Seems like more than a few of us have had ourselves quite a month. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed or worn out, I like to go back through my camera roll to see what sense it can give me of a time. Often, it helps me see that my feeling about a time isn’t the whole picture of it. Because I often take photos of what delights me, it can be an exercise in reminding myself of the small moments that don’t (but probably should) carry as much weight as some of the larger ones.
(I’ve been listening to Tana French audiobooks for a few months now, and there are some Irish words seeping into my thoughts.)
Look at me up there in that last full paragraph, sounding so wise and grounded. Cue the montage of lovely little life vignettes: flowers on the table, a stack of good books, snow sparkling under the rising sun. Oh, I meant every word as each came through my fingers (and I could easily create such a montage), but re-reading them as a whole I could feel my whole being rise up in resistance to such facile positivity–which is probably evidence of how easily inspirational Insta quotes can seep into a person if she’s not careful.
Attaining peace and contentment is not necessarily about finding delight, or about making sure you put every little thing on some balance scale, so that a multitude of small good things somehow mitigate or outweigh a fewer number of heavier bad things.
As I chose these images (no more than one for any day) and wrote my captions, I couldn’t help thinking of those optical illusions where what you see is presumed to be some kind of test of your mindset:
Was my month full of absence, disease, displacement, disruption, broken systems, and uncertainty? Or was it full of family, community, safety nets, solutions, possibility, and love?
What’s helped me get through this challenging month (season, year) is rejecting singular narratives–which means resisting not just one-sided, all-or-nothing ideas about our lives as a whole, but also about any discrete parts of our lives. The glass of any experience is neither half-full nor half-empty; it is always both empty and full. In every single image from my month are aspects of abundance and deprivation, sorrow and joy, hope and fear. All of those, all together, in every one.
The longer I live, the more it seems to me that the best way to fully feel the good things is to fully acknowledge the hard within them. To see and own and maybe even embrace the mess that is always part of the beautiful in our lives.
Limbo is a dance, one I have never been good at. Limbo the dance requires one to be limber–supple and agile, able to bend and balance in ways that life does not, for most of us, often require. Even as a child, when I was at my most flexible, I never liked doing the Limbo, with its awkward backward bending in front of an audience, its requirement to pass beneath a pole without touching it. Now that I am a thickening adult with a constantly stiff back, I am sure that if I were to attempt the dance I’d be eliminated in the first round.
Limbo is also a part of Hell. Although raised Catholic (for the most part), I never gave it much thought until I read Dante’s Inferno. Home to unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans, it seemed the best place I might hope to land, if Dante’s vision of the after life has any basis in reality. I rather liked his architecture of sin and, apart from the bits about unbaptized babies and those who died from suicide, generally agreed with his hierarchy of evil.
Of course, we more commonly use “limbo” to mean a place of transition or uncertainty here on earth, often one in which we feel trapped. (If a person has been in this kind of limbo during the past week, they might have spent more time than is probably healthy wondering if a certain person who departed life has landed in Bolgia 9 or 10 of Hell’s eighth circle.) It can feel like a kind of hell to be in this kind of limbo, and it can require the agility and flexibility a person needs to successfully pass under the limbo stick. I think of the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal, in which his main character is trapped in airport limbo, neither permitted to enter the United States nor return home to his country no longer recognized as a country, and how he adapted to a way of being that feels impossible to most of us.
It’s been a long time since I saw that movie (and I think I slept through a good portion of it) or danced the limbo or read Dante–so these thoughts might be all kinds of gibberish–but I’m claiming “limbo” as my word of the week. It’s been six days since I’ve lived at home, and while I am grateful to have a place with heat and light and water and food, it feels as if I’ve slipped into a deeper circle of pandemic hell, where life is simultaneously both on hold and moving forward, and I don’t know how long it will remain this way. When I packed my little suitcase last Monday, I thought, surely, I would only be gone a few days. I told myself to think of it as a little vacation, a lark, a treat: permission to relax that it is so hard to give myself at home. It was not unlike my initial stance toward Covid shutdown; I optimistically threw a box of brownie mix and supplies for an embroidery project into a bag before closing the door to my dark, frigid house.
Now, after 6 days and four phone conversations with the power company and daily trips back and forth just to make sure that the power is, indeed, still not on, I find myself re-enacting the stages of acceptance I first lived last March. I long to go home at the same time I’m almost feeling as if the life I lived there is slipping away from me. I’m moving from disbelief to acceptance, and my new not-normal is beginning to feel some kind of normal, a transformation I am both resisting and welcoming. We are perverse and adaptable creatures, we humans, whether we want to be or not.
Like the Tom Hanks character, sure I will get to return at some point but with no idea of when, I find myself needing to think (and be) differently today than I did a week ago. The power company has a map that suggests power could be restored today, but yesterday the kind (and understandably weary-sounding) PGE lady I talked to told me that it is an estimate, not a guarantee. Something in her voice and words told me I shouldn’t count on that map. She was sorry, but she really couldn’t tell me when I might be able to return. The estimate map, she told me, was so that I could plan, but she couldn’t promise anything.
“How can I make a plan if I can’t actually know when the power will come back?” I asked.
She said she was sorry she couldn’t help me more. I was, too.
This morning, however, I realize that she has, in fact, helped me develop a new plan, which is only this: To live in the day I am in, and let go of plans with agendas and timelines and notions of home that aren’t serving me well in the place I’ve found myself. As I let this plan settle over me, it occurs to me that maybe I’m not traveling deeper into hell, but into some place that is its opposite. Maybe we all are, those of us who have weathered one event after another that has upset the apple cart of our lives and found ourselves scrambling to gather spilled fruit, grateful to reclaim even those that got bruised in the tumble.
