Coronavirus diary #4: the wrong kind of hard

Some years ago, when I was in the midst of making an important and difficult choice, my mother asked me the most useful question anyone has ever asked me:

“What kind of hard do you want?”

It cut right through any illusion I had that there was an option without pain. Her question gave me the gift of clarity: Knowing that no matter what I chose, it was going to be hard, I could see more clearly what my options truly were.

My third week of the pandemic contained all kinds of hard, and almost none of it felt like the right kind.

I am going to preface everything right up front with a disclaimer of sorts. If anyone is privileged in our shared disaster, it is me. I am getting paid. My nearest and dearest are safe and healthy. I have water, food, heat, internet, and toilet paper. I am not living through this in close proximity to addictions, abuse, or toxic people.

But this is all still hard. There are still losses, challenges, pain, and fear of future loss of all kinds for everyone, no matter how (relatively) good we’ve got it right now.

I think that would be OK if all the hard was the right kind. When I was home for two weeks, it wasn’t the wrong kind, which is probably why I felt mostly OK in it. While I felt some guilt when comparing my situation to that of healthcare or other essential workers, I knew I was doing the most important thing I (personally) could do, and I felt solidarity with others in it. It wasn’t hard to stay home, even when there were places I wanted to go, because lots of others were doing it and there was consensus on the necessity of doing it. For the first time in years now, I felt a fledgling sense of unity with my countrymen, and in the midst of the hard, that felt really good.

This week, all of the public school educators in my state went back to work remotely. On Monday morning, our schools had four directives: Feed our kids, be ready to provide childcare for essential workers, personally connect with our students and their families and provide supplemental learning opportunities, and pay our staff. This, too, felt like the right kind of hard for us to be taking on.

By Monday night, though, our state’s department of education issued a new directive: provide distance learning for all, to include awarding credits for high school students, and get it up and running in the next two weeks. Even our administrators didn’t know this was coming.

This is the wrong kind of hard, and by Friday afternoon I was full of something that I eventually identified as rage. It was hard to tell, because it was leaking out of me in the form of tears (and had been for days), but that’s what it was, all right. Rage.

I suppose it might have been some tipping point of the wrong kind of hard. This week has revealed so many kinds of hard that didn’t have to be, because of actions driven by corruption, ignorance, ineptitude, greed, and at least one giant, narcissistic ego. Instead of being united around actions to best serve all of us, we are fighting each other over necessary supplies and asinine displays of political loyalties, and as a result people are dying. This is the wrong kind of hard.

So, there is that, and it’s the foundation of my rage, for sure. But this week, as I and all the educators I know dove into our challenge in the midst of this strange, horrible time, it quickly became apparent that what we are being asked to do is the wrong kind of hard, too.

Despite my frequently dire tone here, I am an idealist and an eternal optimist. (It’s why I’m so often angry and railing.) “This is an opportunity,” I have said to anyone who might listen. “Here is our chance to do things differently, to see our mission differently, to really think about what matters in education.”

Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I mean, maybe. But not this week, and surely not next.

Instead of releasing much of the utter crap that permeates public education, it feels as if our state has doubled down on it (as have many states). We love to talk about equity and “trauma-informed practice” and “culturally-responsive teaching” until we’re blue in the face, but we are about to embark on delivering “education” in a time of tremendous trauma in ways that are likely to exacerbate it, especially for our most vulnerable students.

How do I know? Because of how it has already, before we’ve even begun delivering instruction, been traumatizing their teachers. In my interactions with colleagues this week I learned that they are worrying about our students dealing with cramped living situations (4 generations in one apartment), hunger, income loss (all adults out of work), adult-level responsibilities for siblings (a high-schooler caring for 6 younger children), abuse of all kinds, and being sex-trafficked (two different teachers shared this worry).

And in the midst of that, they are trying to re-imagine what teaching and learning might be, figure out how to learn all manner of new tools, take care of their own lives, and have some kind of integrity in a system that, in what passed for the best of times, routinely failed our students with disabilities, our students of color, and our students living in poverty.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an educator to imagine how that’s likely to go. Could we just, for once, get real here?

Education is profoundly important, but two months without assignments and tests and grades in the midst of a traumatizing crisis is not going to be a thing that damages our kids forever. Increasing the trauma by adding to their families’ stress and creating inequitable opportunities (and consequences) might, though.

I wish we could acknowledge that: 1) We are living through a crisis that is taking a tremendous toll on every one of us and will have repercussions that will alter the course of many (all?) lives forever; and 2) many of our systems (including schools) were broken before this started; and 3) seeing the brokenness and the fragility of all kinds of things we rely on for stability is traumatic; and 4) given #1, #2, and #3, perhaps trying to patch things up and make them work kinda like they used to isn’t heroic or the thing to do right now. Perhaps, instead, the thing to do is take care of fundamental, human needs (food, shelter, safety, mental and physical health, connection) and pay attention to what that can show us about how we might all live better when the acute stage of this event is over. (As a good friend told me on Friday, we aren’t close to the end yet. We aren’t even close to the end of the beginning.)

Like I said, I’m an idealist and an optimist. (And I’m not being sarcastic.)

What I know about educators and most human beings is that we can and will dig deep for the right kinds of hard. When you see groups of regular people rising up and pushing back (which is already happening), it’s not because they are lazy or greedy or want more than their fair share. It’s because they care deeply about something and they have been pushed to their limits doing things that are the wrong kind of hard and that damage things they value. Like kids and their families.

This was a hard week.

Dots

We can’t go back to normal: How will coronavirus change the world?
“Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better…. But crises can also send societies down darker paths.”

Is Your Grocery Delivery Worth a Worker’s Life?
“Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries. But with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.”

The Virus is a Reminder of Something Lost Long Ago
“Habits of mind and lifestyle do not change easily….Some powerful force must strike to awaken us from our slumber. Now we have been struck. We have a chance to notice…”

None of This is Normal
“Normal is gone. There will be a new normal. We’ll get there. We’ll get through this. But things will change and that’s going to be okay. Maybe better than okay. Maybe we’ll come out better in the end. But we don’t have to be better now, we don’t have to be better overnight.”

Philly Teacher: School district was right not to rush distance learning…
“In this moment, we shouldn’t ignore inequality, but demand that addressing it be central to any policy put forward. We need to stop thinking about education simply as a commodity that our students are losing. At their best, public schools can serve the community by transforming education into a social commitment to our future.”

Coronavirusdiary #3: Soft monotony

If week 1 of this event was a whole lot of shock and awe (and, with new information and changes in ways of life coming almost every day, it was), week 2 was, for me, mostly soft monotony. I’m no longer waking and reminding myself of our new reality; I’ve so quickly adjusted to the new normal that I slip into consciousness each morning as easily as I do the fuzzy socks I’m now likely to wear all day long.

