One day this week, an errand took me past a former workplace. It’s a road I spent years driving down, Monday through Friday, but I rarely have cause to drive it now.
Thanks to my pain management class, a book I learned about there, and a recent conversation with my primary care doc, I am coming to understand some things about my body’s responses to perceived threat, and how that is connected to years of chronic pain from various medical conditions. So, when I had to drive by that place slowly–it’s a school zone, and I hit it at peak drop-off time in the morning–I had plenty of time to get triggered and to feel what the triggering was doing to my body.
When I drove that road nearly every day, I didn’t notice how it felt–how I felt. It was just my normal. Maybe I was desensitized by its constancy. Maybe there was no room to really feel it. I mean, quitting was not an option. I wasn’t in denial about the problems of that place, but I was about their impact on me. Not entirely, but enough to keep myself able to function. Mostly. For a long time, anyway.
My PCP sent me to a behavioral health consultant, so that I can get access to therapy to “heal from unresolved trauma” that is playing a role in my chronic pain conditions. That person asked me to rate, on a 10-point scale, how much I feel impacted from my chronic pain.
The question stumped me.
I mean, how I feel most of the time is better than I ever have in my entire life. I have pain of one kind or another (and fairly often more than one kind at a time) most days, but it is manageable. When my back acts up after a half hour of cleaning, I am able to sit down and rest. When a migraine starts, I am able to stay home and rest. I have effective meds. For the first time in my life (other than a short stretch in my early 20s), I am not either living or working in a situation that causes me to walk on eggshells, constantly alert for trouble and doing whatever I can to avoid it. Do you know how good it feels to always feel safe, accepted, loved, and relaxed at home? I feel so incredibly fortunate to have what I have now. It’s a wonder to me.
But I do have pain of one kind or another most days, and that is manageable only because I am no longer working in my career field. I don’t feel able to commit to any other paid work because managing/improving my health is feeling like its own full-time job now. But working is a primary life function, and I’m not even 60 yet. If I can’t do a primary life function at my age and be well, what should my score be?
I think I settled on 7. Or maybe 6.
I don’t know where I’m going with this.
It’s been a funky week. The weather is cold cold cold, but the days are so brightly sunny I keep saying I need to get my sunglasses back out. I’m savoring every last bit of true fall that I can, before we pass Thanksgiving and it is officially winter holiday season. I love this time of year, when we go inside and get cozy but don’t yet have a bunch of other obligations. When we love light all the more for its scarcity.
For so many reasons, I really can’t with Thanksgiving much any more, but I will always love taking time to notice and name what I am grateful for. In this funky week full with appointments and phone calls and triggers and wind and wool sweaters, there was one morning where everything sparkled because the temperatures had dropped below freezing overnight, but the sun was rising. Branches were newly bare, but there were still leaves clinging to them–leaves blazing with their final colors. It felt like a metaphor for many things right now, so I took a picture.
One day I was home alone, and I noticed a pair of boots that Cane had left out. My daughter leaves her shoes and slippers in the hallway outside her bedroom door. When my son used to come home on military leave, he’d leave his shoes out, too, and I always loved seeing them. When I lived by myself, I had neat, tidy, empty hallways. This kind of clutter fills me.
On a walk this week, I passed an old, old tree:
Isn’t she glorious? I mean, look closer:
That’s a kind of beauty that only comes from years of living, from standing through season after season of sun, rain, wind, ice, and sun again. When I was younger, reminders that the world had existed long before me and would long after me were unsettling. Now, they are comforting. (I might have given that tree a hug. She felt like a grandmother, and I miss mine.)
Hoping all of you have a week with some beauty and comfort in it, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.
It was a busy, busy week. OK, a busy, busy three days–Monday through Wednesday–and then I crashed and burned. I’m writing this on Thursday morning, in migraine fog, planning to skip my pain management class today because it (so far) triggers me every damn time. And getting triggered in a 2-hour Zoom meeting while on meds is something I’m just not going to subject my neural pathways to. (I’m writing on Thursday because we are going to be away for the weekend–a small trip I’m much wanting to take, but even good stress is stress, right? You know how anticipatory grief is a thing? So is anticipatory stress.)
In spite of all that, I wrote. Or, I played with words, which counts.
The past few years, I’ve created a calendar with my words and photos. I pull both from this blog and from Instagram posts, tightening the words a bit. I give the calendars to my parents and a few friends. I wasn’t as pleased with last year’s effort as I had been with earlier ones, and just last week, as I changed the calendar to November, I thought that maybe I would let that project go.
Then I received an email from one of those friends:
When Ed turned the page from October to November on your 2022 calendar, he said, ‘I really love Rita’s photographs and her poetry.’ The love word this engineer rarely bandies about.
Well, if that’s not a sign from the universe, I don’t know what is. (Who am I to deny Ed–who I love because he so well loves my friend that I love–something he loves, especially when he uses that word sparingly?) So I sat down and started noodling, reviewing the year’s photos, pulling snippets of language from posts. I never thought of the calendar words as poetry, but the words there are distilled versions of those that I share here. Maybe they are.
For several hours last Sunday afternoon, I played with words and images from the last year, and it felt good. Really good.
I’d been struggling a bit with my second Dive into Poetry prompt (an invitation to write about shame), but Monday morning, my pump primed from Sunday’s play, this came out:
Usually I Reject Shame
Call it out as the abuse I’ve known it to be, but not today, having so recently escaped from an October where smoky air kept us sweltering inside, and the leaves–the ones that didn’t turn ash-gray– stayed stubbornly green.
The crows called when we stepped out the door, their caws sounding like castigation for our collective sins, a thousand jagged “shoulds” raining upon our heads.
“I know, I know!” I bleated back at them, eyes down, my words flying away in the hot, hot wind.
