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I have been thinking, for weeks, about dormancy. And writing. And habits. I’ve been thinking about the weekly notification I get of how many hours I spend each day on my phone, which does not equate with hours spent on social media, but still. It’s a lot. An astonishing amount, really, especially when I consider how many decades I lived without a cell phone and all it contains. What did I do with the hours I now spend using a phone?

I’ve been thinking about how I spend my days, which, as Annie Dillard told us long ago, is how we spend our lives. Since June, there has been a great easing in mine. September and October, when I re-entered the classroom after a decade+ absence, had its rough days, and I know there will be more of those, but on the whole there has been so much easing. I’ve opened a space, but too often I have not filled it quite as I think I’d like to.

I have been thinking, for weeks, about how often I pick up my phone when there is a quiet moment. Or an uncomfortable one. Or an exhausted one. I’ve been thinking about how it has become difficult for me to sustain my way through the reading of a print book, and how astonishing that is. My father once told me, when I was a young woman, that when he thought of me he pictured my younger self sitting at the kitchen table with a book propped up behind my plate, reading as I ate. There was a time that I never truly ate alone, because if there was no flesh-and-blood human with whom to share my meal, there was always a book with its other voice to keep me company. I can’t remember the last time I consumed a book with a meal. I often want to, but I have no book I’m reading. I remember when I always had a book I was reading (usually more than one).

I start many books, but I finish few. I’m not sure why.

Sometime back in November, I went to the library to graze the stacks, one of the best ways I’ve found to tune into what the universe (or something that “the universe” is our shorthand for) is saying to me. That day, I found Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, a version of her classic The Artist’s Way, written especially for those “at mid-life and beyond.” Hers is a 12-week program of creative recovery, which is just about the length of a season. I read enough of it to decide to buy my own copy, thinking I would start working through its program at the beginning of January.

Instead, I began it this week, on the first day of winter. I have been thinking about winter since the day I listened to a Story Corps episode on the way to work in which Suzanne Valle talked about life in terms of seasons. She said that the winter of our lives begins at 60. Four days before that, I had turned 57.

Time is infinite, and the universe is infinite, but an individual life is not. I have been thinking about that, too. A lot. Despite what Cameron might have us believe, sometimes it is too late to begin again–because we have ended.

I have been thinking about Words of the Year, the choosing of which is a practice that some I follow or interact with on social media engage in. I tried it a few times, but it didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t, but I’ve been thinking about what I want more and less of in the coming year. “Scrolling” isn’t going to be anyone’s word of the year, is it?

As I’ve been having all these thoughts, I’ve been more mindful of what I’m getting (and not) when I engage with social media. I love Kate’s Instagram stories, because she so often shares things that are funny, wise, or visually gorgeous. Sometimes she shares words that seem to be just what I needed to hear at the moment I read them. I love being in the company of Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blogging Network. I love interacting with those of you who write to me here.

I have been thinking about June, when I might be in the position of needing to make a decision about teaching for another year. I have been thinking about all of the reasons I have never written in the ways I’ve said I would like to, in ways I gave up trying to more than a decade ago. I’ve been thinking about how, if I were to make a different space for writing in my life, I don’t know what I would fill it with, and how I am so often tired of the sound of my own voice. I’ve been wondering if the writing I do here is the writing I need to do, or if it is something that keeps me from the writing I need to do. I have been wondering how I want to spend my minutes, hours, days, life.

There have been a lot of thoughts rattling around in my (increasingly) old head, and I haven’t even started with the feelings.

So I keep returning to dormancy, and how that might work for a large mammal who cannot sleep underground for 12 or more weeks.

I’ve decided to take the winter off from things that make up too many of the hours I spend on my phone. I’m taking the social media apps (other than Messenger, which I use to communicate with folks) off my phone and I’m not going to write here again until Sunday, March 20th, the first day of spring. I’m not going completely off-line, but I intend to be much more intentional about being on. What I want is to clear some space and be purposeful about what I let into it. I think I need some arbitrary restrictions and some public declaration to make a necessary quiet happen.

I have been wary of writing that last paragraph because there are things I know I will miss, and because writing here has become a thing I count on for several different kinds of good things. I have been avoiding it because if I didn’t write it I could more easily change my mind about the whole thing. I was avoiding it because there’s some fear in this for me.