4 laxative pills and 2 jugs of Gatorade and 1 bottle of Miralax
1 binge-watch of the entire first season of Imposters, in 1 (literal) sitting
1 power outage
1 power restoration
1 power surge
3 loud noises from 3 different major appliances, simultaneously
1 more power outage
2 phone calls to the power company and 1 honest service rep telling me that because my snapped wire affects only me, it will be days before it is repaired (because there has been nearly 300,000 people without power)
3 (and counting) nights away from home
2 days of school closure (reminding us all that while our schools might be in distance learning, they have been, in fact, “open”–and if you don’t believe me, read the comments on the district’s FB page from those angry about the closure)
4 (of 9) school buildings in my district closed to staff for the rest of the week because of storm damage
0 devices at my disposal capable of supporting a Zoom call
<24 hours before I need to work again
After the power went out again, and I packed my suitcase for a second time to go stay at Cane’s place, and my school district announced its closure for the next day I found myself feeling what seemed to be unreasonably fragile and angry: I had heat, water, electricity, a warm bed, and no expectation to work the following day. I was better off than many of my fellow Oregonians—not to mention my Midwest friends dealing with sub-zero temperatures and, I guess, the entire population of Texas. (How does one manage with freezing temps, no power, no water, and frozen sewage pipes?)
And still, teetering on the edge I was.
It’s all just been so much, hasn’t it?
I have a “normal” post in my drafts folder, almost ready to share with you. “Normal” means on a topic that has nothing to do with climate change, freak and life-threatening weather, political insurrection, contested elections, wildfires and toxic air quality, or pandemic. It just doesn’t feel like the right time for normal, though. Maybe by the weekend, or next week.
So, this is just a check in from the dumpster-fire of the past week (year?). By the numbers. (We all like to be data-driven now, right?)
Things aren’t good, but they are good enough. Somewhere in the midst of power going off and on and off again–maybe on the day that ice rained from trees and power lines like gemstone bullets, trapping us on one side of our windows–the hyacinths on my kitchen table silently stretched into full bloom.
Just when I thought nothing could be worse than January, along comes the first week of February.
Granted, no insurrection and murder at the capital—but this past week was brutal. For me, personally. And it seems there’s a lot of struggle in the zeitgeist over the past seven days. A lot of folks saying they’re hitting a wall of some sorts. If that’s you, I feel ya.
So, I got nuthin’ much for you this week. Any words I might have mustered on pretty much any topic would have been soaked in bitterness, pessimism, and dank, sour defeat. I muted several folks on Instagram back around Wednesday because their relentless exhortations to adjust my attitude and find joy and manifest and transform and dream felt like an assault.
I fuckin’ know how to look for joy, y’all. I. am. doing. it. all. the. damn. time.
I feel increasingly hostile toward those who do not acknowledge systemic causes of illness, burnout, and general failure to thrive. Although I’m not a working mom any more, I felt every word of this article that’s been making the rounds. Especially these few:
A critical first step is to remind yourself that the reason you feel guilty, apathetic and exhausted during this worldwide crisis is due to choices that were made by people other than yourself.
At the same time, I realize that we all do get to make choices. Sometimes we don’t have very good ones to make, but we almost always have some. This week, I chose not to write.
In the next 7 days I’ll be getting my Covid vaccine, consulting with a doctor about my (what I now realize are serious) sleep issues, and prepping for and getting a colonoscopy. I’m grateful beyond measure for my access to health care, but it feels like a lot. On top of the usual. So, I spent Saturday not writing but physically doing and preparing to do. I meal-prepped and grocery-shopped and house-cleaned. I walked almost 9,000 steps and took a nap. I made a good dinner and cooked up some dreams with Cane for a major project we’re starting.
After trekking to our convention center and getting vaccinated later this morning, I’ll be using what’s left of my weekend to retreat, rest, rejuvenate, and take care of myself. I hope you’re able to do whatever it is that heals you and fills you up (or just keeps you in mostly one piece) as we enter into another week of life in pandemic America.
This week I received a survey from the State Library and my state’s school library association, with a long list of questions about how the pandemic has affected library services and my work. After inquiring about ebooks, budgets, programming, teaching, safety, staffing, learning management systems, instructional technology, and more, there was this question tucked in near the end:
I first tried watching it a few years ago, and I hated it. Didn’t even finish the first episode. I tried it again last spring because everyone was talking about it, and I kinda hated it again. I just didn’t like those people, the Roses. They felt like caricatures more than characters, and were of people I’d never choose to spend time with.
“You have to get past the first season,” people said. “It gets better in season two.”
So, last fall I went back for a third time, telling myself I would get through season 2 before giving up.
Now I’m in season 4 and doling out the episodes so they’ll last longer. Somewhere in season 3 it occurred to me that the Roses’ story is a perfect one for this time, when so many of us felt our lives turn upside down almost overnight. (I think March 13 will, like September 11, be a date I never forget.) Can’t we all relate, at least a little, to a family who lost almost everything they took for granted? And can’t we all take some comfort and pleasure in watching the process of them acclimate and put down roots in a place they never would have seen themselves in, much less chosen? It’s already clear to me (if not them) that they are far happier than they ever were in their old life. I hope that by the end of the story, it becomes clear to them, too.
I’d say the same is true for me, as well, living in Pandemic Land. This week, I was in a long Zoom meeting with a colleague/friend I’ve hardly “seen” this year but who was in the school I worked for last year. We had a lot of conversations before March 13 about how to manage the challenges of our jobs and lives. “How are things going?” she texted me afterward. “You look much less stressed somehow.”
I answered: “Sometimes reaching a point of awful you really can’t do anything about gives you a permission to let go that is freeing.”
