Catch and release

Last week was a tough one. Not hard in any life-wracking sense, just tough. No illness or tragedy or loss. Just one of those weeks in which your work seems maybe mostly futile, a game of whack-a-mole you’re never going to win, or a dike springing 10 times the holes you have fingers to fill. One of those weeks in which your to-do list becomes so much longer than your capacity to get ‘er done that you abandon any idea you had of being able to stay on top of things.

There’s a gift in that, you know. When doing All the Things is still within the realm of the possible, most of us push ourselves hard to do them. We give up such things as sleep, healthy meals, and time with friends and family. Because All the Things are Really, Really Important, and we want to do them. On Wednesday, however, I realized I’d crossed the border into the realm of the impossible (despite having given up all three of those things in the previous few days), which is why I gave myself permission to leave early Thursday afternoon for library conference starting early Friday morning at the Oregon coast. I mean, if I couldn’t get it all done anyway, there wasn’t really anything to lose, right?

I treated myself to a late lunch at a favorite spot, and I hit the road heading west in full daylight.

And when I got to where I was going, I saw this:

I wasn’t ready for my conference presentation on Saturday, but I did not hole up in my room to get ‘er dun. I threw on my sneakers and high-tailed it to the beach, clinging to the words my friend and colleague Heather had given me that morning: “Give it all to the waves. Let them carry it out to sea for you.”

That is a thing easier said than done.

I was a little melancholy, despite the glorious sun and waves and sand. Maybe, truth be told, because of them. There was a time when I would’ve gone to my conference with a companion, and it hurt to be in such a place alone, with no one to whom I could exclaim, “Isn’t this wonderful!”

There was a family on the beach, their little ones digging with shovels and laughing, their drawers droopy with wet sand, and I missed the children I once got to raise and take to beaches on cold, sunny autumn days.

There was a small dog racing in circles, his whole body quivering with joy, and I remembered how our now-geriatric dogs used to run in just the same way at our river, paws and sand flying.

It was all so gorgeous it hurt, and I started wondering (of course) if those children would have such beaches to stroll on 50 years from now, when they will be my age, or if they would be able to get to them even if they are still here, in the same ways they are now. I wondered if there will still be gulls crying in the air, and mussels clinging to rocks, the same tides going in and out. Even though I know the oceans will likely exist in some form long beyond any of us on the beach will, everything felt fragile and transitory and doomed.

That is when I saw it: A flash of pink in the distance. I took a deep breath (how many friends have reminded me in how many moments to just breath?) and kept walking toward it.

As I got closer to the pink, I saw it was a sprite of a girl, a dashing, dancing speck who clearly was not thinking of planetary change or the passing of things. She was chasing a seagull. Or, rather, dancing with one. It was clear that the gull did not mind her machinations, would flap its wings just enough to get beyond her reach–which was just enough to keep her thinking that maybe, maybe she might catch it.

When the gull flapped, her arms flapped, too, and her legs lifted from the ground, almost like the bird’s shadow or echo. I breathed, and watched the girl and the gull, and listened to the waves, and let it all go: the frustrations, the loneliness, the longing, the fear of future loss.

Heading back to my room and my presentation prep, I passed an older man, alone like me. He caught my eye, smiled, said, “Isn’t it a lovely evening for a walk?”

“It’s gorgeous!” The words burst from me. I am not a words-bursting-from kind of person, usually. I tend not to gush over gorgeousness. I knew the words weren’t just about the beauty of the sun or ocean: It was all of the evening’s beauty, and all of us in it, sharing it.

I was so grateful for that man, a fellow human who could see what I was seeing and who was in it with me, even if only fleetingly. My gratitude even included all the things troubling me; though I’d let them go, they hadn’t disappeared, and I could see then that all of dark, hard things were part of what made the beautiful parts as shiny as they were. There’s something about knowing that everything will pass–that the children will grow, the dogs will slow, the girl will become too self-conscious to dance in public with the birds, and that the man and I will die–that makes it all precious: It’s knowing we can’t catch and hold all the things we love any more than that girl could catch her bird, but that, like her, we try to, anyway.

And isn’t that, really, what the moles and dikes and all our frantic efforts with them are about, too? Trying to catch and protect and preserve what we find beautiful, feeling hopeless when we realize we can’t in the ways we want.

