I have a “real” post somewhat almost-done for today, but I couldn’t get it actually done, any more than I could get my office renovation done by the end of the day yesterday (something I hoped on Instagram* that I’d be able to do).
Wait, scratch that: I could have gotten both done, but I made choices that kept me from getting them done.
What did I do instead?
I fell down a rabbit hole of writing–but not far enough to finish the post. I pulled myself up out of the writing hole to attend to painting chores the room requires: repainting the bottom of the open section of the cabinet we built (because we didn’t build it right the first time and had to re-build, which messed up the paint) and painting the door to the room.
I could have done/faked the room tidying I need to do to be able to finish the post (because the post is about the room, but I need some different photos than I’m able to take with it in its current state), but I decided to do the things that really need doing.
And then I spent some time gathering and delivering a bag of treats for a colleague who is home sick with Covid, taking care of her daughter who is also sick with it. I did that because one of the things I’m writing about in the in-progress post is about values I want to live by in the coming school year, and connection with others is at the top of the list. I’ve gotta tell you: Strengthening that connection felt so much better and more meaningful than having pretty office photos and a complete post would have.
After that I took a nap. I’d had a low-grade headache since Thursday, and even though it’s not the kind of headache that disables me, three days of that kind of pain takes it out of me. It makes me tired. There is something so delicious about climbing under cool covers on a sunny afternoon. That sensation might be as healing as the actual sleep. (Health is another value I want to prioritize.)
And then, well, it was time to make dinner. Time to sit at the table in the early-evening light and talk and sip while the carrots roasted. Then it was time to take a scooter ride to a nearby neighborhood where we like to walk and look at houses and study the choices those homeowners have made to help us make our own.
At that point, of course, the day was nearly done. No time for anything but watching an episode of our current series (Hanna on Prime), snuggling the dogs to sleep, doing a bit of a Times crossword, and falling back into bed.
It was a good day. Progress on multiple projects was made. As I head into my last week before returning to work, I know that I am going to end my summer with more things in progress than finished. More and more, I think that’s how it should be. I think progress, rather than accomplishments, might be the measure of a life well-lived. Isn’t a life in progress a life grounded in hope, growth, and faith? I hope, on whatever is the last day of mine, that I am still in progress, that I leave this place with work of all kinds still to be done.
*I’m just about done with Facebook. I’ve taken it off my phone again, and I’m happier for it. I’d love to see you on Instagram, if that’s a happy place for you.
When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher read Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys aloud to her 8th grade students. This might be my Summer of the Naughty Dogs. Or, Summer of the Painted Paws. And Tongues.
Friday I painted all of the laundry room trim while carrying Rocky in his baby sling. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. He’s demanding human contact almost all of his waking hours. I am, in many ways, living a life similar to the one I lived when my children were babies and toddlers.
Only I’m 20 years older and geriatric dogs aren’t as adorable as my babies were. (Though they aren’t without their charms. See above.)
This week my friend S. came for a visit, and we talked of making things and the importance of doing so in times such as these. (Well, any time, but especially times such as these.) It’s good to ground ourselves in what we can do, when there is much we feel powerless to do.
She brought me raspberry jam that she’d made, and I decided that to properly honor the gift I needed to make something to eat it with. I found the easiest bread recipe (the only kind I can probably pull off). It’s in Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple, one of my current favorite cookbooks. (Recipe here.)
When my daughter saw the dough rising, she arched an eyebrow and said, “Oh, we’ve reached that stage now, have we?”
Yep, I’m a cliche. So be it. It tastes good.
Last spring (of ’19) my friends A & S (a different S) visited and brought me this little blueberry bush. It’s planted next to the ones that I already had, which have been keeping me in berries for weeks now.
I was so delighted to see that, after only one year, this little guy is also bearing fruit. I was friends with both A and S in high school, but they were not friends with each other. They later met in law school, and they’ve been close ever since. I moved away and lost touch with both of them, but thanks to the magic of social media we reunited about ten years ago. I just love that, the way these people I loved found each other and then found me again, and I now have a tangible symbol of that kind of magic growing in my yard and feeding me.
Speaking of feeding: Mother-daughter Naan pizzas. Although the bread dough recipe above is also a pizza dough recipe, my smart daughter turned me onto the idea of Naan flatbread as the perfect individual-sized pizza crust, which is even easier. As you can see, we have different ideas about what should go on a pizza. Mine has onion, garlic, and cherry tomatoes, all from our garden (along with feta and Mezzetta garlic-stuffed green olives). She favors red peppers and pepperoni. Maybe I’ll figure out how to grow peppers next year. Or maybe not. She likely won’t be here to eat them, and the reminder of this summer’s bounty of time with her, a gift I expect never to receive again, will make me sad and miss her.
Gardens can be tricky, in more ways than one.
We have added morning walks to our routine. Daisy walks the whole way, straining at her leash, impatient with the pace Rocky sets. He makes it about two blocks, tripping over his paws, and then I carry him for the remainder. He’s happy to walk, and then to be carried. He looks around, alert in my arms.
