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.
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).
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.
34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.
I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.
But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.
The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.
I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.
I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.
Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):
“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”
You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:
We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….
Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”
Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.
I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.
He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.
Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.
In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.
Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.
Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.
The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.
I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.
This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.
I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:
Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.
Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.
I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.
I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.
We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:
…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”
Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.
It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.
The turn from October to November has always felt like a kind of tightening to me, a turning of the calendar screws. Tonight darkness will fall an hour earlier than last night, the days that have already been feeling too short now feeling even shorter still–right at the time they seem to fill with more demands. Every year I tell myself to savor October, the last days when I come home to sunny daylight, the calm before the holiday storm, and every year it flies by as swiftly as the leaves fall. Last week, yet another in which I didn’t finish the laundry by Sunday night and it is still lingering in the basket this morning, a full week’s worth of days later…
…Damn, I got up to let the dog out, and then remembered I needed to unload the dishwasher, and then I responded to a Snap from my daughter, and then I let the dog in, and now I can’t remember what I was even going to say in this sentence.
Which is fitting, no? Back in January, I thought I might be able to change my experience of time–make it feel as if it were moving more slowly–if I slowed down and took more notice of things. If I savored it, I guess. Savoring, though, doesn’t look the way I tend to fantasize it looking. It isn’t long, sunny afternoons on the couch with a good book, or hours working on a crafty project, or slow dinners with a group of close friends, or hours to linger in a coffee shop with a decadent pastry and a beautiful beverage. Not for me, most of the time, anyway.
More often, savoring is something that happens in the moments between: When I see the spider web illuminated by sun on my way to the car in the morning, or when I notice how pretty the herbs from the garden look when I toss them into the pot with a roast, or when, on my way to let the dogs out for the morning, I feel grateful for the twinkle lights I never took off the ficus after the holidays last year, and the way they softly light the early morning darkness.
Sometimes, it’s just the smallest of comforts: the delightful surprise that is grilled cheese on focaccia on a night I get home too tired to really cook; the tiny thrill I feel every morning when I open the door to the flowers still blooming that I planted in June; the warm feeling I get seeing my tired old dogs curled up on a blanket my great-grandmother crocheted that I keep in a basket I once used to carry my tiny preemie babies from room to room.
The best I have been able to do, when it comes to savoring, is to stop for 30 seconds and take a quick photo when I see something for which I feel grateful. When I take the time to notice everyday things, and then spend a few minutes at the end of the month looking at them, I realize that the days and weeks that have passed so quickly were actually full of small wonders. I realize that although it might feel as if I somehow missed the month, I didn’t. Not really. And it changes the story I might otherwise tell myself about what the month (or season or year) has been.
Sometimes I tell others that I really do love my new house, but I wish it didn’t have so much yard. I have said that I spend so much time working in it I never really get to enjoy it the way I’d like to. (See: fantasies, a few paragraphs back.) But when I scrolled through my October photos and saw the nest I found when pruning back the rose bushes, I didn’t remember how sore my body felt at the end of that day, or how frustrated I was when I ran out of time to finish the job and had to leave it–like so many things–hanging. Instead, I remembered the thrill of seeing the nest, feeling like I’d found buried treasure; how carefully I extracted it from the brambly tangle; the cawing and swooping of nearby crows when I pulled it free and sensed that everything is more connected than I know; the minutes I spent marveling at how tiny its bed was.
Right now, writing these words, I realize how much my joy and wonder and savoring happens not in spite of all the tasks filling my days, but in many cases because of them. If not for the overgrown roses, I’d never have seen the nest. On a different Sunday afternoon, I mowed the lawn for what I am sure will be the last time of the season, pleased with how tidy and green it once again looked, only to wake after a windy night to find it, as I rushed out the door to work, covered with leaves. It startled me, the change, and delighted me for some reason I still don’t really understand. Maybe it was in the contrast between what had been and what was that I found something to savor, or the way the leaves looked like tossed confetti. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that the moment was a gift that would not have been possible without the chore that felt like it was keeping me from life’s gifts.
