In the Google search bar, I type “how do you know when it’s time” and the first autofill response that comes up is “to put your dog down.”
Followed by: to break up, to leave your church, to dig up potatoes, to move on, to retire.
I don’t go to church and I haven’t planted any potatoes, so Google’s powers of divination are limited. But I was seeking information about how to know when it’s time to let go of my dog, and I hate that Google’s algorithms correctly anticipated that.
I wish I were searching for some of the other “how do you know when” topics; many are about food and their harvesting or cooking: salmon, mangoes, pineapple, garlic. I wish I cared about food more, the way I used to.
I try “how do you know when it’s too late” and I get both “to get your ex back” and “to have a root canal.” I’ve never had a root canal, but from everything I’ve heard about them, those two things might have more in common than one would think.
I trim the inquiry back to “how do you know” and the stakes are suddenly much higher: if you’re pregnant, if you love someone, if you have anxiety, if you have depression, if you have coronavirus.
“should I” yields a mix of results that speak to the absurdity of these times, of our lives: refinance my mortgage, get a covid test, get bangs, stay or should I go. Or, maybe just of my life. I suppose Google knows that I’m of an age where lyrics by The Clash might be what I’m searching for.
It’s only when I click on the lyrics to that song and read them–rather than listen to them through a haze of alcohol and hormones and unresolved childhood trauma (hell, completely unrecognized childhood trauma)–that I understand I’ve misunderstood them for my whole life. The speaker isn’t trying to determine their own feelings about staying or going, but is instead wanting to know the feelings of another, their darling:
“Darling you’ve got to let me know Should I stay or should I go? If you say that you are mine I’ll be here until the end of time”
I was never, as I thought all those years ago, the speaker. I was the darling, the one who didn’t know which clothes even fit him. I never stayed with any boy until the end of time. I couldn’t, even when I wanted to. And the speaker wasn’t exercising agency, but was instead giving it away.
We so often ignore what doesn’t fit the narrative we’re writing in our head, don’t we?
Which has nothing to do with the dog, not really. Except, it sort of has everything to do with the dog. And coronavirus and retirement and faith. (But not potatoes or mangoes or garlic.)
On Wednesday morning, he threw up three or four times. He passed runny stools a few times, too. When he was done expelling fluids and I was done cleaning them up, I held him like a baby, giving the day away to him as I’d given the previous one to migraine: without any real choice.
We like to think we have choices but we often don’t. Or, we don’t have the ones we think we do.
I held him and I cried, afraid to call the vet, afraid not to. I cried because when I lose him I will lose another piece of my children’s childhood, and there are almost none left. I cried because my daughter can’t be where she wants to be, but also because when she can I will, in important ways, lose her all over again. I cried because I’m losing too many of these days with her to pain of one kind or another. I cried because my Marine son looks so tired in the photos he sends me, and because the father of a Marine likely killed for a bounty still supports the President who doesn’t really care about any of our sons. I cried because I can’t go see my parents because if I do they can’t see my brother, living in a group home that cannot risk infection. I cried because, unlike some of my colleagues who say they will not return to school in the fall unless it is safe, I will have to go, regardless. (Until, of course, I really can’t, for one reason or another. And then I will probably cry because I didn’t make a different choice when I might have.) I cried because of all the lost days, past, present and future, until the end of time.
That guy in the song? He knew he didn’t have a choice to make, either. (I’m the one who misunderstood his question.) The choice was his darling’s. And he knew the answer was trouble, regardless of what his darling said or he did. Isn’t that how it so often is?
(I can hear my mother’s voice asking me: What kind of hard do you want?)
I called the vet. (You knew I would. I did, too, even as I held the dog’s trembling body in my arms and tortured myself with thinking I had to choose.) She gave the dog fluids and medicine. She gave me handouts on how to know when it’s time. It’s not yet, but it will be, soon. She told me I’ll probably know when it is, and that often there’s no one right answer to that question.
I’m writing these words listening to my daughter talking to the young man she loves. He is translating into English a story she has written in Swedish, telling her which parts do and don’t make sense to him, helping her brain (that is past the point at which language acquisition comes easily) learn his language.
They will do what they have to do to transcend borders and bans. My son will do what he has to do, too, as will my parents. As will I. As will we all.
The things for which I will remain until the end of time are not the things I once thought they would be. But I have them. I surely do. Which makes me fortunate.
(I write these words with the dog sitting in my lap, his head resting on my arm. He’s doing better today.)
I type in “what is the meaning of” and Google gives me these options:
of the song hallelujah
of life the universe and everything
I don’t need Google to tell me what I already know.
Weltschmerz, German for “world pain,” was also coined during the Romantic Era and is in many ways the German version of ennui. It describes a world weariness felt from a perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is. In German philosophy it was distinguished from pessimism, the idea that there is more bad than good in the world, because while pessimism was the logical conclusion of cool, rational philosophical pondering, weltschmerz was an emotional response. “How to Tell Whether You’ve Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz“
Back in late May/early June, I kept telling myself that I just had to get to the end of the school year, and I would be OK. I imagined that when I could get some relief from 2-hour Zoom meetings in which much was said but little done, tasks that seemed to produce offspring tasks at the same rate with which rabbits are known to procreate, and whole days in which my butt left my kitchen chair only to feed or pee my geriatric dogs, I would start to feel better, in spite of everything.
Yeah, that’s not really how it’s gone.
The day before the last official day of work, my state’s Department of Education released their initial set of guidelines for conducting school next year, and all of us Oregon educators (or at least the ones I know) pretty much lost our collective shit. Because we know–We. Know.–how it’s all going to go down and who it’s going to land on. Increasing demands and decreasing resources have been the rule rather than the exception for decades now, but we’re getting catapulted into a whole new level of that game and when I look ahead to the fall all I can see are turtles all the way down. Or apocalyptic monkeys. And I can feel my heart start to race and my jaw clench and and and….