Then, another prompt was about collections, and one suggestion was to collect words for a poem from other texts. I went back to my blog posts from November of last year, thinking I might pull words into a poem about the month. I copied and pasted snippets of language, and then I rearranged them and polished them and glued them together with some new words into something that is about late middle-age/early old-age, our current moment in history, and, I suppose, November:
In the November of Our Lives
One day it’s all sunshine-sharp air and leaves blazing against blue skies; the next, it’s wet sticks and relentless wind, our pumpkins on the front porch gone suddenly garish. The bedrock upon which we’ve lived shifts and breaks, and there is no mending the fault lines, no way around canyons of looming catastrophe. With our children grown, our dogs buried, and our bodies both softer and more brittle than they’ve ever been, my missing is so deep it’s not even an ache. It’s something I don’t have a word for. There are moments I want to last forever, the wanting turning them to memory before they end. I thought surely we’d have more, but darkness descends before we’re ready for it, and something inside turns toward candlelight, toward small flames still burning, hunkering down for the long haul of winter.
I’ve long liked writing cento poems (poems I’ve thought of as verbal collages), and I’m finding that using my own prose as source material might be a way into writing poetry again.
In a week where I could feel myself melting on Monday afternoon, where a Wednesday doctor visit resulted in referrals to even more appointments, where the work of healing feels like a mountain too steep to climb, this kind of word play was good medicine.
Most Friday mornings, I start my day at an early morning patch session at the ice rink. “Patch” is something most rinks don’t offer any more, as it is a time to practice figures, which have not been a part of international singles skating competitions since 1991. The US eliminated them from their national championships in 1999, and so most young skaters do not learn or practice figures. I was a young skater in the 1970s, so figures and patch were part of my skating practice back in the day, as they were for most of my current, fellow Friday-morning patch skaters.
(If you’d like to learn more/get historical, this video segment from 1976 Olympic coverage dives into what figures are/were. They are so, so much harder than Dorothy Hamill made them look. I wish they were still part of competition.)
As we were ending last week, a fellow skater and I were commiserating about our mutual difficulty with figures. “I have a love-hate relationship with patch,” I said. “I love how quiet it is. I love the focus and precision it requires. I appreciate the core workout. I hate how frustrated I get.”
“That’s because you’re a perfectionist,” our patch coach said, who was standing near us.
The words did not feel like a compliment, and the slight sting I felt from them is part of why I’ve been paying attention to perfectionism (and its impacts) and experimenting with practice and play over the past week.
We’ve been having a bit of a discussion here about creative practices, particularly about the issue of a singular creative focus vs. engaging in multiple kinds of creative play/work. I’m pretty firmly in the camp of favoring a multi-faceted approach. That’s probably because it justifies my desire to dabble in so many different things, but it’s also because, like others who’ve commented here, I think creativity in one area contributes to progress in others. That’s something I definitely saw this week.
I finished my little embroidery exercise, even though there are things about it I don’t like and couldn’t/wasn’t willing to fix, and even though doing so required me to stick with it long after the fun, discovery part of it was gone. I love a steep learning curve, but I got to experience a different kind of pleasure by seeing some subtle things about technique that I likely wouldn’t have if I’d quit and moved on. (A good insight to apply to both skating and writing.) Honestly, I don’t know if I would have finished it (I’m itching to start a new one) if it weren’t for Kate telling me she wanted to see how the rain chain would look when it was done. I discovered in new ways this week how peers or partners are another important P when it comes to creative work.
One of the great joys of life with my daughter back home is the time we spend skating together, and I realized this week that I don’t do nearly as well when I skate alone. On Thursday, I went to skate while she finished her work shift at the rink. My plan was to practice what I’d worked on in class and my private lesson, and then give her a ride home. I lasted only about 40 minutes on my own, and then I took myself off to Starbucks with a book and hot chocolate. (I stand by that choice, btw.)
Instead of going home after she was done working, though, we decided to skate together. Nearly two hours later, I’d had a breakthrough on an element that I’d been struggling with, and I’d laughed a lot. It’s just so much more fun (and more productive for me) to have someone else tell me what they’re seeing, and to learn from watching them. I don’t have any photos or videos of us skating, but I did catch this shot of her driving the Zamboni right at the end of her shift. (I am so in awe. When I was a kid the Zamboni seemed like a magic machine, and now I know it’s actually a pretty complicated one. And it’s huge, too! And you have to drive it with so many people watching you.)
Because I’ve been focusing/thinking about practice and play and letting go of perfectionism, I signed up at the last minute for Jena Schwartz’s Dive into Poetry, a month-long guided poetry writing group. I’ll let Jena’s words explain what the experience is about:
“This is not a class; we’re not here to study the difference between a villanelle and a sonnet or to deconstruct the Romantics or to compare Beat poets to contemporary giants of the spoken word. We’re here to practice, to play, to enjoy the gifts certain poems may have for us, to discover our own voices in surprising ways, and to revel in the ways that poetry is everywhere and everything.”
See all the P’s in there? Practice and play and poems. My perfectionism has played a major role in my not writing poems for many years. (So has my chronic pain, which I’m realizing from the pain management class I’ve been taking–but I’ll save that P for another time.) Jena’s groups are incredibly supportive and generative, and so I decided to sign up for this. (I did the Dive a few years back, but I wrote only prose. No poems.) For the month of November, I’ll get three prompts a week, each of which is an invitation into writing poetry. There is a Facebook group, where we can share our work and engage with other Divers about it.
