Just because you can

I thought I had spurned productivity culture. I thought I had embraced simplicity and small-life living. I thought I had divorced worthiness from accomplishment. I was wrong.

When, 19 days before Christmas, in the wake of a concussion that wasn’t healing, my doctor banned me from screens and driving and reading and even freaking jigsaw puzzles, prescribing near-total rest for two weeks, my first thought was: How am I going to get everything done? This was quickly followed by: What am I going to do all day?

After returning home from that appointment, I stretched out on the couch in our front room. Waning winter sunlight filled the space. I took a few deep breaths.

In-2-3-4, out-2-3-4.

Each time I expelled air from my body, as I felt my diaphragm sink into my spine, I released another thing from my to-do list. Our tree was in a stand in the corner of the room, but it was bare. Presents were not selected or purchased, much less wrapped and put in the mail. Dinner wasn’t made, the bathroom wasn’t cleaned, and the laundry wasn’t put away.

So be it (2-3-4).

While I’d felt some panic with the doctor, what I was beginning to feel was an emotion that surprised me: relief. I had permission to not do all the things. Doctor’s orders.

Only then did I begin to feel and understand how much difficulty I’d been having since my fall 3 weeks earlier. Despite breaking my wrist and seriously hitting my head, I went to work the day afterward. I’d been plowing through all my tasks and obligations ever since, as if my cast and recurring headaches were just minor inconveniences to be tolerated and navigated.

The next day, I ordered a coloring book and a set of nice markers. (Coloring was allowed.) I broke my screen fast just long enough to check out several audiobooks from the library. I finally broke down and switched my Spotify account to Premium, so I could listen to music without interruption from ads.

My days took on a new rhythm. After seeing Cane off in the morning, I’d sit at the table with a cup of tea and color while listening to music or a book. I’d then take care of some kind of household task–light cooking or cleaning or decorating for the holidays–and then I’d need to sit or lie down for a bit. (That might turn into a mini-nap.) Lunchtime followed that, which was followed by a real nap. Late afternoon would bring more coloring or some other activity involving pencils, paper, paint, or thread, usually with a snack and more tea. Then Cane would be home.

“I’m living like a toddler,” I told him after a few days. “Meals are events, I need naps every day, I play with toys, I have easy chores, and I rarely wear shoes.” I took to wearing a garment that is really nothing more than a soft, voluminous onesie (but without crotch snaps, which might have made it perfect).

When I wasn’t bumping into difficult thoughts about aging, mortality, and what constitutes a self, or chafing against my frustrated desires to read and write, the time was, in its own, weird way, kind of wonderful. Instead of spending our evenings zoned out in front of the TV, Cane and I began spending our evenings being together in a way that felt more present. We’d turn on music and he’d read, and I’d stretch out on the couch and just…be. I’d think about things while looking at a blank wall and listening to the music and…rest. He began painting again, something he hasn’t done for years, and I loved watching him paint while I did…nothing.

Although it was exhausting to be exhausted all the time, and I missed being able to drive and go out and see people as I was used to doing, and it was truly frightening to lose my ability to do so much of what makes me what I think of as me, there were aspects of this new way of being that were deeply satisfying. Just being able to sleep! I was sleeping long and deeply, for the first time in, maybe, decades. I was resting when I felt tired. Doing crafty things without feeling like I really should be doing something else–something more useful, or potentially useful. Something I am better at doing.

At some point, I realized that, if I chose to, I could live the toddler lifestyle even after my brain healed. I realized that, for the most part, I could have been living it all fall. I am (mostly) retired! I have been for more than two years! I retired early so that I could rid my life of toxic stress! And then I realized how sad it was that–despite all I thought I had done and changed to live in a healthier way and re-program myself from harmful cultural ideals regarding the relationship between work, productivity, and value–it took a freaking broken bone and brain injury for me to finally give myself permission to truly simplify my life. To truly care for myself.

It took that for me to see how tired and stressed I’ve still been, and how much I have not given myself permission to simply exist, despite my intellectual understanding of all the -isms at play in thinking that I need to be useful to justify my existence (namely, capitalism, sexism, and ableism). It goes without saying (but, if you’re like me, maybe I need to say it) that I am not talking about shirking things that must be done and singing la-la-la while things fall down around you. I am not writing without awareness that sometimes, often, we cannot care for ourselves as we truly need to be cared for because of broken systems and other limitations we live within. I know that some of you are living through nearly untenable situations right now, the kind that break and remake you, and people you love are absolutely counting on you to be there for them. And you have been and will be, just as I have when needed in those ways.

