Coronavirusdiary #1

A teacher friend on Facebook shared an article about a history professor at the University of Virginia who suggested to his students that they keep a diary of this time. In answer to the question of why it might be important for people to write their experiences down, he said:

Our normal days in the now-suddenly-distant past may well have often dulled us into just getting through them. Our sudden lives now stop us, and lead us to wonder about our experiences and our feelings on many passing moments.

This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring? 

When I consider the distance of the days between my post last Sunday and this Sunday, it feels too much to capture. And, honestly, I don’t want to even try. This feels like an experience that needs to be recorded in something more like a poem than an essay–in telling images and moments, rather than in lengthy exposition and cataloging of official happenings. There will be voluminous documentation, I’m sure, of the macro. But I’ve always been much more interested in the micro–in how enormous events play out in the minutiae of individual lives.

Zoom happy hour, social distancing style
Bedroom painting project (still not finished)
Garage-organization project, days 1-3
Grocery shopping in an economically poor neighborhood (mine) in the time of pandemic

How are you doing? we ask each other (through text, messaging, phone calls, zoom calls).

How are we doing? It feels as if many of us had a day of reckoning this week–a day in which we understood, in a deeper way, the ramifications of what is happening. For me, it came on Wednesday. I woke sometime in the night the way I have in the direct wake of other life-altering events, forgetting for a brief moment that life was no longer as I knew it, and then suddenly remembering that my earth had slipped off its axis. The coronavirus, I thought, and then remembered that I wasn’t going to be getting up and going to school, that my daughter wasn’t returning from Sweden, that our markets are crashing, that small businesses are failing, that friends are out of work, that people are dying and going to die, that I could not go visit my parents or go see a movie or eat at my favorite restaurants or get my haircut or see my friends or or or… I felt the kind of need to ground myself in a new reality that I have felt when people died, when a marriage ended, when my children left home. Things are both exactly the same and very much not the same, and I’m off-balance, wobbly on my feet. The coronavirus, I thought, grounding myself in the reality that there is no solid ground to our reality right now.

How are you doing? I am trying to get the cognitive dissonance to settle down. All weekend after our schools close I stay home and read the news stories on my computer, the charts and graphs with curves that need to flatten, the pleas from those in Italy to do things differently than they did, and I share the stories and I tag them #stayhome, but then early in the week I get in my car to do something essential and I see the road filled with cars, the sidewalks filled with people who are not keeping their distance from one another, and the stories and charts and graphs feel unreal. Why am I not at work when all these other people are? Where are they all going? What’s really real? On my return from the dentist (essential), I impulsively run into the craft store for embroidery floss because it’s still open, because I need things to do with my hands, because I tell myself I can do it safely. I wear gloves. I feel guilty. I am guilty. Forgive me, I think. Maybe it’s OK, I think. It feels essential to me, right now. I touch nothing but the floss I put in my basket. Please let this be OK, I think. I am a hypocrite, I think, as I strip off the gloves before touching the steering wheel.

How are you doing? Tears well easily, and frequently, and always they surprise me. They come the day my mother emails to tell me that she’s accepted that she will not be able to make the trip to DC to see my daughter graduate from college, and I see she has not yet reached the obvious (but still not officially announced) conclusion that there will be no commencement ceremony. The day she calls me to say that she’s canceled both our flights and our hotel reservation. The afternoon I watch my high school friends on Facebook mourn the death of our beloved choir teacher, killed by the virus. The morning my friend whose college-student daughter can’t get out of Peru sends me a picture of her child’s smiling host family, celebrating their own young daughter’s birthday in quarantine. When she tells me that the family told her daughter, “you are our family now.” Multiple times while reading a YA novel about a Seattle girl whose life is shattered by a tragedy, and how runs across the whole country as she tries to both escape and control the trauma she can neither control nor escape. They come right now, as I type these words and remember each of these moments.