Today, Sunday, as I’m back at home getting ready for another week–the washer running and the counter filled with groceries that need to be put away–I can see that I didn’t quite understand what letting the waves have my worries would mean. I gave them by troubles, yes, but the waves didn’t carry them away. Instead, they washed them clean and tossed them back up on the sand–right where I could reach down to pick them up and put them back in my pocket again, which is right where they belong.

Ten years

2009>>>2019

Sometimes a picture isn’t worth a thousand words, even when there’s two of them. There’s so much they don’t show.

My Facebook feed has contained more than one response to the challenge to post a first profile picture with the most recent, presumably so we can see how hard the last 10 years have aged all of us. (I prefer the framing of one of my friends, who has re-cast it as a 10 years of aging celebration–because so many who were here 10 years ago aren’t now.)

This, of course, got to me to look back at my profile pictures. My very first one was posted about 10 years ago. I don’t think it looks all that different from the one I updated to just a week or so ago (but before I whacked off most of my hair). I’m not quite sure what to make of that.

I feel as if the past five years have most certainly aged me. Hard. Some part of me is a little disappointed to see that they haven’t distinctively marked me–as if, perhaps, the years couldn’t have been as significant as they feel if they don’t show on my face in a more concrete way.

On the other hand, I look at that woman from 10 years ago and recognize that she and the one on the right are, in fundamental ways, in the exact same place: Entering into what feels like a new life, equal parts sad, hopeful, and scared. Trying to make the best of it, to embrace the lessons and release the regrets. What does that mean? That I have made no real progress at all in a decade? Is that why my face looks mostly the same?

Earlier today, I read a post from Jena Schwartz on the idea of having one’s shit together–which is really about the false notion that we can reach some state of stasis, in which we will have arrived…somewhere. Some place we can count on being stable and fixed and right. But, as she says, there is no true end or arrival to anything, as long as we are still living:

The thing with end times is that they aren’t really the end. What will come after this moment of chaos and crumbling?

The woman on the left, she knew she was in the end times and was scrambling her way to what would come after the chaos and crumbling. She didn’t even let the dust settle before she began rebuilding, which would probably explain some of what came later.

Five years after what I thought was my end time, a friend was going through a difficult divorce. (Is there any other kind?) We talked about it a lot, and many of those conversations recalled for me my own experience of ending the family I’d made with and for my children, and how disorienting and uncomfortable and flat-out painful that time had been. I remember going home one day after one of those conversations and saying to the person I lived with, “I am so thankful to be past that, to know that the foundation of my life is solid.” Even as I said it, though, and believed it, I felt an urge to knock on wood or to take the words back, as if saying them out loud would jinx me. It was a time I now know was the very beginning of what would become my next important end, and maybe some part of me could only intuit then what the woman on the right understands fully now: Nothing is guaranteed.

We are all one accident, diagnosis, situation, revelation away from chaos.

Despite good, hard efforts and hopes and wishes and prayers and affirmations and anything else we might throw at a problem, including money and therapy, some just can’t be solved–and everything falls apart, even the things we hold most dear. While there are moments of mistakes and words that become regrets, often it’s ultimately no one’s fault, not really. It’s just how it is.

What to do with that knowledge? It can feel like a burden, but if you view it–like this challenge–through the right frame, you can see the gift in it.

For the woman on the right, it’s a relief to know that she can stop chasing after a certain kind of security. She can let go of the idea that she’s some kinds of failure because she’s never been able to keep it. She can live more in the day and moment she’s in, appreciating what she’s got right now because she knows that, more likely than not, a day will come when she doesn’t have it, and there’s nothing she can (and therefore should) do about that. On a bright, cold winter weekend day, she can both feel sad about what’s passed and comforted as she looks up and feels kinship with trees stripped bare of their leaves, marveling at their backdrop of sapphire sky and the sun that illuminates every lovely knob, twist, and wrinkle of their branches, knowing that another spring is coming, and soon.

Like a lifetime of paper cuts

I was 10 years old the first time I got cat-called–not that I had that name for it then.

