Daisy May Ramstad, 2007-6/6/2022

I want to tell you that she was a good dog, as obituaries generally require us to speak well of the dead, but she was not, by most objective measures, a good dog. She paid attention to our words and wishes only when she wanted to, she was never reliably housebroken (not because she didn’t understand or couldn’t comply with the expectations, but because she really preferred, like the humans in her pack, to go inside), and she was notorious for getting her longtime companion, Rocky, all worked up over nothing. She was a fan of the grudge poop (middle of the hallway, where it couldn’t be missed), and she had no fucks to give about things we might have felt important that she did not.

Which just goes to show that you don’t have to be good to be loved–because love her we did, unconditionally and deeply. Sometimes we loved her more because she wasn’t “good,” and she had us laughing even as we scolded her (such as the time we caught her on the kitchen table, licking butter from the butter dish). She was funny, and strong-willed, and sassy. She did what she wanted. Lucky for us, one of the things she wanted all the time was to be as close to one of her humans as physically possible.

Aside from being with us, her favorite things were eating and taking a nap in a patch of sun. We could all learn a thing or two about living a happy life from her. (Take the nap. Eat with gusto. Love what you love without reservation.)

(I knew the end was approaching when she stopped leaping with excitement over her bowl being filled.)

As a young dog, she loved playing at the river and doing whatever her three kids wanted her to do, even if it involved wearing dress-up clothes. In recent years, she was happiest having a good nap with or on one of her humans.

These last few years, when I looked at her and remembered how she once was–back when she had teeth, and fur on her ears, and a plump belly–I thought often of a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

If Daisy was nothing else, she was Real: a small bundle of a being full of desire and need, which gave her a full range of qualities: loving, needy, generous, petty, delightful, naughty, interesting, infuriating, fun. One of the great gifts of Daisy was the way she showed us that being real is more important than being good. That we can be loved not in spite of our foibles and flaws, but because of them. I like to think that in loving Daisy, we we all became a little better at loving each other and ourselves.

She is, and will long be, missed.

Probability vs. Possibility

Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

The morning after the school shooting in Texas, my principal shared a resource with information about how to talk with children about violence, and some of it I can’t quite believe anymore. (“Schools are safe places.”) But I glommed onto a sentence about possibility and probability and the idea that while it is possible something horrific could happen at the school where my husband and I spend our days, it is not probable. I shared this idea this with my adult daughter the day after the shooting, and she rejected it.

We were skating together at the mall where both of us now spend a good portion of our time, and I argued for optimistic probability even as I was remembering a moment only a few weeks ago when a noise that didn’t sound right caught my attention while I was skating, and my first thought was: Where do I go if someone starts shooting?

It’s not probable that someone would start shooting in the mall, but I know it’s possible because of the 2012 shooting that happened in a mall not far from the one where each us now goes several days a week. It was a mall that I regularly took my children to when they were young. I know it’s not probable that I will ever be directly involved in a mass shooting event, but when you have trained and drilled for years for that possibility, when the structures in which you have spent your working days for more than three decades have gradually been transformed into semi-fortresses, when so much of how you operate within those structures is shaped by potential threat, it is no wonder that my first thoughts on hearing a noise that didn’t sound right were: I’ll need to get off the ice, this space is an obvious target. I can’t run in skates. Where is a place with no windows? Where is a place with a locked door? Where can I get quickly with skates on? Are there children here who will need help?

I didn’t get off the ice that morning because I quickly determined that there was no threat and because I know–I truly do know–that it’s not probable that any unusual loud noises in public spaces are the beginnings of a mass shooting event. Still, I do know it’s possible to be directly involved because a principal I once worked for had previously been principal at a school when it was the site of an infamous shooting. I know it’s possible because a school I once taught at was the site of a shooting (and my former classroom there had windows that faced the field from which the shooter fired). I know it’s possible because of the school shooting at a high school two miles from my house in 2014, a school that some of my current students attend and that was the target of a threat (one deemed not credible, but still) on Friday. A colleague/friend had a child that was in attendance at that school that day in 2014, and I will never forget the sight of his face as one of our administrators walked him down the hall after pulling him out of class to tell him what was happening. I know it’s possible because of an event in 2019 that happened at the high school serving the neighborhood I now live in. I know it’s possible because in the US this year, we are averaging 10 mass shootings a week.