I am talking about how we live when our lives are what we think of as normal, when we are not responding to active crises. I’m talking about what we do when we have pockets of time (even very small ones) that we can choose to fill with rest or quiet or joy, and why we so often fill them with numbing agents (looking at you, social media) or tasks that may not need to be done. What I am saying is, even though I was living as a toddler, the things that really needed to be done did get done, and the ones that didn’t get done didn’t matter.

One morning in the dreamy space of days between Christmas and the new year, I found myself lingering at the breakfast table with my daughter and her husband. He was with us for only two short weeks before he had to return to the country he lives in, a continent and ocean away. Our time together is scarce, precious. We were sitting and talking, about nothing and everything, and I had the thought: Oh, I should probably get up and do something.

Then I thought: Why?

Then I thought: We are doing something. We are forming bonds, we are enjoying each other’s company, we are replenishing ourselves, we are making memories. We are being together. And I settled into where we were, grateful for the realizations my time of rest have given me, glad I didn’t get up and start bustling around the kitchen. It got cleaned, eventually, when our conversation reached a natural ending.

I want to think that I am going to be able to hold onto the silver lining of this experience forever, but I know its lessons will probably slip away from me. These seem to be truths I need to learn over and over again. So what I am saying to you here is as much for myself as it is for anyone else. And this is what it is:

Try pretending that something has happened to incapacitate you, and see what you really need to do and what you might let fall away. Then let it fall. Don’t wait for the broken bone, the brain injury, the catastrophic accident, the terminal diagnosis. Give yourself permission to take a nap, color a picture, bake cookies, make art (even bad art—maybe especially bad art), spend a whole morning–a whole day–eating and talking with someone you love. Do it because life is precious, and you–like a wildflower or a songbird or a even a worm–deserve joy and rest just for being alive. Do it because our work is long but our years are short, and one day you won’t be able to do those things. 

Do it just because you can. 

A technical note: Rita’s Notebook is moving to Substack, with a new name and slightly more focus. You can find it (and this post) here. I’d really appreciate it if comments/conversation about the post can happen there.

I’ll publish in both places for a bit, but I’ve made the decision to abandon the WordPress ship. This site has long had tech issues that need fixing, but I have neither the skills to fix them nor the desire to acquire them. If you’ve been reading here, I do hope you’ll follow me there and subscribe. (One of my tech issues is that I no longer know who my subscribers are or even how many people click on a post.) Although many Substack publications require paid subscriptions for full access, mine will not. I’m happy to answer any questions anyone has about the decision to change platforms.

December reflections

On December 6, my doctor told me to go home and not use my brain for at least 2 weeks. No reading, no writing, no driving, and–especially–no screens.

“Just rest,” she said.

“But what am I supposed to do all day?” I asked. She suggested walks in nature, meditation, long baths, relaxing music. I felt a little panicky. I remembered my son, age 3, telling me that his imagination was his best toy because he could never lose it or break it. I realized I’d broken my best toy, one I’ve always taken for granted.

That night, I slept for 10 hours. A few hours after waking from that sleep, I took a 3-hour nap. The doctor had told me that my brain needed rest to mend itself, and when I woke from that nap I made a decision to surrender to its need.

A multitude of lessons, realizations, and gifts have come with necessary stillness during what are usually the busiest weeks of this busy season. I hope I will remember them when I am able to really write again. Normally, I would capture them, process them, interrogate them, and share them through words, but words have been mostly off-limits. I began capturing images with my phone camera, hoping they will help me remember as much as words have always done.

I’m sharing them here, without commentary. Make of them what you will, make of them something that is meaningful to you. I have been learning how true it is that, often, less truly is more.

I know it’s a common practice to choose a word for the year at the beginning of it, as a way of setting intentions. Reflection has always more useful to me than resolution, so I have been looking backward rather than forward, thinking about what might be a fitting word for the year 2023. I’ve landed upon breaking. This, of course, includes breaking down or apart or up, but also: breaking in, breaking out, breaking open. So much breaking open in the past 12 months.

