Adulting. And stuff.

My daughter’s biggest challenges in the last year have come from learning how to adult. I feel her pain.

Although I am firmly into my 6th decade of living, when it comes to adulting I feel I could be the Imposter Syndrome poster child. I look like a fully-functioning adult. I know all kinds of things about a lot of things–you don’t even want to debate me about the Oxford comma–but I am sometimes shocked by how little I know about the basics of maintaining a life. You really can wing it/kinda fake it for a lot of things. For a really long time. Or, at least, I’ve been able to so far.

This is not an adulting desk.

But it bothers me that I don’t really know how a lot of things work and feel I have very few practical life skills. If the zombie apocalypse comes or the grid collapses or the bottom of privileged, western life falls out in some other way, I’m toast. I can function pretty well in a world with big box stores and electricity and YouTube and take-out, but I will definitely not be the fittest in any kind of basic survival contest.

I’m not really worried about doomsday scenarios, but I descend from farmers and fishermen and machinists–all self-sufficient people who knew how to grow and make and do with their hands. It bothers me to have so little skill in taking care of my own needs. I’m tired of feeling mildly (or majorly) incompetent a lot of the time, especially when it comes to feeding myself and keeping house. Also, I really like it when I occasionally do something well in these arenas.

I didn’t grow any of this not-organic food, but I made this grown-up meal all by myself.

So the other day I checked this book out of the library:

At first I thought it was going to be another lifestyle porn kind of book–and it does have gorgeous pictures with rustic tile, simple linens, and lots of things in glass jars–but it’s got a lot of substance to it:  philosophy, practical strategies, and concrete tools. Most pages look like this one:

There are a few things I particularly enjoy about Erica Strauss’s philosophical approach to food and home. The biggest one? “…don’t be afraid to take it slow at first.”

This is one of the few books I’ve read that makes me think I could actually learn how to do food and home, which makes me want to jump all in. I want to do it all–grow vegetables, can, make my own household cleaners, revamp my household routines–and I want to do it all right now! But this is what my kitchen looks like right now:

And the only way it’s going to look better is if I spend a substantial amount of each day for what’s left of the summer working on it. I’ve also got family to love, and some work to do, and….  I appreciate Strauss’s stance that “this is not an all-or-nothing thing” and that the “ultimate goal of a hands-on homekeeper is to be proactive about shaping your own healthy domestic life.” In other words, she’s not an insufferable purist about the whole thing. In fact, she’s pretty damn funny (as you can see in this post from her blog).

So I’m starting with something simple:  making natural household cleaners. I’ve wanted to do this before, but I got stymied by not knowing where to find borax and castile soap in the store. (I kid you not. I still don’t know where to find them, but if I can’t figure it out this time I’m just going to break down and order them from Amazon.)

Baby steps, baby.

Once upon a time I wrote a blog in which our basic premise was that how we do home is how we do life. I still believe that. For three years, life has been an on-hold, up-in-the-air, what-the-actual-fuck, one-transition/calamity-after-another affair. Home has been slap-dash, make-do, get-through-the-day-however-we-can-and-call-it-a-victory sort of thing. Making my own household cleaners might be only the first step on a thousand mile journey, but at least I’m finally moving, and it feels like the right direction. George Eliot wrote that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I generally think that’s a crock of hooey, but when it comes to this I think she’s right.

Now this is a guy with practical life skills.

 

Postcards

I have a room in my house set aside for creative projects. It used to be the bedroom of a child who can’t live here any more. I think I thought that making it a generative space would be healing in some way. That hasn’t quite been the case.

My words have dried up. I am interested in images, but I spend more time looking at others’ than making my own. I’ve thought often of Ira Glass’s words about how creative beginners have to struggle through a (usually long) period of producing stuff that doesn’t live up to our vision for it. He thinks we’re driven by a desire to create works that match our good taste, and that we have to understand that our work won’t, at least initially.

My grandmother is 100 years old. I send her a handmade card every week. Originally, I thought I would scan or photograph each one before I sent it–so I’d have some record of them–but I haven’t. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When I visit her, I see all of them in a stack on her kitchen counter. I guess I will get them back eventually, probably sooner than I would like.

Whenever I get them it will be sooner than I would like.

A blogging friend writes about taking photos to help her see the beauty in everyday life. I like this idea. My photos aren’t particularly great, don’t capture what I see–but they are enough to remind me of what I was doing and how I felt when I saw.

Maybe when I can no longer stroll through a farmers’ food coop in Chimacum, WA with my mother, a photo from a June morning in 2017 will remind me of how I felt and what I had when I once did. That will be good enough reason for its existence.