Still, I argued with my child that it was not probable. She rejected that. What she was rejecting, I think, was a line of thought that can be used to dilute the horror of where we’re at with this, or to be in denial about it. Our debate grew a little heated, and I finally had to say: “I can’t talk about this any more right now.”

I needed some denial to be OK on Wednesday.

Later that day I de-activated my Facebook account because I don’t know that I can listen any more, either. We seem to have moved past thoughts and prayers as a primary response (unless you’re a politician who takes NRA money), but it was the earnest pleas from so many that I care for and respect (but who don’t work in schools) to call senators and give money to activist groups, and the assertions that now, finally, something will be done that did me in. I just couldn’t listen to it this week. How can anyone who is paying any real attention to what’s happening in our government believe that our calls are the thing that will make something change? It is so clear–on so many fronts–that the desires of the majority are not what’s driving too many of our lawmakers, on so many issues.

I couldn’t listen because the next day I had to go to school and do my job, and I couldn’t do the latter if I had done the former. I cannot teach well when I’m dis-regulated from fear, anger, and hopelessness, and when seeing our responses to this latest massacre of children, those are the emotions I felt. I chose doing my job (because what other choice is there?), where the threat of violence is such a constant hum in the background of what we do–it’s in the badges that we wear, the locks on all the outer doors, the reminders not to prop the doors open, the drills, the security camera footage playing on a big screen in the front lobby, the small shot of adrenaline we get if we see an unaccompanied stranger in the building who isn’t wearing a badge–that we don’t really notice it until something like this (temporarily) turns up the volume of it.

So what do we do? I don’t know what we need to do, but more of what we’ve been doing since Sandy Hook to no meaningful effect feels futile. Of course I will continue to vote, and I will do what I need to do to remain informed, and I might give some money, too, but I’m well aware that while it is possible that our government will reform itself, it is not probable that it is going to happen now. While I know it is possible that large numbers of people will remain activated on this issue past this weekend, I don’t think it’s probable that they will. I think we should all get grounded in these realities and what they probably mean for us, and make our choices–about what to fight for, and how–accordingly.

*****

(The only thing that gave me any real solace this week was this, grim and cynical as it is. Because at least it felt honest and true.)

“…with my breath held”

On Wednesday, one blogger I follow left a comment on another blogger’s post saying that she is “living life, but with my breath held” and I felt the way I feel when I pass by a store window and am startled to realize that the person I’m seeing in the window’s reflection is me.

As soon as I read the words I realized that I, too, have been holding my breath, the way we do when we know that a needle is about to poke (just got my second booster this week) or some other kind of discomfort is going to land. Aside from living among the constantly flaring dumpster fires of the larger world, I’m also waiting for or living through a fair number of transitions in my personal life. Uncertainty abounds.

image of old, sleeping dog

It’s all well and good to say, “just breathe”–and I have moments when I intentionally do just that. But life has been moving swiftly and requiring my brain to attend to many other things. Mostly, I now realize, I’ve been getting through the days with my breath held, preparing for shoes to drop or ducking to avoid them. It’s become habit, and most of most days is really pretty good, so I hadn’t noticed the breath-holding until someone else pointed it out. I suppose it’s why I haven’t had much to share here lately; perhaps it’s because, like the blogger whose post prompted the comment, I have so many words that I have no words about quite a lot of things.

So, here are some pictures from the past little while, with just a few words.

Note from student: Hey Mrs. Ramstad
This note from a student kinda wrecked me, with the distinction they make between being treated like “a human with feelings” and like “just a student.” There are so many words I might say here–about schools, about lost opportunities, about what’s happening to our young people and those who care for them–that my throat feels tight with them.
Dishwasher on kitchen floor and man peering into hole under counter where dishwasher used to be

This is the hole where the dishwasher used to be. Some words: Full house, sustainability, needs, wants, money, renovation, priorities, eyesore, time, gratitude, love.

urban yard with the beginning of an island in the lawn with a tree and two shrubs

Mother’s Day plant sale. Kill your lawn. No man is an island. Wind in the willows. Work in progress.

Because Wordle wasn’t enough for me. Because the NYT crossword and Spelling Bee weren’t enough. Because when there are too many words knocking around in your head, wordplay can be a balm for the brain.