Please keep me company in this quiet space by telling me what word you’d choose as your 2023 word of the year. (It may take me a bit to respond. I’m still on limited screen-time rations. But I really would love to hear from you.)

A little PSA on head injuries

When I fell while skating, my most immediate concern was the hit I took to my head. I went to an urgent care clinic to have it checked out, but the people I saw there were more concerned about my wrist. I didn’t have any of the obvious symptoms of a concussion or other head injury (no loss of consciousness, no vomiting, no confusion), but my wrist was a little broken and required a cast.

The large lump on my head that emerged soon after the fall dissipated within a day. Although a very tender spot remained, my head seemed to be mostly a non-issue. I carried on with my life as normal, working as a substitute teacher a few days, traveling to visit my parents over the Thanksgiving holiday, writing posts here, reading, etc.

About 12 days out from the fall, however, I realized I was struggling. I kept having persistent, low-grade headaches that weren’t migraines. I was exhausted, even on days when I didn’t do much. And the sore spot on my skull wasn’t getting any better. I contacted my doctor’s office–just to be sure there wasn’t something I should be doing or having checked out–and was told I likely have post-concussive syndrome. As it turns out, it’s possible to have a concussion but symptoms that don’t appear immediately. I never knew concussion could work this way or that there is such a thing as post-concussive syndrome. Thought this might be useful information to share.

The treatment is rest and no screens and no reading. I spent all of this week following those orders. I’m happy to report that I can see progress. Headaches are gone, and my tolerance for screens is improving.

This whole experience has been an education in several ways. I can’t write about it now, but soon. I hope. One lesson is that plans are really just hopes. You never know when or how they might be upended. Take care of yourselves.

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.

Why we’re not going to be Halloween Scrooges

I was going to skip Halloween this year. I made plans with a friend to go somewhere–anywhere–away from home so that I could keep the lights turned off and avoid trick-or-treaters. The candy has become so expensive, and I didn’t want to buy and carve pumpkins. It’s hard to know how many will actually come. Some years we get a fair number. Last year, when it rained, we only had two or three and at the end of the night I was left with a big bowl of candy that I didn’t want.

I just wasn’t feeling it.

Over the weekend, though, we had friends for dinner. They are Jewish, and as we talked about what is happening to them, for them, I found myself revisiting my Halloween plan. I found myself thinking about community, and what it means to be a member of one. In our conversation, I told my story about a rift with my next-door neighbor. More than a year ago we found ourselves on different sides of a conflict over the creation of a project to house unhoused people in our neighborhood, and since then my formerly friendly neighbor avoids me. She once turned around and walked in the opposite direction when she saw us approaching as we were out walking on a sunny evening after dinner. She is Israeli, spending part of every year with family there, and I have wanted to check in on her, offer something that would be helpful, but I haven’t had the courage to reach out.

I found myself revisiting memories of my childhood Halloweens.

There was the year my brother wanted to be a sprinkler. My brother, who is significantly autistic (though we didn’t know that until he was an adult), was fascinated with sprinklers. He could sit and watch them for what seemed like hours to me. He loved them so much that he would go into neighbors’ yards and pull out their hoses and turn their sprinklers on. (It was the 70’s, a different era. There were few fences and every kid we knew was free-range.) Our neighbors on one side complained, but the neighbors on the other side, the Fryes, were kind about it.

My mother was stumped about how to turn my brother into a sprinkler, but eventually she figured out how to do it. She made him a green cape, then fashioned a wave sprinkler (his favorite kind) from styrofoam and tin foil for him to wear on his head. Most people did not know what he was; many guessed that he was an alien. But Mr. Frye? As soon as he opened the door, he began laughing. Really laughing. Belly-laughing. He knew right away what Joe was, and that he knew made me like him even more than I already did. (The Fryes had two plum trees, and they gave me a standing invitation to climb them with my books in hand and to sit and read and eat as many plums as I’d like.)

Both Mr. and Mrs. Frye had cleft palates, and so their speech could be a little hard for me to understand. They knew, as our family did, too, what it was like to be judged and misunderstood for simply being who you are. What it was like to be treated meanly by those who more easily fit into society’s norms.