I was in my front yard, wearing a bathing suit, playing an imaginary game with my small ceramic dogs and horses in the dirt under the fir trees that grew in the front corner of our corner lot. I really loved that bathing suit, my first two-piece. It was hot pink, and cute. I felt free in it in a way that I didn’t in a one-piece.

There was a stop sign at that corner; a car full of teen-age boys stopped and the hooting and hollering and laughing began. I don’t remember exactly what they said. What I remember is my surprise and shame. What I remember is that they said something specifically about my bathing suit, and I never felt as free in it again. What I remember is packing up my little dogs and horses and going inside to play, even though the trees’ roots created hills and valleys that they loved to run over.

In the grand scheme of hurts, this one–and all the many others of its nature that followed for years and years–was not a big deal. Maybe, especially in the moment, especially if looked at singly, it had an impact on par with a paper cut. And who is going to make a fuss about a paper cut? No one. We all get them. They sting like a mothertrucker, but they aren’t a big deal. They’re just part of how it is, with paper.

You know, it’s not like I go around feeling fearful of paper all the time. No one does. I mean, I’m an educator and a writer. I love paper. I need paper. Hard to imagine my life without paper. But then–never when I’m expecting it, usually when I’m being a little careless about something, when my mind is on something else, when I forget that paper can cut–one of those sheets slices into me. And it hurts.

A lifetime of paper cuts, though, adds up to a sum greater than its parts. Each has contributed to my understanding that cutting is something to avoid and paper is something to be careful with. It’s part of knowledge I carry so deep in my body that my caution and wariness around any technology that can sever–knives and saws and all manner of power tools–feels instinctive rather than learned.

Of course, this is just a metaphor, and like most it doesn’t hold entirely true. Men and boys are not tools, and the proclivity many have to treat girls and women as objects for their amusement are not an inherent part of their design, the way, say, being sharp around the edges is part of paper’s. I suppose if we really cared more about paper cuts, we’d change our way of making it, and maybe there is something in the way we make boys, the way we raise them, that makes some of them treat us like things and, seemingly, not even know that they are doing it. But unlike paper, men have the capacity to change themselves, even if we haven’t raised them as well as we might. They have the capacity to learn and transform.

Because they can’t experience this in the way we have and do, they will never have the capacity to truly feel how it is for us. But they do have the capacity to understand that ten year old girls should not have to pack up their toys and play inside to avoid sexual harassment. They can believe us when we tell them how pervasive it is and how it impacts us. They can take the lead in transforming our world so that we do not have to walk so carefully and vigilantly through it, always aware, at least in some way that feels instinctive, of how the sharp edges of men might at any moment slice us open.

Where was your outrage when…?

My children had, in many ways, an idyllic, throw-back childhood. We lived in a small mountain community, where neighborhood kids spent countless low-supervised hours tromping through woods as they acted out epic dramas in imaginary kingdoms built on the banks of the creek and river that ran past our homes.

On the 4th of July, most of us gathered for a parade, led by a local fire truck and an older, beloved couple who dressed as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. We all decorated bikes and wagons and walked with the kids and waved to neighbors who lined the streets and waved back. Like something out of a movie about times gone by–except it was our time.

I miss those days.

I miss how sweetly innocent and simple the 4th of July felt then. I miss the optimism I felt for our children’s futures. I miss my ignorance–which was, in many ways, bliss.

Because it’s all different now. My children are grown, and the 4th of July will likely never again be a sweet, simple, or nostalgic holiday for me. This year, I cannot look at this picture of my babies without thinking of the thousands of children currently being held, by my government, in cages away from their parents. I can’t help thinking of their parents and the pain they must be enduring as they imagine that of their children.

To all those who have asked/accused people like me, who are horrified at these actions and are raising our voices against it, Where was your outrage when___ (fill in the blank)? all I can really say is, “You’re right.” They aren’t always right about what actually happened in the past, but their question gets at an important and essential truth:  Our governmental institutions have been responsible for unjust, painful, outrageous actions all through my life, and I did not protest most of them. I didn’t even know about a lot of them.

Recently, my daughter asked me how I could bring children into such a difficult and troubled world (“just the climate issue alone, Mom!”), and the only answer I could give was that I didn’t understand, when I was making that decision, how troubled our world really is. “How could you not?” she demanded of me. “All the information was available.”

