Mary Oliver got it right, you know: You need not repent your survival as if it were a sin.
I know, I know (believe me, I know): You feel it is your duty– your burden, your privilege, your gift– to rush back into the building full of beams rotten with flame, air fouled with smoke, to pull out as many others as you can.
Maybe it is, for a time. It can be hard to know what we owe others. It can be hard to know if the cause is lost and collapse –no matter what we do– inevitable,
but I’m here to tell you, one survivor to another: We never have to burn with it, our mouths filling with smoke, our limbs turning to ash.
Imagine your mother, what she would say if she could see you in the second-story window, your mouth a wilting O through a smoky pane.
Imagine what you would say if it were your child up there, flames under her feet:
Love yourself as your mother would, as you love your child.
Not so you can run back into that building, or into some other one so far gone it cannot stand.
There will always be buildings on fire. There will always be others trapped inside. Your death won’t change that.
Maybe, some other time, you will be one of them, but this time, you aren’t.
Don’t waste the gift of your second chance.
Go find yourself a solid structure and tend to it. Do your best to keep the exits clear, Extinguishers near.
And this time, if you smell smoke and shout fire and no one listens, if you start beating at sparks with blankets only to have others accuse you of fanning flames,
get out before you get so turned around you don’t know which doors lead to closets and which to stairs.
Let yourself go love what you love.
It’s so hard to know, isn’t it, when you should stick with something and try to save it, and when you should walk (or run) away from it because nothing you might do will. It is hard to know when quitting or leaving is weakness and when it is strength.
So many times in my life I have been unable to truly see and understand a situation until I’ve been able to get away from it. We become acclimated to what surrounds us, and we tell ourselves things we want to be true or need to believe in order to be OK where we are.
When I left classroom teaching in 2009, I had a nearly-finished poetry manuscript, plus a folder with about 20 others that I named “divorce poems.” Since 2011, I may have drafted 2 or 3 other poems. (Maybe. It might have been fewer than that.) I think I have a hard copy of the manuscript in a box somewhere, but I’m not sure where the box might be. The folder was digital and its poems are trapped on the hard drive of some long-discarded laptop.
That’s OK. We can’t save all our darlings, can we?
This week I got to go and browse the shelves of my local library for the first time since March 2020. I knew I had missed it, but I didn’t fully feel the missing until I was back there, running my hand along spines back in the stacks. I took a “greatest hits” of Ted Kooser volume home with me, and later, sitting in my living room with late afternoon sun filling the room, I remembered what I first loved about poetry. I remembered that poetry can be made from simple language, about simple things. I remembered that it doesn’t have to be such a big, hard, artistic deal.
I also took a walk with a friend this week, and we talked about survivor guilt. I found myself continuing the conversation in my head long after we finished, and it came out of me as a poem, not prose. What you see above is a draft. It feels a little clunky, too didactic. But this blog, it’s just a notebook. This is what I scribbled in it this week. Words haven’t been coming easily to me lately. There’s a lot of shifting going on. I’ve been happy. The world still feels on fire, and I still care about that, but I’ve been happy, too. I don’t quite know what to make of that.
it’s just past 8:00 on Sunday morning, so I’m going to hit publish on this one. I have food to cook and lessons to plan and some library advocacy work to do. I hope you all have a week that’s good to you.
“It’s too late to reverse the damage done to the Earth’s climate. It’s not too late to change course right away to prevent things from getting far worse.
That’s the scientific consensus presented this morning to world leaders by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s the most complete synthesis of climate science available, based on a review of thousands of research papers assessing how the combustion of coal, oil and gas has altered the Earth’s climate and with it, human destiny.” “The Morning,” The New York Times, August 9, 2021
The dishwasher broke sometime back in late June, when we were so busybusybusy with everything. Over the 4th of July we did some half-hearted appliance shopping, but all options seemed to lead us down a path that would require kitchen renovation and we weren’t ready to go there. We talked about trying some repairs, but that was half-hearted, too. After a few weeks we bought a drying rack–just a small one, it would be good for the things we handwash once the appliance is fixed or a new one is bought. Toward the end of July I suggested that we could use the empty dishwasher as a drying rack for big things. I was joking, mostly, but I know I put a serving bowl in there. It’s probably still there. I’ve gotten used to washing the dishes by hand.
I remember my family’s first dishwasher. My dad bought it for my mom as a birthday gift. You had to roll it over to the sink and connect a hose to the faucet. I remember before that, my dad once setting up a plan in which I would do the dishes and be paid for it. There was a chart. I loved the idea for about a week, and then I stopped doing the dishes. I had choices like that. I became used to having choices like that. I assumed I’d always have them. I couldn’t imagine a reason I wouldn’t.
More than a decade ago, not long into single-motherhood, I got to spend a week in residency at Soapstone, a retreat for women writers on the Oregon coast. For a week I got to live by myself in a beautiful cabin in the forest and do nothing but eat, sleep, walk, and write. And do dishes, of course. A significant part of the Soapstone mission was stewardship of the property on which the writers’ cabins were located; I remember a sign encouraging us to use the dishwasher. It said that it was better for the land than handwashing, which felt counter-intuitive. It said it was better to run a half-full load than to use the water required to wash by hand. Sometimes I washed by hand, anyway, when I wanted just one cup or a particular bowl.
The first house I owned did not have a dishwasher. I bought it with my first husband. We were trying so hard to be adults, but we really had no business being married or owning a home. He was working as a lab tech in a research hospital and studying for the MCATs. I was in my first year of teaching. We were both floundering, in different, separate ways, which is to say: we were in our mid-20s. The sink was often filled with dirty dishes.
Last week I broke 3 glasses, two bowls, and a plate. My husband had stacked the drying rack with too many things, and when I removed a plate the balance of it all shifted and I could not stop the falling. I tried, but I realized almost instantly that there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. The floor was covered in crystalline shards. It had a kind of beauty to it, and I was a little awed at the sheer amount of damage and at how quickly it happened. I’ve never seen so much broken glass in a kitchen. The bowls and plate are from a vintage set, Franciscan earthenware; they are lovely, but fragile: We’ve now broken at least 7 pieces this summer. We recently bought plates from Target for everyday use. They are not lovely, but they will do the job and I will not feel that I’m losing a tiny piece of history each time something breaks. Our glasses are from Ikea. “I guess I’m glad we got those cheap ones from Ikea,” I remarked to my husband, reflecting on the carnage. This week I wonder if, instead of buying cheap things that we can easily lose, we should buy only precious ones. Would we be more careful if we didn’t have the idea that there’s always more we can afford?
