Of stories and self-care

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:

What is working for you for self-care?

The first thing that came to mind: binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.

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.

A reprieve (of sorts)

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.

Sunrise, the day before Inauguration. Frosty and pink.

What feeds us

“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.
  • Eat seasonally.
  • Shop at farmers’ markets.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Conserve, compost, and recycle.
  • Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
  • Cook together.
  • Eat together.
  • 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.”

He grinned.

“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?

Long drive home

Image via Toyota Newsroom

Unlike many of my peers, I never had my own car in high school. My parents had a 1971 Toyota Corona that they allowed me to drive to my job at the local library and, occasionally, to high school games when I was a cheerleader during my senior year. In college, I worked for my dad’s employer, which required about a 40-minute drive down I-5 from the University of Washington, and my parents let me take the Corona to campus so that I could go back-and-forth from school to work.

One day, the car wouldn’t start, stranding me in a parking lot. Eventually my dad came to rescue me, wherein he discovered that the car was completely out of oil. He was angry that I hadn’t been paying attention to this most basic car need, and I was both bewildered by his anger and angry in return because how the hell was I supposed to know about checking and refilling oil? No one had ever told me that I needed to do that!

Not too long after that, following a series of lurches and a gradual slowing, the car died one winter night on I-5, just south of Southcenter Mall, on the outskirts of Seattle. I didn’t know what to do, so I got out and started walking, thinking I could find a payphone at the mall. Some cars honked as they passed me, and one swerved over into the shoulder ahead of me, its passengers yelling assessments of my body. I stopped walking, and it idled there for minute or so before swerving back into traffic and proceeding north, horn blaring. I was scared, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept walking. Another car pulled over and stayed on the shoulder. I approached it cautiously on the passenger side, where the window was down. The driver, a man, leaned over and asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thanks, I was fine.

“Look,” he said, “I know you don’t know me, but it’s not safe for you to be out here. I’d like to help you get off this freeway.”

I looked at a little boy sitting in his back seat, watching me, and thought about the earlier car. “That’s my son,” the man said. I looked north, toward the mall exit that was still not within sight. I looked back at the boy, and then again at the man. “It’s up to you,” he said, making no move toward the door. I looked once more at the boy, who looked cared for, and decided that this man probably wasn’t going to do anything bad to me with the boy in the back seat. I got in, and he drove me all the way to the University District without incident.

The next day, my mother had to take time off work to meet me and a AAA tow truck at the abandoned car, which we discovered was simply out of gas. The gas gauge wasn’t working properly and I’d miscalculated how many miles I’d put on the tank. It never occurred to me that I might have run out of gas. I’ve rarely seen my mother angry with me, but she was that day.

I remember, both times the car let me down, feeling a sense of disbelief; I needed the car to run, and so it simply wasn’t conceivable that it wouldn’t. Unreal as it sounds, given my age and that I’d watched my dad working on our cars throughout my childhood, I didn’t understand that cars need regular maintenance or that they could, indeed, break down when you most need them not to. I mean, I guess I did understand that, but I didn’t believe that they would break down on me. They were just supposed to work, because I needed them to. And, I suppose, because I didn’t know the first thing about how they worked or how to learn what to do to keep them working or how to fix them if they didn’t.

Over the course of the past year, as we’ve faced threats of all kinds I once, through the same kind of magical thinking, found as unimaginable as a car breaking down on a freeway at night (but which, of course, have always been possible), I’ve thought and written that I feel ill-equipped for this time. As I watched homeless camps and protests proliferate across my city, and governmental breakdown in my state’s capitol, and a continuing effort at autocratic take-over of our federal government, all in the midst of a global pandemic that has interrupted supply chains, over-run hospitals, and transformed life as I’ve always known it, I’ve realized that, to an extent I’m very uncomfortable with, I’ve gotten away with managing portions of my life in ways I managed that poor old Corona I eventually ran into the ground. I’ve been lucky to keep it going as well as I have, and I’ve been able to only because the larger systems around me have worked reasonably well for people like me. Over the course of the past year, I’ve realized that if things were to really fall apart, I might well be screwed. I have little practical knowledge or skills, few assets, and a small social network.

Two posts ago I wrote about following whimsy, and one post ago I wrote about holy places and creative work. This first one of the new year might look like a 180 back into the pit of 2020, but stay with me. It is, but it isn’t. Sometimes the best way out is deeper in, so that you can get through to some other side.

As I wrote last week, Mary Oliver found her temple in the natural world, in the woods. For me, that place is home. Home is what centers me, shelters me, teaches me, and provides comfort–but my worship there has consisted of a rather shallow spirituality. I’ve taken from my home far more than I’ve given to it, and my knowledge of its workings isn’t deep. I’ve never given it the time or contemplative study that Oliver gave to the woods. My relationship to home and home-making is a tangly one, influenced by second wave feminism, the working-class women who raised me, post-WWII culture, and more. For whatever reasons–and there are many–I entered adulthood no better prepared to make a home than than I was to take care of a car, and societal messages led me to believe that devotion to home would be a waste of my talents and time. It has even been possible to feel a sort of perverse pride in my domestic ineptness; wasn’t it evidence that I had given my life to worthier things?