Cluttered kitchen with reading chairs

Funky kitchen, part II. Archie & Edith chairs. Best fika spot this side of the pond. It’s weird, but it works. #howwereallylive

hazy purple square

Why is this on my camera roll? What is it? How did it get taken? I don’t know, but it is strangely soothing. I like it.

Slow Going

In my years of peak career and parenting, I often longed for the kind of life I saw depicted in books and films set in earlier times. A life where people had time within their work day to sit down for a cup of tea or to write letters longer than strictly necessary. (Think 84 Charing Cross Road or Call the Midwife.) It was a slower world, one where a person had to wait longer than we are now accustomed to for news and products and services, but I dreamed of having days in which I wasn’t constantly racing the clock and fighting exhaustion and cutting corners on everything I did. I yearned for community, rest, health, connection, and meaning–all things that require time to cultivate.

I wondered, then, if I was being taken in by sentimental fantasy. Had such lives truly existed? Could they, now? I became aware of slow movements of various kinds and wrote a bit about them on the blog Cane and I created (an endeavor that was part of what made my life the antithesis of slow). I read blogs by women who were seemingly living gorgeous, throwback lives full of real food and hand-made things and soulful children playing in sunlit meadows. As getting through a week without resorting to fast food eaten in my car with a sweaty teenager or two felt like an impossible dream, I love-hated these online spaces. I knew they were selling a fantasy, but damn: I wanted it.

And now–I think?–I sort of have it. Not some idyllic, click-bait sponsored dream-life, but a genuine slow life. There are no chickens in the backyard, no bespoke linens or cunning needlework projects or seed catalog orders waiting to sprout. I still have a TV, and I watch it. But life has slowed, and it’s better for it.

I think the shift happened in February, when I began skating. Or maybe it happened in December, when I decided to take the winter off from writing here. But it was in March that I noticed my days were being lived at a different pace. It was in March that I noticed the absence of some kind of driving force within myself that had, for decades, pushed me to do and be and accomplish more and more and more. It was in March that I stopped thinking of time as wasted if I had nothing tangible to show for it, no real progress toward some thing I wanted to make or learn or do or achieve outside of those things I needed for our life to function.

Maybe it really all started a year ago, with the broken dishwasher. We still haven’t fixed or replaced it. Dinner now is often a 2-3 hour event, from the beginning of food preparation to the drying of the last dish. I usually don’t bake my own bread or mix my own salad dressing, but we’re eating more real food in which none of the ingredients end in -ose or –ate. Monday night I tore up part of a loaf of bread to dry croutons for a chicken Caesar salad, and I made pasta sauce from whole (albeit store-bought, canned) tomatoes. If I were a person who always bakes my own bread or cans home-grown tomatoes, I likely wouldn’t have had time after school on Monday afternoon to sit on the sofa with my old dog Daisy–a highlight of both our days–and feel myself soften and expand in response to the poetry (truly, poetry) of the final episode of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things. I think my life is better for having spent time that way than it would be if I’d used it to restore furniture or sew clothing or write a poem of my own.

We seem to be in a cultural moment of reckoning with our values around productivity and capitalism, so I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but I want you to know: It feels good to let go of feeling that I need to be breaking any kind of ground. That I have to write Things That Matter. That I need to make Cool Things of any kind. That I must Do Good.

I have whole days in which I do little but move my body, take care of sustaining our lives, and engage with people I love. And it is really, really good. I have other days where I go to work, and I am rested enough to care well for the children who are mine to care for. That is really good, too. As of last week, both of my young adult children are living with us again, and some days are full to overflowing with going to work and maybe taking a walk and then making dinner and cleaning up and talking with each other and carrying the dog down and back up the porch steps because she too-often tumbles on them now. What the days are not full of is any kind of striving.

It feels so right not to strive.

I am being what and who I am, as I am able to, in the time I have–imperfect wife, mother, teacher, daughter, skater, writer, gardener, homemaker, citizen of the world–without feeling that I have to be great at any of those roles or take on any new ones or do more than is healthy given the resources available to me. Although in my life I have absolutely been bound by punishing structures and forces outside of myself that I could do little about, I am seeing that some of my struggle came from within my own head, which is filled with the voices of my (pretty damn toxic) culture.

