a poem a woman shared in my poetry workshop, back in the mid-80s, about her newborn; she compared his body to that of a frog, listed all the ways in which his body was not the one she expected, making him not the baby she had dreamed of. The last line was, “your mother is trying to learn to love you.” Most of the poems from that workshop have left me now, but that one stays. After she shared hers, I wrote one about my body, the first time I admitted out loud that I thought of my body as an antagonist to the protagonist that is me.
My body has changed during the pandemic. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s my mid-50s. Maybe it’s living through four years of attempted autocratic takeover. Maybe it’s that my job has become toxic to me. Maybe it’s all of the above. My body feels like a foreign country these days, and I’m an expat who wants to go home. I’m trying to learn to love it.
On the morning of the biopsy, I think that maybe the metaphor I’ve just conjured is all wrong. Maybe my body isn’t a country, but a passport.
I start to think about Befores and Afters. I wonder if, the day I get the results, my life will cleave into a Before and After, and then I wonder if that will be the true beginning of an After or if the After has already begun without me knowing it. Maybe the beginning of After was the day in December when the second ultrasound results meant I needed a biopsy and a specialist. Maybe it was the day a few weeks before that when I saw myself swallowing in a mirror and it looked as if a golf ball were bobbing up and down inside my throat. Maybe it was the day in August when my doctor asked if I’d noticed the lump on my thyroid, a bump then so small I couldn’t see or feel it, even when she brushed my fingers over it.
The migraine I felt approaching the day before hits me in the hospital, in the middle of the aspiration. The doctor and nurse are talking about the wild storm we’d had the night before, which downed tree limbs and took out power all over the city.
“Before I realized there was a storm, I heard a loud noise, something hitting the side of my house,” the doctor, who is not white, says to her, who is. “I didn’t know what it was, so I got out my gun and went outside.”
She laughs, and he does, too, but I, with a needle stuck in my neck, feel tears rising along with the pain in my head and my understanding of the implications of his words and how he said them. How he said, “I got out my gun” as if it was just another useful object for his task, like, say, a pair of gloves or a flashlight.
I take my meds on the way to the parking lot, and it feels like it’s all I can do to get home. The day I planned is lost to fatigue and fog.
The day of results;inauguration day:
I finally receive a phone call from the doctor’s office. The doctor would like to go over the results of my biopsy; can I take a call in 10 minutes?
Yes, of course.
Why aren’t the results just posted in my online medical chart, like every other test result has been? Why can’t this nice-sounding Cory just tell me the results, if the results are benign? I don’t ask if he can just tell me; I know he can’t.
10 minutes become 20, and then Cory calls me again to ask if I can wait another 20 or so more.
Do I have a choice?
While waiting, I am watching everyone’s reactions to the presidential inauguration in my social media feeds. I did not get to see the inauguration because I had a work meeting. Maybe that is the reason I cannot feel the jubilation everyone else seems to be feeling. Maybe it is because I had another meeting right after the inauguration that is the latest in a series of meetings that have grown increasingly hard to tolerate. “It feels like they are just gaslighting us,” a colleague texts me during the meeting. I feel a jolt of recognition: Yes, it does. Yes, I know what gaslighting is. Yes, yes, yes.
I am watching everyone’s reactions because I am too agitated to work. I wish I could feel some simple joy and release, but I cannot. I am relieved but I am also angry and teary and so, so tired.
Finally, the doctor calls, and I take a deep breath. I want him to just spit it out, whatever it is.
“It’s benign,” he finally says. The solid parts of the nodule are benign. The nodule was mostly fluid.
“Are you feeling relief from the aspiration?” he asks. “Is it smaller now?”
Yes, I tell him, I am and it is. I tell him that the pressure on my throat is now gone.
He says some other things I won’t remember, and then I ask the question I need an answer to:
“What happens now?”
He tells me that we will monitor it now, and that there may be more ultrasounds and aspirations in my future if it grows back. It can continue to grow back.
