On December 6, my doctor told me to go home and not use my brain for at least 2 weeks. No reading, no writing, no driving, and–especially–no screens.
“Just rest,” she said.
“But what am I supposed to do all day?” I asked. She suggested walks in nature, meditation, long baths, relaxing music. I felt a little panicky. I remembered my son, age 3, telling me that his imagination was his best toy because he could never lose it or break it. I realized I’d broken my best toy, one I’ve always taken for granted.
That night, I slept for 10 hours. A few hours after waking from that sleep, I took a 3-hour nap. The doctor had told me that my brain needed rest to mend itself, and when I woke from that nap I made a decision to surrender to its need.
A multitude of lessons, realizations, and gifts have come with necessary stillness during what are usually the busiest weeks of this busy season. I hope I will remember them when I am able to really write again. Normally, I would capture them, process them, interrogate them, and share them through words, but words have been mostly off-limits. I began capturing images with my phone camera, hoping they will help me remember as much as words have always done.
I’m sharing them here, without commentary. Make of them what you will, make of them something that is meaningful to you. I have been learning how true it is that, often, less truly is more.
I know it’s a common practice to choose a word for the year at the beginning of it, as a way of setting intentions. Reflection has always more useful to me than resolution, so I have been looking backward rather than forward, thinking about what might be a fitting word for the year 2023. I’ve landed upon breaking. This, of course, includes breaking down or apart or up, but also: breaking in, breaking out, breaking open. So much breaking open in the past 12 months.
Please keep me company in this quiet space by telling me what word you’d choose as your 2023 word of the year. (It may take me a bit to respond. I’m still on limited screen-time rations. But I really would love to hear from you.)
Over the past few weeks I subbed a few days in a high school entrepreneurship class. It was the easiest sub gig ever, as there was a teacher teaching the class. She is a business owner with all kinds of qualifications to teach the subject, but no teaching license. I was there to meet legal requirements to have a certified teacher in the room. Because I wasn’t teaching much, I was often able to sit back and participate as a co-learner with the students.
That is how I came to be listening to Brené Brown talking about shame and courage and risk and getting “in the arena” in a new way. It’s how I found myself thinking about her ideas within the context of work and money and worth in ways that aren’t typical for me.
Let me back up a little.
When I officially “retired,” I did so with dreams about living a simple life. I just wanted a small, quiet, uncomplicated existence in which I could be healthy and be present with and for the people I love. My labor would be focused on making our home and caring for our family and friends, and that would be purpose enough for me. I was sure I could be content with much less money than I had become used to having because I would need less in our simpler life.
For the most part, this dream has come true.
For the most part.
There have been some points of minor rub. While it has been wonderful to finally have the time to do life’s labors in ways I’ve always wanted to do them–We’ve been eating well! I love eating well!–it hasn’t been quite as satisfying as I hoped it might be. Homemaking chores are often more boring than creative (there: I said it), and the Sisyphean nature of much of them has, at times, prompted moments of existential malaise. My new work has also given rise to questions about and shifts within my identity. This, in turn, has created shifts in my relationship with Cane that he claims not to feel but that sometimes feel tectonic in nature to me.
And then there’s money. (Isn’t there always money?)
I’m not substitute teaching because I’m bored or because I miss being in schools. I’m subbing because I need/want to bring in more money than my pension provides. We do live pretty simply and happily simply, but in the past year things have happened that I didn’t anticipate. Things that required money.
(Why didn’t I anticipate them? I don’t know. Things always happen. Things that require money. I do know this.)
Right now, subbing is the gig that gives me the biggest financial bang for the buck of my time (which is, of course, my life). It’s pleasant in many ways, and (because the world of public education is so often nonsensical) it pays more per hour than the more creative and challenging professional development work I’m also continuing to do. It doesn’t take much out of me, making that simpler life more attainable than it would be if I engaged in other forms of work. But.
It is nonetheless messing with the whole simple-life thing. Just adding a day or two of work outside the home each week is tipping some balance I was mostly achieving about making home my work. Even though subbing is far less taxing than the work I used to do as an educator, I still come home from it worn out. I come home from it not wanting to make dinner (or run a load of laundry or do dishes). I come home from it less able to be present with my husband or daughter or friends. It also puts pressure on the days I am not doing it, as I scramble to play catch-up.
And. It meets few needs/wants other than the one I have to make money. It feels a lot like babysitting, a work gig I purposely never did much of as a teenager. Babysitting is great for some, and it fills important needs, too–but it’s never been great for me. If there are better alternatives, I don’t like the idea of spending any of what’s left of my life doing something that’s not really for me, for the sole purpose of earning money. If I have to engage in money-earning, I guess I’d like to get more than just money from it.
(Here is where I feel compelled to acknowledge my good fortune that that makes all of these questions/wonderings possible. I know I’m lucky that these are the questions I get to contemplate.)
So, that’s the mental/emotional/physical landscape I was traveling through, babysitting in a classroom and stewing a bit in these questions about my current situation, when Brené began talking to all of us about being in the arena. As I listened, I began wondering what “the arena” even is. When I was a full-time educator, I know that I was for-sure in one. I was taking risks, I was working for change, I was often–to use Brown’s language–daring greatly. That meant I was also, more often than I liked, falling down in the dirt and failing–because, according to Brown, that’s an inevitable part of being in the arena. So, education was clearly an arena.