Yes, there’s been a low-level thrum of anxiety beating through all the week’s moments (including in my dreams, which have been filled with missed flights, searches for things that can’t be found, and more than one predatory chase from which I woke with adrenalin coursing through my body), but I have been in my own home, with plenty of heat, light, food, internet access, and toilet paper. (No, I didn’t hoard. I did buy one pack a week for several weeks in a row starting in February, though.)

I have the company of another person much of the time, and I am in regular communication with those who are far away. Zoom happy hour with two close friends has become a new routine. Even the grocery store has become a more reasonable place. Because I still have my job and a guaranteed paycheck, I’m not worrying about how to pay for my mortgage, utilities, or groceries. Because my children are grown, I’m not trying to care for small humans in the midst of either economic free-fall or expectations to work from home. All in all, the waking hours of my week were comfortable as the flannel jammie pants I’ve been wearing more than I probably should.

(click on image for recipe; I added mild Italian sausage, green onions, and parsley)

Because last week was our regularly-scheduled spring break, things felt strangely normal, despite not leaving my house for 7 days straight. Which was strange, because things are definitely not normal. I mean, at least, it seems they aren’t, from the things I’ve been reading online. It all feels a little unreal, though, here in self-isolation land. I don’t know anyone who is sick. Most of the people I know haven’t lost their jobs. I know things are very, very dire in some places and for some people, but it hasn’t directly touched me. Yet, I suppose.

I spent a fair amount of time reading about the experiences of those who have been touched. (Slammed, more like it.) When I am living much of my life in pajama pants, bearing witness feels like the very least I can do. I do it, too, to ground myself in reality, to remember why we really do need to stay away from each other and keep our businesses closed. I tell myself that the relative calm I’m feeling is a sign that those things are working, evidence not that we should let up, but that we should stay the course. Because it would be easy to feel, in my place where I can’t directly observe what’s happening, that maybe all of this isn’t that bad and that maybe we’ve over-reacted.

Like others in similar circumstances, my week was full of mundane things, many of which brought me joy. I finally finished the bedroom painting project I started early in week 1 but abandoned when migraine took me out for a few days. I tried new recipes. I worked on some art. I did some writing and reading. I slept more than I usually get to and watched more TV than I usually do. I had long conversations with people I love. I did some deep cleaning in the wake of the bedroom project, which somehow seemed to get the whole house dirty. It was not hard to be home all week. I didn’t get bored or restless. In fact, I ran out of time to do all the things I’d hoped to.

How can it be that, in this time of pandemic, I feel healthier than I have in months?

Sometime mid-week, I remembered the spring when I missed about a month of school for a hysterectomy. At the time, the surgery felt like a choice, a procedure that, perhaps, didn’t absolutely need to happen, and I remembered a quiet moment by myself when I admitted that part of why I was choosing it was that I desperately wanted to step out of my life for a bit. I was teaching full time, raising two second-graders, in a marriage that was becoming untenable. I was exhausted all the time. I understood that there was something terribly wrong in this–that I could even think that I would choose major surgery to remove an entire system of my body (faulty as it was) just to get a break–but there it was. The idea of being in the hospital felt easier than that of being in my usual daily life. And, as it happened, it was, even with pain and complications and a spouse who did not see me until the day he came to take me home.

It has been easy to see the parallels between that time and the one I’m now living through. I would never choose what’s happening now, but at the same time, I have been grateful for the break. In spite of everything, my life these past two weeks has been easier than it would otherwise have been. It seems that there is something terribly wrong in that, too.

There is another shift coming as we move into week 3, though. Monday I return to working, though I still don’t really know what work is going to look like. I know it will be done from home. I’m sure Zoom meetings will figure prominently. I’m waiting for more information from those who have more power than me to determine what things are going to look like. I’m not feeling anxious about that because I’m just so grateful that my job–no matter what it will consist of–is secure right now. I’m aware that as this goes on and we begin to feel long-term economic impacts, that could change. I’m not worrying about any of that right now, though. I’m doing my best to stay grounded in the day I’m in.

All in all, the days I’ve been in have melded into a dreamy bubble. Days drifted by, or I drifted through them. Somehow, there was a large sense of drift. It feels wrong or dangerous to say that out loud, to share pretty pictures of my time in refuge. As I do, I feel superstitious fears rising up in me, based in irrational beliefs that if we draw attention to our good fortune, the gods or fate or spiteful humans will do something to ruin it. It feels callous or shallow to do so when others are suffering, and maybe it is.

Or maybe, instead, you might read my story and wonder, as I have been, why it can’t be everyone’s. It feels fundamentally wrong to me that I have had it as relatively easy as I have, when others are sacrificing so much–especially our healthcare workers, and those who stock our shelves and pump our gas and do the work we’ve all realized, in new ways, is essential.

I have been thankful over and over again that I have not had to work the past two weeks or worry about immediate income loss because it has allowed me time and space to process what is happening and keep my anxiety low-grade rather than acute. More importantly, it has allowed me to do what our scientists and public health officials have been pleading with us to do: stay home.

I know life can never be entirely fair, but why, in a country with as much wealth as we have, has our public health system failed so dramatically and so many of us had to worry about how we’re going to pay rent and take care of ourselves if we get sick? It’s not that way in other countries, where lower-wage workers don’t live so close the bone, and where laid off workers and their employers are receiving more funds than ours will to keep their economies afloat. Why is it that way here?

And, if more people could have spent the past weeks the way I have–sequestered at home, not feeling the need to leave to pay bills–perhaps the virus could be managed and contained to reasonable levels in every state in our country (as we seem to be doing here in Oregon), reducing the tremendous and inequitable impact on not only our health care systems, but on our healthcare workers.

Coming up on the end of week two, it’s seeming to me that there is more than one type of impact curve that we could be flattening.

Dots

“We have lost it all”: The shock felt by millions of unemployed Americans
For the millions of Americans who found themselves without a job in recent weeks, the sharp and painful change brought a profound sense of disorientation. They were going about their lives, bartending, cleaning, managing events, waiting tables, loading luggage and teaching yoga. And then suddenly they were in free fall, grabbing at any financial help they could find, which in many states this week remained locked away behind crashing websites and overloaded phone lines.

April bills loom. The economy hangs on how many are left unpaid.
The 11-year economic expansion left record low unemployment, but it did less to ensure financial stability. The Federal Reserve reported last year that four in 10 Americans would have difficulty covering an unexpected expense of $400.

