But seriously

I missed my self-imposed Sunday posting deadline because we’ve been working non-stop to prep Cane’s house for sale, and then we took the weekend off to visit family five hours away. It was the first time to see any of them since Christmas 2019 (or earlier), and it was 10 hours of driving for about 5 wonderful hours of sitting together on a patio, eating and drinking and laughing and story-telling. And quizzing:

“So, what are you going to do now that you’re retired?”

“Do you think you’ll write now?”

“Are you looking for jobs?”

“How are you going to spend your time?”

I threw out non-comital answers I need to better hone: shrugs, “not sures,” “not burning to write anything,” “going to see how it goes.” I need to work on these responses because they don’t seem to stop these questions I’ve been fielding for weeks, which is what I’d like them to do. Finally, after the third or fourth time one cousin asked me some version of the “what are you going to do?” question, I tried a new response:

“I’m going to just be.”

Uncomfortable (for me) silence, that I rushed to fill with inanity. “I’m going to reach a higher spiritual plane,” I added, clearly self-mocking. (We are not a clan who says such things seriously.)

More silence. Finally, my cousin’s wife said, “No, but seriously: What are you going to do? You have to do something.”

And I felt something rise in me. Something hot and bothered and frustrated.

“Why?” I asked. “What if I don’t?” What I was thinking–and might have said some version of, but I’m not sure, because I was feeling all kinds of flustered–was: Do I have to do to have worth? Do I have to do for my life to have meaning? Do I have to do to be a good person?

To be clear: No one there was suggesting that I must do any particular thing to have worth. (Unconditional love and acceptance is the thing I appreciate most about my family.) My frustration was the culmination of weeks’ worth of such questions, as well as my own stuff around doing and achieving and worthiness. If anything, their questions were likely driven by how I have lived my whole life. Perhaps it was difficult for them to imagine me just being because it’s so antithetical to how I’ve always lived.

“You came out of the womb busy,” my mom once told me. “It was like you just had so many things to get done.”

Those of us around the patio were a collection of Boomers and Gen-Xers, with a handful of Zoomers running in and out of our scene. We have all been doing/working for most of our lives, since we were kids picking berries for pennies on the pound. One of my cousins is now raising her grandchildren; she’s been parenting non-stop for almost 50 years! While having a career. (Two of them, actually.)

Earlier in the conversation, there had been some castigation of our children’s generation, of some of their ideas and ways of being. Some of their questions and demands regarding work and life.

“They just don’t know what they don’t know,” someone said, and others concurred. I’ve said or thought this about others in various situations, and it can be true that not knowing what you don’t know is a significant problem. But it is not a problem reserved for the young.

“That’s probably true,” I said, “but is it possible that there are things we don’t know that we don’t know, that they do?”

Another silence.

All of us grew up in a family, in a social class, in an era when kids were supposed to do what they were told. (We often didn’t, but I never questioned that we should.) We were told that if we worked hard and acted right, life would fall into place. (And for all of us there that day, we mostly did and it mostly has.) We were working-class white kids growing up in a remote state where college tuition could be paid as we went, and housing and healthcare were affordable. I entered a profession that I knew would never make me wealthy, but would provide for my lifetime needs. When my children first began pushing back at some of my expectations and advice and world view, it frustrated and worried me. As I listened (to them and others), though, I came to understand that many things are not the same for our kids as it was for us. Our state is not the same. The world is not the same. As I have worked to see from others’ perspectives, I’ve been surprised by all that I didn’t know I didn’t know–by all I hadn’t considered or questioned. In the past five years I’ve wondered deeply about ideas I once took as universal givens or unchangeable truth. Like, for example, that our worth is tied to the value of our work. Or that education is the playing field leveler. Or that if we just work hard and act right, things will fall into place.

On the drive back home, we listened to Nice White Parents, a podcast series about all the ways in which white parents have undermined efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to black and brown children, sometimes with the best of intentions. As the series moved into the years that my career and parenting spanned, I felt such a weight in the pit of my stomach. I saw myself at various ages and stages in so many of those interviewed. I understood, in new ways, how unseeing I’ve sometimes been and how futile so many of my own efforts were and how toxic the system in which I worked has been not only to black and brown students, but to all of us who have lived within it. This was not new understanding; the series just added some layers to what I’ve already learned, reprising pain that comes from realizing how much you didn’t know that you didn’t know about things at the core of your life and identity.

What am I going to do now, knowing what I now do?

In my year-end reflection at work, I was asked to describe where I am in my equity journey, another question I found difficult to answer. The best I could come up with, finally, was this:

I’m at a rest stop, people-watching. I’m noticing who they are and how they seem. I’m still on the road, thinking about where I’ve been, planning where I want to go, building some reserves in order to keep moving.

This is where I am in general. This is what I am doing, am going to do. Action is not always our best option; if we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, the best thing we can do is stop. In recent years I have come to feel not only lost, but also exhausted. I am bone-weary from so many years of running hard uphill. Decades ago, a mentor counseled me that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. I was less than ten years in, and frustrated with colleagues who did not seem to want to grow and change at the pace I wanted all of us to.

“Some people are where you are,” he said, “charging forward. But others are in a place where they need to walk, or maybe even to step off the path and rest before they can get back to the run.” He paused.

“All of these places are OK,” he said. “I’ve learned to respect where people are.”