The whole thing is about playing and experimenting and exploring. To be an active participant (which I think is important, especially given my recent thoughts about the value of creatively playing with others), I have to get over myself and share work that I haven’t had time to perfect. (My writing process requires germination. Even these blog posts are rarely a one-off creation.) Because we get assignments, I feel more freedom to play than I would if I were generating poems on my own, with a goal of publication. I have no big expectations around what I will write; they are just exercises, explorations. (Like my little embroidery houses. Like my doodles on ice.) I just want to play, and so that’s what I did for our first assignment. One of our options was to write a poem about why we like writing poetry, which I chose because my first, gut-level response was: I don’t.
Why do I like to write poetry?
I mostly don’t, because it so often fails to live up to my expectations, does not flay a story to its core, my language a finger pulling the skin of an experience’s tunicate bulb down to its perfect, pearly heart.
Sometimes, I get a little lost because it feels so good to run my mind over the fabric of words, some coarse as burlap or soft as flannel, others a taffeta crinkle, a gauzy whisper, a velvet caress, or a flour-sack smile. I gather them like some Midas with his gold, touching every line into gaudy shine.
Sometimes, all I do is splash around in sound, damming my juddering glottals up, zhuzhing a line with exuberant sibilants, wooing my readers with strings of labials and liquids. Mmmm. Those times, it becomes too easy to let fricatives ssssh-ssssh-ssssh over whole stanzas in waves, washing complicated truths away.
Too often, I tumble down Google holes– delving into, say, the differences between sibilants and fricatives, or various varieties of bulbs– which is its own kind of pleasure, sure, but not the kind I’m really looking for.
I want to get lost in language only if it shows me the way.
I want a poetry that takes me deeper in as the words spool out.
So, that’s what’s been doing around here. Looking forward to another week of progressing through play. Oh, and puzzling. That’s a P to please my inner perfectionist. So satisfying when the pieces fit precisely where they are supposed to go.
After seeing Sarah Kain Gutowski share Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life on Instagram, I decided to check the book out from the library. It’s a read I am digesting in small bites, in part because it makes me uncomfortable–but also because it’s the kind of book that is going to be most helpful if I give myself time for the ideas to marinate. I chafe against some of Tharp’s words; it is because she is so intense and absolute at times. For example, about the dancers she works with–who can be divided into two categories, “acceptable (great) or not (everything less than great)”–she looks for evidence that their work habits are as “exacting” as her own:
“Do they show up on time for rehearsal? Are they warmed up? Does their energy flag when rehearsals break down or are they committed to pushing forward? Are they bringing ideas to the party or waiting for me to provide everything? These are my personal pop quizzes to gauge other people’s involvement. I don’t want them merely involved. I’m looking for insane commitment.”
The (perhaps) insane commitment of artists came up in a conversation with a writer friend this week, who is reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award winning Just Kids (2010), about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late 1960s, when they were young and poor in New York, before either was known or had known artistic success.
“She gave up just about everything for her art,” my friend said. I asked what she meant by that, and she talked about Smith going to New York with nothing, by herself, and living with insecure housing and food.
“I’ve never done that,” I said. “And I never will.” My friend agreed that the same is true for her, which might have something to do with why neither of us has been or will be (as it’s really too late for both of us) a Twyla Tharp or Patti Smith.
I’ve come to realize that I am perfectly fine with not being that kind of creative. Tharp seems to believe we all have one, true creative calling (our “creative DNA”) and cautions against being distracted from it by other creative interests. If there is such a thing as creative DNA, mine is to be the opposite of a specialist. Tharp has a creative autobiography exercise, and the answers to mine are all over the creative map. Hers (because she shares it with readers) is not. I assume my creative DNA is why, although I have a kind of time for creative work now that I haven’t had since early adolescence, I’ve felt a bit creatively paralyzed. There are so many things I want to do–write (poems, essays, blog posts, hybrid forms)! sew! embroider! knit! collage! blog! cook!–that I have been doing (almost) none of them. I’ve been feeling time scarcity, even though I have a kind of time I could only dream of even six months ago.
True self-care takes more time than I ever realized, which includes running the household in healthier ways than I’ve been able to manage before. Also, I feel the clock of my mortality tick-tick-ticking. I know it’s ridiculous and futile and counter-productive to fixate on that (so I don’t), but time does feel finite in ways it never did when I was younger. How best to spend the minutes I have, knowing what I know about creative processes and resources necessary to develop new skills? Namely, time for repetition and failure. It is so challenging to get through the stage where your taste far exceeds your skill, especially when you’re a recovering perfectionist.
Tharp would have no patience with any of these thoughts/feelings. In response to a common fear that our work will never be as good as the vision in our minds, she offers: “Toughen up. Leon Battista Alberti, a fifteenth century architectural theorist, said, ‘Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.’ But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds.” I think I will credit her (as well as Kate, through a recent encouraging comment) with my decision this week to revisit an old impulse to honor/recreate modest homes and just start stitching.
I’m not sure of how to best use my minutes, but I’ve been spending a lot of those available to me lately on getting our house in order. Literally. In the last 18 months, my son moved in and (sort of) out, Cane moved in, my daughter moved in, and our beloved (and surprisingly space-hogging) Daisy moved on. My son isn’t living with us anymore, but some of his stuff still is. There’s been a lot of transition and purging and shuffling of things and changing the purpose of rooms/closets. I’ve become a fairly minimal person, but our house is only about 1,100 square feet and it is accommodating the “stuff” needs of several adults.
I’ve long been a fan of productive procrastination, and I’ve decided that my organizing/house projects are that. Or, they are simply necessary to making space for creation. I waste so much time looking for things, and I can no longer afford to buy things we already have simply because I can’t find them. I mean, maybe I can–but I really don’t want to. It’s wasteful in multiple ways. Physical clutter and disorganization truly bother me, and I don’t do my best work when distracted by it.