It’s a bit amazing to me now, that my first husband and I were able to buy the home we did, 31 years ago. It’s in a neighborhood that young couples like the one we were then could never think of buying in now. We moved to Portland from Seattle just so that we could buy a house; renting felt like throwing money away, but Seattle had already become unaffordable. Or so we thought. We wanted to live close-in to the city. We wanted an older home with character. We couldn’t have those things in Seattle, but we could in Portland. We left the place that had given us each other to move to one that we thought could give us more. “We can always move back,” we told ourselves. It took us more than 9 months to remove the wallpaper in the living room and paint it. It took 27 for our marriage to end. I have wanted to move back for decades, but I am still here. We had no idea what we were doing.
Washing the dishes recently, I realized I’ve come to like washing the dishes by hand. Something about the soap and warm water, the ritual of it. While the chicken finished baking in the oven, I washed all the things I’d used to prepare it. I’m learning to do this, to wash as I go, in small batches. I like the small, neat stacks on the bamboo dish rack, the cups that fit perfectly on the bottom shelf. I’ve realized we don’t need as many dishes as I once thought. We wash so frequently that we don’t run out of them in the cupboard.
My Soapstone experience was transformative, but not in the way its founders and board hoped it would be. For an entire week, I did nothing but write. I had no children to feed or bathe or stimulate or soothe, no papers to grade, no partner to answer to or tend. I had only to feed myself and write, and by the end of the week I understood in new, deep ways why I was having such a hard time getting anything written. I concluded that writing was something I was going to put on a shelf. I could always come back to it later, I told myself.
I remember being so frustrated by the stacks of dirty dishes in the sink of that first house. I tried to wash things as I used them, but my husband did not. He preferred to let them pile up and wash a big stack at once. He was reading Thich Nhat Hanh, and I remember him telling me something once about being mindful, and how washing dishes was an opportunity to practice mindfulness. I remember wishing he would practice it more. I remember my mind then feeling like a Habitrail, full of thoughts scurrying along plastic tubes and spinning a metal wheel in a mad dash to nowhere. I did not care about mindfulness. I just wanted someone to wash the damn dishes so I could go grade the stacks of essays piled up in my school bag.
I need to say this about my first husband: I was terrible to him, and he did not deserve it. I could tell you the reasons why I cheated on him, all the ways in which I was broken that I now understand and did not then, but none of that matters. I was wrong, and I did damage, and although I can understand why I did what I did and can feel for my younger self the kind of love one has for a child who hasn’t understood the impacts of their choices–I can never fully absolve myself for what I did. I was not a child. I broke something others loved and that I loved, and there was nothing beautiful in it. I would give so many things to be able to go back and choose differently. Do differently.
I remember, after my twins were born, needing to wash the breast pump paraphernalia by hand; the plastic couldn’t go in the dishwasher. I remember my second husband, my children’s father, telling me that he didn’t like me leaving them on the counter to dry. He was afraid they would make his first son, a teen-ager, feel uncomfortable, because, you know…. I remember looking at him blankly, dumbly, numb from sleep deprivation and soreness and constant physical need. I remember looking at him and saying nothing and blinking very slowly, a thing I did with him when I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t something I did consciously or deliberately; it took me a good long while to even realize it was something I did. I remember him, later, telling me how much he hated it when I blinked slowly. Sometimes things break silently, or so quietly you don’t realize they’re breaking until it’s too late.
“Can we have an agreement to dry the dinner plates immediately, and not put them on the drying rack?” I ask, after the night of shattering. My husband concurs, and that night we wash the dishes together, placing small items on the rack and drying the larger ones immediately.
Sometime in the midst of the first year of the pandemic, I began to feel that home is my holy place. I wondered if I can find something I’m looking for if I devote myself to it. I wrote on my blog that I want to “become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.” A full-blown book I wanted to write took shape in my mind. I remembered my first husband and his ideas about mindfulness when washing dishes. I reached out to ask him which of Thich Nhat Hahn’s books he would recommend as a starting place, and he replied kindly and gracefully. (We have found our way to a place where such a thing is possible, a miracle I never expected and probably don’t deserve.) He spoke again about dishwashing. “If you find yourself washing the dishes, and you’re thinking about anything else, then pause until you are experiencing everything in the moment. It’s like sitting under a freeway in your mind. Like cars, thoughts will pass through. But if you’re present you won’t get in and go for a ride.” I think of this months later, after the night of broken dishes, when I am cleaning up from a meal, and I want to focus on the washing–the warmth of the water running over my hands, the viscous texture of the soap, the beauty of the pattern on the worn plate–but all I can think about is how this life I’ve lived is so beautiful and fragile I sometimes feel my heart will shatter from it.
This is mostly a rough, first draft. I don’t like to share rough, first drafts, but that’s all I’ve got this week. This week was full–of heat, smoke, and dire news (climate, Covid). We went north to visit my parents, so we escaped Portland’s 100+ temps, but it was smoky and still too-warm, even there. I got to have a lovely visit with an old friend and her parents. I had good, long conversations with my parents. My brother looks well. While we were away, the glass top of our patio table shattered. My son, our house-sitter, has no idea what happened. Neither do I; could it have been the heat? Who knows. Some of my patio plants appear to be dead, but the dog is still alive. I take what I can get, grateful for it.
The morning light shining at the end of the dark hall, a pull to the garden.
Birds twittering, chittering, beating, swooping. Tomatoes swelling on their vines and branches laden with pears. Dusty lavender dotted with bees. Trumpets vines blaring red siren songs to the hummingbirds. The holes where rats come into and out of our yard. (Who does “our” contain?) The hot noon hour when, from the bedroom window, changing out of my gardening clothes, I watch two of them run up the branches of the blueberry bushes and eat our fruit. Brazen.
Watering the hostas. The ones with pale, thin leaves are fragile, always wilted, their edges constantly crisped. We vow to buy only the ones with thick green leaves now. I consider reserving my water for the strong and letting the needier ones wither to papery remains I can toss without compunction into the compost bin.
The compost bin loaded with thorny sticks, dried up blooms, bristly thistles I pull from the vegetable box: Things I deem weeds, or overgrown, or dead. The sickly sweet scent of rotting kitchen scraps–cantaloupe rinds, probably–wafting upward. I shut the lid.