At the time, I wasn’t so sure, and I never really did learn how to pace myself. (Perhaps my circumstances didn’t allow it?) But, knowing what I know now, I agree with him: All of these places are OK, not only for our careers but for our lives as a whole, and as I’ve struggled to find easy, concise ways to explain where I am and what I’m doing that won’t bring pleasant social activities to a standstill, John Donne’s words have come to mind more than once:

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Seriously.

Dessication

This spring I had two important projects to accomplish, which can be summarized in one short compound sentence: I got married, and I retired. Six words, but so many more conversations, decisions, and small actions. Forms to complete and checks to write and stamps to find and feelings to feel.

So many feelings.

And, of course, all those things all had to fit around, among, and between all the regular parts of life: toilets to scrub and groceries to buy and jobs to go to and bills to pay and clothes to wash and plants to water. I told myself that once I got to the end of the school year, it would all settle down. There would be time to see friends and sleep a bit more and exercise and make good food and write again.

You already know that’s not how it’s gone, don’t you? (It never does, does it?)

Work keeps hanging on. (Almost done, but still not quite.) We have Cane’s house to ready and stage for an August 1 listing date, and we are remaking my house into ours. I have an unplanned-for trip to see my daughter. And then the heat dome hit us.

As with all the calamities that have pummeled us over the past year or so (pandemic, toxic air, freakish ice storm), I am more fortunate than many. Still, it got to me.

It got to me in the form of nearly crying over my dessicated fruit bushes, and immediately feeling like a shit person because–unlike others living less than a mile from me–I was not trying to survive 115 degree temperatures in a tent pitched on a grassy median that divides a neighborhood from a freeway on-ramp. I live in an air-conditioned house. I do not need the fruit for physical survival. I can drive or walk to a grocery store and buy everything I need and want.

But (of course, of course!) it’s not about the fruit and I know that. (You do, too, don’t you?) The fruit is just a symbol, a metaphor.

The fruit is an undeniable, concrete representation of what’s happening.

Friday night my friend V. came to visit. We were once colleagues, and then colleague-friends, and now just friends. (“You need to stop saying ‘retiring,'” she admonished. “You are retired. You did it. It’s past-tense, baby!”) For three years she has been working and living in London while her husband remained here in Oregon, but she’s returned to the US and they are moving to a mid-west state, where their family lives, and where they moved here from. We are both busy and exhausted from the project of reinventing our lives, and it was the only chance we had to see each other before our paths diverge in a more permanent way.

We talked for nearly 5 hours, not realizing how much time had passed until the sky began to turn dark. We noted how much we love talking with each other.

“When are we going to see each other again?” I asked, knowing she has nothing to bring her to Oregon any more, feeling not unlike the way I felt when I saw my desolated raspberries. V. pushed and supported me through a critical juncture, and while the actual overlap of our lives might end up being a relative blip in terms of time, ours will always be one of my most important friendships.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. (We are both old enough to know how life goes. We know that promises made at these kinds of endings can be hard to keep.) We talked about the possibility of meeting in places we’d like to travel to: Italy, Hawaii, Japan. It could happen, I suppose. Anything can. But because anything can I know it’s possible that we might never see each other again.

After V. left, I went out the patio to gather up plates and glasses. The patio lights had turned on while we were saying our good-byes. Oh, I thought. I wish she’d gotten to see them. They were so pretty in the dark.

The next morning I got out the sprinklers to water the blueberry bushes. I thought I’d have a whole summer of berries from them, the way I did last year. Last week I bought a carton from the produce market, thinking they’d likely the be last one I’d have to purchase this year. I thought about childhood summers, where an 85 degree day was a scorcher, and about all the people who filled those days and are now gone from my life forever. I thought about time, and how events of the past year have distorted all my previous sense of it. Or maybe it’s just getting older, and having so many layers of memories that the earlier ones are getting soft as the mildewy pages of an old book.

For the first time since the heat broke, I really examined my blueberry bushes and could see that while my yield will be smaller this year, there will still be some. Among the shriveled husks of some are the plump bodies of others, already ripening and darkening. The morning after I say good-bye to my friend, I focus on those, on feeding them, understanding that I’m always going to want more of everything I love.

Strawberry season

In the rush of the last week of school, I never make it to the local produce market to get a batch of Hood strawberries for freezing. Hoods are my favorite, sweet beyond sweet, and they are only available for a few weeks in June. We had a few pints this year, but I never got a flat because I was too busy to process them.

The day before I’m supposed to leave for a visit to my parents, I finally make it in. “Strawberry season is almost over,” a handmade sign tells me. “Get them before they’re done.” The Hoods are gone; only Shuksans remain. They aren’t as sweet as Hoods, but they still burst with a kind of flavor I never taste in the pale, uniform, almost-grotesquely large strawberries I see in the grocery store. I buy a flat.

I freeze half the berries, slicing off their tops and placing each on a parchment-lined cookie sheet that I put in the freezer, imagining them brightening a bowl of November granola. The other half I toss into a glass bowl and throw in the car the next morning to take with me as a belated Father’s Day gift.

My son and I head north, his first visit with his grandparents since Christmas, 2019–before Covid, before his discharge from the military. So much has changed.

We have a wonderfully unremarkable visit. We eat lunches out. We watch old movies at night. We sit on the deck and talk. My son and his grandfather go golfing. My mom and I go shopping for an outfit for her to wear to my dad’s high school reunion later in the summer.