I first felt the pull to dive into home creation when I divorced my children’s father and, for the first time in my life, needed to make a home all by myself. Channeling resources in that direction felt frivolous, though; any creative energy I had, I thought, should be poured into parenting, teaching, and writing poetry (in that order). In 2011, when Cane and I decided to make a home for our children together, I indulged that desire; I officially (if privately) decided I was no longer a poet, and we began writing a home renovation blog through which I met some of you who read here. Looking back now, though, I can see that we only scratched the surface of what it really means to make a home. Maybe that is part of why it all fell apart.

A year ago, in the wake of the loss of a writing mentor, publisher, and friend, I set an intention to write regularly here–not in order to be A Writer, but simply because doing so brings me joy. My friend Robert had devoted his life to poetry, which I had abandoned with his full approval. “You don’t owe anyone anything,” he told me the last time we talked. “You have given your life to serving others. Now do what makes you happy and healthy, even if that means not writing another poem for the rest of your life.” He also encouraged me to live in a smaller, more self-sufficient way, in community with like-minded others. “It’s all falling apart, you know,” he said to me long before the pandemic, at least five years ago. “It needs to,” he added. Those conversations unsettled me; I’d tell myself his conclusions were wrong, even as I acknowledged both the truth of his observations and my fear that he was right. I needed the world to work as it always had in the same way I’d once needed my car to–because I didn’t know what I’d need to know to operate differently. (How I have longed to be able to talk with him this last year, to see what sense he might help me make of all that’s fallen and falling.)

I cannot know what the coming year will bring, but I’m under no illusion that 2020 was some anomaly or blip. It was a year that had been decades in the making, and the forces that created it will not be undone by a single election or vaccine. I understand in new ways that my luck–like the gas in my old Corona–can run out. I think we all need to rely sometimes on the kindness of strangers, but I’d like to build a life in which I’m less likely to be walking alone on a real or metaphorical freeway at night, vulnerable to those who might mow me down on a whim. I am also, after this year of death on such a massive scale, acutely aware that life is short and that if we can follow our interests and passions we’d best do so sooner than later.

Last January, I assigned myself no topic for this blog and I imposed upon myself no purposes or limitations. This January, as I am able, my intention is to follow my whimsy deep into the place that is sacred for me and to write about it here. It is to give myself the permission my friend always wished I would to make a smaller, more self-sufficient life. It is to become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.

Let’s see where that might lead.

The doors to the temple

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream, via Jena Schwartz

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”

So begins Upstream, a collection of essays in which beloved poet Mary Oliver … meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” 

Publisher comments to Upstream, via Powells.com

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question we ask children, and I still remember some of my earliest answers to it: a veterinarian, a florist, a writer. It was a question I once thought I had to answer only once, and that once I did all the other pieces of my life would fall into place around it. I would be grown-up then, a grown-up, with the terrible wonderful question of what to be finally settled.

We should tell children that it’s a question they must answer again and again and again (just as we should tell them that commitment to a life partner is something that must happen every day, not just the one on which we slip a ring onto a finger). We should let them know that the question of what they are going to do and the one of who they are going to be have separate but intertwined answers, not unlike a DNA strand’s strings of nucleotides or a braided loaf’s baked ropes of bread.

Last week I went for a walk with my friend Sharon. We met on a busy city street in northwest Portland and sat on a sidewalk and ate biscuits, and then we walked uphill a few blocks to a staircase that took us down to the footings of a bridge and entry to Forest Park, a 5,200 acre wood within the city limits. Just weeks before, I had walked up the same hill with Cane and not seen the entrance to the stairs nor had any thought, really, of what lay beneath the hill; stepping onto the top step with Sharon felt a bit like walking into Lewis’s wardrobe entrance to Narnia. One minute we were part of the urban throng, and the next we were walking a forest canyon trail.

As we made our way along Balch Creek to The Stone House (which some, including Sharon’s granddaughters, call The Witch’s Castle), I thought of my old friend Robert and his frequent exhortations to get myself out into the natural world. I thought of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams and other writers whose work and spirituality is inextricably intertwined with their love of forests, fields, deserts, tundras, and the beings who inhabit them. I have often wished I could be such a person as they, but I am not. Although a river once helped me through the hardest decision of my life, I never came to truly know it, and eventually I left it because I knew I’d never be more than a visitor and I needed to find home.

If ever there was a house that could be home for a witch, the Stone House is it. Mossy rock walls, dark doorways, a tiny structure tucked into the slope of a hill. According to the Forest Park Conservancy site, it was “conceived as a rustic manmade counterpoint to the natural beauty of Balch Creek Canyon,” and it “emphasizes the contrast of the natural and man-made worlds.”

Indeed.

I expressed some dismay at the graffiti adorning it. “Oh,” Sharon said, “the graffiti is OK. We don’t mind it.”

“We don’t?”

She shrugged. “It’s how some people need to tell their story.”

For Mary Oliver, “the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” Temples, of course, are the places where we find ourselves, where we come face-to-face with the essence of things, where we seek understanding and comfort and peace. What a fortunate person she was, to have found her temple early and for it to remain constant throughout her life. There’s an enviable simplicity in that, especially for those of us who see temples everywhere and have trouble knowing where best to worship. Me, I’ve found them within the walls of a classroom, the stacks of a library, the curve of my child’s cheek. As a young girl, I found it in pencils, paper, snips of fabric, spools of thread, skeins of yarn, tiny ceramic animals I played with at the base of towering fir trees that grew in my suburban front yard. And, the other day, walking in the woods with my friend, I found one in a technicolor-painted piece of history, a decommissioned restroom that could be a witch’s castle or an architectural artifact or a monument on the other side of a portal to a foreign world.