Hermiston cantaloupe slices I present to my son at dinner, telling him that I don’t buy the other kind now, the ones shipped here from faraway places, so the time to enjoy these is now. “I don’t like how hard and tasteless they are,” I tell him, speaking of the ones we can buy during other months. “I like cantaloupe firm,” he tells me, and I mumble words about nature and carbon and footprints because I can’t find the right ones for what I feel. I know he’s only expressing a preference for texture but I despair a bit for the future just the same. He’s acclimated to his time, which isn’t mine. He’s never eaten watermelon with black seeds. He’s never spit them out at his cousins, laughing, while sitting at the kids’ table in his grandmother’s kitchen.
My grandfather cutting cantaloupe on a summer morning as he readies for work, the light shining through the sink window’s short curtains. He sprinkles his melon, soft and vivid as the Hermistons I offer to my son like jewels, with salt. Paul Harvey’s voice is tinny through the radio, and my grandmother is still sleeping in their bed upstairs. I like not needing to say anything, having him all to myself, being cared for only by him, who makes me a piece of toast in the toaster that now sits on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. He dies of a heart attack at 63. The night he dies, I sleep in that bed with my grandma, in his spot.
I sit at my kitchen table and read a piece my friend Sharon is writing about grandmothers and canning and writing. About preservation and sustenance. She writes that she cans with words, not food. Then I read my friend Bethany’s piece about doubting the purpose of writing, she who writes multiple books through decades of mothering and teaching. I consider my history, the jars of applesauce my great-grandmother sent to our suburban house every fall that she made from apples grown on the farm, and how three generations later I am only just now, well into a sixth decade of living, beginning to learn how to grow food. I consider the tomatoes ripening in a bowl on the table, the literal fruits of my labor. I consider the one book of poems I cultivated, now nearly 20 years ago, and I wonder if the writer in me is a pale hosta. Maybe she is. Or maybe she is a rat, scratching at survival through blog posts and Instasnippets. Maybe she is an invasive, drought-resistant perennial with deep, woody roots. Maybe she is none of those things and all of those things. Maybe she is everything in the garden–the hostas and rinds and rats and tomatoes and trumpets and weeds and bees, being fed by whatever they can find there, wherever they can find it. It’s a conceit that brings comfort, here on the edge of the cusp of autumn, these brief weeks of both harvesting and fading.
This is another bit of writing that grew from exercises for my class on the braided essay. One exercise was about a journey (my trip down the hallway and into the garden), and one was about using sensory images of a place (or series of places), and I was feeling behind (my own arbitrary and self-imposed deadlines, as the course is self-paced), so I combined them.
I appreciate assignments that require me to pay close attention to my life. It’s been a pretty nothing-special week, on the surface of things, one that I might easily forget. I like that the simple act of listing concrete things I notice took me to a place I wasn’t expecting, and cemented memories I’m sure I’ll return to in the future. (Maybe that, alone, is reason enough for any of us to write.) Time is feeling quite non-linear these days, so present-tense seemed right for the entire piece.
I remember the radiator clanking on a winter day as rain slid down the panes of our second-story classroom windows.
I remember the teacher who kept a monkey in a cage in his classroom. He was never my teacher.
I remember Mrs. Anderson, who was old and had a crippled foot, playing hopscotch with us at recess, dragging her foot behind her as she hopped.
I remember sitting in a small circle at the front of the room, reading about Dick and Jane and Sally, the most boring children I’d ever met.
I remember Mike, the boy who only drew cars. No matter what we were supposed to be doing, Mike drew cars.
I remember wondering about Mike, marveling at Mike, envying Mike. He disappeared early in the fall, to go to “a different school.” (No, he hadn’t moved.) I didn’t want to disappear, so I knew I could never be like Mike.
I remember the lunch cart rumbling down the hallway’s wavy wooden floors. I remember waiting for it to stop outside our classroom door, lining up to push our plastic plates along the cart’s metal counter, and hearing food thunk onto plates.
I remember salty gravy laced with stringy chicken over a snowball of mashed potatoes, watery green beans dull and flat from a can, wiggly red jello squares, tiny cartons of lukewarm milk. I remember loving the salty gravy.
I remember loving Mrs. Anderson, and knocking on the door of her house one time with my friend Sandy, who lived down the street from her, and how she gave us each a cookie but wouldn’t let us come inside.
I remember being moved to Mrs. Smallwood’s class in October, and being scared, and meeting Kimberlee and Ellen, and how small the playground looked from the second-floor classroom, and how wonderfully amazing our mail cubbies were, and how glad I was that the grownups had moved me, even though I didn’t really know why.
I remember that happiness was a warm puppy.
I remember coloring a picture of Snoopy while listening to a scratchy record singing about a land where children were free.
I remember my body tensing when I had to walk to the board to do a math problem, my silent panic every time we raced to do 100 math problems in one minute.
I remember not caring about when the train would arrive.
I remember the reading corner, with carpet and low shelves and pillows, and reading and laughing and talking there with Kimberlee and Ellen when we finished our work early.
I remember Laura and Mary, Henry and Beezus and Ramona, Freddy the Pig, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
I remember Mrs. Diefendorf telling Kimberlee and Ellen and I that we wouldn’t be friends when we were adults, and how we called her Mrs. Beefenbarf when she couldn’t hear us.
I remember using jump ropes as halters and being sometimes the horse, sometimes the rider, my hair flapping like a mane the recess I cantered through puddles again and again and again.
I remember sitting through the entire Christmas assembly with wet pants, soaked in Mrs. Smallwood’s disapproval. I remember getting very cold.
I remember Miss G.’s eyes, narrow slits in a puffy face, and her mean mouth.
I remember Miss G. scolding me in front of the class for reading my own book on my lap under my desk during her read-aloud time.
I remember using stubby nubs of pencils because Miss G. hated them.
I remember sitting on the playground with friends and reading books during recess. I remember Margaret and Dinky Hocker and Alice and Harriet the Spy.
I remember racing the boys on field day, flat Keds slapping hard dirt. I remember winning.
I remember Mrs. Hoffman leaving the classroom and Butch and Mike standing on top of their desks and dancing and giving the finger to the ceiling. I remember laughing, and I remember the principal walking in.
I remember hating the principal.
I remember fearing what the principal would do to those boys as he pointed at them from the door and glared at all of us as though we were equally culpable. Maybe we were. Maybe he was, too. (He had a paddle and used it.)
I remember Mike saying he wanted a BJ and I didn’t know what that was and when my friend whispered “blow job” I still didn’t know what it was.
I remember my friend telling me what a blow job is.
I remember hating fifth grade.
