What feeds us

“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….

By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.

Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5

“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….

Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”

Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.

I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.

“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”

“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”

“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”

“What should my three points be?”

“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”

Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.

To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.

Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.

Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.

In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.

Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”

Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.

After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?

Then, the pandemic hit.

Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)

For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?

I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.

Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:

  • Eat locally and sustainably.
  • Eat seasonally.
  • Shop at farmers’ markets.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Conserve, compost, and recycle.
  • Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
  • Cook together.
  • Eat together.
  • Remember food is precious.

Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.

Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?

I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.

Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.

“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”

“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”

He grinned.

“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.

I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.

How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?

Long drive home

Image via Toyota Newsroom

Unlike many of my peers, I never had my own car in high school. My parents had a 1971 Toyota Corona that they allowed me to drive to my job at the local library and, occasionally, to high school games when I was a cheerleader during my senior year. In college, I worked for my dad’s employer, which required about a 40-minute drive down I-5 from the University of Washington, and my parents let me take the Corona to campus so that I could go back-and-forth from school to work.

One day, the car wouldn’t start, stranding me in a parking lot. Eventually my dad came to rescue me, wherein he discovered that the car was completely out of oil. He was angry that I hadn’t been paying attention to this most basic car need, and I was both bewildered by his anger and angry in return because how the hell was I supposed to know about checking and refilling oil? No one had ever told me that I needed to do that!

Not too long after that, following a series of lurches and a gradual slowing, the car died one winter night on I-5, just south of Southcenter Mall, on the outskirts of Seattle. I didn’t know what to do, so I got out and started walking, thinking I could find a payphone at the mall. Some cars honked as they passed me, and one swerved over into the shoulder ahead of me, its passengers yelling assessments of my body. I stopped walking, and it idled there for minute or so before swerving back into traffic and proceeding north, horn blaring. I was scared, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept walking. Another car pulled over and stayed on the shoulder. I approached it cautiously on the passenger side, where the window was down. The driver, a man, leaned over and asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thanks, I was fine.

“Look,” he said, “I know you don’t know me, but it’s not safe for you to be out here. I’d like to help you get off this freeway.”

I looked at a little boy sitting in his back seat, watching me, and thought about the earlier car. “That’s my son,” the man said. I looked north, toward the mall exit that was still not within sight. I looked back at the boy, and then again at the man. “It’s up to you,” he said, making no move toward the door. I looked once more at the boy, who looked cared for, and decided that this man probably wasn’t going to do anything bad to me with the boy in the back seat. I got in, and he drove me all the way to the University District without incident.

The next day, my mother had to take time off work to meet me and a AAA tow truck at the abandoned car, which we discovered was simply out of gas. The gas gauge wasn’t working properly and I’d miscalculated how many miles I’d put on the tank. It never occurred to me that I might have run out of gas. I’ve rarely seen my mother angry with me, but she was that day.

I remember, both times the car let me down, feeling a sense of disbelief; I needed the car to run, and so it simply wasn’t conceivable that it wouldn’t. Unreal as it sounds, given my age and that I’d watched my dad working on our cars throughout my childhood, I didn’t understand that cars need regular maintenance or that they could, indeed, break down when you most need them not to. I mean, I guess I did understand that, but I didn’t believe that they would break down on me. They were just supposed to work, because I needed them to. And, I suppose, because I didn’t know the first thing about how they worked or how to learn what to do to keep them working or how to fix them if they didn’t.

Over the course of the past year, as we’ve faced threats of all kinds I once, through the same kind of magical thinking, found as unimaginable as a car breaking down on a freeway at night (but which, of course, have always been possible), I’ve thought and written that I feel ill-equipped for this time. As I watched homeless camps and protests proliferate across my city, and governmental breakdown in my state’s capitol, and a continuing effort at autocratic take-over of our federal government, all in the midst of a global pandemic that has interrupted supply chains, over-run hospitals, and transformed life as I’ve always known it, I’ve realized that, to an extent I’m very uncomfortable with, I’ve gotten away with managing portions of my life in ways I managed that poor old Corona I eventually ran into the ground. I’ve been lucky to keep it going as well as I have, and I’ve been able to only because the larger systems around me have worked reasonably well for people like me. Over the course of the past year, I’ve realized that if things were to really fall apart, I might well be screwed. I have little practical knowledge or skills, few assets, and a small social network.

Two posts ago I wrote about following whimsy, and one post ago I wrote about holy places and creative work. This first one of the new year might look like a 180 back into the pit of 2020, but stay with me. It is, but it isn’t. Sometimes the best way out is deeper in, so that you can get through to some other side.

As I wrote last week, Mary Oliver found her temple in the natural world, in the woods. For me, that place is home. Home is what centers me, shelters me, teaches me, and provides comfort–but my worship there has consisted of a rather shallow spirituality. I’ve taken from my home far more than I’ve given to it, and my knowledge of its workings isn’t deep. I’ve never given it the time or contemplative study that Oliver gave to the woods. My relationship to home and home-making is a tangly one, influenced by second wave feminism, the working-class women who raised me, post-WWII culture, and more. For whatever reasons–and there are many–I entered adulthood no better prepared to make a home than than I was to take care of a car, and societal messages led me to believe that devotion to home would be a waste of my talents and time. It has even been possible to feel a sort of perverse pride in my domestic ineptness; wasn’t it evidence that I had given my life to worthier things?

I first felt the pull to dive into home creation when I divorced my children’s father and, for the first time in my life, needed to make a home all by myself. Channeling resources in that direction felt frivolous, though; any creative energy I had, I thought, should be poured into parenting, teaching, and writing poetry (in that order). In 2011, when Cane and I decided to make a home for our children together, I indulged that desire; I officially (if privately) decided I was no longer a poet, and we began writing a home renovation blog through which I met some of you who read here. Looking back now, though, I can see that we only scratched the surface of what it really means to make a home. Maybe that is part of why it all fell apart.