It’s good for me, too. On Wednesday I had a nice long chat with a neighbor I’d never met. A yard sign let me know that he has a child in Marine boot camp, so I stopped to talk when I saw him outside with his dog. It was good to be able to talk with someone who knows that experience, to be able to share some comfort from my vantage point several years ahead of his, and to see and feel how far my son and I have come since those weeks after he left home for that grueling trial by fire that scorched us both.
This is a different kind of making and doing. This spring, I almost got rid of the hammock. It’s a hassle when I need to mow the lawn, and for the past two years it’s gotten almost no use.
This week, temperatures were in the 90s every day. Monday and Tuesday it was 100. There’s something that’s an odd kind of wonderful about swinging, just a little, in a hammock through the heart of a hot afternoon. Something healing. I gave myself permission to do it. This is me making space for space.
I’m glad I decided to keep it.
This is a postcard from the past. It’s from a picnic my daughter and I and the dogs had one evening at the river in the last week of July, eleven years ago. It came up when I was looking for something else, the way things that haunt us often do.
I didn’t say this in my earlier cards, but it’s been a hard week. The heat. The increasing burden of the dogs. Work disappointments. Distance of several kinds from those I love. Camp Pendleton Marines dying in a training accident, and my son’s brief words about it: “It’s the job.” And then there were the things beyond just me, ways of this world I can neither change nor make peace with, and the weight of our collective pain. There was this photo, this message from the past that feels like a poem I cannot write about a future I don’t want to live.
What I would give to feel again the way I felt on that night, dogs kicking up sand as they ran in circles over it, my sprouting girl so pleased to have an evening alone with me. I can’t remember the last time I smiled the way I smiled when she turned the camera toward me.
On a day that I give into it all and do little more than sleep and eat and write these postcards, I wonder about the missives I send out into the world. Why does it matter to write snippets about bread and berries and walks and hammocks, as if such things matter in times such as these? Can it? Do they? If I write about the sweet and omit the bitter, am I delusional? Am I in denial? Am I bearing false witness if I crop loneliness and sorrow and fatigue out of my stories, or if I leave only their shadows at the edges of the margins?
Late that night a friend shares an essay, and Lyz Lenz reminds me that our stories in times such as these–all of them–are “a struggle of memory against forgetting.” They are “a struggle of nuance in the flat face of fascism.”
Reading, I understand what I often forget, and why I force myself to do joyful things even when they bring me little joy and why I write about them. It is a struggle to hold onto old joys in a new age of despair: To shape the dough, pick the berries, move the legs, still the body long enough to feel warm breeze against hot skin–and write about it. It is a struggle when such acts and the writing about them may feel trivial, inconsequential, or even self-indulgent. But they aren’t, and it isn’t.
To do such things and write about them, to remember what was sweet in the past and keep it present–even if flawed, even if lesser-than, even if the gesture feels cliched or hollow–so that it won’t disappear into some dark forest of the future, is a making-and-doing of the highest order.
As Lenz reminded me, when writers write they know: “At least I am still here.” And when we read their stories of living plot lines like our own, we know that we are, too.
This place could be beautiful, right? Fresh-washed and fair,
a green that will never again be so green.
You could live inside this rose, in flowering bulbs voluptuous in the spring,
but the garden sprawls and spoils, worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,
and all winds go sighing for sweet things dying.
The coming night will not lift. I am exhausted,
a bleached shirt flapping alone on a laundry line, arms pointed down.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I’m singing your name now.
This poem is a copyright violation, perhaps–a multitude of them–but I’m sharing in the spirit of fair use, primarily because I know this won’t impact anyone’s financial bottom line, my purpose in sharing is primarily educational, and I’ve worked not to steal the heart of anyone else’s work.
Still, almost every word of it is lifted from another writer. You might have guessed, as some of the lines are from well-known poems. I tried not to change any of the original wording, but I added an occasional conjunction or preposition and changed a few punctuation marks. Below, you can see links to all of the original works the words come from (though not quite in the same order as the poem above).
I call it a collage poem, only the gathered bits are lines and phrases of language rather than images. I don’t know if this is an exercise others have used or written about; I made it up for myself years ago, when I was teaching a poetry unit to high school freshmen. It was a low-risk entry into writing poems, and it got them to read poems, which has always acted as pump-priming for me and most writers I’ve ever talked with about process.
I haven’t written a poem in a long time, but this was a week in which prose wasn’t working for me. What I like about this exercise is the layers of meaning that might come, not just from the collage poem (or maybe call it a remix, if that term makes more sense), but from reading all of the original works as a collection. I also found immersion in poetry to be a healing thing.
How to start one of your own? I began this one by revisiting poems and poets I know from long ago, as I have been dwelling in the past in recent days, and thinking about time and wrestling with questions of hope and purpose.
As I started to play with the language of those old favorites (most of which fell away as I tinkered), there were two sites that I found particularly useful for this exercise: Poetry Foundation, which has thematic collections that are a great starting point if you have a particular topic you’d like to write on, and poets.org, from the Academy of American Poets, which also has collections. I visited collections on summer and illness.
