Coronavirusdiary #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your turn

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

Hey, Parents and Teachers

I see you all, scrambling so hard.

I see your schedules for study and reading and exercise. I see you sharing your digital resources, not hoarding a single scrap of anything that might help someone else help their kids. Heck, every once in awhile I chime in, too, throwing a helpful URL into the ring where you’re all fighting to hang onto something that feels right, if not normal.

Sometime in the past day or two, though, I started wondering if maybe you all need a different kind of lifeline. So I’m offering this one:

In the fall of 2005, my twins were in second grade, and their teachers began what would end up being the second-longest teachers’ strike in Oregon history. Their dad and I were both teachers in another district, so we were still working. We didn’t have a good daycare backup, and we were (of course) on the side of their teachers, and so we prepared to buck up and hunker down for however long a haul it might be. Somehow.

Just a few days in, home with the kids, my husband decided that now was as good a time as any for him to tear up the vinyl in front of our dishwasher and finally find out what was creating a growing bump in the floor. We’d had a dishwasher guy out who said there were no leaks, so we knew it wasn’t the washer.

I didn’t understand the implications of the photo he emailed me that morning–what all that black stuff underneath the vinyl was. By the end of the day, however, through a series of emails and phone calls, I knew I was only going to have a few minutes to pack up anything we might need for the night because the black stuff was mold and we had to get out of the house.

I didn’t try to make my kids do any schoolwork that night. It was all still a bit of an adventure. Each of the few days after that, though, revealed a new level of not-normal and not-adventure. Long story short: Two-thirds of the ground level of our house was full of mold. We’d have to move out while a crew removed the flooring and a good chunk of drywall from our kitchen, dining room, and family room. All of the kitchen cabinets had to come out. Machines would have to run 24/7 for weeks to dry everything out, and then we’d have to rebuild.

This was all going to take awhile. And the teachers were still on strike.

The vacation condo we’d gone to “for just a few nights” was going to be home for…who knows how long? We tried to settle into a “new normal” in which my kids were not living in their house, without most of their things, and not going to school. They were 8 years old.

Some days they went to school with me, sitting at desks next to my high-schoolers, pretending to do “work” I’d given them. Some days they went with their dad. As the days turned into a week, and then another week, I started to get anxious about all the school they were missing. They were in second grade! A crucial year for reading and math! For everything!

After dinner, I’d sit with them at our not-ours kitchen table and write out math problems. Addition and subtraction with multiple digit numbers. I stumbled over trying to conceptually explain tens and hundreds and borrowing, which my bright children rather stubbornly (it seemed to me) refused to understand. For several nights, our already-stressful days ended with more stress.

Finally, one evening, my daughter gave me a talking-to.

“Mommy,” she said, with what I could see was a great deal of patience, “I know you are a teacher, but I don’t want you to be my teacher. You are Mommy, and that’s all I want you to be.”

I looked at her, and it was as if I were really seeing her for the first time since everything had started falling apart.

“OK,” I said. Fair enough.

I decided that we all had enough to contend with as it was, and I pushed the math papers aside with as much relief as both small sets of relaxing shoulders expressed.

The strike was not insignificant. Our kids missed school for a month, and re-entry wasn’t easy. But 15 years out, I can look back and tell you that my kids would not have been better off if I’d insisted on continuing my efforts to teach them what I thought they needed to learn.

I was so in the thick of stress from worrying about money and the house and trying to keep everything as normal as possible that I couldn’t see the stress my kids were under, too–and that nothing I might do would make anything feel normal.

After that evening, we came home (to not-home), ate dinner together, and sometimes played games and sometimes watched movies. We read books before bed, and snuggled, and tried to enjoy living in a place that others went to for vacations. We didn’t know when anything was going to end; days kept being added to projections for when we could move home, and the strike just kept going on and on. So I finally stopped worrying about it, because there was nothing I could do, anyway. I knew we’d be back to normal eventually, no matter what I might do or not do, and that the kids were going to be all right as long as they felt loved and safe.

As it turned out, the old normal never really came back. It was a good six months or more before all of the repair was done on the house, and we made so many changes in the process that it never really felt like our old home again. It was a nice one, but a different one. By the time the house was whole again, all the cracks in the foundation of my marriage had widened to chasms we would not be able to fix. Those weeks in the condo were some of the last in what I now think of as our life before, and I am glad that the memories I have of that time are mostly sweet ones.