That night, I fell asleep in front of Netflix’s The Minimalists, but not before hearing and thinking about its primary message: We are so consumed with having physical things that we forfeit the intangible ones that make us truly happy–time, community, creativity, meaningful accomplishment, rest, health (personal and global). There are some things in my life that are hugely challenging–more challenging than they’ve ever been, maybe–but my friend was seeing something true: I am less stressed. I have fewer obligations and fewer life chores and more time than I’ve ever had for long conversations, leisurely meals, neighborhood walks, and serious contemplation. I’ve begun moving through my days at a slower pace, doing what I reasonably can rather than what some unreasonable voice is telling me I should. (No one seems to have noticed or, if they have noticed, to have cared.) That voice has gone mostly silent.
My life–not unlike the Roses’–is much smaller than it once was. There are people and places I deeply miss, but most of what has fallen away I do not. My connections to what and who remains are deeper. I don’t know that I am happier; the departure of Busyness made it easier for Hard Things to come in. But on the whole, I am calmer. I am finding that letting some of those hard things claim space has been easier than fighting to hold the door against them.
I’m glad I went back for a third try with this story, and I’m glad I watched it from the beginning. As is always true, you need the dark to more fully appreciate the light. I’m beginning to love these characters it was easy to hate before I got to know them. I love them more for seeing how they’ve grown. I love the reminder that stories and time have to intersect in the right way; 2017 wasn’t the right time for this story for me. I love, too, a corollary reminder about story: That you just need to tell the story you need to tell, wherever and however you can tell it. The Levys were developing and shopping this story well before the time Roses’ fall might be seen as metaphorical for so many things that have fallen in recent years, and they had a hard time selling it. Once they started telling it, it took a good while to catch on. They just kept telling the story, though, trusting (I imagine) that it was reaching who it needed to.
So, in addition to listing “holding boundaries” and “reciting the Serenity Prayer” as self-care that’s working for me, I also listed “binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.” Spending time with this story is good for me. I hate to think of it ending, but I suspect that by the time it does, I won’t need it in the same way. It’s already imprinting upon and shaping my own. It’s clear that they will never go back to what they once were, and over the past few weeks, as vaccines and political pressure on schools are harbingers of another set of new changes coming my way, I’ve realized that I won’t, either.
The day before the biopsy; 1,453 days after the last inauguration and 8 days until the next one:
I wake up with the tightness on the right side of my skull that always means migraine is coming. I email my doctor to make sure that I can take my meds before the biopsy, if necessary. I’ve learned that I should always assume it could be a migraine day, rather than that it won’t be.
Still, the tightness is light. Maybe I slept wrong. Maybe it will go away. Maybe I just need to drink some water. Maybe if I stay off screens all morning.
As I open the bedroom door and enter into my day, I remind myself: It’s never if, it’s always when. There is nothing I can do to hold it off forever.
The biopsy will be in the morning, but I am going to take the whole day off work. I plan to get groceries and clean the house. I’m having a hard time getting these things done on the weekends. I’m having a hard time getting through the week days. The previous week, the first one back from winter break, I had a 3-day migraine following an emotional meltdown and the insurrection at the Capitol.
I’m trying to figure out how to finish this school year in one piece.
The day of the biopsy; 7 days after the insurrection at the Capitol, 7 days before the inauguration:
On the morning of the biopsy, I watch a short film in which 5 women at different stages of life reflect on their bodies.
I remember being a girl and loving my body. I was fast and strong. (In 4th grade, I ran faster than every boy on field day.) My body was me and I was it. I don’t remember feeling that way about my body at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I can see I felt that way about it. It was before I was aware of my body as an object.
As a teen-ager, I cleaved from my body. It was a thing admired by boys and men. It was a thing for me to fight against. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to, but it looked the way it was supposed to. I was supposed to be grateful for it, looking that way. I learned that I wasn’t allowed to complain about it to other women. I felt it separate me from some of those who should have been my compatriots, my allies. I tried to appreciate my luck that I could eat whatever I wanted and never get fat. I ate to kill hunger. I ate for the pleasure of taste. I did not feed my body.
I think about all of this on the morning of my third ultrasound and an aspiration biopsy. Regardless of the results, which are likely to be reassuring, something has already changed for me. It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, that my body can spontaneously grow something we think it shouldn’t. My body has been doing things we think it shouldn’t since adolescence, when endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome made their presence known. (Not that I knew, then, what they were or that anything was really there–as opposed to in my head, which was suggested as the source of my pain, cementing for me an idea that my head was, in some important sense, a thing separate from my body. I did not have those names, those diagnoses, those frames with which to understand my body’s experiences for more than a decade, when my inability to conceive finally made doctors take my body seriously.) Still, it is a surprise, and now I look at my body differently. I feel differently about it.
I remember a poem a woman shared in my poetry workshop, back in the mid-80s, about her newborn; she compared his body to that of a frog, listed all the ways in which his body was not the one she expected, making him not the baby she had dreamed of. The last line was, “your mother is trying to learn to love you.” Most of the poems from that workshop have left me now, but that one stays. After she shared hers, I wrote one about my body, the first time I admitted out loud that I thought of my body as an antagonist to the protagonist that is me.
My body has changed during the pandemic. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s my mid-50s. Maybe it’s living through four years of attempted autocratic takeover. Maybe it’s that my job has become toxic to me. Maybe it’s all of the above. My body feels like a foreign country these days, and I’m an expat who wants to go home. I’m trying to learn to love it.
On the morning of the biopsy, I think that maybe the metaphor I’ve just conjured is all wrong. Maybe my body isn’t a country, but a passport.