I just wish we could all take a moment to
Tell the truth.
And then figure out what to do next.
I’d like a collective timeout, so we can get ourselves regulated and think about what we did to get here and what we’ll do differently moving forward and how we’ll make different happen. (I know. The spring shutdown was supposed to be that, and I guess it was in some parts of the world, but not so much here in the US.)
I am not just talking about education and the pandemic. There is so much that’s wrong and hard in the world right now, but–don’t throw anything at me, please–there is also opportunity. There is always opportunity in wrong/hard. The opportunity is the silver lining of the wrong/hard. It’s the thing that can make the wrong/hard endurable. So far, sadly, it feels like we are just blowing it.
So many things were broken before the pandemic pulverized them. Instead of trying to glue back together little powdery bits of what was, here’s a chance to make things new. This kind of opportunity doesn’t happen often! Let’s seize it!
OK, I get why that’s not happening and how hard making new things is. We’ve got a whole lot of people in pain, and a whole lot of brokenness we can no longer collectively deny, and we humans aren’t at our best in such circumstances. Making new things always means losing old things, and some people are gonna cling real, real hard to those old things (even if they aren’t really good for them) because change literally hurts our brains and a lot of us would rather accept the crappy we know than take a chance on a possibly worse new crappy. We’re all scared and worried and grieving, even those of us in the (relatively) best of circumstances. And some of us are just racist, sexist, ableist a-holes and dangerous AF in the best of circumstances, so there’s that, too.
And so: Damn, it’s wearying, accepting the world as it is right now, believing it could be different, and watching opportunities slip past us, on scales both small and large. As my friend Kari recently wrote, “I feel like I am wading through Jello.” Me, too, Kari. Me, too.
My feelings of not-OKness didn’t dissipate when the Zoom meetings ended. I’m nearing the end of the second week out of the school year, and the days still have a lot of slog to them. There is some ease (how can there not be?), and it’s not all grey skies and listlessness. It has been a fair amount of that, but there have also been laughs and kisses and beauty and sun. One warm night this week I sat under patio lights, surrounded by flowers, and drank sweet limoncello liqueur with my daughter and my dearest friend and we had a long, passionate conversation about pronouns (and the intersections of gender and identity and language and responsibility and love, because you can’t talk about pronouns without talking about all of those things). There is that, and I don’t want to overlook or discount that because I am profoundly grateful for such moments. But I just don’t feel like myself, especially my summer self.
You too, perhaps?
I would like to offer a remedy, but I can’t. Not really. Moving my body more has helped. Planting things in the ground has, too. Doing the dishes and making the bed and cooking real meals. Being purposefully grateful, living in the day I’m in (so future troubles can’t rob me of today’s joy), and striving for balance between work/play and exertion/rest are other strategies I can recommend. Naps are good, too, if you can swing them.
I’d also add: Accepting the feelings. I spent a few days in the first week beating up on myself for not feeling better, and then I decided to just accept the feelings, whatever they are. Not to wallow (and there’s a fine line, there), but to just let them be and go about my business, doing things I know are good for me and others. I give the feelings their due, as they demand, and then I get on with it as best I can (some days better than others). I “act as if” as much as I can.
But honestly, the problem isn’t within us as individuals (and so we can’t fix our feelings about them entirely through our individual actions), and shouldn’t living feel like a slog right now? The world is way, way too much with us these days. You know that old bumper sticker, the one about how if you’re not pissed off you’re not paying attention, or something along those lines? That. All of which is why one of the things I’ve been grateful for this week is learning that there’s a word for exactly what I’ve been feeling: Weltschmerz.
Isn’t that a grand word? It’s almost onomatopoeic, the way those syllables sort of crash into each other on their way out of your mouth, with that hard stop right in the middle of it and that sort of drunken-sounding raspy sibilant ending. You’ve got all the elements for a party in those letters and sounds–and you can see that–but they don’t arrange themselves into a party. They aren’t in the right order.
If you, too, have been wading through weltschmerz (aka jello, aka existential depression), isn’t it at least a little comforting to know that other people have felt exactly the same way–enough people that we have a word that captures the subtle nuances of this feeling, and of this maybe-apocalypse that we’re living through? (Hey, on top of pandemic, economic meltdown, institutional instability, and massive unrest, don’t forget the climate. It’s still melting.) It’s not boredom or depression or listlessness or ennui or anxiety or angst. It’s weltschmerz, baby. And if ever there was a moment for it, surely it’s now.
You’re not alone and you’re not broken or ungrateful or spoiled. Things are fairly terrible. Don’t let the toxic positivity crowd gaslight you into thinking the problem is you and your attitude. Maybe, instead, your feelings are a sign of your wholeness and your optimism and your hope, and of your positive vision and your love for the world. Maybe it’s all the very things we’ll need to get us through to some better other side. Somehow. Some day. One slog at a time, monkeys and turtles be damned.
Until you find the emotional point of inflection that breaks apart your White fairy tale and gives way to a reckoning so personal it breaks every facet of who you have been in this farcical fable, you don’t really get to credibly say much about what is happening now or the divisions now bursting into full view. Rebeckah Eggers, “White Fairy Tales: When I Lost Abraham Lincoln“
I know exactly when I had my personal reckoning: March 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. I’ve never written or talked much about it because I could never find the words to convey what happened for me, and maybe I never fully understood it until this week, reading Rebecka Eggers’s essay.