I remember my school closing, the one with two stories and tall windows and clanking radiators and the classroom with the monkey cage, and I remember walking two blocks further to what had been the junior high but was now our new elementary school. It had breezeways, not hallways with wood floors, and my 6th grade classroom was a long, chilly walk away from the library. It had new kids from another closed elementary school. We still ate lunch in our classrooms. Mine had cinderblock walls with only one window next to the door. (Maybe. Or maybe I just remember it that way.)
I remember new girls who wore lip gloss and kissed boys and said mean things about highwaters.
I remember missing the days we played horses at recess.
I remember asking Allison what highwaters were, and her pointing to the hem of my corduroy pants. I remember wondering how she knew that and why I didn’t.
I remember the boys snapping our bra straps, and no one saying anything about it. I remember craving their attention and hating it.
I remember asking my mother for a bra, not to support the buds emerging from my chest, but to flatten them.
I remember my mother re-making new pants because any that fit my torso were too short, but my hips weren’t wide enough to support any that were long enough to cover my ankles.
I remember the principal I hated calling me to his office to accuse me of things I didn’t do, to tell me I was nobody, to shame me. I remember feeling shame even though I was innocent.
I remember being guilty. I remember leading a pack of girls in making Donita cry in the bathroom. I remember hating Donita and not knowing why, and hating myself for making her cry, and hating the other girls for following me, and hating Donita even more for crying behind the locked door of a bathroom stall while we taunted her from the sinks.
I remember going to the library every Saturday and consuming books like they were candies. I remembering reading all weekend long to go numb, to pass time, to dream, to escape.
I remember my friend Toni developing full breasts when the rest of us wore training bras, and I remember the day Mr. Buer had us vote on whether or not he should throw Toni’s beautiful map in the garbage because she’d turned it in without her name on it, and my despair at things I couldn’t name as I watched it slide into the wastebasket while tears rolled down her cheeks.
I remember my dad, years later, telling me that it was so hard to watch me lose my confidence as I became a teen-ager and what happened, anyway?
I subscribe to a weekly email from Creative Nonfiction, which means that I start my Sunday mornings with a usually fantastic read of a short literary essay. If I were going to commit myself to writing in any genre, it would likely be creative nonfiction, as it combines prose with elements of poetry. That’s always been my sweet spot as both a reader and writer.
Creative Nonfiction offers classes, and I recently saw one on writing the braided essay, a subgenre of creative non-fiction that is probably the closest to poetry. It was self-paced, online, and inexpensive. Interaction with others is completely voluntary and can be as little or as much as I’d like. Sold. (They aren’t paying me to promote this. Just sharing something I like.)
The class began this last week, and our first exercise was to do some “I remember” writing. This is something I used to have students do a lot in the early stages of writing because “I remember” freewriting is an easy way to generate material to work with. It’s a way of getting things out without thinking too much, making it more likely that happy accidents and surprises can happen. We had a mentor text (an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “book length memoir in prose poem form” and now on my TBR list), and the writing above is what came of my exercise.
Although I tend to dance around the question of what I’m going to do if I’m not working as a full-time educator (I don’t want to feel tied down and I truly don’t know yet), I know I want to write more. I don’t have anything I’m burning to write, but I’m pretty sure that if I dedicate some regular time to it, things will start to happen. I suppose I don’t want to publicly declare writing as a Thing I Will Do because that can quickly feel fraught with expectations (from myself and others) and I don’t want them. At any rate, I knew this class would be just the right thing to kick-start me; I do better with a little structure and something to respond to. I think it will prove to be a good use of $30.00. (Enrollment is still open.)
OK, not everything. But maybe the most important things?
Cane and I have spent the past few weeks staging his house before putting it on the market. He bought the house three years ago, and if the house had been a metaphor for a manuscript, it was one that would have never made it out of the slush pile. I didn’t see much potential in it, but he did and has slowly turned an unloved rental that had been stripped of any charm into a sweet little cabin/cottage that’s still kinda wonky, but now in a good way. Staging it to realize its full potential has been a labor of love, a project that flexes a different set of creative muscles for me. (It was also a crap-ton of work, as all serious creative endeavors are.) At some point I started thinking about overlaps between the staging process and the writing process, and I realized that things I’ve learned from writing were guiding my actions as a would-be home stager:
Read, study, imitate. I don’t know any good writers who aren’t also voracious readers, of all kinds of texts. And writers read not just for the experience or information of a text, but also to learn how to construct it. We look under the hood of them to see what makes them run, so we can better understand how to build our own vehicles. As a novice house-stager, I gave myself a how-to crash-course primarily by “reading” other staged homes. I stalked Redfin listings to study the photos and dissect the features of both those that appealed to me and those that didn’t. I followed house design hashtags on Instagram and did the same thing, noticing particularly those things that were different between staged houses and those designed for different purposes. Cane and I binge-watched Unsellable Houses, an HGTV show about Seattle-area sisters who transform houses that haven’t sold (even in the hot hot sellers’ market of the past few years). They smash some of the conventional staging wisdom I learned from more conventional sources, and it was instructive to think about how they break the rules and why.
Keep your purpose at the forefront. Even if I’m just writing for myself, I have a clear purpose, and that drives everything about what and how I write. When composing a house, the same principle applies. A house (or any space) is a text of sorts, and what we choose to put in or take out should be driven by what we’re trying to say and why. Cane’s house is a funky little old thing with some features that would be definite negatives for many buyers. It’s also a (now) charming piece of history. (It was originally built as temporary housing for shipyard workers during WWII.) We know that no one is going to buy this house entirely with their head; we need to appeal to emotions. “What’s the story we’re trying to tell?” is a question we asked ourselves repeatedly as we made decisions about what to put it and take out. Closely related principle:
Know your audience (and yourself). The importance of knowing both yourself as a writer and who you’re writing for can’t be overstated. I’ve never aimed to be a writer for the masses (clearly), and we haven’t staged this home to appeal to the masses. That’s partly because it’s just not in us. We don’t know how to do that well, and we wouldn’t really want to even if we did. (We think it would destroy the best parts of this house.) If we had different goals for this project, this aspect of ourselves could be a big liability, but we’ve told ourselves multiple times that we don’t need a lot of people to like the house; we just need a few who love it. We talked a lot about who these people might be, what they might care about, how they might live. Once I realized that I was never going to be a big best-selling writer (for a multitude of reasons), it gave me permission to be the writer I am. We staged this house to be the best version of both ourselves and it that we can create, rather than trying to make both of us be something we aren’t—and we think it’s turned out all the better for having made that choice. (For more on these ideas, check out the work of Seth Godin.)