But am I in one now? Most people would think that retiring is about exiting arenas, but maybe my decision to transform myself into a full-time homemaker was about getting into a different arena. Maybe the friction I’m feeling is evidence that it is, in fact, a kind of arena. Or maybe I’m not in any arenas at all and I just jumped into a risky situation in a kind of half-cocked way that was more foolish than courageous. I am not sure where I am vis-à-vis Brown’s arenas, but I know that wherever I am is not a place I’m entirely comfortable being.
All of this listening/thinking/wondering in combination with hours of not a lot to actively do took me back to Substack. Sitting in those entrepreneurship classes while perusing newsletter after newsletter (a term that doesn’t entirely make sense to me, because the ones I read are more like blogs or magazines) turned a big lightbulb on in my head: Substack writers that use paywalls are entrepreneurs. Instead of being hired as writers, they are putting out their own shingle. They are selling their work directly to consumers. They are building businesses.
This realization (which, really, should have been kind of a duh! moment) brought up so many feelings! Of ick and shame and fear and other emotions that Brené talks about! (And, also, a little bit of excitement and possibility.)
(See how I even have to put those other emotions as an afterthought, and in parentheses, and qualify them as “little”? Almost as if I don’t want those bigger, upfront emotions to notice them. As if I don’t want you, my dear-to-me readers, to notice them.)
This realization + my feelings + Brown’s thoughts about arenas lit up a whole lot of other ideas/wonderings–about art, craft, labor, money, cultural mythologies, gendered roles, my history with writing and publishing, and more. Thanks to the serendipity that put me in that class at this point in time, I’m thinking about these things through different lenses than I’ve previously done. As I’ve done so, a kind of lethargy that’s plagued me for a very long time is beginning to recede. I feel my pulse quickening in a way I’d almost forgotten it could do. A way I feared I was perhaps too old to feel again, despite all the voices in the world telling me that I’m not.
And that feels good, even if not entirely comfortable. It feels good to be more curious than avoidant, and more open than closed. (Hmmm…maybe I’m getting more out of the sub gig than I thought?…)
I have no grand conclusions today. Just questions and beginnings of questions. I’d love to hear what you think about any of these things I’ve touched on here. I know we all have to figure out our ways of working and being in the world, and it’s great to learn from others’ experiences.
Other tidbits from the week…
Has anyone ever played this?
We’re looking for a good game for Christmas day for 4-5 adults who don’t want to have to learn something big and complicated. Suggestions very welcome.
The splint has been replaced by a cast, which is supposed to be on for 6 weeks. Typing is a much more reasonable undertaking now. Not loving it, but it could be so much worse.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, while waiting in line to make a return at a crowded Fred Meyer (Kroger), seeing this felt like the universe was giving us all a gift of some found poetry .
On Thursday morning, while taking a bath in a clawfoot tub at the top of a house built in the 1800’s, with windows that look out to the water, wishing I could live the rest of my life in such a place, I read an essay by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, “On Moving Home.” In it, she describes her experience of moving back to Seattle after living in New York, and of her homesickness–“a full-blown virus from which I could not recover”–that precipitated the move. (You can find that essay, along with other rich meditations on home, in This is the Place: Women Writing About Home, edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters.)
I know that particular kind of homesickness.
My parents no longer live in the south Seattle suburb where they raised me in a house at the edge of woods with paths we took to the beach; for more than 20 years they’ve been living on the Olympic peninsula, in a different house within walking distance of rocky beaches. Both places are home to me. Bellingham, a city just south of the Canadian border, is the third place I think of when I think of home. All my grandparents lived there, one set of them on a hill overlooking Bellingham Bay. When I long for home I am not longing for any of these particular places, but for the things that mark all three locations for me. I am longing for a place along Puget Sound where you can smell salt in the air, and when you look in the distance long stretches of firs seam water to sky. I am longing for the plaintive cries of gulls and a ferry horn’s guttural bellow.
Friday morning I took a ferry from the peninsula to Seattle, where my son has been living. It was the kind of morning that makes people from other places think this corner of the world would be an amazing place to live: mild temperatures, quaint towns, and so much watery blue.
As I walked across the ferry’s loading zone parking lot to get the view above, I felt so lucky to be native to this place, to have this be the kind of place I feel most at home. (But, just to be clear for anyone who is not from here: Part of the reason such days feel so wonderful is that they are not common. There are many, many days of grey drizzle in the cold part of the year, which, in my youth at least, could be nearly nine months long. But many of us who grew up here love those days, too.) My deep sense of familiarity and of knowing how to be here–so deep I am usually unaware that there are, in fact, things to know about how to be here–felt so comfortable and comforting after the discomfort of the summer.
I am reading a book of essays about home, and thinking and writing about this home, because I am still thinking and writing about our experiences in Louisiana this summer. Last week’s post feels like a beginning more than an ending. It’s a piece of writing that I know I am not done with.
This week I have also been reading Kelly McMasters’s The Leaving Season, a memoir in essays about marriage and divorce I am appreciating far more than the one that was all the rage a few months ago. (McMasters is one of the editors of the essay collection that contains Lunstrum’s essay; I’d like to tell you how I stumbled upon her work, but I can’t remember. It was sometime in the spring that I placed both books on hold at the library, and I am only just now getting them.) From McMasters’s essay “The Ghosts in the Hills” I recorded these words:
“When we enter into a place that is outside of our usual experience, it is our position as an outsider that often allows us to see things differently. It also magnifies those things about ourselves that remain constant, no matter what world we enter.”