If Oregonians stay home, state hospitals appear capable of handling coronavirus burden
New modeling released Thursday by the Oregon Health Authority shows the state’s hospital system appears capable of handling the coronavirus cases that are expected in the next month. But that’s just a planning estimate and assumes that nine out of 10 Oregonians stay home.

“We know that is going to be very hard to achieve in the short-term and probably hasn’t been achieved,” said Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state epidemiologist, “and will be very difficult to achieve in the long term.

“We know that the only way to get that curve to be flat or go down is aggressive action that people listen to.”

The billions that countries are spending to fight Covid-19
(Includes a long list of links to articles that share information about aid that various countries are providing for their citizens)

Coronavirusdiary #2: opportunity and sacrifice

A year ago this week I was in Komiža, a tiny town on the tiny island of Vis, in Croatia. I’d gone there with the women of my family–my mother, my daughter, my god-mother, and four cousins. We all share the DNA of my great-grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Komiža when she was a teenager, just a little more than 100 years ago.

It took three planes, one shuttle, one ferry, one bus, and 24 hours to get to there. Eight of us from three generations came from four different points of origin; I met my daughter in Munich, and we joined the others at the airport in Split. It was dark when we stepped off the bus and met the woman who owned the rooms we’d rented. We followed her into the center of town, a sandstone-paved plaza bordered on one side by a row of old buildings and on the other by water.

As I followed along, suitcase wheels bumping over the stones, my chest tightened, my stomach fluttered, and tears formed. It will sound corny and cliche, and maybe I was just exhausted, but it felt as if something in my core recognized the place, and had been longing for it. It felt like home.

That week, with so many of the women who have been central to my life, is one I haven’t written about here. I wrote some words then, but it all felt too big to capture, and I never published the post I started. To be in the town my great-grandmother grew up in, to see a small cemetery filled with the names that filled our childhoods, to spy across the plaza a man who was a doppelgänger for a cousin, to hear all around us the language that our elders used when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying–it gave me a new understanding of my great-grandmother because I knew in a different, visceral way all that she had given up when she left that place for a new life in a foreign country.

(Our great-grandmother’s maiden name, before it was changed to Evich at Ellis Island.)

When we were in Komiža, we were able to meet with a cousin who still lives there. We asked him why so many of the town’s residents had left in the early 1900’s. Was it war? we wondered. “No,” he said, he didn’t think so. “Just, more opportunity. Some left early and sent back pictures from California, with cars and nice clothes.”

(From my great-grandmother’s photo album)

I have written before about the types of pain that have bound the women in my family as surely as our genetics have. Last fall, I met one of my cousins for dinner, just the two of us, and we talked about my daughter and her impending graduation from college. “Until now, I’ve been the only woman in our family to do that,” I said, hesitantly. It’s a fact I’ve had such conflicted feelings about, mostly guilt (of the survivor type). I’d never said it out loud to anyone else in the family.

“I know,” said my cousin, who had had to drop out of high school when pregnant with her first child. “It’s a big deal.” I felt such relief, to be able to talk about this fact of our family and what it meant.

Not long after that conversation, it was decided that my mother and I would attend my daughter’s commencement ceremony together, just the two of us. We would travel to Washington, DC as we did this week three years ago, when my daughter was a freshman.

She’d gone there all on her own, knowing no one, having never even stepped foot on campus. Of the options she’d had to choose from, it felt like the one with the most opportunity. It was a gutsy thing to do, in some ways not unlike leaving the only country she’d ever known. Of course, she wasn’t giving up anything like the things my great-grandmother and millions of other immigrants have given up, but she was going far away to live in new cultures, with none of her friends and family, embarking on an experience unlike any of ours who’d come before her, which meant she had no one close to guide her through it.

Although my own college experience was fundamentally different, it was enough alike that I knew she wouldn’t come back to us the same girl she’d been when she left, and that it would create more than one kind of distance between us. That’s proven to be true, and so her graduation ceremony was one I wanted to attend with just my mother, another one of the bright women in my family who didn’t get to to go to college, and the only person I know who might know all of what my daughter’s graduation means to me.

All graduations are important to the families of those who have supported the graduating child, but my daughter’s graduation means even more to me now that I have been to Komiža, now that I understand more deeply all that my great-grandmother gave up to provide everything that has made the coming moment possible: history, language, family, friends, place. She left as a teen-ager, and she only returned once, when she was in her 70s. I wonder now what role the trauma that she and all those she knew must have endured played in creating the traumas that have marked everyone in the generations that followed. Have all the things we all lost been worth the things we gained? How do you balance such an equation?

Of course, that trip and that ceremony are canceled now. My daughter is in Sweden, finishing her studies remotely in the country she hopes to make her home after she graduates. I don’t know when I’ll see her again. I knew, when she left my home four years ago, that she would never really return–but I had no idea how far she was going to travel, in every way that one might. In this week of so many kinds of loss for so many people, all over the world, it feels wrong or self-indulgent to mourn the loss of this experience that my mother, daughter, and I were going to share. We are all healthy, and safe, and well, and that same survivor’s guilt makes me feel as if I shouldn’t express sadness about anything.

But I know that the grief is deeper than the loss of a ceremony or a trip. It is about the tangle of all the things that ceremony and trip represented: opportunity, achievement, sacrifice, and hope that spans generations. It is about all the things we lose and gain as we try to make better lives for ourselves and those we love. It is about the questions we are facing and will face in the context of our pandemic, as politicians this week float the idea that our elderly should sacrifice themselves to maintain “our way of life.”

As I remember the village I was in a year ago today, and all that those who came before me sacrificed and endured so that I can live the life I have, I am thinking a lot about ways of life and what we should fight to preserve and what we might let go. What struck me most about Komiža was a way of life I recognized from my childhood, a tightly woven, easy, intergenerational one. Old men sat in chairs on the plaza and children zoomed around them on bikes and rollerblades, and in the early evenings multiple generations of families would gather in a tavern before dinner, children, parents, and grandparents drinking and talking and laughing together. There was no helicopter parenting, perhaps because everyone seemed to know everyone else, and it reminded me of childhood visits to Bellingham, Washington, where so many who came from Komiža settled. My great-grandmother lived with my grandparents on the south side of town, where all the Slavs lived, and every visit to the grocery store or walk through the neighborhood seemed to include a conversation with someone whose last name matched one of those on the headstones in the Komiža cemetery. When we’d meet and my grandmother would introduce me, I wasn’t just her grand-daughter Rita; I was “Marianne’s girl,” and everyone knew who my mother, Marianne, was. I felt known in a way that I never did in my own suburban home town.