(A note: These sites are not very diverse in their representation of poets; the poetry establishment favors white, male academics (see recent news of Poetry Foundation’s leadership resigning recently over their bungling of a Black Lives Matter statement). Given issues of appropriation and my own identity as a white European-American, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the work of BIPOC poets in this way, though this collage poem does contain a phrase—“you could live inside this rose”—from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet and one of my favorite contemporary writers. Perhaps I should cut it, but it seems fitting that the collage poem hinges on these words from a writer whose work examines what it means to be both of and apart from a place.)
If you decide to try one, I’d encourage you to make up some rules for yourself. My best creative works come when I have limitations, not complete freedom. If it’s helpful, these were mine:
No more than one poem per poet. (But I broke this rule.)
No more than two lines per poem, not divided.
You have to like the original poem. (Loving it is even better.)
It’s OK to add conjunctions, prepositions, and joining punctuation to the beginning or end of the borrowed language.
You can’t change pronouns or verb tenses.
It can be a tricky line to walk, the one between honoring the integrity of the original work and building it into the one you’re creating–but isn’t that the task of all creation, really, when you think about it? Because we never create anything all by ourselves; we are always building upon the work of others who have come before us.
Weltschmerz, German for “world pain,” was also coined during the Romantic Era and is in many ways the German version of ennui. It describes a world weariness felt from a perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is. In German philosophy it was distinguished from pessimism, the idea that there is more bad than good in the world, because while pessimism was the logical conclusion of cool, rational philosophical pondering, weltschmerz was an emotional response. “How to Tell Whether You’ve Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz“
Back in late May/early June, I kept telling myself that I just had to get to the end of the school year, and I would be OK. I imagined that when I could get some relief from 2-hour Zoom meetings in which much was said but little done, tasks that seemed to produce offspring tasks at the same rate with which rabbits are known to procreate, and whole days in which my butt left my kitchen chair only to feed or pee my geriatric dogs, I would start to feel better, in spite of everything.
Yeah, that’s not really how it’s gone.
The day before the last official day of work, my state’s Department of Education released their initial set of guidelines for conducting school next year, and all of us Oregon educators (or at least the ones I know) pretty much lost our collective shit. Because we know–We. Know.–how it’s all going to go down and who it’s going to land on. Increasing demands and decreasing resources have been the rule rather than the exception for decades now, but we’re getting catapulted into a whole new level of that game and when I look ahead to the fall all I can see are turtles all the way down. Or apocalyptic monkeys. And I can feel my heart start to race and my jaw clench and and and….
I just wish we could all take a moment to
Tell the truth.
And then figure out what to do next.
I’d like a collective timeout, so we can get ourselves regulated and think about what we did to get here and what we’ll do differently moving forward and how we’ll make different happen. (I know. The spring shutdown was supposed to be that, and I guess it was in some parts of the world, but not so much here in the US.)
I am not just talking about education and the pandemic. There is so much that’s wrong and hard in the world right now, but–don’t throw anything at me, please–there is also opportunity. There is always opportunity in wrong/hard. The opportunity is the silver lining of the wrong/hard. It’s the thing that can make the wrong/hard endurable. So far, sadly, it feels like we are just blowing it.
So many things were broken before the pandemic pulverized them. Instead of trying to glue back together little powdery bits of what was, here’s a chance to make things new. This kind of opportunity doesn’t happen often! Let’s seize it!
OK, I get why that’s not happening and how hard making new things is. We’ve got a whole lot of people in pain, and a whole lot of brokenness we can no longer collectively deny, and we humans aren’t at our best in such circumstances. Making new things always means losing old things, and some people are gonna cling real, real hard to those old things (even if they aren’t really good for them) because change literally hurts our brains and a lot of us would rather accept the crappy we know than take a chance on a possibly worse new crappy. We’re all scared and worried and grieving, even those of us in the (relatively) best of circumstances. And some of us are just racist, sexist, ableist a-holes and dangerous AF in the best of circumstances, so there’s that, too.
And so: Damn, it’s wearying, accepting the world as it is right now, believing it could be different, and watching opportunities slip past us, on scales both small and large. As my friend Kari recently wrote, “I feel like I am wading through Jello.” Me, too, Kari. Me, too.
My feelings of not-OKness didn’t dissipate when the Zoom meetings ended. I’m nearing the end of the second week out of the school year, and the days still have a lot of slog to them. There is some ease (how can there not be?), and it’s not all grey skies and listlessness. It has been a fair amount of that, but there have also been laughs and kisses and beauty and sun. One warm night this week I sat under patio lights, surrounded by flowers, and drank sweet limoncello liqueur with my daughter and my dearest friend and we had a long, passionate conversation about pronouns (and the intersections of gender and identity and language and responsibility and love, because you can’t talk about pronouns without talking about all of those things). There is that, and I don’t want to overlook or discount that because I am profoundly grateful for such moments. But I just don’t feel like myself, especially my summer self.
You too, perhaps?
I would like to offer a remedy, but I can’t. Not really. Moving my body more has helped. Planting things in the ground has, too. Doing the dishes and making the bed and cooking real meals. Being purposefully grateful, living in the day I’m in (so future troubles can’t rob me of today’s joy), and striving for balance between work/play and exertion/rest are other strategies I can recommend. Naps are good, too, if you can swing them.