Maybe my growing ability to silence those voices is a thing that’s coming with age, as I get closer to the end than the beginning and am understanding how fleeting life is. Maybe it is living through this time in which guardrails and safety nets I once thought would always stand have disintegrated, not likely to be rebuilt in my lifetime (or, perhaps, my children’s), and realizing that anything I might do is not likely to significantly change or save (whatever that means) the world.

Whatever the cause and whenever it began, I am grateful that in this week in which we are reaching, again, for Mary Oliver’s “Of the Empire,” I used my time to eat slow dinners with my family and care gently for our dying dog and meet my students with compassion and skate until my body broke a sweat and sit on our front porch in the early evening sun. I am grateful I had space to write these words for no one but you and me and to imagine going back in time and taking aside that struggling, striving woman I once was and telling her this:

You don’t have to earn your right to be here, to take up space on your little speck of the planet, for the blip of time that is yours. You have no more obligation to the world than a tulip or hummingbird or raindrop does. You, too, get to just be. Make your choices knowing that everything you have and do and love will pass. Everything. The best way to serve the world, probably, is to grow and be guided by a heart that is large, and soft, and full of kindness. That’s a project it will never be too late to start, but the sooner you can, the better. Maybe don’t be so slow with that one, yeah?

Becoming a unicorn

In my first post-hiatus post, I wrote a bit about returning to ice skating. I didn’t say all that much about skating or what it really means to me because…well, I suppose because I felt a little shy about it all. Confused. Excited and afraid of looking foolish. Protective. Not really sure of what it means or what it will be. Not unlike the way you can feel at the beginning of a romance.

I mean…c’mon. I am 57 years old. When I was skating–really skating–the Cold War was still in full swing. Jimmy Carter was president. I’m too old to be the parent of many of today’s competitive skaters.

But you know those stories about high school sweethearts who break up and live separate lives for decades and then meet at a reunion and fall in love all over again? I’ve never done that, but I imagine it to feel much as I am feeling about rekindling my relationship with skates and ice and other skaters. I imagine it feels wondrous and improbable and–more than anything else–delightful.

Y’all: I am freakin’ full of delight. On a daily basis.

I know you might not know that from reading my posts, and I’m probably never going to not feel all kinds of angst about the world’s slow burn (both literal and metaphorical) on so many fronts, but I am also, simultaneously, full of delight. Because, what are the chances? Who would ever expect, after 45 years, to fall in love again with the one who got away? Who would’ve thought that existential dread and pure, hope-filled joy can exist in the same being at the same time?

I’m here to tell you: It can. Life is weird. Heartbreaking and wonderful and funny and surprising.

Sometimes, I tell myself that everything that went wrong in mine can be traced back to the time I quit skating, even though I know that’s a little ridiculous. I was 12, and life pretty much turns to shit for everyone when they hit 7th grade, but I hit 7th grade right after I lost a thing that made me feel strong and beautiful and whole. (I think 7th grade–and all the years beyond it–could be a whole different experience for everyone involved if we could all have a thing that makes us feel strong and beautiful and whole.)

It’s all so mysterious. Why would moving and jumping and spinning over ice be a thing that makes a person whole? I don’t know. But skating–even in the wobbly, starting-all-over-again-as-an-almost-beginner way I’m doing it–still gives me moments of feeling strong and beautiful and whole, and I’ve lived long enough to know that’s no small or unimportant thing.

To be clear: Like any love–perhaps, especially, a late-in-life one–it’s not all rainbows and confetti. Every person who’s lived a good chunk of time carries baggage, and unpacking mine has meant coming to new terms with aging and mortality and the passing of time and dreams.

In the past two months, I’ve become grounded in the reality that my body has changed and is changing. That I am going to get old and die. For real. Not in some abstract, “some day” sort of way, but in a concrete, wow-I-can’t-do-things-I-could-do-just-a-few-years-ago sort of way. In my head, I’ve still been mostly the same physical being I was in my mid-30s or so. Sure, I’d gained a few pounds, but I could still do all the same things, right? Ummm, not exactly. Now, in both my head and body, I know I’m not the same physical being I thought I was. (If you want to know how old your body really is, take up a sport you haven’t played since you were a tween. You’ll know, too.)