I start to think about Befores and Afters. I wonder if, the day I get the results, my life will cleave into a Before and After, and then I wonder if that will be the true beginning of an After or if the After has already begun without me knowing it. Maybe the beginning of After was the day in December when the second ultrasound results meant I needed a biopsy and a specialist. Maybe it was the day a few weeks before that when I saw myself swallowing in a mirror and it looked as if a golf ball were bobbing up and down inside my throat. Maybe it was the day in August when my doctor asked if I’d noticed the lump on my thyroid, a bump then so small I couldn’t see or feel it, even when she brushed my fingers over it.
The migraine I felt approaching the day before hits me in the hospital, in the middle of the aspiration. The doctor and nurse are talking about the wild storm we’d had the night before, which downed tree limbs and took out power all over the city.
“Before I realized there was a storm, I heard a loud noise, something hitting the side of my house,” the doctor, who is not white, says to her, who is. “I didn’t know what it was, so I got out my gun and went outside.”
She laughs, and he does, too, but I, with a needle stuck in my neck, feel tears rising along with the pain in my head and my understanding of the implications of his words and how he said them. How he said, “I got out my gun” as if it was just another useful object for his task, like, say, a pair of gloves or a flashlight.
I take my meds on the way to the parking lot, and it feels like it’s all I can do to get home. The day I planned is lost to fatigue and fog.
The day of results;inauguration day:
I finally receive a phone call from the doctor’s office. The doctor would like to go over the results of my biopsy; can I take a call in 10 minutes?
Yes, of course.
Why aren’t the results just posted in my online medical chart, like every other test result has been? Why can’t this nice-sounding Cory just tell me the results, if the results are benign? I don’t ask if he can just tell me; I know he can’t.
10 minutes become 20, and then Cory calls me again to ask if I can wait another 20 or so more.
Do I have a choice?
While waiting, I am watching everyone’s reactions to the presidential inauguration in my social media feeds. I did not get to see the inauguration because I had a work meeting. Maybe that is the reason I cannot feel the jubilation everyone else seems to be feeling. Maybe it is because I had another meeting right after the inauguration that is the latest in a series of meetings that have grown increasingly hard to tolerate. “It feels like they are just gaslighting us,” a colleague texts me during the meeting. I feel a jolt of recognition: Yes, it does. Yes, I know what gaslighting is. Yes, yes, yes.
I am watching everyone’s reactions because I am too agitated to work. I wish I could feel some simple joy and release, but I cannot. I am relieved but I am also angry and teary and so, so tired.
Finally, the doctor calls, and I take a deep breath. I want him to just spit it out, whatever it is.
“It’s benign,” he finally says. The solid parts of the nodule are benign. The nodule was mostly fluid.
“Are you feeling relief from the aspiration?” he asks. “Is it smaller now?”
Yes, I tell him, I am and it is. I tell him that the pressure on my throat is now gone.
He says some other things I won’t remember, and then I ask the question I need an answer to:
“What happens now?”
He tells me that we will monitor it now, and that there may be more ultrasounds and aspirations in my future if it grows back. It can continue to grow back.
I know I should feel happy. “You don’t have cancer!” he told me, and I could hear the exclamation point in his voice. (I bet he loves to say those words. I would, if I were him.) I do feel relief, but it is flat. (The odds of cancer were small, so the threat never felt real, but it could have been, and I did know that. I could be feeling something much, much worse than the small, sharp pinch of anxiety I felt over Cory not giving me the results himself.)
I want relief to make me feel the way I did Before–before I knew in a new way that my body can betray me and do things I cannot control and for which there are no readily available explanations. I wonder what it might be doing now, invisibly, and if it might, even in this moment of relief, be failing in ways that will not become apparent until much later. I miss my innocence, which I can see now wasn’t lost suddenly, all-at-once during the biopsy, but in layers over decades of living in a body that never worked as good as it looked. Nonetheless, the biopsy has taken me into some new territory of understanding, one from which there can be no true returning, and I long to feel once again, just once more, the way I did in fourth grade, Keds pounding into hard-packed dirt, hair rippling in wind of my own making, my strength and speed surprising myself as much as all those boys behind me.
A note: I have been reading, for the first time in years, about creative non-fiction. From Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant, I especially value this quotation from Annie Dillard, for reminding me of a realization I had once upon a very long time ago (thanks in large part to her essay “Living Like Weasels”):
I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.
I appreciate the reminders throughout the book that creative non-fiction is not just a relating of events (and thoughts are a kind of event), but of creating art from events by making purposeful choices about structure, narration, action, style, and language.
Today’s essay/post is an attempt to express artistically some of what I said in last week’s post, which was not art so much as a brain dump. (For a really great example of an essay reflecting on current events that is as much poem as essay and is gorgeous political art, I recommend “Inside the Blue Hole.”) Last week’s post content came not only from frustration and worry about what’s been happening for all of us, but also from frustration with the circumstances of my own life. Over break, I was able to write the beginnings of art. A whole book took shape in my head, and I started to capture it in notes and lists of books and essays, and in posts here. Within days of returning to work, I felt it slipping away from me (the cause of the meltdown referenced in the essay above). I tried my best to hold on, but I couldn’t. Last week I accepted that some weeks a dump is all I can manage, and that it will have to be good enough for now.
A post by Ally this week took me down a word-count rabbit hole, and at the bottom of it was realization that I’ve written the equivalent of, roughly, 2.5 full-length books in the past six years here. (Last year alone was 1 book.) Of course, there’s much more to writing a book than simply getting words out, but still. Just getting words out is something.
I have no grand conclusion here, no big pronouncements to make. I expect to keep showing up here as I have been–sometimes giving you the first drafts of something like art, and sometimes giving you a word dump. But rumination is happening. Change is afoot.