I thought I’d gotten it–and the learnings I’d gleaned from those experiences had been painfully acquired–but my day at the Portrait Gallery, somehow, broke through something in me that my earlier learning hadn’t penetrated. I cannot tell you why or how, but seeing wall after wall after wall of wealthy white men, with just a smattering of white women (many of them wives of said men) and people of color, in the early months of the Trump presidency, in a city of so much power, where there are such stark, visual lines between people of color and people absent of it, brought the truth of our history home to me in a way that nothing else had, and I felt the fairy tale–all the myths about America that I’d been raised on and believed in and loved–shatter. It didn’t just break my ideas about my country; it broke my ideas about myself.
It was the first of three days touring the capitol, and in everything I saw afterward, I saw the white supremacy that permeates my country. It was not simply a thread running through its fabric. It was the frame, the foundation, the underlying structure of every story I’d been told. I didn’t just understand it; I felt it in a way I never had before. I remembered my twentysomething self eschewing the idea of a diamond engagement ring because most diamonds came from South Africa, home to apartheid, which had not yet fallen in the late 1980s. My fiance and I had wondered how whites in that country could live with themselves, could live in that country, benefitting from such injustice and oppression. Thirty years later, I thought maybe I understood them. I wondered if they, somehow, had been as blind to their systems as I had been to ours. The cognitive dissonance I felt was akin to vertigo, and it was beyond disorienting to realize all that I had never seen that had been all around me, for all of my life. It was humbling. It was shameful. And it hurt. Losing Abraham Lincoln hurts.
How had I been so ignorant and unaware? What else might I be missing now? What else wasn’t real?
It was not unlike the awakening and reckoning I’d experienced when emerging from an abusive relationship, when I began to realize truths that had previously been too threatening to see. From that earlier, personal experience, I could see that my education, my culture, and my country had–like my former partner–been gaslighting me for the entirety of my relationship with them. The terrible thing about gaslighting is not only that it messes with your perceptions of reality, but also that it messes with your perceptions of yourself. You learn not to trust yourself, a lesson that rings even more true once you finally start to see all the ways in which you’ve failed to understand things fundamental to your life. You lose whatever sense of yourself you’ve had and have to build a new one.
That is where, collectively, we are now, and it all hurts. That rebuilding is also hard, hard work.
Being the person I am and have been, I don’t generally feel that I have a lot that needs saying in the current conversation we’re collectively having about who we are and are going to be, and–honestly–I’m still in the process of rebuilding my sense of self. I don’t always trust that I really understand the historical moment we are living through. In recent weeks, I have been doing much more listening than talking. Still, I can attest from my experience to the importance of having that reckoning, and that it’s not a thing you can read or think your way to or through; it’s a thing you have to feel and endure.
If you haven’t yet had that reality-breaking reckoning, I hope you will seek it, even though it is painful and is one of those things you can never take back; it’s a kind of seeing you can never un-see. I’d like to draw some analogy to slivers and their removal, or perhaps the lancing of wounds, but honestly, that metaphor is too simplistic and doesn’t really hold. The reckoning isn’t going to draw some contaminant out of you and leave you, individually, feeling all better. I don’t expect to ever feel as comfortable again as I once did–in fact, it often feels as if I will spend the rest of my life doing nothing but digging deeper and deeper into the body of it, never fully removing the shards of all the -isms embedded in it–but I still hope every white person I know, especially those of my own generation or older, will seek that reckoning, will see ourselves as just one part of a larger organism, will know that we are doing it not so much for ourselves but for those who come after us.
I know now that much of what I was raised to believe about my country was, frankly, crap–but I’m looking for the parts I can reclaim. The idea that our country was designed to evolve and become continually better is one of those things. The idea that we do hard things to make better lives for others is another. Saying that White Americans should endure the pain of this reckoning because it is so much lighter than that of those who’ve experienced genocide and other forms of oppression contains important truth, but that’s not why I hope we all seek our reckoning and endure it. We shouldn’t endure suffering simply because others endure a greater one. We should do it because it serves a purpose greater than our pain. We should do it because of what Eggers states:
“…people don’t change based on theory. People change based on a deep, lived experience of reality. In this reality, you come to understand that you have been robbed too.”
Sometimes, I feel such a nostalgic sort of longing for my earlier life, my earlier ease–but I know it was an illusion and it was a trap, too. Sue Monk Kidd tells us, in her Dance of the Dissident Daughter, that “The truth may set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”
Just look at our country and where we are–really look at it. As a result of our chaotic and ineffective response to the pandemic we are dying in larger numbers than any other country, and in the face of that we are fighting each other over something as simple as wearing face masks rather than demanding better from the government we fund. Our police are shooting unarmed black citizens without consequence, as well as bullets and tear gas at people protesting peacefully. Our legislatures increasingly fail to function and are threatened by armed vigilantes. Our citizens are living on our streets, unable to afford housing and health care in an economic system we are so wedded to that we are choosing it over our own lives. We have a President who lies to us every day, fires those who investigate his likely crimes, and fosters violence among us. All of this hurts far more than losing Abraham Lincoln.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Clinging to false ideas about who and what we are isn’t going to fix it. The safe, sweet way so many of us once lived is gone. We are all being robbed, and the pain of that is greater than the pain of releasing the shackle of lies that have been told to convince us to hand over our valuables, not the least of which are the lives of countrymen who have never lived with the ease and security I once took for granted.
Go get yourself free, and then come back for the rest of us.
I also wanted to know, first hand, what was happening at the protests. Early on in the Trump regime, I stopped going to protests. Like I said, I’m not a big crowd person. I find it hard to get caught up in what’s happening. More importantly, they felt ineffective–more like a parade than a protest (as my daughter would say). I could identify no real objective, other than to voice objection, which felt like screaming into a canyon.
Unlike the first Women’s March, in which white women were taking selfies with police, pink hats all around, yesterday’s march had no feeling of parade or celebration. It was not for show or for shots of liberal feel-good.
The crowd skewed young and angry. It was tense. It was also, as much as anything can be when you are faced with police in riot gear, tear gas at the ready, peaceful.