But I’m saying it and am going to do it because last week, when I went into Powell’s, a bookstore that covers an entire city block and was once one of my favorite places, I felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices shouting at me from the shelves. There is so much clamor in the world, and so often lately all I can hear is a grating din. I want to see if I can create a pocket of quiet within it, if I can make my way back to some part of that young girl who loved to make a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup and eat them slowly at her family’s kitchen table in the company of a book, able to hear nothing in her mind’s ear but the voice of one other person speaking to her. I don’t know if this experiment is as much about becoming some other kind of writer as it is about becoming a different kind of reader. All I know is that somehow, I’ve lost my way, and I want to find it again.

Hope you’ll check back in here come spring. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please consider signing up (top of right sidebar) and you’ll get an email when a new post goes up. (I don’t do anything with the subscriber list. To be honest, I don’t really know how to.) Wishing you all a good season of whatever it is you need from it.

Not exactly a Hallmark holiday movie

In 2006, my daughter wanted a laptop for Christmas. Not a toy laptop, but a REAL one. It was all she talked about. She was 8, and in those pre-chromebook days, a laptop for an 8-year-old was not a reality in our family (of 4 kids) budget. (Honestly, even a chromebook likely wouldn’t have been.)

I spent hours scouring the internet for something that was a close facsimile to her dream, and eventually I found it: a VTech laptop with a keyboard and screen that looked (mostly) like a real computer’s. I ordered it and moved on to the other things on my checklist, which was much deeper than my resources that year.

It wasn’t a good time for us; although I had not yet fully admitted it to myself or anyone else, my marriage was ending. I was losing weight and battling insomnia and treading fear. My twins were doubting Santa, and I worried that this might be the last good childhood Christmas for them. I couldn’t even imagine what the next year’s holiday might be for them, if I couldn’t figure out some way to stay married to their father. I didn’t just want to fulfill their Christmas dreams that year; I needed to.

So when, less than a week out from the big day, on an afternoon when I had a dentist appointment to fill a tooth cracked from my jaw’s merciless grinding, I received an update to my laptop order indicating that it would not be delivered until after Christmas, I lost it.

I lost it in the way I was losing what had been my life: not suddenly, not dramatically, not even that noticeably, but in a slow, crumpling sort of way. I showed up at the dentist’s after a long day at school, feeling shaky and tired and panicked about when and how at that late date I was going to come up with some kind of comparable replacement for the laptop, but getting that filling taken care of was on the long list of things to do, and I had hauled myself there in spite of how I was feeling because I knew that my feelings were a little ridiculous and I didn’t want anyone to know about them. When the dentist asked how I was doing, I said, casually as I could, “fine, just a little stressed because a Christmas present for my daughter isn’t going to arrive on time.” No real biggie. He shrugged as if to say, What can you do, right?

Lying back in the chair, as he moved a needle full of novocaine toward my mouth, I reminded myself to relax my fingers and toes, and to breathe.

After several shots, my mouth was numb, but when he began to drill, I could feel it, deep inside my jaw. I told myself it wasn’t that bad, that it was OK, but after a few minutes I raised my hand to let him know that it wasn’t OK.

He stopped and injected more novocaine. It was late in the day, and I could sense his impatience.

He tried drilling again, and still I could feel pain. After a few moments, I raised my hand again. He injected more painkiller into my jaw.

After a few minutes he tried again, and still I could feel pain. I shook my head.

“I can’t give you any more of this,” he said, “and we’re far enough into this procedure that I have to finish it.”

The physical pain was not tortuous; I could take it. My fear and bewilderment, however, felt nearly unbearable. Why was this happening? Would there be a sudden moment of excruciating pain? What was wrong with me, and why couldn’t I get a grip? It made no sense that I was feeling anything; one whole half of my face felt like a rubbery mallet. Was it all in my head? I felt trapped in the chair, with my big, dumb, numb (but not numb-enough) mouth held open by the dentist’s rough hands. I closed my eyes when he began drilling again, and tears rolled from the corners of them and soaked the hair above my ears. I wasn’t crying, not in any way I ever had before or since, but tears were falling. I couldn’t stop them.

He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the procedure, and I felt shame in the face of what seemed like his anger. I supposed his afternoon was ruined, too.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he was done. “I had no choice but to finish.” I’m pretty sure I apologized in return. At the least, I know I assured him that it was all right. That’s the kind of thing I would have done back then. I’d have said whatever would most quickly get me out from under the beating fluorescent lights of his clinic and into the opaque darkness on the other side of its windows.