How are you doing? Early in the week I am drifting, floundering. I lose big parts of days doing…what? I’m not sure. I start projects and don’t finish them. I buy food in case I can’t later, including treats I normally wouldn’t, but right now I have little desire to eat. I watch people around me mobilize into action that looks almost manic, but maybe that’s just in comparison to me, who is floating. I lose two days to headache because it’s not that bad (I tell myself) and because I don’t take my meds because I am afraid I might run out and be unable to get more. I finally take them, and as the fog clears I can see that it was bad, worse than I’d allowed myself to acknowledge. I write. I think about what it is that most needs doing, and how it feels impossible that “nothing” might be the right answer to the question, even as it feels like it probably is. I try to pay attention–pay attention!–to the ordinary pleasures that remain, so that I might not be kicking myself in the future the way I am now about not fully noticing and appreciating the night two weekends ago we went out for dinner and a movie, even though I suspected at the time that it might be the last time we did it for awhile. I can’t even remember now where we ate. I long to remember where we ate.

Near the end of the week, we go out to take a walk through a favorite walking neighborhood. The businesses on the neighborhood’s commercial street are dark, the curbs usually lined end-to-end with cars only dotted with them. We see that a pizza place at the end of the block is still open for take-out, and it feels like a wondrous gift.

“Oh, let’s order some,” I say. “It’s Friday night, remember?” I say, as if Friday still means what it did a week ago. So we do, and it feels so good, to do something so ordinary in this extraordinary time. We tell them we’ll be there in an hour to pick up the pizza, and we walk in the day’s waning sunshine. I take photos for my house embroidery project, and we note plants and flowers in other yards we’d like to add to ours.

In front of one of the houses is a giant sequoia, and I stop to look up through its branches. I take a photo, trying to capture how the tree’s arms look like infinity, or the face of a god, or a puzzle whose pieces I could never sort. Everything feels so much bigger and older than I will ever be, all the world’s mystery and power and wonder embodied into this one thing, right here, on an ordinary sidewalk in Portland on a Friday evening in March, the end of week one of our pandemic. I snap a photo, sure it will be like all the other photos I’ve taken looking up into the limbs of trees, a disappointing mishmash of shadow and lines that don’t at all capture what I felt when I clicked the shutter.

But this time, some kind of wonderful happens when I shoot, which I discover not long after, sitting at the kitchen table and eating the pizza, which tastes better than any pizza has tasted in a long time. The photo looks almost more like a painting than a photo, and it’s there, all of it, just as I saw it. It’s like magic, the way the tree–our lives now–are half in shadow, half in light, a beautiful thickety maze that stretches up and up as far as we can see.

Your turn

I would love to hear about your week. Please share in the comments, or link to your own diary if it’s digital.

6 sentences

This week I came across an essay that will stay with me awhile. It’s framed by six sentences that John Paul Brammer can’t forget. Not because they are attached to milestones or life-changing events, but because they

“…accidentally reveal too much—about the person who spoke them, or about the person who heard them, or about the relationship they share. They illustrate private worlds, bring us into exhilarating contact with another person’s depths. Their inexplicable survival is proof of their importance, their holiness.”

Brammer says that these are not sentences we choose, but sentences that choose us, and that he wishes he could know everybody’s.

Naturally, I started thinking about what my sentences might be. I started thinking about how a whole memoir might be written in this way, small vignettes anchored by a line of dialogue that–like a poem–reveals a novel’s worth of words in a few lines.

I hoped to write up all six of mine, but I could only develop two by today, and neither feels as if it is completely done. But here they are:

“Who do you think you are?”

I was in sixth grade, in the principal’s office. Mr. Driver was a beefy, ruddy-faced man. According to those who would know, he was comfortable wielding a paddle. No one liked him. One day he appeared in my classroom door and summoned me. Following him down the breezeway, I tried to predict what our meeting would be about. I was a good student, a good kid. A rule follower, perhaps to a fault. Was I being taken to his office to receive some kind of recognition or other good news? What could it be? Because, surely, I could not be in any kind of trouble.