A year ago, in the wake of the loss of a writing mentor, publisher, and friend, I set an intention to write regularly here–not in order to be A Writer, but simply because doing so brings me joy. My friend Robert had devoted his life to poetry, which I had abandoned with his full approval. “You don’t owe anyone anything,” he told me the last time we talked. “You have given your life to serving others. Now do what makes you happy and healthy, even if that means not writing another poem for the rest of your life.” He also encouraged me to live in a smaller, more self-sufficient way, in community with like-minded others. “It’s all falling apart, you know,” he said to me long before the pandemic, at least five years ago. “It needs to,” he added. Those conversations unsettled me; I’d tell myself his conclusions were wrong, even as I acknowledged both the truth of his observations and my fear that he was right. I needed the world to work as it always had in the same way I’d once needed my car to–because I didn’t know what I’d need to know to operate differently. (How I have longed to be able to talk with him this last year, to see what sense he might help me make of all that’s fallen and falling.)

I cannot know what the coming year will bring, but I’m under no illusion that 2020 was some anomaly or blip. It was a year that had been decades in the making, and the forces that created it will not be undone by a single election or vaccine. I understand in new ways that my luck–like the gas in my old Corona–can run out. I think we all need to rely sometimes on the kindness of strangers, but I’d like to build a life in which I’m less likely to be walking alone on a real or metaphorical freeway at night, vulnerable to those who might mow me down on a whim. I am also, after this year of death on such a massive scale, acutely aware that life is short and that if we can follow our interests and passions we’d best do so sooner than later.

Last January, I assigned myself no topic for this blog and I imposed upon myself no purposes or limitations. This January, as I am able, my intention is to follow my whimsy deep into the place that is sacred for me and to write about it here. It is to give myself the permission my friend always wished I would to make a smaller, more self-sufficient life. It is to become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.

Let’s see where that might lead.

What’s your whimsy?

“All you need to do is find and follow your whimsy.”

My uncle wrote these words to me in July–continuation of a conversation about work and retirement and possibility that we’d begun the previous Thanksgiving–and they have been rattling around in my head ever since.

The notion astonished me, really, coming from him. His field was computer science. He’s a retired Naval officer, who was a private contractor for the government for years. “Whimsical” is not a word I would ever ascribe to him, nor is whimsy something I would have thought he much valued.

What does that even mean, I have wondered, to follow your whimsy?

According to Webster, a whim is “a capricious or eccentric and often sudden idea or turn of the mind.” To be whimsical is to be “lightly fanciful,” and “whimsy” is “a fanciful or fantastic device, object, or creation especially in writing or art.”

Defining by example is a great way to build conceptual understanding, and in the months since he wrote, I’ve been on the lookout for others who, perhaps, have followed or are following their whimsy. It’s amazing what you notice when you start to look for something.

The first examples I collected are those whose connection to whimsy is obvious. I found Jessica Coffee of Jessica Cloe Miniatures, who quit her job as an art director to make miniature house furnishings.

Via jessicacloe.com

Jessica took up renovating a dollhouse sometime in 2019, and now she and her husband make really tiny homes that look just like stylish full-sized ones. What could be more whimsical than doll houses?

There’s Brannon Addison of Happy Cactus Designs. I think I once pinned something of hers on Pinterest, and then when I decided to jump into Instagram last summer I started following her, and just this week I saw this:

Via happycactusdesigns

She reminded me of Portland fiber-artist Alicia Paulson, whose whimsy-following also began in the wake of injury. She now makes and sells creations such as this:

Via aliciapaulson.com

The more I looked for whimsy, the more I found it. A recent article in My Modern Met highlighted many. Here are two of my favorites:

Baker Hannah P. of Blondie + Rye is also a high school history teacher. See gorgeous photos of her fantastic work here.
Nathalie Lété‘s house is full of whimsy; you can see more here.

The works above are whimsical in obvious ways, but as I’ve continued to look and think I’ve realized that whimsy is an idea that can extend beyond the cute and decorative and be an entry to other kinds of things.

Also on Instagram, the poet and essayist Kim Stafford regularly shares his daily writing practice–which is really a daily noticing practice. His feed is full of photos of ordinary things, scratchy first drafts, small poems and large wonderings:

Via kimstaffordpoetry on Instagram

Is Kim a follower of whimsy? I would argue that he is; remember, a whim is an “often sudden idea or turn of the mind” and to be fanciful is to be marked by “unrestrained imagination.” I might argue that all poets, no matter how serious their subject, are fanciful followers of whimsy, ideas and feelings they trail along behind or with, to see where they might lead.

This past week, Jena Schwartz (a serious guide for those seeking their whimsy through words) asked in a Facebook post:

My first thought was: Permission to leave my career. My second was: Permission to find and follow my whimsy. My third was: That’s a potentially problematic progression of thought.

I understand that whimsy and work are not necessarily intertwined. Although some of those I’ve shared in this post followed whimsy into work-for-pay, not all have. We don’t have to leave our careers to find our whimsy, and our whimsies do not have to become careers. In fact, I think there’s probably no better way to kill whimsy than to yoke it to questions of livelihood or talent, particularly when we are getting our first glimpses of it.

Still, there is a line between my two thoughts that’s worth following. As I’ve thought about whimsy and my uncle, I’ve realized that my understanding of him–and of whimsy–has previously been shallow. Until recently his life seemed, to me, to be testament to whatever is the opposite of whimsy–because I was paying attention to the what of his work, rather than the how and why. Reflecting on our conversation, I can see that although my uncle has spent his life in serious work, what’s essential about him is that he’s a person who gets excited about ideas and possibilities. He loves a problem that needs solving or a need that needs meeting. “Fanciful” and “fancy” are words about a stance or state of mind more than anything else, and that means there is opportunity for whimsy in everything, doesn’t it?