After shopping, we get a slice of pizza from a sidewalk window and take it to a table near the beach. It is a perfect day; 76 and sunny, with a hint of breeze.

We reminisce about our visits to town when my children were children, when our time in each shop was limited and every outing included a visit to a now long-closed toy store.

“Remember when we used to talk about how one day we’d have enough time to stay as long as we wanted in the shops?” I ask her. She smiles and nods. “And now it’s that day, and we sit here and talk about missing those days.”

“Yeah,” she says.

We miss the children my children once were, those beings we’ll never get to spend another afternoon with, but This is nice, too, I think. I loved the earlier times–the earlier us–but I love this time, too, even as it contains longing. You’re going to miss this someday, too, I tell myself, and now the moment contains a different kind of longing.

“I guess we never get to have everything we want all at once,” I say.

“That’s for sure,” she answers.

The next day, I convince her that we should make shortcakes for the strawberries. “I think they have some good ones we can buy at the fancy grocery store,” she says, but I talk her into making them from scratch. I’ve been reading Alice Waters’s latest book, and my head is full of her thoughts about the value of making and eating food together.

We spend an afternoon slicing strawberries and sifting flour and cutting dough and whipping cream and talking about the kids and our summer plans and our memories and how these strawberries look and taste like those we remember from decades ago. “I love their ‘ugliness,'” I say. “I’d rather have this kind any day.”

We have to improvise on some ingredients and we aren’t quite sure when the biscuits are done. The idea of cooking from scratch is more romantic than our reality, but I’m still glad we didn’t get the store-bought ones.

“They’ll be fine,” my mother says.

When the kitchen is finally clean and the biscuits are cooling on the counter, we realize our backs are tired and our feet are sore. It feels lovely to sit in chairs out on the deck in the afternoon breeze and sip a cold drink.

My son is napping on the couch. I remember how I treasured afternoon nap time when he was a toddler. My dad joins my mom and me, and as we talk shadows move over us. We shift our chairs to stay in the sun.

Later, after dinner, we eat our strawberry shortcake. The biscuits are somehow both a little dry and a little undercooked in the center, but I love the treat anyway. “Oh, this is good,” I say.

“Well, it’s all right,” my mom says. “The strawberries and cream are, anyway,” she adds.

The next morning, as we’re getting ready to leave, I hear my dad tell my mom that this was sure a great visit. He turned 80 this year, and since the pandemic he and I have begun talking about things that are inevitable. The conversations are both hard and surprisingly easy. It feels better to turn toward than away, to love in honesty rather than denial.

As we say our good-byes, I promise a return in August. In July I’m taking a trip to visit my daughter living on another continent. It was a last-minute decision, the upcoming trip. The timing isn’t great, but when is it ever? We don’t know when she will be able to come back, and if I don’t go this summer it might be another year until I can see her. Sometimes my longing for her hits me like a sneaker wave.

We return to a city bracing for heat like none we’ve ever seen.

In waning daylight, I water everything in the garden, pondering survival and sweating through my shirt. The raspberries look faded and small. Raspberries have always been a July fruit, but this year we’ve been eating them since mid-June. I miss my grandmother, thinking of the day I helped her make raspberry jam and how satisfying it was to write 7/7/77 on each lid. I remember my grandpa driving us out to a farm to pick up the berries, his arm flung across the back of the Buick’s bench front seat. None of us imagined that some of the jam we were going to make that day would be with us longer than he would.

The next morning I get up early to get groceries before untenable heat takes over the day. I hope I might get one more flat of strawberries, but at the produce market there are none. The case is now filled with blueberries. Oh well, I think. It was great while it lasted. I’m glad I got some. There’s always next year.

I know, even as I think the last thought, that it’s more hope than certainty, and I wonder how much of what makes the berries precious is knowing that I can only have them for a fleeting season.

Oh, hey there. It’s me again…

When I went on hiatus (March 14), I mentioned some projects I needed to focus on this spring.

Project #1:

I got married.

We still aren’t quite living in the same house all the time, but we’ve made good progress toward that. We should get there by the fall–which is when we need to, because of…

Project #2:

I retired from education.

It’s been a good, long run (31.5 years). (This newspaper article is from the mid-90’s. That’s a typical class size now.) It doesn’t feel at all the way I thought it would. There’s so much to say about both projects, I can’t really say anything. Not yet, anyway.

I’m open to doing other work, and the universe keeps putting job openings in my path that are enticing, but I haven’t applied for any. I’m making myself take a real break from employment first. I got my first job at 15, and other than the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, I’ve never been without one since. Even when I was on bedrest with my twins, I still did freelance editing gigs.

It all feels weird and uncomfortable and sad and strange and exciting. Sort of like being a teen-ager, but with a whole lot more insight and knowledge–about time, love, and myself.

I think I’m ready to start writing here again. Words have been knocking at the door of my head for a little while now, and I think there’s enough space cleared that I can begin to let them in.

At the end of my last post, I left you with an image of my so-late-to-bud vine I almost feared it was dead:

Here’s how it looked just a week ago:

Everything blooms when it’s meant to, given the right conditions.

Just popping in with a quick note…

This week, I was sent a video to watch for work. I was extremely busy, as I have been for weeks now. I clicked the link, a task in a long list I had in front of me for the day, not knowing what it was going to be about.