Another year, perhaps the last good year before invading hormones began to change Halloween for me, my group of girlfriends came to my neighborhood to trick or treat with me. We were a loud horde of shrieking tweenagers just beginning to glimpse what life might become as we kept running ahead of my mother.

We turned into one yard I was unfamiliar with, running and shouting and kicking leaves down a long front path to a small house. An old man opened the door to us, holding a finger to his lips as he waved us into the house. That was strange, and I felt a little uneasy, but we all trooped in. “Don’t wake the little one,” he cautioned, and I saw a young girl asleep on a couch, a hand-knit blanket draped over her body. There was a fire burning in a fireplace and old-fashioned music playing low from a radio. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my books, one that told a story set in a different time.

“Just a moment,” he said, and went into an adjoining room. He returned with a tray of caramel apples, each wrapped with the kind of plastic wrap our mothers all had in their kitchens. “Here you go,” he said, and told us that we should each choose one. We each slipped an apple into our bags, quietly, and moved to the door. I didn’t want to leave. Something about this house, so different from my own and from all the others we’d visited, felt so good to me.

Back out at the road, by mother was waiting anxiously. She asked me why we’d gone into the house.

“He asked us to,” I said.

“Don’t do that again,” she cautioned. I showed her the treat–one unlike any other I’d ever received–and she told me that I would have to throw it away because it was home-made. I protested, describing what the house had been like, what he’d been like, but she was firm. “We don’t know him,” she said, “and we can’t accept those kinds of treats from people we don’t know.”

I knew she was wrong–I knew it!–but I did what I was told, keeping only this memory that is still vivid nearly 50 years later.

After dinner with our friends, I thought of the children in my neighborhood, the boys who shoot baskets in the street and ride their bikes and skateboards in a loop in front of our house. They are Russian, and they’ve never come trick-or-treating, but there are others in our little part of this large city who have. I thought about how hard so many things are for so many children, and about my fears for the future they will be living their lives in.

Then I texted my friend and asked if instead of going out she’d like to come over for dinner and help me hand out candy. Ours is a neighborhood that doesn’t see a lot of kids on Halloween, even when the weather is good. We are tucked between two major thoroughfares. Many of the folks who live here are older, and a good number of the younger ones are members of cultures that don’t celebrate Halloween in the ways I traditionally have. Ours is the opposite of a destination neighborhood, one that people drive their kids to because they are full of large, decorated houses and streets filled with bands of costumed kids and parents. Even on a good year, our streets are sparsely filled.

But there are kids who come, and they live here.

So, Cane and my friend and I are going to eat soup and have a fire and maybe play a board game. When I asked her about changing our plan, my friend offered to bring some candy to add to our treat bowl.

I know that staying home and answering the door to families in my community won’t change the situation in Israel/Gaza. It won’t ease my friends’ or neighbors’ pain. It won’t house those without houses or fix the climate or our broken political system or any of the systems that make some neighborhoods a destination for Halloween and others something else. But it will help some people feel good right here, where we are all living together, even if just for an evening. Maybe it will make us something other than total strangers to at least some of our neighbors, so that if one of them at some time needs or wants something I can give, they’ll be more easily able to accept it.

In the work I’m doing with a school this year, we’ve been reading, thinking and talking about how to cultivate critical hope in children who are growing up in trauma. One of the keys to doing so is to provide “material hope,” and that “comes from the sense of control young people have when they are given the resources to deal with the forces that affect their lives.”

Maybe I’m pinning too much on a welcoming house and a generous treat, but a material gift that is an expression of love–one that says, “your neighborhood, too, has adults who want to care for you”–is probably worth the price of a few pumpkins and bags of candy.

A little visit from the ghost of Halloween Past…

A few (kind of random) good reads

Woke up Friday to a long read (appropriately) from Longreads about the literary world and online writing: Poets and the Machine. It was part history of online writing and part musing about why the literary world has shunned such as having literary merit, and it made me feel interested in writing here in a way that I haven’t felt in awhile. It reminded me of the possibilities for online writing that I got excited about back in the late 90’s (blogs are about to turn 30 years old!), and it got my brain turning. I felt a little spark, some ember of something within me flare.