As was the case yesterday, I find myself without much to say. I don’t really think this is a moment for voices such as mine.
I marched at the protest with my daughter, surrounded by people her age. I thought about the world I thought I was bringing her into–what I thought I was giving her–and I wondered what the parents of all the others there had thought they were giving their children. I want to tell you how it broke my heart a little, to see these people taking action to try to make the world be more like the one I (wrongly) thought we once had, to see their anger and frustration and courage and hope. But my broken heart is not the important thing here, and my tiny heartbreak is nothing in comparison to that of the parents who have lost their children at the hands (or knees or bullets) of police, or those who worry that they will.
Last week a journalist claimed that America is a tinderbox. Last night, in a peaceful protest in a town known for its liberalism, I could feel it–people brittle as leaves and sticks on the forest floor after a summer of drought. Our youth–all of our youth, not just those privileged by social class and race–need real hope for something like the kind of future I took for granted when I was their age, and they need it in the form of action, not empty words and gestures without substance. They need more than police taking a knee one minute and then rising up to throw teargas and shoot rubber bullets the next. They need relief from corrupt leaders, inept government, gross income inequality, a trashed economy, crushing debt, racist systems, and a dying planet.
We all need that for them, too. As activist Lilla Watson once said,
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
A lit fire can be hard to contain, and people who feel they have little or nothing to lose are going to be quick to reach for matches.
We all have more to lose than we realize, I think.
I spent a fair amount of time yesterday writing a post I’m not going to share.
Writing is my way of processing what’s happening, and it served that purpose, but even I am just not all that interested in my perspective on what’s happening in my country–so I’m not going to share it here.
I am weary of so many people I know pontificating on social media when, frankly, they don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. And, sorry(notsorry), their opinions (and mine) just aren’t as important as those of others who know more than we do. I’m thinking I don’t need to join the cacophany of white noise any more than I already have.
I think the best thing I can do as a white person is shut the hell up and listen.
Here are a few voices that need amplification far more than mine:
My daughter’s graduation celebration was supposed to be last weekend, but it was cold and drizzly out and I had a migraine and the graduation video I was making for her wasn’t done. She was only a few days into quarantine, and…the time just wasn’t right.
One of the rules of the pandemic seems to be that there are no rules of pandemic, so you can have your grad party any time you want to. Or when the weather and your migraines are cooperating. So we had it yesterday.
I would like to share heartwarming photos with you, but I didn’t take any. I was too busy being fully present in the moment. I might regret that later, but I might not.
There were only four of us, and we’re all pretty quiet by nature, so it wasn’t a rager. But it was really nice. For the video, I asked many people who have been important in my daughter’s life to record a message they’d like to share with her. In real life, we’d never have been able to gather all of them in our backyard (divorce, geographic distance), so we got to feel their presence without awkward tensions or social exhaustion. For the first time since 2008, my daughter got to have her whole family in the same place on a momentous occasion. Sorta.
We partied social distance style, which means imperfectly. Grace is still in quarantine (sorta), which means that we all sat outside at least 6 feet away from each other. I rearranged the cozy patio layout to put more distance between the seats. I served only takeout or individually wrapped food (no communal bowls of chips), using disposable plates and cutlery. Her best friend, B., and I reminisced at one point about her visit during the Christmas holidays, which feels so long ago, where I had made food and we had sat close to each other around a table, and she had been full of hopes and plans that have mostly evaporated.
Like everything right now, yesterday was both lesser and more than, simultaneously.
Would we have all teared up watching messages of love to my daughter in our pre-March world? Would the messages have been as heartfelt? I doubt it, and there’s a gift in that. I tried not to project ahead to the winter holidays, where we might not be able to gather even in this limited way. But I did, a little. I just glanced at that possibility in my mind, and then let it push me back into the present with more appreciation for it than I’d had even the minute before.
Yesterday was also the day the New York Times released a cover page with a list of 1,000 dead from C-19. (Click here if you’d like to be able to read it, not just see it.) That’s only 1% of people who will not get to attend any celebrations of any kind this weekend, nor will they get to live through a diminished holiday season come winter. My head today is full of thoughts and questions about the future. When I look ahead to the fall and winter, it is hard to feel anything but anxiety and fear. So I’m looking at my kitchen right now, filled with the remains of yesterday’s celebration, grateful to have such a mess to clean.
I don’t have much to offer this week. I missed my usual Sunday posting here, for the first time in months. I just couldn’t, and I gave myself permission to be OK with that, and this morning I reminded myself that earlier, I’d given myself permission to sometimes do this badly. So here I am, offering the best I’ve got right now:
Late is better than never. Doing something imperfectly is better than not doing it at all. We should do what we can, however we can, while we can. Later, we’ll be glad we did.
In July of 2003, my normally sanguine daughter took up crying jags. They came from seemingly nowhere, like afternoon storms on sunny summer days. I remember holding her 5-year-old self in my lap by the side of a pool, on our back deck, on the edge of her bed, rubbing her back with my hand to calm her ragged breathing. She couldn’t tell me what her tears were about.
Eventually, in mid-August, she could:
“Lindy is going to college, and I am going to kindergarten, and then I’ll go to middle school, and then high school, and then I’ll have to go to college, too, and then I won’t be able to live with you any more!”
Lindy, her older sister, was indeed preparing to leave us for college, and Grace was on her way to kindergarten.
“And you know I don’t like change!” she sobbed.
Me either, I thought, holding her close to me, full of my own feelings about all the changes bearing down on us.