Halfway through the opening montage of images–visual clips that triggered memories of all we’ve lived through in the last year (schools closing, hospitals overrun, masks, protests over masks and police violence, wildfires, the election, the insurrections of January 6, the ice storm)–I started shaking. Then I started crying. I cried through the whole video. I cried after the video stopped. I rewatched it just now to see if it would have the same impact, and I’m typing these words with tears running down my face.

I was astonished by my reaction. If you had asked me, in the last few weeks, how I am doing, I would have told you that I am fine. Just fine. Busy, but with lots of good things. I might have told you that the pandemic was feeling strangely like something in the past, even as I know it’s still happening. Sure, I’m still wearing masks when I venture out, but I’m venturing out more and more. I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve been back in school buildings. Next week, I have to get up and get dressed and be at work by a specific time because students will be returning to physical school. The events of the past year have been taking on a dream-like quality. Everything is starting to feel and look “normal” again, and the reality of a year ago, or even four months ago, feels unreal. Was it really that bad? I’ve thought.

Once I calmed down, I did a little Googling about responses to trauma, which got me thinking about numbness and my emotional state the past few weeks. When our governor announced, on the heels of the ice storm that had closed schools again, that all schools in our state would be required to re-open on the governor’s schedule, despite any plans we might have been making/implementing, I first felt overwhelmed with anger and anxiety–my typical responses to loss of control–but that quickly changed to what felt like calm. “It is what it is,” I said, and turned myself to tasks at hand, determined to think only about those things over which I do have control.

I also stopped writing here, which felt like relief. It was relief. I did not think it had anything to do with that last blow following on the heels of a torrent of them in February. I thought it was just about wanting to focus on different things for awhile. I’ve been spending my weekend mornings in practical, necessary tasks. And if not necessary, enjoyable–taking walks, puttering in the yard, planning upcoming happy events. I haven’t missed writing at all. I also stopped most interactions on social media, which I haven’t missed at all, either. I enjoy a quick scroll through Instagram (which I’ve curated to be a happy place), but when I’ve gone on Facebook I’ve felt none of the old pull. I remember a time when I wanted to be there, but lately that’s felt unreal in the way the early days of the pandemic have been feeling unreal: I know I had the feelings I had at one point, but I have none of them now, and it’s hard to understand in any sense but an intellectual one why I ever had them. I took it off my phone and feel no desire to put it back.

It had never occurred to me, until I watched the video and reflected upon its impact, that what I’ve been (not) feeling is another variation on impacts of the past year’s events. I thought I was moving on. Instead, I was just getting through.

What I know of grieving is that we have to feel all the feelings to move through it to some better place. Not back to the old place, but a better place than the one our losses have us currently in. I hated how I felt watching that video. I don’t have the capacity, right now, to feel those feelings. I have a lot of things to get through in the next 7 weeks. The morning I watched the video the first time, I didn’t get as much done as I would have if I hadn’t.

Still, there is this: This morning, for the first time since I wrote my last post, I felt like writing. Not this post; I worked on an essay I abandoned more than a year ago. And it felt good, which made me want to write to you, here.

I might have to think more deeply about what really needs getting done by June. In the meantime, what I want to say today is, I hope you’re all doing OK. It helped me to realize that I haven’t been as OK as I thought, and I wondered if sharing my experience might be helpful to you in some way. I’m understanding in a new way that coming out of this pandemic is going to be a process, and likely a long one. At least for some of us.

Two springs ago I planted a vine in my backyard. Last spring, in the early weeks of the shutdown, I was afraid it hadn’t survived the winter. Weeks after everything else had shown signs of coming back to life, the vine was still a network of bare branches clinging to the fence that supports it. I’ve had the same wonderings this spring. As my willow burst into pink buds and my blousy tulips opened wide, the vine showed not even the signs of buds, and I worried a bit. I reminded myself of what I know to be true: It did this last year, and it was alive, even though it didn’t seem to be. But this week, it gave me this:

That’s enough to go on, for now.

I’m still on haitus (or going back on it), but you can think of me as being like the vine, getting ready to bloom again when I’m good and ready. We’re all on our own timelines, and that’s OK.

On hiatus

Because for a few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I haven’t wanted to write lately, and a few days ago I gave myself permission not to write this week unless I wanted to, and then I spent Saturday morning cleaning floors and talking with my daughter and eating German pastries with Cane and taking a long walk in the sun and it felt really, really good to start my day that way, and I’d like to have more spring Saturdays like the one I just had.

Because getting to the end of the school year feels like rounding the last corner of a 440 (as it was called back in my track days), where you somehow have to sprint even though your legs have turned into hot plastic and it feels like you’re about to vomit your lungs.

Because I need a different kind of space and energy, for awhile, as we emerge from our pandemic lives and make our way not back to our pre-pandemic lives but forward into whatever our post-pandemic lives will be.

Because I have three consuming and life-changing projects beginning, and I need to make a lot of things happen in a short period of time.

Because writing, my whole life, has been marked by fallow periods that are just as important as the ones in which words bloom.

Because I can still connect with far-away folks through their blogs or through email or social media.*

Because too much heat and light will kill the seeds of whimsy before they sprout.

Because white space might be the most important element of design.