I’d also add: Accepting the feelings. I spent a few days in the first week beating up on myself for not feeling better, and then I decided to just accept the feelings, whatever they are. Not to wallow (and there’s a fine line, there), but to just let them be and go about my business, doing things I know are good for me and others. I give the feelings their due, as they demand, and then I get on with it as best I can (some days better than others). I “act as if” as much as I can.
But honestly, the problem isn’t within us as individuals (and so we can’t fix our feelings about them entirely through our individual actions), and shouldn’t living feel like a slog right now? The world is way, way too much with us these days. You know that old bumper sticker, the one about how if you’re not pissed off you’re not paying attention, or something along those lines? That. All of which is why one of the things I’ve been grateful for this week is learning that there’s a word for exactly what I’ve been feeling: Weltschmerz.
Isn’t that a grand word? It’s almost onomatopoeic, the way those syllables sort of crash into each other on their way out of your mouth, with that hard stop right in the middle of it and that sort of drunken-sounding raspy sibilant ending. You’ve got all the elements for a party in those letters and sounds–and you can see that–but they don’t arrange themselves into a party. They aren’t in the right order.
If you, too, have been wading through weltschmerz (aka jello, aka existential depression), isn’t it at least a little comforting to know that other people have felt exactly the same way–enough people that we have a word that captures the subtle nuances of this feeling, and of this maybe-apocalypse that we’re living through? (Hey, on top of pandemic, economic meltdown, institutional instability, and massive unrest, don’t forget the climate. It’s still melting.) It’s not boredom or depression or listlessness or ennui or anxiety or angst. It’s weltschmerz, baby. And if ever there was a moment for it, surely it’s now.
You’re not alone and you’re not broken or ungrateful or spoiled. Things are fairly terrible. Don’t let the toxic positivity crowd gaslight you into thinking the problem is you and your attitude. Maybe, instead, your feelings are a sign of your wholeness and your optimism and your hope, and of your positive vision and your love for the world. Maybe it’s all the very things we’ll need to get us through to some better other side. Somehow. Some day. One slog at a time, monkeys and turtles be damned.
Here I am, showing up, doing the thing I’ve assigned myself to do.
I feel a little hollow, scraped out. Writer’s block is when you have the words but can’t release them. They’re trapped behind a wall. I think I’ve got writer’s drought. Lots of arid sky in my head, dendrites dry as August dirt.
Tears came easily this week. Thursday, I had a panting, sweaty meltdown: droplets spattered everywhere. I thought some physical work would make me feel better, but instead of dissipating a persistent ennui it activated a wet rage. (At least my garage and yard look better.)
I have nothing worth saying today. Feel as if I have been swimming and swimming in everyone’s torrent of words for weeks now, and all I want to do is lie still on some shore and dry out a bit.
School (what is school now?) ended Friday, but I still have tasks to be done, so the work hasn’t ended. Two weeks ago our leaders asked us to vote on taking furlough days, and last week they told us they’re giving themselves raises. Thursday our state released guidance for re-opening, and it all sounds impossible. People talk as if the virus must conform to what we feel able to do, and I want to scream at them that that is not how viruses work, but my throat is dry and I just let my words fester in my mouth. Friday I went into my building to check out for the year and no one was wearing a mask. No one. I looked at the clutter of papers and books I left on my desk on March 13 and just left it all there. I went back home and kept working. We teachers are asking ourselves what we will and won’t do, what risks we can and can’t afford, and the questions feel as theoretical and fantastical as the state’s guidance.
To be in a position of being able to ask such questions–to have choices to make–is a privilege not all enjoy. (It’s one I don’t enjoy, not really. I will be at work in the fall, in whatever form it takes.)
My C-19 test was negative. Quarantine is a kind of island, could be a shore–but it feels more like a cage. I got the result the same day I had the meltdown. I was still too sick to mow the lawn, sweep the garage.
Last night, lying in bed, I did the kind of math I do when I want to get grounded, even though it’s kind of a mind-fuck, too. Sort of like looking in a mirror until you become too aware of your own consciousness. I began teaching 30 years ago. When I started teaching in 1990, those who’d been teaching as long as I have been would have started in 1960. In 1990, 1960 felt like another era. It was. (Was there even anyone teaching who’d started in the 1950’s? I don’t know. Seems like everyone retired when they hit that 30-year mark.)
When I started teaching, we didn’t all have our own computers. I used a clunky beige box of a Mac in a communal office. No internet. No email. No phones, pads, tablets, social media. Instructional technology was a ditto machine.
How much adaptation can an organism withstand in its lifetime, how many times can it change?
After the meltdown, I wrote out all the things I’ve been carrying, trying to understand why they feel so heavy when my burdens are so relatively light. In the days since, I cannot stop hearing Friar Laurence’s rant to Romeo, in the play I taught to students the first four years of my career:
I have a job: There art thou happy!
I have a home: There art thou happy!
My children have what they need: There art thou happy!
I am not sick. No one I love has died: There art thou happy!
I am white. There art thou happy!
There is food in the grocery store. There art thou happy!
There is rain on the ground, watering my onions and garlic and cauliflower. There art thou happy!
To which I want to say: Yes. And also: Fuck you, Friar Laurence, you stupid bumbler who made everything worse. Impact has always mattered more than intention.
