Serendipitous lightbulbs

Over the past few weeks I subbed a few days in a high school entrepreneurship class. It was the easiest sub gig ever, as there was a teacher teaching the class. She is a business owner with all kinds of qualifications to teach the subject, but no teaching license. I was there to meet legal requirements to have a certified teacher in the room. Because I wasn’t teaching much, I was often able to sit back and participate as a co-learner with the students.

That is how I came to be listening to Brené Brown talking about shame and courage and risk and getting “in the arena” in a new way. It’s how I found myself thinking about her ideas within the context of work and money and worth in ways that aren’t typical for me.

Let me back up a little.

When I officially “retired,” I did so with dreams about living a simple life. I just wanted a small, quiet, uncomplicated existence in which I could be healthy and be present with and for the people I love. My labor would be focused on making our home and caring for our family and friends, and that would be purpose enough for me. I was sure I could be content with much less money than I had become used to having because I would need less in our simpler life.

For the most part, this dream has come true.

For the most part.

There have been some points of minor rub. While it has been wonderful to finally have the time to do life’s labors in ways I’ve always wanted to do them–We’ve been eating well! I love eating well!–it hasn’t been quite as satisfying as I hoped it might be. Homemaking chores are often more boring than creative (there: I said it), and the Sisyphean nature of much of them has, at times, prompted moments of existential malaise. My new work has also given rise to questions about and shifts within my identity. This, in turn, has created shifts in my relationship with Cane that he claims not to feel but that sometimes feel tectonic in nature to me.

And then there’s money. (Isn’t there always money?)

I’m not substitute teaching because I’m bored or because I miss being in schools. I’m subbing because I need/want to bring in more money than my pension provides. We do live pretty simply and happily simply, but in the past year things have happened that I didn’t anticipate. Things that required money.

(Why didn’t I anticipate them? I don’t know. Things always happen. Things that require money. I do know this.)

Right now, subbing is the gig that gives me the biggest financial bang for the buck of my time (which is, of course, my life). It’s pleasant in many ways, and (because the world of public education is so often nonsensical) it pays more per hour than the more creative and challenging professional development work I’m also continuing to do. It doesn’t take much out of me, making that simpler life more attainable than it would be if I engaged in other forms of work. But.

It is nonetheless messing with the whole simple-life thing. Just adding a day or two of work outside the home each week is tipping some balance I was mostly achieving about making home my work. Even though subbing is far less taxing than the work I used to do as an educator, I still come home from it worn out. I come home from it not wanting to make dinner (or run a load of laundry or do dishes). I come home from it less able to be present with my husband or daughter or friends. It also puts pressure on the days I am not doing it, as I scramble to play catch-up.

And. It meets few needs/wants other than the one I have to make money. It feels a lot like babysitting, a work gig I purposely never did much of as a teenager. Babysitting is great for some, and it fills important needs, too–but it’s never been great for me. If there are better alternatives, I don’t like the idea of spending any of what’s left of my life doing something that’s not really for me, for the sole purpose of earning money. If I have to engage in money-earning, I guess I’d like to get more than just money from it.

(Here is where I feel compelled to acknowledge my good fortune that that makes all of these questions/wonderings possible. I know I’m lucky that these are the questions I get to contemplate.)

So, that’s the mental/emotional/physical landscape I was traveling through, babysitting in a classroom and stewing a bit in these questions about my current situation, when Brené began talking to all of us about being in the arena. As I listened, I began wondering what “the arena” even is. When I was a full-time educator, I know that I was for-sure in one. I was taking risks, I was working for change, I was often–to use Brown’s language–daring greatly. That meant I was also, more often than I liked, falling down in the dirt and failing–because, according to Brown, that’s an inevitable part of being in the arena. So, education was clearly an arena.

But am I in one now? Most people would think that retiring is about exiting arenas, but maybe my decision to transform myself into a full-time homemaker was about getting into a different arena. Maybe the friction I’m feeling is evidence that it is, in fact, a kind of arena. Or maybe I’m not in any arenas at all and I just jumped into a risky situation in a kind of half-cocked way that was more foolish than courageous. I am not sure where I am vis-à-vis Brown’s arenas, but I know that wherever I am is not a place I’m entirely comfortable being.