The second-grade girl who resisted my math instruction became a high-school student who exhausted her school’s math offerings by the end of her junior year. So, presumably, no harm, no foul from the second-grade delay in learning how to add and subtract. She’s now a college senior who was in Sweden when her school announced that it was going all-digital for the remainder of this year (and–oh, yeah, come move all your stuff out NOW), and was still there two days later when the US announced it was closing the border to travelers from Europe. She’s still there, trying to finish her thesis and work remotely for her jobs that have that as an option and get answers from her financial aid office and attend her online classes virtually from a different time zone with sometimes spotty internet connection, all while trying to wrap her head around the reality that she may never see some of her friends again and that she can’t make any solid plans for her life after graduation. Yesterday she let me know that one of her housemates now has a fever and a cough.

So, to all you parents and teachers: I feel for you. You keep doing what you need to do, however it seems best to do it. A pandemic is not a mold infestation or a teachers’ strike, and what we’re living through is a whole other level of not-normal. But maybe that’s even more reason to stop and take a deep breath, and take a good, hard look at everything around your children/students. Maybe instead of focusing on all the things your kids/students aren’t getting right now that you think you must provide, focus on them and what they’re telling you they really need. There are all kinds of ways to learn, and maybe, right now, there are more important things for them to know than anything they might typically learn while sitting at a desk or in a circle at carpet time.

With love and respect,
Rita

Some Dots

Homeschooling while working from home during a global pandemic bingo (because laughing right now is really important, and humor has a way of making a wicked-serious point)

Working from home with kids? Survive the quarantine with these proven tips… (from a former teaching colleague who’s funny and smart and wise as hell)

The case for shutting schools down instead of moving them online (because while No Child Left Behind resulted in really bad policy and practices, our solutions need to consider every child’s needs and resources)

An open letter to high school seniors (from Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year)

GBSD home learning resources, grades K-5 (I really like the game board format of these resources, and I like the mix of digital and non-digital activities. This might have worked a whole lot better than anything I tried back in 2005.)

Facts about the unschooling philosophy of education (what better time than now to reconsider everything you might think about teaching and learning?)

It’s still snowing (metaphorically this time)

I’m writing these words on Thursday morning, less than a week into our “extended spring break.” Half the contents of my garage are in my driveway. Yesterday afternoon seemed like a good time to pull everything out and finally organize that space.

Why? Maybe because we can. Maybe because the sun was shining. Maybe so we could feel a little bit of normal for an hour.

This new, changing-by-the-day normal is the new normal. What started sinking in yesterday is that we won’t be going back to the old one. My psyche is shifting into a lower gear, one to carry me through a long haul. What I know about roads and going down them is that you can’t ever really go back, once you’ve gone a certain distance.

I have been thinking the past few days about the snowstorm of December ’08. I was living on Mt. Hood then, near the Sandy River. It was a few days before Christmas, the first after my divorce, and my children were going to be spending the holiday with their dad. He and I lived within walking distance of each other, so I knew they were close, but still. It was not an easy time.

The snow was coming down. I was sewing Christmas stockings for the kids, new ones for our new house. George Bailey and Mary and Mr. Potter were keeping me company. In a few days my parents would be visiting, and we would be celebrating our Christmas a day after everyone else, but it was fine. It would all be OK. I’m OK, I thought to myself, more than once.

Late that evening, one of the dogs whined to be let out on the back deck. The French doors opened in, so I had no trouble opening the door–but, oh! There were at least two feet of snow in front of it! We lived at the base of the mountain, at only 1,000 feet, so in my 15 years of living there I’d never seen anything quite like it.

The dog–a miniature Daschund–gave me a bit of a side-eye. I looked for something I could use to scrape away a small space in which she could pee.

It felt unreal, somehow. How had all that snow fallen without my being aware of it?

I didn’t understand in that moment what the snow would mean. I didn’t know that it had fallen all over the region, and that life was going to grind to mostly a halt, Christmas or no Christmas. I didn’t know that I would be alone there for a few days. I didn’t know how I would come to rely on the television and the internet and its connections with others to keep me feeling OK. I didn’t know how angry and powerless I was going to feel when my ex-husband ignored the travel advisories and took our children several hours up I-5 to retrieve their older sister, rather than letting them stay with me. I didn’t know that my parents were going to have to cancel their plans to come see us the day after Christmas.

I only came to understand those things gradually, over the course of a few days, and I didn’t fully understand the implications of my position until the power went out. At that point, I was low on food. No power meant I had no heat. My car was trapped in my garage behind a wall of snow, and I didn’t even have a snow shovel. No power also meant no internet, and so no way of communicating with the people who had kept me tethered to something that felt like normalcy.

When I finally understood those things–all of them–after days of living alone and working so hard to be OK in that solitude, I kind of lost it.