Three days into November, I am still a little sad to see October go, and still feeling a little trepidation about the holiday season now upon us. There’s a line to walk in these musings, some place between too much and not enough. I wish I could figure out some trick to both make time move a little more slowly AND still fill it with good things. I suspect, though, that it doesn’t work that way, and that the only way time is going to move slowly again is for there to be too much of it, which will mean that my life is empty of the things I now love–family, friends, meaningful work, and good enough health to have all those things filling my days.
Leaving for work on the third Friday of the school year, I noticed my strawberry plants.
No, wait–that’s not quite right. I’d noticed them plenty of mornings before. They are directly in my line of sight when I walk out my back door to the garage. I’d noticed them drooping (and then browning and then shriveling) every morning, and every morning for at least two weeks I’d thought, I really need to water those when I come home tonight.
And then I wouldn’t. They weren’t in my line of sight when I came home, and even if I did remember them I was too tired/busy/late to do anything about it. (Or so I told myself.)
See, I had them hanging from the roof of my shed, which means that even though we had plenty of rain last week (thank you, weather gods), the poor strawberry basket didn’t get any because it was under the roof overhang. And the thought of dragging out the hose and giving it a drink of water–something I love doing in July–felt overwhelming in September. (See: tired, busy, late.)
I kept telling myself every morning that tonight, this night, I would water the poor thing. But I never did. And then, the third Friday of the school year I made myself go up close and really look at it to see if it could even be saved and then I beat myself up a little bit for letting it get so bad and then I wondered why I’m so lazy and can’t just do a better job of taking care of business.
Suddenly, lightening struck.
Not really, but out of nowhere I realized: I could just take the basket off the hook and put it on the pavement that doesn’t have any roof overhang covering it and the rain would water it.
No, it wouldn’t look as nice sitting on the pavement as it did hanging off the cute little shed roof. But half-dead wasn’t looking so nice, either. Wouldn’t it be better for the plant to be healthy in a less-optimal location than dead in a prime one?
For me, September has been multiple migraines, two rounds of antibiotics, 12+ hour work days, one sick day, fast food lunches, and lots of driving from school to school to school. (Last Thursday I never made it to my desk.) On the third Friday of the school year I finally paid attention to the strawberry basket, and looking at those dried up leaves and shriveled berries that could have been lush and plump–and that I might have eaten!–if only I’d stopped long enough to realize there was another way, I understood that, of course (of course!) this basket was a metaphor for every educator I know living through the month of September. (And most of the rest of them, too–but especially September, second only to May–not April–as the cruelest month.)
To suggest that all we need to do is somehow move our metaphoric basket to a place where we can get a little rain is not to ignore or dismiss or diminish the systemic and structural and resource issues that plague education and leave so many of us only half-alive by the end of the third week of the school year. But still, I’ve been wondering if there are things I might do to keep myself healthy that are as simple as moving my strawberry basket to a place where I don’t have to water it. And I’ve been reminded that we can’t just ignore our basic needs day after day after day because we’re too tired/busy/late to tend to them. Unless, you know, we want to end up like this:
Which doesn’t serve anyone. So, if you haven’t already–go water yourself this weekend! (Yeah, I know that sounds a little inappropriate. Or maybe I think that just because I’m surrounded many days by humans who love fart jokes. Whatever. Go take care of yourself!)
Last week I was reading a book written in 2010. It was, in many ways, a lovely book. In 2010, I might have found it rather compelling. It is about the aftermath of a tragic car accident in a small town in Maine, in which a bride and groom are killed on the short trip from their wedding ceremony to their reception. It is about how that event rippled into and through the lives of each of their family members.
Last week, though, I found it hard to care much about their career and marital crises, the permutations of their grief. One of the families is Jewish, and one of their members a Holocaust survivor. In the other family, a young Cambodian girl is an adopted daughter. The mother of the bride is a wealthy academic who lives in the town only during the summers; the mother of the groom cleans her house and scrapes by during the winters.
This book could be about so many things–and it is, tangentially–but what it’s really about is the grief of people who are living in America in the early 2000s, in which such issues as class difference, discrimination, trauma survival, and inter-cultural adoption are, seemingly, mostly tangential. At least to the narrator, and most of the characters. While those issues were present in the story, politics was not. No one was worried about modern-day detention camps. There were no suggestions that any of the characters should be sent back to anywhere. There was no homelessness or opioid addiction.
It felt like reading historical fiction. It felt like visiting a time and place that’s gone.