I’m not sure if our conversation actually opened with “Who do you think you are?” but in my memory it did, and I was as surprised and shocked as I would have been if he’d slapped me.

“Who do you think you are?” is never a question. It is always an accusation, and a weapon.

By the time he was done dressing me down about my arrogance and inflated sense of importance, which, he assured me, were unwarranted, I knew that my teacher and the school librarian had shared grievances of mine with him, among them my outrage when, as a punishment for some students vandalizing bathrooms, all of us were denied access to them other than at recess time. This punishment violated all my ideas about fairness and basic rights.

“I know you’re one of the students throwing those toilet paper wads on the bathroom ceiling,” he said somewhere in the middle of his tirade.

I wasn’t, but I was too flooded with shame to say anything. I had thought my conversations were confidential. I had trusted those other two adults and the relationships I thought I had with them. If they thought there was something so wrong with me that I needed this reprimand, perhaps there was. Or perhaps I had been wrong about who they were to me, which indicated a different kind of failing on my part.

Who did I think I was?

Before I went into his office, I thought I was a girl who understood the world and my place in it. When I left, I knew I wasn’t.

“Grandpa’s hard.”

I didn’t tell my dad about Mr. Driver until I was well into high school.

I grew up in a home where getting in trouble at school meant getting in bigger trouble at home, so I didn’t dare. As my daughter said about my dad when she was just a little girl, “Grandpa’s hard.”

“Hard” can mean firm. It can mean rigid. It can mean difficult. It can mean exacting. When I was young, he got angry once when I told him that I “forgot to remember” something I was supposed to do, more angry at my words than at my failure to do whatever it was I’d forgotten.

“Don’t make excuses like that,” he said. “Just say that you didn’t do it.”

Another time, when I was a teen-ager, in response to something I can no longer remember, he said, “You might be the dumbest smart person I know.” That sounds cruel. Certainly not kind, and I suppose that’s partly why the words have stayed with me even though the story attached to them is gone.

It was more than that, though–or maybe, just not as simple as that. I remember pondering the idea that one could be a dumb smart person. What did that mean, really? And how might that be different from being the smartest dumb person? I thought I could feel a compliment inside his hard words, sort of.

I’ve come to realize that, like my own words, my dad’s are not always understood, which means that he is not always understood. For years I nursed resentment over his reaction to my 7th grade report card, in which I had all A’s, except for a B in English. He studied it in his recliner after dinner the day I brought it home, his face serious. Finally, he said:

“Why’d you get a B in English?”

Really? All those A’s, and all he could say something about was the B? Really?

What I heard in his question was disappointment and judgement and a demand for perfection. I shrugged, bitter that he didn’t appreciate a report card other parents would be thrilled with.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I told him how much that moment had bothered me, so much so that I still remembered it. He was dumbfounded to learn that his words had had the impact they did. “I was just surprised,” he said. “English was always your best subject. I didn’t understand why you’d gotten a B in that.”

Oh.

I could see, then, how I’d been dumb in that moment he questioned me about my report card. I could see, too, the wondering within his proclamation that I was the dumbest smart person he knew. He was genuinely perplexed by some of the things I did and didn’t do, a puzzlement I now understand because I have a child of my own who is wicked smart and whose teen-age years were filled with choices I could not, for the life of me, comprehend.

Maybe it was then that I more deeply understood his reaction when I finally told him about Mr. Driver and the way he’d pulled me into his office to take me down a peg. We were driving to a family holiday gathering, and we were reminiscing about earlier years, and it felt safe to float that story from the back seat, enough in the past that it might now be a funny one.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked. I admitted that I had been afraid to.

“Oh, Rita,” he said. “I wish you’d told me. I would have gone in and talked to him.” He looked straight ahead, at the road. I could see his jaw twitching beneath his cheek. He shook his head. “That was just wrong for him to do that to you.” A pause, and then, again: “I wish you would have told me.”