We are nearing the day of making resolutions and setting intentions, of saying good-bye to one year and hello to another. Many are ready to turn away from this year, as if it has somehow been the source of our suffering and our pain will end when the year does, but when the clock strikes midnight on December 31 and we leave 2020 to memory, neither we nor the world will be magically transformed. We are who we are, and that is who we will still be on January 1. But think of it–how changed the world and each of us is, right now, from what and who we were a year ago at this time, even as we are, simultaneously, exactly who and what we have always been. Isn’t our hike through time, in some ways, like walking a Möbius strip?

Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergrad, a writing instructor asked me what I wanted to do with my life.

“I want to be a writer,” I answered.

“What does that mean to you?” she asked.

I didn’t know. “It means, I want to write,” I said. The details of my grown-up life as a writer had always been fuzzy to me. As a young teen I hoped it might involve working in a solitary cabin on a beach, with perhaps a dog I could take for long walks when I needed a break, and a quiet sort of fame in which others knew my name but not my face. That vision hadn’t evolved much. She pushed me to define what type of writing I wanted to do, how I planned to make a living at it, what I wanted to write about, and I didn’t know how to answer her questions. I hadn’t yet gone out enough into the world to know at all who I was, what I was, and what I wanted to be. I wanted to write in the way I once created dramas for my ceramic animals and stitched together bits of cloth for my dolls: freely, playfully, with no agenda other than delight. I knew there was a living that needed to be made, and I had vague notions of children and a family, but I didn’t know how my desire to write could or might intertwine with other wants and needs.

In recent years I’ve talked with people about the shapes my life might take after teaching. “Maybe you can write now,” I’ve heard more than once, and I’ve nodded agreement, not knowing any more clearly than I did decades ago what that might mean. But as this annus horribilis draws to a close and possibilities for a different kind of life come closer, I’ve realized something important: I already am writing. I have written here, at least once a week, for the entirety of this year, the longest stretch of regular writing I’ve ever managed. As Sharon gently reminded me, there are many ways in which we might all tell our stories. For the first time ever, I have no regret about how I’ve been telling mine.

Mary Oliver tells us, in what may be her most well-known and beloved poem, that we do not have to be good, and that we only have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. In my work as an instructional coach (a different kind of creative labor), I’ve learned that my role is not to author another person’s story or to impose mine upon theirs. It is to ask questions that will allow their story to emerge, and to give them space in which to tell it freely. And so, as I share my last post for this year, knowing you might be thinking about resolutions or intentions or the kind of story you want to write with the coming time of your life, I want to offer the questions helping me think about what I might make of the coming days and months of mine, questions we all must answer again and again and again if we are to heed the call of our restive creative powers and become the people we feel meant to be:

What do you want to do?

Who will you be?

What is your temple?

How do you need to tell your story?

What’s your whimsy?

“All you need to do is find and follow your whimsy.”

My uncle wrote these words to me in July–continuation of a conversation about work and retirement and possibility that we’d begun the previous Thanksgiving–and they have been rattling around in my head ever since.

The notion astonished me, really, coming from him. His field was computer science. He’s a retired Naval officer, who was a private contractor for the government for years. “Whimsical” is not a word I would ever ascribe to him, nor is whimsy something I would have thought he much valued.

What does that even mean, I have wondered, to follow your whimsy?

According to Webster, a whim is “a capricious or eccentric and often sudden idea or turn of the mind.” To be whimsical is to be “lightly fanciful,” and “whimsy” is “a fanciful or fantastic device, object, or creation especially in writing or art.”

Defining by example is a great way to build conceptual understanding, and in the months since he wrote, I’ve been on the lookout for others who, perhaps, have followed or are following their whimsy. It’s amazing what you notice when you start to look for something.

The first examples I collected are those whose connection to whimsy is obvious. I found Jessica Coffee of Jessica Cloe Miniatures, who quit her job as an art director to make miniature house furnishings.

Via jessicacloe.com

Jessica took up renovating a dollhouse sometime in 2019, and now she and her husband make really tiny homes that look just like stylish full-sized ones. What could be more whimsical than doll houses?

There’s Brannon Addison of Happy Cactus Designs. I think I once pinned something of hers on Pinterest, and then when I decided to jump into Instagram last summer I started following her, and just this week I saw this:

Via happycactusdesigns

She reminded me of Portland fiber-artist Alicia Paulson, whose whimsy-following also began in the wake of injury. She now makes and sells creations such as this:

Via aliciapaulson.com

The more I looked for whimsy, the more I found it. A recent article in My Modern Met highlighted many. Here are two of my favorites:

Baker Hannah P. of Blondie + Rye is also a high school history teacher. See gorgeous photos of her fantastic work here.
Nathalie Lété‘s house is full of whimsy; you can see more here.

The works above are whimsical in obvious ways, but as I’ve continued to look and think I’ve realized that whimsy is an idea that can extend beyond the cute and decorative and be an entry to other kinds of things.

Also on Instagram, the poet and essayist Kim Stafford regularly shares his daily writing practice–which is really a daily noticing practice. His feed is full of photos of ordinary things, scratchy first drafts, small poems and large wonderings:

Via kimstaffordpoetry on Instagram

Is Kim a follower of whimsy? I would argue that he is; remember, a whim is an “often sudden idea or turn of the mind” and to be fanciful is to be marked by “unrestrained imagination.” I might argue that all poets, no matter how serious their subject, are fanciful followers of whimsy, ideas and feelings they trail along behind or with, to see where they might lead.