I know this might sound kind of grim–and I’ve had my moments of feeling fairly terrible about it all–but it’s really not. It’s becoming the foundation for a kind of gratitude I’ve never felt before. Yes, I’m going to die, but I’m not dead yet. A thing I thought was lost to me has come back. (What else might this be true for?) My body has deteriorated, but not so much that I can’t embrace this opportunity. The ladies I skate with tell me I’ve come back just in time; I’m still young enough to regain many of the skills I once had, but if I’d waited even a few more years that might not be the case. For the first time since–well, since about the time I quit skating, really–I’m feeling more gratitude than resentment toward my body.

Speaking of the ladies I skate with, I have discovered that there is a whole world of adult skaters. This did not exist when I left skating in the late ’70s, but now the US Figure Skating Association has a program for you if “you are an adult who became a skater or a skater who became an adult.” I’ve had a hard time knowing which kind of adult skater I am. A woman I take lessons with is 73 years old, and she didn’t start skating until she was 55! She can skate circles around me in our dance class, but there are things I can do that she can’t because of the skating I did when I was young. Still, I don’t really feel like a skater who became an adult, either. I’ve joined two Facebook groups for adult skaters, and I see post after post from people wondering if they can come back after 20 or 25 years away. These are people who skated and competed for years as children and teens, and they are in their 30s and 40s now.

I skated for only 18 months (albeit fairly intense ones), and I did it 45 years ago.

FORTY-FIVE YEARS.

How is that possible? How is that a real thing? How have that many years of my life passed? How is it that my body has retained enough muscle memory from so long ago that I have moments when I can do things without knowing how, exactly, I’m doing them? But why are there other, far simpler things that I can’t do? How can I be thinking of skating–really skating–after more than 4 decades away from it? What does “really skating” mean, anyway, now? What can it mean? How can a thing I did for such a short time feel and be so important? Both back then and now? How can age be something that is both so concrete and so amorphous, with time simultaneously expanding and collapsing every time I step on the ice?

At times, this has all felt like mind-fuckery of grand proportions–but in a good way? Or at least, an amazing, interesting, isn’t-life-weird way. I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and for once in my long history of questioning almost everything, I am not impatient to find them. I am figuring out this romance as I go, and I know that–this time–I get to form answers that will work better for me. This time, there is no such thing as “too old” and no reason to do any of it other than love. What a freaking amazing gift! To get to rewrite a painful story and give it a whole new ending. To heal my relationship with my body. To get to skate just for the love of it, and to have found it again while I still can. I haven’t yet come across anyone with a backstory quite like mine, which has me feeling that my relationship with skating is a bit of a unicorn. A beautiful, rare, magical thing.

I think I might start farting glitter any day now.

(That is, of course, not me in this video! I couldn’t do half those moves, even without a unicorn costume on.)

I would love to hear about anyone having an experience of returning to a lost love. Or about a lost love you’d like to get back to. Hoping mine can help you believe that it’s not impossible.

On taking flight

The Skater
The skater is only eleven,
her narrow body just beginning
to grow out of control.
She is moving backwards,
tiny skirt lifted flat
against the arch of her back,
mittened hands held out,
the pose of her index finger
hidden in the wool.
With force she leaps,
a simple hop
from one foot to the other,
yet, for her, flight:
for an instant she is suspended,
legs open, arms circled, closed,
her act both giving and receiving;
then she is bound again,
landing crunch hiss,
her blade holding an edge firm into a smooth curve,
her free leg stretching, her arms reaching up, out–
not in a pose, but a celebration.
Then she is off again,
sharp air pushing against her cheeks,
turning them pink, turning her into a ripple
of sleeves, skirt, hair,
and she breathes deep,
moving backwards still
with long, sure strokes, feeling
she’s pulling the ice in, to her,
consuming it with her limbs,
knowing she’s found
the element she was born to exalt in,
and intoxicated by it all–
the air, her speed, the power
in her body, strong and fresh as clean ice–
she drives her toe down
to propel herself up again,
arms and legs held close, tight,
never thinking of the pock in the ice,
the hole that is the price
for this glorious, twisting flight,
or of her landing,
which may or may not
crunch hiss into a smooth edge
that curves gracefully
as the arch of her tender back.

*****

I wrote the first version of this poem in the fall of 1987, the day before I began my first “real” job after graduating from college. It had been more than 10 years since I’d quit skating, but these were the words that came to me as I thought about leaving behind my life as a student, the only one I’d ever known. I was going to be working in a cubicle, with two weeks’ vacation every year. Sitting at my sunny dining table, I thought about how it would likely be decades before I would again have time on a weekday morning to write poems.