So, while I’m avoiding making any real decisions/commitments about creative work, I’ve been thinking deeply about what we need and how we live and what makes sense for us now and how to best use our home. I’ve donated several carloads of stuff, and for the first time since we sold Cane’s house and moved his things here, the garage is clear. (Or, it was, for about half a week. Then the rain came and we moved the outdoor furniture into that space.)
For kitchen organization, I’m still finding the Adachi book I referenced a few posts back very helpful. The equipment guide from What Good Cooks Know (America’s Test Kitchen) is also helping me think through what we really need. Our kitchen space is tight, and we’re determined to make it work without costly renovations. Two weeks ago we found an old free-standing pine cabinet that cost significantly less than similarly-sized pantry cabinets at Home Depot, and the combination of adding that to our storage and paring down our kitchen things is changing my life in the kitchen. It’s allowing us to have more space for the things we’re keeping, which means that extracting a particular bowl or pan is no longer like playing a game of kitchen-cabinet Jenga. It’s calming, and I’m cooking more often than I used to.
Our kitchen projects aren’t only about function, although they are the primary driver. Our laminate counters had become stained and our cabinets are getting pretty chippy, so we’ve been making some aesthetic as well as functional changes.
Here’s what the kitchen looked like when I bought the house:
Perfectly functional, but blah as blah can be. This is how it is looking now (still in progress; we need to paint the cabinets and finish tiling on the wall you can see on the left side, around the stove):
The danger with any productive procrastination activity is that it becomes a way to forever-avoid some larger task, and I know it could be possible to organize/tinker with this house in perpetuity. But that’s honestly not what this feels like. It feels like clearing a lot of psychic and emotional clutter, as well as physical. It’s its own kind of creative task, and it all goes in the mix. I don’t know yet if any poems or other written works will come out of it, but I like to think they will. (I’ll be OK with it if they don’t.)
You know all those self-help memes and articles and books that tell you that you can’t fix your life by changing the external circumstances of it? The ones that insist you won’t be happier if you have a different job or house or partner or friends, if you live in a different city or state or country? Because whatever ails you is something inside of you, and wherever you go, you’ll take it with you? Well…
Not entirely, I know, but I spent so many painful years believing that those messages were entirely true, trying desperately to find just the right way to exist within my marriage and job and community. I strove to find and embrace the good things about where and with whom I lived and worked, and to feel gratitude for all of my blessings (because I had lots of them). I went to 12-step programs and learned about the impacts addictions have had on my family. I did therapy. I joined gyms, cut out gluten, learned how to set boundaries, stopped being co-dependent, etc. ad nauseam. When my children were in kindergarten and I was teaching full-time, I got up at 4:00 in the morning to write because I believed the people who told me that saying I didn’t have time to write was just an excuse.
I pulled so hard on my bootstraps I’m surprised I didn’t break them. (Maybe I did?)
A lot of those things helped, and I’m glad I did them, but none of them solved my essential problem. I just wanted to be OK, and no matter what I did, I wasn’t. Not really. I had lots of wonderful moments (and all those blessings I was truly grateful for), but it was a constant struggle to be OK in any consistent or general way. Anxiety, depression, and a growing list of chronic medical conditions were ever-present obstacles that I couldn’t seem to think or work or do my way around.
And then, over the past half-dozen years, I learned about the structural and systemic barriers that many of us live within and the real limits they put on well-being. I learned about gaslighting. I learned about neurodiversity and ableism and chronic illness and myriad ways in which the source of the difficulties I seemed to have was, perhaps, not all within me.
But I didn’t believe that those things explained my inability to be OK. Not really. Sure, I am a female living in a misogynistic patriarchy, and that’s not nothing. But I am also white, cis-het, raised Christian, and a middle-class, older Gen-Xer, which means I was the beneficiary of mid-20th century social supports that allowed me to dream of and then have a kind of life it will be much more difficult (perhaps impossible) for many Gen Z folks to have. My working-class parents were able to pay for my college tuition at a good public university without taking out loans, I was able to buy a home in my early 20’s through a federal loan program, and I got into a public pension program before cuts in the 90s seriously eroded its benefits, grandfathering me in to the promise of retirement. I was aware that I had the kind of good fortune that increasing numbers of Americans do not–so why couldn’t I just be OK, dammit?
Seriously: Why was OK an elusive dream I couldn’t realize? It had to be me. Because if I couldn’t be OK, how could anyone?
Well, as has often been the case in my life, I was wrong.
Because I am finally OK. I am more than OK: I am happy. And it feels weird to be happy, but damn if that’s not what I’ve been realizing this week that I am. (Happy feels weird, if you’re not used to it.) And, for the first time, I understand and believe and fucking know that I WASN’T WHAT NEEDED FIXING. (Yes, I’m shouting. I feel a little shouty these days.)
Happiness is not the absence of struggle. I still have my challenges and frustrations and griefs. I still grapple with health issues. I worry about our kids and what the dumpster-fires raging in our world are doing and are going to do to them. I live in a part of my city where many people are struggling to survive, and I feel angry every single day at the disparity between the parts of town that are like my neighborhood and those in which there are no tent collectives, no mothers and kids standing in traffic with cardboard signs asking for money, and no people who are walking illustrations of the havoc poverty and untreated mental illness wreaks on humans. I am all-the-time looking around and wondering why/how so many people don’t seem to really see what’s happening and are carrying on as if we’re still living in the world of 2010. But still, I’m OK now, and often more than OK.
I’m now in a healthy marriage with few stressors on it, and my survival needs (food, safe shelter, reasonable health care, drinkable water) are met, and all those problems I could never seem to solve–insomnia, anxiety, depression, etc.–are low-level on my worst days. I do meaningful work (mostly non-paid) every day, and I have time to rest, tend to important relationships, and be creative. I have the resources I need to care for myself and those in my communities (big and small). When I had to work for a paycheck to survive, I didn’t have enough of anything above the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now I do, and I haven’t begun to figure out the words to tell you how OK I’ve become.