There was a moment, last March, when I woke in the middle of the night and suddenly understood the feeling of emotional vertigo I’d been grappling with, my sense that the ground beneath me was no longer solid. I had known for a long time, in an intellectual way, that my country was no longer what I had thought, for all of my life, it was. But I had told myself that the foundation of our lives was steady. Yes, terrible things were happening, but nothing was permanent, and in the meantime life would go on as it essentially always had. That’s how it had been during both Bush administrations, right? I had told myself that what was happening was extreme, and our institutions were damaged and would need repair, but we were fundamentally sound. Right?
Then the pandemic hit, and it became starkly clear that our institutions were broken and we were all on our own in a way I had never seen. As hospitals scrambled for PPE, and the country shut down with no relief for those who suddenly had no livelihood, and our president held press briefings every day in which he brazenly lied to us, I saw that things I’d believed (hoped) could never happen here already had. I felt dread and anxiety settle over me like a cloak, and as 2020 progressed through police violence and protests and fights over masks and school openings while people died and fires blazed and we choked on toxic air, its weight grew heavier and heavier.
When Trump lost the presidential election, it lightened. I knew that victory wasn’t a silver bullet. I knew things weren’t going to go back to some Before and that the forces that had brought us Trump weren’t going to magically disappear, but–at the very least, I thought–we’d have a reprieve from the onslaught and an administration that would restore functionality to our government agencies.
The reprieve ended before the new presidency even began. It didn’t happen all at once on January 6, but has unfolded slowly (and then quickly) over the days since then, as layers of information have peeled back what happened to a core that is (for me, at any rate) as ground-shaking as the one that emerged in March. Like then, I knew how things were, but I didn’t know know. Now I do.
Sometime in the last week I returned to Sarah Kendzior’s November 2016 essay “We’re heading into dark times. This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump.” I remember reading it the first time that November, in my car, on my phone, after participating in a protest march. I remember these words–
“I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or have lived in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me.”—
and feeling both the weight of their truth and a simultaneous disbelief because…well, there are so many reasons I don’t even know where to start. It’s bad, but not that bad, I told myself, shivering in the dark. It can’t be. I remembered the Sinclair Lewis novel that had chilled me when I read it at the height of the Reagan era–It Can’t Happen Here–and repeated to myself the lie in the title of that book. Don’t over-react, I told myself. It might not be that bad, I thought. (The gaslighting we do to ourselves might be the very worst kind.)
I returned to her essay because, as I absorbed the truth of what recent events mean about so many things, I felt myself shift to new acceptance of things I once found unimaginable. OK, I thought. This kind of violence is no longer impossible here. I felt myself accepting this in the same way I’ve come to accept that children will die in school shootings and black men calling for help will die under the boots of police officers and our elderly and disabled will die alone, trapped in nursing homes where Covid has run rampant because our government is broken and we have forsaken them. Acceptance doesn’t mean that I condone these things but that I feel myself shifting into seeing them as inevitable. Over four years I have watched myself lose my ability to feel shock; instead, when the news fills with words and images of another injustice, I am often numb. If I feel anything, it is most often weariness. “Why are you surprised?” is often my response to someone sharing news of another breach of what was once a norm.
Kendzior wrote about how all of us might find ourselves doing things we once thought we’d never do, and four years ago I thought that meant the kind of things I’d read about in Nazi Germany–stifling speech, turning neighbors into the police, looting the homes of those who’d disappeared in the middle of the night. It didn’t occur to me until re-reading her words that the actions we thought we’d never take could be passive and internal.
In her essay, Kendzior urged us to write down who we were and what we believed and what our lives had been so far, so that we wouldn’t forget it. She cautioned:
“Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.”
Apathy is a kind of cruelness, and denial is a tricky thing. More and more, I look back at the pre-2016 me and feel shame and disgust at all I didn’t see and know that I now do. The information about who and what we are was there all along. I saw much of it a long time ago and turned away from it and then forgot it. I told myself that things were not really as bad as some said. I cautioned myself against over-reacting. I know that denial is a protective mechanism we employ without awareness to protect ourselves from truth we aren’t yet equipped to manage, and in my good moments I can feel empathy for my pre-2016 self. I suppose she was doing the best she could with what she had. In my bad moments, I want to shake her and yell at her to wake the fuck up. I want to hide her in a closet and pretend she was never me.
This is where I read Kendzior and find myself wondering. In important ways, I don’t want to remain the person I was then (much as I miss feeling the security I once felt). I want, now, to be clear-eyed and awake, and I don’t want to be cruel. I think–especially when we are swimming in cultural waters filled with lies and distortions–that it can be difficult to parse out what acceptance and resistance really mean. That I no longer feel shocked at things that were once shocking might be less about acceptance and more about stepping out of denial. Periodic numbing might, at least in the short term, be a necessary response so that we do not drown. We need to figure out how to accept reality without accepting that reality is OK. I read Kendzior now and wonder how we determine when authoritarianism actually starts. If it is about making us forget who we are and what we believe in, then for me it did not start with Donald Trump. It probably started during the first Iraq war. Reagan, like Trump, was a masterful communicator who lied. We called him the Teflon president because no matter what he was caught in, it seemed to roll off him without consequence. Like Trump, his agenda was about strengthening white supremacy by gutting social supports and shifting wealth to already wealthy and powerful white Americans while scapegoating and incarcerating those who were not white. That agenda was continued by Bush, and something about that war broke something in me. I turned inward and away from forces and a fight I felt powerless to affect. I became apathetic.
Kendzior cautioned us that our power comes from hanging on to who we truly are, and that “to protect and wield this power, you need to know yourself – right now, before their methods permeate, before you accept the obscene and unthinkable as normal.”
But the obscene and unthinkable are normal. It’s all I’ve ever known, really. It’s us. It’s who we’ve almost always been. “This is not normal,” has been a drumbeat of the white, liberal resistance since Trump took office, to which people have color have consistently answered, “Yes, it is. This has always been normal for us.”