Because the days are getting longer but life is getting shorter.

Because sometimes even I need a break from my voice.

Because right now I want to listen more than talk.

Because a hiatus is a pause, not a stop.**

I hope you enjoy the spring, whenever and however it comes to you. Take care.

*I have a Twitter account, but I rarely use it. I’m on FB less and less. I’m liking Instagram and accept follow requests from those I don’t recognize unless: a) you’re a guy who likes to post pics of yourself with no shirt on and/or only pics of yourself; b) you’re following 300 gazillion (or so) but you have only 3 followers (like, literally only 3); c) you only have 3 posts; d) you somehow otherwise smell like a bot; e) any of a-d and your account is private, so I can’t investigate further to get a sense of you are.

**I am 99% sure I will resume writing here, and probably sooner than later. If you want to know when a new post goes up, please subscribe so you’ll get an email notification. There’s a place to do that at the top of the right column. I won’t spam your inbox or sell your address or do anything that’s otherwise nefarious or intrusive. Aside from the fact that I find such practices gross, to do those things I’d have to figure out again where in WordPress subscriber addresses are, and I’ve got way better things to do with my time.

Whiplash

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the day I went home from school and never came back. Late in the day on March 12, 2020 our governor announced that schools would be closing on March 13. Most schools in my district had no students on the 13th (staff development/grading), so our students’ desks and lockers were filled with books and papers and soon-to-be rotting lunches.

I began the morning of the 13th with a staff meeting that I later described as “horrific.” I remember shock, tears, and anger as teachers worked to process what was happening. I served our alternative school last year (in one of my half-time positions), and ours was the only building that had students that day. I watched the adults around me pull themselves together to create calm for our students. Those in alternative programs have generally been failed by a variety of systems, and our staff was dedicated to preventing further school-based trauma for them.

The initial outpouring of love and appreciation for teachers at the beginning of the pandemic was both gratifying and disconcerting. It’s always nice to feel seen, but seriously: Have none of y’all been paying any attention over the past few decades?

Our “spring break” ended with a state-level directive to switch our schools to an entirely on-line experience. (Except for lunches. We still needed to feed the kids.) We had two weeks to put that in place. We limp-sprinted to the end of the school year, throwing together packets and scrambling to learn new tech tools and worrying about our students and their families while grappling with our own shock, disbelief, fear, and grief about what the pandemic–and what it was revealing–was doing to all of us.

By the summer, as arguments about what school would be in the fall started, we were no longer heroes. (Not really any surprise there.) We tried to make plans for a constantly-shifting landscape. Some teachers worked the whole summer (unpaid) to ready themselves. Others did not (to ready themselves in a different way). My administrators spent most of the summer planning for hybrid instruction, only to learn in August that we would be fully in distance-learning mode.

Two weeks before school was to begin, our alternative high school staff was informed via group email that our school was being closed, disbanding our small, close community. Our students were sent back to the large high school that hadn’t worked for them or to a new online school that was being put together as the email was being written. A few staff were assigned to the new virtual school. Most were scattered around the district. One was first assigned to a 5th grade class, then, a week into the school year, moved to the online school to teach high school.

Our “not-open” schools were closed the second week of school because so many were displaced by raging wildfires and our air quality was so toxic our homes were unhealthy to breathe in.

I was still an instructional coach, but I didn’t get a new school assignment until mid-October. I didn’t want for work; I supported teachers I’d worked with before, and there were days of training for a whole, new, comprehensive coaching program being launched, pandemic or no. In some ways the lack of assignment was a bit of a blessing, as my other half-time job (being the librarian for all of our schools, K-12) could have kept several full-time people busy. Prior to the pandemic, we had no ebooks in our collections and our teachers had made little use of the digital resources we had. There was a heavy lift to get things up and running in a system that was reeling. Our library staff had their hours cut, and one position that went vacant wasn’t filled, causing us to reconfigure how we provide services.

By the holidays, as some schools in the country remained closed while others opened, we teachers who resisted re-opening were turning into villains. The others (especially the ones who got sick or died) were turning into martyrs. The teachers I know were exhausted. I was exhausted.

Things sort of settled down–in terms of actual teaching and working–after break. Folks got a chance to catch their breath over the winter break, the first real time off many had taken since the previous one. Teachers were cresting the summit of the steep learning curve they’d climbed. They were figuring out how to do things well. We were calm enough to begin noticing benefits from distance learning and thinking about how they might be kept when we return to in-person instruction. My district publicly stated their commitment to providing quality instruction through distance learning, taking into account the needs of our disproportionately-impacted-by-Covid community, and I felt myself exhale just a bit. It was a relief to know what I could expect, and it allowed me to focus my work in a way I hadn’t been able to do since the previous March. I felt a commitment to distance learning that I hadn’t previously, as it’s hard to pour yourself into something new that could go away with little warning.

Then some districts in our state began pushing for in-person teaching, even though our Covid numbers were the worst they’d ever been and nothing had been done to mitigate problems with poor ventilation and air circulation in our aging and long-neglected buildings. Our governor changed metric requirements, prioritized educators over seniors for receiving the vaccine, and set Feb. 15 as the date she wanted schools to return to in-person instruction (but still left decisions about changing instructional models to districts).

If we were villains before winter break, I don’t know what we were by mid-February, when schools weren’t immediately resuming in-person instruction. According to some on many a school district Facebook page, we were lazy, selfish, uncaring, and getting paid to do nothing.