My grandmother knit sweaters when she was younger. She used gorgeous, high-quality yarns. Wool, not the cheap synthetic stuff. She taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, but I’ve never made anything more than cotton dishcloths. When I was in college, I wrote a poem about her knitting. I called it her art. She gave me her knitting needles when she was done with them.

I want to take the time to muck around with images and words and paper and cloth and ink and yarn and thread, but I rarely do, other than when I make the weekly card. I cannot quiet the voice that says, Is this what you want to do with what remains of your “one wild and precious life”? And the one that says, “What are you going to do with your not-very-good art, anyway?” I don’t hear them when I’m making the cards. The images I make are not the point. My uncle tells me that the cards are a highlight of the week. He tells me this three times when I visit for an afternoon.

A Facebook friend I never really knew in high school posts his anguish one night over the death of a childhood friend, a musician who was once almost famous. Something about his words reflects like a mirror, and I write back. Later, he thanks me, and I respond that I know something of grief. Don’t all of us, once we reach a certain age? Doesn’t the exchange of words about that make us real friends?

When my son is leaving for Marine boot camp, I tell him that I will be cleaning up his room. “Just don’t make it, like, a sewing room or something,” he says. “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”

I want to say, “That’s not what cleaning your room is about. That’s not what it will ever be about.”

What I say is, “I already have a room for sewing.”

When I am done, the room is both his and not-his. I open the door every few days, wishing and not-wishing that I will see a tangle of blankets on the bed, dirty clothes on the floor, an empty chip bag on the nightstand. I don’t know why I keep opening it, but I do. Every time, it’s so damn clean. And empty.

It will never be my sewing room. I hope he knows that.

A friend I first met in a poetry workshop 32 years ago tells me to write whatever I want. He tells me not to worry about genre, or form, or making meaning for anyone else. He tells me to write–or not write–for myself, that it is time for me to do that now. He tells me it is OK if I’d rather grow flowers or make food than write. He tells me I don’t need to serve the world with my words. I don’t need to serve the world with anything. I have served enough, he says. His wife died last year. I worry about his heart, which is failing. Who will tell me these things if he’s not here to say them?

I go to lunch with my grandmother, my uncle, my parents, my brother. I look around the table, wondering when everyone got so old. I feel the engine of us shifting into a lower gear. I miss my grandma. I miss summertime lunches in her backyard, tuna salad on her homemade bread, iced tea in a sweating glass, bees buzzing among her flowers. I hate this Applebee’s, with its TV playing silently on the far wall, its too-big plates of pasta with gelatinous sauce, its air-conditioning that leaves all of us cold on a warm day.

On Saturday, a different writer friend posts on Facebook about how she misses writing. She says she is going to start telling stories again. On Sunday morning I am here, after making my weekly card, gathering the first of these words without worrying about genre or form or serving anyone else, in the former bedroom of the child who doesn’t live here any more. (I am tired of stumbling over what to call this room. What will it mean if I give it another name? Which stage of grief would that act represent–denial or acceptance?)

The world as we know it is ending, you know. No one’s going to save it. But here’s the thing: The world as we know it is always ending. Ira Glass tells us, “You’ve just gotta fight your way through,” and he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Being creative is not about persevering to make things of good taste or to achieve ambitions. It’s about staying in the gorgeous struggle–and living to tell.

 

Of holes and forests and trees

“I know you must feel like a small voice in the wilderness, but keep doing what you’re doing, even if it’s just a couple of thoughtful lines on a blog.” –Patti

I haven’t written since late January because…

Have you ever had so much to say your throat feels choked with words and none can find their way out? And the longer you go with no words, the harder it is to utter the first ones again?

When my daughter moved 3,000 miles away to college last fall, she somehow knew exactly why and how it was different for each of us:

“It’s not as hard for me because my whole life is new and there’s no Mom hole in it where you used to be. But your life is the same except you have a Grace hole where I used to be.”

(There are actually two holes now, but I can’t write about that second one just yet.)

As the months passed, the Grace hole gradually closed. It happened slowly. Sometimes, if I was careless or the world was particularly sharp, the wound re-opened. That hurt.

Before I knew it, her first year of college was done. On May 10th, she came home.

At first, it felt a little uncomfortable to let a space open for her again. I’d gotten used to my new routines and ways of being. And truth be told, at first I felt a little resistance, and fear:  That peace I’d made my way to was hard-won; I did not want to have to retrace my steps when she left.

And now she will always be leaving again.

It didn’t take much for me to surrender though, and I discovered that being a mom at this stage is a lot like riding a bike. After a few wobbles, I knew just what to do, and it was glorious to fly down the road again with the sun on my face.