As it turned out, my husband somehow procured the faux-laptop from another source, and my daughter had it to open on Christmas morning. If my life had been a Hallmark movie, I would have realized, when my husband saved my daughter’s Christmas, that I’d been all wrong about so many things, and that horrible afternoon at the dentist’s would have been the low point before my wake-up call. Our moppet would have beamed with joy on Christmas morning and we would have looked at each other with love as she pulled us together for a hug.

Yeah, that’s not how it went.

On Christmas morning she did her best to look happy and express gratitude, but I could tell she was disappointed that it wasn’t a REAL laptop. I don’t remember any loving glances or hugs between her father and I. Things between us were already too raw and too far gone for touch.

Because it was the year of her laptop, Santa brought my daughter a laptop ornament; every time I’ve hung it on our tree since, I’ve remembered that afternoon at the dentist’s office. I continued to see him until I got divorced in 2008; he was our family dentist, and I didn’t feel able to leave his practice until I left so many other things that had made up the mosaic of our family’s life.

I’d like to tell you that the years of Christmases after that one were better or easier. I’d like to tell you that I was wrong about 2006 being some kind of last Christmas and that I continued to create holidays that were as magical for my kids as the ones I created for the first eight years of their lives. Or, I’d like to tell you that I hit some kind of Christmas rock bottom in the dentist’s chair and realized that no present or holiday was worth the stress and pain I felt that day. But they weren’t and I didn’t do either of those things. We struggled and celebrated through Christmases with different kinds of challenges and pleasures, and I know the holiday was never quite as wonderful for my children after that last year before divorce changed the foundation of their lives. In fact, there were years not long after that one when both of my children told me that they hated Christmas, a sentiment I sometimes (silently) shared. While I eventually reached a point where I no longer second-guessed my choices, sometimes I deeply missed the years I stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning finishing my magic-making and was woken only a few hours later by belief-filled feet pounding down the hallway outside our bedroom door. Sometimes I still do.

Last week, my daughter, who is planning a Christmas celebration across a continent and ocean with a young man she loves, asked me about our Christmas day traditions. “I remember the advent calendar and decorating stockings before Christmas, but I can’t remember much about the day itself other than opening presents,” she said.

“Oh, honey,” I said. “I was always so wasted by Christmas day I didn’t do much more than make a breakfast and clean up the wrapping paper and take a nap. And some years we spent the day in the car.”

I told her about staying up long after everyone had gone to bed, wrapping gifts. I told her, laughing at myself, about the year her dad and older sister had built a train table for the Brio set, and I was painting the little town scene on the base of it until after 2:00 AM on Christmas morning. I told her about the year I made her a dress-up trunk. “I had to find a trunk, and the clothes to put in the trunk–which I got from multiple visits to Goodwill–and the flower and letter decals I put on the lid of the trunk.” I told her about how my favorite moment of Christmas was often the one that happened in those middle-of-the-night hours, when everything was finally done and I would sit by myself in front of the lit tree in our dark living room and sip a glass of wine and relish the calm. I even told her the story of the laptop year and the afternoon at the dentist.

“Well, you know why I wanted a laptop,” she said. I told her I didn’t.

“I wanted to be like you,” she said. “Every morning when I got up, you’d be downstairs on your computer.”

“Really?” I said. “I never knew that.” I remembered those years when I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning so I would have time to write, and how that time often ended when she, like me, always an early riser, came down our stairs to find me sitting on the couch, tapping away. I both loved and dreaded the sound of her footsteps.

She paused. “For someone who’s so aware of so many things, how could you have missed that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I suppose it’s because missing things is what we do, especially when we are in the thick of it.

This year, for the first time in so long I can’t tell you how many years it’s been, this season has been a source of almost nothing but joy. I have loved finding gifts for the people I love, and decorating the house, and making plans. For the first time since divorcing, I’ve sent a few cards. I even spent an afternoon making Scandinavian-style paper snowflake flowers to hang in the kitchen windows, a frivolous kind of crafty something I’ve been wanting to do for two years. Aside from Covid-related issues, I haven’t felt stressed or hurried or worried about anything having to do with the holiday. This year, the way we’re observing it is just the right size for the time and money and energy we have to spend on it, and the occasional sneak-attacks of longing for who and what won’t be part of this year’s season feel more like gifts than grief. I’m glad to have had so many of the things I’ve lost.