I wondered what I was gaining and what I was losing and how I would feel about it all far in the future, at the end of my work life, when I might again be able to spend weekday mornings writing poems.

This week, trying to write a post about my return to skating, I remembered the poem I wrote nearly 35 years ago. I went searching for it in a box of papers I have in my attic that is full of essays and resumes and news articles I wrote during those years in which I was figuring out what my life might become. Taking that first job–as an editorial assistant in an educational publishing company–felt like taking a leap, and I didn’t know what it might cost me or how I would land. I knew then what I knew as a skater, though: to complete a jump, you have to trust that you will, while simultaneously being OK with knowing that you might fall.

Two weeks ago, I had to formalize my decision not to return to teaching in September. This week, while talking with one of my classes about how much time we have left and what we need to get done in it, I told them that we would only be meeting 15 more times.

“Only 15 more times?” one boy said in mock dismay. “But Ms. Ramstad, I’m going to miss you!” The others laughed, and I did, too.

“It’s OK, we’ll see her next year,” another one said.

I hesitated, then said, “Well, actually, I won’t be teaching here next year.”

The feeling in the room shifted. “Why?” someone asked, and I said something about retiring.

“I’m already retired, you know,” I said. “I only teach two classes here now. I’ve just decided that I’m ready to retire more completely.”

There was a pause before another student said, “It’s ’cause you don’t want to work with us anymore, isn’t it?” He, too, used a joking tone, but as always with jokes, I knew there was truth in his words.

“No, no,” I said, quickly, seriously, anxiously. “I really like working with all of you. I’m so glad I got to do that this year. It was a hard decision because I didn’t want to give that part of teaching up.”

“Then why?” someone else asked.

I hesitated, then gave them the truth. “I’ve realized that I’m not really into teaching English any more,” I admitted. I didn’t say what I’ve said privately to friends in recent weeks: “My heart’s just not in it.” Not in the way it should be, the way it needs to be, the way it used to be. I can’t make myself care about teaching multiple approaches to literary analysis, about participating in academic discourse. As with so many things now, I’m a one-time believer who’s lost her faith.

“It’s time for me to do other things,” I said instead. I know this is true, even though I don’t know what, exactly, those things are.

Who will I be and what will I do if I’m really no longer a teacher? I don’t know. Stepping away, for real this time, feels like driving my toe-pick into the ice to propel myself into the air. It leaves a hole behind, and it–along with the possibility of falling–is always the price for flight.

But jumping I am, knowing this time what I didn’t at 11 or 22 (or even 33 or 44): That inventing ourselves is a lifelong activity, something we have to do over and over again. Wish me luck that my landing will crunch hiss once more into something as sure as the curve of my tender heart.

I spoke too soon

What the actual hell?

Guess I called the end of cozy season a day too soon. There’s about 2 inches (and counting) of snow on the patio chairs. Cross your fingers for all the blooming things.

Seriously. This was TWO days ago. Last Thursday we were 75 and sunny. I’ve put all my warm sweaters away! (sigh)

It is a little past 7:00 AM and we are on a 2-hour delay (Portland) and it’s coming down even harder than it did when I took the video. We’ve just gone above freezing, but we’ve got snow forecast until 10:00.

Ugh.

Kids who show up to school are gonna be super-focused in class today.

Oh-update: We are now closed!

I am never one to look a snow day gift in the mouth. Off to make cookies! And snuggle with Daisy.

(These are healthy breakfast cookies. I eat one every school morning. Recipe.)

Clenching and opening one small hand

On a day when engaging with the world feels too much like loving a damaged man, I stand underneath our willow’s blossoming canopy and look up. It is like being in another world, one with a sky made of flowers, and I remember that this is how it is:

There is only one world, and we stay because of moments such as this.

We stay because leaving means leaving all of it, not just its barrage of bad news, and we cannot give up spring afternoons when the sun is the right kind of warm and tulips are leaning toward us as if we are the light and passing strangers smile and tell us how lovely our corner of it is. We stay because we see how it might be, how it could be, how, for brief moments, it is, and we let ourselves believe that–if only we love it carefully enough–it can be (it will be) like this all the time.

That we are wrong doesn’t make the moments any less beautiful or true.