I know I should feel happy. “You don’t have cancer!” he told me, and I could hear the exclamation point in his voice. (I bet he loves to say those words. I would, if I were him.) I do feel relief, but it is flat. (The odds of cancer were small, so the threat never felt real, but it could have been, and I did know that. I could be feeling something much, much worse than the small, sharp pinch of anxiety I felt over Cory not giving me the results himself.)
I want relief to make me feel the way I did Before–before I knew in a new way that my body can betray me and do things I cannot control and for which there are no readily available explanations. I wonder what it might be doing now, invisibly, and if it might, even in this moment of relief, be failing in ways that will not become apparent until much later. I miss my innocence, which I can see now wasn’t lost suddenly, all-at-once during the biopsy, but in layers over decades of living in a body that never worked as good as it looked. Nonetheless, the biopsy has taken me into some new territory of understanding, one from which there can be no true returning, and I long to feel once again, just once more, the way I did in fourth grade, Keds pounding into hard-packed dirt, hair rippling in wind of my own making, my strength and speed surprising myself as much as all those boys behind me.
A note: I have been reading, for the first time in years, about creative non-fiction. From Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant, I especially value this quotation from Annie Dillard, for reminding me of a realization I had once upon a very long time ago (thanks in large part to her essay “Living Like Weasels”):
I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.
I appreciate the reminders throughout the book that creative non-fiction is not just a relating of events (and thoughts are a kind of event), but of creating art from events by making purposeful choices about structure, narration, action, style, and language.
Today’s essay/post is an attempt to express artistically some of what I said in last week’s post, which was not art so much as a brain dump. (For a really great example of an essay reflecting on current events that is as much poem as essay and is gorgeous political art, I recommend “Inside the Blue Hole.”) Last week’s post content came not only from frustration and worry about what’s been happening for all of us, but also from frustration with the circumstances of my own life. Over break, I was able to write the beginnings of art. A whole book took shape in my head, and I started to capture it in notes and lists of books and essays, and in posts here. Within days of returning to work, I felt it slipping away from me (the cause of the meltdown referenced in the essay above). I tried my best to hold on, but I couldn’t. Last week I accepted that some weeks a dump is all I can manage, and that it will have to be good enough for now.
A post by Ally this week took me down a word-count rabbit hole, and at the bottom of it was realization that I’ve written the equivalent of, roughly, 2.5 full-length books in the past six years here. (Last year alone was 1 book.) Of course, there’s much more to writing a book than simply getting words out, but still. Just getting words out is something.
I have no grand conclusion here, no big pronouncements to make. I expect to keep showing up here as I have been–sometimes giving you the first drafts of something like art, and sometimes giving you a word dump. But rumination is happening. Change is afoot.
There was a moment, last March, when I woke in the middle of the night and suddenly understood the feeling of emotional vertigo I’d been grappling with, my sense that the ground beneath me was no longer solid. I had known for a long time, in an intellectual way, that my country was no longer what I had thought, for all of my life, it was. But I had told myself that the foundation of our lives was steady. Yes, terrible things were happening, but nothing was permanent, and in the meantime life would go on as it essentially always had. That’s how it had been during both Bush administrations, right? I had told myself that what was happening was extreme, and our institutions were damaged and would need repair, but we were fundamentally sound. Right?
Then the pandemic hit, and it became starkly clear that our institutions were broken and we were all on our own in a way I had never seen. As hospitals scrambled for PPE, and the country shut down with no relief for those who suddenly had no livelihood, and our president held press briefings every day in which he brazenly lied to us, I saw that things I’d believed (hoped) could never happen here already had. I felt dread and anxiety settle over me like a cloak, and as 2020 progressed through police violence and protests and fights over masks and school openings while people died and fires blazed and we choked on toxic air, its weight grew heavier and heavier.
When Trump lost the presidential election, it lightened. I knew that victory wasn’t a silver bullet. I knew things weren’t going to go back to some Before and that the forces that had brought us Trump weren’t going to magically disappear, but–at the very least, I thought–we’d have a reprieve from the onslaught and an administration that would restore functionality to our government agencies.
The reprieve ended before the new presidency even began. It didn’t happen all at once on January 6, but has unfolded slowly (and then quickly) over the days since then, as layers of information have peeled back what happened to a core that is (for me, at any rate) as ground-shaking as the one that emerged in March. Like then, I knew how things were, but I didn’t know know. Now I do.