As is usual, Grace was correct about how things were going to go: She did go to kindergarten, and middle school, and high school, and college. At one point–probably in early middle school–she told me she’d settled on Reed College as her preferred institution of higher education because it was both a good school and one that she could get to from our home on Mt. Hood using only public transportation, “so you won’t have to drive me.” She showed me the bus routes she’d need to take (she’d mapped it all out): a nearly two-hour commute one way, but that, she said, would give her plenty of time to study and read.
“You know, ” I said, “by the time you’re ready for college, you probably won’t want to live at home any more.” She assured me that I was wrong about that. She was too old for me to hold close the way I had when she was five and she had no need for me to, but I wanted to.
As it turned out, she did not go to Reed. She went to Georgetown, more than 3,000 miles from home. I suppose she could have traveled there by bus, but it has not been, in any way, an easy commute from our home to her school. Although she’d once been to DC on a trip with her grandparents, she’d never set foot on campus before she packed up her life into two bags she could take on an airplane and flew away with them. She did not choose this school because of a desire to be far from home. In the calculus of risk and reward, costs and benefits, Georgetown was the logical choice, and the girl we nicknamed Spock grew into a young woman who made all important choices from the head more than the heart.
The day she left, mine broke a little–with pride (what a brave thing she was doing!) and gratitude (what opportunities she would have!) and sorrow. Her new beginning was the ending of my most important and rewarding work.
As it turned out, once she left she never came back home to live. She got summer jobs in DC every year and made a whole life for herself there. It’s nice, sometimes, how we can’t know how things are really going to go. I don’t know how it might have been for me if I’d known on that day she walked out our front door that she wouldn’t come home to live again for her four years of college. Even harder than it was, I suppose.
Yesterday was supposed to be her graduation day. Her grandmother and I were supposed to fly east to watch her line up and march and get her papers and celebrate her work and accomplishments. Then, she was supposed to come home for a visit with her boyfriend before returning to DC to work this summer. Instead, she flew west alone, once again with her whole life packed into a few bags, to live with me at least through the summer, maybe longer. We can’t know for sure.
We can never know for sure, something I wish I’d understood when I was standing where she is now. At 22, I thought of life as being something like a novel, a cohesive narrative that could be broken into chapters, each one leading inevitably to the next. That is why it felt so important, especially then, to make the right authorial choices: each would create and eliminate a host of others. Choose wrong, and some beautiful plot lines (about love, children, work, home) would never be written.
Now I can see that if life is like a book, it is more a collection of linked short stories than a novel or an epic poem. It is filled with endings and beginnings, full stops and new starts and long pauses, episodes of living complete unto themselves. Some characters appear only once, while others drift in and out of the larger and looser narrative, sometimes at the center of the action and sometimes only at its periphery. The white space between one story’s ending the the next’s beginning is not empty: It is full of breath, rest, possibility, and actions so small or insignificant they aren’t worth noting–unless, suddenly, they are, at which point a new story begins.
My girl who hated change and clung to family and once charted her options in kaleidoscopic color-coded spreadsheets–a hedge against missed opportunities and lesser choices–has grown into an independent woman who still makes plans but no longer fits them into tiny digital boxes. I’m watching her lean into this moment in the world that is intersecting with this moment of her life, one that’s blown the boxes to bits in ways that are both terrifying and freeing, creating a horizon full of nothing certain but uncertainty and change.
The gift in this moment that has writ the future’s uncertainty large is that she can see clearly what many of us hard-working good students who once traveled through that profound transition between school and everything beyond school did not. We faced a similar horizon; we just didn’t know it. We looked out and thought we could see just how our stories would unfold, believed the major points of our plots were inevitable–or at least within our power to control. We didn’t pause long enough to see how wide open everything really was, to scan for roadblocks and pitfalls and possibilities of all sorts, to consider all the different destinations available to us. We just kept marching inexorably forward.
So, while I am sad, worried, and fearful about many things for all of our children, I’m finding a little something to be grateful for in this moment of unexpected endings and delayed beginnings and narrative threads that threaten to snap. What I might have given to have understood, much sooner than I did, that my most important choices were going to be about how to respond to plot twists I couldn’t control and never saw coming. I’m grateful, too, to know that my smart, strong, brave, thoughtful daughter will, as she’s always done, make the most of the gifts she’s been given, even the ones wrapped in the dark paper of this time.
“There’s not a lot of Rocky left of Rocky anymore,” the vet says, before I’ve even explained why we are here.
His eyes, all I can see of the face behind his mask, are kind. “I just want to prepare you for what’s coming.”
I realized recently that every morning, when I go to wake the dogs, I am holding my breath just a little. I don’t exhale until I see their blankets move, relieved that I will not start my day with death. So, I know what’s coming. Knowing doesn’t prepare me for it, though.
Last weekend Rocky woke up a little after midnight, barking. He never does this. I got up, let him outside. Put him back to bed. He barked and barked and barked. I thought about letting him sleep in my bed with me, but I didn’t want to inadvertently reinforce this behavior, dooming myself to nights of enduring either a barking dog or a dog in my bed. It occurs to me today that I don’t have to worry about that the same way I worried about, say, the way the kids conditioned both our dogs to beg for food while we eat, a behavior I’ve tried for more than a decade to change.
There won’t be years’ worth of nights to endure of anything with Rocky.
Rocky is one of two “divorce guilt dogs.” That’s what my daughter dubbed them when she was just a tween. She was not wrong. She knew the score. In less than a week she will be returning to this country from Sweden, where she’s been since early March. She will fly to DC, where she will pick through the physical stuff she’s accumulated over four years of college, performing a kind of material triage to determine which things she will put on another plane and which she will leave behind forever. Perhaps this will distract her from thinking about the scattered friends she never got to say good-bye to. She’s leaving behind her first real love, too, and although they have plans to reunite in Sweden again this fall, well…we’ve all seen what happens to plans, haven’t we? Plans are merely hopes, now more than ever. Then she will arrive here, her home but not her home, where we will figure out how to quarantine her, and how to live together again, for we don’t know how long.