This past week, Jena Schwartz (a serious guide for those seeking their whimsy through words) asked in a Facebook post:

My first thought was: Permission to leave my career. My second was: Permission to find and follow my whimsy. My third was: That’s a potentially problematic progression of thought.

I understand that whimsy and work are not necessarily intertwined. Although some of those I’ve shared in this post followed whimsy into work-for-pay, not all have. We don’t have to leave our careers to find our whimsy, and our whimsies do not have to become careers. In fact, I think there’s probably no better way to kill whimsy than to yoke it to questions of livelihood or talent, particularly when we are getting our first glimpses of it.

Still, there is a line between my two thoughts that’s worth following. As I’ve thought about whimsy and my uncle, I’ve realized that my understanding of him–and of whimsy–has previously been shallow. Until recently his life seemed, to me, to be testament to whatever is the opposite of whimsy–because I was paying attention to the what of his work, rather than the how and why. Reflecting on our conversation, I can see that although my uncle has spent his life in serious work, what’s essential about him is that he’s a person who gets excited about ideas and possibilities. He loves a problem that needs solving or a need that needs meeting. “Fanciful” and “fancy” are words about a stance or state of mind more than anything else, and that means there is opportunity for whimsy in everything, doesn’t it?

Working on this post, I have wondered if it might feel out-of-touch with reality or oblivious to the struggles so many are living with right now. In this darkest week of this very dark year, it’s easy to see how can musings about whimsy and the following of it might feel irrelevant, perhaps insulting, even. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve been wondering:

What might it mean to find and follow whimsy in the context of our biggest challenges? What if each of us could spend our life’s energy following notions that engage our hearts and minds? What would that do for our world?

I once shared with one of my children my hope that they would find a way to “embrace your inner nerd.” We all have one, that part of us that gets excited about possibility and creation and questions. I think, as the coming week finds us turning to days of more light, I’d like to make an argument for following whimsy, for listening to the voice that calls us to those things that absorb us–whatever they are, and to suggest that doing so might be a path to solutions, salvations, and comforts we all need, even if the only one who benefits from it is ourselves. (How many problems in this world come from the pain of those who cannot do that?)

I’m so thankful for those of you who follow along as I pursue all kinds of whimsy through this blog. I’m a person who likes company, and I appreciate yours greatly. If I could give all of you any gift in this season of giving, it might be that we could all discover ways to find and follow our whimsy.

Following some whimsy on my birthday last week.

Begin again

I wrote the first draft of this post in a way I rarely write anymore: On paper, with a pen. When I began writing, as a girl, that was the way of all first drafts; through my childhood and teen years I had a large, hard, permanently red bump on the first knuckle of the finger my pen pressed against; a remnant of it remains, a permanent disfigurement that is evidence of something I’ve always been compelled to do.

I picked up a pen because I was on a third day of avoiding screens, a third day of trying to muddle through work with a multiple-day migraine. In my migraine, there are various factors always at play: work, screens, stress, meds, sleep, rest, hydration, exercise, food. Trying to figure out exactly how to put these together is like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle. Maybe I can get one line to work, but I can never get the whole box to add up correctly. If I take off work to avoid screens, I increase stress from falling further behind. If I exercise when fatigued, I can trigger an episode, but if I don’t exercise I don’t sleep well, which can also trigger an episode. If I spend Sunday in food prep for the week I know I will eat well on work days, but I might end Sunday fatigued rather than rested, and stressed about other things I didn’t get to do.

I picked up a pen because I couldn’t sit in front of a keyboard and computer screen, but I wanted to capture something from Katherine May’s Wintering (referenced in last week’s post):

“The very permanence of the label–of having a brain that just happened to work in a certain way–was my salvation. I had to adapt. I had to surrender. The only thing breaking me was pretending to be like everyone else” (p. 183)

I have spent most of my life powering through. Powering through was my super-power. As a young adult, I did not understand those who said there were things they did not have the capacity to do; in my world view, one just did what had to be done, whatever it was, whatever it took to do it. When I was teaching full-time and raising twin toddlers and a teen, people would say, “How do you do it?” or, “I could never do what you do!” and I would think (or sometimes say): I don’t really have a choice. In my mind, in my life, there wasn’t a choice. I was doing what had to be done.

(Of course, I see now that there were choices. There are always choices. The ones available to me, though, would have required sacrifices I wouldn’t make.)

For a time, in those years, I would get up at 4:00 to either write or walk on a treadmill before my babies woke up. We’d get ourselves off to school/daycare, where I would maximize every minute of the day until it was time to leave to pick up the kids. The evening would be spent in dinner/bath/bedtime, and after I’d gotten them tucked in I would work for a few hours more to prepare for the next day’s classes, until I went to bed. I powered through, for years.

Now, I can’t.

I don’t have May’s autism diagnosis (although I may just be undiagnosed), but I’ve got others that indicate a body/brain that doesn’t work in typical ways: chronic migraine, anxiety, fibromyalgia, eczema, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, restless leg syndrome, insomnia. My startle reflex is comical, and I have difficulty with many types of sound and light. Most of the time, I cannot tolerate direct eye contact. I wear a mouth guard at night because I would otherwise break my teeth in my sleep. A person close to me has likened my brain to a computer hard drive that never stops spinning and overheats. I feel ridiculously sensitive to stimulation of all kinds. I’m often unaware of the physical and mental agitation I’m feeling until the source of stimulation ceases; yesterday, Cane turned the radio down in the car and I felt a flood of relief I hadn’t known I needed until I felt it.