All of this listening/thinking/wondering in combination with hours of not a lot to actively do took me back to Substack. Sitting in those entrepreneurship classes while perusing newsletter after newsletter (a term that doesn’t entirely make sense to me, because the ones I read are more like blogs or magazines) turned a big lightbulb on in my head: Substack writers that use paywalls are entrepreneurs. Instead of being hired as writers, they are putting out their own shingle. They are selling their work directly to consumers. They are building businesses.

This realization (which, really, should have been kind of a duh! moment) brought up so many feelings! Of ick and shame and fear and other emotions that Brené talks about! (And, also, a little bit of excitement and possibility.)

(See how I even have to put those other emotions as an afterthought, and in parentheses, and qualify them as “little”? Almost as if I don’t want those bigger, upfront emotions to notice them. As if I don’t want you, my dear-to-me readers, to notice them.)

This realization + my feelings + Brown’s thoughts about arenas lit up a whole lot of other ideas/wonderings–about art, craft, labor, money, cultural mythologies, gendered roles, my history with writing and publishing, and more. Thanks to the serendipity that put me in that class at this point in time, I’m thinking about these things through different lenses than I’ve previously done. As I’ve done so, a kind of lethargy that’s plagued me for a very long time is beginning to recede. I feel my pulse quickening in a way I’d almost forgotten it could do. A way I feared I was perhaps too old to feel again, despite all the voices in the world telling me that I’m not.

And that feels good, even if not entirely comfortable. It feels good to be more curious than avoidant, and more open than closed. (Hmmm…maybe I’m getting more out of the sub gig than I thought?…)

I have no grand conclusions today. Just questions and beginnings of questions. I’d love to hear what you think about any of these things I’ve touched on here. I know we all have to figure out our ways of working and being in the world, and it’s great to learn from others’ experiences.

Other tidbits from the week…

Has anyone ever played this?

Photo of card game Illimat

We’re looking for a good game for Christmas day for 4-5 adults who don’t want to have to learn something big and complicated. Suggestions very welcome.

Wrist encased in a cast

The splint has been replaced by a cast, which is supposed to be on for 6 weeks. Typing is a much more reasonable undertaking now. Not loving it, but it could be so much worse.

Sign in store that says: Money order's/ Temporally/Out of/Order./Sorry for the/Inconvenience

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, while waiting in line to make a return at a crowded Fred Meyer (Kroger), seeing this felt like the universe was giving us all a gift of some found poetry .

When it rains…

I have a story to tell. It’s a story about inner voices, parenting, perceptions, professionalism, growth, and aging.

Unfortunately, I currently have only one hand to type with, and that is slow-going. So, the story-telling is going to have to wait a bit. Here’s the short version: I fell while learning a routine for an ice-skating show I had mixed feelings about participating in. I went to urgent care because I hit my head (hard), but it was my arm/wrist that was more seriously hurt. It’s in a splint, but will likely get a cast next week. A bone-density scan is in my future. A nurse-practitioner was a jerk and triggered old things. Many thoughts and realizations followed. I’m OK. Planning to get back on my skates as soon as I can because I want to and I get to and F*** that guy who was a jerk.

Take care out there.

It’s been a lot

This week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen since late May. After filling her in on things that have happened since then, she leaned back and said, “And what are you doing to take care of yourself?”

I smiled and shrugged a little.

“Because I just want you to know: That’s a lot. All I’ve had to do is listen, and I feel exhausted.”

This month I began substitute teaching. I do this work only at the school where I last taught; it is a place I know and am known, a small school with a healthy culture and community. On Tuesday, as I attempted to support a student in finding another student to partner with for an interview activity, they stood up and walked out of the room. They came back a bit later, and they began crying when I approached and asked if they were OK. We moved to the hallway, where, in tears, they apologized for leaving the way they had and explained that they have anxiety and panic attacks, and that in the classroom they’d had their third one of the day. I’d like to tell you that this kind of incident is rare, but it’s not. (A lot of the kids are not all right.)