Still, I knew all along she’d only be home for a month, and that the time would end. Of all the things I cannot control, time is the most vexing. The day to take her back to the airport came swiftly, and too soon.

Now there is a Grace hole again. I find its edges in the oddest places–when I turn on the car and it is her music I hear, when I see the apples that only she eats going soft in the bowl, when I put on the coat she wore and smell the echo of her perfume.

It is smaller than the chasm she left in August, and it will close more quickly. I know this. But I suspect the scar it leaves will always be a tender one.

Forest Photo Credit: ALFONSO1979  Flickr via Compfight cc

What kind of German would you be?

In 1983, as a senior in high school, I took a class called 20th Century Europe, which I remember mostly as a blurry litany of battles interrupted by a grisly Christmas-break research project on medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps.

I do, however, clearly remember the day I learned about how Hitler rose to power through legal means, and how he used legal means to create an authoritarian state. I remember when discussion turned to the German people, and we collectively wondered how they had let the atrocities of the Third Reich happen. I listened to my classmates, one after another, condemn ordinary Germans for not resisting, for turning on their neighbors, for looking away from the columns of smoke rising from the concentration camps. They insisted they would never do such things. They would speak their minds. They would hide Jews. They would not be “good Germans.”

I listened in disbelief. Perhaps it was because I had memories of my great-grandmother who immigrated to this country from that one; although I didn’t know them, some of those ordinary Germans were my family, and I imagined myself in their place. Perhaps it was because I already knew my own fears and weaknesses and strong instinct for self-preservation. I doubted very much that I or most of the others in the room would risk torture and imprisonment and death to resist the Nazis, and I thought their belief that they would and their judgement of Germans who didn’t was just plain wrong.

Which is what I said aloud in class, probably too forcefully. I remember the uncomfortable silence that followed my words and the stunned look on the face of the girl who had last spoken before me. I didn’t know how to criticize the ideas without criticizing the people who voiced them, and I sure didn’t know how to repair the feelings I had hurt without saying I didn’t mean it, which wouldn’t have been true. I felt defensive and embarrassed and regretful long after our teacher moved us on.

I wish I could tell you that I feel differently about myself and my fellow Americans than I did in 1983, but I really don’t. I think that if writing blog posts such as this one might get me jailed, I’d likely stop writing them. If hiding a member of a targeted group would mean risking imprisonment for my family, I probably wouldn’t do that. We all want to be this man, but how many of us really are?

I have thought about that day in class many times since November 8th, wondering exactly what it is we all need to do and how–and when–we should do it.

Despite all the ways in which Trump seems to be following the playbook of other fascist rulers, we can’t know that he’s setting his sights on being an authoritarian despot. I know it’s inconceivable to many Americans that Trump could ever wreak the kind of havoc on the world that Hitler did, and any comparison to Hitler causes them to dismiss the one making the comparison. It’s important to remember, though, that in early 1933, Germans couldn’t know what Hitler would become, either. The signs were there, and many saw them, but I’m guessing people told themselves the same kinds of things I hear many of us saying today:

  • Congress will keep him from doing anything too terrible.
  • We’re never going to lose our rights to free speech and free elections.
  • C’mon, this is the United States of America. We’re still us.

I suppose that’s why so many Germans did nothing until the price of resistance was too high for most to pay.

Unlike us, those Germans didn’t have the advantage of such a recent example of how terrible things in a democracy can get. But we do, and that’s why I’m trying hard to be the kind of German I hope I would have been in early 1933, when Germans could still resist without risking everything.

We need to be strong enough to stand up to those who tell us that our speaking out is the problem. We need to remind ourselves and then tell them that true unity and peace does not come from keeping our mouths shut about what we feel and believe and know (verifiably) to be true.

We need to take back the word “patriot” and remind ourselves and tell them that patriots are not loyal to a person, but to our country. We need to remind ourselves and tell them that dissent and free speech are part of what has made our country strong –it’s never been what has made us weak.

We need to remind ourselves and tell them that name-calling (crybabies, libtards, snowflakes) and logical fallacies are the tactics of abusers who attempt to silence others through intimidation and shame.

I get why it might feel better, right now, to quietly wait and see. As alarmed as I am by the things I’ve already seen, even I can tell myself that it probably won’t ever be as bad as I fear it could be. I fear being dismissed as an alarmist or extremist. But I am reminding myself and telling others repeatedly that if we wait until things are truly alarming and extreme before we act, it may be too late.

Incidents like the one in my high school history class caused me, over time, to silence myself. I wanted to avoid those moments of discomfort and embarrassment, especially with those I care about. If I didn’t feel sure that I could say something in the best way, I often said nothing at all. But the time has come for us to value other things more than comfort, for both ourselves and others.  The time has come to be like the Germans we wish there had been more of in 1933–because I never want to have to know what kind of German I might have been in 1939 or 1942. And I will neither apologize for nor own the discomfort of others when I do, even if I do it clumsily.