In my life, I’ve seen myriad doctors (western, naturopathic, wholistic) from a variety of specialties. I’ve tried different diets, supplements, and medications. I’ve had multiple therapists. I gave up work (both teaching and writing) I loved and was good at. Nothing has really worked. The only thing that has brought consistent relief is a slower life–the life I live during breaks from school.

I don’t know why some of us need to see someone’s else’s words, someone else’s experience, to accept the truth of our own, but I am one of those people. May’s words crystallized a truth I’ve been working my way to for some time now: My life isn’t working for me, and, in important ways, never really has. It is not sustainable, and it is not something I can will my way to being different because I cannot will myself to be different. In the words of Popeye, “I yam what I yam”–and who I am simply cannot do what I think I should be able to. Not any more. Not for what it has always cost me.

At this stage of my game, it is disorienting and difficult and frightening to accept a fundamentally different view of myself. It is also liberating.

For so long, I have seen my difficulty to manage things others seem able to as a failing. The first step of any recovery program (yes, I did that, too), is to accept powerlessness. It seems I have to learn, again and again, the paradoxical truth that power comes from accepting powerlessness. Accepting where we are powerless is crucial to finding where we are not. This week, I have understood in some new way that I am powerless to change whatever it is that makes me the way I am, and accepting that gives me space to create a new idea about who I am and what I can be–and that is freeing. Instead of seeing my difficulty to manage as failure, I can see my ability to function as well as I have as, instead, a kind of strength. Instead of focusing on all the things I haven’t done or have failed at, I can marvel at all that I have done in spite of who I am. Today, my 56th birthday in this year of our pandemic–which has blown so many things open–I am finally beginning to see surrender and radical acceptance of truths I don’t like as a different type of strength, one I now need to embrace.

My task for the coming year–my gift to myself–is to find adaptations that will work for the person I actually am. First steps never have to be big ones. This week, that project for me began the way so many things in my life have: I picked up a pen and started writing.

Oh happy day

It didn’t really sink in until I was out, around other people. I’ve been needing a pair of slippers, something warm to wear around the house with a sole that can go outside. Frustrated by the too many choices that my feed started feeding me once the algorithms realized what I was in the market for, I decided to go to a local shop in a southeast Portland neighborhood and get whatever version of it they have available there.

It was raining when I left the house, but the sun was breaking through by the time I got there. I bought the slippers quickly and easily (fewer choices is so often a gift, isn’t it?), and then Cane and I went for a walk in the neighborhood.

Walking neighborhoods is a thing we’ve been doing for years. Some people get out in nature, but we like to get out in communities. We study what people do with their yards and homes, we muse about what homes can tell us about their inhabitants and our collective history, and we talk about what’s going on in the world. It’s a thing that’s remained constant in spite of all that we’ve lived through in the past four years: separation, kids leaving home, moving, pandemic, and the Trump presidency.

It was that constancy–and the contrast we could both feel between the walks of the past year and yesterday’s walk–that made the meaning of yesterday finally sink in. The very air felt different: lighter, brighter (in spite of the clouds). It came from the people we passed by; everyone seemed to be carrying themselves differently, and I could sense the smiles behind the masks.

At one point, a rainbow emerged, and we stopped to take a picture of it. Everyone we could see stopped, too, pointing with their hands or their phones. A woman driving by noticed us and stopped her car in the middle of the street and just looked at it, smiling.

It felt like magic, like a gift, like a poem.

Later, I watched video of the celebrations around the world, bells ringing in Paris and London, and I felt the weight lift even more. It was further confirmation that it hasn’t been just me, just us–these thoughts and feelings we’ve been carrying for years now. What we’ve been living through has been real. The despair was real, the injustices were real, the threat was real, the trauma was real. When you live for an extended period of time at the mercy of a gaslighter, in the midst of those who confirm the gaslighter’s version of reality, it becomes easy to doubt your perceptions, and even easier to lose hope. To know that people the world over were celebrating, too, was to know that it’s all been real. It felt like the kind of relief you feel when you finally get a diagnosis for an illness: yes, it’s terrible news, but it’s not all in your head.

I spent far too much time yesterday joyscrolling or hopescrolling (it seems the collective hasn’t yet landed on a term for the opposite of doomscrolling), trying to take everything in. Because I am me, I don’t find myself in the place of giddy relief I often saw others in. Don’t get me wrong: I feel tremendous relief; however, my relief is tethered to my understanding that this is only a reprieve. It is a chance, a reason that hope is not an unreasonable thing to cling to, but what’s happened here is not over. Not by a longshot.

We got lucky. I say that not to discount the tremendous amount of hard work that so many, many people have done over the past four years (because yesterday would never have happened without it) but if Trump hadn’t been so atrocious and if the pandemic had not laid bare to so many of us how inept and dysfunctional our government has become, I doubt we could have roused the majorities we needed to win in a system that is so obviously designed to uphold minority rule in our country. And that system remains in place, abetted by a media landscape that allows propaganda and disinformation to flourish unchecked in a population with so many who don’t understand it or know how to navigate it (or, perhaps, don’t care to).