*****

This week my students and I read Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Making a Fist” together, from which I borrowed a line to use as the title of this post. I turned away from much of the news this week, but I made myself stay with “Inside Mariupol,” which also contributed to this micro-essay.

At the end of a week in which I struggled with purpose

Cane and I had our usual Friday night date–dinner at a nearby dive bar–even though it was spring break and so we had none of our typical need for end-of-the-week ease and release. We each had our usual drink (a whiskey for me and a beer for him) and ate our usual meal (a shared happy hour burger and fries).

We sat in a booth in front of the big windows, even though the sun was shining and it might have been comfortable, again, to eat outside in the tables put on the street temporarily (or so we thought) in the first year of the pandemic.

“Oh, we forgot quarters,” I said, remembering how the week before he had said we should try to remember quarters so that we could play pool. (We are both fairly terrible pool players, but we like to play it anyway. We get a lot of value for a few quarters because it takes us so long to clear the table.)

“Eh, that’s OK,” he said. “The tables are full.”

We sat in our usual booth in the window and didn’t talk much. The fries were good. One of the pool players approached our table. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but aren’t you a teacher at…” He was looking at Cane, but I recognized him, sort of. A friend joined him, and he looked even more familiar to me. He confirmed that I had been his English teacher his junior year. I knew his face, but I couldn’t attach it to a specific student in my memories. I deduced, after learning their graduation year, that I’d had the friend in my class the last year I taught before leaving the classroom to become (I had hoped) a school librarian. It had been a hard year, my first as a single parent. At the end of it I knew I could no longer be both a parent and full-time classroom teacher. Not good ones, anyway.

“You don’t want to remember me,” the friend laughed. “I was a little shit.”

I still didn’t remember exactly who he was. “That’s OK,” I said. “Lots of kids are little shits.” I smiled.

The first young man continued to talk with Cane. He now works in a field related to the one he first learned about with Cane. He was dressed nicely, spoke well, has a good job. It’s nice to see former students doing well. I don’t remember what his friend said he was doing. He was dressed more like the other patrons in the bar and didn’t have his friend’s polish. He mentioned having lived in San Francisco for a time.

They went back to playing pool, and we talked about who they were. Cane remembered both of them; he’d had them both for two years, and I’d only had the one (most likely) for one, my last one.

“I remember that kid,” he said of the friend, naming him. “He was a little shit.” And it clicked: Memory served me an image of a short, skinny, angry boy who sat in the front and scowled at me for all of that last, hard year. He didn’t do a lot of my assignments; instead, he told me how stupid and pointless they were. Often. Our students attended our school only half-time; the other half they attended their regular high schools. We drew them from 4 different schools, and his often sent us angry, conservative, young white men. Even in 2009, when social media for teens consisted mostly of MySpace and before angry, conservative young white men were as prevalent and vocal as they are today.

They were behind us, and I kept glancing at them through a mirror in front of me. They were in a small group, laughing, talking, playing pool. At one point, my former angry student pulled his hair out of a ponytail holder and released a long, glorious corona of wavy hair that fell past his shoulders. He laughed easily and often, bearing only a shadow of resemblance to the young man-boy he once was, with short, severe hair and tidy clothes. His shoes were always white and clean. I hadn’t liked him, and he was part of what made a hard year harder.

They finished their game and moved to an outside table. Cane and I finished our meal and gathered our things and made our way out the door, happy to be heading home to watch an episode of Game of Thrones with our old Daisy between us on the couch.

He stopped at their table to say good-bye, and we all smiled at each other. As Cane started to move away, I leaned down to speak privately to my former student.

“I remember who you are now,” I said, and his face shifted, just a little. I want to say that he looked a bit wary, but I don’t really know if that’s how he felt. (We so often don’t know how each other feels.) “You weren’t a little shit,” I said.

His mouth moved into a little twisty smile. “Oh, I was,” he said.

“No,” I said, and paused. “You weren’t a little shit.” I paused again. “I think you were probably just very unhappy.”

I saw something in his eyes soften. “Yeah,” he said, “I was.”

“You weren’t a shit,” I repeated, holding his eyes with mine.

“Thanks,” he said, and smiled a different way, without the twist. I smiled back at him and followed Cane down the sidewalk to our car, the setting sun at our backs as I reached for his hand.

Dots

What You’re Feeling Isn’t a Vibe Shift. It’s Permanent Change.