I suppose, to many of us living in cities in the US, the way of life in Komiža might feel small or lesser-than, but it reminded me of the best parts of my childhood, and in its harbor and coffee shop and market I felt a grief that seemed as unreasonable as any I am feeling now. Seeing all that my great-grandparents had left behind, I felt cheated of a different kind of life I might have had, which made no sense because it never could have been mine; if they had never left the village, I would never have been born. But grief isn’t always logical, is it?

For a long time now, our way of life hasn’t been working so well for me and for many of those I know. In a devastating essay about caring for a husband with COVID-19, a mother tells her daughter that they are living in a dystopian story now, and the daughter answers: “Lots of people already did.” As I have been living a slower, smaller life these past two weeks, despite all the fear and uncertainty, I have felt other things I’ve been longing for: connection, purpose, a focus on things that truly matter. I have felt, paradoxically in this moment of great unease, an easiness that comes from having enough sleep, from eating in a healthy way, from the release of pressures to do and look and be in ways that are irrelevant right now.

In the days and weeks to come, we’ll all be making choices about how to best preserve ways of life and what we’re willing to sacrifice and for whom. I hope we’ll all think long and hard about the multiple ways in which opportunity can present itself, and that the cost of cars and nice clothes and all manner of things is far more than the numbers on their price tags.

This week’s dots:

What I learned when my husband got sick with coronavirus: “On one of the worst nights, I stay next to the bed, rubbing his body through the piled-on blankets, trying to comfort him. I hear myself start to hum, low, the only song I would: the song both my mother and my grandmother used to sing to me.”

Grieving the losses of coronavirus: “As a therapist, I always say that there’s no hierarchy of pain — pain is pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest. I believe, too, that there’s no hierarchy of grief. When we rank our losses, when we validate some and minimize others, many people are left alone to grieve what then become their silent losses.”

That discomfort you’re feeling is grief: “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. …I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.”

Burnout isn’t just in your head. It’s in your circumstances: “The heart of burnout is emotional exhaustion — feeling so depleted and drained by your job that you have nothing left to give. In the U.S., over half of employees feel burned out at least some of the time. It doesn’t just hurt our productivity — it can harm our mental and physical health, too. There’s evidence linking burnout to weakened immune systems and even cardiovascular disease. It’s no wonder that burnout has been declared an occupational syndrome by the World Health Organization.”

The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the failings of capitalism: “Trump’s right about one thing: It is definitely the story of capitalism. And while we are still reeling from the shock to our everyday lives, we should look at some of these huge changes to our routines as a possible — even hopeful — new normal.”

Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker shuts down completely and sounds an alarm: “In Portland, the virus is here. Believe me, it is everywhere. I might have it, you might have it, we don’t know. We have got to stay home to minimize the damage and sickness and death. We’ve all got to do this thing that modern society is not used to. We’ve never had to make this kind of massive sacrifice, ever. We have to stop fucking around making TikToks and get serious.

Bay area is flattening the curve: “The latest such experiment is Shelter-in-Place, which the Bay Area was the first to institute in the entire country, without any federal support or mandate. So, I decided to take a look at how this experiment has played out. And so far, the numbers seem to indicate that this was not only a wise decision, but will help us come out of this far quicker than anyone else (provided we can limit people travelling into or outside of the bay area and continue to maintain social distancing).”

Coronavirusdiary #1

A teacher friend on Facebook shared an article about a history professor at the University of Virginia who suggested to his students that they keep a diary of this time. In answer to the question of why it might be important for people to write their experiences down, he said:

Our normal days in the now-suddenly-distant past may well have often dulled us into just getting through them. Our sudden lives now stop us, and lead us to wonder about our experiences and our feelings on many passing moments.

This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring? 

When I consider the distance of the days between my post last Sunday and this Sunday, it feels too much to capture. And, honestly, I don’t want to even try. This feels like an experience that needs to be recorded in something more like a poem than an essay–in telling images and moments, rather than in lengthy exposition and cataloging of official happenings. There will be voluminous documentation, I’m sure, of the macro. But I’ve always been much more interested in the micro–in how enormous events play out in the minutiae of individual lives.

Zoom happy hour, social distancing style
Bedroom painting project (still not finished)
Garage-organization project, days 1-3
Grocery shopping in an economically poor neighborhood (mine) in the time of pandemic

How are you doing? we ask each other (through text, messaging, phone calls, zoom calls).

How are we doing? It feels as if many of us had a day of reckoning this week–a day in which we understood, in a deeper way, the ramifications of what is happening. For me, it came on Wednesday. I woke sometime in the night the way I have in the direct wake of other life-altering events, forgetting for a brief moment that life was no longer as I knew it, and then suddenly remembering that my earth had slipped off its axis. The coronavirus, I thought, and then remembered that I wasn’t going to be getting up and going to school, that my daughter wasn’t returning from Sweden, that our markets are crashing, that small businesses are failing, that friends are out of work, that people are dying and going to die, that I could not go visit my parents or go see a movie or eat at my favorite restaurants or get my haircut or see my friends or or or… I felt the kind of need to ground myself in a new reality that I have felt when people died, when a marriage ended, when my children left home. Things are both exactly the same and very much not the same, and I’m off-balance, wobbly on my feet. The coronavirus, I thought, grounding myself in the reality that there is no solid ground to our reality right now.

How are you doing? I am trying to get the cognitive dissonance to settle down. All weekend after our schools close I stay home and read the news stories on my computer, the charts and graphs with curves that need to flatten, the pleas from those in Italy to do things differently than they did, and I share the stories and I tag them #stayhome, but then early in the week I get in my car to do something essential and I see the road filled with cars, the sidewalks filled with people who are not keeping their distance from one another, and the stories and charts and graphs feel unreal. Why am I not at work when all these other people are? Where are they all going? What’s really real? On my return from the dentist (essential), I impulsively run into the craft store for embroidery floss because it’s still open, because I need things to do with my hands, because I tell myself I can do it safely. I wear gloves. I feel guilty. I am guilty. Forgive me, I think. Maybe it’s OK, I think. It feels essential to me, right now. I touch nothing but the floss I put in my basket. Please let this be OK, I think. I am a hypocrite, I think, as I strip off the gloves before touching the steering wheel.