At the time, I felt vindication for my earlier hurt feelings, and also relief that I wasn’t “in trouble” with my dad. I was long past a grounding or some other kind of punishment, but I still wanted his approval. Now, though, I see a different meaning in his words. I see that he was telling me that it wasn’t a funny story, and that he was sorry not to have been more understood by me, so that he could have done something to make what happened right.

“Hard” can mean firm, and rigid, and difficult, and exacting. It can also mean strong and unyielding. My dad, like his love, is hard.

*****

The rest of my sentences are listed below, and I’ve got seven total, not six. Although I didn’t see a thread or story between them initially, I do now. It wasn’t until digging into the piece just above that I added the seventh sentence to my list. I’ll need it to tell the story completely.

The remaining sentences:

  • “My love life is wonderful, and I haven’t been drinking.”
  • “It’s important to be a finisher.”
  • “I hope you’ll remember that this is mostly your own personal tragedy.”
  • “Don’t ever think that anything is wasted on you.”
  • “What kind of hard do you want?”

While I was showering (where some of my best writing happens) and trying to figure out which sentence in the story about my dad most revealed the essential truth about him and me, I saw that the vignette contained multiple sentences I can’t forget:

  • Why’d you get a B?
  • You’re the dumbest smart person I know.
  • Grandpa’s hard.
  • I forgot to remember.

Now I’m thinking about using this idea of unforgettable sentences as a tool to work the other way round: What if we start with a memory and before we even write a word of it, we just think about the memorable utterances of its characters?

Mostly what I’m thinking about, though, is the value of exercises and models. Any model can generate a prompt or exercise, and prompts are great for taking us into stories we didn’t even know we wanted to tell.

Your turn:

I’d love to hear six of your sentences. Like Brammer, I’m now curious about everyone’s sentences.

Creating Life

“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”

My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.

At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.

I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.

“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”

“But does it have to?”

Careful, careful…

“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.

“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”

Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.

How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?

Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.

“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”

Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?

“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”

“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”

I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.

BAM.

Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.

It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.

What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?

She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.

Shit.

“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”

In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.

Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)

Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.

As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.

I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.

In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”

“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.

The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.

I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.

“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”

I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”

It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.

In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.

What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”

Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”

Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.

But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.

As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.

Extra Credit:

Rebecca Walker Explains Rift with Mother, Alice” from NPR

Taking Care of the Truth–Embedded Slander: A Meditation on the Complicity of Wikipedia,” by Alice Walker

“‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem that Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From” by Ann Bauer

Feminism and Tillie Olson’s Silences by Bianca Lech (or better yet, read Silences, a work that shook me way back in the day)

In memoriam

34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.

I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.

But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.

The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.

I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.

I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.

Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):

“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”

You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:

We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….

Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”

Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.

I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.

He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.

Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.

In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.

Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.

Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.

The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.

I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.

This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.

I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:

Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.

Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.

I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.

I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.

We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:

…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”

Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.

It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.

A love letter, of sorts

“I’ve missed your writing,” a new old friend told me the morning after a high school reunion. I think he asked why I haven’t been posting anything here, and I think I said something like, “I don’t know, not sure, life, busy,” but I don’t really remember.

Writing, for me, has always been a bit of a hot-cold thing. There have always been long periods when the words lie fallow. Earlier in my life, those times distressed me, but I came to accept that times of silence are just part of how it is for me. I don’t try to figure out what it’s about, something that became easier to do once I realized the dormancy wasn’t about laziness or lack of discipline or talent or anything I could construe as a character flaw. It’s something that just is, for me. Being able to be this kind of easy about what some might call writer’s block is one of the luxuries that come from not attaching this work to my livelihood. (Another way to look at it: Knowing this about myself is one of the reasons I made a decision not to attach this work to my livelihood.) Honestly, I don’t feel blocked. It’s not as if there are words rising behind some dam. It’s more like the stream has dried up. For now.