Working on this post, I have wondered if it might feel out-of-touch with reality or oblivious to the struggles so many are living with right now. In this darkest week of this very dark year, it’s easy to see how can musings about whimsy and the following of it might feel irrelevant, perhaps insulting, even. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve been wondering:

What might it mean to find and follow whimsy in the context of our biggest challenges? What if each of us could spend our life’s energy following notions that engage our hearts and minds? What would that do for our world?

I once shared with one of my children my hope that they would find a way to “embrace your inner nerd.” We all have one, that part of us that gets excited about possibility and creation and questions. I think, as the coming week finds us turning to days of more light, I’d like to make an argument for following whimsy, for listening to the voice that calls us to those things that absorb us–whatever they are, and to suggest that doing so might be a path to solutions, salvations, and comforts we all need, even if the only one who benefits from it is ourselves. (How many problems in this world come from the pain of those who cannot do that?)

I’m so thankful for those of you who follow along as I pursue all kinds of whimsy through this blog. I’m a person who likes company, and I appreciate yours greatly. If I could give all of you any gift in this season of giving, it might be that we could all discover ways to find and follow our whimsy.

Following some whimsy on my birthday last week.

New year’s resolutions

Recently, I read Courtney Carver’s Project 333: The Minimalist Fashion Challenge That Proves Less Really Is So Much More. If you’ve been with me since way way back (2010, probably), you might remember when I first tried Project 333, in which you chose only 33 items of clothing to wear for 3 months. It’s a project/challenge that dramatically changed my relationship with clothing and shopping for clothing (and other stuff, too). I highly recommend it.

Clicking on one of the links in the book took me to The Renewal Workshop, a company that takes old clothing from partner companies and refreshes it for resell. Clicking around on their site, I found a statement about their company values (here and here), and how they try to use those to guide their work.

Organizational values isn’t a new concept, and I’ve participated in the crafting of more missions/vision/values statements than I care to recall. However, I do know that when these documents are actively used in decision-making, they can be powerful. And powerful is something I’m longing to feel these days.

For most of the summer, I’ve been dreading the return to work. I have felt powerless and hopeless and probably about 10 other kinds of -less. Deciding to renovate my home office (which I mentioned here) was a small step to reclaiming some power and agency.

As I’ve worked in the room, making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of having a set of guiding values, and how I can have visual reminders of them in this space.

Connection

That’s my grandmother at 12, and also at 76 (at my wedding reception). As you might be able to infer, she was a bit of a pistol. When I was growing up, I thought she was the most social person I knew. She always had people around, and she was always doing something fun. She seemed happiest at the center of our large pack of family. Although I adored her, I didn’t think we were much alike.

What I’ve realized, now that I am as old as she was when I first knew her, is that she was, perhaps, as introverted as I am. And that I love my people as deeply as she did, even if I express it differently. What I knew, growing up, was that if I ever needed a place to go, she would take me in. I–and anyone I brought with me–would always be welcome. She was our connector and our safety net.

Probably because I am highly introverted, I don’t have a wide circle of people. But the people I have matter more than anything else to me. Many are family, and some are friends. Some are people I work with. I want fostering and caring for meaningful connection to be at the center of my life. Because I am introverted and my job requires a lot of interaction with others, this can be a challenge for me, but as I enter a new school year I want to place connection with others at the center of my decision making. I want to think about who and what I am saying yes and no to in the choices I make, and which choices will allow me to strengthen valuable connections with others. I want the people I love to know me as someone who will always take them in.

Stewardship

This is a value I have struggled to live by. Living when, where, and how I have, I’ve learned that it is easy to throw things away. To care for them carelessly, knowing that cheap replacements are readily available. For a whole host of reasons, I don’t want that kind of relationship with resources. Instead, I want to care well for the people and things that are mine to care for.

This is from a quilt that was pieced hand-stitched by my great-grandmother. She came to this country from Germany in the early 1900’s. When I look at this quilt, it’s clear to me that she used what she had, that she didn’t have much, and that she also took care to arrange her materials as pleasingly as she was able. I can see attention to line and color. I see craftsmanship and labor. It an unfinished piece—there is no batting in it. I long thought I would finish it and use it, but I don’t want to destroy it, and honestly, it is too fragile to use as a blanket.

Part of good stewardship, I think, is determining how to use things. Simply preserving them isn’t enough, and in my line of work (library services), particularly, there is often tension between using and preserving. This unfinished quilt is my great-grandmother’s art, and I don’t think art should sit hidden in drawers. What use can it serve there? I know that displaying it, where it will be exposed to light and dust, will shorten its life, but I did some research on how to display quilts in ways that minimize damage to them. I think hanging it here, as it is, strikes the right balance between using and preserving.

This, I think, is how to be a good steward of the resources (things, people, time, money) entrusted to me: seeing value, considering purposes and uses, and finding solutions to maximize benefits and minimize costs.

Health

Health is the foundation of everything, right? Without physical, mental, emotional, and social health, we cannot do and be all that we might. In its extreme, we cannot live.

The larger plant I’ve placed on my desk is a peace lily. The first time I married, a friend gave me one as a gift. She said it was the perfect symbol for marriage: a plant that produces beautiful blooms, thrives in multiple conditions, and withstands drought. I want a healthier marriage with work. I want to be more like a peace lily. I hope the need to care, in the most concrete of ways, for the health of other living things, will remind me to value the health of myself and others in the choices I make about how to work.

Creativity

I believe that we are all creative beings and need positive outlets for making and doing. I believe there is value in creating for the sake of creating—both for the creator and for those around them. When we cannot create, our health and relationships suffer. Creativity helps us find solutions and solve problems and see possibilities. Creativity is joy, and we need joy as much as we need love and safety. It’s not a frill, an extra, or a nice-to-have. It’s essential, especially in times such as the one we are living through.

I have adorned the walls with art made by those I love most (including me!), and my favorites are the ones my children made when they were young. Many (all?) of us are born artists (a term I’m using very loosely), but the world has a way of killing that part of us. I want to make time for creativity in my life and work, and I want to protect and support it for the children and adults I serve.