In the beginning stages of finally admitting that I wasn’t OK, I was in a sick marriage and a deeply under-resourced job (made more difficult by my invisible disabilities) that made it impossible for me to meet many of my needs. I was struggling to work full-time (in a job that demanded more than full-time work), raise children well, and take care of myself. Oh, and write, too, because it wasn’t enough just to be a good teacher. I had to fulfill some higher destiny, as well, the thing I was created to do.
What I know now, having escaped the toxic relationship and untenable career is that I didn’t need to work harder, change my attitude, have more self-discipline, or stay where I was and count my blessings. What I needed was to get out.
I finally fully have, and I wish more than anything I could share some way for everyone else to get away from whatever is making them not-OK, but the truth I’m seeing now is that there isn’t always a way. I made the moves I was able to make (leaving that marriage, changing to a different job within my industry), and I searched constantly for better alternatives. But I couldn’t leave everything that was damaging AND take care of my people the way I wanted and needed to care for them. I am not looking back and thinking that I should have made different choices. (I don’t regret them, given my givens.) I am looking back and wishing only that our culture had been more honest about the scarcity of good choices for many of us to make.
Think of what I might have done to actually improve my life if I hadn’t wasted energy on blaming myself, on attempting to fix what I didn’t have the ability to fix, or on “solutions” that were never going to address the source of the problem.
I wish I could change the world so that everyone could have what I now do. I wish there was some formula I could share for how to get it in the world as it is. For myself, it has required some compromise, some luck, some risk, and a lot of years of living in poor health and doing what I had to do to get here. (The promise of that pension kept me in the world of K-12 education, and without it the life I have now would not be possible.) I can’t tell you how to do it, and I want to acknowledge that not everyone can do it, no matter how hard they work, but I’m writing this because if nothing else, I can give an assurance that I wish others had given me. If you’ve worked to heal from and deal with your childhood traumas and have a clear sense of your strengths and challenges and are working hard within the systems you have to live within and are still struggling to be OK, I want you to hear (especially if you’re of my generation and grew up drinking a lot of Kool-Aid) that it’s not just you, no matter the privileges you have. Keep doing what you can for yourself, for sure, but be as clear-eyed as you can about what’s yours to own/do and what is not.
Think of what a different world we might live in if our goal was that everyone in it could be OK.
(Giving credit where it’s due: These ideas are not new, even to me. Gen Z is not the first to have them (see, for one small example, this), but the younguns are all over these lines of thinking, and I’m grateful for the ways in which they have helped me see my life experience through different lenses. Even though I’ve encountered these ideas in the past, I’m knowing their truth in new ways, now that I am able to live in a different way. I’m sharing in case and with hope that my understanding might help others still struggling to be OK.)
Technically, I’m still working a little bit, but I’m finally starting to feel retired. And it mostly feels…weird.
I started working in the fall of 1980. I was fifteen, and I got a job at our public library as a page. (It might be the best job I ever had.) The only time I haven’t worked regularly since then was about 4 months in late 1983/early 1984, my first terms in college–when I lived off money I’d saved from my high school job. I did get 6 or so months off when I was on medical and parental leave to have my kids, but even then, I still had a job (which occupied prime mental real estate) and I picked up some freelance editing work.
For 42 (whaaaat?!?) nearly-continuous years, I’ve been exchanging hours of my life for money, and it now feels so damn strange to just…exist. I’m still laboring every day, but I’m usually not getting paid for it by some outside entity, which means that my time belongs to me in ways it never has before, not even when I was a child. I have more freedom and independence than I had then. The thoughts/feelings this has been raising are…unsettling.
Yes, that’s the word. I do not feel very settled lately.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t had many words to share here. The few I have (such as these) I’ve forced out, hoping that the words will beget more words. That I will find my groove, or get it back. It often works that way, especially after a pause, but that’s not been happening. So many things are not working the way I am used to them working.
I am not complaining. I am also not celebrating or savoring or cherishing or regretting or wanting or wishing. I am not feeling any kind of judgement about this state–that it is good, bad, or otherwise. I suppose I am simply being and observing: Life (both internal and external) feels foreign, some place I’ve never before been. Can one be an ex-pat in their own life?
Perhaps I am just detoxing, still. I don’t expect this floaty state to last forever. (Everything passes. That’s one thing I’ve learned.) But this is where I am right now.
A few weeks ago, I had a weekend visit with a cousin I hadn’t seen more than a few times in the last three decades. Despite our 10-year age difference, she is someone I felt close to when very young. For a few years as she transitioned into adulthood, she lived in the town our parents grew up in, where our grandparents still lived, and we knew each other in the ways you can know someone you see often. She painted my nails with polish from her extensive collection and gave me ice cream cones during her shifts at Baskin Robbins (the coolest job ever, even better than my Grandma’s job at the Sears candy counter). When she was living with our grandparents, she let me sleep in her bed with her when I came to visit, and as we talked late into the night she shared stories about her own childhood, which was different from mine in important and eye-opening ways. She was pretty and kind and treated me like a real person, not just a kid. I adored her. (I still do.)
After she married in her later 20s, she moved to another state; it was years–decades?–before I realized she wasn’t moving back. It was even longer before I realized what that would mean for us, and what my own move to another state would mean for my relationships with everyone in my family. For the longest time her move and mine felt temporary to me, like something we were just doing for awhile until we returned to our real life with the family we’d been part of growing up. I didn’t understand that we were each already living our real lives, that we were living them right now, every day, and that each day we lived apart was taking us further away from the time and place where we were young and our grandparents and aunts and uncles were alive and we were all part of each others’ lives in ways that would become impossible to recreate or relive even before the generations ahead of ours began dying.