She is not wrong.

And I don’t have any kind of good defense. The second time Bush won the presidency through a questionable election, I checked out. I decided my contribution was going to come through my work as an educator and parent, and that that was enough. I stopped paying close attention because paying attention frustrated me and made me feel powerless and because–I understand now, but didn’t then–my privileges shielded me from the impact of so many things that were happening. I told myself that none of it really mattered that much. Life goes on, went on, much as it always had, for me. I checked out because I could. Simple as that.

There’s really no excuse for me not knowing the things I didn’t know then, but I know them now. And you know how it is with so many truths we don’t really want to know:  Once we know them, we can’t un-know them.

I can’t un-know that people of color have a very different lived experience in this country than people who look like me.

I can’t un-know that I have lived my whole life in a country founded on white supremacy, and that race has been at play in every aspect of our history.

I can’t un-know that we are in a place I never thought we could be but that I should have known was possible. The balance of powers is gone, as are collective agreements about how to play fair in a democracy. There appear to be very few checks still in place, and the ones that remain are under attack.

And this is knowledge I cannot simply turn away from, much as part of me wishes I still could.

It is not so much that I’ve become “woke” as that I’ve just started to pay attention again. To pull my head out of the sand. And to all who ask, “Where was your outrage when___?” all I can say is, “Fair question, but it’s a time-waster, a diversion, a straw man.”

That I wasn’t outraged when ____ does not invalidate my outrage now.

Just  because I (and so many others) failed to protest in the past, it does not mean we should be quiet now or that our protest now lacks legitimacy. It does not mean that past wrongs justify current ones. And it does not mean that our outrage now is only because we don’t like your guy. To be clear:  We don’t. He’s a racist, misogynistic, corrupt, dishonest man who’s surrounded himself with people a lot like himself.

The important fact is not that we dislike them as people, but that we don’t like what they are doing. We don’t like elimination of due process, violation of laws, and irreparable psychological damage done to children for political gain. We don’t like their lies and their abuses of power. We don’t like the ways in which they have not played fair. We don’t like any of them because collectively they pose a greater threat to our country than any I’ve ever seen. I like to think we’d be against that no matter who occupied the White House, if we knew about it.

What I know today is that patriotism requires so much more than fireworks and colorful streamers woven through the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It requires that we inform ourselves, seek out truth, and, once we know it, speak it to authority–through our words, our votes, and, if necessary, our protest. As the bumper sticker says, Dissent is Patriotic. Good Lord, as much as our country was founded on white supremacy, it was also founded on dissent. We have always been a complex, contradictory nation, one who idealizes tradition and decorum with the same breath we use to smash them. Our understanding and celebration of our country–our patriotism–should be equally dimensional.

While I’d like to wish you a happy 4th, that doesn’t seem the right sentiment this year. In fact, what I most wish for your 4th is that it be a complicated one, a mix of love and pride and anger and alarm and–above all else–one of resolve to preserve the best of what this day has traditionally stood for. Our children need that from us, much more than they need sparklers and streamers. (But hey, I hope you enjoy the sparklers and streamers. We need those, too.)

 

 

 

Of docks and churches and libraries and love

Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.

Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now,  I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.

For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.

So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.

All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do:  My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.

I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.

Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.

It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:

“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”

Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:

Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.

How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then:  There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.

All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.

 

 

 

There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.

 

 

 

Bad teeth, bad dogs, bad weeks. And Puerto Rico.

The world offered up to me a week of minor insults–an emergency trip to the vet, a date that didn’t go as planned, a several-days migraine, a nasty email, a flat tire, ridiculous lines at the fabric store, a work meeting on Saturday morning, and a broken disposal on Saturday night that spewed water, cilantro, and various other semi-rotten vegetables all over the inside of the under-the-sink cabinet.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico.