Boundaries

As a life-long people-pleaser and do-gooder, developing, communicating, and living by boundaries is an on-going challenge. When we suddenly shifted to working from home last spring, I worked all over my house, and I came to realize that it wasn’t good for me. Home had once been a sanctuary from work, a place where work wasn’t. And then work was everywhere, all the time. Home lost some of its meaning for me.

I’m appreciating the opportunity to work toward better integration of work and home. I don’t want work to be something so depleting that I need a completely separate place to recover from it. Because of working from home, I can no longer use that strategy (which, as longtime readers here know, wasn’t really working for me, anyway). Setting better boundaries is the way to do that. This year, I plan to limit work to this one room with a door. To help me remember the upside of boundaries–that they protect us and those around us, spur creativity, and allow us to say “yes” to the people and projects that align with our values–I painted the closet door pink. Color is fun! Boundaries, done right, allow for more fun, and a lot of other good stuff, too. (Also, too much white is boring and sterile.)

Space

White space is an important design principle. It helps us see what’s important. Space is the yin to connection’s yang. Both are necessary in our work. I need space to be healthy, to create, to care for people and things; without those things, connection isn’t really possible.

When I left work in March, I left a desk full of clutter–papers, stacks of books, a bag of Valentine’s Day treats, and more. It’s all still there. Clearly, I didn’t really need all of that stuff to do my job. This week, I went back to my office to get the things I’ll want or need to work from home. The things I felt I’d really need fit into one box.

To renovate this room, I first cleared everything out of it, so that I could be purposeful about what I allowed back in.

Deciding what to bring back and what to release was hard! It wasn’t the practical stuff that tripped me up. It was all the meaningful stuff–photos, family things, art. It was a good exercise, though, to really think about what matters.

The pandemic, in its (horrible, hard, often cruel) way, is providing a similar kind of clearing out. So many things that filled my work hours have been stripped away. Of course, I don’t have much say in some of the things that remain or that have been added, but with the things I do get to choose, I’m appreciating the opportunity to consider what needs to be part of the work and what doesn’t, and how to make space to see clearly which is which.

Light

For a few years, I taught in a cinderblock room completely surrounded by hallway, with no windows or skylights, which meant that I had no exposure to natural light during the day. So often, when I emerged from it to go home, I was surprised by the light I found; I’d have had no sense of the weather all day and felt startled, almost, if it were especially bright with sun or moody with clouds. It was terrible, being that cut off from the natural world day after day after day, especially in winter when the sun would already be setting as I walked to my car.

I painted the walls of this room white to maximize brightness. This south-facing window gets sun for much of the day. As I work this year, I want to remain light (in all senses of that word) and to seek enlightenment. I want to see things clearly, shine light on truth, and join my light with others who are doing the same. I want all of us to stop working under artificial light that keeps us out of touch with what’s really happening in the outside world.

The value of this room renovation isn’t really in the room. Sure, it’s a nice space to look at and be in, but it was the process of thinking about the room and its purposes that will mean more to me (and, I hope, others) over time.

Every year as summer wanes, I go back to work resolved to engage with it in a different way. I promise myself that I will keep getting exercise, that I will keep eating real food, that I will devote more time to what is important and less to what is urgent, that I will carve out time for friends and family and creative work, and that I will just not let it all get to me.

So far, every year, I have failed to fulfill such resolutions.

This year feels different. There are two sides to everything, and one side of this time in which so much is collapsing is fear: economic, social, physical, and political threats are all around us. On the other side, though, is opportunity. When so much is gone, changed, and changing, it is easier to let go of what was and try to figure out what can be.

What this country has been asking of its educational system and its educators has been untenable for a long time. Having that truth laid bare over the past few months has released something in me; I can no longer pretend (to myself or anyone else) that we can–or even should–do all that has been asked of us, which gives me permission to let myself off the hook for trying to.

The root cause of the failures of our educational system extend far beyond the system itself; nothing that I, personally, do is going to change or fix that. While I believe to the center of my core in the value of a strong public education system and its necessity to the well-being of our democracy and its citizens–that belief is the reason I entered the system and have never been able to leave it–I can see that the system is crumbling and all of our many band-aids are failing to save it. Coming to accept this truth has been not unlike the experience of losing faith. The despair has been real. But also: This kind of letting go feels freeing in a way that I don’t yet have words to express.

The question, then, is: What to do now? This system, flawed as it is, is the system our children have right now, today. They only have one childhood, and it is now. Many of those with means are opting their kids out of it, but many families remain. Many educators remain, too, out of our own economic necessity. What does this mean going forward, to know that vulnerable people are depending upon us in a system that is broken and we feel (probably are) powerless to fix?

It doesn’t mean that those of us who remain simply give up and go through the motions and take what we can get. I mean, it can, and I’ve certainly known educators who have chosen that route. (We’re all human. We are not heroes or saints. This is a thing humans do in response to threat, defeat, and hopelessness. They do what they have to do to survive. We should acknowledge that reality so that we can better mitigate it.)

For me, it means focusing on what agency I have and exercising it. I am under no illusion that this set of values I’ve laid out here is going to magically transform my life or my experiences in the coming year. I am sure the coming year will contain a good deal of struggle. But I am all out of fucks to give about some things that used to drive me: pleasing my bosses, building a career, preserving norms and “right” ways of doing things, reforming the system. Those things no longer feel relevant. That opens up a lot of space for me to choose different actions than I might have in the past, and this set of values will be the lens through which I make such choices.

I believe we are all, no matter what kind of life we’re living and what privileges we do or do not have, at a crossroad. I’m going to do my best to choose a path paved with love, for others and myself, and to be, in whatever ways I can, light and space that connects and cares for others in ways that are healthy for us all. I don’t have to save the world, but there are things I can do to make my little corner of it better than it might otherwise be. Maybe if we all did that, some of the threats barreling toward us would start to change course?