This is what democracy looks like.

Just in case you think I am being too alarmist, take a gander here or here.

Photo of August Landmesser via http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/august-landmesser-1936/

Word for the year: Amplify

I know I’m a little late for the word of the year business, but I’ve been using every spare minute to launch the project I alluded to in my last post. It’s got everything to do with my word for this year:

Amplify

My word for last year was “voice”–and let me tell you, I’ve just gotta say that the previous 12 months made me a believer in the power of choosing a word. I’ll admit I was a skeptic. Choosing a word seemed like a twee, precious kinda thing for people who clearly have a sort of privilege most don’t. Maybe it is, but it made a powerful difference in my year, and I’d like to think that it made at least a small difference for some other folks, too.

Because my word was voice, I made the decision to audition for Listen to Your Mother. There, I got way out of my comfort zone, where I found wonderful new friends. I shared a piece that others told me helped them with their own struggles. I was not really pleased with my performance, but I’m pleased that I did it. And then later in the year I took a writing class from one of those new friends, and learned a new way to use my voice.

Because my word was voice, I entered into the political fray in ways I never have. It started with this post, but it didn’t end there. I began talking with others in different ways, about different things. As the year’s political events unfolded, I talked more and more. It was hard! I know some people don’t like what I’ve been saying, and for someone with decades of people-pleasing as her go-to strategy for getting along in the world, well…that doesn’t feel very comfortable. However, just as using my voice on stage brought me new relationships, using my voice in social media has done the same. I’ve found I’m connecting to some in different ways, and some in deeper ways. I may have lost some relationships, but I have more of the right ones. Using my voice more truthfully and more often has given me that.

Because I got myself more involved in political conversation and started to feel more comfortable using my voice, I made the decision to enter a program to learn how to be a leader for equity. And that has changed everything for me. My view of the world has changed. It has been hard. Really hard. Uncomfortable. Painful. I got to participate in some difficult conversations. They are on-going. I am finding myself tested to use my voice in ways I never considered using it. This is all very much a work in progress, and I know I’m in the early stages of it. Although it’s challenging and often doesn’t feel good, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. My life–and the world in which I live it–has become richer than I ever knew it could be. Voice has given me that.

Using my voice has also brought gains in my personal life. I haven’t written much about that in a long time because it was a hard, hard year. Using our voices doesn’t mean that we don’t still get to make choices about where we’ll use them or what we’ll talk about. Cane and I have been dealt some pretty crappy cards in the past 3 years, and they are hands we needed to play out mostly privately. I think the only reason we’re still in the game is that I finally learned how to speak more honestly. I learned how to express hard truths that need to be said. That people-pleasing thing is a relationship killer and all kinds of ass-backwards conditioning. You do it thinking it’s making things better, but it really isn’t. It just send problems underground, where they fester and eventually emerge in destructive ways. We’ve still got hard road to travel. We’re still living separately half the time. But it is finally feeling as if we’ve turned a corner toward some light.

But that was all last year!

I will admit that I didn’t go through the same word-choosing process this year. Because:  The end of 2016 was brutal. I got personally gobsmacked by things I didn’t know in late October, and while I was still reeling from that, November 8th ran over me like a bus. I was feeling slammed on all fronts by giant truths I’d been blind to, and I couldn’t get my bearings. For most of November and December, nothing felt solid under my feet.

In the past few weeks, though, I thought about the word thing off and on. I considered “no.” And then I considered “yes.” I considered “resist” and “resistance.” And then one day the word just came to me, and as soon as it did I knew it was the right one:  Amplify.

2016 was about finding and using my own voice, and  2017 is going to be about turning up the volume. It’s not so much about broadcasting my own voice, though, as it is about lifting up the voices of others. If you’re my Facebook friend, you know that mostly what I do there is share things I think are important for people to see. That’s one way of amplifying.

Another way of amplifying is to create a stage and invite others onto it. As I stumbled around on that shifting ground in the last months of 2016, I spent a lot of time wondering what my response to our unfolding events should be. So many things are so pressing. It’s hard to know how to best use limited time and money and energy. I watched others leaping into immediate action, and I wanted to be like that, too. I did some things, but none of them felt like the best things for me.

The day the Electoral College voted, I drove in terrible weather for more than hour, alone, to my state capital for a protest. I knew no one, and the turnout was small. I stood at the edges of the crowd, wondering what to do. People were chanting, but I’ve never been a good chanter. (It always reminds me of the Hitler rallies they showed us when I was in school.) It was really damn cold, and, honestly, it felt a bit pointless to me. My state’s electors weren’t going to be casting votes for Trump, and it occurred to me that there were probably much better ways for me to spend my energy that day. After 15 minutes, I got back in my car and drove home, thinking about what I could do.