This view of mine can take me quickly to a dark place. What can I do to change this system? I mean, really: I am a white, late-middle-aged woman with no special talents and no significant resources, authority, or influence. Changing the system feels like the work of those who have more of all those things than I do. As I watched those who have led resistance efforts of all kinds express their relief and joy and feelings of vindication, I wished I could have done more, felt able to do more to make the results of this election happen. To be completely honest, though, for most of the past four years it has felt like it’s taken everything I’ve got to function well enough to keep working, care for those who are mine to care for, and remain informed enough to know what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t known how to do more, or felt able to.

Luckily, somewhere in all the scrolling of the past few days, I saw words that Jena Schwartz shared from Omkari Williams that hit me right in that feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy that I hate when it comes up in me:

“Today it is so clear that we are not there yet. How do we get there? How do we begin to move the needle towards that vision so that we never find ourselves in this situation again?

I think it begins with starting close in. I believe that we need to go back to square one and do the hard work but with a different energy and focus. I believe we need to take stock of who we are as individuals and look hard at where we aren’t living up to the values we espouse. Then we have to have the hard conversations. The conversations where we don’t put being “nice” above being honest. The conversations that so many of us are raised not to have…

We need to notice and challenge the places in ourselves where we don’t stand up for what’s right. We need to stop accommodating people who are in the camp of let’s just keep this civil and things will change eventually.

This is not about violence, in word or deed. This is about clarity; clarity of understanding, clarity of conscience, and clarity of intention.

The path to a just world is clearly one that includes that righteous destruction of the unjust systems that we currently have. We, each of us, needs to take a stand. We need to make a decision about who we are and what we will stand for and then actively live that out each day. No time off. No letting things we know are wrong slide by with an excuse from ourselves or others. We need to speak the truth as clearly as we can and as often as it’s needed.

The lines have been drawn. There is no middle ground. It is time to stand for what we know is right, justice and freedom for all. Start close in and then expand out. Let’s get to work.”

We all have different resources, talents, and limitations, but it seems to me that what she is asking is something that each of us can do: Be clear with ourselves about who we are and what we believe in, and then show up as our authentic selves in this world, in the spheres we inhabit, in the opportunities that come to all of in the simple acts of living our lives.

I am not going to make structural changes in our formal systems, but I can–along with millions of others of us–make cultural changes in the community I inhabit, simply by being honest and open about who I am and what I stand for, even when it’s not comfortable to do so. Those acts that can feel so small in a moment can ripple out in ways we’ll never know, and those cultural changes we can all influence are the things that eventually cause our systems to either adapt or collapse, allowing something more aligned with our culture to take their place. That adaptation/collapse happens through bolstering the efforts and resolve of those who do have that other kind of power, and in times–like this past week–when we all have a chance to directly impact what happens to us.

Each of us can look for where we do have talents, skills, and interests and focus our energy there, trusting that if enough of us would just do that, change can happen. I think I realized my limitations at a pretty early age and decided that I would focus the talents and skills I had into being the best teacher I could be. I knew I wasn’t going to directly change the world, but that I would have influence on what kind of world it might be. I had faith in the ripples.

In recent years I have felt as if (obviously!) that wasn’t enough. But maybe not. Maybe not. This election is the victory of only one battle in a war we’ve been waging since Europeans came to this continent and began taking it and its people over. Maybe the best thing to come of it will be a renewing of hope and faith that will bolster all of us regular folks to keep doing what we’ve been doing, only maybe a bit deeper and harder.

For me, the challenge going forward is two-fold:

  1. To remain engaged in the world. Because of the privileges I have, it would be easy for me to simply shut it all out, to tell myself that the fights are for those younger than me or more powerful than me. I need to resist that feeling.
  2. To be more authentic in the world, especially when doing so threatens my own comfort.

I’m not gonna lie: This sounds easy but will be a challenge. I so easily get discouraged with this country and my fellow citizens. It’s easy for me to go to a place of feeling that what I do doesn’t really matter, that the systems are too big and powerful, that people are too uneducated (by design) or too traumatized (through injustices of all kinds) or too spent with all it takes too many of us to simply survive in this world to make different choices than the ones we are. Maybe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but sometimes it looks like something stuck in an endless loop, in which every step forward is pushed back, over and over and over again.

Maybe that is how it is, and maybe how it will always be. But so what? We are all alive here, and now, and even if the gains we’ll see come January disappear in another four years, well–it matters that for the upcoming four a lot of things will be better for a lot of people. And maybe one of the gifts of the past four is that a lot of people like me will be less complacent and more hopeful and better able to be strong in the ways that we can and need to be, and maybe this lighter time on the loop will last longer or have deeper impacts. Or maybe it’s not a loop at all, but a spiral that just feels like one. Maybe each time we circle around, we have to go past suffering and ugliness again, but it’s a continual climb upward, rather than forward.

Near the end of our walk yesterday, I saw something that stopped me:

Flaming leaves were everywhere, so thick I almost didn’t see the flowers poking out among these. They look like spring flowers–and I saw bulbs with new shoots poking out of the ground, too–and I know that’s all kind of wrong, but it’s also beautiful, too. Just like us: All kinds of wrong, all mixed up, things just as they’ve always been at the same time they are profoundly different, a weird and horrible and wonderful kind of gorgeous.

Why I Write (and don’t)

When my children were babies I began writing poems after a long dry period. I’d thought I’d lost my capacity for writing poetry–too many demands and not enough resources–but somehow, amid mothering two babies and working full-time, I completed a book of poems.