Sometime in the last week I returned to Sarah Kendzior’s November 2016 essay “We’re heading into dark times. This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump.” I remember reading it the first time that November, in my car, on my phone, after participating in a protest march. I remember these words–
“I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or have lived in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me.”—
and feeling both the weight of their truth and a simultaneous disbelief because…well, there are so many reasons I don’t even know where to start. It’s bad, but not that bad, I told myself, shivering in the dark. It can’t be. I remembered the Sinclair Lewis novel that had chilled me when I read it at the height of the Reagan era–It Can’t Happen Here–and repeated to myself the lie in the title of that book. Don’t over-react, I told myself. It might not be that bad, I thought. (The gaslighting we do to ourselves might be the very worst kind.)
I returned to her essay because, as I absorbed the truth of what recent events mean about so many things, I felt myself shift to new acceptance of things I once found unimaginable. OK, I thought. This kind of violence is no longer impossible here. I felt myself accepting this in the same way I’ve come to accept that children will die in school shootings and black men calling for help will die under the boots of police officers and our elderly and disabled will die alone, trapped in nursing homes where Covid has run rampant because our government is broken and we have forsaken them. Acceptance doesn’t mean that I condone these things but that I feel myself shifting into seeing them as inevitable. Over four years I have watched myself lose my ability to feel shock; instead, when the news fills with words and images of another injustice, I am often numb. If I feel anything, it is most often weariness. “Why are you surprised?” is often my response to someone sharing news of another breach of what was once a norm.
Kendzior wrote about how all of us might find ourselves doing things we once thought we’d never do, and four years ago I thought that meant the kind of things I’d read about in Nazi Germany–stifling speech, turning neighbors into the police, looting the homes of those who’d disappeared in the middle of the night. It didn’t occur to me until re-reading her words that the actions we thought we’d never take could be passive and internal.
In her essay, Kendzior urged us to write down who we were and what we believed and what our lives had been so far, so that we wouldn’t forget it. She cautioned:
“Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.”
Apathy is a kind of cruelness, and denial is a tricky thing. More and more, I look back at the pre-2016 me and feel shame and disgust at all I didn’t see and know that I now do. The information about who and what we are was there all along. I saw much of it a long time ago and turned away from it and then forgot it. I told myself that things were not really as bad as some said. I cautioned myself against over-reacting. I know that denial is a protective mechanism we employ without awareness to protect ourselves from truth we aren’t yet equipped to manage, and in my good moments I can feel empathy for my pre-2016 self. I suppose she was doing the best she could with what she had. In my bad moments, I want to shake her and yell at her to wake the fuck up. I want to hide her in a closet and pretend she was never me.
This is where I read Kendzior and find myself wondering. In important ways, I don’t want to remain the person I was then (much as I miss feeling the security I once felt). I want, now, to be clear-eyed and awake, and I don’t want to be cruel. I think–especially when we are swimming in cultural waters filled with lies and distortions–that it can be difficult to parse out what acceptance and resistance really mean. That I no longer feel shocked at things that were once shocking might be less about acceptance and more about stepping out of denial. Periodic numbing might, at least in the short term, be a necessary response so that we do not drown. We need to figure out how to accept reality without accepting that reality is OK. I read Kendzior now and wonder how we determine when authoritarianism actually starts. If it is about making us forget who we are and what we believe in, then for me it did not start with Donald Trump. It probably started during the first Iraq war. Reagan, like Trump, was a masterful communicator who lied. We called him the Teflon president because no matter what he was caught in, it seemed to roll off him without consequence. Like Trump, his agenda was about strengthening white supremacy by gutting social supports and shifting wealth to already wealthy and powerful white Americans while scapegoating and incarcerating those who were not white. That agenda was continued by Bush, and something about that war broke something in me. I turned inward and away from forces and a fight I felt powerless to affect. I became apathetic.
Kendzior cautioned us that our power comes from hanging on to who we truly are, and that “to protect and wield this power, you need to know yourself – right now, before their methods permeate, before you accept the obscene and unthinkable as normal.”