A friend, one who has lived through catastrophes the likes of which I can hardly comprehend, tells me I should drive across the country to get her and drive all of her things back here, to spare her the trauma of going through such an experience alone. I am dumbfounded.
“I can’t just drive across the country,” I say. I sputter about work, risks of infection, lock-down orders, quarantine.
“Honey,” she says, as if talking to a child, “we’re all going to get it. You know that, right? You don’t really think you can avoid it, do you?”
The vet manipulates Rocky’s feet, turning them under as he props him up on the exam table, to see what his legs will do. After a pause, they move. A little. He says something to the tech making notes on the computer about nerve function. The vet’s eyes and mine meet over our face masks.
“His nerve function isn’t what it used to be. He’s having trouble knowing where his legs are in space.”
I’m having a harder and harder time with work. Technically, I am a teacher. I work under a teacher contract, but I don’t belong to any one school; I belong to ten of them (which feels like belonging to none of them). I am a librarian who serves those who serve the students directly. More and more, students feel more abstract than real. I know they are real–I hear about them from those who see them in Zoom meetings, I know they are muddling through this pandemic in varying states of wellness and distress, I know many are living in a purple zone of the infection map–but I haven’t seen any student faces since March 13, and I can’t feel them in the same way. I never understood, before, how simply seeing and hearing them grounded me in my work, in the world.
The only faces I see are those of other adults. They all look weary through my screen. Sometimes, not in our large group meetings, but in smaller ones of two or three, some of us share with each other how it’s really going, how we’re really doing.
“I’m trying to let go of things,” I tell someone I trust. “I’m trying to let go of things I know I can’t really affect.”
“Yes,” says the face on my screen. “I am, too. But there’s a difference between letting go and giving up. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m giving up.”
I think maybe I know a little bit about how Rocky feels. Sometimes, when he is walking, his stiff back legs that don’t really bend anymore skidding on the wood floor, something gives and he is suddenly on the ground, flailing, paws paddling in air. He reminds me then of a turtle on its back, the way he is unable to right himself.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the kind vet says. “Does he still like to eat? Is he still drinking water?”
I nod, hoping he’ll think that my glasses are fogging from the breath trapped in my face mask. That could be what it is.
“Yes, he still loves to eat.”
Daschunds are famous eaters. They will eat and eat and eat, going as long as the food lasts. When he and Daisy, the other divorce guilt dog, were younger and had teeth, I left dry food out in bowls to let them eat on demand. I was lazy. Or stretched too thin. Or both. I let them turn into fat, roly-poly pups who loved to lounge in patches of sun and sleep on our laps and burrow under our covers.
Neither dog has any teeth left (Daschunds are also famous for dental issues), and meals are now soft food given three times a day. Their need to eat might be providing the most consistent structure in my life now. Daisy is still soft, a round, warm bundle of fur and fat, skin and bone. She leaps vertically up and down while I scoop her food, often reaching nearly the height of the counter, whimpering and whining with what sounds like joy. Rocky stays grounded, usually putting one paw on my foot, his whole body quivering. He is not soft and round. I can count the vertebrae of his spine just looking at him.
The vet runs his hand over Rocky’s bony body. “There’s not much Rocky left of Rocky,” he says again, still kindly and gently, as if he knows he might need to say it more than once for his meaning to sink in.
Lately I’ve been unable to keep my mind out of the past. I long for my grandparents. I long for the beautiful, pain-free bodies my cousins and I once had, and for the summer nights when our strong, lithe legs gathered and tangled beneath our grandparents’ kitchen table. I long to feel again how I felt then.
In a phone conversation I try to tell my son, the Marine I don’t know when I’ll see again, how the world felt to me when I was growing up in my working class home. Although some definitely had more than others of us, I don’t remember any of the kids I went to school with worrying about food or living in cars or surfing for sofas to sleep on, the way so many do now. In my memory, almost everyone looked down upon racists and fascists and censorship and monopolies and religious zealots, and it was socially taboo to openly express that some of us were lesser than others of us–because we all knew such a belief was wrong. The people I knew respected science and education. We knew there were problems (racism, sexism, all the -isms), but there was such surety in our elders’ belief that we were forever on a march forward, that each generation would do better and have it better than the ones that came before it, their belief felt like fact.
No one I know feels that way now. “I’m worried for our kids,” we say to each other, not in large groups, but privately. Guiltily–not only for not passing on the same prospects, but for having had them when others did not. For not understanding, earlier, that not everyone had them and that others were working to strip them from many of us who did. For wondering what else we might not be seeing now, because having been profoundly blind once, we can surely be as blind again.
My son and I catalog all the ways in which his grandparents and I had it better than any other generations of Americans (including his), which, perhaps, makes us supremely unprepared for this time. “I feel soft,” I admit to him.
“I don’t want to go back in time,” I tell him. I don’t want to go back to an incomplete understanding of my country, or to a time in which so many people like me didn’t understand that only people who looked like us had the kind of security we took for granted. Still, I want my children–everyone’s children–to have what I had, and in profound ways they don’t. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” I say. “We could make so many things better for everyone.” I wonder if my belief is naive, as little tied to evidence as any faith.
“It would be nice in some ways to have lived when all of you did,” he says, “but I think I would have hated not having the internet.”
“No,” I say, “you wouldn’t have hated it.” I try to tell him, ground him in a concrete memory: “When my grandma would come home from a late shift–she was a Fred Meyer cashier–we’d sit at the kitchen table, my cousins and me and her. We’d play Yahtzee or cards, and eat ice cream, and watch Johnny Carson. We’d talk and laugh.”