This week, I began reading KC Davis’s How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing. I am reading it because I want to learn how to better support someone I love. I appreciate this writer’s reminder of the importance of framing: “Care tasks are morally neutral.” It is our culture that assigns worth to how well we perform them–and shame when we fall short of cultural ideals. Davis tells us that “mess has no inherent meaning.” We assign plenty of meaning to it, though: That because of mess in our surroundings, we are a mess (or incompetent or disgusting or lazy). Davis encourages us to choose for ourselves what meaning it has for us, and to choose gently.

In my lunch with my friend, a retired teacher, we talked about how different today’s kids are from the kids we taught at the beginning of our careers, and how different they seem from the kids we remember ourselves being. We are elder Gen-Xers who came of age in a time with much less existential threat and far better economic prospects and supports, but we were given much less emotional support and time from our parents than today’s youth. “They seem to have so much less resilience,” she said.

“We didn’t get as much care as they do, and we turned out all right,” she added.

“Did we?” I asked. “I mean, I’m on my third marriage.”

“And maybe that’s because you turned out great!” she argued. “Maybe that means you had relationships that gave you something you needed for a time, and then you were strong enough to leave them when they no longer did.”


Last weekend I attended a funeral for a family member. “Have you been doing any writing?” my cousin’s husband asked me. He was a musician when I first knew him; after his son was born he gave up playing professionally and took a full-time day job with good pay and benefits. For years he has asked me this almost every time I see him, and my answer is always the same: “Not really.”

“How come?”

I shrug and smile. The real answer feels like too much to say in a big group of people standing around a small kitchen. I don’t actually know what the real answer is, but I know that much about it.

There is nothing like an unexpected funeral for someone younger than your parents to make you contemplate what it is you are doing with your life, and how it might be even shorter than you have, in recent years, come to realize it is.

“Are you just feeling like you don’t have anything to say?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. That is a truth: I don’t have anything I feel compelled to say. But I was also thinking: Or maybe too much. And: There’s not enough time. And: There are so many voices in the world already, so much that I feel like I’m drowning in the cacophony.

It’s a lot of things.

In one version of my substitute teaching story, I made a kid cry and leave the room. In another, I was an adult that a student felt safe enough with to talk honestly about their mental health struggles.

Something happened this week that made me lose it. Truly, out-of-control lose it. The kind of losing it where you slam doors and throw objects. Where you stand alone in a room and scream from a place deep within your body. Where rage demands physical expression. This has happened to me only a few times in my life, but they’ve all been within the past ten years. What did it mean? At first, I thought it was part of a story about powerlessness and betrayal. With more time and information, I could reframe it as one about suffering collateral damage from someone else’s childhood trauma.

With even more time and information, with my friend mirroring my stories back to me–It’s a lot, I am exhausted–I could understand my outburst as a response to not just one precipitating event, but to layers of events that have fused like a block of sedimentary rock in the bottom of a lake. I thought of Virginia Woolf wading into a river with her pockets full of stones, and I understood that all of it–my silence, my rage, my weariness–has been a response to an accumulation of small weights.

So, despite exhaustion, this week I began doing what I know will work to empty my pockets: resting, eating well, redrawing boundaries, taking care of what is mine to care for, moving my body, connecting with my people, disconnecting from noise, getting the words out. Framing the things that come at me through the lens of the serenity prayer.

The heavy, layered block is still there, under the waves. It will always be there. When I look down I can see it. But I am here, above it, treading water, still kicking.

And that is a lot.


Some things that were a lot this week:

A lot of veggies. I’ve been working on feeding our bodies well and eating less meat. This recipe is a keeper.

A lot of mushrooms. Spent time on Friday getting our outside world ready for winter and discovered this bed of mushrooms growing near our shed. It felt good to put the outdoor furniture away and clean out the tomato plants and disconnect the hoses. And to discover something that felt a little bit wondrous.

A lot of bark chips. We got a chip drop so we can expand our backyard planting area and kill more of the lawn there. Moving all of this from the front to the back is a lot of work. Felt good to use our bodies this way, though.