I’d like to wrap this story up with a well-tied bow, neatly joining the disparate ends of the ribbon connecting my Christmases past to my Christmas present, but (like so much of the holidays, so much of life) I can’t get it to fit into a tidy package. My ordeal in the dentist’s chair isn’t a clean metaphor for my marriage or its end, and I’ve got no big nugget of wisdom to share, no sure and hard-won lesson to impart. There’s no real moral to this story that is full of “both/ands,” rather than of “if/thens” or “either/ors,” or “if only I’d knowns.” Those years of mothering through dysfunction and deterioration were both hard and wonderful. I have always been a person with feelings both ridiculous and sublime. It seems like a bit of a blessing or some kind of elegant design that I couldn’t know then what I know now–about what we all really wanted and needed and how everything would go; such knowledge might have been unbearable before I was strong enough to carry it. Some things we can only pick up slowly, in pieces, over time, maybe especially when it comes to love, which at its core is really all that this story of the laptop and the dentist and the last Christmas is about: true, messy, deep, unruly, irrational, unconditional, infinite love.

Wishing all of you the kind of holiday you need.

Last week

Last week, I didn’t write here about the school shooting in Michigan. I wrote about a Christmas tree stand, which was my way of writing about hope.

Last week, a friend sent me a poem, written by a father whose daughter is an art teacher, that was, in part, about his wife spinning wool in the wake of the school shooting, and I felt the deep pull I have been feeling for years to leave schools and take up useful, concrete work I might do with my hands, so that I, too, like the poet’s wife, might “disappear” into “gentle quiet.”

Last week, though, I stayed at school and didn’t take up wool-spinning. I went to school and taught the lessons I’d planned not knowing there would be another school shooting. (Know that, for me, school shootings are not unlike my migraines, in that the question is never if there will be another, but only when there will be another. I try not to let them dictate too much of my life.) I taught my students about the media bias chart because it is a tool I am asking them to use to evaluate sources of information. To be able to comprehend the chart, we had to dive into conceptually-rich vocabulary: liberal, conservative, fact reporting, news analysis, propaganda, fabrication, extremism, reliability. I divided them into groups and asked them to find sources to verify their definitions of the terms, something that proved valuable when we realized that different groups were sharing different, sometimes contradictory ones for the same words.

We talked then about nuance, about how Wikipedia, despite being routinely banned as an acceptable source of information by many teachers, is (like most tools) neither all-good nor all-bad; we talked about how it can be useful for some purposes if you understand how it works and how to use it. We talked about how most sources of information contain articles with varying degrees of bias and reliability, making it nearly impossible to blindly trust anything we read only because it comes from a particular source. We talked about the more-than-sometimes arbitrariness of rules and how my restriction that they can only use sources with a reliability score of 40 or higher on this bound-to-be-flawed (because created by humans) chart is both arbitrary and reasonable.

And we talked, just a bit, about the school shooting, though only to use it as a vehicle for understanding the differences between “original fact reporting” vs. “fact reporting” vs. “complex analysis” vs. “analysis” vs. “opinion.” We talked about it without emotion, I think because the possibility of lethal violence is just a part of the landscape for all of us who spend our days in schools, in the way that my poorly-functioning projector or classrooms that are often too hot or too cold or laptops that don’t work are so much a part of the backdrop they aren’t remarkable enough to comment on. (Outrage and despair and bewilderment are not sustainable over time; the unthinkable, if it persists long enough, becomes not only thinkable, but normal.) I used the school shooting as an example to illustrate the chart’s concepts because it was a current event that didn’t require me to build any schema for anyone; we all know about school shootings (though some were not aware of last week’s particular one) and how they are reported on in our media.

Last week, what I wanted my students to learn is that even in a world full of cacophonous contradiction, there are facts and that we can find truth if we know how to look for it. I wanted them to know that the world is full of far more gray than black and white, and that multiple shades of it can all be useful in knowing how to find answers to our questions.

Last week, this week, every week, I wanted and want and will always want to give them what they need to live in a world where school is–and, for them, always has been–a place of lockdown drills and existential threat and adults who refuse to do what’s necessary to keep them safe.