How are you doing? Tears well easily, and frequently, and always they surprise me. They come the day my mother emails to tell me that she’s accepted that she will not be able to make the trip to DC to see my daughter graduate from college, and I see she has not yet reached the obvious (but still not officially announced) conclusion that there will be no commencement ceremony. The day she calls me to say that she’s canceled both our flights and our hotel reservation. The afternoon I watch my high school friends on Facebook mourn the death of our beloved choir teacher, killed by the virus. The morning my friend whose college-student daughter can’t get out of Peru sends me a picture of her child’s smiling host family, celebrating their own young daughter’s birthday in quarantine. When she tells me that the family told her daughter, “you are our family now.” Multiple times while reading a YA novel about a Seattle girl whose life is shattered by a tragedy, and how runs across the whole country as she tries to both escape and control the trauma she can neither control nor escape. They come right now, as I type these words and remember each of these moments.

How are you doing? Early in the week I am drifting, floundering. I lose big parts of days doing…what? I’m not sure. I start projects and don’t finish them. I buy food in case I can’t later, including treats I normally wouldn’t, but right now I have little desire to eat. I watch people around me mobilize into action that looks almost manic, but maybe that’s just in comparison to me, who is floating. I lose two days to headache because it’s not that bad (I tell myself) and because I don’t take my meds because I am afraid I might run out and be unable to get more. I finally take them, and as the fog clears I can see that it was bad, worse than I’d allowed myself to acknowledge. I write. I think about what it is that most needs doing, and how it feels impossible that “nothing” might be the right answer to the question, even as it feels like it probably is. I try to pay attention–pay attention!–to the ordinary pleasures that remain, so that I might not be kicking myself in the future the way I am now about not fully noticing and appreciating the night two weekends ago we went out for dinner and a movie, even though I suspected at the time that it might be the last time we did it for awhile. I can’t even remember now where we ate. I long to remember where we ate.

Near the end of the week, we go out to take a walk through a favorite walking neighborhood. The businesses on the neighborhood’s commercial street are dark, the curbs usually lined end-to-end with cars only dotted with them. We see that a pizza place at the end of the block is still open for take-out, and it feels like a wondrous gift.

“Oh, let’s order some,” I say. “It’s Friday night, remember?” I say, as if Friday still means what it did a week ago. So we do, and it feels so good, to do something so ordinary in this extraordinary time. We tell them we’ll be there in an hour to pick up the pizza, and we walk in the day’s waning sunshine. I take photos for my house embroidery project, and we note plants and flowers in other yards we’d like to add to ours.

In front of one of the houses is a giant sequoia, and I stop to look up through its branches. I take a photo, trying to capture how the tree’s arms look like infinity, or the face of a god, or a puzzle whose pieces I could never sort. Everything feels so much bigger and older than I will ever be, all the world’s mystery and power and wonder embodied into this one thing, right here, on an ordinary sidewalk in Portland on a Friday evening in March, the end of week one of our pandemic. I snap a photo, sure it will be like all the other photos I’ve taken looking up into the limbs of trees, a disappointing mishmash of shadow and lines that don’t at all capture what I felt when I clicked the shutter.

But this time, some kind of wonderful happens when I shoot, which I discover not long after, sitting at the kitchen table and eating the pizza, which tastes better than any pizza has tasted in a long time. The photo looks almost more like a painting than a photo, and it’s there, all of it, just as I saw it. It’s like magic, the way the tree–our lives now–are half in shadow, half in light, a beautiful thickety maze that stretches up and up as far as we can see.

Your turn

I would love to hear about your week. Please share in the comments, or link to your own diary if it’s digital.

Hey, Parents and Teachers

I see you all, scrambling so hard.

I see your schedules for study and reading and exercise. I see you sharing your digital resources, not hoarding a single scrap of anything that might help someone else help their kids. Heck, every once in awhile I chime in, too, throwing a helpful URL into the ring where you’re all fighting to hang onto something that feels right, if not normal.

Sometime in the past day or two, though, I started wondering if maybe you all need a different kind of lifeline. So I’m offering this one:

In the fall of 2005, my twins were in second grade, and their teachers began what would end up being the second-longest teachers’ strike in Oregon history. Their dad and I were both teachers in another district, so we were still working. We didn’t have a good daycare backup, and we were (of course) on the side of their teachers, and so we prepared to buck up and hunker down for however long a haul it might be. Somehow.

Just a few days in, home with the kids, my husband decided that now was as good a time as any for him to tear up the vinyl in front of our dishwasher and finally find out what was creating a growing bump in the floor. We’d had a dishwasher guy out who said there were no leaks, so we knew it wasn’t the washer.

I didn’t understand the implications of the photo he emailed me that morning–what all that black stuff underneath the vinyl was. By the end of the day, however, through a series of emails and phone calls, I knew I was only going to have a few minutes to pack up anything we might need for the night because the black stuff was mold and we had to get out of the house.

I didn’t try to make my kids do any schoolwork that night. It was all still a bit of an adventure. Each of the few days after that, though, revealed a new level of not-normal and not-adventure. Long story short: Two-thirds of the ground level of our house was full of mold. We’d have to move out while a crew removed the flooring and a good chunk of drywall from our kitchen, dining room, and family room. All of the kitchen cabinets had to come out. Machines would have to run 24/7 for weeks to dry everything out, and then we’d have to rebuild.

This was all going to take awhile. And the teachers were still on strike.

The vacation condo we’d gone to “for just a few nights” was going to be home for…who knows how long? We tried to settle into a “new normal” in which my kids were not living in their house, without most of their things, and not going to school. They were 8 years old.

Some days they went to school with me, sitting at desks next to my high-schoolers, pretending to do “work” I’d given them. Some days they went with their dad. As the days turned into a week, and then another week, I started to get anxious about all the school they were missing. They were in second grade! A crucial year for reading and math! For everything!

After dinner, I’d sit with them at our not-ours kitchen table and write out math problems. Addition and subtraction with multiple digit numbers. I stumbled over trying to conceptually explain tens and hundreds and borrowing, which my bright children rather stubbornly (it seemed to me) refused to understand. For several nights, our already-stressful days ended with more stress.

Finally, one evening, my daughter gave me a talking-to.

“Mommy,” she said, with what I could see was a great deal of patience, “I know you are a teacher, but I don’t want you to be my teacher. You are Mommy, and that’s all I want you to be.”

I looked at her, and it was as if I were really seeing her for the first time since everything had started falling apart.

“OK,” I said. Fair enough.

I decided that we all had enough to contend with as it was, and I pushed the math papers aside with as much relief as both small sets of relaxing shoulders expressed.

The strike was not insignificant. Our kids missed school for a month, and re-entry wasn’t easy. But 15 years out, I can look back and tell you that my kids would not have been better off if I’d insisted on continuing my efforts to teach them what I thought they needed to learn.

I was so in the thick of stress from worrying about money and the house and trying to keep everything as normal as possible that I couldn’t see the stress my kids were under, too–and that nothing I might do would make anything feel normal.