In progress

I have a “real” post somewhat almost-done for today, but I couldn’t get it actually done, any more than I could get my office renovation done by the end of the day yesterday (something I hoped on Instagram* that I’d be able to do).

Wait, scratch that: I could have gotten both done, but I made choices that kept me from getting them done.

What did I do instead?

I fell down a rabbit hole of writing–but not far enough to finish the post. I pulled myself up out of the writing hole to attend to painting chores the room requires: repainting the bottom of the open section of the cabinet we built (because we didn’t build it right the first time and had to re-build, which messed up the paint) and painting the door to the room.

I could have done/faked the room tidying I need to do to be able to finish the post (because the post is about the room, but I need some different photos than I’m able to take with it in its current state), but I decided to do the things that really need doing.

And then I spent some time gathering and delivering a bag of treats for a colleague who is home sick with Covid, taking care of her daughter who is also sick with it. I did that because one of the things I’m writing about in the in-progress post is about values I want to live by in the coming school year, and connection with others is at the top of the list. I’ve gotta tell you: Strengthening that connection felt so much better and more meaningful than having pretty office photos and a complete post would have.

After that I took a nap. I’d had a low-grade headache since Thursday, and even though it’s not the kind of headache that disables me, three days of that kind of pain takes it out of me. It makes me tired. There is something so delicious about climbing under cool covers on a sunny afternoon. That sensation might be as healing as the actual sleep. (Health is another value I want to prioritize.)

And then, well, it was time to make dinner. Time to sit at the table in the early-evening light and talk and sip while the carrots roasted. Then it was time to take a scooter ride to a nearby neighborhood where we like to walk and look at houses and study the choices those homeowners have made to help us make our own.

Photo of modest white bungalow with black flower boxes under the windows.

At that point, of course, the day was nearly done. No time for anything but watching an episode of our current series (Hanna on Prime), snuggling the dogs to sleep, doing a bit of a Times crossword, and falling back into bed.

It was a good day. Progress on multiple projects was made. As I head into my last week before returning to work, I know that I am going to end my summer with more things in progress than finished. More and more, I think that’s how it should be. I think progress, rather than accomplishments, might be the measure of a life well-lived. Isn’t a life in progress a life grounded in hope, growth, and faith? I hope, on whatever is the last day of mine, that I am still in progress, that I leave this place with work of all kinds still to be done.

*I’m just about done with Facebook. I’ve taken it off my phone again, and I’m happier for it. I’d love to see you on Instagram, if that’s a happy place for you.

Sunday brunch

No time for much of a Sunday post today. I’ve spent the last few days doing almost nothing but working on a renovation of my home office. I’ll be back to work in about two weeks, and I’ve decided that if I’m going to be working from home (and I am) that I am going to have a dedicated space (with a door that can be closed at the end of the day) and that it is going to be a nice place to spend 8 hours. So, I haven’t been writing or thinking much.

I’ve been listening to audiobooks, sanding, and painting–sometimes while carrying Rocky in his baby sling, which adds a whole new level of challenge to the enterprise.

It’s been a nice space to hang out. It faces the south and has a good-sized window. I feel fortunate to have the dedicated room and a job that will let me work from it. It has felt good to do something concrete that gets me out of my head. I’ll share pics when it’s further along.

Although it was 100 degrees here yesterday (and is supposed to be the same today), I’ve felt the turn to autumn in the mornings this week. They are chilly in a way they never are in July. This morning I got out early to pick blueberries and and tomatoes.

I planted only two tomato plants in the spring, and they’ve turned into a jungle.

This mess of plants (which includes some over-run parsley) is being held up by three cages, and today I added a piece of spare lumber to get an especially heavy section off the soil. The blue blueberries are mostly done, but the pink ones are still going strong.

I’m thinking of making a blueberry crumble tonight. This morning it was really lovely to scramble some eggs with tomato, onion, and basil–all grown in the garden. I also made a lemon blueberry bread, but it’s still cooling so I can’t tell you how it is yet.

I hope you are well. Thinking especially about my friends in the midwest who were blindsided by the derecho (a word I didn’t know until this week). Take care, wherever you are, however you can, and best wishes for a good week.

Postcards, the making and doing edition

When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher read Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys aloud to her 8th grade students. This might be my Summer of the Naughty Dogs. Or, Summer of the Painted Paws. And Tongues.

Friday I painted all of the laundry room trim while carrying Rocky in his baby sling. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. He’s demanding human contact almost all of his waking hours. I am, in many ways, living a life similar to the one I lived when my children were babies and toddlers.

Only I’m 20 years older and geriatric dogs aren’t as adorable as my babies were. (Though they aren’t without their charms. See above.)

This week my friend S. came for a visit, and we talked of making things and the importance of doing so in times such as these. (Well, any time, but especially times such as these.) It’s good to ground ourselves in what we can do, when there is much we feel powerless to do.

She brought me raspberry jam that she’d made, and I decided that to properly honor the gift I needed to make something to eat it with. I found the easiest bread recipe (the only kind I can probably pull off). It’s in Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple, one of my current favorite cookbooks. (Recipe here.)

When my daughter saw the dough rising, she arched an eyebrow and said, “Oh, we’ve reached that stage now, have we?”

Yep, I’m a cliche. So be it. It tastes good.

Last spring (of ’19) my friends A & S (a different S) visited and brought me this little blueberry bush. It’s planted next to the ones that I already had, which have been keeping me in berries for weeks now.

I was so delighted to see that, after only one year, this little guy is also bearing fruit. I was friends with both A and S in high school, but they were not friends with each other. They later met in law school, and they’ve been close ever since. I moved away and lost touch with both of them, but thanks to the magic of social media we reunited about ten years ago. I just love that, the way these people I loved found each other and then found me again, and I now have a tangible symbol of that kind of magic growing in my yard and feeding me.