As I’ve been letting my thoughts spool out in this ramble of a post (all I can manage this week), on a weekend in which we honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, I think maybe the best thing I can land on is this: I don’t want to hang onto 2016 me. To be any kind of light to anyone, I need to go back much further.
Been while since I’ve offered dots, but here are some that have informed this week’s thinking:
“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”
So begins Upstream, a collection of essays in which beloved poet Mary Oliver … meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
It’s a question we ask children, and I still remember some of my earliest answers to it: a veterinarian, a florist, a writer. It was a question I once thought I had to answer only once, and that once I did all the other pieces of my life would fall into place around it. I would be grown-up then, a grown-up, with the terrible wonderful question of what to be finally settled.
We should tell children that it’s a question they must answer again and again and again (just as we should tell them that commitment to a life partner is something that must happen every day, not just the one on which we slip a ring onto a finger). We should let them know that the question of what they are going to do and the one of who they are going to be have separate but intertwined answers, not unlike a DNA strand’s strings of nucleotides or a braided loaf’s baked ropes of bread.
Last week I went for a walk with my friend Sharon. We met on a busy city street in northwest Portland and sat on a sidewalk and ate biscuits, and then we walked uphill a few blocks to a staircase that took us down to the footings of a bridge and entry to Forest Park, a 5,200 acre wood within the city limits. Just weeks before, I had walked up the same hill with Cane and not seen the entrance to the stairs nor had any thought, really, of what lay beneath the hill; stepping onto the top step with Sharon felt a bit like walking into Lewis’s wardrobe entrance to Narnia. One minute we were part of the urban throng, and the next we were walking a forest canyon trail.
As we made our way along Balch Creek to The Stone House (which some, including Sharon’s granddaughters, call The Witch’s Castle), I thought of my old friend Robert and his frequent exhortations to get myself out into the natural world. I thought of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams and other writers whose work and spirituality is inextricably intertwined with their love of forests, fields, deserts, tundras, and the beings who inhabit them. I have often wished I could be such a person as they, but I am not. Although a river once helped me through the hardest decision of my life, I never came to truly know it, and eventually I left it because I knew I’d never be more than a visitor and I needed to find home.
If ever there was a house that could be home for a witch, the Stone House is it. Mossy rock walls, dark doorways, a tiny structure tucked into the slope of a hill. According to the Forest Park Conservancy site, it was “conceived as a rustic manmade counterpoint to the natural beauty of Balch Creek Canyon,” and it “emphasizes the contrast of the natural and man-made worlds.”
I expressed some dismay at the graffiti adorning it. “Oh,” Sharon said, “the graffiti is OK. We don’t mind it.”
She shrugged. “It’s how some people need to tell their story.”
For Mary Oliver, “the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” Temples, of course, are the places where we find ourselves, where we come face-to-face with the essence of things, where we seek understanding and comfort and peace. What a fortunate person she was, to have found her temple early and for it to remain constant throughout her life. There’s an enviable simplicity in that, especially for those of us who see temples everywhere and have trouble knowing where best to worship. Me, I’ve found them within the walls of a classroom, the stacks of a library, the curve of my child’s cheek. As a young girl, I found it in pencils, paper, snips of fabric, spools of thread, skeins of yarn, tiny ceramic animals I played with at the base of towering fir trees that grew in my suburban front yard. And, the other day, walking in the woods with my friend, I found one in a technicolor-painted piece of history, a decommissioned restroom that could be a witch’s castle or an architectural artifact or a monument on the other side of a portal to a foreign world.
We are nearing the day of making resolutions and setting intentions, of saying good-bye to one year and hello to another. Many are ready to turn away from this year, as if it has somehow been the source of our suffering and our pain will end when the year does, but when the clock strikes midnight on December 31 and we leave 2020 to memory, neither we nor the world will be magically transformed. We are who we are, and that is who we will still be on January 1. But think of it–how changed the world and each of us is, right now, from what and who we were a year ago at this time, even as we are, simultaneously, exactly who and what we have always been. Isn’t our hike through time, in some ways, like walking a Möbius strip?
Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergrad, a writing instructor asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
“I want to be a writer,” I answered.
“What does that mean to you?” she asked.
I didn’t know. “It means, I want to write,” I said. The details of my grown-up life as a writer had always been fuzzy to me. As a young teen I hoped it might involve working in a solitary cabin on a beach, with perhaps a dog I could take for long walks when I needed a break, and a quiet sort of fame in which others knew my name but not my face. That vision hadn’t evolved much. She pushed me to define what type of writing I wanted to do, how I planned to make a living at it, what I wanted to write about, and I didn’t know how to answer her questions. I hadn’t yet gone out enough into the world to know at all who I was, what I was, and what I wanted to be. I wanted to write in the way I once created dramas for my ceramic animals and stitched together bits of cloth for my dolls: freely, playfully, with no agenda other than delight. I knew there was a living that needed to be made, and I had vague notions of children and a family, but I didn’t know how my desire to write could or might intertwine with other wants and needs.
In recent years I’ve talked with people about the shapes my life might take after teaching. “Maybe you can write now,” I’ve heard more than once, and I’ve nodded agreement, not knowing any more clearly than I did decades ago what that might mean. But as this annus horribilis draws to a close and possibilities for a different kind of life come closer, I’ve realized something important: I already am writing. I have written here, at least once a week, for the entirety of this year, the longest stretch of regular writing I’ve ever managed. As Sharon gently reminded me, there are many ways in which we might all tell our stories. For the first time ever, I have no regret about how I’ve been telling mine.