Draw from a variety of sources. Also, everything is a source. When I’m writing here, I draw upon all kinds of material: memory, experience, other peoples’ stories, poetry, memes, photos, songs, video, etc. Even if I’m working on something that is composed only of words and is based primarily on my own life, I typically cast a wide net and catch everything I can in my first drafts. Some staged houses look as if everything in them came from the same place, but the houses I see that create longing (for me, anyway) have a different kind of look. They’re more layered. There’s a richness you can’t get from a single Ikea run. Much as I usually avoid such places as Target and HomeGoods, I did use those for staging materials. I also used thrift stores, vintage shops, and my own house. I used things in ways they weren’t originally intended to be used. (A shower curtain hides a hot water heater, and an espresso-machine pitcher is a toothbrush holder.) It’s not unlike using a line of someone else’s poetry as a kickstart to your own, or pulling a passage out of a failed draft of something you wrote a long time ago and using it in a whole new way in a new piece.
Edit ruthlessly (and start with more than you need). When I’m writing a first draft, I throw in everything that might work. I try to write without any internal editor whispering in my ear. The real writing—and joy of writing—comes in revising and editing. Although I really know nothing about sculpting, I imagine it to be somewhat like that: first drafts create a block of text, and I carve and shave away at it until its shape emerges. My process for creating a space works much the same way; I am not a person who can start with a finished vision and simply execute it. I have to see how things look before I know if they will work, and I have to try out lots of different things. I brought many things to the house knowing I might not use them. Some of them I really love, but if they don’t advance the purpose, they don’t make the final cut. Also: Less is often more. (Is this last sentence redundant? It might be. I have a problem with overstating points I want to be sure are clear.) I bought rice and beans and flour to fill the jars on the shelves in the kitchen, and then I realized I didn’t need to do that. The purpose of the jars was to help a buyer see how the shelves could work, and the jars alone did that. Adding contents to them would add visual clutter that wasn’t necessary and might detract from the purpose of staging by being too specific. (I’ll spare you a detailed description of my paralysis in the dry goods section of the grocery store, wondering if my choices were screaming “white people food.”)
Three is a magic number. Or, repetition is a friend. And, the magic is in the small things. Lots of people have the same big ideas, and we can all pour out words that express them. What elevates a piece of writing for me, though, is how they are expressed. For me, good writing is like poetry or song; it uses balance, repetition, refrain, and rhythm to create something that is more than the denotative sum of its words. These principals helped me in understanding why something was or wasn’t working visually, and gave me ideas for fixing something that felt off. In writing I pay attention to sound, words, sentence lengths and structures, and metaphor, and in staging the elements were color, size, shape, and texture. As with a verbal text, I had to be careful about how I applied these principals; too much repetition of obvious sounds is sing-songy, and some extended metaphors can become tortured. I had to think about how to avoid that in the visual text of the house’s rooms.
Consider both the whole and the parts. Cane and I generally agree when it comes to design decisions, but we never did agree on a curtain that hides the hot water heater in the kitchen. When he lived in the house, the curtain (sewn by me as a birthday gift) was a gingham-checked number in a bright red, white, and blue. It was totally him, and it fit the kitchen—but I didn’t like it for our new purpose. I thought the red wasn’t the right shade considering the palette that was emerging in the other rooms of the house, and that it created a different feel that (to me) was a little discordant from some of the things we want to say about and through the house. It also didn’t work with some other details in the kitchen. He thought I was over-thinking it. Maybe so, but I think it was my writer-brain taking over. I remembered the writing instructor I had my freshman year of college who helped me understand that each sentence has to lead to the one that follows it, and each paragraph has to do the same. I began to see the house as a novel or essay collection or epic poem, and each room as a chapter or essay or stanza. The details in the rooms were like sentences or paragraphs or lines, and I wanted each part to work not only on its own, but also as parts of a cohesive whole. For me, the original curtain brought to mind the advice that writers have to be willing to kill their darlings.
Collaboration improves the work.And, know your strengths and weaknesses. In my first post-college job I was an editorial assistant, where I learned that nothing we published was ever edited by only one person. “No one can ever catch everything,” my boss taught me. That, along with a writing group I was once lucky to be part of, helped me understand that although the things I write are of me, they are not me. They are a thing in their own right, and their meaning comes from an interplay between my mind and that of readers. To really know if a piece is working or not, we need readers! While there’s definitely a stage in composing where I need to work alone, a finished piece requires feedback from a good reader and further refinement. The same was true in staging this house. Cane is my trusted reader and co-writer, and everything we design is better when we both contribute to it. (It’s also more fun.) We aren’t doing this alone, though. We began with a consultation with our realtor, who knows far more than we do about staging houses to sell, and we’ll be working with a photographer who can do a much better job of creating the images that convey the story of the house than we can. (Sorry I don’t have any of those photos yet to illustrate this post!)
You need a good hook. Many readers—especially now, with our reading habits shaped by online texts—aren’t going to stick around if we don’t grab them in the first few lines. Same with a house. We spent as much time and money on the front yard as we did on the inside of the house. We wanted the story we are telling (cozy, comfortable, down-to-earth, clean cottage/cabin) to be clear (and compelling) from the very first view. We painted the exterior, added a window box, painted the Adirondack chairs, added a trellis, moved/removed/trimmed plants, and added flowers. A lot of flowers, in the same palette we used in the interior.
It will be another week or so before the house goes on the market, so it could well turn out that all this wisdom of mine is bunch of romantic rubbish, but our realtor was fairly wowed when we asked her to give us some feedback this week. It was satisfying work, in a way that I haven’t felt for a long time. It’s worn us out and we’re glad to be finished with it, but it feels like a good kind of tired—which is a welcome change. I’ll let you know how it goes. (And if you know anyone in Portland in the market for a funky little cottage, point them our way. Listing should be live in a little more than a week.)
This week, I was sent a video to watch for work. I was extremely busy, as I have been for weeks now. I clicked the link, a task in a long list I had in front of me for the day, not knowing what it was going to be about.
Halfway through the opening montage of images–visual clips that triggered memories of all we’ve lived through in the last year (schools closing, hospitals overrun, masks, protests over masks and police violence, wildfires, the election, the insurrections of January 6, the ice storm)–I started shaking. Then I started crying. I cried through the whole video. I cried after the video stopped. I rewatched it just now to see if it would have the same impact, and I’m typing these words with tears running down my face.