Apparently, the Federal Elections Commission, the federal agency that oversees compliance with election laws, is, for the foreseeable future, a moribund entity. In a week of terrible news (which means, a week not unlike most), this item chilled me. In order to keep functioning–go to work, feed myself, pay the bills, take care of what is mine to take care of–I have become largely numb to stories that once would have shocked and horrified me. Stories about harm to people and the planet. I am still horrified, but not shocked, and I quickly set my horror aside because if I do not I will not be able to function.
I shared the news on Facebook, something I rarely do with news any more (figuring that those who care already know and that those who do not care or cannot cope do not need me to share), but I shared it because I could not put that horror away as quickly as I usually do. Because I understood in the moment of experiencing it just how much I am hoping for a regime change in 2020. Because I understood that, increasingly, voting is the only power I feel I have, we have, and if that system is corrupt with nothing left to check the corruption, then that hope is gone. I understood how much I need that hope to function. And then, understanding that those who care already know and that those who don’t or cannot cope do not need me to share, I deleted it.
This spring Laura Mary Philpott published a book of essays called I Miss You When I Blink. I bought it because it was all over my social media feed and recommended by people I like and I loved one of the essays that I read from it. It is the kind of book I might write, if I were going to write a book. It is the memoir of a middle-aged white woman who has children and a decent husband and good marriage and economic security in America and, still (because she is human), encounters some difficulties being OK in her life. (It is not exactly a book I could write, not having had good marriages or the same kind of economic security, but, you know. Close enough.)
But as I was reading it, I thought: Huh. This doesn’t seem terribly relevant right now. I enjoyed it well enough, but I live in a small house with limited bookshelf space and so I donated it to a charity soon after reading it.
When I read it, I also thought: This is why I’m not writing. I just don’t see how I can have much that is important to say during this time we are living through. This is a book by and about and for people like me, and even I just don’t care that much about the existential crises of this writer, who seems like a truly lovely person I could likely be friends with. (She seems very nice and funny and thoughtful, but there’s an edge. All the people I love best have an edge.) I’m sure I would have cared more in 2010, or even 2015 (if 2015 hadn’t been a truly awful year for me personally), but today, in 2019? Not so much.
We recently had dinner with friends C. and T., and we realized we hadn’t seen each other since the Women’s March in 2017, which feels like years and years ago. I remember that along with the fear we carried that day, we also carried tremendous hope and even some joy. Look at all of us in the streets! Look at all our pink hats! Surely it can’t get that bad. Surely our systems will protect us! Surely we are all still Americans, this is still America!
In 2017, C. and T.’s Jewishness was tangential to our common story. I mean, it was an important fact. That C.’s parents were Holocaust survivors was an important fact. But it was not important to me in the way it is now, in 2019, and that’s not just because I’m not nearly as colorblind now as I once was (in, say 2010). Other facts–all the things we have in common, our shared interests and worries and values and hopes–were at the core of our mutual affection and regard.
As we sat after our lovely meal in 2019 drinking coffee and tea and eating delicious chocolate, I found myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. I looked at my beautiful, lovely friends, he with his deep laugh and she with her expressive hands and gentle voice, and all the Holocaust stories I inhaled as a child–for they were, it seemed, everywhere if you were a child who read books in the 1970s–were instantly real in a way they had never been before. I lost my breath, disoriented, imagining the friends in my living room packed into a cattle car. I could not comprehend how such a thing could be possible, could hardly contain the horrors of it in my mind. The two horrors, which are not commensurate, but which are both terrible: That my friends could be packed into a cattle car and that I could have that thought about them at the end of our lovely dinner together because of the things happening now, here. I have never had such thoughts in the presence of Jewish friends at any other time in my life. Not, at least, in the same way I had them that night. And yet, my friends, if they had been alive in that time and in that place, they could have been on those trains, and for the first time in my life, instead of just understanding the horror of it, I truly felt it. And still, my mind went to: It’s not possible. Even as I know it is.