Mary Oliver tells us, in what may be her most well-known and beloved poem, that we do not have to be good, and that we only have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. In my work as an instructional coach (a different kind of creative labor), I’ve learned that my role is not to author another person’s story or to impose mine upon theirs. It is to ask questions that will allow their story to emerge, and to give them space in which to tell it freely. And so, as I share my last post for this year, knowing you might be thinking about resolutions or intentions or the kind of story you want to write with the coming time of your life, I want to offer the questions helping me think about what I might make of the coming days and months of mine, questions we all must answer again and again and again if we are to heed the call of our restive creative powers and become the people we feel meant to be:
I wrote the first draft of this post in a way I rarely write anymore: On paper, with a pen. When I began writing, as a girl, that was the way of all first drafts; through my childhood and teen years I had a large, hard, permanently red bump on the first knuckle of the finger my pen pressed against; a remnant of it remains, a permanent disfigurement that is evidence of something I’ve always been compelled to do.
I picked up a pen because I was on a third day of avoiding screens, a third day of trying to muddle through work with a multiple-day migraine. In my migraine, there are various factors always at play: work, screens, stress, meds, sleep, rest, hydration, exercise, food. Trying to figure out exactly how to put these together is like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle. Maybe I can get one line to work, but I can never get the whole box to add up correctly. If I take off work to avoid screens, I increase stress from falling further behind. If I exercise when fatigued, I can trigger an episode, but if I don’t exercise I don’t sleep well, which can also trigger an episode. If I spend Sunday in food prep for the week I know I will eat well on work days, but I might end Sunday fatigued rather than rested, and stressed about other things I didn’t get to do.
I picked up a pen because I couldn’t sit in front of a keyboard and computer screen, but I wanted to capture something from Katherine May’s Wintering (referenced in last week’s post):
“The very permanence of the label–of having a brain that just happened to work in a certain way–was my salvation. I had to adapt. I had to surrender. The only thing breaking me was pretending to be like everyone else” (p. 183)
I have spent most of my life powering through. Powering through was my super-power. As a young adult, I did not understand those who said there were things they did not have the capacity to do; in my world view, one just did what had to be done, whatever it was, whatever it took to do it. When I was teaching full-time and raising twin toddlers and a teen, people would say, “How do you do it?” or, “I could never do what you do!” and I would think (or sometimes say): I don’t really have a choice. In my mind, in my life, there wasn’t a choice. I was doing what had to be done.
(Of course, I see now that there were choices. There are always choices. The ones available to me, though, would have required sacrifices I wouldn’t make.)
For a time, in those years, I would get up at 4:00 to either write or walk on a treadmill before my babies woke up. We’d get ourselves off to school/daycare, where I would maximize every minute of the day until it was time to leave to pick up the kids. The evening would be spent in dinner/bath/bedtime, and after I’d gotten them tucked in I would work for a few hours more to prepare for the next day’s classes, until I went to bed. I powered through, for years.
Now, I can’t.
I don’t have May’s autism diagnosis (although I may just be undiagnosed), but I’ve got others that indicate a body/brain that doesn’t work in typical ways: chronic migraine, anxiety, fibromyalgia, eczema, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, restless leg syndrome, insomnia. My startle reflex is comical, and I have difficulty with many types of sound and light. Most of the time, I cannot tolerate direct eye contact. I wear a mouth guard at night because I would otherwise break my teeth in my sleep. A person close to me has likened my brain to a computer hard drive that never stops spinning and overheats. I feel ridiculously sensitive to stimulation of all kinds. I’m often unaware of the physical and mental agitation I’m feeling until the source of stimulation ceases; yesterday, Cane turned the radio down in the car and I felt a flood of relief I hadn’t known I needed until I felt it.
In my life, I’ve seen myriad doctors (western, naturopathic, wholistic) from a variety of specialties. I’ve tried different diets, supplements, and medications. I’ve had multiple therapists. I gave up work (both teaching and writing) I loved and was good at. Nothing has really worked. The only thing that has brought consistent relief is a slower life–the life I live during breaks from school.
I don’t know why some of us need to see someone’s else’s words, someone else’s experience, to accept the truth of our own, but I am one of those people. May’s words crystallized a truth I’ve been working my way to for some time now: My life isn’t working for me, and, in important ways, never really has. It is not sustainable, and it is not something I can will my way to being different because I cannot will myself to be different. In the words of Popeye, “I yam what I yam”–and who I am simply cannot do what I think I should be able to. Not any more. Not for what it has always cost me.
At this stage of my game, it is disorienting and difficult and frightening to accept a fundamentally different view of myself. It is also liberating.
For so long, I have seen my difficulty to manage things others seem able to as a failing. The first step of any recovery program (yes, I did that, too), is to accept powerlessness. It seems I have to learn, again and again, the paradoxical truth that power comes from accepting powerlessness. Accepting where we are powerless is crucial to finding where we are not. This week, I have understood in some new way that I am powerless to change whatever it is that makes me the way I am, and accepting that gives me space to create a new idea about who I am and what I can be–and that is freeing. Instead of seeing my difficulty to manage as failure, I can see my ability to function as well as I have as, instead, a kind of strength. Instead of focusing on all the things I haven’t done or have failed at, I can marvel at all that I have done in spite of who I am. Today, my 56th birthday in this year of our pandemic–which has blown so many things open–I am finally beginning to see surrender and radical acceptance of truths I don’t like as a different type of strength, one I now need to embrace.
My task for the coming year–my gift to myself–is to find adaptations that will work for the person I actually am. First steps never have to be big ones. This week, that project for me began the way so many things in my life have: I picked up a pen and started writing.
I know we have several weeks of autumn left on the calendar, but winter arrived here this week. Wild winds tore the last leaves from the trees and sharp air bit our cheeks (when we stepped outside, which we did as little as possible).