I suppose many readers would take these words to mean that a position as an outsider in a place allows us to see things in that place differently from those who are insiders–which is often true, of course–but my experience as an outsider in Louisiana is allowing me to see the places of my usual experience differently than I had before, too. For all the beauty I see in western Washington, for all that I love it more deeply than I will ever love any other place, I can now see, in a different way, its flaws, too. And my own.
This month, I’m entering into my third year of retirement (sort of, mostly) from education. A fair number of people asked me, when I left, if I was going to do more writing or focus on writing. It was a thing I always thought I would like to be able to do. It was a thing some part of me thought I probably should do. But any time I thought about it, I felt nothing but ambivalence. There was nothing much I wanted to say, and no goals related to writing that I could feel myself caring much about. Given that, writing hasn’t been something I’ve given much time to. Other things felt more compelling.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been writing about renovation and Louisiana, I’ve been feeling a shift. I don’t have a goal in mind, and I don’t have something particular to say. Instead, I have questions I want to think about, and this week it occurred to me (in a duh! kind of way) that questions are always my best way in, the best reason for me to write.
I’m not feeling ambitious or dutiful or purposeful. I’m feeling curious. That, too, feels like going home.
Do any teachers still assign this as a first-week-of-school writing topic? I certainly hope not.
No matter what kind of summer you have, it feels an impossible prompt to write well to. I can remember summers that slipped by like dreams, days upon days of the same old wonderful same old, and others full of flat tedium; how to pluck any kind of narrative out of a span of days with no conflict, no rising action, no turning point?
Of course there have been a few summers with big, memorable events (big travel, big purchases, big life changes)–but those, too, are hard to write about. How to capture what a big event really was, what it really meant?
Early on in our Louisiana adventure this summer, I realized I could not write about it while living it. There were practical problems–no easy internet or time–but it was more about knowing I needed time to process the experience. From the very beginning, my summer was an “all of the above” kind of thing: big travel, big purchases, long days that quickly became a new same old, same old comprised of tedium, joy, pain, boredom, and wonder. I have not worked so many full, hard hours in such a long time, while also living through so many hours in which I felt like I was just killing time.
I was having big, tangly thoughts and feelings about all kinds of profound things–aging, mortality, the meaning of life, family, our country and the ramifications of its history, existential crises of various kinds–and I knew I wasn’t ready to share any of them in any public kind of way.
I didn’t trust my impressions to be lasting truth, and I didn’t trust my conclusions to hold water. Not when I was so exhausted and disoriented and mind-meltingly hot. (Good God, but the heat was relentless.) Not when I knew there were things I just couldn’t know in such a short time (and might never be able to know).
I’m still not ready. I might never be. These kinds of things tend to slip away if we don’t capture them when they’re fresh. I’ll try to write more about it all, but no promises.
What I can share now, in addition to these few paragraphs, as a way to get back in the habit of writing here, is a poem I wrote the last week of July. It’s only a few weeks old and I haven’t gotten back my usual equilibrium, but I think it is true.
When a PNW girl spends the hottest July of all time working in rural Louisiana
Every time she walks out a door, she gasps.
She’d tell you that it feels like the air is getting sucked out of her, except she’s busy wiping the fog from her glasses.
Originally, I intended this space to be more notebook than anything else, a place (as I say on the About page) to “collect bits and bobs of memory, thought, and feeling.”
Also this week, in a bit of serendipity, I came across Beth Kephart’s thoughts on notebooks in her book We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class: “Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, knowing is not just a talent or a predilection; it is a discipline. The tool of the trade can be a diary or journal or notebook” (p. 36).
She then draws upon the thoughts and practices of other writers who use this “tool,” including Lydia Davis, Patti Smith, Joan Didion, and Virginia Woolf. Kephart’s selection of these words from Didion, in conjunction with Kari’s question, got me thinking hard about purposes for this space:
We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.
Didion quoted by Kephart, page 39
Primary question: Why have a public notebook? Can it serve the same function as a private one? I suppose one reason I conceived of this sort of notebook was the digital nature of it. So many things I wanted to save were coming to me in a digital format. What is lost and gained, in public vs. private, digital vs. analog?
Some possible answers might be derived from something else that came to me this week (just this morning, actually, via Anne Helen Petersen), The Case for Phone-Free Schools. There is so much in this that I can’t pull out one or two particularly meaningful bits. It is primarily about adolescents and learning, but it is really about social connection and what smart phones do to our brains (and mental health).
I lost most of this week to migraine. I had one that lasted 7 days and could not be defeated by my usual meds or Urgent Care’s “migraine cocktail.” It finally succumbed to a drug I was previously told that I could not use any more, for reasons that are apparently lost somewhere within my medical charts. I held out on taking it as long as I could, but pain is a persuader like no other.
I have spent so much time in medical exam rooms, they feel like a kind of home. There was a small boy in the Urgent Care waiting room running circles around an island of chairs. The noise of his sneaker soles against the carpet, and of his breathing–jagged–almost undid me, but a woman (his grandmother?) spoke so kindly to him as she asked him to stop. He slowed, but did not stop. I needed him to stop and hated to see him stop, hated to need him to stop. I missed my grandmother.
What if those of us who are older ran like that boy in our bodies rather than in our minds?