I bundled myself up and trudged down to the river, a constant source of solace in those years of my life coming undone. I was utterly alone, nothing but snow and trees and water all around. I sunk into the snow, wondering how my life had come to this, that I would be alone without heat or food or someone to meet these challenges with me, and I howled the kind of tears I’ve only known a few times in my life.

When I finally got up to leave–because tears always stop, eventually, and we always have to keep moving, don’t we?–one foot slipped out of my boot and the other didn’t move at all. I stood there, ridiculous, balancing on one leg, trying to dislodge my boot, and I fell over, icy snow biting my face. What the fuck was I doing? No one knew where I was. What if I did something even more stupid and got hurt and couldn’t get back up through the short path through the woods? I cried some more.

I don’t remember how I got those boots unstuck, but I did. And I marched my cold, wet ass back to my dark, cold house with nearly empty cupboards and faced the truth that I was supremely ill-equipped to live on the mountain by myself. So I was going to get the hell out.

I didn’t have a snow shovel, but my ex-husband did and he wasn’t home. I loaded up my two tiny dogs in a tobaggen (why? who knows? snow-crazy, maybe) and started to make my way to the house that had once been mine but was now only his. I was going to dig that car out of the garage and ignore the travel advisories myself.

As I crossed Barlow Trail Road–originally part of the Oregon Trail–and entered what had been, only months before, my street, Hideaway Lane, I saw a wondrous site: my old neighbor Shari’s 4-wheel drive rig idling in her driveway, exhaust wafting skyward.

“Are you going down the mountain?” I called to her.

Yes, she was. And yes, I could have a ride.

I hurried home, packed a bag, grabbed the dogs some food and blankets, and I was ready in minutes. I decided she could take me to the school where I taught. It was in town, within walking distance of restaurants. The school had a health sciences program, with an equipped hospital room, which meant there was a bed I could sleep in. There was power. I would be fine.

“Are you sure?” Sherri asked as she dropped the dogs and me off outside the building.

“Yes, I’ll be OK,” I assured her. I was taking care of myself, dammit. I was figuring it out. I thought of all the times my children’s father had told me that I’d never have survived the Oregon Trail, and my resolve hardened. I was not going to be a victim, crying alone in my cold, dark house with no food.

A half-hour later the city of Gresham closed down, which meant that all the restaurants and stores closed. All I had to eat were leftovers from the Red Robin lunch I’d had with Shari. The school, shut down for the winter break, wasn’t much warmer than my house had been.

I cried again.

Eventually, I abandoned both pride and my resolve to go it alone and called a friend, who got on a bus and came and rescued me. (I couldn’t manage the two dogs and all of our things on the bus by myself.) I spent Christmas with him and his daughter, the first of what would end up being many that we shared. It was not the Christmas I expected, at all. It was not the one I wanted. But I was grateful for it. Deeply grateful. The greatest gift was, perhaps, that first night at his apartment, when he filled the tub with hot water and brought me a glass of wine and I felt such profound relief to know that I was no longer all on my own, even if just for a day or two.

Things went back to normal, sort of. The snow melted. My children safely returned. My parents eventually made it to my house, where we all opened presents and watched movies, and it felt a lot like Christmas, even though it was days late. It would be a while before I realized that I’d changed in those howling minutes I’d lived on the snow-covered beach, face-to-face with my ineptitude and a solitude I’d never known.

What’s happening now feels not unlike that snowstorm, and I wonder where in the sequence of events and understanding I am. A week ago, I think, I was not unlike the woman who sat sewing Christmas stockings, unaware of the snow piling high around her shelter. I mean, I knew it was snowing. But now, like then, it’s been a little breath-taking to see how fast and hard it’s fallen, and how it continues to accumulate.

Wishing all of you who read here good health (mental and physical) and the sense I didn’t have in 2008 to know that no one can really go it alone (even as we must physically separate). Let’s help each other make it down this road together.

A few dots from writers I found strangely comforting yesterday:

The world we once lived in has vanished

The ghost of normalcy lingering past its time

Figuring forward in an uncertain universe

A post about the thing with feathers

Well, what does one say after the year that was last week?

In the midst of our schools closing, a multiple-day migraine, a child in Europe whose east-coast university has shut down and wants her to move her belongings out, and a clogged kitchen sink line, I re-arranged my living room. I spent an entire evening reconsidering the objects on my fireplace mantel. I bought paint to re-paint the bedroom I painted in December. I put a lot of stitches into a canvas while I watched stupid things on TV that made me feel nostalgic for 2010.