More math: The oldest of my first students are now 48. 48! “Some of your students are probably grandparents now,” Cane says to me. I remember a senior boy, Jeff, last period of the day, all shit-eating grin saying to me: “You just have to understand, Ms. Evans, that most days I’m going to be stoned.” We didn’t have “resource officers” in school then. (Why don’t we call them what they are: police. Who do we think we’re kidding?) I just told Jeff to go back to his seat. He did. I laughed about it in the teacher’s lounge later, a room stale and bitter from the cigarettes my colleagues sucked into their lungs during passing time or their prep periods. It was a different era.
On April 21, a Tuesday, I got a migraine. It hung on through Friday; just as it was exiting the building of my body, something twinged hard in my right lower back, and I spent that weekend unable to move or sit or lie down without pain. By this Tuesday I was able to stop taking megadoses of ibuprofen and sitting/sleeping with a heating pad, and then the migraine returned. Today, Friday again, it is still here, for the 4th day.
Most of the time, migraine does not leave me writhing in pain in a dark room, because I have medication that usually works and keeps me able to mostly function. I can usually work when on my meds. They can make me slow and fuzzy, and fatigued, and feeling generally off, but after I take them the sharp, stabbing pains and the vice grip on my skull subside, so it feels like relief. Slow, fuzzy, fatigued, and off are a gift, when I consider the alternative. The alternative is entire days entirely lost to pain that literally brings me to my knees.
Most of my work meetings begin with a grounding activity, in which we are given some stimulus to help us center our ensuing conversation in our students and families, the majority of whom are people of color and/or living in poverty. The general theme when we are sharing our responses to the stimulus, since we’ve been closed, is this:
We are so fortunate, to be living in the privilege we do. We need to keep at the forefront our families who are not.
In comparison to those who are sick, out of work, working on the front lines (which increasingly feels more literal than metaphorical), and/or targeted by bigots, we white educators who are working are fortunate. As an educator who is not providing direct service to students, I am more fortunate (at least in some ways) than those who are. (More than one I know has shared this teacher’s post this week.)
The other day, I was setting out for a run. The thought came to me: “Death is all around us.” Then came the very next thought, as I took in the blossoming trees and greening grass: “So is life.” And right away, I knew in some deep place that these two facts are never not true. Death and life, always right here, all around us. It’s like Neruda wrote: Budding among the ruins.
Day 49: Budding among the ruins
Jena also offered this:
“And we also know that grief, like any painful emotion not given an outlet, does not just vanish. It goes inward. It takes up room in ways that remain invisible yet are everywhere, not unlike a deadly virus.”
We are all, right now, living among the ruins, of so many things. And even the relatively fortunate among us are grieving. That grief might look like frenetic activity. It might look like laughing inappropriately. It might look like weeping over nothing and everything. It might look like sudden fury over triviality. Or it might look like inertia, binge-watching, or chronic pain.
Mondays through Fridays, I don’t have much room to grieve. I suppose that’s why it goes inward and takes up space in my body, a place where it is largely invisible. Weekends, I get to let it out, so I can be whole enough to dive back in come Monday. Often that takes the form of writing here, but I’m feeling the call to do something different this week. I’m feeling the call to do nothing. I think this is going to have to substitute for the usual Sunday post.
Wishing you a weekend of whatever it is you need to be whole enough to keep going, to bud in whatever kind of soil you find yourself rooted in. Because we all deserve to bloom, even now. Maybe especially now.
Look at what it is that makes a nest: Layers. Strands of this and snippets of that: hair, grass, needle, leaf. And, too: Tenacity, instinct, skill. How many wingbeats must it take? How many miles does a bird traverse back and forth, back and forth, to make its shelter, to attract and secure its mate?
Think of what it is that makes a cup and what it’s for: Curves, walls, a space in which to keep things–water, keys, buttons, change. What is an egg’s shell but a cup full of change? And a nest but a cup full of shells?
In the spring my children were babies, a stellar jay raided a sparrow’s nest in the tree outside my second-story bedroom window. You need three crows for a murder, but it took only one jay to kill the nestlings, high up in the branches, unmoved by the parents’ screeching that sounded, to my human ears, first like screaming, and then like keening.
Consider what it is success requires: Think outside the box.
Late last fall, in a different kind of time, I found an abandoned nest hidden inside a thicket of tangled morning glory and climbing rose. I marveled at its intricacy and craftsmanship. I admired its cunning inner cup. It felt like a prize for my morning’s labor of taming wild plants.
In this spring of strife and threat and fear, when I find the nest again, forgotten on a table at the back of the greenhouse where I’d set it months ago, it sets in motion a train of different thoughts. I think of various shelters I’ve made and what I’ve learned (and haven’t) about how and where to build a nest. I think about what kind of bird I’d want to be and how I want to live. I could never be a predatory jay, raiding other birds’ nests, flying with a raucous flock. I no longer want a pretty home balanced up in the branches of a tree; the view, I know, is lovely, but the rent is high. I think, if it’s a choice, I’d be more finch than sparrow or jay. Like the ones who sheltered in my yard last year, I’d need no human-built box to hold my nest, but only a hollow within a tangle of stems and leaves and thorns, a low, dark, small space a bully jay would never bother.