I do know, though, that the state of the world isn’t conducive to creative output from me. Last night I walked through a neighborhood I no longer recognize, so many of its modest bungalows and old shops replaced by shiny towers of commerce and soulless studio apartments, grey and white boxes that seem like the architectural equivalent of fast-fashion. In front of me was a 20-something white guy with a t-shirt that proclaimed “Fucked by Satan” in some obnoxiously loud font. He had a tattoo of a spoon on his forearm. He had a lot of tattoos, none of them artful, but that one stood out to me. Why a spoon? (Why not?, I suppose.) All around me were walls and noise and people with expensive shoes and posturing t-shirts and it was hard not to hate everyone and everything, including myself for being there. This feeling was not, of course, really about them.

Except, it also was. It was about all of us on Mississippi Ave. drinking over-priced drinks and artisan burgers in a food cart pod that rings a permanent deck and picnic tables and string lights, all of us kind of playing at being Portland-weird and funky and plain folks in a part of town that all of the plain folks who previously occupied it have been pushed out of while, you know, kids in the other Mississippi ended their first day of school sleeping on gym floors because their parents had been arrested at work for being brown in America. (Or, as we like to say, ‘Merca!.)

And the shootings, of course.

(What does it mean that we can write sentences such as that last one, shootings as afterthought, or as such a given they almost need not be mentioned?)

Writing–or any art-making–I think, is ultimately an act of love. We do it because we care about saying something that those we love might need to hear. Or to serve those we love in some way. It’s hard for me to make love when I feel surrounded by white guys in “Fucked by Satan” t-shirts. Or MAGA hats. Maybe that’s why I’ve been silent.

I know that when I’m having a “world is too much with us” kind of time, the standard antidote to is to get away from people for a while until I can see their beauty again. Or, at least, get away from the gentrified parts of Portland. (I think that last fragment contains a redundancy.) I know I should probably get my Wendell Berry on and go search for the peace of wild things. But it is hard to do that and not think about the rampant, unprecedented wild fires in the arctic. (Just when you think “And the shootings, of course” is the most outrageous sentence you might put in a blog post, one like that last one comes along to challenge that.)

It is hard to seek out nature and not think about the wild fires in Siberia and not think that perhaps the wild things would really appreciate it, perhaps, if fewer of us were practicing self-care and more of us were “taxing our lives with the forethought of grief” so that we might actually do some things to prevent the losses that could be prevented. Maybe we would if we knew what they were. Maybe there aren’t any things, really, and that is why we go out in stupid clothes and spend money stupidly on over-priced food and drink in pretentious settings. Or why I do.

The day after the reunion I visited the beach I always went to for solace and guidance during adolescence, and I realized that what was comforting about it was the sense I had not just of the water’s size–which put my worries and problems into perspective–but also of its permanence. Somehow knowing that the tide would continue to come in and go out long after I would be able to sit on the shore watching it do so helped me endure whatever I was having trouble enduring. I know the planet has never been fixed, that it is always changing, adapting, transforming. But. When I go to find the peace of wild things any more what I feel most is grief, the kind you feel when you miss someone before they’ve even left you.

So what I’ve been doing instead of writing is painting a bathroom (among other things). While I sanded obsessively to rid the door jamb of ridges of (probably lead-based, but honestly, I find it hard to care about that these days) paint, I listened to the audio book of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, a Stephen Kingesque novel of a possible apocalypse. It was political and social commentary wrapped in a page-turner, profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. I truly disliked the performance of one of the narrators, but I listened to all 32 hours and 22 minutes of it just the same. (Deep ridges of paint. Paint that I should probably have just accepted as it was.) Sometimes there is solace to be had in sci-fi horror. It’s scary because the horror is rooted in what is real, but the world of the novel is so much worse than the one we’re actually inhabiting. Or, at least, it feels that way. Mostly. (I suspect the fictional white nationalists’ arsenals might be too spot-on.)