By which I mean (yes, of course) multitudes of people without food, water, homes, power–but also, everything wrong in our country right now that’s wrapped up in the reasons for Puerto Rico and that’s come out in all kinds of other ways over the past week. You know:  racism, corrupt/inept leadership, seemingly willful ignorance, our ability to be distracted and divided by lesser things, and–maybe most of all–our collective weariness and inability to be truly surprised/shocked by anything that’s going down any more. (Or is that just me? )

I found myself so longing to return to a time when I could feel free to share on Facebook the petty slings and arrows flying my way and gather sympathy in response. I did indulge in sharing a pic of the flat tire, but later that night when I thought about sharing the garbage disposal mess, it just didn’t seem like the thing to do. Because:  Puerto Rico.

I mean, how can I complain about the things bringing me down when I have food, water, shelter, and power? When I am not the target of so much that is wrong right now? When my problems, literally, would not exist if I didn’t enjoy the privileges I do?

I heard from three different friends this week that all their friends seemed to be having a particularly bad week. But it’s not a full moon and Mercury’s not in retrograde until December 3. Remember when that’s the kind of reason people looked for when it seemed like everyone was having a kinda hard time all at the same time?

What you get when you Google “is mercury in retrograde”

I know part of the reason I started crying when the vet asked, “So, how are we doing this morning?” was that I was afraid she was going to tell me that we’d have to put Daisy down and it would mean I am a shitty dog owner for letting things get so bad, and I could feel the migraine coming back for the third day, and I didn’t know how I was going to get done for work the things I’d promised to get done (I didn’t), but I think it was all of those things and Puerto Rico.

Daisy is one of the two canines living in my home that one of my children refers to as “your divorce guilt dogs.” The label is not entirely unfair. I hope I didn’t say to the child something like, “We’re going to totally disrupt your life and make you live in two different places (thereby no longer having one real home), but hey! Now you can have the dog you’ve long wanted!” but I can see how this child might have heard it that way.

I’m glad she didn’t see that I also wanted those dogs because I knew I was going to need a reason to come home on dark winter nights when there would be no homework to supervise and no squabbles to referee and no one to care if “dinner” was an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese eaten straight from a saucepan.

Daisy and her compatriot Rocky aren’t particularly good dogs. Because they pee and shit at will in our house despite my many attempts to persuade them to do otherwise, we’ve had to remove all the carpet from our home. (The other child and I once created a parody of the Commodores’ “Brick House” about Daisy, which opened with, “Oh, she’s a bad dog / She’s mighty naughty, just poopin’ all over the house.” ) Because they are Dachshunds, they’ve cost me thousands of dollars in dental surgery. Because I somehow didn’t believe what I read in the nano-seconds of research I did before bringing them home that told me such dogs are notoriously difficult to housebreak and and are prone to bad teeth, I have been surprised by these things.  In addition, Daisy lets us know pretty regularly that she doesn’t really give any fucks about a lot of things we care about. Like not whining all through dinner, or not eating Rocky’s poop, or coming when we call her and she is looking right at us.

I love her anyway.

She doesn’t do a lot of the things I’d like her to do, but she’s ours. The song-writing child, not long after I’d moved to a house filled with mis-matched things cobbled together from garage sales, thrift stores, and craigslist, once looked around and said with disgust, “Everything in this house is used. Even our dogs are used!”

It was true. I found them on craigslist, and Daisy wasn’t mine from the beginning, but she’s mine now. I love her, and despite the fact that she disappoints me on a regular basis and has never been quite the dog I envisioned for my children or myself, she’s the dog we have and dammit, I don’t want her to die. Not yet.

When I let one of the children know that I for-sure wouldn’t be coming for a maybe-visit in November because I’ll be paying for doggie dental surgery instead, even though the lower portion of Daisy’s jaw has so deteriorated that it has detached from the upper and cannot be repaired, she asked me, kindly, when I’d know it was time to let go.

“I mean, what’s the amount that is too much, Mom? She is just a dog, you know?”

I don’t really know, but not yet. I mean, yes, she’s just a dog–but she is also love and hope and dreams and history. Not unlike my country, which I love in ways not unlike the ways I love my dog and my kids:  Imperfectly, irrationally, deeply, unconditionally.

Even when it’s been a bad week. Even though Puerto Rico.

Because they’re mine.