There’s more than one way to be fit and survive.
Dots (and some thoughts about process):
This week I encountered the nest in the greenhouse soon after reading my friend Kari’s piece on nesting and anxiety. Both had me wanting to write in a literal way about my own home, the place in which I’m sheltering, but I never got beyond the metaphor. Instead I fell down a Google rabbit hole, reading about all kinds of birds and their nests (some linked above), and I spent time watching the ones I share my little corner of the world with, mostly finches and crows. I think this post came out more like poetry than prose because for weeks now I’ve been reading the words of poets on Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa. I don’t know Dave, not even in an internet sense–not really–but he thinks he found this blog through the blogroll of someone I know (though he doesn’t remember who), and he’s been linking to my posts. So I’ve been reading the other writers he links to (on Sundays), and their cadences, their ways with words, have likely been planting seeds in my head that are beginning to sprout (which is what happens when writers read). Our connection might (or might not) be Bethany Reid (I’ve seen they are Twitter connected), a poet I met decades ago at the University of Washington, a woman I sometimes think of when I see Roethke’s line about once knowing a woman “lovely in her bones” who sighs back at sighing birds, maybe because she once brought to our workshop a sestina I’ve never forgotten about a young girl chasing geese, and maybe because she’s lovely in the way that songbirds are, and maybe because that time and place and those I knew there are fused with Roethke in my mind. This week Bethany published a post about the poet Crysta Casey, a woman who was beautiful in a different way (more like a loon than a songbird) and whose flight path occasionally crossed our own on that campus, and that, too, seemed connected to metaphors about safety and home. (Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop in the 80s was a nurturing place for many fledgling poets.) Much creative work–nests, homes, poems, blog posts–are built this way, by gathering together bits of this and that from the things we encounter by chance and seek by choice, and then weaving them into something whole and new, and in this chaotic time, there’s something wonderfully comforting in the constancy and underlying pattern of a process that seems, on the surface, merely random.
A teacher friend on Facebook shared an article about a history professor at the University of Virginia who suggested to his students that they keep a diary of this time. In answer to the question of why it might be important for people to write their experiences down, he said:
Our normal days in the now-suddenly-distant past may well have often dulled us into just getting through them. Our sudden lives now stop us, and lead us to wonder about our experiences and our feelings on many passing moments.
This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring?
When I consider the distance of the days between my post last Sunday and this Sunday, it feels too much to capture. And, honestly, I don’t want to even try. This feels like an experience that needs to be recorded in something more like a poem than an essay–in telling images and moments, rather than in lengthy exposition and cataloging of official happenings. There will be voluminous documentation, I’m sure, of the macro. But I’ve always been much more interested in the micro–in how enormous events play out in the minutiae of individual lives.
How are you doing? we ask each other (through text, messaging, phone calls, zoom calls).
How are we doing? It feels as if many of us had a day of reckoning this week–a day in which we understood, in a deeper way, the ramifications of what is happening. For me, it came on Wednesday. I woke sometime in the night the way I have in the direct wake of other life-altering events, forgetting for a brief moment that life was no longer as I knew it, and then suddenly remembering that my earth had slipped off its axis. The coronavirus, I thought, and then remembered that I wasn’t going to be getting up and going to school, that my daughter wasn’t returning from Sweden, that our markets are crashing, that small businesses are failing, that friends are out of work, that people are dying and going to die, that I could not go visit my parents or go see a movie or eat at my favorite restaurants or get my haircut or see my friends or or or… I felt the kind of need to ground myself in a new reality that I have felt when people died, when a marriage ended, when my children left home. Things are both exactly the same and very much not the same, and I’m off-balance, wobbly on my feet. The coronavirus, I thought, grounding myself in the reality that there is no solid ground to our reality right now.
How are you doing? I am trying to get the cognitive dissonance to settle down. All weekend after our schools close I stay home and read the news stories on my computer, the charts and graphs with curves that need to flatten, the pleas from those in Italy to do things differently than they did, and I share the stories and I tag them #stayhome, but then early in the week I get in my car to do something essential and I see the road filled with cars, the sidewalks filled with people who are not keeping their distance from one another, and the stories and charts and graphs feel unreal. Why am I not at work when all these other people are? Where are they all going? What’s really real? On my return from the dentist (essential), I impulsively run into the craft store for embroidery floss because it’s still open, because I need things to do with my hands, because I tell myself I can do it safely. I wear gloves. I feel guilty. I am guilty. Forgive me, I think. Maybe it’s OK, I think. It feels essential to me, right now. I touch nothing but the floss I put in my basket. Please let this be OK, I think. I am a hypocrite, I think, as I strip off the gloves before touching the steering wheel.
How are you doing? Tears well easily, and frequently, and always they surprise me. They come the day my mother emails to tell me that she’s accepted that she will not be able to make the trip to DC to see my daughter graduate from college, and I see she has not yet reached the obvious (but still not officially announced) conclusion that there will be no commencement ceremony. The day she calls me to say that she’s canceled both our flights and our hotel reservation. The afternoon I watch my high school friends on Facebook mourn the death of our beloved choir teacher, killed by the virus. The morning my friend whose college-student daughter can’t get out of Peru sends me a picture of her child’s smiling host family, celebrating their own young daughter’s birthday in quarantine. When she tells me that the family told her daughter, “you are our family now.” Multiple times while reading a YA novel about a Seattle girl whose life is shattered by a tragedy, and how runs across the whole country as she tries to both escape and control the trauma she can neither control nor escape. They come right now, as I type these words and remember each of these moments.