In the midst of the vaccine rollout, an ice storm took out power for hundreds of thousands, and our schools closed again. Some were outraged. “How hard is it for teachers to roll out of bed and stroll over to their computer?” I saw one person ask in response to a district announcement about closure. I worked for 4 of the 8 days I was displaced from my home, but I couldn’t fully work because my school-issued computer has a broken microphone that prevents me from using Zoom on it. (I’ve been using my personal desktop computer since we stopped working in our buildings last spring.)

I sat in a meeting last week where plans for LIPI (limited in-person instruction) were being talked about. We have been working to start LIPI, which would provide in-person instruction for our most vulnerable students, by the end of March. As I listened to the various components that had to be sorted–bus schedules, cohort and other mitigation requirements, teaching team configurations, union negotiations, staffing decisions, food services, communication with families–I understood in a new way the Rubik’s cube nature of solving the complicated problem of returning students to buildings. “I wish the public could know and understand how many moving parts there are to running a school in a pandemic,” I said to a colleague. “I wish people could understand that changing course is like turning a very large ship.”

Last Friday, I worked in our high school’s library. The library manager (the only person who works in the library, and who also manages all textbooks, and whose hours were cut this year) and I were sorting through all the books from the closed alternative school’s library and determining what to do with each of them. (Incorporate into the high school collection, send to the middle school, offer to teachers for classroom collections, discard.) Every single table in the library was covered with either stacks of books to process or packets of instructional materials for students to use in distance learning.

As we were ending our work for the day, the principal came in. In the course of our conversation she shared that the governor had just issued a new order requiring schools to open to in-person instruction by March 29 for K-5 and April 19 for 6-12. That’s two working weeks for our elementary schools to figure out how to pivot to something we’ve never done before while continuing the work we’re already doing, which is still very much in-progress.

In pre-pandemic times, we often shook our heads over being expected to fly the plane while we were building it. What’s going to happen now is more like flying the plane while we’re building it and simultaneously building a whole other plane that we will be transferring passengers to in mid-air, using punch-drunk pilots who’ve exceeded regulations on how many back-to-back shifts in a row they can work.

The point of this post is not to make or engage in arguments about distance learning vs. hybrid learning. The point is also not to defend educators or engender sympathy for us; sympathy does not help and so often is used to turn those we are sacrificing (health care workers, our military, low-paid essential workers, etc.) into heroes or saints or martyrs so that we can justify the things we do to them and ask them to do. I am not writing to invite debate or discussion about the relative merits of different options. There are no good ones, given the things we are unwilling and/or unable to do, and I cannot stomach any more discourse that repeats the talking points of disingenuous and self-serving leaders, or that assumes that how we are living is “just how it is,” or that contains “what about” arguments. I’m just done with all of that. I’m too tired and I have too much to do to spend any energy on debates that will change nothing and do nothing but make everyone involved in them angry.

A year ago, I wrote these words:

As I’m watching the world around me shift to accommodate the shape of something we’ve never experienced here, there is something that feels almost holy in this moment. I have been thinking for a long time that it would probably take some kind of disaster to turn us around on the path we’ve been hurtling down. That is the opportunity inherent in this unfolding disaster that will touch all of us in some way, if it hasn’t already.

My deep, fervent hope today is that this will propel us to remember how inter-connected we all are, to reach out to each other rather than erect walls between us, to uphold ideas and ideals that have always been the best part of us, and to act more from love than from fear.

I want to reach back in time and pat myself on the head and murmur, “Bless your heart.”

While a pandemic will, of course, always create hardship and change and pain, ours hasn’t had to play out the way that it has–and I just want us to, for once, be honest about that and about why that is. I want us to be honest about all the ways in which our schools were broken and not serving kids before the pandemic. I want us to be honest about what we are going to get–and not–from the choices we are making.

If this post has any real point, it is only this: To shine a light. To share experience. To mark a significant anniversary. To tell a truth. To be seen.

PS: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/05/health/virus-oregon-variant.html

Goodbye to you, February

Well, how about that February, huh?

Seems like more than a few of us have had ourselves quite a month. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed or worn out, I like to go back through my camera roll to see what sense it can give me of a time. Often, it helps me see that my feeling about a time isn’t the whole picture of it. Because I often take photos of what delights me, it can be an exercise in reminding myself of the small moments that don’t (but probably should) carry as much weight as some of the larger ones.

Oh, bollocks!

(I’ve been listening to Tana French audiobooks for a few months now, and there are some Irish words seeping into my thoughts.)

Look at me up there in that last full paragraph, sounding so wise and grounded. Cue the montage of lovely little life vignettes: flowers on the table, a stack of good books, snow sparkling under the rising sun. Oh, I meant every word as each came through my fingers (and I could easily create such a montage), but re-reading them as a whole I could feel my whole being rise up in resistance to such facile positivity–which is probably evidence of how easily inspirational Insta quotes can seep into a person if she’s not careful.

Attaining peace and contentment is not necessarily about finding delight, or about making sure you put every little thing on some balance scale, so that a multitude of small good things somehow mitigate or outweigh a fewer number of heavier bad things.