Was this how it was then, in mid-1930s Germany, for friends having dinner together? Of course, the cattle cars hadn’t yet started, none of what would follow had happened yet, so those earlier people could be forgiven in a way that we cannot for not knowing sooner the horror they were living in and through. I thought about how history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, which allows some of us to make the kinds of rationalizations we make for what is happening to people at our southern border. I know that many Germans, Jews and not-Jews, told themselves, even as the water approached boiling, Surely this is still Germany. We are still Germans.
Later, alone in the kitchen with T., she told me that C. is worried. Talked about wanting to leave. I felt the same disorientation, thought again of the books I once read, of how, when I was young, it was so hard for me to understand those Jews who didn’t leave when they could. The signs, in hindsight, were so clear. Now that I am not young, I understand all it would mean to leave a whole life and start over in a new place. I understand the barriers that one would have to overcome. I understand how it doesn’t feel real, the idea that the foundation upon which you’ve built that whole life–a foundation so seemingly sound you hardly realized it was there–could be crumbling.
But what I think and feel and understand from that evening feels inconsequential, tangential to the bigger story of what is happening all around me.
I recently also read There, There, Native writer Tommy Orange’s novel of the modern-day urban Indian experience. It was everywhere when it was published in 2018, all over my social media feeds for a while.
I picked it up and started it, but then I put it down and then it was due at the library, and I returned it without finishing it. I wanted my reading to be an escape. I still do. I felt like a shallow, weak person for turning away from it, but I did it anyway.
But this month I was working with teachers who are going to be assigning it to their students this year, and it is the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads title for this year. So, I listened to the audiobook version of it. I listen to audiobooks in the car now. Not the news. Not even music. I consume the news in small, controlled doses now, mostly from print sources, and music does not occupy my mind enough when I’m driving. I don’t know if my inability to tolerate the space that opens up in my mind while driving is because technology has rewired my brain or because I cannot stand the questions my mind cannot leave alone these days. Probably both.
So, it was both escape and not escape, that book. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking and compelling and important. If it were a physical object in my house, I would make space for it on my bookshelf.
One of the characters, questioning what it means to be Native now, says: “I feel bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. Mostly I just feel I’m from Oakland.”
Another, reflecting upon his ancestry that is both white and Native, thinks:
“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”
Sometimes I feel I lived through a time in which most of us could, regardless of our history, mostly feel we were just from whatever city it is we called home. A time in which most of us, regardless of when and how we got here, felt ourselves both: part one thing and part something else. I used to think that was fundamental to what it means to be American. I don’t know, though, if that feeling is a sign of ignorance born of privilege or if it is true that we are now in a different time. Maybe we (Americans) are not losing anything now. I mean, I know that many, many Americans are losing a great deal right now. Maybe when I write “we” I mean people mostly like me. Maybe the only things we are losing are our illusions. I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know now.
I miss feeling sure of things. When I try to define what it means to be American now, there is no there, there.
My daughter is making plans to move to Sweden, at least temporarily. I have been learning Swedish with Duolingo. I have been reading Swedish writers. I have been cooking recipes from Scandinavian cookbooks.
Yes, she had a wonderful experience with a study abroad semester, but it would be wrong to think that she is being swayed by some utopian fairy tale. She is a serious person. She was born serious. In the NICU, she was different from the other babies. She stared at everything, intently. “That’s really unusual,” one of the nurses told me. “The sensory stimulation is too much for most preemies. They look away. But she looks right into your eyes, all the time.” My mother told me, when my daughter was only days old, that she has an old soul. She has always made connections that others don’t, has seen beneath the surface of things. She has always been a careful planner. She loves a color-coded spreadsheet. She is pragmatic.
She came home for a visit in June. It was wonderful. As always, it was in being with her that I felt how much I miss her when she’s gone, how much I keep those feelings at bay in her absence. I am a person who connects deeply with only a few others, and she is one of my people.
After the visit this June, I understood in a new way that she no longer lives with me. I understood that she is likely not coming back here. I understood that she needs to decide where and how she can make the best life for herself. I understood why she feels that might not be here. I understood that here might not actually be the best place for her. I felt bereft in a way I have not felt since the day she left for college, and in exactly the same way: So grateful for the opportunities she has, and devastated that they cannot be here, where I am, and guilty for feeling anything other than happy for her. And also: Devastated that I cannot make the case that she could have a better life here. I mean, I know that, perhaps, she could. But it doesn’t look that way right now, in 2019. Especially if you are young.