I say I “lost” the week, but that’s not quite right. My week was rearranged more than lost. I moved the tomato plants that grew themselves from last year’s seeds; they sprouted at the edges of the planters, so I transplanted them to the center, and placed cages over them. They did not like being uprooted, wilting dramatically for several days. I spent several mornings sitting in the backyard, off my phone or computer, learning the ways of the small, blue birds that live in our arbor vitae. There is a squirrel that lives in a neighbor’s cedar, home to a scurry of them, that likes to eat the deep-pink flowers off a carnation I planted last year. It does this at the same time each day. I suppose I wouldn’t have seen this if it weren’t for migraine.
(I love that the squirrel eats my flowers.)
What’s the value of knowing about the squirrels and the birds, of having seen them? I am not sure. Perhaps it will be revealed later. Perhaps I will be glad, later, that I recorded this here, where I can easily search for and retrieve it. My paper notebooks do not have this feature.
Didion had me wondering if I should change the blog’s settings to private, cease making it public. What value does any person’s “bits of the mind” have for others?
After the headache cleared, I took a quick trip up north to my parents’ place. There was a moment, not recorded by my phone, when I was driving on a road that follows a shore’s path, and the swath of trees that borders the road gave way to a clear view of the water. At the moment of clearing I could feel something in my body shift and calm. When I was growing up, my parents were not boat people or water people, despite where we lived. I did not grow up on the water, in any way, but it was always there. Big bodies of it, surrounding me, as if I were a peninsula. Where I live now there is a big river–several of them–but a river is a straight line running past, not a surrounding sea.
As we got in the car to leave, my son said to me, “I can smell the beach,” and I took in a deep lungful. Yes, I could smell it, too, and feel it, standing on the pavement next to the car next to the house. Something damp and fecund and salty. I miss it when I am there, in it. I get it in my lungs and realize that I don’t feel as at-home anywhere else, even back in our neighborhood park full of fir trees that stand like sentinels, reminding me so much of the trees in my first neighborhood, the one at the top of the trails that took us to the beach, that I took a picture of the park trees this week, days before my trip home, while in the midst of the migraine that almost canceled the trip.
Migraine is another kind of home.
A notebook is a kind of home, too. This summer, I will be living and working in a place without easy internet access, and I’m wondering if I should go old-school–do all my reading and writing off-line, with paper and ink. I wonder what that might do, how it might feel?
I wonder if it might feel like going home. (You can never go home again.)
I am in love with our garden. I am in love with how stuffed full of leaf and bloom and blossom it is. I love its abundance, its variety, its generous beauty. I love the way it is just a little bit out of control.
A few short years ago, it looked like this:
And now, it looks like this:
The second photo was taken in a different month, but you get the gist. Originally, once the brief, glorious weeks of the tulips and willow blossoms passed, there wasn’t much going on here. The bed in these photos was nearly empty. Now, it is so full we can’t really squeeze any more plants into it.
When I retired two years ago, people asked me if I was going to focus on writing, maybe try to publish another book. I wanted to say “yes,” but if my writing were a garden, it was even emptier than the “before” picture of my actual garden above. Ironically, as I (almost) fully retired at the end of last school year, it began to get harder to write even here, where I’d been writing faithfully every week for a good, long stretch. Increasingly, I had nothing I really wanted to say. I wanted to say “yes” to the writing question–hadn’t I dreamed of that for years?–but the kinds of projects and goals I once cared about no longer called to me. Maybe, I thought, it was too late for them.
What I really wanted–and, I now know, needed–was to rest and recover. I needed to tend my literal garden, and my home, too. I needed to tend my body, and my family. I needed to slow down. I needed the constant, low-grade vibration in my head to cease its constant thrumming. Sometimes I miss that; it’s a little weird to have my head be a quieter place. It’s unfamiliar. But living this way is better, and I’m beginning to feel myself turning back to words.
I still don’t have a big project or goal, but in the past few weeks I’ve spent most mornings at our dining table in front of a window that looks out to the garden, writing. And it has felt really, really good.
I didn’t have a grand plan when I began transforming this garden. I didn’t even have a specific goal; I just wanted it to be full. I wanted it to feel abundant. I wanted the garden to become a semi-permeable barrier between us and the world; something with a Secret Garden feel to it, but more open. I wanted a clear sense of our own space, but I also wanted to be able to see and wave to people who walk by. I didn’t really know how to make it into that.
I began throwing things into the ground and hoping they would live. I planted a lot of plants that did not live. I planted plants that lived but did not thrive. I ended up moving those to other places in the yard. I transplanted some things from other places where they hadn’t done well. Some things in here–like the peony pictured above–I did not plant at all. I have no idea how that peony got there, but it has come back every year for the last three, bigger each time, and I love it. I love that I didn’t plant it, but it grew there, anyway. Sometimes our creations are like that, you know? The things we never plan for, the things that fall in our laps, live and thrive, while other things we give our best efforts die.
This past week, in my morning writing, I’ve worked on revising an essay I first began more than three years ago. I wrote a first draft of something else that I didn’t like at all, but it took me back to a draft of something older that I’d never finished before, and this week I finished it. I pulled out some other things I started in recent years that I think I might be able to finish now.
I’m realizing that all these years I thought I wasn’t writing, I was. I have bits of drafts tucked here and there–in blog posts, in messages, in emails, in file folders, on old laptops I don’t use any more. Seeds and starts, all over the place. Maybe whatever I’m going to do with writing is not going to be so different from what I’ve done with the garden.
What is it they say–the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second-best time to plant a tree is now? Something like that.
I don’t have anything finished to share here, but I can offer a snippet. Below is the beginning of the essay I worked on most this week. Maybe someday I’ll get to tell you that it has been accepted somewhere, and I’ll have a link to the whole thing. Or maybe not. Time will tell if this one lives or dies, I guess.