During the drive, I felt a calm settle over me. I think I needed that day to finally accept that the unacceptable was going to happen. Our president is going to be a lying, manipulative, impulsive, self-serving, ignorant jackass who threatens things I once believed could never be destroyed, and he is supported by huge numbers of people who don’t believe and/or care about factual truth. His presidency might bring the kinds of things I once thought would exist for us only in dystopian novels. It will definitely hurt people I care about. Somehow, paradoxically, these truths allowed me to stop feeling frantic about doing something rightnowrightnowrightnow and accept that we all need to adjust ourselves for a long, most-likely painful haul. I realized that what we are facing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I started thinking about what I can maintain over the long distance of four or more years. I realized that what we all need to do is find those things that are best suited to the talents and skills and resources we have and trust that others will do the things we’re not able to do. That’s been hard for me, as mine don’t feel like the ones that might be most essential right now. I’ll be honest:  I wish I had some different ones. But we’ve all got to work with what we’ve got.

What I am is an educator, a librarian, a writer, and a reader. I’ve got time in the evenings, but not much during the work day. I thought long and hard about what it is that created change in me over the past year, what pushed me out of my comfort zone and into a place where I can more clearly see how injustice and oppression works in my country. I realized that it was story and information and discussion–things that an educator/librarian/writer/reader is pretty much wonderfully equipped to support.

And so that’s what I’m planning to do in the coming 12 months. With my daughter, I’m starting a new project, The Year of Reading Dangerously, which you can find in a different site, right here. That’s a place where weI hope to amplify the voices of the writers and readers. It won’t be as much about my voice as about the voices of everyone in the community. While it is not the only work I’ll be doing to resist the degradation of our democracy, it’s work that I know I can do. It alone can’t save the world, but it’s a pebble I can drop into the vast pond we all share, with faith that the ripples will touch others in ways I’ll likely never know about.

I really hope you’ll join me there. I’ll still be writing here, toggling back and forth between both places. I can’t not write, and I value the community here more than I can say. At the beginning of 2016, I dared the year to give me whatever it wanted, thinking it couldn’t be much worse than 2015. Honestly, it was nearly as bad. The lifting up I’ve gotten from those of you who join me here made all the difference in the world to me. Thank you for reading, writing, and slogging through the challenge of being human with me.

Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer Flickr via Compfight cc

Getting collective with it

As promised in my last post, I’m working on launching a project and I want this project to be a collective effort. I’m reaching out to ask for your support and expertise.

I’m looking for adult/young adult fiction/memoir that illuminates the experience of Americans in the following categories: immigrant, refugee, Muslim, African-American, disabled, Native American, Asian, women, LGBT. I’m interested in any group targeted in the election campaign and/or vulnerable if proposed policies are implemented.

I’m most interested in contemporary works that depict current American lives, and I’d like a range of ages for the main characters. Please share any titles you’d recommend in the comments.

Thank You!
#letsgetdangerous

Overwhelm and Antidotes

From a Facebook post that came through my feed a while back:

Syrian refugees, White Helmets, Standing Rock Sioux, DAPL, Black Lives lost, Black Lives Matter, Aggression towards Muslims, aggression towards people perceived to be Muslims, Oil Company YES Men being put in charge of our government’s environmental departments, children worrying to themselves at night that their parents will be deported, Flint Michigan is still drinking water from bottles, Oil Spill right now running into the Missouri, people feeling insecure that they will have access to healthcare in 2017……is it any wonder we are feeling overwhelmed? We are feeling torn between what front to fight on? We are feeling alone?

This is only a partial list of the things I can’t stop thinking/worrying about–and yes, I have been feeling overwhelmed and torn and alone.

I have been struggling since early November to figure out how to respond to what is happening. I have attended two protests, but I left both feeling that it wasn’t the best use of my limited resources.  I am watching very-capable others around me, and I haven’t seen any clearly important gaps I might fill better than those already filling them. I have been frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest of things; while I’ve made a few phone calls in response to calls for action, because of my work/life obligations I often can’t do that during business hours, which is when such calls are answered.

I have been stuck in a scarcity mind-set, continually exhausted from ping-ponging between worry about how to meet urgent, immediate needs (those call-to-action requests) and long-term needs (how do we shift societal thinking/understanding about race, justice, information, government, etc.?).

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing much. I spend too much time on social media, consuming information that I don’t do much with. The information is important, as is the connection with like-minded others (so we know we’re not completely alone/delusional), but the balance has felt off. I have felt off-balance.