I was astonished by my reaction. If you had asked me, in the last few weeks, how I am doing, I would have told you that I am fine. Just fine. Busy, but with lots of good things. I might have told you that the pandemic was feeling strangely like something in the past, even as I know it’s still happening. Sure, I’m still wearing masks when I venture out, but I’m venturing out more and more. I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve been back in school buildings. Next week, I have to get up and get dressed and be at work by a specific time because students will be returning to physical school. The events of the past year have been taking on a dream-like quality. Everything is starting to feel and look “normal” again, and the reality of a year ago, or even four months ago, feels unreal. Was it really that bad? I’ve thought.
Once I calmed down, I did a little Googling about responses to trauma, which got me thinking about numbness and my emotional state the past few weeks. When our governor announced, on the heels of the ice storm that had closed schools again, that all schools in our state would be required to re-open on the governor’s schedule, despite any plans we might have been making/implementing, I first felt overwhelmed with anger and anxiety–my typical responses to loss of control–but that quickly changed to what felt like calm. “It is what it is,” I said, and turned myself to tasks at hand, determined to think only about those things over which I do have control.
I also stopped writing here, which felt like relief. It was relief. I did not think it had anything to do with that last blow following on the heels of a torrent of them in February. I thought it was just about wanting to focus on different things for awhile. I’ve been spending my weekend mornings in practical, necessary tasks. And if not necessary, enjoyable–taking walks, puttering in the yard, planning upcoming happy events. I haven’t missed writing at all. I also stopped most interactions on social media, which I haven’t missed at all, either. I enjoy a quick scroll through Instagram (which I’ve curated to be a happy place), but when I’ve gone on Facebook I’ve felt none of the old pull. I remember a time when I wanted to be there, but lately that’s felt unreal in the way the early days of the pandemic have been feeling unreal: I know I had the feelings I had at one point, but I have none of them now, and it’s hard to understand in any sense but an intellectual one why I ever had them. I took it off my phone and feel no desire to put it back.
It had never occurred to me, until I watched the video and reflected upon its impact, that what I’ve been (not) feeling is another variation on impacts of the past year’s events. I thought I was moving on. Instead, I was just getting through.
What I know of grieving is that we have to feel all the feelings to move through it to some better place. Not back to the old place, but a better place than the one our losses have us currently in. I hated how I felt watching that video. I don’t have the capacity, right now, to feel those feelings. I have a lot of things to get through in the next 7 weeks. The morning I watched the video the first time, I didn’t get as much done as I would have if I hadn’t.
Still, there is this: This morning, for the first time since I wrote my last post, I felt like writing. Not this post; I worked on an essay I abandoned more than a year ago. And it felt good, which made me want to write to you, here.
I might have to think more deeply about what really needs getting done by June. In the meantime, what I want to say today is, I hope you’re all doing OK. It helped me to realize that I haven’t been as OK as I thought, and I wondered if sharing my experience might be helpful to you in some way. I’m understanding in a new way that coming out of this pandemic is going to be a process, and likely a long one. At least for some of us.
Two springs ago I planted a vine in my backyard. Last spring, in the early weeks of the shutdown, I was afraid it hadn’t survived the winter. Weeks after everything else had shown signs of coming back to life, the vine was still a network of bare branches clinging to the fence that supports it. I’ve had the same wonderings this spring. As my willow burst into pink buds and my blousy tulips opened wide, the vine showed not even the signs of buds, and I worried a bit. I reminded myself of what I know to be true: It did this last year, and it was alive, even though it didn’t seem to be. But this week, it gave me this:
That’s enough to go on, for now.
I’m still on haitus (or going back on it), but you can think of me as being like the vine, getting ready to bloom again when I’m good and ready. We’re all on our own timelines, and that’s OK.
Because for a few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I haven’t wanted to write lately, and a few days ago I gave myself permission not to write this week unless I wanted to, and then I spent Saturday morning cleaning floors and talking with my daughter and eating German pastries with Cane and taking a long walk in the sun and it felt really, really good to start my day that way, and I’d like to have more spring Saturdays like the one I just had.
Because getting to the end of the school year feels like rounding the last corner of a 440 (as it was called back in my track days), where you somehow have to sprint even though your legs have turned into hot plastic and it feels like you’re about to vomit your lungs.
Because I need a different kind of space and energy, for awhile, as we emerge from our pandemic lives and make our way not back to our pre-pandemic lives but forward into whatever our post-pandemic lives will be.
Because I have three consuming and life-changing projects beginning, and I need to make a lot of things happen in a short period of time.
Because writing, my whole life, has been marked by fallow periods that are just as important as the ones in which words bloom.
Because I can still connect with far-away folks through their blogs or through email or social media.*
Because too much heat and light will kill the seeds of whimsy before they sprout.
Because white space might be the most important element of design.
Because the days are getting longer but life is getting shorter.
Because sometimes even I need a break from my voice.
Because right now I want to listen more than talk.
Because a hiatus is a pause, not a stop.**
I hope you enjoy the spring, whenever and however it comes to you. Take care.
*I have a Twitter account, but I rarely use it. I’m on FB less and less. I’m liking Instagram and accept follow requests from those I don’t recognize unless: a) you’re a guy who likes to post pics of yourself with no shirt on and/or only pics of yourself; b) you’re following 300 gazillion (or so) but you have only 3 followers (like, literally only 3); c) you only have 3 posts; d) you somehow otherwise smell like a bot; e) any of a-d and your account is private, so I can’t investigate further to get a sense of you are.
**I am 99% sure I will resume writing here, and probably sooner than later. If you want to know when a new post goes up, please subscribe so you’ll get an email notification. There’s a place to do that at the top of the right column. I won’t spam your inbox or sell your address or do anything that’s otherwise nefarious or intrusive. Aside from the fact that I find such practices gross, to do those things I’d have to figure out again where in WordPress subscriber addresses are, and I’ve got way better things to do with my time.
This week I received a survey from the State Library and my state’s school library association, with a long list of questions about how the pandemic has affected library services and my work. After inquiring about ebooks, budgets, programming, teaching, safety, staffing, learning management systems, instructional technology, and more, there was this question tucked in near the end:
I first tried watching it a few years ago, and I hated it. Didn’t even finish the first episode. I tried it again last spring because everyone was talking about it, and I kinda hated it again. I just didn’t like those people, the Roses. They felt like caricatures more than characters, and were of people I’d never choose to spend time with.
“You have to get past the first season,” people said. “It gets better in season two.”