Laura, my great-grandmother’s youngest sister, married her husband, Lawrence, after a decades-long courtship. Lawrence had lived with his mother, and he and Laura did not marry until she died. Growing up, I saw them at weddings and funerals, and they were always warm and friendly. Both descended from Norwegian immigrants, a people I considered–based on the other relatives in that branch of the family tree–to be rather dour and somber, but I never saw such qualities in them. They smiled often, and they always found the decorations beautiful and the cake delicious.
Despite the couple’s sunniness, my cousins and I, steeped in ideas about love and marriage that began with childhood songs about kissing in trees, found them strange and pitiable. “Why couldn’t they stand up to his mother?” we wondered, assuming–well, all kinds of things.
“I’d never put up with that!” my teenage self declared, reading into their compromises (for, surely, their choices constituted compromise) a kind of weakness. I was years away from being a twice-divorced woman in my forties who would move into a fixer-upper with my teenage twins, a new partner, and his young daughter.
Please feel free to let me know how this opening is working. Where do you think the piece is going? Do you want to follow it there? Or, let me know if something in your world is blooming for you. Or if there’s something you long to cultivate. Would love to hear all about it.
(Speaking of blooming, and things coming up that you don’t expect, last night Cane and I were sitting at a sidewalk table, eating dessert, when a rather large group of naked–or nearly naked–bike riders came down the street. The official Portland World Naked Bike Ride isn’t scheduled until August, so I don’t know who this group was or what their ride was about. It was sort of delightful, though, in a Portland white people doing their weird Portland shit kind of way. They seemed to be having a lot of fun, at no one else’s expense, and I’m always going to be a fan of that.)
May was a quick month, wasn’t it? The return of sunshine. Possibilities. Beginnings and endings. Petals everywhere.
I started two different posts in the last month, but I didn’t finish either of them. They were angry rants that I suspected no one would care much about. I hardly did, even though I care very much about the issues they addressed. (Hence, the anger.) I didn’t care about my rants, though. I found myself wanting to do other things with my time. So I did them.
I signed up for and began a poetry class with Bethany Reid. I first met Bethany nearly 40 years ago, when we were both students in Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop at the University of Washington. In our first session, she shared words her sister-in-law gave her when she was a young mother struggling to finish her dissertation and thinking about putting it aside until her children were in school:
“‘Nobody cares if you don’t finish your dissertation. But you will care.'”
Bethany continued: “Nobody will care if you don’t write your poems. But you will care.”
As I sat with those words, they opened up something in me that I didn’t fully realize I’d been keeping closed.
In 2010, after a writing residency that allowed me to work at writing in a way I never had before, I made a conscious decision to step away from writing poetry and writing for publication. I was in the weeds of single-parenting with a hostile co-parent. I was working a full-time job in K-12 education that was kicking my butt. I was in early recovery from…a lot of things.
It was a relief to let my writing aspirations go. It felt freeing. It had been so hard to do something so important to me in the piecemeal ways that were the only ones I could manage, and letting go of that effort felt like putting a burden down.
I want to be clear here, because there is so much bullshit out in the world about what it takes to do creative work that can make anyone who wants to and doesn’t feel as if their failings are entirely personal: Piecemeal was the only way I could manage writing in those days, and it wasn’t getting my work where I wanted it to go. The residency helped me see that. My problems with writing were not about a lack of will or discipline or ability. They were about a lack of resources. They were about how I prioritized the ones I had. The residency helped me see that, too. The other things I was doing with my time, energy, and intellect mattered more to me than any poetry I might create. Because I knew–as Bethany’s sister-in-law, and then Bethany herself knew–that nobody would care if I didn’t write my poems, but I would care if I couldn’t mother and teach in the ways I felt compelled to do.
Also: It just cost me too much to get so little result from what took so much effort. Truly, I needed sleep more than I needed to write in the ways I had been.
I don’t regret the poems/books I haven’t written in the past 13 years or the decisions I made. I made the right choices for my family and me, given my givens. It’s nice to feel no ambivalence about that. But, somehow, Bethany’s words cracked open an opposing truth: I also care that my poems weren’t written. Even if no one else does, even if no one would have published them, even if a lot of things about the literary world repel me.
I wish I had been able to write them. I will probably always be at least a little sad that I couldn’t. Or didn’t.
But: I am in a different place now. It’s a place where I have room to write in ways that I couldn’t before, and Bethany’s words are giving me some kind of permission I have not been able to give myself, even as my situation has changed. Until now.
When I retired and people asked if I were going to do more writing, I was non-committal. I didn’t know if I wanted to. I didn’t know if that would be a good use of my time. I still don’t, but my thinking is shifting, and Bethany’s words are providing some kind of catalyst. “No one cares” is so freeing. If no one really cares about the poems I don’t write, I’m free to create whatever I want, however I want, just because I want to. I don’t have to justify the resources I give to it by thinking that the work will really matter to the larger world. I can write poems simply because I will care if I don’t. That’s reason enough when I have the resources I need to make writing a higher priority.
I’m not sure what making writing a higher priority might look in practice, but I’m pretty sure it will mean writing less here. Or maybe writing differently here. Writing this blog is a thing that allowed me to be OK with not writing in a more serious way, and I’m grateful for how it’s served me. Now, though, I don’t want it to get in the way of other writing I want to do. Maybe it has been, and that’s part of why I haven’t felt able to write here in the ways I once did. Maybe the shifting was already in progress, and Bethany’s words were just a nudge I needed to get to where I was already going.