I miss those people and that time and place so deeply, my eyes fill as I try to make him understand how it felt. I know my memory feels unremarkable to him. It’s hard to see what’s remarkable for what’s not in something–fear, anxiety–rather than for what is. “You would have liked it,” I say, knowing that I can’t make him see or feel it. You had to have been there.
I’ve brought Rocky to the vet because I’m afraid that he’s been in pain. He’s been acting the way he used to when his teeth would get bad: clingy, barking, weirdly stretching his jaw after meals. I’ve been giving him more lap time, as I’m able. Every night we watch something on TV together before bed. He’s sat in on a few Zoom meetings in recent weeks, and sometimes I reach over his body sleeping on my lap to work at my keyboard. There are no more teeth to remove, but he has a nasal fistula, a hole in his mouth that leads to the nasal cavity. I have been worried about infection. When I heard that vets are open for non-emergency visits, I called the same day.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the vet says again.
Rocky’s always been an anxious animal. We learned early on that he couldn’t be trusted around toddlers; he’d chase them and bark and jump on them. One of his ribs juts out at a funny angle, and if a foot ever brushes the middle section of his body, he shrieks. We don’t know what happened to him before he came to us, but he’s never been easy in the world.
He spends most of his hours in sleep, now. He and Daisy share a basket during the day, one I used to carry my preemie babies around in when they first came home from the hospital. It has a soft cushion in it, with a furry blanket for burrowing into. They each have their own bed at night, but most mornings I find them curled into each other in just one bed. Sometimes when I see them there, I think of my children, twins who spent the first months of their life sleeping within reach of each other’s limbs and breath.
What is it that we need for a quality life? Food, drink, a comfortable bed. Safety and security. Love and connection.
I think of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, which hang as posters on the wall of a local coffeehouse, Bipartisan Cafe. Used to be you could never get a seat there if you went too late on a weekend morning. I miss going there on weekend mornings or in the late afternoons. I don’t drink coffee, but I love the smell of it, and the hissing and clanging of the espresso machine, the low hum of voices, the sun streaming through windows, the sound of chair legs scraping against worn fir floors, the crust of their banana cream pie.
I miss a lot of small things. Estate sales, busy parks, food cart pods with picnic tables and twinkle lights.
I miss the sound of Rocky’s nails clicking on the floor as he ran to chase a toy thrown by one of the kids, back when he could run the way I could when I was a teenager, with a smooth, swift stride. I miss sitting down to eat dinner with my daughter and son every night. I miss my grandparents, who I will never see again, and my parents who I cannot know when I will see again. I’m planning to, but you know how hopes can go.
Yesterday we got take-out pastries and took them to a park. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. When a loose toddler veered too close, I tensed up. When a runner with no face mask passed us on a path, I wondered if an invisible cloud of disease trailed him, and if we were walking in it, breathing it in. “Let’s go home,” I said.
I miss feeling hopeful.
I miss freedom from want and fear.
“Rocky still has some life in him,” the vet says, “and it could be a little while yet, but I want you to be prepared for what’s coming.” I nod.
“I know,” I say, thinking: How do any of us prepare for what’s coming, really?
“His quality of life is OK for now, but it could change quickly. And when it does, it could go downhill very fast.” His eyes are still kind, but solemn, and I press what’s left of Rocky to my chest, nodding my head again, and I keep him close to me for the rest of the day after we return home.
How Anticipatory Grief May Show Up during the COVID-19 Outbreak: “A mourning process can occur even when we sense that a loss is going to happen, but we don’t know exactly what it is yet. We know the world around us will never be the same — but what exactly we’ve lost and will lose is still largely unknown to us.”
The World Is Taking Pity on Us: “A country that turned out eight combat aircraft every hour at the peak of World War II could not even produce enough 75-cent masks or simple cotton nasal swabs for testing in this pandemic.
A country that showed the world how to defeat polio now promotes quack remedies involving household disinfectants from the presidential podium.
A country that rescued postwar Europe with the Marshall Plan didn’t even bother to show up this week at the teleconference of global leaders pledging contributions for a coronavirus vaccine.
A country that sent George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower to crush the Nazis now fights a war against a viral killer with Jared Kushner, a feckless failed real estate speculator who holds power by virtue of his marriage to the president’s daughter.”
The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying: “The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence.”
McDonald’s Workers in Denmark Pity Us: “The golden age of American capitalism, from 1945 to 1980, was a period of high tax rates (up to 91 percent for the very wealthy), strong labor unions and huge initiatives, such as the G.I. Bill of Rights to help disadvantaged (albeit mostly white) Americans. This was a period of rapid growth in which income inequality declined — and in some ways it looked like today’s Denmark.”
I Am the Portrait of Downward Mobility: “Fully 92 percent of the Americans who reached their 30th birthday in 1970 earned more than their parents had earned at the same age, even after adjusting for inflation. But beginning in the 1970s, the economic ladder gradually became harder to climb, and fewer Americans were able to surpass their parents. In the cohort of Americans who turned 30 in 2010, only half earned more than their parents at the same age, according to research by a team of economists led by Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor. The American dream had become a coin flip.”
On April 21, a Tuesday, I got a migraine. It hung on through Friday; just as it was exiting the building of my body, something twinged hard in my right lower back, and I spent that weekend unable to move or sit or lie down without pain. By this Tuesday I was able to stop taking megadoses of ibuprofen and sitting/sleeping with a heating pad, and then the migraine returned. Today, Friday again, it is still here, for the 4th day.
Most of the time, migraine does not leave me writhing in pain in a dark room, because I have medication that usually works and keeps me able to mostly function. I can usually work when on my meds. They can make me slow and fuzzy, and fatigued, and feeling generally off, but after I take them the sharp, stabbing pains and the vice grip on my skull subside, so it feels like relief. Slow, fuzzy, fatigued, and off are a gift, when I consider the alternative. The alternative is entire days entirely lost to pain that literally brings me to my knees.