Seeing what there is to see

I’d love to tell you, after my last post, that we had a great, big, old-fashioned, raucuos, throwback Halloween.

Alas, we did not.

Our door got knocked on twice: we were visited by a small group of littles and their parents, as well as a pair of middle-school aged boys. Everyone was sweet, and we enjoyed a quiet evening eating soup and visiting with our friend, but at the end of the night we had a large bowlful of candy that no one wanted and I regretted spending money on.

I’d like to blame it on the weather, but I can’t do that, either. Unlike those of you who had snow (snow!), we had perfect trick-or-treating weather–dry and cool but not too cold.

“Probably would’ve been better to spend that money on some personal hygiene products to donate to the homeless village,” Cane said. Last year our neighborhood became home to a “micro-village” of transitional housing for some of Portland’s most vulnerable unsheltered adults. We are big fans of this project and the organization behind it, and we’re glad to see this so close to our home. I agreed, knowing that giving resources there would have been a much better way of serving our community.

His comment got me thinking about what I did and didn’t do and why, and I can see that I did the kind of thing that is typical of people like me who are full of good intentions but don’t take the time to really learn about the community they want to serve and/or be a part of. I did what would’ve been nice for me, thinking that what would work for me will work for everyone. Thanks to my years of work in diverse schools, I know better, but some ways of being are deeply ingrained. I see now that I didn’t pay enough attention to changes in our neighborhood to realize that what worked in the past probably doesn’t now.

If being a good member of my community was the goal (and it was), I’ve realized that I’m going to need to figure out some other ways of doing that. I’m going to have to stretch, probably outside of my comfort zone. Doing Halloween the same old way I’ve always done it was not that.

I know that letting go of traditions is easier said than done. It’s hard to let go of practices we once valued and saw value in–why I decided I needed to participate in trick-or-treating even though some part of me already knew that the payoff wasn’t worth the effort it takes–and that’s why I’m not beating myself up for not figuring out more quickly or easily that showing up at my door once a year with a bowlful of candy is not what my community needs from me.

All of this is coming at just the right time, too, with the holiday season now bearing down upon us. So much of what can make this time of year tough for me is trying to hang onto things from the past that no longer serve myself and those I care for. No matter how much I cling to the things we’ve always done, the holidays are not going to feel the same way they did when my grandparents were alive and my cousins and I all gathered at their house, or even when my children were young. That house is gone. So are those earlier versions of my family. So are important things I once believed about Thanksgiving and Christmas and my culture and the world. It’s a good time for thinking about what still works and what we might let go of, to make room for some new things that will be better for all the lives we want to nurture.

None of this is particularly new or revelatory. I know that letting go and revising and creating (a holiday, a family, a community, a world) is something that we are all doing all the time. It was nice, though, to have that knowledge brought to the surface this week. Learning is so often like ascending a spiraling path; you go past the same places again and again, but each time a little bit higher, so you can see things from a different vantage point.

In related news…

I saw Kari mention that she is taking a month off from social media, and the same day this post (A Permanent Good-bye to Social Media) came across my path and both felt like nudges to do something I’d been thinking about doing. I deactivated FB and Instagram and removed their apps from my phone. Messenger is still active if you want to reach me, or you can email me. I’m thinking about stepping back from this space for awhile, too. I’m not sure about that, but don’t worry if it’s quiet here.

Although this post is about letting go of old ways, I’m feeling curious about reclaiming some. I’m wondering how it will be–how I might be–with more quiet, more privacy, more time spent offline. Will I do more writing? More reading? About what? Will I take as many photos? Will they be of the same things? Why will I take them, if not to share? Will I make more things with my hands? Will I feel lonely? More peaceful? Restless? Bored? All of the above? Will I learn something about why and how to connect with others through some disconnection?

It feels good to take a break from a place of curiosity, rather than rage or fear or burn-out. (Although, those are all perfectly valid reasons to walk away from anything.) I’m looking forward to seeing what I can see.

Would love to know what you hold onto and what you’ve let go of, and why.