Before I left work on Friday, hoping that we really will return in two weeks but knowing that we likely won’t, I checked out a bagful of books from our school library. Good thing, because Saturday morning I woke to the news that our public libraries are shutting down, which somehow hit me harder than anything else had. Perhaps because libraries are my church, and if ever there was a time a person might need church, it’s now. In the absence of such, I am planning a garage re-organization project, which I’ll start just as soon as it stops snowing.

Because it is freaking snowing, in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of March.

(Well, it was on Saturday morning when I was writing this post.)

Which leads me to ask:

My daughter is staying put in Europe for I don’t know how long, and we reminded ourselves this morning that humor is a key item in anyone’s apocalypse survival kit. As are toilet paper, pasta, and ways to keep productively busy.

Ever since reading Digital Minimalism a few weeks back, I’ve curtailed my social media consumption (going so far as to remove the apps from my phone), but as the wheels started flying off the bus on Friday I found my feeds to be a place of comfort. It was good to hear from people I know and love. It was good to see sound information being shared. It was good to laugh. It was good to be reminded of what can be best in us, rather than what’s so often worst.

Mostly, it was heartening to realize that my feed was full of messages that all said some version of this: We need to do what we’re doing and bear the costs of these actions not to reduce our own risks, but to reduce the risks to others. The ratio of those messages to photos of empty toilet paper aisle shelves was about a million to one, and for the first time in a long time I’ve felt something I’d almost forgotten the feeling of: Hope.

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.

We’ll all have to figure out the best ways for us to do that. Right now, I’m focused on staying home as much as possible and supporting those in my personal circle without creating more risk for those outside it. I might write here more often, once I get a little equilibrium back. Mostly, though, you can probably find me (but please, don’t come too close looking) painting a wall or cleaning a garage or stabbing canvas with a needle or sharing something through Facebook–a tidbit of useful information or something funny to make you smile.

Because it has always been true that we also serve, who only stand and wait.

Dots

Hope is the thing with feathers

Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

A post in which the F-word appears. Repeatedly.

What a week, eh?

Maybe I’d have had more time to write something that matters more than this post will if I hadn’t spent so many minutes of it washing my hands. With most of the US coronavirus deaths happening just a few hours north of us and with a local school temporarily closing its doors due to a positive case in the household of a school employee, the epidemic and its possible (likely?) impacts has felt both wildly imminent and strangely distant. Most of us are all still going about our daily lives just as we always have–except, with more handwashing. I work in a school, where our custodian now wipes down my door handle and light switch daily. The idea that we might face a prolonged time not at school feels unreal, as does the idea that the daily wipe down is going to have much impact on whether or not we do.

In the meantime, it became clear this week that we will once again have as our president a doddering old white man, just in case anyone is still maybe on the fence about the idea that we are a patriarchal white supremacy. Yeah, yeah, yeah I’m gonna vote to remove the orange white guy (vote blue no matter who!), but goddamnfuckit I am so angry.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me. I mean, I’m one of those reasonable, smart, educated, competent, hard-working white women who believed for most of my life that all we had to do was work hard and know the necessary things and be good at what we do and EVERYTHING WOULD WORK OUT. Five+ decades of training and grooming and pruning leaves its mark, and so those who know me IRL (or even online) probably haven’t seen the rage that’s boiling on the inside. And who am I kidding to think that anyone really cares about the rage of a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman? I mean, sometimes even I kind of hate most of us, so, I get it–all of it. Moving on…

Aside from washing my hands of things (both literally and figuratively) this week, and trying to do good work at work, and paying bills, and being as good a mom, partner, daughter, and friend as I could manage, I didn’t do a whole lot of reading or thinking or writing. I didn’t make it to the gym, either, but I did take a two-mile walk one sunny afternoon and on another one I filled up the compost bin with the weird, wormy-looking things a giant tree drops all over my yard, which sounds like work but didn’t feel like work. I think I’m abandoning self-care that feels like work. At least until I can let up on the handwashing.

What I did this week instead was bust out needle and thread. I found a book about stitching on canvas, something that’s never occurred to me as a possibility. Why? I don’t know why. Too busy following the rules, maybe–not that this is such a ground-breaking or wild idea. I had a grubby old canvas from some long-abandoned earlier project lying around, so I covered it with the only acrylic paint I had that wasn’t a globby, chunky mess and I drew a house (from a photo from another long-abandoned earlier project) on it, and I started stitching. At the end of my days I did not read or write; I watched TV that made me feel good (season 3 of Better Things and season 1 of HGTV’s Home Town, the juxtaposition of which probably says more about my inner state than any of the words I’m writing here) and stabbed that canvas repeatedly with a needle.