Clearly, capacity wasn’t quite the issue. (Not to discount that. Lack of resources is a true barrier, and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t. It was, and has always been, a factor for me.) What helped me overcome my capacity issues was a drive to record what we were living. I wanted to remember it, and I was afraid the memories would be lost in the blur of feeding and changing and grading papers and fatigue. Committing them to words committed them to continued existence; each poem became conduit to a specific memory I can now recall and relive, at any time.

The moments I wanted to pin to memory weren’t big ones. A nurse’s comment in the NICU, a bedtime bath, rocking a toddler back to sleep in the middle of the night, wondering if it might be the last time I’d do so. I had no fear of losing the bigger moments, but I wanted to capture the small ones in greater danger of being lost to a multitude of days.

As my daughter prepares to leave home again, in a different, more permanent way than she has before, in the midst of so many different kinds of fall, I’m feeling driven to purposefully remember again, to put moments and images into words. While I was awake in the middle of one of this past week’s nights, the phrase “exquisite pain” kept floating through my head. Earlier that night, we’d sat at the kitchen table, talkingtalkingtalking about her plans and what they do and don’t mean, about times with her grandparents, about choosing (or not) to play board games with children, about her hopes and intentions, about home renovations and what they’ve meant and mean to us, about red and green flags, rings, forms of marriage. Even earlier than that, we’d had tears and a coming to understanding over words I’d tossed out carelessly–except, of course, the feelings (neither mine nor hers) weren’t as much about the words as about so many other things, and as I sat at that table under its amber light in the waning of a very early autumn night, I could feel what I often don’t in the moment: That this would be a night that lives in my memory, a few hours extraordinary, in some part, for its ordinariness in the midst of the profound. I could see them fusing to a Before that I will long for in the coming After, the way I long for so many things now gone.

It has been a season of ordinary embedded in extraordinary, this time of pandemic and unrest, fire and smoke. As I anticipate her absence, it is the small, ordinary moments I have been hardly able to stand the thought of losing. When I look back over my life, it is seemingly unremarkable moments that rise to the surface and trigger the deepest grief: morning sun shining through my grandparents’ kitchen window and Paul Harvey’s tinny voice coming through the kitchen-counter radio as my grandpa spread butter on toast; sitting at a department store lunch counter with my grandma after an afternoon of shopping, fingers in my pocket playing with my first pot of lip gloss; a rainy Saturday afternoon snuggled into my dad’s recliner with a book in my hands, a fire burning in the fireplace and The Wide World of Sports theme song playing on the TV, feeling snug and happy and so glad not to be that skier tumbling over and over and over down a mountain in an agony of defeat.

Similarly, what I want to remember of this time are only snippets, quick snapshots of memory:

The Hannah Montana theme song playing in the room across the hall while I edit her graduation video.

Catching the moment the solar patio lights blinked on as we sat beneath them on a warm June night.

Shopping with G. for clothes at a vintage emporium filled with racks and racks of clothing originally sold in the decade she was born. “I didn’t own this exact dress, but I owned this dress,” I tell her, holding up a wide-wale corduroy jumper from Eddie Bauer, remembering the early-teacher self I once was, when I was only three years older than she is now.

Sitting side by side on the couch at the end of an evening, each of us holding a dog swaddled in a blanket, rising oh-so-carefully and carrying them to their beds and hoping, as one does with infants, that they won’t stir and need to be soothed back to sleep.

Hearing the low murmur of her happy voice through the wall as she talks with her love, half a world away.

Stopping at McDonald’s on a Friday after picking her up from work and getting french fries and Cokes because it’s “Frie-day,” the car filling with her music and a salty-oily-sweet smell that reminds me of her high school years.

I don’t have in me, right now, whatever it is that poetry requires. Maybe it’s because I’m 20 years older and it takes more out of me to process grief than joy. Maybe it’s because I’m coming to understand, in new ways this week, that we are in collapse. Or, that we have been in a long, slow collapse for most of my life.

(I remember an afternoon in the late 70s, in my grandparents’ living room on a bright day, a conversation in which my grandfather drew comparisons between the United States and the Roman empire. “All empires fall, Rita,” he told me. “I’m so old it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it very well could in yours.” I sat on the floor, picking at the pile of a soft, cream-colored rug, wondering what downfall would mean for us, thinking of Britain, which seemed to have come through the loss of their empire OK, and hoping that our fall could be more like theirs than, say, that of the Russians.)

The morning after the presidential “debate,” I read a piece that describes what collapse can look like. According to the writer, a Sri Lankan born in the early years of his country’s civil war, it looks pretty normal, for many people. It looks a lot like the collection of memories I shared several paragraphs back. In reading the piece, and thinking about it, though, I realize there are other moments in my memories of this summer, too, that I didn’t list above:

Noticing, on a walk one day in July, a couple in a broken down camper parked next to a grassy median dividing my neighborhood from a freeway onramp. Noticing, in September, exiting the freeway on my way back from getting groceries, that the median is now–like so many small, grassy places in the city–filled with tents, and the curb once empty except for the camper is now lined with cars.

Waking in the middle of a night when my daughter was out and seeing that she didn’t text to tell me she was home, and my body flooding with adrenalin as I shot from my bed. Noticing, as I moved down the hallway, that the light I’d left on for her had been turned off, but not believing that she was really home, OK, until I opened her door and saw her sleeping in her bed.