I’ve largely made my peace with winter, with this winter, particularly, and what it promises to be. I don’t mind the dark. There’s something about it I crave, actually–the way it reveals so much by stripping life down to its essentials: heat, food, drink, touch, sleep.
After taking the holiday weekend completely off, I hurtled into the work week, all spinning wheels and pumping cylinders. By Tuesday night I was tetchy and taut; nothing but take-out pizza could be a reasonable response to the interminable question of dinner. Wednesday was no better–worse, actually, because Wednesday my primary task was bearing witness to hardship and trauma I felt powerless to affect–and when I woke Thursday to the familiar tightening at the top of my head and the stiffness in my neck and the shadow of nausea that means migraine is descending, I almost cried with frustration and fury at…everything. (No need to spell it all out, is there?)
Migraine arriving on Thursday is typical for me, usually the herald of a weekend mostly lost to lethargy and pain, a cloud that drifts away sometime on Sunday, returning me to my best self just in time to give it away to another week of work.
“Screw that, ” I said to no one but myself this past Thursday morning, still close enough to the restorative powers of the previous weekend to be unwilling to let them go. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose yet another weekend to this shit.” (No need to spell out what “this shit” is, either, I suppose.)
And so I took first a pill (eschewing the mental dance in which I pretend/hope the migraine isn’t coming or hem and haw about whether or not I really need it) and then a sick day. I called in for leave because I wanted a day entirely off screens, and there is literally no part of my job I can do now that doesn’t involve being in front of a screen. I often take my meds and then go ahead and work because, well, I can, and it feels necessary. Thursday I decided it wasn’t. Thursday I decided it was most necessary to give my body what it was telling me it needed.
I made a mental list of all the things I could do that were possible while on meds and didn’t require screens: decorate the Christmas tree, sweep and mop the floor, clean the kitchen, sew Christmas stockings, take a walk, bake cookies, read a print book.
After registering my absence, I made a cup of tea and settled in with Daisy and Katherine May’s Wintering, so we could be quiet while Cane continued to sleep. After breakfast I swept and mopped the floor, and that wore me out so I decided to lie down on my bed for just a minute. I listened to an audiobook, then turned it off and drifted in and out of consciousness for a while. Then it was time for lunch, and after lunch we went for a walk and picked up some groceries and then it was time to make dinner. And that was the day.
Other than cleaning the floor and grocery shopping, I didn’t do any of the productive things on my list. I only did being things. I did not sew or decorate or clean or bake. After dinner I just sat on the sofa for a bit, listening to music and appreciating the warmth and soft lights of the living room. Just being felt strange, as unusual things do, but also good.
It was a very winterish kind of day, and it restored me. It broke my usual migraine pattern; I woke up Friday with no sign of illness and had a productive day. I moved slowly and steadily through it. No spinning, pumping grind. Did I accomplish everything I “needed” to? No. Would I have if I’d pushed in the usual way–gutting through both Thursday and Friday, overdosing on meds and feeling sick and wrecking myself for the next two days? No. So what, really, was lost? Nothing of value, I think. What I gained was my health and my weekend.
In Wintering, May reminds me that humans sleep more in the winter, and that in earlier times, when artificial light (among other things) didn’t shape our days in the ways it does now, we commonly experienced periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night–a time for drinking water, peeing, contemplating, wakeful dreaming, lovemaking, quiet talking–before returning to more sleep.
I’m wondering now how life might be if we viewed the winter season as a metaphor for sleep, and our winter days as those periods of middle-of-the-night waking. How might we spend them, then, these hours of scant light, if we could view them this way?
I know it’s not possible to live such a vision completely. I did work all day Friday–because I have to work–and I could work as I did because I had no pressing external deadlines that day. But I moved through the day differently than I have been, and I realized that the pressing deadlines are often finish lines of my own making. Friday, I chose to move some ribbons further down the track. Friday, recognizing both the arbitrary nature of perceived needs and my actual physical need to work and live differently, I ran my race at a different pace. I took time for conversations with colleagues. I got up periodically and moved my body. I took a full lunch break, reading a book while I ate at the kitchen table. I did what I could and accepted what I couldn’t, and I let all of it go at the end of the day when I closed my office door and turned fully to my family and the rest of my home.
What I felt the most, in those two days of stripped down living, was a kind of abundance. It’s not the abundance of spring or summer, days lush with fresh leaves and vibrant grass and birdsong. It’s an abundance of space, the kind you feel standing in front of a fallow field or at the top of a mountain.
Not everything that comes in to fill winter’s emptiness feels wonderful, despite what some carols would have you believe about this time of the year. This past week tears rose in response to the scent of my great-grandmother’s spaghetti, the sound of Elton John’s “Levon,” and the sight of a nearly 20-year-old Dollar Store tree topper. But there’s a gift in those moments, those tears: clear sight.
Oh, the things we can see when we’re not rushing through chock-filled moments of our lives, when there is white space enough to highlight what’s at the center of our pages. Written on mine are nourishment, history, connection, tradition, love.
One morning this week, I stepped out my back door and realized that the vine I planted two springs ago had shed most of its leaves. We built a fence and planted the vine to obscure the view of the rest of the yard, which turns to a field of scorched grass by mid-July. This past year, it did just what we hoped it would, creating a cozy backdrop for summer visits with friends and family.
Part of me longs for those days right now, but another part of me is just fine with where I am, in this season and in my life, which, like the year, is also on the cusp of its winter. Part of me misses the season of supple blooming, but another is grateful to look out the door to see the vine’s tangle of naked sticks weaving in and out of the fence slats, its exposed network of branches clinging to what supports it, and to know that the vine, like my life, is still here, still alive, still growing.