As she and I sat talking at her kitchen table in the state she moved to more than 40 years ago, sharing stories about our lives past and present, she suddenly interrupted herself: “Where have the years gone?” she asked, and the question wasn’t rhetorical or musing. It was real. It was a genuine wondering, full of bewilderment.
“I don’t know,” I said, and we were both quiet for a moment. I thought about how, in my own 20s, I understood neither what I was exchanging nor what I would (and wouldn’t) get for it. And now, so much (but not all, not all) of what once might have been can now be nothing more than what was. We’ve had the marriages and children and careers we’re going to have, and she missed much of mine and I missed much of hers. Still, she is as important to me now as she ever was, and in my two days with her time was malleable and stretchy and I floated between past and present in ways that are perhaps only possible when the present isn’t so insistent on being our most important reality.
My days are quiet enough for me to see such things clearly now, and perhaps what I am feeling most is curious.
For the first time in 42 years, I don’t have to exchange my life for money. What does that mean? What might it mean? What will I use my life for now, now that I have more choice than I’ve ever had?
I think before I can answer these questions, I need to come to greater understanding of and peace with the exchanges I made for so long they didn’t even feel like choices. (Maybe they weren’t?) I probably need to do some grieving. I for sure need to do some healing. Maybe then I can come to feel more grounded in what remains and in what remains to be seen.
Sometimes it’s like my head is an interstate freeway, where my thoughts are speeding cars, and my hands are exit ramps, and this blog is a small town at the end of the ramp where the cars travel slowly and sometimes come to a stop.
(That’s a weird metaphor, isn’t it? Oh well. I’m going to run with it for the rest of this post even though it’s not the best one I’ve ever written.)
Although my life seems–no, is–slower than it’s been since 1977 or so, my head traffic has increased. There are so many more cars on the road. Just the ones about food alone have kept me from getting here in a while.
We don’t grow much food, but I want to grow more, which means I need to learn how to grow more. In the last month we’ve had a bounty of home-grown tomatoes (3 kinds) and basil and cucumbers. We also have a few other herbs (oregano, thyme, and parsley) we’ve grown for a long time, and we tried some onions but they never did much. Cane grew a plant full of hot peppers that were beautiful, but I can’t eat them because of my geographic tongue. (Yeah, it’s a thing. Who knew?)
Truly, there is nothing quite like the sharp, earthy scent of the tomato plants when I go out in the morning to pick some for our breakfast.
I’m sad to see our bounty winding down (much as I am also relieved that somewhat cooler temperatures have finally arrived) because the food we grow has so much more taste than the produce I buy. The other night I made a salad with our tomatoes and basil and some fresh mozzarella and it caused a traffic jam in my head with thoughts about time and health and money and sustainability and simplicity and leisure and privilege and gratitude and nourishment.
That salad nourished not only my body, but also the parts of me that crave beauty and art and purpose. Lately, nothing fills me up more than working in my kitchen in the late afternoon with sun streaming through the windows as I assemble pleasing tableaux of shape, color, and texture on both our cutting boards and our plates, preparing food to feed people I love.
I’m not saying anything new here, even to myself. But I’m knowing something in a different way–the way we know things from living them rather than from reading about them.
But speaking of reading, I’ve been reading lately about anti-inflammatory diets, something I have time to do now that I’m mostly not working. When I had my big episode of back pain this summer, the only thing that brought me relief was a strong course of steroids. It relieved not just my back, but my knee, my feet, and the psoriasis that plagues my ears and scalp. Usually, any kind of medical mishap sends me right into migraine, but I didn’t have any around that event. One of the many medical people I’ve spoken with suggested adopting an anti-inflammatory diet.
This week I started Googling “inflammation and ____,” filling in the names for the various diagnoses I’ve gotten over the years (endometriosis, PCOS, migraine, fibromyalgia, geographic tongue, psoriasis, vulvar vestibulitis and vulvodynia, thyroid nodules, plantar fasciitis) and one I haven’t been given but is in my family and I sure do recognize in myself (autism, as it manifests in women)–and damn if inflammation isn’t connected to just about every single one of them–as well as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, common by-products of long-term inflammation. (It’s not connected to fibromyalgia, a condition we know very little about, and which I’ve always considered to be a diagnosis given when doctors don’t really know what the hell is wrong with you but want to acknowledge that your pain is real.)
This reading/Googling/learning took me to a place where the traffic gets all snarled up with vehicles carrying all kinds of things–memory, trauma, work, achievement, health care, anger, grief, regret–but I’m going to let all those cars stay on the freeway for now. Back to food:
I found a book recently, The Lazy Genius Kitchen by Kendra Adachi, and while there are very few self-help books (any?) that have changed my life in lasting ways–especially those in what I think of as the “life hack” sub-genre–this one might be the rare book that does. Adachi takes a set of principles (that I guess she developed?) and applies them to our ways of being with food and food preparation. (She previously wrote a general book about how to be a lazy genius in general, and it appears to be a whole thing.)
I have struggled with food ever since I left my parents’ home and became responsible for feeding myself. (In college, if the Domino’s pizza guy was at the door and didn’t have a name for the order, it was assumed he was there for me.) As a child of the 70’s, I grew up eating a lot of processed/packaged food and never learned how to cook. (The latter is more about being a child of my mother than of the 70’s; it was always clear to me that cooking was a chore for her, and I was grateful that she didn’t require me to participate in it.) When I was married to my children’s father, he did all of the food prep, including shopping. I didn’t have to be truly responsible for food until I got divorced in my mid-40’s–and then I had to feed not only myself, but my children.