I have more resources than I used to, but they aren’t unlimited. I still need to make choices, especially with the resource of time. During the past month, as I haven’t been writing here, I’ve been working on revising an essay I began several years ago. I’ve been reading more, both poetry and essays. (Removed social media apps from my phone. Highly recommend.) I drafted a poem (following my first session of Bethany’s class). I’ve taken more photos, looking more closely at the world, which always feeds my words. Those choices felt good, and right. I want to keep making them.
Time is only getting shorter, always, for all of us, something I’m feeling more and more all the time. In what’s left of mine, I want my work–my life–to grow the way our climbing roses do after we cut them back to the quick each winter: quickly, widely, freely, and full of blooms.
When is spring going to come? It’s a question I’ve heard repeatedly in recent weeks.
Last Monday, as I drove in the dark to pick my daughter up from work, rain pounding my windshield, I had a moment of disorientation. It felt like a December night, and I was suddenly unmoored from calendar time. Was it still winter? No, I reminded myself, putting down an anchor: It’s April. It’s spring.
The next day, as I left the house wearing my heavy coat (still, in April) as protection from the continuing cold, grumbling to myself about spring’s late arrival this year, something in the yard caught my attention. I stood and looked at our garden, really seeing it for the first time in what felt like weeks. I could see that the grass is growing again, the trees are budding, and color has returned to the landscape.
Oh, it’s really not winter anymore, I thought. These cold, wet days so late in the year are spring. This is what spring is.
The next day, while I was visiting a friend up on the mountain, walking along a road in a place I once lived, snow fell. Spring snow.
This week I have been thinking about seasons, about climate, about change, about aging, about what it means to be a woman in our culture. About seeing how things really are, as opposed to how we think they should be. About loss and grief and hope. And I wrote this:
Like a woman scorned
Spring does not care if last night felt like December, if you had to turn the windshield wipers on high and still could not see the line separating your lane from another’s.
This is who she is now.
She is here, here in the cold water dripping from fisted cherry blossom buds; in the green, green clover choking out even greener grass; in the fern fronds curled like snakes under a willow that’s about to weep into bursting leaves.
Her timetable is indifferent to yours.
She will not blow a warm breath across the back of your neck because you are so tired of the wrong kind of shivers.
If you cannot see her, cannot love her, go inside and do what you do: stoke your fires, turn up the heat.
The loss is ours.
I also took some photos:
I find I often have to zoom in closely in order to see a bigger picture. I’d love to know what you’ve been seeing this week.
This week I sat in a (Zoom) class for people (mostly parents) supporting someone with a mental illness. It was our third session. It was the “tell your story” session. It was brutal.
(I will not be telling my story here. It is, of course, my story, but it also isn’t. This isn’t a place I feel safe to tell it.)
We all bore witness for well over an hour to each others’ stories. There were differences in our experiences, but motifs emerged: resistance to support, depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety, mania, delusions, eviction, housing issues, substance abuse/addiction, financial problems, police visits, medication failures, hospitalizations, treatment centers, rehab, broken relationships, estrangement, incarceration, abuse, assault, PTSD, anger, frustration, sadness, grief, powerlessness. Love. Overwhelming, heart-breaking, life-breaking love.
It was a lot.
This week on my local Nextdoor, someone wrote about a man at a busy intersection who, for the second day in a row, was walking around naked from the waist down. Lengthy threads–about obscenity laws (or lack of them), police responses (or lack of them), mentally ill support services (or lack of them), penalties (or lack of them)–ensued. In the midst of one thread, a woman shared that she wants to kill herself. Four people responded to the woman, but more than 30 (I stopped counting) continued yammering on at each other about laws, police, services, et cetera et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseum.
There’s more than one way to be naked in the street. Most people aren’t going to stop their cars to help. I closed my laptop and cleaned my oven, which made me think of Sylvia Plath. We don’t do what we can’t.
This week I got a rejection that was so encouraging it almost felt like an acceptance: “We admired your essay, but we’re going to have to pass this time. “Resistance” reached the final round of our decision-making process. We would love to read more of your work, and we hope you will submit to XXX in the future.”
It’s the only writing I’ve submitted anywhere in the last year. Speaking of not doing what we can’t. It was a micro-essay about mass shootings. And ice skating.
I want to write about that class. I want to write about these people–us people–who gather in virtual rooms at the end of days that look ordinary to everyone else and unzip our normalcy suits to let the alien life we carry inside us breathe a little freely for a few hours. I don’t know how to write about that, any more than I know how to help the half-naked man or the woman who wondered if she should burn herself up in the house her grandmother and mother once lived in.
One person suggested that, perhaps, the explanation was simple: The man was without pants because he had no bathroom and had soiled them by defecating in them, and he had no others to replace them.
My daughter wants me to compete in an in-house ice skating competition at our rink. I want to want to, for her sake, because she wants me to and I like to do things that make her happy. It’s so easy to make her happy, really. I don’t know how to explain why I don’t want to. There are decades of layers of feelings I’d have to scrape away to get to it, and they all feel both inconsequential and as if they’ve been baked in by years of harsh weather, like paint on an old house. I feel too tired to scrape.
I began working with a new therapist this week. The session was exhausting. The whole time, I wished I was skating.