On the subject of writing here, and online in general, I’m finding that more and more of my online reading is happening on Substack. (Head here to learn more about Substack.) Substack is a free newsletter service, but it feels (and looks) a lot like writing-focused, old school blogging to me. As my annual renewal for WordPress approaches, I’m thinking of shifting over to it. I’m not much interested in charging for my writing (what Substack is built for), but I like the idea of a free platform without ads.

One of my favorite Substack’s is Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study, which I do pay ($5/month) for. I learn a lot about topics I care about, and there is a robust community there; both make the small payment well worth the price for me. (Much of her content is free, but you do have to pay to be part of the community.) It is, as she regularly asks readers to keep it, “one of the good places on the internet.” Petersen has some regular paid-subscriber only prompts that are goldmines of great info. My favorite is “what are you reading?” which fuels my holds request list at the library, and I’ve found some great shows through “what are you watching?” A recent prompt to share favorite soup recipes yielded so many soups I want to try making.

Through a recent post there, I found another Substack this week that also blew air on an ember I thought might have extinguished: Rebecca’s Your House Machine. I particularly enjoyed “How you spend your time is who you are” and “Shield your eyes from your stuff–yes, really.” My neurodivergent self felt so seen by the latter one, and it helped me understand why questions about home interiors are so compelling to me that I once (with Cane) had a whole blog just about making a home. Basically, she’s writing what I wish I had written. (Maybe I did? Maybe I will again? We’ll see.)

I think it was Rebecca’s newsletter that led me to Laura Fenton’s Living Small (a sample post that I really appreciate: “A book that changed me (and how I wish to ‘influence’ you“). Most of the newsletters I’m reading I found through other newsletters–another thing that reminds me of the early years of blogging.

A few others that I think some of you might like:

Sari Botton’s Oldster, which is about “exploring what it means to travel through time in a human body.” I love this one, as my mind is being blown on a regular basis by the intersections of time and bodies and what it means to be human.

Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vajenda, an “an evidence-based hub for reproductive health matters.” Most of my reproductive system left the building years ago, but I find so much valuable information here. And I like the writing.

Kelton Wright’s Shangrilogs, which is “a peephole into a different life — one centered around small town living, high-alpine adventure, and deep dives into nature.” Wright is a Millenial living in a small mountain town, and I’m living vicariously through her engaging writing. (For the record, I could never actually live her life, but I like to think I could. That’s why I appreciate being able to read about it.)

So tell me (if you’re so inclined)…

Anything you’re reading online that you think others might like/appreciate?

Any thoughts on blogs vs. Substack?

Would it make any difference to you if I started over on a new platform?

What would you like Rita to write about? (Not promising anything, but this blog is feeling a little too aimless to me…maybe that’s why I’ve been ignoring it.)

(Also, one last read, about Lilla Irvin Leach, without whom there would be no Leach Botanical Gardens, where this photo was taken last week. I wish someone would make a movie about her.)

Simple things, done beautifully

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about my rekindled romance with ice skating. Me + skating was full of what a friend of mine calls “new relationship energy.” I was positively giddy with possibility, and it felt amazing.


Those first-stage-of-love endorphins have died down, and a part of me was relieved to take a break from skating when we left to spend the summer in Louisiana. I hadn’t been able to skate consistently for several months, and my progress had stalled. I wasn’t sure about what kind of skater I wanted to be, and I was struggling with all the beliefs I’ve internalized about productivity and how they rubbed up against the time I was taking to do an activity that I saw as being primarily about my own enjoyment. I just wasn’t sure where I wanted the relationship to go, to the point that I was wondering if I even wanted to continue it.

Still, I returned to the ice in mid-August. The first few times were rough! I loved seeing people I’d missed, but I’d lost strength. I’d lost moves I previously had. I’d lost stamina. I made myself stay for an hour, but after only 20 minutes what I really wanted was to go home.

What a gift. For all that I know–truly!–that many of my feelings about productivity and time stem from problematic socialization, I have a really hard time doing something that’s just for me, just because I want to. The quick deterioration of balance, strength and stamina, despite a summer of hard, physical work, helped me see that skating isn’t just fun for me; it is a way for me to maintain physical functioning as I age. Because I’ve become part of a community of skaters, it also provides the mental health benefits that come from connection and belonging. It ticks off two of the seven keys to longevity that mark the lifestyles of those living in blue zones. I got off the ice my first day back more committed than I’d ever been to make space in my life for skating.