I’m pretty sure the thing to do is get over myself.

I need to get over the idea that I can somehow, on my own, save anything. I need to get over the perfectionism that can keep me from doing anything unless I think I can do it exactly right. I need to get over figuring out the one, best right thing to do and just find good things to do, trusting that others will carry the weight of the other right things I’m not the best person for.

So, this is me getting over myself:

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times story from George Yancy, a professor who’s been placed on the Professor Watchlist, a list created by Turning Point USA to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (I refuse to link to this. You can find it easily if you want.) Yancy’s concluding paragraph felt like a rallying cry, the most compelling call to action I’ve seen:

Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.

Hell, yeah! I thought. I want to be dangerous, too.

I have been sitting with his words, letting them marinate in the stew of all I’ve experienced this year. As I’ve learned a more complete reality of my country’s history, heard and read the reality of lived experience from people of color, and seen the ugly reality of where so many of my countrymen are with respect to race and justice today, I’ve been ashamed that it has taken me so long to be truly moved.

I have been reflecting on what it is that moved me, finally, and I know that it has been a combination of information and story. Learning the systemic mechanisms of racism in our country alone didn’t move me. Hearing others’ stories in isolation from systemic analysis didn’t move me. Having both come together–so I could understand intellectually the causes of personal suffering while empathetically feeling the suffering–is what has made a difference in me. It is what has made it impossible for me to close my ears and mind and heart and retreat back into my own, private world. It is what woke me.

In the face of all this intellectual and emotional messiness, I have been floundering in the sea of all I don’t know and don’t have:

I don’t know a whole lot about how to organize. I don’t know how to make change happen politically. I don’t know how to advocate for policy.

I don’t have much in the way of resources. I’m not rich and I don’t have a lot of time. I work full-time in two under-funded public sector positions. It takes most of what I have to just take care of myself and my kids.

I don’t have a large platform from which to speak. On a good day this blog gets 150 or so views. I think more of my social media friends tolerate my utterances/shares more than look forward to them. I am not much of an influencer in the ways we typically think of that term.

But here’s what I do have:

I’m an educator. I’m a writer. I have faith (most days). I believe fiercely in the power of knowledge and story to change us. Yes, even to save us. I believe that saving happens one person, one community, one city, one state at a time. I believe in ripple effects. I would rather be read by 150 of the right people than 150,000 of the wrong ones–meaning, those whom my words will have no impact on. Those who will not take my words out into the world in some way for good.

Before the end of the year, I will post about a project I’m planning to launch–one that will make the best use of the talents and resources I have. It will be a collective project. It will involve story and education. I hope it will involve you.

Let’s get dangerous together.

 

Of pulleys and buttonholes and light

There are two more names to add to the long list of luminaries whose lights went out in 2016:  Ann Marchbank and Melba McConnaughey.

I know. Most of you don’t know either of these women, but they were famous to me in the way Naomi Shihab Nye so eloquently aspires to fame in one of my favorite poems:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

In 1979, I was a bit of a lost soul.

No, that’s not quite right. I wasn’t exactly lost. I pretty much knew where I was–walking a sketchy path that, in spite of its obvious dangers, seemed would take me to a better place than the one I’d been. Luckily for me, Mrs. Marchbank and Mrs. McConnaughey steered me off of it.

I don’t know if they knew the peril I was courting or if they ever knew they helped save me. I suspect they didn’t. I suspect they were just doing their jobs, teaching me and bringing opportunities my way, the way teachers do. I suspect they didn’t know that my dad was an active alcoholic, or that I was far too aware of what shaky ground my parents’ marriage was listing on, or that my whole family was struggling hard to care for my severely autistic brother who hadn’t even received an accurate diagnosis, much less anything that could be called adequate support. I am sure Mrs. Marchbank, my 9th grade English teacher, didn’t know that I sometimes drank in the girls’ bathroom before school (because school was “so boring”). I’m equally sure that Mrs. McConnaughey didn’t know I struggled with depression throughout high school, flirting often with what we now call suicidal ideation. I’m guessing they didn’t know how much I battled every single day with fear and loneliness and self-loathing, or what a difference it made that they helped me see myself as a person who had value and potential.

Mrs. Marchbank was the matchmaker who hooked me up with Shakespeare and grammar and poetry, kindling life-long love affairs with each. She championed my work, entering it in contests and telling me she was sure that one day she’d walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on the cover. When a poem of mine was published in a national magazine, she whooped with excitement and joy–and she was not, generally speaking, a whooper. It was how I knew it was a big deal. She gently teased my friends and me about our obsessive need to check our appearance in mirrors, letting us know that there were more important things for us to care about. As I left the halls of Sylvester Junior High, she handed me over to Mrs. McConnaughey at the high school. During spring forecasting, she told me I needed to take Mrs. McConnaughey’s classes because “she’s the head of the English department, and I want her to know you.”