“You know the joke about how to tell a Millennial from a Gen Z, right?” she asks me.
I don’t, I tell her.
“Millennials are the generation who grew up believing they’d have all the opportunities their parents had, and now they’re bitter because they’ve lost hope. Gen Z never had it.”
In a shop selling vintage wares, I found a book called Journalism and the School Paper, published in 1958. Of course, I had to read the section on the future of media, where I found this:
In the first half of the twentieth century the ideal of democracy was challenged by the philosophy of dictatorship. In the military struggle the democratic countries overcame the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. In these years of the “cold war” the democracies likewise give evidence of being more flexible and durable than dictatorships. Democracy, however, could crumble through weaknesses from within as readily as from outside attacks. In communities where less than half the eligible voters turn out for an election, democracy is threatened.
The survival of democracy rests upon the free flow of information and exchange of opinion. Even in the United States, newsmen and newswomen have to be on guard against forces that would close the doors of information. Skill in writing and presentation will be required to show the relationship of various currents of news to the fundamentals of democratic life. For those whose talents fit them for a career in journalism, the opportunity is a challenging one.
Last week, Mary Laura Philpott published an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness.” If it were a book, I would keep it on my shelf. I would put it next to There, There.
In it, she acknowledges the sadness she feels over the ending of her children’s childhoods, the ending of family life as they’ve always lived it, and she acknowledges the privilege inherent in such sadness, living in such a time as we are. When she describes feeling weepy in the grocery store, I recall my own episode of produce-driven tears, and for the first time I am grateful that I was able to experience it in 2016, when things were already bad, but not the kind of dumpster-fire bad they are now. I am grateful that I could feel it in a time when it felt OK to call it a big grief, rather than now, when it feels like it can only be, as Philpott writes, a “tiny, self-indulgent grief.”
But that is not why I would put the book on my shelf. It is for her closing words, the ones that let me know we really could be friends. The ones that made me think there might be some point to writing such as hers, and mine here:
And if you, too, are thinking “I thought I had more time” for any reason — a loss large or small or so eclipsed by refracted rays of joy that you’re ashamed to call it a loss at all — come cry quietly by the fruit with me.
We don’t even have to talk, unless … well, would you mind telling me to turn my oven off? It’s so easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn.
It is, isn’t it? So easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn. So important to have friends who remind us that the stove is on.
This is a catch-up post. An, “oh, crap–the blog’s been down for weeks and weeks (months?) and I couldn’t even fix that, much less write anything because: Life” post.
So, that’s not entirely true: I have been doing some writing, but on pieces bigger than those I usually post here. I might try publishing them somewhere else, eventually. But I might not. Hard to say.
Hard to say because I have decided that this stage of life is just one big, fat, second adolescence, with many of the same issues and questions: What am I going to do next? Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I want to spend my time? (And what in the HELL is happening to my body?)
It is nicer than the teen-age go-round with such existential angst in that I have foundational answers to some of the questions. I know what I value and what I like and (most importantly) a whole lot of what I don’t need to tolerate or worry about. It’s a bummer that when I emerge from this transformative stage, unlike the earlier one, I can be pretty sure that my body is going to be in worse shape (rather than better) than it was going in.
Of course, I’m attempting to wrestle with all of these questions in the context of a world that feels increasingly unfamiliar and unstable. That is not what I long thought it to be. It’s hard to know what matters, really, when it comes to deciding how and who to be.
But, meanwhile, the days pass by and: Life.
Late spring and early summer was full of work and family and friends and thoughts and feelings–oh, so many feelings–about all of those things. About time, and love, and loss, and the meaning of life. It’s been huge, and also small. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, and all that.
Ah, who am I kidding? There is no catching up, not really. There’s just picking up–a thread, a conversation, ourselves. That’s all I’m really doing here. Picking up a thing I had to set down for awhile. Picking it up again so I don’t forget what I’ve got.
A few days ago Google photos sent me a little overview of the month of March. Back in January, I made a promise to myself to be more present in my days. To notice them more, so that when I got to the end of another year I wouldn’t feel as if they’d all slipped past me when I wasn’t looking.