There is more than one way to “knit whatever it takes to keep another warm.”

Lifetime guarantee

The Christmas aisle at the local hardware store, late on an early-December Friday afternoon, doesn’t seem like a place for existential questions, and yet that is exactly where and when I found myself pondering one this week.

Cane and I had gone to get a Christmas tree stand (though neither of us identifies as Christian and it should more appropriately be called a pagan tree stand) because we’d just bought a tree and needed something to hold it up.

There was an earlier time, one that now feels like what we might call a lifetime or two ago, that we bought a stand together. I remember, then, wavering between a cheap and flimsy one and another that was sturdier and more expensive. “Let’s get the good one,” I’d said. “I hate buying cheap things that don’t last.” I had imagined us using the stand for years of Christmases together in our home.

As it turned out, we didn’t. I still have that stand, but parts of it have broken off, and this is the first Christmas in six years that we’ve lived together in the same home. The stand is usable, sort of, but not easy to use. Earlier this week, I put in it a small tree that I’ve placed on the front deck we had built this summer. The tree is a little tippy, but it works well enough for a small outside tree that no one is likely to brush up against.

Two years ago, I was ready to swear off real trees forever, but there I was in the hardware store needing a new stand because I now have two of them.

Two years ago, I bought a thing I once said I’d never buy: an artificial tree. It was my first Christmas in this house, living alone, and so many things then were about figuring out how to live independently. I had a child coming home for the holidays, and even though he was coming to a place that had never been his home I wanted it to feel like home. That meant I needed a tree. I wanted a tree I could manage by myself, both physically and financially, for not only that year but for years to come. A small, pre-lit plastic tree that I would only have to buy once seemed like the perfect answer.

It was–until it wasn’t.

Last year I kinda hated that tree. I told myself it wasn’t the tree, with its bottle-brush looking foliage, that made me sad every time I looked at it; it was a Covid-bubble Christmas in a pre-vaccine pandemic that was making me sad. But still, it did make me sad, a feeling that only increased when one of the strings of lights stopped working. I put that tree away the day after Christmas and immediately felt lighter and better.

As December approached this year, I felt torn about the tree question. I’ll spare you all the arguments and counter-arguments I wrestled with, and the results of all my Google searches for a better not-real-tree alternative; I’ll just say that after a period of thinking about it, we eventually concluded we’d probably get a real tree again. Thanksgiving weekend we walked two blocks from our house to a small tree lot just to look, and when the scent of cut fir hit me I knew: No more sad, plastic tree for me. Tuesday I packed up the fake one and dropped it off at a thrift store, hoping it might be someone else’s perfect solution now. I was committing to the real deal.

So, there we were at the hardware store late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the long week after Thanksgiving, facing the same question we’d faced all those years ago when we were buying a stand for a tree for a different house and a different kind of holiday than the ones we now have.

Our choices? A cheap plastic stand for $19.99 and the most solid-looking, no-plastic, old-fashioned tree stand I’ve ever seen for $70.00. There were several left of the cheap ones, and only one expensive one. The box for the expensive one had “Lifetime” printed in large red letters on every side of it.

What is a lifetime? I wondered. How can we possibly we know what we’ll need for a lifetime?

I thought about how so many young families now talk about their desire for “a forever home,” a concept I don’t remember from my own early days of homeownership. Although I lived in one house from the ages of 4 to 18, I’ve lived in and owned five different homes in the past 30 years. I’ve been married three times. I really couldn’t tell you how many lifetimes I’ve lived. Even though Cane and I love the house we now live in, we know we could well be somewhere else ten years from now. Our holidays could (likely will) be different again, our health could be different, our financial situation could be different, the world could be different. We might not have the desire or capacity for the kind of tree that needs a heavy-duty stand. We know, in ways we couldn’t have known when we bought our last stand together, that ten years from now one or both of us could again be facing the tree question alone. Ten years, or months, or days from now, everything could be different.

So, what to do? How to spend our money? What future to bet on? I suppose that for many people, perhaps most young people, a tree stand is just a tree stand, and buying one is only another item on a long list of holiday to-dos, but sometimes, late on an early-December Friday afternoon in the aisle of a neighborhood hardware store, for a couple of more old-than-young people who know that loss and change are the warp and weft of every life, a tree stand can also be an embodiment of faith and hope and love.

We bought the good one.