Mrs. McConnaughey, who died on December 16, was a force. She’d long left her native Arkansas for the northwest, but she never lost her accent. She was both genteel and formidable in the way I’ve come to know that Southern women can be. My first real memory of her is from the day after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. She was furious that the election was called before polls had closed on the west coast, and she was furious that he’d won. I was pretty sure she shouldn’t be sharing so much of her own political beliefs in class like that, but I became curious about why she would, and from that curiosity grew my own political awareness and philosophy. Later that year, I took a class from her called “Semantics and Logic,” which had a Matrix-like impact on me: she revealed the codes of language and argument, giving me personal and political power I hadn’t even known existed. It had everything to do with why I later became an English teacher myself.

Being human, Mrs. McConnaughey was not a perfect teacher. A friend once told me that I was the only one she allowed to really challenge her ideas in class. Others teased me about being her pet, and I know she gave me special favors. Our high school had what they called tennis shoe registration for classes, where we’d walk around the gym and pick up registration cards for the classes we wanted. If all the cards were taken for a class before we got to it, we were out of luck. As a sophomore trying to get into an English class for seniors, chances are I wasn’t going to get the card I wanted. I will never forget coming to the front of the line and watching Mrs. McConnaughey pull out a registration card for me that she’d hidden behind a curtain, or the “hey!” of injustice that exploded from the kid standing behind me in line as he realized what she’d done.

As an educator myself, I know that wasn’t fair. But I also know that sometimes, some kids really need us to show them that we think they matter. I was one of those kids, and she did that for me. When I was a senior, she spent her lunch period every day shepherding me through an independent study of poetry. “I am so sorry we do not have anything in our curriculum to teach you what you need to know about poetry,” she said, “and you just can’t go off to college without knowing more about it.” It was clear that the independent study wasn’t an option, but a requirement. I would sit in the class she had before lunch, reading and writing on my own while she taught the rest of the students, and then during her lunch she would talk with me about the poems I’d read. Like Mrs. Marchbank, she entered my writing in contests and expressed unwavering belief in the importance of my work and my ability to do it.

It is because of both women that I became a high school teacher myself. Although I entertained the idea of teaching in higher ed, I knew that where teachers had mattered most for me was long before college. If it weren’t for those two, I might never have made it there. A 9th grade girl who was drinking in the bathroom before school and throwing herself into one ill-advised infatuation after another needed champions to show her that she had value that wasn’t to be found in a bottle or a boy. She needed people to love her, and they were those people for me.

I’ve been out of the classroom for 8 years now, coaching teachers rather than working directly with students. I wish that during my years there, I’d better understood what I know now–that a teacher’s most important contribution isn’t necessarily what they are teaching students about a subject, but what they are teaching students about themselves. I would have worried less about the finer points of my lessons and more about the rough and tender edges of my students.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to be willing to take some risks, to be OK with small failures that might be a necessary part of the process of learning how to create classrooms that are more relevant, rigorous, and safe for all students.

“We aren’t brain surgeons,” I tell them. “No one’s going to die if we mess up a lesson.”

It’s true. No one’s doing to die if we mess up a lesson. But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t have the power to save lives.On the dark and deeply troubling path we’re walking now, that’s something I hope all the teachers I know will remember. I hope that all of us who work with and for youth, in schools or out, will be famous in the ways of pulleys and buttonholes, never forgetting what it is we can do.

I am so thankful for these two teachers who never did.

You can’t go home again

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Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.

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I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.

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Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.

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Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.

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Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.

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The beat goes on…

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If I were to evaluate my high school journalism teacher, Miss S., through the  current thinking about what makes a teacher good, she’d get a pretty low grade.

Sometimes, she’d teach what looked like a lesson, sort of. I do remember her standing at the front of the room occasionally, sharing information about journalistic principles or practices for a few minutes. There were no learning targets on the board, no rubrics, no scoring guides, no real assignments other than the ones we were given to produce our student newspaper.

The teacher who chaired the English department told me that the journalism class wasn’t a good use of my time. When I shared that with Miss S., she laughed, and I understood that they didn’t like each other and that my presence in her class gave her a battle win in some kind of teacher war. It was the first time I understood that there were such things.

She was volatile and erratic. Once, in a fit of anger with one of us, she yelled and kicked a wastebasket across the room. I remember that, and the way we all went silent, afraid of what she might do next. We whispered among ourselves about what might be wrong with her. Someone once snooped in her closet and found an empty pint bottle. We wondered if she drank at school.