So, last fall I went back for a third time, telling myself I would get through season 2 before giving up.
Now I’m in season 4 and doling out the episodes so they’ll last longer. Somewhere in season 3 it occurred to me that the Roses’ story is a perfect one for this time, when so many of us felt our lives turn upside down almost overnight. (I think March 13 will, like September 11, be a date I never forget.) Can’t we all relate, at least a little, to a family who lost almost everything they took for granted? And can’t we all take some comfort and pleasure in watching the process of them acclimate and put down roots in a place they never would have seen themselves in, much less chosen? It’s already clear to me (if not them) that they are far happier than they ever were in their old life. I hope that by the end of the story, it becomes clear to them, too.
I’d say the same is true for me, as well, living in Pandemic Land. This week, I was in a long Zoom meeting with a colleague/friend I’ve hardly “seen” this year but who was in the school I worked for last year. We had a lot of conversations before March 13 about how to manage the challenges of our jobs and lives. “How are things going?” she texted me afterward. “You look much less stressed somehow.”
I answered: “Sometimes reaching a point of awful you really can’t do anything about gives you a permission to let go that is freeing.”
That night, I fell asleep in front of Netflix’s The Minimalists, but not before hearing and thinking about its primary message: We are so consumed with having physical things that we forfeit the intangible ones that make us truly happy–time, community, creativity, meaningful accomplishment, rest, health (personal and global). There are some things in my life that are hugely challenging–more challenging than they’ve ever been, maybe–but my friend was seeing something true: I am less stressed. I have fewer obligations and fewer life chores and more time than I’ve ever had for long conversations, leisurely meals, neighborhood walks, and serious contemplation. I’ve begun moving through my days at a slower pace, doing what I reasonably can rather than what some unreasonable voice is telling me I should. (No one seems to have noticed or, if they have noticed, to have cared.) That voice has gone mostly silent.
My life–not unlike the Roses’–is much smaller than it once was. There are people and places I deeply miss, but most of what has fallen away I do not. My connections to what and who remains are deeper. I don’t know that I am happier; the departure of Busyness made it easier for Hard Things to come in. But on the whole, I am calmer. I am finding that letting some of those hard things claim space has been easier than fighting to hold the door against them.
I’m glad I went back for a third try with this story, and I’m glad I watched it from the beginning. As is always true, you need the dark to more fully appreciate the light. I’m beginning to love these characters it was easy to hate before I got to know them. I love them more for seeing how they’ve grown. I love the reminder that stories and time have to intersect in the right way; 2017 wasn’t the right time for this story for me. I love, too, a corollary reminder about story: That you just need to tell the story you need to tell, wherever and however you can tell it. The Levys were developing and shopping this story well before the time Roses’ fall might be seen as metaphorical for so many things that have fallen in recent years, and they had a hard time selling it. Once they started telling it, it took a good while to catch on. They just kept telling the story, though, trusting (I imagine) that it was reaching who it needed to.
So, in addition to listing “holding boundaries” and “reciting the Serenity Prayer” as self-care that’s working for me, I also listed “binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.” Spending time with this story is good for me. I hate to think of it ending, but I suspect that by the time it does, I won’t need it in the same way. It’s already imprinting upon and shaping my own. It’s clear that they will never go back to what they once were, and over the past few weeks, as vaccines and political pressure on schools are harbingers of another set of new changes coming my way, I’ve realized that I won’t, either.
The day before the biopsy; 1,453 days after the last inauguration and 8 days until the next one:
I wake up with the tightness on the right side of my skull that always means migraine is coming. I email my doctor to make sure that I can take my meds before the biopsy, if necessary. I’ve learned that I should always assume it could be a migraine day, rather than that it won’t be.
Still, the tightness is light. Maybe I slept wrong. Maybe it will go away. Maybe I just need to drink some water. Maybe if I stay off screens all morning.
As I open the bedroom door and enter into my day, I remind myself: It’s never if, it’s always when. There is nothing I can do to hold it off forever.
The biopsy will be in the morning, but I am going to take the whole day off work. I plan to get groceries and clean the house. I’m having a hard time getting these things done on the weekends. I’m having a hard time getting through the week days. The previous week, the first one back from winter break, I had a 3-day migraine following an emotional meltdown and the insurrection at the Capitol.
I’m trying to figure out how to finish this school year in one piece.
The day of the biopsy; 7 days after the insurrection at the Capitol, 7 days before the inauguration:
On the morning of the biopsy, I watch a short film in which 5 women at different stages of life reflect on their bodies.
I remember being a girl and loving my body. I was fast and strong. (In 4th grade, I ran faster than every boy on field day.) My body was me and I was it. I don’t remember feeling that way about my body at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I can see I felt that way about it. It was before I was aware of my body as an object.
As a teen-ager, I cleaved from my body. It was a thing admired by boys and men. It was a thing for me to fight against. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to, but it looked the way it was supposed to. I was supposed to be grateful for it, looking that way. I learned that I wasn’t allowed to complain about it to other women. I felt it separate me from some of those who should have been my compatriots, my allies. I tried to appreciate my luck that I could eat whatever I wanted and never get fat. I ate to kill hunger. I ate for the pleasure of taste. I did not feed my body.
I think about all of this on the morning of my third ultrasound and an aspiration biopsy. Regardless of the results, which are likely to be reassuring, something has already changed for me. It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, that my body can spontaneously grow something we think it shouldn’t. My body has been doing things we think it shouldn’t since adolescence, when endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome made their presence known. (Not that I knew, then, what they were or that anything was really there–as opposed to in my head, which was suggested as the source of my pain, cementing for me an idea that my head was, in some important sense, a thing separate from my body. I did not have those names, those diagnoses, those frames with which to understand my body’s experiences for more than a decade, when my inability to conceive finally made doctors take my body seriously.) Still, it is a surprise, and now I look at my body differently. I feel differently about it.
I remember a poem a woman shared in my poetry workshop, back in the mid-80s, about her newborn; she compared his body to that of a frog, listed all the ways in which his body was not the one she expected, making him not the baby she had dreamed of. The last line was, “your mother is trying to learn to love you.” Most of the poems from that workshop have left me now, but that one stays. After she shared hers, I wrote one about my body, the first time I admitted out loud that I thought of my body as an antagonist to the protagonist that is me.
My body has changed during the pandemic. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s my mid-50s. Maybe it’s living through four years of attempted autocratic takeover. Maybe it’s that my job has become toxic to me. Maybe it’s all of the above. My body feels like a foreign country these days, and I’m an expat who wants to go home. I’m trying to learn to love it.