Speaking of feeding: Mother-daughter Naan pizzas. Although the bread dough recipe above is also a pizza dough recipe, my smart daughter turned me onto the idea of Naan flatbread as the perfect individual-sized pizza crust, which is even easier. As you can see, we have different ideas about what should go on a pizza. Mine has onion, garlic, and cherry tomatoes, all from our garden (along with feta and Mezzetta garlic-stuffed green olives). She favors red peppers and pepperoni. Maybe I’ll figure out how to grow peppers next year. Or maybe not. She likely won’t be here to eat them, and the reminder of this summer’s bounty of time with her, a gift I expect never to receive again, will make me sad and miss her.

Gardens can be tricky, in more ways than one.

We have added morning walks to our routine. Daisy walks the whole way, straining at her leash, impatient with the pace Rocky sets. He makes it about two blocks, tripping over his paws, and then I carry him for the remainder. He’s happy to walk, and then to be carried. He looks around, alert in my arms.

It’s good for me, too. On Wednesday I had a nice long chat with a neighbor I’d never met. A yard sign let me know that he has a child in Marine boot camp, so I stopped to talk when I saw him outside with his dog. It was good to be able to talk with someone who knows that experience, to be able to share some comfort from my vantage point several years ahead of his, and to see and feel how far my son and I have come since those weeks after he left home for that grueling trial by fire that scorched us both.

This is a different kind of making and doing. This spring, I almost got rid of the hammock. It’s a hassle when I need to mow the lawn, and for the past two years it’s gotten almost no use.

This week, temperatures were in the 90s every day. Monday and Tuesday it was 100. There’s something that’s an odd kind of wonderful about swinging, just a little, in a hammock through the heart of a hot afternoon. Something healing. I gave myself permission to do it. This is me making space for space.

I’m glad I decided to keep it.

This is a postcard from the past. It’s from a picnic my daughter and I and the dogs had one evening at the river in the last week of July, eleven years ago. It came up when I was looking for something else, the way things that haunt us often do.

I didn’t say this in my earlier cards, but it’s been a hard week. The heat. The increasing burden of the dogs. Work disappointments. Distance of several kinds from those I love. Camp Pendleton Marines dying in a training accident, and my son’s brief words about it: “It’s the job.” And then there were the things beyond just me, ways of this world I can neither change nor make peace with, and the weight of our collective pain. There was this photo, this message from the past that feels like a poem I cannot write about a future I don’t want to live.

What I would give to feel again the way I felt on that night, dogs kicking up sand as they ran in circles over it, my sprouting girl so pleased to have an evening alone with me. I can’t remember the last time I smiled the way I smiled when she turned the camera toward me.

On a day that I give into it all and do little more than sleep and eat and write these postcards, I wonder about the missives I send out into the world. Why does it matter to write snippets about bread and berries and walks and hammocks, as if such things matter in times such as these? Can it? Do they? If I write about the sweet and omit the bitter, am I delusional? Am I in denial? Am I bearing false witness if I crop loneliness and sorrow and fatigue out of my stories, or if I leave only their shadows at the edges of the margins?

Late that night a friend shares an essay, and Lyz Lenz reminds me that our stories in times such as these–all of them–are “a struggle of memory against forgetting.” They are “a struggle of nuance in the flat face of fascism.”

Reading, I understand what I often forget, and why I force myself to do joyful things even when they bring me little joy and why I write about them. It is a struggle to hold onto old joys in a new age of despair: To shape the dough, pick the berries, move the legs, still the body long enough to feel warm breeze against hot skin–and write about it. It is a struggle when such acts and the writing about them may feel trivial, inconsequential, or even self-indulgent. But they aren’t, and it isn’t.

To do such things and write about them, to remember what was sweet in the past and keep it present–even if flawed, even if lesser-than, even if the gesture feels cliched or hollow–so that it won’t disappear into some dark forest of the future, is a making-and-doing of the highest order.

As Lenz reminded me, when writers write they know: “At least I am still here.” And when we read their stories of living plot lines like our own, we know that we are, too.

Collage poem

This place could be beautiful,
right? Fresh-washed and fair,

a green that will never
again be so green.

You could live inside this rose, in
flowering bulbs voluptuous in the spring,

but the garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,

and all winds go sighing
for sweet things dying.

The coming night
will not lift. I am exhausted,

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,
but I’m singing your name now.

*****

This poem is a copyright violation, perhaps–a multitude of them–but I’m sharing in the spirit of fair use, primarily because I know this won’t impact anyone’s financial bottom line, my purpose in sharing is primarily educational, and I’ve worked not to steal the heart of anyone else’s work.

Still, almost every word of it is lifted from another writer. You might have guessed, as some of the lines are from well-known poems. I tried not to change any of the original wording, but I added an occasional conjunction or preposition and changed a few punctuation marks. Below, you can see links to all of the original works the words come from (though not quite in the same order as the poem above).

I call it a collage poem, only the gathered bits are lines and phrases of language rather than images. I don’t know if this is an exercise others have used or written about; I made it up for myself years ago, when I was teaching a poetry unit to high school freshmen. It was a low-risk entry into writing poems, and it got them to read poems, which has always acted as pump-priming for me and most writers I’ve ever talked with about process.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time, but this was a week in which prose wasn’t working for me. What I like about this exercise is the layers of meaning that might come, not just from the collage poem (or maybe call it a remix, if that term makes more sense), but from reading all of the original works as a collection. I also found immersion in poetry to be a healing thing.

How to start one of your own? I began this one by revisiting poems and poets I know from long ago, as I have been dwelling in the past in recent days, and thinking about time and wrestling with questions of hope and purpose.

As I started to play with the language of those old favorites (most of which fell away as I tinkered), there were two sites that I found particularly useful for this exercise: Poetry Foundation, which has thematic collections that are a great starting point if you have a particular topic you’d like to write on, and poets.org, from the Academy of American Poets, which also has collections. I visited collections on summer and illness.