Anyway, I knew of the book because I read Wendig’s blog, which is profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. He has written more than once about the need to create things in times such as these, difficult as it can be in such times because it is easy to feel that art is frivolous when there are so many, many fires (both literal and metaphorical) that we’d like to put out. How is a poem (or blog post) going to save the planet or house the homeless or pick up those children from school? It’s not. But, Chuck (and others, notably Toni Morrison, who died this week) argue that art is essential in times such as these, when we need to connect with our humanity and each other and keep ourselves whole. If you think about it too much (which I am wont to do), the whole thing becomes paralyzing: Both writing and not-writing can feel like self-centered indulgence.

But, as I wrote at the beginning of this ramble, writing or not writing is mostly not a choice for me. I can try to force it, but I’ve learned that doing so doesn’t really work for me. Still, I’m writing these words now, I guess, even though I didn’t really feel like doing it when I sat down at my computer this morning, because I want to say that if you are feeling off your game (whatever that game might be) and maybe not even playing it, that might be OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are weak or lazy or overly privileged and just need to buck up and get to it. (I mean, maybe all of those things are true, but lack of productivity is not damning evidence of it.) We are living through a hard, shitty time, and most of us are doing the best we can. That’s not an artful sentence, but I’m pretty sure it’s a true one. I think it’s important to say things that are true, even if plainly is the only way we can muster to say them. Pay attention to what’s happening, and cut yourself some slack if need be. You’ll do what you need to, when you need to, when you can, as you can. Isn’t that what all of us are always doing?

I am writing these words now, I guess, as an act of love, both for myself and for you who are reading them. I don’t really hate you, even if it seems like I said I do. Not even if you’re wearing a MAGA hat, even though I really, really hate what you’re doing. You are kinda wearing me out and breaking my heart, but I don’t hate you. I am writing these words now, this morning because I tend to believe that love is more verb than noun, and connecting with our humanity is something we could all benefit from doing more of, and sometimes acting as if is the only way to make things so.

All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.

The Student Who Shot My Other Student

He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.

I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.

I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.

I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.

The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.

Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.

In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.

Return to Sender

Remember when you thought going to bed was the best time of day, the way you curled your body into the curve of his, your torsos and legs a pair of nesting commas, his arms holding you like the string on a present, something to both secure and decorate your wrapping?

Remember when you thought that finding the love of your life meant no more choices to make, that it would last until death parted you from it, biology’s ruthlessness the only unbreachable barrier?

Remember the day your father told you that if a ship were sinking and he had to choose between saving your mother or saving you, he would choose her? Remember nodding, yes, of course, of course that would only be right, even as you imagined your little-girl arms flailing for someone to hold onto?

Remember your great-uncle Shorty, who came back broken from the war and never mended, how one time he pointed at you from his chair in his mother’s dark living room, saying nothing, pipe dangling, and how you ran to your mother in the kitchen and hid your face in the space between her legs? Remember how, later, you said it felt as if he were claiming or marking you as one of his kind?

Remember the space between your legs, how important it seemed to fill it, that tunnel a conduit to your hollow core, the empty package of you?

Remember the boy who drank too much one night and fell down the stairs and how for a while afterward said the kind of things we think but don’t say, and how he told the boyfriend who would become your first husband that you were damaged? Remember after the divorce, how you would think that he had been right?

Remember that package you got once in the mail, how its box was so tattered and mashed that you were sure its contents must be broken, that the whole thing would have to be returned?

Remember how you were wrong?

 

*********************

Another exercise from the poetry group mentioned here. Guess I’m working on some things.