After that evening, we came home (to not-home), ate dinner together, and sometimes played games and sometimes watched movies. We read books before bed, and snuggled, and tried to enjoy living in a place that others went to for vacations. We didn’t know when anything was going to end; days kept being added to projections for when we could move home, and the strike just kept going on and on. So I finally stopped worrying about it, because there was nothing I could do, anyway. I knew we’d be back to normal eventually, no matter what I might do or not do, and that the kids were going to be all right as long as they felt loved and safe.

As it turned out, the old normal never really came back. It was a good six months or more before all of the repair was done on the house, and we made so many changes in the process that it never really felt like our old home again. It was a nice one, but a different one. By the time the house was whole again, all the cracks in the foundation of my marriage had widened to chasms we would not be able to fix. Those weeks in the condo were some of the last in what I now think of as our life before, and I am glad that the memories I have of that time are mostly sweet ones.

The second-grade girl who resisted my math instruction became a high-school student who exhausted her school’s math offerings by the end of her junior year. So, presumably, no harm, no foul from the second-grade delay in learning how to add and subtract. She’s now a college senior who was in Sweden when her school announced that it was going all-digital for the remainder of this year (and–oh, yeah, come move all your stuff out NOW), and was still there two days later when the US announced it was closing the border to travelers from Europe. She’s still there, trying to finish her thesis and work remotely for her jobs that have that as an option and get answers from her financial aid office and attend her online classes virtually from a different time zone with sometimes spotty internet connection, all while trying to wrap her head around the reality that she may never see some of her friends again and that she can’t make any solid plans for her life after graduation. Yesterday she let me know that one of her housemates now has a fever and a cough.

So, to all you parents and teachers: I feel for you. You keep doing what you need to do, however it seems best to do it. A pandemic is not a mold infestation or a teachers’ strike, and what we’re living through is a whole other level of not-normal. But maybe that’s even more reason to stop and take a deep breath, and take a good, hard look at everything around your children/students. Maybe instead of focusing on all the things your kids/students aren’t getting right now that you think you must provide, focus on them and what they’re telling you they really need. There are all kinds of ways to learn, and maybe, right now, there are more important things for them to know than anything they might typically learn while sitting at a desk or in a circle at carpet time.

With love and respect,
Rita

Some Dots

Homeschooling while working from home during a global pandemic bingo (because laughing right now is really important, and humor has a way of making a wicked-serious point)

Working from home with kids? Survive the quarantine with these proven tips… (from a former teaching colleague who’s funny and smart and wise as hell)

The case for shutting schools down instead of moving them online (because while No Child Left Behind resulted in really bad policy and practices, our solutions need to consider every child’s needs and resources)

An open letter to high school seniors (from Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year)

GBSD home learning resources, grades K-5 (I really like the game board format of these resources, and I like the mix of digital and non-digital activities. This might have worked a whole lot better than anything I tried back in 2005.)

Facts about the unschooling philosophy of education (what better time than now to reconsider everything you might think about teaching and learning?)

It’s still snowing (metaphorically this time)

I’m writing these words on Thursday morning, less than a week into our “extended spring break.” Half the contents of my garage are in my driveway. Yesterday afternoon seemed like a good time to pull everything out and finally organize that space.

Why? Maybe because we can. Maybe because the sun was shining. Maybe so we could feel a little bit of normal for an hour.

This new, changing-by-the-day normal is the new normal. What started sinking in yesterday is that we won’t be going back to the old one. My psyche is shifting into a lower gear, one to carry me through a long haul. What I know about roads and going down them is that you can’t ever really go back, once you’ve gone a certain distance.

I have been thinking the past few days about the snowstorm of December ’08. I was living on Mt. Hood then, near the Sandy River. It was a few days before Christmas, the first after my divorce, and my children were going to be spending the holiday with their dad. He and I lived within walking distance of each other, so I knew they were close, but still. It was not an easy time.

The snow was coming down. I was sewing Christmas stockings for the kids, new ones for our new house. George Bailey and Mary and Mr. Potter were keeping me company. In a few days my parents would be visiting, and we would be celebrating our Christmas a day after everyone else, but it was fine. It would all be OK. I’m OK, I thought to myself, more than once.

Late that evening, one of the dogs whined to be let out on the back deck. The French doors opened in, so I had no trouble opening the door–but, oh! There were at least two feet of snow in front of it! We lived at the base of the mountain, at only 1,000 feet, so in my 15 years of living there I’d never seen anything quite like it.

The dog–a miniature Daschund–gave me a bit of a side-eye. I looked for something I could use to scrape away a small space in which she could pee.

It felt unreal, somehow. How had all that snow fallen without my being aware of it?

I didn’t understand in that moment what the snow would mean. I didn’t know that it had fallen all over the region, and that life was going to grind to mostly a halt, Christmas or no Christmas. I didn’t know that I would be alone there for a few days. I didn’t know how I would come to rely on the television and the internet and its connections with others to keep me feeling OK. I didn’t know how angry and powerless I was going to feel when my ex-husband ignored the travel advisories and took our children several hours up I-5 to retrieve their older sister, rather than letting them stay with me. I didn’t know that my parents were going to have to cancel their plans to come see us the day after Christmas.

I only came to understand those things gradually, over the course of a few days, and I didn’t fully understand the implications of my position until the power went out. At that point, I was low on food. No power meant I had no heat. My car was trapped in my garage behind a wall of snow, and I didn’t even have a snow shovel. No power also meant no internet, and so no way of communicating with the people who had kept me tethered to something that felt like normalcy.

When I finally understood those things–all of them–after days of living alone and working so hard to be OK in that solitude, I kind of lost it.

I bundled myself up and trudged down to the river, a constant source of solace in those years of my life coming undone. I was utterly alone, nothing but snow and trees and water all around. I sunk into the snow, wondering how my life had come to this, that I would be alone without heat or food or someone to meet these challenges with me, and I howled the kind of tears I’ve only known a few times in my life.

When I finally got up to leave–because tears always stop, eventually, and we always have to keep moving, don’t we?–one foot slipped out of my boot and the other didn’t move at all. I stood there, ridiculous, balancing on one leg, trying to dislodge my boot, and I fell over, icy snow biting my face. What the fuck was I doing? No one knew where I was. What if I did something even more stupid and got hurt and couldn’t get back up through the short path through the woods? I cried some more.

I don’t remember how I got those boots unstuck, but I did. And I marched my cold, wet ass back to my dark, cold house with nearly empty cupboards and faced the truth that I was supremely ill-equipped to live on the mountain by myself. So I was going to get the hell out.