Most of my work meetings begin with a grounding activity, in which we are given some stimulus to help us center our ensuing conversation in our students and families, the majority of whom are people of color and/or living in poverty. The general theme when we are sharing our responses to the stimulus, since we’ve been closed, is this:
We are so fortunate, to be living in the privilege we do. We need to keep at the forefront our families who are not.
In comparison to those who are sick, out of work, working on the front lines (which increasingly feels more literal than metaphorical), and/or targeted by bigots, we white educators who are working are fortunate. As an educator who is not providing direct service to students, I am more fortunate (at least in some ways) than those who are. (More than one I know has shared this teacher’s post this week.)
The other day, I was setting out for a run. The thought came to me: “Death is all around us.” Then came the very next thought, as I took in the blossoming trees and greening grass: “So is life.” And right away, I knew in some deep place that these two facts are never not true. Death and life, always right here, all around us. It’s like Neruda wrote: Budding among the ruins.
Day 49: Budding among the ruins
Jena also offered this:
“And we also know that grief, like any painful emotion not given an outlet, does not just vanish. It goes inward. It takes up room in ways that remain invisible yet are everywhere, not unlike a deadly virus.”
We are all, right now, living among the ruins, of so many things. And even the relatively fortunate among us are grieving. That grief might look like frenetic activity. It might look like laughing inappropriately. It might look like weeping over nothing and everything. It might look like sudden fury over triviality. Or it might look like inertia, binge-watching, or chronic pain.
Mondays through Fridays, I don’t have much room to grieve. I suppose that’s why it goes inward and takes up space in my body, a place where it is largely invisible. Weekends, I get to let it out, so I can be whole enough to dive back in come Monday. Often that takes the form of writing here, but I’m feeling the call to do something different this week. I’m feeling the call to do nothing. I think this is going to have to substitute for the usual Sunday post.
Wishing you a weekend of whatever it is you need to be whole enough to keep going, to bud in whatever kind of soil you find yourself rooted in. Because we all deserve to bloom, even now. Maybe especially now.
Look at what it is that makes a nest: Layers. Strands of this and snippets of that: hair, grass, needle, leaf. And, too: Tenacity, instinct, skill. How many wingbeats must it take? How many miles does a bird traverse back and forth, back and forth, to make its shelter, to attract and secure its mate?
Think of what it is that makes a cup and what it’s for: Curves, walls, a space in which to keep things–water, keys, buttons, change. What is an egg’s shell but a cup full of change? And a nest but a cup full of shells?
In the spring my children were babies, a stellar jay raided a sparrow’s nest in the tree outside my second-story bedroom window. You need three crows for a murder, but it took only one jay to kill the nestlings, high up in the branches, unmoved by the parents’ screeching that sounded, to my human ears, first like screaming, and then like keening.
Consider what it is success requires: Think outside the box.
Late last fall, in a different kind of time, I found an abandoned nest hidden inside a thicket of tangled morning glory and climbing rose. I marveled at its intricacy and craftsmanship. I admired its cunning inner cup. It felt like a prize for my morning’s labor of taming wild plants.
In this spring of strife and threat and fear, when I find the nest again, forgotten on a table at the back of the greenhouse where I’d set it months ago, it sets in motion a train of different thoughts. I think of various shelters I’ve made and what I’ve learned (and haven’t) about how and where to build a nest. I think about what kind of bird I’d want to be and how I want to live. I could never be a predatory jay, raiding other birds’ nests, flying with a raucous flock. I no longer want a pretty home balanced up in the branches of a tree; the view, I know, is lovely, but the rent is high. I think, if it’s a choice, I’d be more finch than sparrow or jay. Like the ones who sheltered in my yard last year, I’d need no human-built box to hold my nest, but only a hollow within a tangle of stems and leaves and thorns, a low, dark, small space a bully jay would never bother.
There’s more than one way to be fit and survive.
Dots (and some thoughts about process):
This week I encountered the nest in the greenhouse soon after reading my friend Kari’s piece on nesting and anxiety. Both had me wanting to write in a literal way about my own home, the place in which I’m sheltering, but I never got beyond the metaphor. Instead I fell down a Google rabbit hole, reading about all kinds of birds and their nests (some linked above), and I spent time watching the ones I share my little corner of the world with, mostly finches and crows. I think this post came out more like poetry than prose because for weeks now I’ve been reading the words of poets on Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa. I don’t know Dave, not even in an internet sense–not really–but he thinks he found this blog through the blogroll of someone I know (though he doesn’t remember who), and he’s been linking to my posts. So I’ve been reading the other writers he links to (on Sundays), and their cadences, their ways with words, have likely been planting seeds in my head that are beginning to sprout (which is what happens when writers read). Our connection might (or might not) be Bethany Reid (I’ve seen they are Twitter connected), a poet I met decades ago at the University of Washington, a woman I sometimes think of when I see Roethke’s line about once knowing a woman “lovely in her bones” who sighs back at sighing birds, maybe because she once brought to our workshop a sestina I’ve never forgotten about a young girl chasing geese, and maybe because she’s lovely in the way that songbirds are, and maybe because that time and place and those I knew there are fused with Roethke in my mind. This week Bethany published a post about the poet Crysta Casey, a woman who was beautiful in a different way (more like a loon than a songbird) and whose flight path occasionally crossed our own on that campus, and that, too, seemed connected to metaphors about safety and home. (Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop in the 80s was a nurturing place for many fledgling poets.) Much creative work–nests, homes, poems, blog posts–are built this way, by gathering together bits of this and that from the things we encounter by chance and seek by choice, and then weaving them into something whole and new, and in this chaotic time, there’s something wonderfully comforting in the constancy and underlying pattern of a process that seems, on the surface, merely random.