At work I had a conversation with a colleague about the idea of decolonizing education, the topic of a workshop she recently attended. We explored what that might look like in practice and planned a research unit for her students with that idea as our foundation. We talked about what people who have endured colonization have done to endure it and, as much as possible, be OK in it. We talked about how, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, so many white women were so freaked out. I shared that I was one of them, but that I have realized since then that the people of color I was talking with in those early days and weeks of the current administration were not freaking out.

My colleague, a woman of color, just smiled. “Yes,” she said.

“I realize now,” I said, “that for them, what was happening was bad, but also business as usual.”

“Yes,” she said, still smiling.

“And I think,” I said, “the problem for white people, maybe especially white women of my generation, is that we haven’t ever had to develop such coping mechanisms, not really. We don’t know how to be OK in the presence of truly knowing the ways in which we are powerless against forces that don’t care about us and are using their power against us. Because we haven’t really seen it until now.”

“Yes,” she said, still smiling. It was a kind smile. Maybe the kind you give a child, but maybe not. It’s hard for me to know.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I am returning to a craft of my childhood to help me cope with all kinds of things. Honestly, I don’t really care to explore that idea too deeply. It’s not a particularly interesting one and the answer to the question inherent in it doesn’t really matter.

My needlework doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to be good (a good thing, because it’s not really) or do good in some way that extends beyond me. It is not going to be the beginning of some life- or world-altering something, and I’m not going to become a craftivist. Because I don’t think cross-stitching “fuck the patriarchy” on pillows and such is going to do much to end it. Although, maybe it’s activism if it helps others endure it. I dunno. I don’t think my embroidery is going to either heal anyone or inspire them to revolt, which is OK because that’s not what it has to do.

All the embroidery has to do is keep me going. Because even if the world doesn’t much care for or about hard-working, competent women who actually know what the fuck they are talking about and have a fucking plan to fucking get things done (like take care of sick people and educate kids and maybe not kill the planet), we know that we need to keep going. We know we have to take care of ourselves so we can keep holding shit together for the people who are depending upon us to do so (which includes ourselves). And because life is short and to abandon the joys we can extract from it, even in the shadow of pandemics and bloviating old white men, is to give said men even more power over us than that which they’ve taken.

And why in the fuck would we want to do that?

A few dots…

Something to watch: Warren: Just a Little Longer… (“Persist.”)

Something to look at: A photographer’s parents wave farewell (“At the end of their daughter’s visits, like countless other mothers and fathers in the suburbs, Dikeman’s parents would stand outside the house to send her off while she got in her car and drove away. One day in 1991, she thought to photograph them in this pose, moved by a mounting awareness that the peaceful years would not last forever.”)

Something to short read: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy (“This is how most of us are — stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.”)

Something to long read: Erosion: Essays of Undoing (“People often ask us how we can stay buoyant in the face of loss, and I don’t know what to say except the world is so beautiful even as it burns, even as those we love leave us, even as we witness the ravaging of land and species, especially as we witness the brutal injustices and deep divisions in this country…”)

Also, I’m growing things.

6 sentences

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

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

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

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

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

“Who do you think you are?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who did I think I was?

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

“Grandpa’s hard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’d you get a B in English?”

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

The remaining sentences:

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

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

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

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

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

Your turn:

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

Creating Life

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

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

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

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

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

“But does it have to?”

Careful, careful…

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

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

Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BAM.

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Credit:

Rebecca Walker Explains Rift with Mother, Alice” from NPR

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

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

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

Late winter still life

We can call it late winter, can’t we? We have passed the half-way point, and the crocuses and camellias are now blooming…

One morning last week, as I was gathering my things for the day, there was something about the clutter on my kitchen table that stopped me. It struck me as beautiful, the arrangement of things I did not arrange. The unposed mix of textures, colors, and shapes so pleased me I reached for the camera, trying to capture how it looked for me.

Of course, I didn’t really.

The 17th century Dutch assigned layers of meanings to the objects in their still life paintings, which functioned almost like a code (mostly of judgement, it seems), but there’s nothing like that going on here. Each object is simply what it is: a beleaguered basil in a dull clay pot; an empty Ikea vase; a $3.00 bunch of chamomile from Trader Joe’s; a bowl of common fruit; a chipped Franciscan ware lid sitting on its matching bowl, protecting the salt within it. Apparently, still life paintings rank low on the painting hierarchy–or at least they did in 17th century France. Ordinary, inanimate subjects were deemed less worthy than living ones, but I rather like these things on my table that talk to me without words or movement.

I couldn’t quite catch through the camera how it felt to me, the cluster of objects in late winter’s early morning light, but I can look at the image and hear something of what they are saying: Here is a life with flavor. Some simplicity. Healthy sweetness, and a touch of ordinary pretty.

Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow is a picture book I’ve loved this winter. It invites us to see beneath the surface of things. Over the snow is a still, white world. Under it, hidden from view, a colorful kingdom of animals inhabit rest and safe shelter–a still life of a different kind.

There is, of course, life coursing through the objects on my table: Meals, friendships, memories, outings, unfinished chores. The very beginning of a season’s turning. It’s a mostly quiet life right now, a lull before spring storms. For weeks I have been living, at times, not unlike Messner’s voles, scratching “through slippery tunnels, searching for morsels from summer feasts,” and at others like her snoring black bear, “still full of October blueberries and trout.”

It’s important, I think, to be still from time to time. To stay warm. To rest. It’s important to know what’s beneath the surface of things. To pause and really see what and who surrounds us, from both above and below. To hold and appreciate what we can, as we can, all the while knowing that the crocuses will out, and the season of busy colors will return.

So tell me…

What is on your kitchen table?

What’s going on under the surface of your life?

What kind of paintings speak to you?

Oh, and if you want to see truly lovely still life photos, check out Oh Katie Joy’s Tuesday Things posts. Many times they open with a long string of photos, many of which are still life shots. I dare you to look at those and not see your own home through different eyes. Another master of the genre is Alicia Paulson.

Librarioholics. We’re a thing.

Hi, I’m Rita, and I’m a librarioholic.

The past few months I’ve been checking out piles of library books that languish on my nightstand past their due dates only to be joined by more books before I’ve returned them, and I’m starting to think that I love something about the idea of books more than I love actually reading them. I fantasize about spending a whole Saturday curled up on the couch with a book, but I never turn that fantasy into reality. Perhaps what I love even more than reading a book is the search for it, the anticipation of it, the possibility within it, the comfort of it. Some thing a book represents, more than the thing it is.

I blame this book habit–and my impressive fine history–on my childhood. Which means, of course, on my mother, the one who introduced me to books and libraries.

She has told me that she began taking me to libraries before I can even remember. She dropped me off for a weekly “creative drama” class when I was just a toddler. “I always wondered what they had you do there,” she’s said. She doesn’t know, having raised children before the advent of helicopter parenting and outsized fears about child safety.

I have no idea what we did, but I’m guessing I liked it. I’m guessing I felt safe and happy, the way I’ve always felt in a library.

Later, when I was trapped in the bog of misery that was my 6th grade year, she’d take me there every Saturday. I’d drop off the stack I’d checked out the previous week and leave with a new one, each volume a friend to get me through the long weekend ahead–because those weekends in which I needed distance from my parents but lacked proximity to my peers were so, so long.

Back then, I did lose whole days to the pages of books. I wasn’t discriminating because you don’t have to be when time feels unlimited. I read trash. I read weird things. I read things I’d read 20 times already. I read some classics, too. Compared to now, there was very little like YA then, and I struggled with being both too old for the children’s section and too young for the adult section. The closest things to books that felt written for someone my age were some corny series from the ’50s (Beany Malone was my favorite) and Beverly Cleary’s really dippy Fifteen and Jean and Johnny. (These did not equip me well for the late 70s teen social scene I was entering.) I did eventually discover the entire Judy Blume oeuvre and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, the title of which alarmed my father enough that he initiated a Serious Talk, a conversation I did not enjoy, and, of course, Go Ask Alice, which kept me away from drugs for a very long time because Alice was a pretty sweet, innocent kid (like me) and look what happened to her when she used drugs just once, and she didn’t even mean to! And it was a true story! (Except, it wasn’t. But we didn’t know that then. And by “we,” I might mean only myself and the writer I just linked to, possibly the two most naive teenagers of our era. I bet she read 1950s YA, too.)

All of which is to say that, for me, books were entertainment and companionship and guides for living, and the portal to them was the library. The nearest bookstore was a B. Dalton’s all the way out at the mall, and I didn’t have anything like enough money to buy all the books I needed even if they’d had a large stock of them, which they didn’t. My habit only deepened when I got my first job, which was (of course) at our local public library, where my favorite task was sorting the books for shelving. That’s how I discovered all kinds of books I’d never previously encountered, including a guide to teen-age sexuality that I snuck out of the building and never returned, and which was the source of my mortification when, as a college student, I realized that my mother must certainly have found it when she cleaned out the closet in which I’d hidden it.

I’m such a library addict that I purposely hooked my kids on it, too. When they were preschoolers I’d take them to the library, and right after that we’d go to McDonald’s, where they would play in the Lord of the Flies-esque play area and I would eat french fries and read a few pages in peace (or what passed for peace in those years). It was a total win-win. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I did it on purpose. I wanted them to love the library like I did, and I knew that associating it with McDonald’s–because we almost never went there at any other time–was a sure-fire way to get them hooked create that love.