I want to write about that class because it flattened me, the collective weight of suffering we humans carry. Not just our own, but also that of those we love. Not just the weight, but the invisibility of the weight. I want other people to see what I saw. It feels like something that should be seen. I also don’t want to write about the class, the weight, the invisibility. I don’t know what words to gather, how to arrange them, how to share them without causing harm. Anything else I might write about, though, feels trivial. And how can anything else I might write about from the last week–the skating competition, the rejection notice, the pod of whales that stopped the ferry I was on, the first day of the year for sipping a beer in the sun on the front porch deck–be as true as they might be if I don’t write about the class? How can those things be anything other than trivia?
There is conflict and disruption brewing at my brother’s home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I can’t really write about it here. Or anywhere. But I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about autonomy, and about what it means to live in a “safe home” and to have a “meaningful life,” words from the home organization’s mission and vision statements. I have been thinking a lot about my brother and my parents, especially my mother, who at 79 is still, literally, on the regular, cleaning her child’s bottom.
I didn’t think my brother was a person who qualified me to sit in that virtual room, but he does, too. Of course he does. Visibility sledge-hammers denial.
We humans are so dumb. I say this with anger, frustration, sadness, grief, powerlessness. And love. Overwhelming, heart-breaking, life-breaking love.
One blogger I follow seems to be wrestling with purposes for writing her blog. Another is wrestling with resistance. Or has stopped wrestling with resistance and is becoming resigned to “the way everything’s a giant tire-fire and *has* been for the past three years at least.” At least. Another published a post that told truths about our giant tire-fires that she was afraid could cause later harm to those she cares for, and so she censored herself after publishing it–something I did, too, a few posts back. (Maybe I’ll do it with this one.) All resonated for me, this week.
There is writing, and there is submitting.
A few weeks ago, I said to someone I love: “It seems like maybe you’ve been white-knuckling your way through life for about the last 10 years or so.” But maybe I was talking about myself as much as them.
I have trouble submitting.
The essay about shootings and ice skating is not something I’ve shared here. It really was of a moment, and the moment has passed, so I likely won’t. If you want your writing to appear in a “real” publication, it generally has to be exclusive to that publication. It can’t have been previously published, and if I had shared it here it would have been considered published. I learned this week that some editors are beginning to think differently about this, which I appreciate, but honestly: in a week (in a world, in a time) where a nearly 80-year-old mother has to worry about who will wipe her son’s bottom when she can’t, and men walk half-naked down the street and “neighbors” respond by bickering about obscenity laws and mostly ignoring a woman who proclaims her desire to kill herself, and aging parents unpack their deepest traumas and fears in a virtual room to a facilitator who will observe, “you have all been through a lot of heavy shit,” and a person wonders if a man with no pants simply (simply!) soiled himself because he didn’t have a bathroom, it becomes hard for me to think that where a piece of writing is published matters more than that it is.
Why was I so surprised by the things revealed to me in that virtual room?
I rode the ferry twice this week. I’ve ridden it so many times in the last month that I’ve stopped getting out of my car to better take in the spectacle of expansive water and sky we are traveling through, but I did get out on the second trip this week to see what I could see of a pod of whales swimming across the ferry route. They seemed to be taking their sweet time. The captain of our large barge brought it to a stop, submitting to the fins we could see in the distance poking above the surface of the water. Others on the car deck also got out of their vehicles, and we stood at the bow and helped each other know where to look. We arrived late to our destination, which I didn’t mind. I liked that there are beings we will surrender our schedules to care for.
The application for the skating competition is still sitting on our dining table. I can’t bring myself to fill it out. I don’t really know why. My daughter’s reasons–about community, encouragement, revising the past–are good ones. But something inside me is resisting: An audience changes things. I want to just skate. I don’t want to be judged.
Will I share this post on social media, where people I’ve known since kindergarten might stumble upon it? Probably not.
I want to write that I was surprised in that class because all I’ve ever seen of mental illness were its fins poking above the surface of the water. I want to write that I’ve occasionally caught the giant body of it leaping above the waves, giving us all a glimpse of its size and power and strength, but that, mostly, you know, the whale lives down below the surface of our days, our lives, our society. Maybe those sentences would be true, even though I stopped counting the number of family members and friends who qualify me for the class. (We humans are so often so dumb.) Here is something I know is true: That class took me under the surface. That class was a place I don’t want to belong. I did not–do not–want to submit to belonging there. (I have resisted belonging there.) But I do and I have. Submitted.
Also, it was the first day of spring this week, and one glorious afternoon we sipped a beer while sitting in chairs on our front deck. We talked about plants we want to plant and smiled at the neighbor boys playing in the street, remarking to ourselves about how much they’ve grown since last year. We turned our faces to the sun, grateful for it. I’m guessing that the people who looked at us as they passed by have as little idea of what our week was really like as we have of theirs.
Last month we celebrated my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. As the milestone approached, I kept thinking of Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937,” and the words she uses to describe her parents on the brink of their marriage:
“…they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
I tried to write about this, but it felt unkind to share that these are the words that came to me when I thought about my parents marrying. I worried how they might feel if they were to read my writing and see them. On the weekend we celebrated their anniversary, though, my mother made a joke about how she was sure no one thought their marriage would last.
“Really?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “We were so young and dumb.”
How could they have been anything else? They were only 19 and 22, for god’s sake! Before their second anniversary, we were a family of four, which means that I have memories of my parents in their 20s, 30s, 40s and all the decades that followed. It means that we were all very young together.
It’s a long story, the one of their marriage, our family.