To wit:

Box of Valentine sugar cookies.
These are my daughter’s favorite cookies. I buy them only for her. I took a photo because she’s in Sweden and it costs a bajillion dollars to send her anything but these made me think of her and brought back good memories, and sending a photo is free.
Close-up of the head of an old dog who is lying down, wrapped in a blanket, with tongue lolling.
I have about a bajillion versions of this shot in my camera roll. I am not sure why I feel so compelled to capture this waning animal, with her spotty bald ears and lolling tongue. But I do.
Parking location sign at the Oregon Convention Center
I think one of the best uses of my phone’s camera is taking shots to help me remember where I parked the car. I took this on the day I got my first dose of Covid vaccine. (This is my only documentation of this momentous event because I skipped the selfie area, where, apparently, a person could take vaccination selfies to post on social media, if she wasn’t so exhausted from being freaked out/awed by the whole experience, conflicted about being prioritized over more vulnerable people, and disconcerted by the idea of a selfie station in this context that she had to get home asap to take a nap.)
An off-center photo of a hospital bed, with a call device and a paper plate with saltine crackers.
I have no memory of taking this photo or any idea about why I would. It’s from the morning I had a colonoscopy. If I were a braver blogger, I’d share the screen shot of sanitary pads I sent Cane earlier that day. Although it seemed impossible, after 12 hours of miserable prep, that anything more could exit my colon against my will, I’d asked him please pick some up for me because I didn’t trust that I could get from home to the hospital without incident, and he didn’t know what to get. (My fear was justified, btw. TMI?)
Screenshot from The Weather Channel showing two days of snow in the forecast, followed by rain and above-freezing temperatures.
Do you see freezing rain in that forecast? Nope, neither do I.
Budding branches coated with a thin layer of ice.
Freezing rain, Day 1
Grocery store with long line of people waiting to check out.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Willow tree branches encased in heavy ice.
Freezing rain, Day 3
Dog resting on human's leg, with travel bags at her feet.
Daisy and I arriving at our home away from home (Cane’s house).
Dog resting head on human's lap, which also holds a laptop computer.
Working from (Cane’s) home, day 3 of no power.
Mural painted on side of wall with fierce looking wolves, Germanic lettering, some reading: Unity Is Strength
Seen on a walk. Graffiti defacing the mural reads: Kill All Nazis. What the hell is this mural and why is it in my city and what does its presence in this neighborhood mean?
Monthly bill statement from PGE power company.
Day 6 of no power. Hahahahahaha!
Church sign with words "trying to give up the idea that my worth is bound to my productivity"
Stopped to take this to accompany a still unfinished blog post. Gotta love the layers in that. Also, this church’s signs might get me to try church again. (That’s a houseless person’s motorhome in the background.)
Crowded garage with man on a ladder looking pensively out the window
Taking measurements for a building permit application so we can turn this garage into living space. Part of some big plans in the works.
Stack of children's books with severely frayed/damaged covers
Some books I pulled from one of the school libraries I serve in my job.
Power lineman working to restore power
After 8 days of no power, 7 phone calls, and 3 incorrectly cleared tickets this was such a welcome sight. Still 1 more day before heat will be restored.
Bedroom strewn with clothing and other items.
My son is no longer an active duty Marine. Helping him unload his car, I remembered the stage of my own life when I could (and frequently did) pack everything I owned into a sedan.

As I chose these images (no more than one for any day) and wrote my captions, I couldn’t help thinking of those optical illusions where what you see is presumed to be some kind of test of your mindset:

Optical illusion with illustration that can be seen as either a young woman or an old one.
Is this a young woman or an old one?

Was my month full of absence, disease, displacement, disruption, broken systems, and uncertainty? Or was it full of family, community, safety nets, solutions, possibility, and love?

Yes.

What’s helped me get through this challenging month (season, year) is rejecting singular narratives–which means resisting not just one-sided, all-or-nothing ideas about our lives as a whole, but also about any discrete parts of our lives. The glass of any experience is neither half-full nor half-empty; it is always both empty and full. In every single image from my month are aspects of abundance and deprivation, sorrow and joy, hope and fear. All of those, all together, in every one.

The longer I live, the more it seems to me that the best way to fully feel the good things is to fully acknowledge the hard within them. To see and own and maybe even embrace the mess that is always part of the beautiful in our lives.

Sure and it’s grand, innit?

View of snow-covered driveway through a bedroom window. Trees covered with ice and icicles hanging from roof.

PS–Just for funsies: https://youtu.be/_50-gOeBilc

But also this, which is even better: https://youtu.be/YfmNsesuw0w

Meditation on Limbo

Limbo is a dance, one I have never been good at. Limbo the dance requires one to be limber–supple and agile, able to bend and balance in ways that life does not, for most of us, often require. Even as a child, when I was at my most flexible, I never liked doing the Limbo, with its awkward backward bending in front of an audience, its requirement to pass beneath a pole without touching it. Now that I am a thickening adult with a constantly stiff back, I am sure that if I were to attempt the dance I’d be eliminated in the first round.

Limbo is also a part of Hell. Although raised Catholic (for the most part), I never gave it much thought until I read Dante’s Inferno. Home to unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans, it seemed the best place I might hope to land, if Dante’s vision of the after life has any basis in reality. I rather liked his architecture of sin and, apart from the bits about unbaptized babies and those who died from suicide, generally agreed with his hierarchy of evil.