(Remember, it’s all my mother’s fault. She started it.)

Now, I find myself in a season of life with much more opportunity to read, but I’m still not the kind of reader I was in 6th grade. While I’m no longer responsible for the feeding and physical survival of young humans, I do still have a life of my own I need to keep going in a reasonably healthy manner, and there are no such things as whole days spent on the couch with a book. When I do let myself indulge in a couch/book treat, I pretty much always fall asleep after just a few pages. Most of my reading is done in snippets–before bed, in the bathroom, while I’m waiting for water to boil or sauces to simmer, when I’m eating. Sadly, there are far, far more books that I want to read than can be read in the snippets available to me.

So, if I know I can’t read all the books I check out, what is my library habit really about? I’m not sure, but it’s a real thing, my librarioholism. It means I visit regularly, always leaving with a large haul that I fully intend to read, even as I know that I will not have (make?) enough time to read it all. Oh, I suppose I could, if I just wouldn’t let myself return for more until the books I already have are finished. But after about a week away, I get twitchy to go back, and I’ve come to accept that I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.

Maybe I’m hooked on the endorphins I get from anticipating a book, more than on anything I get from reading the book itself. (If I were Dinky Hocker and she actually shot smack, looking for books would be my smack.) Maybe what I’m really hooked on is the fix of the new and all its possibilities, all the different versions of myself that they promise I might be–a graceful homemaker, a fiber artist, a serious writer, a person who understands what the hell is happening in the world, to the world–and, by extension, to myself and those I love. Many of the books I check out are more aspirational than anything else. They are books I want to want to read more than I want to actually read, and I rarely get past the first pages of them, if I even pick them up at all. But still, I take them home. They teach me something about what some part of me–maybe a part I’m not even conscious of yet–wants or needs.

Hmmm… maybe it’s even deeper than that, and my habit is really some sort of hedge against death, against potential or probable annihilation of various kinds. See? my stack of books say to me. There is still time to be all of the things you might be and to live in the kind of world you want to inhabit. There are still people writing books about how to put on a nice dinner party, so maybe that’s something that might still matter and that you can still learn how to do. I have long joked that if the apocalypse comes and the grid goes down, I will not join the hordes looting the grocery stores; no, I will be looting the library, a space I’ve long claimed as my church, a sacred place to go for answers and community and comfort. Although I’ve been tongue-in-cheeking the addiction metaphor, maybe my habit truly is not so different from the addict’s drug or the believer’s religion, just another way of coping with fear.

Ah, look at me. I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, and a dark one at that. And it’s Sunday morning and I’ve promised myself that I will post here once a week, ready or not. What’s the way out? I don’t know, any more than I know how to neatly tie up this package of words, but I’m guessing that if an answer can be found, it’s probably at the library. Better figure out how to fit a trip there into my plan for the day.

******

This post was prompted by a book I’ve been loving, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. When I read about it, I thought it might be a little boring. It isn’t.

If you, too, are a librarioholic, you might enjoy these reads about our happiest place on earth:

This article was everywhere a few weeks back–or maybe it just seemed that way to me because so many people sent it to me and/or so many library friends shared it.

But more important than that previous article is this take on it from one of my favorite librarians.

I would go visit these gorgeous libraries, glorious as any cathedral.

It would be the coolest meta thing if this picture book about librarian Pure Belpre had actually won a Pure Belpre Award in the recent ALA Youth Media Awards event, but it was an Honor Book which means it’s still cool. Just not as cool as it could have been.

And, currently on my Likely to Be Overdue List Because I’m Actually Reading Them:

The Inviting Life by Laura Calder (648). I want to live this kind of life. I’m getting there.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks by Rita Dove (811.5) Don’t read this because it’s Black History Month. Read it because it’s good poetry.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (303.4833)–This one was recommended by my friend Marian, and now I’m recommending it to you. More on this later.

Daily Rituals Women at Work by Mason Currey (704.042). These are short, fascinating reads about the daily habits of women across various creative fields and eras. The chapters are like Lay’s potato chips: Small, savory, and you can’t eat just one.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch (Fic). I avoided this when it was published. I’m ready for it now. I’ve only just started it, but…Wow.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield (808.02). Many things about Pressfield annoy me. I’m reading this book because Anne Lamott can’t be my only writing teacher. We should rub up against what annoys us from time to time.

The Things that Matter by Nate Berkus (747.092) Not your typical interiors-porn coffee table book. Though it is a coffee table book with gorgeous interiors. I’m reading it for the stories, not the pictures. Really! OK, for both I guess.