Olds’s poem is harsh and bleak. For a time–back when my dad was still drinking, when my own life was unspooling–it was the kind of poem I might have written myself. I understood the desire of the poem’s speaker to go back and prevent a marriage that was an impetus of pain. I read her words and wondered if my parents, too, were the wrong people for each other, and if it would have been better for all of us if they hadn’t married. I wondered that even as I knew it would mean that I wouldn’t exist to wonder about anything.
Later, when we were all a bit older, a bit more developed–when my dad was sober and I’d managed to stitch together a healthier life–I no longer wished to spare us all by undoing their union. When I would look at their wedding photo I’d wish instead that I could wave some sort of magic wand and cast away the hard things we were all going to live through, keeping the good and tossing the bad. I’d keep the dad who did math problems at the kitchen table with me after dinner and came to every one of my track meets, but not his moods that could turn suddenly, frighteningly dark. I’d keep the brother I shot baskets with in the backyard, but lose his long-undiagnosed autism that no one understood or knew what to do about. I’d keep the kind, gentle mother who was my refuge, but also, somehow, let her have a larger life in which she could more fully be an artist or athlete or activist.
But that’s not how any life works, is it? That’s probably for the best, for who would my parents be, if I could possess such a wand, and who would my brother and I be, if we were not the people our fates have forged us into being? Who is to say that an alternate life would have been any kinder to us, that our sorrows would be lesser or our joys greater? After all, my parents are still here, together, by choice. Not habit nor dysfunction nor impossible-to-escape circumstances, but by deliberate choice.
When I was lost in the forest of my own marriage’s demise, I asked my mother why she’d stayed in hers.
“I always loved your dad,” she said. “Even at the worst times, I never wanted to be not married to him.”
What a great gift, to live your days with someone who has known and loved every adult iteration of yourself you’ve ever been and continues to willingly, purposefully choose you. It’s hard for me, who will never know that, to think of a better foundation for a good life.
I hesitate to let that last paragraph stand. To share any of this post, if I’m being honest. I have struggled to write it. I have struggled to find words that are neither sentimental nor simplistic, to convey truths more complicated than our usual narratives about long unions tend to be. I have struggled to find words that are both kind and true. Because the truth is: My childhood was hard. My parents suffered. My brother suffered. I suffered. My children have suffered as a result of the ways in which my suffering formed me. These words feel unkind, and how do I explain that even in the face of these truths, I wouldn’t go back and tell those young, dumb kids not to do it? It’s not just because, like Olds, I want to live. (Though I do. I want to live.) It’s because I want us to get to where we are now.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that all you need is love, or that eventual benefit outweighs earlier harm, or that our pain didn’t matter or wasn’t significant. It did, and it was. But our suffering is not the whole story, and while things that happened cannot change over time, our stories, like people, can. I want to get to the story I know now.
When I look at my parents’ wedding day photo today, I still see two innocent kids who were far too young for marriage–especially the one they were going to have. But I also see in their faces, on what my dad recently told me was the best day of his life, a story about the kind of bright hope we all have when we are making our first important choices, and what I feel most for those kids now is tenderness–tenderness and the kind of protectiveness I feel for my own children, who are already older than my parents were when I was born. I look at that photo and I want my dad to have that day. I want my mom to smile that brilliant smile. I want these things because every life has its moments of tragedy and sorrow, no matter how carefully or prudently it is lived, and no matter what things did or didn’t happen afterward, their joy on that day was pure and true. I want that kind of joy to have happened, to have existed in our broken world. I want that joy to be what it has been, the seed of so many others we have all experienced throughout our lives. I want it for them, and for my children, and for myself.
When I look at that photo and then ahead to my childhood that will follow it, what I see now is how young and tender and gorgeous we all were, together, and, often, how dumb. How we were everything all at once, and still are.
I couldn’t see that when we were in the thick of it. I couldn’t see how much we all, more often than we got it, needed some grace and a hug. Of course my parents did damage; how could they not, damaged as they were by their own parents, who were in turn damaged by theirs, and all of them damaged by living in world of damaged and damaging people? Don’t all parents do harm, no matter how old we are when we make a family, no matter how much we are determined not to? Don’t we all struggle, doesn’t life throw hardballs at all of our heads? I tried to tell myself once, when I was a teenager, that they didn’t really love me, but it was no good. I knew that they did. I knew they always had and always would. And I know fully now what some part of me grasped only a little at 14: They always did the best they could with what they had, and that counts for more than a person might think. What I also know now that I didn’t then is that not all parents do these things–love unconditionally, do the best they can. I know that, in some ways, despite the ways in which fate was unkind to our young family, I have been all kinds of lucky.
Now, when I go back to February 1963, I see them the night before their wedding, she in impossibly tiny capri pants, he in a button-down shirt and chinos. He is lying on his back, legs raised to the ceiling, with her girlish body balanced atop his feet. She’s facing him, their hands clasped, and she smiles down at him, looking, perhaps, like she knows a secret. They are playing like the kids they are. They are young and dumb and all they know is that they are in love. In a few short years, when he plays this game of airplane with his daughter, she will fear falling but will also willingly choose the rush of flight, begging “do it again!” each time he lands her safely on the ground. This will not be a metaphor for her life with them. It will be only one kind of memory out of multitudes. She cannot have the one without all the others, which is why, when that girl grows up and is getting old herself, she will write her way to a place where she imagines going back in time and saying to them:
Yes, go ahead, do it again. Do what you are going to do. Fly.