I felt kind of like a guerrilla fighter in the kitchen during those years. I was definitely an irregular soldier with limited resources fighting small-scale battles, doing whatever I could to meet my objective (end everyone’s hunger with as little complaint as possible while spending as little money as possible). I never had time to think deeply about food or figure out what I didn’t know about how to feed a family or manage a kitchen.
In spite of a kind of shiny, glib cleverness in the Lazy Genius book that might usually put me off, I really like it because its approach is all about figuring out what your values and priorities are and making decisions from there. (Again, not anything new, but somehow hitting me in a new way.) AND it has some really useful hacks I’ve already put to good use.
(Detour: Years and years ago, I was sitting in a teacher inservice about some [likely now-debunked] theory of learning styles, where I was told that learners could be divided into those who need to know why, those who need to know what, and those who need to know how. And one other that I can’t remember–but it was probably connected to another one of the 5 W’s. I immediately recognized myself as a why learner [bummer, as the majority of people apparently are what learners–the quadrant I cared least about–which meant I needed to tone down my deep teaching dives into the why of everything because I was losing my students who didn’t care about/need to know why] and if you are someone who both struggles in the kitchen and needs to have a good why for doing what you do, this might be the book for you.)
Adachi talks a lot about aligning our priorities with the season of life we’re living, something I much appreciate. During the season in which I was a financially-struggling full-time educator and single mom of two tweens (and later, blended-family mom of three particular-eater teens), I could not do food the way I’ve been doing it lately. Just. could. not. No self-help book in the world could have given me the resources I needed to feed my family an anti-inflammatory diet with mostly whole foods and few preservatives.
I am grateful that I now can, but I am also angry, sad, and regretful on behalf of my younger self (and my last-year self) and all of those who currently don’t have what they need to nourish themselves, in all meanings of that word. (Oh, look, here come the speeding capitalism trucks that look like they’re going to plow right into all the other cars on this freeway and flatten/scatter them. Let’s just pull over and let them go by us right now, shall we?)
Oh, hell. I seem to have lost anything resembling a path. But it’s been kind of nice to wander around blog town for a while again.
In conclusion, I have no real conclusions–yet–which is why I’ve been mostly staying in the traffic and not taking any exits. And this is just what’s been going on around food–or most of what’s been going on–but the more I think/write about it, the more I think that food is about everything. Food connects to all the big problems confronting us right now, and a lot of the littler ones, too. I have this feeling that if I could just figure out how to do food–or, at least, figure it out better–I’d know how to do a lot of other things as well. (And maybe use fewer dashes and parentheses while writing about it. Maybe.)
At any rate, thanks for being here. I’d love to know any of your thoughts/tips/wonderings/challenges about food. It’s nice to take a road trip with friends.
When I was a young woman, I happened upon a slim book of poetry called Mapping the Distance, by another young (but slightly older than me) woman named Alicia Hokanson. Many of the books that drift onto my shelves later leave them, but this one has remained for more than three decades. I felt some kind of kinship with this writer, back then: Both from Seattle, both teacher-writers, both in complicated relationships. There was something in her face in the author photo that felt a bit like looking in a mirror.
Something (I don’t remember what) a few weeks back caused me to do a search for Hokanson, and I discovered that in 2021 she published her second full-length work, Perishable World. I learned that in the intervening years, she had a long career as a secondary school teacher in Seattle. She retired from teaching in 2014, from a job she took in 1987, two years before her first book was published.
Where Mapping the Distance is the story of a young woman grappling with the challenges of early adulthood, Perishable World is (at its title hints) about life’s challenges at the opposite end of time’s fulcrum. Instead of a story filled with questions about choices, it’s a story filled with inevitable loss. I’m still reading it, so I can’t give a full accounting or review, but the writing is gorgeous. I can see, reading from both books, the development of craft and voice that occurred in the decades between them.
I can see that Hokanson is still, as she was then, just a little bit ahead of me on the journey. She’s offering, again, a map to places I can see but haven’t yet reached–not only as a human living in this particular corner of the planet, but as a writer, too.
Hokanson continued to write poetry for publication during her decades of teaching, but there is a gap of more than three decades between her two full-length books of poems. I have one book to my name, published in 2003. I remember telling someone that it took me more than a decade to write the poems in it and joking that I hoped it wouldn’t be another ten years before a second book. It’s now been nearly two decades, and I haven’t written even a handful of poems in the last ten years.
Still, I have been writing. Here, mostly, and although this writing doesn’t require what poetry does, there is something about committing words to an audience that hones craft.
There’s nothing like a book about what passes and endures to make a person think hard about what is and isn’t worth doing with what remains of a life, especially when it is written by someone whose journey contains important parallels to your own. I’m not sure what serendipity brought me back to this writer again, but this week I’m grateful for it–for the mapping of the long distance that a writing/teaching life can be.
It was back to school week here, but not for me. When my last year’s boss sent me a picture of Cane in his classroom on the first day of school, I felt some hard FOMO. Or something that was sad. Or mad.
I remember standing in front of a room of new students, being lit up the way his face is in the photo, and I missed it. It made me sadmad about my body and its limitations, and the public education system and its limitations, and time and its limitations, and change–inevitable, relentless, unceasing change.
Then the queen of England died, which also made me feel sadmad–about history and colonialism and the disappearing of things that I know are problematic (at best) but still are the things I’ve known for my whole life and even though I know (I know) what’s wrong with them I want to cling to them because at least I know them, and because they are mine, and because so many of the emerging unknown things right now are so unsettling/terrifying/overflowing with potential doom.
I miss having feelings about collective events that are simpler than mine seem able to be any more.