Migraine trigger #248

“In January it might seem like teachers would return from a vacation and feel rested, ready to jump back into the classroom with energy. That’s partly true, but Aguilar has also found that the time off can decrease people’s tolerance for stuff they have to deal with in the classroom. They’ve felt like a normal human for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.” 12 Ways Teachers Can Build Resilience So They Can Make Systemic Change

Oh, y’all.

Did you see that last sentence? “They’ve felt like normal humans for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.”

So much there to unpack. I mean, what is “a normal human” anyway? What is normal existence? Seems to me that for more and more people “normal” life is some combination of low wages, various forms of oppression, unaffordable housing and healthcare, corrupt government officials, insecure/inadequate retirement, and fear of rising authoritarianism/the deep state/what crap white people are going to do next in response to their fears. (I’d put in links to substantiate those claims, but: migraine.)

And, do you see that assumption that not feeling like a normal human is just part of what it means to be a teacher? I know the article title implies that we’re to develop resiliency strategies so that we can remain in the system and the fight to change it–to which I can’t say anything but, Yes, of course. But can we for just a minute acknowledge how that’s such a tricky line to walk? How it may be counter-productive to keep patching ourselves with band-aids when what we really need to be well is surgery? Because then no one sees that we’re bleeding out, maybe until it’s too late?

I’m under no illusion that a teacher’s life on break is “normal” for any but a privileged relatively few of us (and I’m deeply grateful for the breaks I get, because I know many people don’t have anything like that kind of respite), but c’mon. I don’t think that’s what the Aguilar means.

I’m guessing she (and all of us) might define “normal human,” as one who is reasonably healthy with manageable stressors.

Since coming back from break, feeling so healthy and determined to stay that way (as opposed to the exhausted, brittle, fragile way I felt in the weeks leading up to the break) I have been self-caring the shit out of myself. I have been practicinggoodsleephygienemealplanningeatingplantsavoidingcaffeinestayinghydratedtendingrelationshipsreframingstoriesholdingboundariesowningwhatsminenotowningwhatsnotdoingcreativeworkpracticinggratitudeshiningalightonwhatsgoodkeepingabudgetbeingmindfulstayinginthemoment, and…

…my self-care is stressing me out, which I think is the opposite of its intended outcome. At the end of too many days, I’m just too depleted to do much of any of those things. All I want to do is to pick up a pizza and collapse on the couch in front of mindless TV and numb the fuck out.

But I’ve been doing them anyway, because I really, really want these things to work. I really, really want to be/feel healthy more of the time. I want that more than I want to numb out.

And it’s not like I have unreasonable standards or am trying to win some gold medal in the self-care Olympics. I cut myself slack as needed. On Thursday, recognizing physical and mental depletion, I realized I could not spend time with a friend and make my scheduled session at the gym and make/eat a healthy dinner. I chose friend (social connections/relationships) and healthy dinner and cut the gym (and doing laundry) and felt just fine about that choice. But migraine came anyway, sending me home early on Friday and messing with my weekend as well as my head.

What I’m trying to say is…hell if I really know what I’m trying to say. I’m too damn tired to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I need to get off this screen so the migraine doesn’t show up for a third day.

So, just 4 more things:

  1. This isn’t just about teachers. I spend most of my time with teachers, but this struggle isn’t limited to teachers. It’s about systems and conditions that touch many of us.
  2. I know I’m relatively privileged. I know I have it better than many, many people. (That doesn’t make it OK or OKer.)
  3. I don’t want any advice. I’m already doing all of the things Ms. Aguilar and so many others advise to build resilience. I AM DOING ALL OF THE THINGS. Your experiences–including things that have worked for you–is very welcome if you’d like to share that.
  4. Sorry for shouting there. It’s just, I know, OK? I know the things. This post isn’t really about the things. Sorry if I haven’t taken the time to express what it’s about more clearly.

One of the things I promised myself I’d do is write more regularly here. (Suggestion #10: Play and Create.) And I gave myself permission to sometimes do it quickly and to live by William Stafford’s wise counsel to lower my standards if that’s what’s needed to get words on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Practicing that hard with this entry in the notebook. (See: migraine.)

OK, just one more thing:

  1. Thanks for being here. Human connection really is one of the things that makes a difference.

Off to meal-plan and get to the grocery store early enough to avoid the crowds.

Learning Swedish is my current zoning out method of choice. It’s something I’m doing with my daughter (building relationships, being connected), and as I told her this week, it’s cheaper than therapy and healthier than drinking. I always feel better after a few lessons.