Committing to the relationship was only the first hurdle. I quickly realized that I still had to figure how to be in the relationship.

There are a lot of options for adult skaters–testing, competitions, clubs, classes, private lessons, etc. There are different kinds of skating a person might focus on–freestyle (jumps and spins), dance (solo or paired), moves in the field. I’d thought about and dabbled in different ways of skating since first returning to the ice. Exploring was good and I’m glad I tried on different goals and ways of being a skater, but my lack of a clear focus contributed to my feelings of ennui. Then, a long thread in an online forum this August full of older skaters talking about life-altering skating injuries gave me serious pause about my attempts to return to jumping and spinning. Did I really want to risk my ability to do all kinds of things I now take for granted just so I could do a waltz jump that was likely never going to look or feel the way it did 45 years ago? A few weeks ago, while talking about possible goals with another skater, I said, “I think I’d rather do simple things beautifully than hard or risky things I can barely get through.” As soon as I heard myself, I knew I’d figured it out, my new skating manifesto:

Simple things, done beautifully.

I want to be a strong skater. I want to skate with speed. I want to skate without fear. I want to skate gracefully. I can do all of those things if I’m skating simply.

At my next lesson, I shared this way of thinking about it with my coach. “You often say you don’t want to nit-pick,” I told him, “but I think I want you to nit-pick. I don’t want to just execute a move. I want to master it.” He took me back to working on basics.

I then had one of the best lessons I’ve ever had. Focusing on moving beautifully broke through a block in understanding I’d had about doing crossovers, one of the simplest moves there is. I was able to do crossovers more powerfully than I had previously, and with less fear.

That felt so good, I started thinking about how it might be to do other simple things beautifully. I followed Kate Lebo’s process for making chicken pot pie, one night roasting a chicken and making gravy, and the next roasting vegetables (using herbs from our garden) and making pie crust. The third night I put all the parts together into a pie, and it was pretty amazing. Pot pie is one of the simplest dishes there is, and Lebo showed me how to make it beautifully. Now, I’m wondering how I might apply this way of thinking and being to everything–to my relationships, to work, to writing, to making a home.

I’ve been thinking particularly about how this idea can serve me within the context of aging. My return to skating has, like nothing else, made concrete the disconcerting abstraction that my body is going to deteriorate (if I’m lucky) before it dies. I know in new ways that the longer I live, the more I will lose of the physical being I once was. Losing things is hard. It has been hard to accept lost abilities that will never return. It has been hard to lose my youthful conviction that if I just work hard enough, my body can do whatever I want it to. I know that confronting such kinds of loss this late in life is a sign of my good fortune. I’m grateful for it, but loss is still loss. I think, perhaps, that one way to find peace with it all is to think about how to do fewer things more beautifully.

Doing simple things beautifully wasn’t always an option when I was younger and in the thick of parenting and teaching, because doing things more beautifully doesn’t necessarily mean doing them more easily. I lived those years in survival mode, getting done what I had to get done in whatever ways I could manage. My life was complicated, and it was often far from beautiful. Chicken pot pie from scratch for a weeknight dinner was not something I had any capacity for.

But, now I do, at least some of the time. Again, what a gift.

It is nice, in this stage of life that can be so marked by loss, to find things we might gain. I love the paradox of gaining by letting go, of expanding what’s possible by lessening our expectations. In my first identity as a skater, I was someone who advanced quickly. I was “a natural.” My coach would show me how to do something, and I could just do it. Big goals were in the realm of possibility. I have had to let go of that identity. I am not that skater now. I’m never going to land (much less attempt) a double salchow again, and it takes me much longer to improve when learning something new, but a strong, sweeping, beautiful, simple swing roll, for example, is definitely within reach.

Isn’t that a gift, too, to be be able to find paths to growth, even as we become, in some ways, diminished? I think it is, and I’ll take it–to my garden, to my friendships, to my home, and even to my writing here.

I would love to hear how any of these thoughts land on you, and of how you do simple things beautifully.

(Tomatoes picked yesterday from our simple garden. We grow only tomatoes, a few herbs, blueberries, and raspberries.)