(A note: These sites are not very diverse in their representation of poets; the poetry establishment favors white, male academics (see recent news of Poetry Foundation’s leadership resigning recently over their bungling of a Black Lives Matter statement). Given issues of appropriation and my own identity as a white European-American, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the work of BIPOC poets in this way, though this collage poem does contain a phrase—“you could live inside this rose”—from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet and one of my favorite contemporary writers. Perhaps I should cut it, but it seems fitting that the collage poem hinges on these words from a writer whose work examines what it means to be both of and apart from a place.)

If you decide to try one, I’d encourage you to make up some rules for yourself. My best creative works come when I have limitations, not complete freedom. If it’s helpful, these were mine:

  • No more than one poem per poet. (But I broke this rule.)
  • No more than two lines per poem, not divided.
  • You have to like the original poem. (Loving it is even better.)
  • It’s OK to add conjunctions, prepositions, and joining punctuation to the beginning or end of the borrowed language.
  • You can’t change pronouns or verb tenses.

It can be a tricky line to walk, the one between honoring the integrity of the original work and building it into the one you’re creating–but isn’t that the task of all creation, really, when you think about it? Because we never create anything all by ourselves; we are always building upon the work of others who have come before us.

Links to original poems:

fresh-washed and fair,

The green will never
again be so green

The garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie

all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.

the coming night
will not lift. I am exhausted,

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

This place could be beautiful,
right?
you could live inside this rose

I wish I could see only the flowering
bulbs voluptuous in the spring.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,
but I’m singing your name now

No justice, no peace

So, yeah. That was an angry post yesterday.

Later, I decided that writing an angry post with a few links in it was not the best thing I could do. I decided that the best thing I could do was get some skin in the game, literally.

I joined thousands yesterday in the Portland streets. I’m not a big protest kind of person. Chanting in crowds always makes me uneasy. (Too many cautionary Hitler films in my youth, perhaps.) But I thought it was important for my body to be counted.

I also wanted to know, first hand, what was happening at the protests. Early on in the Trump regime, I stopped going to protests. Like I said, I’m not a big crowd person. I find it hard to get caught up in what’s happening. More importantly, they felt ineffective–more like a parade than a protest (as my daughter would say). I could identify no real objective, other than to voice objection, which felt like screaming into a canyon.

Unlike the first Women’s March, in which white women were taking selfies with police, pink hats all around, yesterday’s march had no feeling of parade or celebration. It was not for show or for shots of liberal feel-good.

The crowd skewed young and angry. It was tense. It was also, as much as anything can be when you are faced with police in riot gear, tear gas at the ready, peaceful.

As was the case yesterday, I find myself without much to say. I don’t really think this is a moment for voices such as mine.

I marched at the protest with my daughter, surrounded by people her age. I thought about the world I thought I was bringing her into–what I thought I was giving her–and I wondered what the parents of all the others there had thought they were giving their children. I want to tell you how it broke my heart a little, to see these people taking action to try to make the world be more like the one I (wrongly) thought we once had, to see their anger and frustration and courage and hope. But my broken heart is not the important thing here, and my tiny heartbreak is nothing in comparison to that of the parents who have lost their children at the hands (or knees or bullets) of police, or those who worry that they will.

Last week a journalist claimed that America is a tinderbox. Last night, in a peaceful protest in a town known for its liberalism, I could feel it–people brittle as leaves and sticks on the forest floor after a summer of drought. Our youth–all of our youth, not just those privileged by social class and race–need real hope for something like the kind of future I took for granted when I was their age, and they need it in the form of action, not empty words and gestures without substance. They need more than police taking a knee one minute and then rising up to throw teargas and shoot rubber bullets the next. They need relief from corrupt leaders, inept government, gross income inequality, a trashed economy, crushing debt, racist systems, and a dying planet.

We all need that for them, too. As activist Lilla Watson once said,

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

A lit fire can be hard to contain, and people who feel they have little or nothing to lose are going to be quick to reach for matches.

We all have more to lose than we realize, I think.

Coronavirusdiary #5: Of dirt, weeds, digging, and optimism

A year ago, as part of my goal to eventually kill most of the lawn in my backyard, I removed a section of sod and tossed it in a back corner behind a tangle of rose bushes and what becomes a stand of ginormous lilies by late summer.

(The sod got thrown back by the fence.)

It felt like a slovenly thing to do, but no one could really see it much back there, and I didn’t know what else to do with it. I figured it might break down and turn into some good dirt. Somehow. (I don’t really know how such things work.) I focused on the more pleasing parts of the yard and figured I would deal with this problem later.

I hadn’t looked at it since last fall sometime, but a few weeks ago, I noticed that my piles of sod/dirt had undergone a bit of transformation:

This was not the kind of transformation I’d hoped for. Funny how much things can grow when you’re focused on other things, isn’t it? One day it’s just a pile of grassy dirt, and then it’s a pile of fast-growing weeds.

This part of the yard looked way too much like another section looked when I moved in two years ago:

While part of me kind of loved the wild weediness of this, it made the garden beds pretty unusable and it meant that nasty, spiky thistles were propagating into other parts of the yard. I didn’t want them to take over everything. It took me two summers to finally tame it, and I did not want to relive that experience.

So at the beginning of last week, on the heels of the previous hard one, I spent a sunny afternoon transforming that weedy sod dumping ground into what will become (I hope) a vegetable garden. It felt good to pull things up and whack at clumps of dirt with a metal rake. It felt good to get dirty and sweat. It felt good to look forward.

It’s not there yet. There are still quite a few large clods of rooty dirt, and it could use some compost mixed into it (I think). But it’s going to be a nice place for me to learn how to grow vegetables. It gets a lot of southern sun, and almost every time I’ve been back in that corner of the yard lately, I end up in a conversation with my neighbor Oshra (who you can see on the other side of the fence).