I didn’t have a snow shovel, but my ex-husband did and he wasn’t home. I loaded up my two tiny dogs in a tobaggen (why? who knows? snow-crazy, maybe) and started to make my way to the house that had once been mine but was now only his. I was going to dig that car out of the garage and ignore the travel advisories myself.

As I crossed Barlow Trail Road–originally part of the Oregon Trail–and entered what had been, only months before, my street, Hideaway Lane, I saw a wondrous site: my old neighbor Shari’s 4-wheel drive rig idling in her driveway, exhaust wafting skyward.

“Are you going down the mountain?” I called to her.

Yes, she was. And yes, I could have a ride.

I hurried home, packed a bag, grabbed the dogs some food and blankets, and I was ready in minutes. I decided she could take me to the school where I taught. It was in town, within walking distance of restaurants. The school had a health sciences program, with an equipped hospital room, which meant there was a bed I could sleep in. There was power. I would be fine.

“Are you sure?” Sherri asked as she dropped the dogs and me off outside the building.

“Yes, I’ll be OK,” I assured her. I was taking care of myself, dammit. I was figuring it out. I thought of all the times my children’s father had told me that I’d never have survived the Oregon Trail, and my resolve hardened. I was not going to be a victim, crying alone in my cold, dark house with no food.

A half-hour later the city of Gresham closed down, which meant that all the restaurants and stores closed. All I had to eat were leftovers from the Red Robin lunch I’d had with Shari. The school, shut down for the winter break, wasn’t much warmer than my house had been.

I cried again.

Eventually, I abandoned both pride and my resolve to go it alone and called a friend, who got on a bus and came and rescued me. (I couldn’t manage the two dogs and all of our things on the bus by myself.) I spent Christmas with him and his daughter, the first of what would end up being many that we shared. It was not the Christmas I expected, at all. It was not the one I wanted. But I was grateful for it. Deeply grateful. The greatest gift was, perhaps, that first night at his apartment, when he filled the tub with hot water and brought me a glass of wine and I felt such profound relief to know that I was no longer all on my own, even if just for a day or two.

Things went back to normal, sort of. The snow melted. My children safely returned. My parents eventually made it to my house, where we all opened presents and watched movies, and it felt a lot like Christmas, even though it was days late. It would be a while before I realized that I’d changed in those howling minutes I’d lived on the snow-covered beach, face-to-face with my ineptitude and a solitude I’d never known.

What’s happening now feels not unlike that snowstorm, and I wonder where in the sequence of events and understanding I am. A week ago, I think, I was not unlike the woman who sat sewing Christmas stockings, unaware of the snow piling high around her shelter. I mean, I knew it was snowing. But now, like then, it’s been a little breath-taking to see how fast and hard it’s fallen, and how it continues to accumulate.

Wishing all of you who read here good health (mental and physical) and the sense I didn’t have in 2008 to know that no one can really go it alone (even as we must physically separate). Let’s help each other make it down this road together.

A few dots from writers I found strangely comforting yesterday:

The world we once lived in has vanished

The ghost of normalcy lingering past its time

Figuring forward in an uncertain universe

A post about the thing with feathers

Well, what does one say after the year that was last week?

In the midst of our schools closing, a multiple-day migraine, a child in Europe whose east-coast university has shut down and wants her to move her belongings out, and a clogged kitchen sink line, I re-arranged my living room. I spent an entire evening reconsidering the objects on my fireplace mantel. I bought paint to re-paint the bedroom I painted in December. I put a lot of stitches into a canvas while I watched stupid things on TV that made me feel nostalgic for 2010.

Before I left work on Friday, hoping that we really will return in two weeks but knowing that we likely won’t, I checked out a bagful of books from our school library. Good thing, because Saturday morning I woke to the news that our public libraries are shutting down, which somehow hit me harder than anything else had. Perhaps because libraries are my church, and if ever there was a time a person might need church, it’s now. In the absence of such, I am planning a garage re-organization project, which I’ll start just as soon as it stops snowing.

Because it is freaking snowing, in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of March.

(Well, it was on Saturday morning when I was writing this post.)

Which leads me to ask:

My daughter is staying put in Europe for I don’t know how long, and we reminded ourselves this morning that humor is a key item in anyone’s apocalypse survival kit. As are toilet paper, pasta, and ways to keep productively busy.

Ever since reading Digital Minimalism a few weeks back, I’ve curtailed my social media consumption (going so far as to remove the apps from my phone), but as the wheels started flying off the bus on Friday I found my feeds to be a place of comfort. It was good to hear from people I know and love. It was good to see sound information being shared. It was good to laugh. It was good to be reminded of what can be best in us, rather than what’s so often worst.

Mostly, it was heartening to realize that my feed was full of messages that all said some version of this: We need to do what we’re doing and bear the costs of these actions not to reduce our own risks, but to reduce the risks to others. The ratio of those messages to photos of empty toilet paper aisle shelves was about a million to one, and for the first time in a long time I’ve felt something I’d almost forgotten the feeling of: Hope.

As I’m watching the world around me shift to accommodate the shape of something we’ve never experienced here, there is something that feels almost holy in this moment. I have been thinking for a long time that it would probably take some kind of disaster to turn us around on the path we’ve been hurtling down. That is the opportunity inherent in this unfolding disaster that will touch all of us in some way, if it hasn’t already.

My deep, fervent hope today is that this will propel us to remember how inter-connected we all are, to reach out to each other rather than erect walls between us, to uphold ideas and ideals that have always been the best part of us, and to act more from love than from fear.

We’ll all have to figure out the best ways for us to do that. Right now, I’m focused on staying home as much as possible and supporting those in my personal circle without creating more risk for those outside it. I might write here more often, once I get a little equilibrium back. Mostly, though, you can probably find me (but please, don’t come too close looking) painting a wall or cleaning a garage or stabbing canvas with a needle or sharing something through Facebook–a tidbit of useful information or something funny to make you smile.

Because it has always been true that we also serve, who only stand and wait.

Dots

Hope is the thing with feathers

Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

Creating Life

“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”

My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.

At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.

I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.

“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”

“But does it have to?”

Careful, careful…

“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.

“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”

Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.

How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?

Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.

“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”

Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?

“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”

“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”

I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.

BAM.

Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.

It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.

What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?

She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.

Shit.

“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”

In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.

Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)

Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.

As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.

I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.

In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”

“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.

The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.

I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.

“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”

I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”

It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.

In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.

What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”

Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”

Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.

But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.

As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.