 

 

 

Overwhelm and Antidotes

From a Facebook post that came through my feed a while back:

Syrian refugees, White Helmets, Standing Rock Sioux, DAPL, Black Lives lost, Black Lives Matter, Aggression towards Muslims, aggression towards people perceived to be Muslims, Oil Company YES Men being put in charge of our government’s environmental departments, children worrying to themselves at night that their parents will be deported, Flint Michigan is still drinking water from bottles, Oil Spill right now running into the Missouri, people feeling insecure that they will have access to healthcare in 2017……is it any wonder we are feeling overwhelmed? We are feeling torn between what front to fight on? We are feeling alone?

This is only a partial list of the things I can’t stop thinking/worrying about–and yes, I have been feeling overwhelmed and torn and alone.

I have been struggling since early November to figure out how to respond to what is happening. I have attended two protests, but I left both feeling that it wasn’t the best use of my limited resources.  I am watching very-capable others around me, and I haven’t seen any clearly important gaps I might fill better than those already filling them. I have been frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest of things; while I’ve made a few phone calls in response to calls for action, because of my work/life obligations I often can’t do that during business hours, which is when such calls are answered.

I have been stuck in a scarcity mind-set, continually exhausted from ping-ponging between worry about how to meet urgent, immediate needs (those call-to-action requests) and long-term needs (how do we shift societal thinking/understanding about race, justice, information, government, etc.?).

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing much. I spend too much time on social media, consuming information that I don’t do much with. The information is important, as is the connection with like-minded others (so we know we’re not completely alone/delusional), but the balance has felt off. I have felt off-balance.

I’m pretty sure the thing to do is get over myself.

I need to get over the idea that I can somehow, on my own, save anything. I need to get over the perfectionism that can keep me from doing anything unless I think I can do it exactly right. I need to get over figuring out the one, best right thing to do and just find good things to do, trusting that others will carry the weight of the other right things I’m not the best person for.

So, this is me getting over myself:

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times story from George Yancy, a professor who’s been placed on the Professor Watchlist, a list created by Turning Point USA to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (I refuse to link to this. You can find it easily if you want.) Yancy’s concluding paragraph felt like a rallying cry, the most compelling call to action I’ve seen:

Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.

Hell, yeah! I thought. I want to be dangerous, too.

I have been sitting with his words, letting them marinate in the stew of all I’ve experienced this year. As I’ve learned a more complete reality of my country’s history, heard and read the reality of lived experience from people of color, and seen the ugly reality of where so many of my countrymen are with respect to race and justice today, I’ve been ashamed that it has taken me so long to be truly moved.

I have been reflecting on what it is that moved me, finally, and I know that it has been a combination of information and story. Learning the systemic mechanisms of racism in our country alone didn’t move me. Hearing others’ stories in isolation from systemic analysis didn’t move me. Having both come together–so I could understand intellectually the causes of personal suffering while empathetically feeling the suffering–is what has made a difference in me. It is what has made it impossible for me to close my ears and mind and heart and retreat back into my own, private world. It is what woke me.

In the face of all this intellectual and emotional messiness, I have been floundering in the sea of all I don’t know and don’t have:

I don’t know a whole lot about how to organize. I don’t know how to make change happen politically. I don’t know how to advocate for policy.

I don’t have much in the way of resources. I’m not rich and I don’t have a lot of time. I work full-time in two under-funded public sector positions. It takes most of what I have to just take care of myself and my kids.

I don’t have a large platform from which to speak. On a good day this blog gets 150 or so views. I think more of my social media friends tolerate my utterances/shares more than look forward to them. I am not much of an influencer in the ways we typically think of that term.

But here’s what I do have:

I’m an educator. I’m a writer. I have faith (most days). I believe fiercely in the power of knowledge and story to change us. Yes, even to save us. I believe that saving happens one person, one community, one city, one state at a time. I believe in ripple effects. I would rather be read by 150 of the right people than 150,000 of the wrong ones–meaning, those whom my words will have no impact on. Those who will not take my words out into the world in some way for good.

Before the end of the year, I will post about a project I’m planning to launch–one that will make the best use of the talents and resources I have. It will be a collective project. It will involve story and education. I hope it will involve you.

Let’s get dangerous together.

 

You can’t go home again

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Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.

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I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.

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Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.

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Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.

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Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.

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Grief is a luxury we can’t afford right now

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I get it. So many of us who wanted things to go a different way on November 8th are grieving right now.