Of course, we more commonly use “limbo” to mean a place of transition or uncertainty here on earth, often one in which we feel trapped. (If a person has been in this kind of limbo during the past week, they might have spent more time than is probably healthy wondering if a certain person who departed life has landed in Bolgia 9 or 10 of Hell’s eighth circle.) It can feel like a kind of hell to be in this kind of limbo, and it can require the agility and flexibility a person needs to successfully pass under the limbo stick. I think of the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal, in which his main character is trapped in airport limbo, neither permitted to enter the United States nor return home to his country no longer recognized as a country, and how he adapted to a way of being that feels impossible to most of us.

It’s been a long time since I saw that movie (and I think I slept through a good portion of it) or danced the limbo or read Dante–so these thoughts might be all kinds of gibberish–but I’m claiming “limbo” as my word of the week. It’s been six days since I’ve lived at home, and while I am grateful to have a place with heat and light and water and food, it feels as if I’ve slipped into a deeper circle of pandemic hell, where life is simultaneously both on hold and moving forward, and I don’t know how long it will remain this way. When I packed my little suitcase last Monday, I thought, surely, I would only be gone a few days. I told myself to think of it as a little vacation, a lark, a treat: permission to relax that it is so hard to give myself at home. It was not unlike my initial stance toward Covid shutdown; I optimistically threw a box of brownie mix and supplies for an embroidery project into a bag before closing the door to my dark, frigid house.

Now, after 6 days and four phone conversations with the power company and daily trips back and forth just to make sure that the power is, indeed, still not on, I find myself re-enacting the stages of acceptance I first lived last March. I long to go home at the same time I’m almost feeling as if the life I lived there is slipping away from me. I’m moving from disbelief to acceptance, and my new not-normal is beginning to feel some kind of normal, a transformation I am both resisting and welcoming. We are perverse and adaptable creatures, we humans, whether we want to be or not.

Like the Tom Hanks character, sure I will get to return at some point but with no idea of when, I find myself needing to think (and be) differently today than I did a week ago. The power company has a map that suggests power could be restored today, but yesterday the kind (and understandably weary-sounding) PGE lady I talked to told me that it is an estimate, not a guarantee. Something in her voice and words told me I shouldn’t count on that map. She was sorry, but she really couldn’t tell me when I might be able to return. The estimate map, she told me, was so that I could plan, but she couldn’t promise anything.

“How can I make a plan if I can’t actually know when the power will come back?” I asked.

She said she was sorry she couldn’t help me more. I was, too.

This morning, however, I realize that she has, in fact, helped me develop a new plan, which is only this: To live in the day I am in, and let go of plans with agendas and timelines and notions of home that aren’t serving me well in the place I’ve found myself. As I let this plan settle over me, it occurs to me that maybe I’m not traveling deeper into hell, but into some place that is its opposite. Maybe we all are, those of us who have weathered one event after another that has upset the apple cart of our lives and found ourselves scrambling to gather spilled fruit, grateful to reclaim even those that got bruised in the tumble.

Time will tell.

Who better to teach me how to live in the moment?

Fire and Ice

The past ten days have been a week, y’all.

Let me give it to you in numbers:

1 dose of Covid vaccine

1 Covid test

1 dead car battery

A diagnosis of 3 likely sleep disorders

1 referral to a sleep specialist

4 laxative pills and 2 jugs of Gatorade and 1 bottle of Miralax

1 binge-watch of the entire first season of Imposters, in 1 (literal) sitting

1 colonoscopy

1 power outage

1 power restoration

1 power surge

3 loud noises from 3 different major appliances, simultaneously

1 more power outage

2 phone calls to the power company and 1 honest service rep telling me that because my snapped wire affects only me, it will be days before it is repaired (because there has been nearly 300,000 people without power)

3 (and counting) nights away from home

2 days of school closure (reminding us all that while our schools might be in distance learning, they have been, in fact, “open”–and if you don’t believe me, read the comments on the district’s FB page from those angry about the closure)

4 (of 9) school buildings in my district closed to staff for the rest of the week because of storm damage

0 devices at my disposal capable of supporting a Zoom call

<24 hours before I need to work again

After the power went out again, and I packed my suitcase for a second time to go stay at Cane’s place, and my school district announced its closure for the next day I found myself feeling what seemed to be unreasonably fragile and angry: I had heat, water, electricity, a warm bed, and no expectation to work the following day. I was better off than many of my fellow Oregonians—not to mention my Midwest friends dealing with sub-zero temperatures and, I guess, the entire population of Texas. (How does one manage with freezing temps, no power, no water, and frozen sewage pipes?)

And still, teetering on the edge I was.

It’s all just been so much, hasn’t it?

I have a “normal” post in my drafts folder, almost ready to share with you. “Normal” means on a topic that has nothing to do with climate change, freak and life-threatening weather, political insurrection, contested elections, wildfires and toxic air quality, or pandemic. It just doesn’t feel like the right time for normal, though. Maybe by the weekend, or next week.

So, this is just a check in from the dumpster-fire of the past week (year?). By the numbers. (We all like to be data-driven now, right?)

Things aren’t good, but they are good enough. Somewhere in the midst of power going off and on and off again–maybe on the day that ice rained from trees and power lines like gemstone bullets, trapping us on one side of our windows–the hyacinths on my kitchen table silently stretched into full bloom.

Stay safe out there.