I wrote a post at the end of that month in which I looked back over it, which was a way of noticing. The days had been short and some weeks even shorter, but the month looked long in the rearview, when I saw how many good things had actually filled its 31 days.
I meant to do the same at the end of February, but you know how things can go. And here it is nearly the middle of April (or it likely will be by the time I get this posted), but it’s not too late to look back at March. (You can do things like this when you’re making up your own rules as you go.)
I had one really big event in March–a trip with the women of my extended family to my great-grandparents’ first home in Croatia–but the rest of the month was full of a rather ordinary kind of good. The first bulbs poked their heads above ground. I ate a great deep-dish pizza at a library training in Chicago. I got to teach some kids how to use databases. My daughter sent me texts and snapchats that made me laugh. The bulbs grew, and I pulled weeds, and I went for a walk where I took photos of modest little houses for a project I started years ago and will likely never do anything with. I got scared by a spider (which wasn’t exactly good but made me laugh) and ate a great donut and then I took a plane (or three) to Croatia. The bulbs fully bloomed while I was gone.
It was a good month. It’s a good life.
The same day that Google reminded me about my month, I came across this article on living “a mediocre life,” which asks:
“What if I am not cut out for the frantic pace of this society and cannot even begin to keep up? And see so many others with what appears to be boundless energy and stamina but know that I need tons of solitude and calm, an abundance of rest, and swaths of unscheduled time in order to be healthy. Body, spirit, soul healthy. Am I enough?”
Solitude. Rest. Calm. Enough.
I’ve caught myself lately saying, “I’m turning into an old person,” in response to such things as being in bed on a Saturday night at 10:00 or really looking forward to eating German pancakes on Sunday morning at a neighborhood bakery. I say it as if doing such things and/or being an old person is a bad thing. But if healthiness rooted in the presence of small, everyday pleasures–as well as the absence of hangovers, headaches, and drama–is part of being an old or boring or mediocre person, well…bring it on.
We don’t ever ask the bulbs in spring if they are enough, or to be more than they are. We just let them unfurl (or not), and accept that whatever they do is what they were meant to do. We don’t curse the tulips and daffodils for being common or for needing certain conditions to grow. When we see them, we’re just grateful that they’re here, again, both testament and witness to another year, and that we didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to make them bloom.
Lately I’ve been wondering if the way we think of seasons as metaphors for our lives might be all wrong. What if the prime of our life is not summer, but winter? I spent a lot of the past two decades with my head buried, living my way through a lot of short, dark days, doing a whole lot of growing and energy gathering in an underground, crocus-ey sort of way. It was not a bad time, but maybe it was not the summer of my life. Maybe this, right now is the springtime of my life. My mediocre life.
In the month of Mary Oliver’s death–she of the question so often asked it’s become a cliche: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”–my son showed me how I could get a weekly reporting of the time I spend on my phone’s screen, which apparently averages more than two hours a day (!). It was the same month news broke that leaving Facebook makes people happier, and that I had conversations with more than one friend about time and our deep desire to feel its passing more slowly. The convergence of these things gave me pause, and as the month that passed so swiftly closed I found myself taking stock of it.
On the second day of January–of the year–I shared here that I spent the first day of it immersed in human creativity at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and that I wanted many more such days in the coming year. I was pleased to spend a good part of one Saturday at a Portland museum with a dear friend, followed by lunch at a Japanese cafe where my tiny, perfect sandwich came wrapped with a simple paper bow that sparked a surprising amount of joy in both of us.
The impulse to create that always follows immersion in other peoples’ creative work got me browsing through my needlework books and perusing embroidery designs on Pinterest and pulling out an old project I hadn’t touched in over a year. I used it to learn the techniques I’d long been meaning to try in Zakka Embroidery by Yumiko Higuchi.
I had a too-brief but sweet visit with my son, and found inordinate pleasure in being able to buy my baby new shoes. As he expressed reluctance at letting the old ones go (“I’ve got a lot of good memories in those shoes”), I caught a fleeting, surprising glimpse of myself.
Through her frequent Snapchat updates, I got to watch my daughter discover herself in a whole new country.
Speaking of Snapchat, the kids and I were one day able to find within our three different time zones a narrow window through which we could simultaneously communicate with each other. This also gave me inordinate pleasure.
I went for a few walks in familiar places and discovered things I’d never noticed before.