Extra Credit:

Rebecca Walker Explains Rift with Mother, Alice” from NPR

Taking Care of the Truth–Embedded Slander: A Meditation on the Complicity of Wikipedia,” by Alice Walker

“‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem that Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From” by Ann Bauer

Feminism and Tillie Olson’s Silences by Bianca Lech (or better yet, read Silences, a work that shook me way back in the day)

Late winter still life

We can call it late winter, can’t we? We have passed the half-way point, and the crocuses and camellias are now blooming…

One morning last week, as I was gathering my things for the day, there was something about the clutter on my kitchen table that stopped me. It struck me as beautiful, the arrangement of things I did not arrange. The unposed mix of textures, colors, and shapes so pleased me I reached for the camera, trying to capture how it looked for me.

Of course, I didn’t really.

The 17th century Dutch assigned layers of meanings to the objects in their still life paintings, which functioned almost like a code (mostly of judgement, it seems), but there’s nothing like that going on here. Each object is simply what it is: a beleaguered basil in a dull clay pot; an empty Ikea vase; a $3.00 bunch of chamomile from Trader Joe’s; a bowl of common fruit; a chipped Franciscan ware lid sitting on its matching bowl, protecting the salt within it. Apparently, still life paintings rank low on the painting hierarchy–or at least they did in 17th century France. Ordinary, inanimate subjects were deemed less worthy than living ones, but I rather like these things on my table that talk to me without words or movement.

I couldn’t quite catch through the camera how it felt to me, the cluster of objects in late winter’s early morning light, but I can look at the image and hear something of what they are saying: Here is a life with flavor. Some simplicity. Healthy sweetness, and a touch of ordinary pretty.

Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow is a picture book I’ve loved this winter. It invites us to see beneath the surface of things. Over the snow is a still, white world. Under it, hidden from view, a colorful kingdom of animals inhabit rest and safe shelter–a still life of a different kind.

There is, of course, life coursing through the objects on my table: Meals, friendships, memories, outings, unfinished chores. The very beginning of a season’s turning. It’s a mostly quiet life right now, a lull before spring storms. For weeks I have been living, at times, not unlike Messner’s voles, scratching “through slippery tunnels, searching for morsels from summer feasts,” and at others like her snoring black bear, “still full of October blueberries and trout.”

It’s important, I think, to be still from time to time. To stay warm. To rest. It’s important to know what’s beneath the surface of things. To pause and really see what and who surrounds us, from both above and below. To hold and appreciate what we can, as we can, all the while knowing that the crocuses will out, and the season of busy colors will return.

So tell me…

What is on your kitchen table?

What’s going on under the surface of your life?

What kind of paintings speak to you?

Oh, and if you want to see truly lovely still life photos, check out Oh Katie Joy’s Tuesday Things posts. Many times they open with a long string of photos, many of which are still life shots. I dare you to look at those and not see your own home through different eyes. Another master of the genre is Alicia Paulson.

It’s beginning to look a lot like January…

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Christmas,” eh?

And yet, I like it.

I like beginnings. I like cozy. I like sweaters and warm socks and red wine and hot chocolate. Fires in the fireplace. Heavy blankets on the bed. A long happy hour in a restaurant bar with warm lights and small bites of perfect food and deep conversation with a good friend while rain pelts the windows behind us. (How I spent my early Saturday evening this weekend.) I do miss all the twinkly lights on the houses, but when I was driving to work Monday morning, I told myself that there’s a similar kind of something in the way the car lights illuminate the early morning darkness. Even through a rainy windshield.

On my winter break I did a whole lot of nothing much…
…ate good-tasting food (whenever I wanted to)
…sat around tables (with family and friends)
…read (novels and poetry and books about home improvement and starting a business and preventing burnout and embroidery)
…savored (movies, naps, my son’s face)
…laughed (a lot)
…cried (a little)
…moved slowly (through time and space)

I did the things I had to–cooking and cleaning and exercising–but only as much as I had to. Mostly, I gave myself permission to just be. The days passed swiftly, but there was a languid quality to them. Every afternoon I was startled by how quickly darkness descended and by how little I had to show–in conventional terms–for the day that had passed, but it was fine. It was wonderful, actually.

When the break ended I wasn’t excited to return to work, but I wasn’t unhappy about it, either. It was all good.

I have been thinking about what created the sense of well-being that is remaining even as I’ve returned to the routines that had me feeling so spent before the break: sleep, and rest, and physical movement, and connection with others, and creativity, and meaning. I had all of those in spades for two weeks. It was wonderful.

And you know what? I don’t want to give those up. I know that prioritizing those things just listed can feel selfish or self-indulgent or some other negative thing that begins with “self” (and if I had more time I’d do a deep dive into why we think that and how F’d up that kind of thinking is), but I think I’m a better person when I have those things–kinder, more patient, more fun. So, figuring out how to prioritize having that is a win-win, for both me and those whose orbits collide with mine.

January is a perfect time for doing that. It’s a time for the quiet and contemplative comforts of winter, without the expectation and demands of the holiday season. It’s not as outwardly sparkly, but I’m going to be looking for some inside sparkle. Or making some. I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about how to make that happen, but I don’t have any big answers yet.

Dot-to-Dot

My friend Kim told me that she likes reading this blog on Sunday mornings over coffee (see, she already knows what I’m just figuring out about time and how to use it!) and one of my favorite features of my friend Kate’s blog is her Friday Finds, an eclectic and interesting collection of things to read. The offerings below are all, in their own way, connected to the ideas above, and my usual inclination would be to delay hitting publish until I could write some (probably overly long) piece connecting all the dots for you–which would likely mean never sharing them at all, because I’d never quite find the time to do it right and the moment would pass (by which I mean that these particular dots would have been pushed to the bottom of the dot pile in my head by newer dots because the dots never stop coming)–and so I’m going to experiment with just leaving the dots for you to peruse or not, as you see fit. Please let me know if this is something you’d like more of (or not).

The most powerful thing I read this week, about living and dying and marriage and the state of the world. It helped me understand why my own committed relationship (sort of) imploded in the wake of 2016 and really hard personal situations out of my control.

I want to be like Ken when I die. I already shared this on Facebook, but it’s so, so good. As a piece of writing, and as a guidebook for living (and dying).

I want to read and think more about the idea of a secular Sabbath.

This isn’t a read, but it’s about reading. And living. And meaning.

I love this case for blogging, and it’s part of why I’m hitting publish on this post even though it’s not in the state I’d usually want a post to be.

Happy Sunday, all. May you be as good at wintering as my Daisy, who is expert at finding a soft place to land and generally has a pretty good time, which is saying something when your lack of teeth keeps you from being able to keep your tongue inside your mouth.