But the obscene and unthinkable are normal. It’s all I’ve ever known, really. It’s us. It’s who we’ve almost always been. “This is not normal,” has been a drumbeat of the white, liberal resistance since Trump took office, to which people have color have consistently answered, “Yes, it is. This has always been normal for us.”
As I’ve been letting my thoughts spool out in this ramble of a post (all I can manage this week), on a weekend in which we honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, I think maybe the best thing I can land on is this: I don’t want to hang onto 2016 me. To be any kind of light to anyone, I need to go back much further.
Been while since I’ve offered dots, but here are some that have informed this week’s thinking:
“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….
By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.
Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5
“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….
Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”
Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1
In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.
I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.
“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”
“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”
“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”
“What should my three points be?”
“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”
Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.
To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.
Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.
Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.
In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.
Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”
Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.
After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?
Then, the pandemic hit.
Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)
For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?
I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.
Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:
Eat locally and sustainably.
Shop at farmers’ markets.
Plant a garden.
Conserve, compost, and recycle.
Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
Remember food is precious.
Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.
Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?
I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.
Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.
“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”
“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”
“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.
I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.
How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?
Unlike many of my peers, I never had my own car in high school. My parents had a 1971 Toyota Corona that they allowed me to drive to my job at the local library and, occasionally, to high school games when I was a cheerleader during my senior year. In college, I worked for my dad’s employer, which required about a 40-minute drive down I-5 from the University of Washington, and my parents let me take the Corona to campus so that I could go back-and-forth from school to work.
One day, the car wouldn’t start, stranding me in a parking lot. Eventually my dad came to rescue me, wherein he discovered that the car was completely out of oil. He was angry that I hadn’t been paying attention to this most basic car need, and I was both bewildered by his anger and angry in return because how the hell was I supposed to know about checking and refilling oil? No one had ever told me that I needed to do that!
Not too long after that, following a series of lurches and a gradual slowing, the car died one winter night on I-5, just south of Southcenter Mall, on the outskirts of Seattle. I didn’t know what to do, so I got out and started walking, thinking I could find a payphone at the mall. Some cars honked as they passed me, and one swerved over into the shoulder ahead of me, its passengers yelling assessments of my body. I stopped walking, and it idled there for minute or so before swerving back into traffic and proceeding north, horn blaring. I was scared, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept walking. Another car pulled over and stayed on the shoulder. I approached it cautiously on the passenger side, where the window was down. The driver, a man, leaned over and asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thanks, I was fine.
“Look,” he said, “I know you don’t know me, but it’s not safe for you to be out here. I’d like to help you get off this freeway.”
I looked at a little boy sitting in his back seat, watching me, and thought about the earlier car. “That’s my son,” the man said. I looked north, toward the mall exit that was still not within sight. I looked back at the boy, and then again at the man. “It’s up to you,” he said, making no move toward the door. I looked once more at the boy, who looked cared for, and decided that this man probably wasn’t going to do anything bad to me with the boy in the back seat. I got in, and he drove me all the way to the University District without incident.
The next day, my mother had to take time off work to meet me and a AAA tow truck at the abandoned car, which we discovered was simply out of gas. The gas gauge wasn’t working properly and I’d miscalculated how many miles I’d put on the tank. It never occurred to me that I might have run out of gas. I’ve rarely seen my mother angry with me, but she was that day.
I remember, both times the car let me down, feeling a sense of disbelief; I needed the car to run, and so it simply wasn’t conceivable that it wouldn’t. Unreal as it sounds, given my age and that I’d watched my dad working on our cars throughout my childhood, I didn’t understand that cars need regular maintenance or that they could, indeed, break down when you most need them not to. I mean, I guess I did understand that, but I didn’t believe that they would break down on me. They were just supposed to work, because I needed them to. And, I suppose, because I didn’t know the first thing about how they worked or how to learn what to do to keep them working or how to fix them if they didn’t.