The Morning I Notice My Old Wedding Ring

Because it was there to notice in the cardboard box where I once put it, the box in which I keep all my earrings

(because I’m not a jewelry person, the kind of woman who owns enough jewelry to warrant a proper box), the box I keep meaning to go through and clean out

Because so many of the earrings are missing mates that aren’t going to reappear, no matter how much I once loved them–that funky teardrop turquoise one, my birthstone; or the expensive gold hoop my parents gave me; or that silver heart-shaped one I lost somewhere in the old house, the one I lived in with the man I didn’t marry–and

Because for some reason I notice it this morning, when it’s been there so long that I usually don’t, and

Because I am in a place where, it seems, so many things must be tested, I stop to try it on my finger to find that it no longer fits, and then I wonder

Why I keep it and all the earrings I will never wear again, and

Why I never quite know what to do with things that no longer fit, and

Why I am not the kind of woman who would ever have an asymmetrical number of piercings, or who might wear a mis-matched pair, and

Why I am the kind of woman who hangs onto things she loves past their point of usefulness, and

Why I can’t part with a wedding ring even though the circle has been broken, and

Because I don’t have any of the answers, and

Because perhaps some day my children might want this piece of metal bent into the shape my finger once was, this little glittering rock to tell them that they came from something that mattered enough for their mother to hold onto an emblem of it,

I put it–all of it, the ring and the questions and the becauses–back into the box and go on with my day, knowing it will not be one in which I discard anything

Just because.

***************

I’ve never been able to commit to NaNoWriMo (or any other WriMo that requires doing a prodigious amount of writing every day in the month of November), but this year I did decide to join an online poetry writing group that runs Nov. 1-30, led by Jena Schwartz. This writing (poem?) came from one of the prompts Jena provided to the group this week. I have decided that for me, writing might be not unlike exercise:  I’d like to think I can just go it alone, but I probably can’t. There’s a synergy that comes from reading others’ words and talking about their words that I can’t manufacture on my own, a force that energizes whatever it is that makes me want to find my own. And, like exercise, there is a value in just showing up, putting yourself out there and doing the work, even if it’s not a contest for a prize. That’s what publishing this piece here is for me. I appreciate whatever it is that comes from being part of this group that made me stop and think about why I noticed my old ring and what it means that I still have it–which makes this, in some ways, also like the kind of daily gratitude practice some take on for the month of November. It’s been a well-spent $30.00.

 

In the middle of the beginning of the end

It is the first week of November.
The roses are blooming, still.

The petals blush and bloom outside the window where I sleep, and they are lovely in a gangly, over-grown way, but I am starting to wonder if pink is the color of doom, a gentle warning from a planet warming.

I remember a childhood summer day, Marie Osmond crooning on the radio about paper roses while I dug rivers and tunnels in my grandparents’ garden. Summer was mild sun and dusky July raspberries and watermelon with seeds and Puget Sound water so cold it almost made your teeth chatter just to look at it. Today I look out the window to the roses and wonder if I will ever have grandchildren who will know such summer days, or if instead I will have grandchildren who look forward to the brambly November blooms of feral roses. (Will I have grandchildren?)

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s always the end of the world as we know it.

In the first week of November I spend a Sunday afternoon at the library, listening to a poet I know talk about the role of poetry in times such as these. On this last Sunday before the election that will be the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, I sit in a room and listen to the words of a poet who first came into my life 27 years ago, right before the first time the life I was living ended and I had to find my way to a new one, and who appeared again at a later time when another life was ending. Perhaps that is why I have come to listen to what he might tell me today. Perhaps I am looking for the kind of support his words offered through those other transitions.

I want to enter into his words, but I cannot. The room is filled with gray hair and white skin, and we are sitting in the open space at the top of three flights of marble stairs, and while part of me fills with something like awe for our humanity and faith in such things as poetry and libraries, another part of me wonders if we are all fiddling away this fall afternoon while our Rome burns, if we should be out knocking on doors and sounding the alarm and telling everyone we know to vote, vote, vote instead of listening to the gentle poet’s gentle words about writing and living and folk songs.  I doze off while sitting up, his words and music (because yes, there is music–guitar, not fiddle) more lullaby than anything else.

I wake up to these words, with these words:  “Poetry is a luxury that could save your life. So maybe it can save your country.”

I am a poet.
I don’t write poetry any more.

He tells us that poets don’t have to be great writers. They have to be great observers, able to catch the poems as they wander by.

How can poetry be both luxury and necessity? How can roses bloom in the season when flowers are supposed to die?