I wish I already knew how to grow vegetables. I wish I were more self-sufficient, in the most fundamental of ways. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers, and I have memories of visiting the farm and raiding my great-grandmother’s vegetable garden for carrots. But I don’t know how to grow food, not really. I grew up a suburban child of the 1970’s, and most of the food I ate came from a box. I can’t tell you when I realized that orange juice could be squeezed from an orange rather than a cardboard cylinder, but it was long after I should have.

“I don’t understand why this all feels so hard,” I said to a friend near the end of week 3, about my life in this pandemic. “In any day, the truly important things in my life aren’t significantly different, and nothing in it is that hard. In some ways, it’s easier.”

I hesitated to say the words I thought next: “In some ways, I like it better.”

Without a whole lot of further reflection, I realized that what’s hard is not (for many of us, but certainly not all) how we are actually living now. What’s hard (for me, anyway) has been seeing and understanding clearly, without any buffers, why we are living the way we are.

In some piece I read somewhere last week a writer posited that the United States we once knew and believed in does not exist any more; a new one is emerging and it is going to be a different one, one in which our old norms and systems will not prevail. Anyone who has been paying any attention since at least 2016 must know this is true, but I think it’s taken this pandemic–and our current government’s response to it–to tear down any walls of denial about the truth and impact of this shifting.

And that is scary. A president promoting quackery in the face of pandemic is scary. A makeshift hospital in Central Park and mass graves in New York are scary. A political party that openly states it will suppress votes because otherwise they couldn’t win is scary. A federal government seizing medical supplies but not saying why or where they are going is scary. An economic crash and a prolonged spread of disease in such conditions is scary. It feels like a kind of breaking down that will take years, maybe decades, to recover from, and recovery is not going to be a return to what was our normal.

I am hearing, from various corners and different voices, that perhaps that is just as it should be. Normal wasn’t working for many of us–even those with some privilege, like me–and we don’t necessarily want to go back. Not to the way things had become. But what I know about transformations and the emergence of new orders is that they are hard, and prolonged, and there are always people who are crushed by them. That is scary, too, and it is fear of what might come that has been the true source of difficulty for me.

While digging in the dirt, I thought about the stock market crash of 1929, and what it meant to those who were my age when that life-changing event happened. It was followed by the Depression, and then WWII. A person who was 55 in 1929 would have been 72 by 1946, the beginning of a return to life not being lived through prolonged, world-wide crisis.

I realized then that ever since the pandemic reached our continent, I’ve been living on hold, feeling as if these days are some time outside of my real life, a time apart. But the pandemic’s effects and what they have revealed about us aren’t going to to be over in a few weeks or even months. After decades of daily, relentless erosion to the institutions and systems that, in real ways, gave me a kind of security that allowed me to live without developing life skills and dispositions that might now become essential, here we are. We are in the thick of the weeds, and I can no longer ignore them and focus on the pretty parts of the yard. I need to learn how to survive–maybe even thrive?–while living within them. Because they have grown so, so tall, and it will take a long time to eradicate them.

If a person my age at the time of that earlier crash lived “on hold” until the crises ended and things felt like some good kind of normal, they would, in important ways, miss most of the last years of their life. And I don’t want to do that. Out in the garden, I resolved to stop living through my days as if they are, somehow, lesser days than any others I’ve had. I don’t know that it will be years until we feel as if we out from under this, but I do know I don’t have enough left to me to wait for some normal to start really living again.

I resolved, through week 4, to start saying out loud, “There are things about this that I like.” I resolved to find and revel in what I’m enjoying, which is not replacing the anger and fear in my days, but is living alongside it. Things like:

I like that I am waking and sleeping at hours that are more compatible with my body.

I like working from home and being in my home more.

I like spending more time with the person and dogs I get to spend this time with.

I like having more time and energy for things like laundry and yard work and house projects.

I like spending time on frivolous creative pursuits.

I like walking more and driving less, and seeing things I can’t through a windshield.

Last week I claimed to be an optimist, and I know that might seem at odds with resigning myself to a long haul of hard times. But I don’t think that optimism means having blind faith in good outcomes, or seeing only the bright side of every situation, or denying scary truths. A friend suggested to me this week that an optimist is a person who doesn’t believe in premature closure; in other words, an optimist is someone who, in the face of a challenge, remains open to new and different possibilities emerging from it. While they may see a place as dark and hard and wrong and broken, they don’t believe that’s the end of the story about that place.

I like that definition. It could be easy for me to look at when and how I grew up and the life I’ve lived thus far and conclude that I am probably not very well-equipped for where we are and where we might be heading. In light of that, I could curl up into a ball and wait for this all to pass, hoping any fallout doesn’t land too hard on me. Or I could continue to toss all manner of things into some out-of-the-way corner of my life and resolve not to look at it. Or I could sink into a hopeless pit and spend the time I have left looking backward to some good old days (the ones of my youth that were, in many ways, pretty good for me and many others).

But I don’t want to do any of those things. It has always been true that all we really have is the day we are in. I don’t feel like giving away any that I get. I’m alive right now. There’s no pause button, no stepping away. This is how we live now, and at the risk of being terribly corny and out of character, I’m going to end this entry by quoting from a TV show about football (of all things) that characterizes how I want to enter into week 5:

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

(Can’t get much more American than that.)

Dots

America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why.
“America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades, but broad measures of the nation’s economic health conceal the unequal distribution of gains. A small portion of the population has pocketed most of the new wealth, and the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the consequences of the unequal distribution of prosperity.”

Social Distance: We Can’t Go Back to Normal
“We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.”

Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting
“Well, the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open.”

The Nordic Theory of Everything
“Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problems the system creates. Seen from a Nordic perspective, the United States is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future….And whether the United States wants to admit this to itself or not, staying stuck in the past is putting itself at an ever-increasing disadvantage in the world.”