Over the course of the past year, as we’ve faced threats of all kinds I once, through the same kind of magical thinking, found as unimaginable as a car breaking down on a freeway at night (but which, of course, have always been possible), I’ve thought and written that I feel ill-equipped for this time. As I watched homeless camps and protests proliferate across my city, and governmental breakdown in my state’s capitol, and a continuing effort at autocratic take-over of our federal government, all in the midst of a global pandemic that has interrupted supply chains, over-run hospitals, and transformed life as I’ve always known it, I’ve realized that, to an extent I’m very uncomfortable with, I’ve gotten away with managing portions of my life in ways I managed that poor old Corona I eventually ran into the ground. I’ve been lucky to keep it going as well as I have, and I’ve been able to only because the larger systems around me have worked reasonably well for people like me. Over the course of the past year, I’ve realized that if things were to really fall apart, I might well be screwed. I have little practical knowledge or skills, few assets, and a small social network.
Two posts ago I wrote about following whimsy, and one post ago I wrote about holy places and creative work. This first one of the new year might look like a 180 back into the pit of 2020, but stay with me. It is, but it isn’t. Sometimes the best way out is deeper in, so that you can get through to some other side.
As I wrote last week, Mary Oliver found her temple in the natural world, in the woods. For me, that place is home. Home is what centers me, shelters me, teaches me, and provides comfort–but my worship there has consisted of a rather shallow spirituality. I’ve taken from my home far more than I’ve given to it, and my knowledge of its workings isn’t deep. I’ve never given it the time or contemplative study that Oliver gave to the woods. My relationship to home and home-making is a tangly one, influenced by second wave feminism, the working-class women who raised me, post-WWII culture, and more. For whatever reasons–and there are many–I entered adulthood no better prepared to make a home than than I was to take care of a car, and societal messages led me to believe that devotion to home would be a waste of my talents and time. It has even been possible to feel a sort of perverse pride in my domestic ineptness; wasn’t it evidence that I had given my life to worthier things?
I first felt the pull to dive into home creation when I divorced my children’s father and, for the first time in my life, needed to make a home all by myself. Channeling resources in that direction felt frivolous, though; any creative energy I had, I thought, should be poured into parenting, teaching, and writing poetry (in that order). In 2011, when Cane and I decided to make a home for our children together, I indulged that desire; I officially (if privately) decided I was no longer a poet, and we began writing a home renovation blog through which I met some of you who read here. Looking back now, though, I can see that we only scratched the surface of what it really means to make a home. Maybe that is part of why it all fell apart.
A year ago, in the wake of the loss of a writing mentor, publisher, and friend, I set an intention to write regularly here–not in order to be A Writer, but simply because doing so brings me joy. My friend Robert had devoted his life to poetry, which I had abandoned with his full approval. “You don’t owe anyone anything,” he told me the last time we talked. “You have given your life to serving others. Now do what makes you happy and healthy, even if that means not writing another poem for the rest of your life.” He also encouraged me to live in a smaller, more self-sufficient way, in community with like-minded others. “It’s all falling apart, you know,” he said to me long before the pandemic, at least five years ago. “It needs to,” he added. Those conversations unsettled me; I’d tell myself his conclusions were wrong, even as I acknowledged both the truth of his observations and my fear that he was right. I needed the world to work as it always had in the same way I’d once needed my car to–because I didn’t know what I’d need to know to operate differently. (How I have longed to be able to talk with him this last year, to see what sense he might help me make of all that’s fallen and falling.)
I cannot know what the coming year will bring, but I’m under no illusion that 2020 was some anomaly or blip. It was a year that had been decades in the making, and the forces that created it will not be undone by a single election or vaccine. I understand in new ways that my luck–like the gas in my old Corona–can run out. I think we all need to rely sometimes on the kindness of strangers, but I’d like to build a life in which I’m less likely to be walking alone on a real or metaphorical freeway at night, vulnerable to those who might mow me down on a whim. I am also, after this year of death on such a massive scale, acutely aware that life is short and that if we can follow our interests and passions we’d best do so sooner than later.
Last January, I assigned myself no topic for this blog and I imposed upon myself no purposes or limitations. This January, as I am able, my intention is to follow my whimsy deep into the place that is sacred for me and to write about it here. It is to give myself the permission my friend always wished I would to make a smaller, more self-sufficient life. It is to become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.