The Gritty Re-Boot of Gen X’s Nuclear Nightmares

Anyone Else Failing to Find Their Way Back into the World?

On wintering

Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.

Doing these deeply unfashionable things–slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting–is a radical act now, but it is essential.

Katherine May, Wintering

I spent the winter hibernating.

Not literally, of course, and not completely; I kept getting up and going to work and talking to friends and such. But still, it was a season of purposeful, chosen dormancy. Covid’s omicron strain made it easier than it might otherwise have been because it provided an acceptable (in my circles) reason to go quiet.

Katherine May identifies several different kinds of wintering and ways of entering in to such a season of life; mine has been a wintering of transition, of having “temporarily fallen between two worlds.” I am both retired and not-retired. I am in a process of leaving behind the self I have been for most of my adult life (mother, educator, creative dabbler) and welcoming another whose labels are mostly unknown.

My life has not felt this open in more than 40 years. It would be nice to have the body I had the last time I was in such circumstances, but I’m facing a malleable future with considerably more knowledge and less fear than I had then. I feel more existential threat than I have at any other time, but for now I’ve got a sturdy shelter, economic stability, reasonably good health, and love. I have choices. I am fortunate.

So, what did I do while away?

I read poetry and historical fiction and memoir and self-help. I organized cupboards and put reading chairs in the kitchen and bought a new dining table that sits in front of our big living room window. I wrote poems and memoir exercises and lesson plans and an essay. I took naps on the couch and on the bed, in the middle of sunny days, and against a backdrop of late afternoon rain. I made chicken soup from the whole bird and pizza dough from yeast and flour and beer, and breakfast cookies sweetened with chunks of dark chocolate. I bought a houseplant, and pillar candles for the pedestal holders my grandfather carved at the beginning of his retirement more than 40 years ago. We’ve placed them on the new table. I bought and returned three sweatshirts because none of them was right. I worked a really hard puzzle. I watched TV. I went to the doctor and dentist and physical therapist. I sat outside one day in February’s false spring sun and closed my eyes.

And I began ice skating. (again)

I decided to take a break from blogging and enter into a period of purposeful dormancy because I sensed that I needed some quiet and some space so that things could emerge. What things? I didn’t know, and “things” was as precise a word I wanted when I began. I thought the time underground would bring clarity around writing, perhaps give me some direction in what I want to do or work on. I began working through Julia Cameron’s program for creative recovery and was open to where it might take me. I never expected it to take me to an ice rink.

Right after I turned eleven, my parents gave me a pair of Sears skates and a session of group lessons at our small, local rink. Before I got home from the first lesson I had a private coach and our goal was the Olympics. About 16 months later–after I’d become a member of our skating community and graduated to custom skates and begun consistently landing my first double jump–I quit. One day I went to the rink as I always did, and then I came home and put my skate bag in the back of my closet and never wore my skates again. I did not skate as if it were my last day, even though I knew it was. I did not say good-bye to anyone.

I believe that all of us are given gifts, things we do easily and well that we love doing. Things that others respond to. Things for which we are often given recognition and validation. I have known, for decades, that I was given two: skating and writing. If it is true that there are things each of us is made to do, these two things are mine.

I have also long believed, primarily in an intellectual and theoretical way, that when our gifts are not allowed expression, we are not whole.

Well, now I know it in a different way.

In Raynor Winn’s memoir The Wild Silence (one of my hibernation reads), a person says to her,

“Lots of us find we have to go back to the beginning of our life in order to start again. Back to where we grew up, or where we were happiest. To a time before things went wrong. I see it like pressing the reset button.”

At 12, I didn’t have a lot of power in a situation that I’ve come to see has colored important aspects of my life since. The only power I had then was to walk away, even though it meant leaving the place I felt most whole. But at 57, I’m no longer a child with a child’s limited options. I can’t undo or redo what happened, but returning to skating is allowing me to reset my relationship with my body and to revise an important story from my past. It’s a longer one than I want to tell here, and it’s still unfolding, but what I’m coming to know is this:

We can’t all be tulips or daffodils. For some of us, it is not until the autumn of our lives that spring finally arrives.

Would love to hear how your winter was for you.

Or about what kind of flower you are. Or about stories you’ve been able to revise in your life. Anything, really, about how you are and have been. When I write “Would love to hear…” I’m not just being polite or fishing for comments. I really would. I’ve missed you guys.