I went to visit my parents in the middle of the week because I can do that now and because honest-to-frickin’-God I am so deeply weary of temperatures in the 90s/100s (speaking of unsettling/terrifying/overflowing-with-potential-doom change) and my aching body/heart was craving marine air and coolness. And my mom. Aren’t I so lucky that I could get in a car and drive to a place where I can comfortably wear pants? And to parents who are still here (when so many of my contemporaries have lost theirs) and still them, in the ways that matter most?
The earth literally moved while I was there. Something woke me in the early morning hours, and just as I was drifting back to sleep I heard a loud “whuump” sort of noise and the whole building shook. I’ve experienced one significant earthquake in my life, and I wondered if that’s what was happening. Nothing else did, though, and I went back to easy sleep.
On Friday I returned to Oregon, where, in my county, the combination of high heat and high winds and wildfires was so threatening that power was shut off in multiple high-risk areas. We did not lose power, for which I am grateful. I have so much to be grateful for, but damn it was hard not to feel the opposite when I stepped out of my car to hot, arid, blowing air. On Saturday we woke to eerily orange-grey skies and a bloody sun that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie with cheap special effects.
We closed on our new-to-us house in Louisiana. I tried to set up our utilities by phone early in the week, but was told that it could not happen unless I physically came into the city hall building and gave them a check–which, of course, I could not do. I felt like a modern-day carpetbagger. I felt weird. I thought a lot of thoughts about what it means to be a good steward and a good neighbor and a good person. I thought about privilege and gentrification and colonialism and history. I felt grateful for family who have been helping us through this process (and were able to go to city hall and give them a check) and who are the reason we’re doing what we are, but I also felt guilty. And excited. And happy. And anxious. And even a little sadmad. All at the same time.
We went to a movie, where we watched Brian de Palma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill, which was horrifying in all the wrong ways. Not knowing any specifics about the plot, we thought it would be campy, nostalgic thriller fun, but the story centers on a “transexual” who murders women because of the character’s inner battle between their male and female selves. The male self emerges when sexually aroused and kills the female objects of their desire because they don’t want to be male. Or something like that. So, you know: transgender = psychopath. Also, sexual women die and/or are prostitutes who should expect to be degraded, and the mentally ill are demonic. It was horrible, and we found ourselves laughing in the wildly inappropriate way that people sometimes laugh at funerals.
Saturday, I made and froze tomato sauce using a recipe I got from Kate, after getting encouragement from Marian. It is a thing of amazement to me that I was able to make this using only ingredients I grew in our garden. My great-grandparents were farmers, but I grew up in the suburbs eating vegetables that came primarily from cans. I’m slowly developing skills my people once had but did not pass down.
Today I hope to make a pie with blackberries my mom and I picked from my parents’ yard. Their lower yard (see photo, above) is bordered by wild blackberries, and it’s been years since I have been able to time a visit with their ripening. I was sure I was too late again–they tend to peak in August–but we found many that were just right for harvesting. It was like picking blackberries always is; the most promising clumps are just out of reach, and you think “if only…” more than once. A few times you stretch your limits, grasping for what you can’t easily get to, and you curse yourself and the thicket when the brambles catch your sleeves and scratch your legs and prick the tender pads of your fingers. As always, for me, picking these berries reminded of the early August evening in 1981 when I went blackberry picking with my grandma, her sister, and a cousin. As we walked down to the railroad tracks near my grandparents’ house where the berries grew wild, my grandmother and great-aunt marched the way they had when they were on the VFW drill team, laughing at themselves and the embarrassment they were causing us younger ones, who wished fiercely that they would not be so weird in public. It’s an outing I remember so clearly because later that night they would take my grandfather to the hospital with what would turn out to be a fatal heart attack, and although I would later see my grandmother laugh again, eventually, I would never see her laugh quite like that again, ever.
I’m grateful for the memory. I’m grateful for the berries that always bring it back to me, even though their brambles scratch and snag and poke, and their fruit inevitably stains.
I’m grateful to be alive now, today, in a world that still has beautiful blue water that I can travel to. I’m grateful to have shelters near those I love most, with abundant food and means to preserve it. I’m grateful that some of the things that need to change do, eventually, and grateful that even though the ground trembles and the walls around me shake, sometimes (most times) nothing falls and I am able to to sleep, secure in my belief that in the morning I’ll be able to figure out what happened.
Our tomatoes are going bananas. We can’t keep up with them. I don’t know the things I need to know to preserve them, and we can’t eat all of them before they rot. (If you know me in real life, let me know if you’d like some.)
They are SO good. So much more flavor than grocery-store tomatoes, even the ones at the produce stand that sells local goods. Last night we had a dinner of tomatoes with basil and balsamic vinegar, accompanied by ciabatta and fresh mozzarella.
This week was the first in our almost new-normal. Cane had his back-to-school inservice days, and for the first time in 32 years, it was not back-to-school inservice week for me. I am doing a small curriculum development job for his school (the one I taught in last year), so I did go to some meetings, but it was nothing compared to how this week has felt for me in the last 3 decades.
It felt amazing. Freeing. Calm. Busy in a good way.
This week we will close on the house we’re buying near Cane’s family in Louisiana (how is this my life?), and I will make a quick trip north to see my parents. Cane’s year with students will begin. I’m behind on my usual online reading, but this morning I checked in with The Spectacled Bean, whose latest post contained a link to a productivity method quiz. It was wonderful to take it thinking of my workplace as home. I have the same old primary dilemma (prioritizing, because there are so many things I want to do), but it feels so different to have this struggle in a workplace that is healthy and affirming.
I know how lucky I am, to have “problems” of overabundance.
I don’t have much more to share today. Now that school is starting, I hope to figure out a routine that includes time for writing again. Sending wishes for the right kinds of abundance to all of you who check in here. Would love to know how you are beginning the transition to a new season.