Some of us are in denial. We want to believe that what happened was just politics, business as usual. We tell ourselves, OK, so our guy didn’t win. Let’s trust the system and wish him the best and wait and see what happensLet’s take a break from political news and figure out how to reconnect with the other side. Let’s trust the checks and balances of our system to do its job. We tell ourselves that practicing self-care will make us feel better. We dismiss those who are worried our democracy may not survive intact for four years because of course it will! It can’t not survive. (Yeah, just like Trump could never get elected.)

Some of us are bargaining. We think that maybe, somehow, if we just try to understand why all those people in middle American voted for Trump, we can broker our way to some better place. We think that if we develop empathy for those on the other side and reach out to connect with them, we can find our way back to one another and we’ll move forward together toward a peaceful, accepting, diverse culture. We’re hoping that if we do those things, Trump won’t make good on all those election promises he made.

Some of us are just flat-out angry.

(Righteous anger hurts so good, doesn’t it?)

Some of us are depressed. We can’t seem to move on. We feel powerless. We can’t concentrate or get anything productive done. We’re pretty sure it’s all in our head, and some others would agree. Our days have looked kinda like this:

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Well, if you’ve been bouncing around in these various circles of grief hell over the past two weeks, I’ve got a suggestion:

let’s get  ourselves to acceptance as soon as we can, because shit’s getting real, and it’s getting there real fast.

On November 9, I wanted to go along with the folks urging us to wait and see. But when Trump brought in Steve Bannon as a White House advisor, it became clear that we weren’t going to have to wait long. Just in case you aren’t fully up to speed on what the “alt right” (a Newspeak term for white supremacists) is, please listen to this interview with Richard Spencer, who coined the term. (Actually, please listen to it anyway. Even if you think you know what it is, listening to this guy will make your skin crawl. Unless, of course, you think skin color is an OK criteria for determining, well, just about everything.) And if you can stand it after that, go check out Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general.

I, too, in an effort to understand what the hell happened and how to fix it, went looking  for explanations and solutions. I wondered about my bubble. Then I realized that even if I (and so many of us liberal white people) have been in a bubble, we aren’t the only ones. Those struggling midwest white folks are likely in a bubble, too. I wanted to believe that if we all seek empathy and start having hard conversations about race, we’ll get everyone moving in the direction of social justice and we’ll work to dismantle our systemic racism.

I don’t disbelieve that, but it’s clear we don’t have time to wait for that kind of change. And if the person we’re trying to move is a narcissist (like, you know, our President-elect), best just to move on.

So:  Let’s get to acceptance. 

Let’s accept what is and figure out what we’re going to do about it. Let’s stop focusing on who voted for whom and why. While there are plenty of reasons for folks to be angry with those who voted for Trump–and implications about what it means that a majority of white men and women voted for Trump should be wrestled with–the election ship has sailed. It’s over.

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Let’s focus on how we’re going to get on board the next one. I’m still really pissed about lots of the reasons people voted for Trump, but like this guy, I care more about what people are going to do now.

And like this guy, I am absolutely on Team Nah. Since election day, Trump has shown us exactly who he is (the same guy he was in the campaign), and as the article linked to above explains, when we’re dealing with narcissists there is no appealing to reason or a sense of what’s right.

Rather than waiting and hoping we can reason Trump and his administration onto some higher road, let’s get to work doing whatever we can to demand that all citizens are treated fairly and that our rules and best practices for governing be followed. And let’s obstruct any attempts by anyone in our government to do otherwise.

Because honestly, what else can we do? I suppose we can keep on denying and bargaining and turning away from the overwhelm of what’s happening, but lots of people don’t have the luxury of that any more than they have the luxury of prolonged grieving. I don’t want to roll over because what this requires of us is hard and feels maybe futile. I’m more realist than idealist; I know I might end up on the losing side of history, but I want to know I went down fighting on the right side of it.

So:  Let’s get our boots on the ground.

(If you want some concrete ideas of things to do, check out the Resources page.)

Did some walking this weekend in Portland.

Literally got our boots on the ground in Portland this weekend.

Statue Photo Credit: Aramisse Flickr via Compfight cc
Boat Photo Credit: serbosca Flickr via Compfight cc