On the morning of the biopsy, I think that maybe the metaphor I’ve just conjured is all wrong. Maybe my body isn’t a country, but a passport.
I start to think about Befores and Afters. I wonder if, the day I get the results, my life will cleave into a Before and After, and then I wonder if that will be the true beginning of an After or if the After has already begun without me knowing it. Maybe the beginning of After was the day in December when the second ultrasound results meant I needed a biopsy and a specialist. Maybe it was the day a few weeks before that when I saw myself swallowing in a mirror and it looked as if a golf ball were bobbing up and down inside my throat. Maybe it was the day in August when my doctor asked if I’d noticed the lump on my thyroid, a bump then so small I couldn’t see or feel it, even when she brushed my fingers over it.
The migraine I felt approaching the day before hits me in the hospital, in the middle of the aspiration. The doctor and nurse are talking about the wild storm we’d had the night before, which downed tree limbs and took out power all over the city.
“Before I realized there was a storm, I heard a loud noise, something hitting the side of my house,” the doctor, who is not white, says to her, who is. “I didn’t know what it was, so I got out my gun and went outside.”
She laughs, and he does, too, but I, with a needle stuck in my neck, feel tears rising along with the pain in my head and my understanding of the implications of his words and how he said them. How he said, “I got out my gun” as if it was just another useful object for his task, like, say, a pair of gloves or a flashlight.
I take my meds on the way to the parking lot, and it feels like it’s all I can do to get home. The day I planned is lost to fatigue and fog.
The day of results;inauguration day:
I finally receive a phone call from the doctor’s office. The doctor would like to go over the results of my biopsy; can I take a call in 10 minutes?
Yes, of course.
Why aren’t the results just posted in my online medical chart, like every other test result has been? Why can’t this nice-sounding Cory just tell me the results, if the results are benign? I don’t ask if he can just tell me; I know he can’t.
10 minutes become 20, and then Cory calls me again to ask if I can wait another 20 or so more.
Do I have a choice?
While waiting, I am watching everyone’s reactions to the presidential inauguration in my social media feeds. I did not get to see the inauguration because I had a work meeting. Maybe that is the reason I cannot feel the jubilation everyone else seems to be feeling. Maybe it is because I had another meeting right after the inauguration that is the latest in a series of meetings that have grown increasingly hard to tolerate. “It feels like they are just gaslighting us,” a colleague texts me during the meeting. I feel a jolt of recognition: Yes, it does. Yes, I know what gaslighting is. Yes, yes, yes.
I am watching everyone’s reactions because I am too agitated to work. I wish I could feel some simple joy and release, but I cannot. I am relieved but I am also angry and teary and so, so tired.
Finally, the doctor calls, and I take a deep breath. I want him to just spit it out, whatever it is.
“It’s benign,” he finally says. The solid parts of the nodule are benign. The nodule was mostly fluid.
“Are you feeling relief from the aspiration?” he asks. “Is it smaller now?”
Yes, I tell him, I am and it is. I tell him that the pressure on my throat is now gone.
He says some other things I won’t remember, and then I ask the question I need an answer to:
“What happens now?”
He tells me that we will monitor it now, and that there may be more ultrasounds and aspirations in my future if it grows back. It can continue to grow back.
I know I should feel happy. “You don’t have cancer!” he told me, and I could hear the exclamation point in his voice. (I bet he loves to say those words. I would, if I were him.) I do feel relief, but it is flat. (The odds of cancer were small, so the threat never felt real, but it could have been, and I did know that. I could be feeling something much, much worse than the small, sharp pinch of anxiety I felt over Cory not giving me the results himself.)
I want relief to make me feel the way I did Before–before I knew in a new way that my body can betray me and do things I cannot control and for which there are no readily available explanations. I wonder what it might be doing now, invisibly, and if it might, even in this moment of relief, be failing in ways that will not become apparent until much later. I miss my innocence, which I can see now wasn’t lost suddenly, all-at-once during the biopsy, but in layers over decades of living in a body that never worked as good as it looked. Nonetheless, the biopsy has taken me into some new territory of understanding, one from which there can be no true returning, and I long to feel once again, just once more, the way I did in fourth grade, Keds pounding into hard-packed dirt, hair rippling in wind of my own making, my strength and speed surprising myself as much as all those boys behind me.
A note: I have been reading, for the first time in years, about creative non-fiction. From Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant, I especially value this quotation from Annie Dillard, for reminding me of a realization I had once upon a very long time ago (thanks in large part to her essay “Living Like Weasels”):
I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.
I appreciate the reminders throughout the book that creative non-fiction is not just a relating of events (and thoughts are a kind of event), but of creating art from events by making purposeful choices about structure, narration, action, style, and language.
Today’s essay/post is an attempt to express artistically some of what I said in last week’s post, which was not art so much as a brain dump. (For a really great example of an essay reflecting on current events that is as much poem as essay and is gorgeous political art, I recommend “Inside the Blue Hole.”) Last week’s post content came not only from frustration and worry about what’s been happening for all of us, but also from frustration with the circumstances of my own life. Over break, I was able to write the beginnings of art. A whole book took shape in my head, and I started to capture it in notes and lists of books and essays, and in posts here. Within days of returning to work, I felt it slipping away from me (the cause of the meltdown referenced in the essay above). I tried my best to hold on, but I couldn’t. Last week I accepted that some weeks a dump is all I can manage, and that it will have to be good enough for now.
A post by Ally this week took me down a word-count rabbit hole, and at the bottom of it was realization that I’ve written the equivalent of, roughly, 2.5 full-length books in the past six years here. (Last year alone was 1 book.) Of course, there’s much more to writing a book than simply getting words out, but still. Just getting words out is something.
I have no grand conclusion here, no big pronouncements to make. I expect to keep showing up here as I have been–sometimes giving you the first drafts of something like art, and sometimes giving you a word dump. But rumination is happening. Change is afoot.
“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….
By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.
Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5
“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….
Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”
Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1
In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.
I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.
“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”
“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”
“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”
“What should my three points be?”
“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”
Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.
To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.
Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.
Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.
In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.
Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”
Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.
After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?
Then, the pandemic hit.
Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)
For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?
I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.
Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:
Eat locally and sustainably.
Shop at farmers’ markets.
Plant a garden.
Conserve, compost, and recycle.
Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
Remember food is precious.
Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.
Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?
I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.
Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.
“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”
“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”
“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.
I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.
How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?