And yet, we produced an award-winning newspaper. Under her direction, our scope extended beyond the walls of our high school. She drove some of us to the state capitol so we could interview law-makers for a story about the impact of state budgets on our education. We wrote a story about the Green River Killer, who targeted young women in our area. We took national stories and examined what they meant for us locally.

Somewhere along the way, between flying trash cans and trips to the capitol, I learned the fundamentals of journalism that guide me as a consumer of information today:

  • You need to present all sides of a story.
  • You need credible sources of information.
  • There is a hard and clear line between fact and opinion.
  • You need to dig beyond the surface of a story to what lies beneath it.
  • Good journalists ask hard questions and tell hard truths, even when others don’t want them to.

One of my award-winning stories was about the dangers of “look alike” amphetamines, which students across the country were buying and selling. It included photos of such pills taken in our newsroom, as well as quotations from anonymous students who were dealing them in our classrooms. My principal did not appreciate the story. He wanted the names of my sources, the students who told me how they were doing business during class. For a people-pleaser like me, this was kinda scary stuff–but I was never really scared because I knew that Miss S. had my back. I also had the strength of convictions she’d instilled in me about the necessity of a free press and the duty journalists have to tell the truth and protect their sources. I wasn’t privy to the adult conversations that took place and don’t know what kind of heat she took from her boss, but I never did have to reveal mine.

When I went to a large state university and was looking for places that could make campus feel smaller, I sought out the newspaper staff. The first thing I saw when I walked through the newsroom door was a graffitied wall with “Fuck Objective Journalism” scrawled across it in huge letters. I was offended not by the language, but by the sentiment. Objectivity was a bedrock principle for me. I left and didn’t return for a few months.

Eventually I did, and I took the beat covering our crew team. I was not a sports writer, but it was a way in. I worked my way up to writing in-depth feature stories, and despite my colleagues’ irreverence (or perhaps because of it), I never abandoned the principles formed during my time with Miss S. Like so many experiences in young adulthood, though, it was one that showed me what I wasn’t cut out for. I hated calling people I didn’t know on the phone. I hated making people uncomfortable with hard questions. I hated writing under the pressure of a deadline and not having enough time to polish my writing or my thinking. Eventually I ended up working in education, not journalism.

As I’ve watched the demise of print journalism over the past decade, I’ve been thankful many times that I didn’t pursue a career in it. If I had, I may well have been objectively fucked, a victim of mass layoffs at a point where I’d be too old to easily switch careers but not old enough to retire. There are always casualties when industries and economies change, aren’t there?

But what’s happened in journalism isn’t the same as, say, what’s happened to the coal industry. Coal is, as one might say, a “disaster” for the environment. I truly do feel for those who are suffering because the backbone of their economy has snapped–especially those who, like me, are at exactly the wrong stage of life to be able to recover from such a catastrophic injury. But I also know that alternate sources of energy are what we need to survive as a species. I wish we could find ways to support those people without bringing back that industry.

Journalism is different, though. We need journalists–real ones, who investigate corruption and share truth and ask hard questions we all need the answers to–like we’ve always needed them. We need them perhaps now more than we’ve ever needed them. That’s something Miss S. taught me.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, not the least of which is that in spite of the economic challenges facing those who produce print journalism, we still have newspapers that adhere to the principles I learned decades ago. I’m thankful that in spite of all that is currently troubling and uncertain in our President-elect’s relationship with the press,  we still have a free one. I worry about the fact that so many of our youth cannot tell the difference between valid and bogus news. I worry about the proliferation of fake and clearly biased “news,” which may very well have influenced the outcome of our recent presidential election. I worry about lowlife scum who care more about the personal profit they make from creating and disseminating misinformation than the damage they do to all of us through their actions. But I take hope from journalists who are the ones who really tell it it like it is, and those who vow to keep doing so in this strange new world we seem to be living in.

I’m thankful, too, for the public education I received that’s helping me navigate it. A high school acquaintance of my daughter’s recently shared that he distrusted a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist’s article in The Wall Street Journal because she “went the school route.” I wish so much–for himself and for all of us–that in his education he’d encountered a journalism teacher like Miss. S. and wonder how things might be different for him if he had. Like pretty much all of us, Miss S. was flawed, a human mix of strengths and weaknesses. I think of her often these days as I reflect upon what went wrong in our election, one of the first people from whom I learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be (and do) good.

(If you’d like to contribute to the continued existence of publications that provide accurate information about matters of crucial importance to us all, please check out the links on the Resources page.)

Photo Credit: Christof Timmermann Flickr via Compfight cc