The first week in November I am reading Anne Lamott,* who tells me that all truth is paradox “and this turns out to be reason for hope.” She tells me,

“…paradox is an invitation to go deeper into life, to see a bigger screen instead of the nice, safe lower left quadrant where you see work, home, and the country. Try a wider reality, through curiosity, awareness, and breath. Try actually being here.”

I put things out in the world, things that feel important for everyone to know: the caravan is a humanitarian crisis; the president lies; our kids don’t have librarians to teach them how to find sources of truth. Only a few people seem to reach out to catch them, these little nuggets of doom I offer the way some people offer prayer. “You think that if you just explain everything clearly enough, other people will understand and do the right thing,” a friend tells me in a conversation about how I am naive.

In the first week of November it is the mundane things I share that friends latch on to: a Halloween candy debacle, my clogged plumbing, my acceptance of leggings as pants. Maybe this is more fiddling, but I don’t think so. Maybe it is a kind of grabbing for life rings to keep us afloat in waters we don’t really know how to swim. We have a debate about leggings that is also about norms and appropriateness and oppression (OK, so I’m the only one who brought up oppression), and we all talk about how our ideas about leggings have evolved. For my daughter and her friends, this is a non-issue, a ridiculous conversation. For them, leggings have always been pants. That’s just how it is. Perhaps roses blooming in November will just be how it is for them, too.

The world is ending, as it always has, always will, and the most improbable things are getting me through it. My old, toothless, and increasingly threadbare dogs. Characters in books I haven’t read in decades (Francie Nolan and Harriet M. Welsch and Ole Golly.) German pancakes in a neighborhood bakery that fills with people and sunshine and sugar on weekend mornings. Friends who live half a continent away, people I’ve never met in real life but who give me comfort and laughter, a conduit to joy not possible in the world I was born into. One of them writes to me in the first week of November,

“Nostalgia kills me. Either I dwell on negatives I can’t change or I miss the positives that are gone and not coming back. So what works is focusing on the present…. The moment is right where I belong.”

And later in the first week in November, at the end of a long day, I walk out of school to a nearly empty parking lot and am struck by a wonder of red leaves swirling to the ground in the golden light of a sun about to set. I am weary and frustrated and going home to a house empty of anyone but those tired dogs, but in that moment I breathe in the joy of those leaves, that light, and it becomes something palpable, a good weight in the pit of my stomach. I share this moment later with my friend who belongs in the moment, though we may never share moments through anything other than code that represents them, and only after the moments have passed.

This moment in time is full of paradox, endings that are beginnings and beginnings that are endings. All moments in time are.

Each night I go to sleep alone next to the window next to the roses and remember when I didn’t sleep alone. My life isn’t what I thought it would be, what I want it to be.
I love my life.

The roses, they are breaking me.
The roses, with their common, uncontrollable beauty, they are saving me.

At the reading, after I wake up, a woman sitting behind me asks a question. I recognize her voice, though I haven’t heard it in nearly 10 years. She is the friend of a friend I once had, another poet whose words helped save me when I needed saving. How I have missed Sarah, miss Sarah still, will always miss Sarah, who died too soon, and our friendship that died with her before it had a chance to fully bloom. How I sometimes miss that life I was living when she was my friend and her friend was someone I knew, a life filled with mothering and teaching and writing poetry and living on a mountain where the seasons behaved as I expected them to. How grateful I am for the missing.

Before the reading ends and the poet puts his guitar away, I pull out my yellow pad of paper and begin writing these words. I don’t talk to the poet who gave the reading or the one who asked the question, but in writing I feel connected to them just the same, and grateful for the gifts they are giving me, these words among them. After I capture all the poetry I can in prose, I walk down the three flights of steps and outside the library, where I take photos of the leaves and the light before getting in my car and heading home to my dogs and my solitude and my roses.

I don’t really know anything.
I know more than I ever have.

*From Almost Everything:  Notes on Hope, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Autolessonography

It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’re  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.