I read a good book that altered my view of Circe, a fierce (and touchingly human) goddess, and of mythology.
I got my hair cut. A lot.
“I want my outside to better match my inside,” I told the woman who cut it, an old friend who has known me nearly two decades. Sometimes I am still surprised when cold air chills my neck or when I pass by a mirror, but I’m getting used to it.
I started a different book after I finished Circe, one about a gentle middle-aged man who runs a barely-surviving movie theater in a barely-surviving town, and who, after barely surviving an accident, comes to feel “like a character myself, well-meaning but secondary, a man introduced late in the picture.” Of his life, Virgil wishes he could “spool back and watch earlier scenes, to scout for hints and shadows, clues as to what might be required of a secondary actor when the closing reel began.”
It’s a bit like “Gilmore Girls” with all the quirk and more heart and none of the fast, shallow humor.
I spent time with my tired old dogs, who force me to sit down and rest for part of each day so that they can have time on my lap. We tore through the new season of Grace and Frankie together. (Daisy reminds me of Frankie. She wags her tail a lot.)
I discovered not only that I can hang a curtain rod by myself, but also that discovery’s corollary pleasure of feeling self-sufficient.
And on the last morning of the month, I noticed that it is now almost light again when I leave for work, and that there was a tiny scallop of moon hanging in the branches of the neighbor’s tree.
There were a few other things I didn’t capture photos for: working with some bad-ass school librarians, signing up to volunteer with a non-profit organization, twice weekly sessions with a personal trainer. There were the gifts of an evening with a best friend that included good food, smooth wine, and rich conversation. Driving to her took me through my old neighborhood for the first time since I left it, and the heaviness that settled in the pit of my stomach as I drove streets that were once the warp and weft of every day was both painful and joyful, a reminder of old hurt and validation that moving away from it was the right thing to do.
None of my days were very remarkable, and there were some challenges in this month, too. Still, looking back at it, I can see that on balance it was a good one, full of discovery and creativity and connection with people I love.
Although learning that I spend more than 2 hours a day on my phone feels a bit alarming, I am not going to give up any of the apps I use on it, not even Facebook. In most of those 2+ hours I am talking with friends and family, or taking care of business, or getting inspired or informed about things that matter. It might be a way of stepping out of life, but it can also be a means of entering in. Early in the month a friend I’ve really only known through Facebook shared with me that he begins each day by smiling and telling himself that it’s going to be an amazing day. This is the kind of thing I normally roll my eyes at, but the morning after our conversation I remembered his words and smiled. My smile was more about feeling silly and grateful for my happy friend’s presence in my life–but that made it real. I found myself smiling at the start of most days after that, and though some played out in decidedly less than amazing ways, each started with a genuine smile–a much better beginning to a day than reaching for my phone and scrolling through the (generally dreadful) news of the world.
It’s a tricky thing, this business of the phones. Of life, and time, and how we spend all of our precious things. Virgil Wander anticipates of a simple birthday party that it will be “gorgeous and lush and difficult,” which seems to me a pretty good description of most days, if we take the time to really see them. Looking back over the first 31 of this year, I’m understanding that it is not so much what we do with them that matters, but that we do, and how, and that I share Mary Oliver’s aspiration to be a bride married to amazement. I’m understanding that the way to savor time–which is really about savoring our brief existence–is not to pack more or better things into it, but to better notice the gorgeous within every 24 hour’s lush and wild difficulty .
Who am I kidding? I could never fit what I want to say on a postcard. About anything.
This morning of my last full day here, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” is the earworm playing on the radio in my head. What a long, strange trip it’s been, indeed.
If you’ve been reading here awhile, I’m sure you know I’m not just talking about my trip across the pond. I’m talking at least about the last few years. Maybe my whole damn life.
But the trip, painful as it has at times been, has also been good and necessary. As my friend who so generously offered me this place to stay and be for the past few weeks said, “You needed to disrupt the pattern you were in.” She is right.
A year ago at this time, I was stuck in a different pattern, one I vowed to break on the eve of 2018. I did. The whole of the year just passed was about the breaking. It was about delving into what had happened in order to understand how I got where I was and get myself to a different place.
Now, it’s time to move on from that, too.