Driving downtown and seeing empty storefronts, boarded windows, and graffiti-covered buildings. Fighting the usual traffic and feeling sad to see another high-rise taking over the block that once housed our favorite food carts. Abandoning our quest to go to Powell’s because the line of mask-clad people waiting to get in stretched down the entire, block-long length of the building.

How leaves on my willow turned dark brown during the days of hazardous air, and how we tried to tell ourselves that maybe it was just the leaves getting ready to fall, the way leaves do. How, in the week of the debate that revealed–again, but in a slightly new way–what peril we are in, we noticed that there are now only green leaves on the tree and told ourselves that the tree is OK. (Though the ground beneath it was littered with the dried, nowblack bodies of the ones that turned dark.)

How do you send your child half a world away when your country is in the midst of collapse? How–if she is so lucky to have that chance–do you not?

The words of the essay I read the morning after what was supposed to be a debate–in which the President signaled to the Proud Boys who marched in my city the previous weekend and who live all around me that he is aligned with them–ring painfully true:

I lived through the end of a civil war — I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.

https://gen.medium.com/i-lived-through-collapse-america-is-already-there-ba1e4b54c5fc

In February I left my parents’ house knowing I would see them in March, but I didn’t, and now I don’t know when I will see them again. In March I left work knowing I wouldn’t see students and colleagues for a while, but would again, surely, before the end of the school year. Now I don’t know when I will see them again. In a week my child leaves me, and, while we have plans for when we will see each other again, I know now that I don’t know when I will see her again, and that my plans are as fragile–and perhaps already as dead–as those leaves that fell from my weeping tree.

But also: I have not been punched in the face. My parents live, my paychecks arrive, my child is going where she wants to go, healthy and safe. We eat meals under patio lights, made with food bought from stocked grocery stores, and we shop for clothing, watch TV, and fret about how to best care for our dying pets. We get takeout, and drink cocktails, and set alarms because we are living in a world in which being in particular places at particular times still matters.

I cry nearly every day, my body like a sieve, but the tears come and go swiftly, like thin clouds that intermittently block the sun. I have not been punched in the face (yet), but I do keep tripping and skinning my knees.

I can look back over the whole of my life and I see moments where I knew–I knew–things weren’t right, that the center wasn’t holding. For godsake, I became a high school English teacher because by the end of the Reagan era I was worried about the health of our democracy, and teaching children how to read, write, and think critically seemed the best contribution I could make with my particular set of talents and skills.

But there are all the other moments I can see, too. Sun streaming through windows, a child’s warm weight on my chest, words gathering around a kitchen table. That essay brought a kind of comfort. Yes, we are in collapse. We have long been in collapse. So: No, I am not crazy to see things the way I am seeing them. But also: Maybe collapse isn’t quite what I’ve feared. Aren’t all of our lives, always, in some kind of collapse, always moving from something they were to something else they will be? Isn’t everything always fleeting, our world always ending? Isn’t that the exquisitely painful truth of what it means to live?

There are many reasons to write, but this is mine: To capture the ordinary gorgeous of the everyday however I can, so we don’t forget what we once had, and can see what we still do.

In progress

I have a “real” post somewhat almost-done for today, but I couldn’t get it actually done, any more than I could get my office renovation done by the end of the day yesterday (something I hoped on Instagram* that I’d be able to do).

Wait, scratch that: I could have gotten both done, but I made choices that kept me from getting them done.

What did I do instead?

I fell down a rabbit hole of writing–but not far enough to finish the post. I pulled myself up out of the writing hole to attend to painting chores the room requires: repainting the bottom of the open section of the cabinet we built (because we didn’t build it right the first time and had to re-build, which messed up the paint) and painting the door to the room.

I could have done/faked the room tidying I need to do to be able to finish the post (because the post is about the room, but I need some different photos than I’m able to take with it in its current state), but I decided to do the things that really need doing.

And then I spent some time gathering and delivering a bag of treats for a colleague who is home sick with Covid, taking care of her daughter who is also sick with it. I did that because one of the things I’m writing about in the in-progress post is about values I want to live by in the coming school year, and connection with others is at the top of the list. I’ve gotta tell you: Strengthening that connection felt so much better and more meaningful than having pretty office photos and a complete post would have.

After that I took a nap. I’d had a low-grade headache since Thursday, and even though it’s not the kind of headache that disables me, three days of that kind of pain takes it out of me. It makes me tired. There is something so delicious about climbing under cool covers on a sunny afternoon. That sensation might be as healing as the actual sleep. (Health is another value I want to prioritize.)

And then, well, it was time to make dinner. Time to sit at the table in the early-evening light and talk and sip while the carrots roasted. Then it was time to take a scooter ride to a nearby neighborhood where we like to walk and look at houses and study the choices those homeowners have made to help us make our own.

Photo of modest white bungalow with black flower boxes under the windows.

At that point, of course, the day was nearly done. No time for anything but watching an episode of our current series (Hanna on Prime), snuggling the dogs to sleep, doing a bit of a Times crossword, and falling back into bed.

It was a good day. Progress on multiple projects was made. As I head into my last week before returning to work, I know that I am going to end my summer with more things in progress than finished. More and more, I think that’s how it should be. I think progress, rather than accomplishments, might be the measure of a life well-lived. Isn’t a life in progress a life grounded in hope, growth, and faith? I hope, on whatever is the last day of mine, that I am still in progress, that I leave this place with work of all kinds still to be done.

*I’m just about done with Facebook. I’ve taken it off my phone again, and I’m happier for it. I’d love to see you on Instagram, if that’s a happy place for you.