How are you doing? Early in the week I am drifting, floundering. I lose big parts of days doing…what? I’m not sure. I start projects and don’t finish them. I buy food in case I can’t later, including treats I normally wouldn’t, but right now I have little desire to eat. I watch people around me mobilize into action that looks almost manic, but maybe that’s just in comparison to me, who is floating. I lose two days to headache because it’s not that bad (I tell myself) and because I don’t take my meds because I am afraid I might run out and be unable to get more. I finally take them, and as the fog clears I can see that it was bad, worse than I’d allowed myself to acknowledge. I write. I think about what it is that most needs doing, and how it feels impossible that “nothing” might be the right answer to the question, even as it feels like it probably is. I try to pay attention–pay attention!–to the ordinary pleasures that remain, so that I might not be kicking myself in the future the way I am now about not fully noticing and appreciating the night two weekends ago we went out for dinner and a movie, even though I suspected at the time that it might be the last time we did it for awhile. I can’t even remember now where we ate. I long to remember where we ate.
Near the end of the week, we go out to take a walk through a favorite walking neighborhood. The businesses on the neighborhood’s commercial street are dark, the curbs usually lined end-to-end with cars only dotted with them. We see that a pizza place at the end of the block is still open for take-out, and it feels like a wondrous gift.
“Oh, let’s order some,” I say. “It’s Friday night, remember?” I say, as if Friday still means what it did a week ago. So we do, and it feels so good, to do something so ordinary in this extraordinary time. We tell them we’ll be there in an hour to pick up the pizza, and we walk in the day’s waning sunshine. I take photos for my house embroidery project, and we note plants and flowers in other yards we’d like to add to ours.
In front of one of the houses is a giant sequoia, and I stop to look up through its branches. I take a photo, trying to capture how the tree’s arms look like infinity, or the face of a god, or a puzzle whose pieces I could never sort. Everything feels so much bigger and older than I will ever be, all the world’s mystery and power and wonder embodied into this one thing, right here, on an ordinary sidewalk in Portland on a Friday evening in March, the end of week one of our pandemic. I snap a photo, sure it will be like all the other photos I’ve taken looking up into the limbs of trees, a disappointing mishmash of shadow and lines that don’t at all capture what I felt when I clicked the shutter.
But this time, some kind of wonderful happens when I shoot, which I discover not long after, sitting at the kitchen table and eating the pizza, which tastes better than any pizza has tasted in a long time. The photo looks almost more like a painting than a photo, and it’s there, all of it, just as I saw it. It’s like magic, the way the tree–our lives now–are half in shadow, half in light, a beautiful thickety maze that stretches up and up as far as we can see.
I would love to hear about your week. Please share in the comments, or link to your own diary if it’s digital.
This week I came across an essay that will stay with me awhile. It’s framed by six sentences that John Paul Brammer can’t forget. Not because they are attached to milestones or life-changing events, but because they
“…accidentally reveal too much—about the person who spoke them, or about the person who heard them, or about the relationship they share. They illustrate private worlds, bring us into exhilarating contact with another person’s depths. Their inexplicable survival is proof of their importance, their holiness.”
Brammer says that these are not sentences we choose, but sentences that choose us, and that he wishes he could know everybody’s.
Naturally, I started thinking about what my sentences might be. I started thinking about how a whole memoir might be written in this way, small vignettes anchored by a line of dialogue that–like a poem–reveals a novel’s worth of words in a few lines.
I hoped to write up all six of mine, but I could only develop two by today, and neither feels as if it is completely done. But here they are:
“Who do you think you are?”
I was in sixth grade, in the principal’s office. Mr. Driver was a beefy, ruddy-faced man. According to those who would know, he was comfortable wielding a paddle. No one liked him. One day he appeared in my classroom door and summoned me. Following him down the breezeway, I tried to predict what our meeting would be about. I was a good student, a good kid. A rule follower, perhaps to a fault. Was I being taken to his office to receive some kind of recognition or other good news? What could it be? Because, surely, I could not be in any kind of trouble.
I’m not sure if our conversation actually opened with “Who do you think you are?” but in my memory it did, and I was as surprised and shocked as I would have been if he’d slapped me.
“Who do you think you are?” is never a question. It is always an accusation, and a weapon.
By the time he was done dressing me down about my arrogance and inflated sense of importance, which, he assured me, were unwarranted, I knew that my teacher and the school librarian had shared grievances of mine with him, among them my outrage when, as a punishment for some students vandalizing bathrooms, all of us were denied access to them other than at recess time. This punishment violated all my ideas about fairness and basic rights.
“I know you’re one of the students throwing those toilet paper wads on the bathroom ceiling,” he said somewhere in the middle of his tirade.