Maybe the secret to a good life is knowing when it’s time to move on to the next thing. Because, if we are truly alive, there is always a next thing coming. Not understanding that–believing in some sort of happily ever after, despite all evidence that such a thing is, literally, only the stuff of fairy tales–has been a source of much angst and anguish. There is no ever after to anything: democracies, marriages, moods. All are in a state of constant evolution. All require perpetual attention and care to remain healthy.
So, this is my official declaration of moving on.
Do I know exactly what life will look like going forward? Not really. I expect it will look, on the surface, much as it has. When the plane taking me back to the US touches down, I’ll still be living in a country in crisis. I’ll return to the same house and the same job. I’ll buy my groceries at the same store. My same creaky old dogs will drive me crazy in the same old ways, and I’ll turn to the same friends for comfort, advice, wisdom, and company.
While I can’t tell you from the vantage point of January 2nd what, exactly, I will add to or drop from this thing called my life, I can tell you that the last year has brought clarity to the kinds of things I need in it. A vision statement, if you will. (Most of us who have experienced the crafting of those for our places of employment might cringe at that term, but it’s actually a very useful thing, if it is authentic and is used to determine actions and make decisions.)
Just this morning, a friend from school wrote on Facebook that he has lived more life than he has left to live, and so it is important that every second count. To which I say, Amen!–even if you actually have more left than you’ve lived. (Wish I could have more fully valued every second much earlier. But, live and learn. Live and learn.)
This does not mean that every second has to be unicorns and rainbows, but it does mean that suffering needs to happen for the right reasons. There will always be suffering, but I’d sure like a lot less of the needless or unproductive kind. His words, and a message from another friend–along with countless conversations with so many people over the last year, for which I am deeply grateful–prompted me to put down in writing what I need going forward to make every second count. I’m going to share it here, with hope that it might be helpful in some way to at least some of you who read here:
What I need in my life:
To figure out more what matters to me. To create things. To be healthy. Friends and family. Peace within my work, despite its proximity to despair. To understand the past but not live in it. To find beauty and joy in a world that is ugly and fucked up. People who care about the things I care about. Kindness. Intention. To be valued and cared for by the people I choose to let into my life. Distance or separation from those who can’t give value and care to me. People who know themselves well enough to be honest in their words and actions with me. Comfort with my uncomfortable understanding that, in spite of the ways in which people can and do love and support each other, we are also, ultimately, on our own.
Perhaps an annual vision statement is a more useful exercise than making resolutions. My list above is not a set of actions or promises. It is instead a set of principles I can go to when making decisions about how to spend those precious minutes left to me in the coming 365 days. It’s something I can use to determine what to let in and what to keep out. I know that if I can do that, I’ll most certainly need a new list–or at least a revised one–a year from now. Change is the only constant, damnit and thank goodness.
Remember when you thought going to bed was the best time of day, the way you curled your body into the curve of his, your torsos and legs a pair of nesting commas, his arms holding you like the string on a present, something to both secure and decorate your wrapping?
Remember when you thought that finding the love of your life meant no more choices to make, that it would last until death parted you from it, biology’s ruthlessness the only unbreachable barrier?
Remember the day your father told you that if a ship were sinking and he had to choose between saving your mother or saving you, he would choose her? Remember nodding, yes, of course, of course that would only be right, even as you imagined your little-girl arms flailing for someone to hold onto?
Remember your great-uncle Shorty, who came back broken from the war and never mended, how one time he pointed at you from his chair in his mother’s dark living room, saying nothing, pipe dangling, and how you ran to your mother in the kitchen and hid your face in the space between her legs? Remember how, later, you said it felt as if he were claiming or marking you as one of his kind?
Remember the space between your legs, how important it seemed to fill it, that tunnel a conduit to your hollow core, the empty package of you?
Remember the boy who drank too much one night and fell down the stairs and how for a while afterward said the kind of things we think but don’t say, and how he told the boyfriend who would become your first husband that you were damaged? Remember after the divorce, how you would think that he had been right?
Remember that package you got once in the mail, how its box was so tattered and mashed that you were sure its contents must be broken, that the whole thing would have to be returned?
Remember how you were wrong?
Another exercise from the poetry group mentioned here. Guess I’m working on some things.