I wasn’t, but I was too flooded with shame to say anything. I had thought my conversations were confidential. I had trusted those other two adults and the relationships I thought I had with them. If they thought there was something so wrong with me that I needed this reprimand, perhaps there was. Or perhaps I had been wrong about who they were to me, which indicated a different kind of failing on my part.
Who did I think I was?
Before I went into his office, I thought I was a girl who understood the world and my place in it. When I left, I knew I wasn’t.
I didn’t tell my dad about Mr. Driver until I was well into high school.
I grew up in a home where getting in trouble at school meant getting in bigger trouble at home, so I didn’t dare. As my daughter said about my dad when she was just a little girl, “Grandpa’s hard.”
“Hard” can mean firm. It can mean rigid. It can mean difficult. It can mean exacting. When I was young, he got angry once when I told him that I “forgot to remember” something I was supposed to do, more angry at my words than at my failure to do whatever it was I’d forgotten.
“Don’t make excuses like that,” he said. “Just say that you didn’t do it.”
Another time, when I was a teen-ager, in response to something I can no longer remember, he said, “You might be the dumbest smart person I know.” That sounds cruel. Certainly not kind, and I suppose that’s partly why the words have stayed with me even though the story attached to them is gone.
It was more than that, though–or maybe, just not as simple as that. I remember pondering the idea that one could be a dumb smart person. What did that mean, really? And how might that be different from being the smartest dumb person? I thought I could feel a compliment inside his hard words, sort of.
I’ve come to realize that, like my own words, my dad’s are not always understood, which means that he is not always understood. For years I nursed resentment over his reaction to my 7th grade report card, in which I had all A’s, except for a B in English. He studied it in his recliner after dinner the day I brought it home, his face serious. Finally, he said:
“Why’d you get a B in English?”
Really? All those A’s, and all he could say something about was the B? Really?
What I heard in his question was disappointment and judgement and a demand for perfection. I shrugged, bitter that he didn’t appreciate a report card other parents would be thrilled with.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I told him how much that moment had bothered me, so much so that I still remembered it. He was dumbfounded to learn that his words had had the impact they did. “I was just surprised,” he said. “English was always your best subject. I didn’t understand why you’d gotten a B in that.”
I could see, then, how I’d been dumb in that moment he questioned me about my report card. I could see, too, the wondering within his proclamation that I was the dumbest smart person he knew. He was genuinely perplexed by some of the things I did and didn’t do, a puzzlement I now understand because I have a child of my own who is wicked smart and whose teen-age years were filled with choices I could not, for the life of me, comprehend.
Maybe it was then that I more deeply understood his reaction when I finally told him about Mr. Driver and the way he’d pulled me into his office to take me down a peg. We were driving to a family holiday gathering, and we were reminiscing about earlier years, and it felt safe to float that story from the back seat, enough in the past that it might now be a funny one.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked. I admitted that I had been afraid to.
“Oh, Rita,” he said. “I wish you’d told me. I would have gone in and talked to him.” He looked straight ahead, at the road. I could see his jaw twitching beneath his cheek. He shook his head. “That was just wrong for him to do that to you.” A pause, and then, again: “I wish you would have told me.”
At the time, I felt vindication for my earlier hurt feelings, and also relief that I wasn’t “in trouble” with my dad. I was long past a grounding or some other kind of punishment, but I still wanted his approval. Now, though, I see a different meaning in his words. I see that he was telling me that it wasn’t a funny story, and that he was sorry not to have been more understood by me, so that he could have done something to make what happened right.
“Hard” can mean firm, and rigid, and difficult, and exacting. It can also mean strong and unyielding. My dad, like his love, is hard.
The rest of my sentences are listed below, and I’ve got seven total, not six. Although I didn’t see a thread or story between them initially, I do now. It wasn’t until digging into the piece just above that I added the seventh sentence to my list. I’ll need it to tell the story completely.
The remaining sentences:
“My love life is wonderful, and I haven’t been drinking.”
“It’s important to be a finisher.”
“I hope you’ll remember that this is mostly your own personal tragedy.”
“Don’t ever think that anything is wasted on you.”
“What kind of hard do you want?”
While I was showering (where some of my best writing happens) and trying to figure out which sentence in the story about my dad most revealed the essential truth about him and me, I saw that the vignette contained multiple sentences I can’t forget:
Why’d you get a B?
You’re the dumbest smart person I know.
I forgot to remember.
Now I’m thinking about using this idea of unforgettable sentences as a tool to work the other way round: What if we start with a memory and before we even write a word of it, we just think about the memorable utterances of its characters?
Mostly what I’m thinking about, though, is the value of exercises and models. Any model can generate a prompt or exercise, and prompts are great for taking us into stories we didn’t even know we wanted to tell.
I’d love to hear six of your sentences. Like Brammer, I’m now curious about everyone’s sentences.
“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”
My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.
At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.
I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.
“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”
“But does it have to?”
“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.
“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”
Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.
How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?
Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.
“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”
Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?
“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”
“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”
I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.
Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.
It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.
What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?
She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.
“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”
In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.
Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)
Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.
As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.
I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.
In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”
“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.
The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.
I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.
“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”
I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”
It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)
To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.
In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.
What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”
Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”
Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.
But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.
As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.