What feeds us

“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….

By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.

Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5

“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….

Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”

Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.

I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.

“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”

“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”

“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”

“What should my three points be?”

“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”

Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.

To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.

Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.

Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.

In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.

Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”

Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.

After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?

Then, the pandemic hit.

Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)

For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?

I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.

Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:

  • Eat locally and sustainably.
  • Eat seasonally.
  • Shop at farmers’ markets.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Conserve, compost, and recycle.
  • Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
  • Cook together.
  • Eat together.
  • Remember food is precious.

Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.

Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?

I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.

Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.

“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”

“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”

He grinned.

“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.

I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.

How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?

Long drive home

Image via Toyota Newsroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see where that might lead.

The doors to the temple

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

Mary Oliver, Upstream, via Jena Schwartz

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

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

Publisher comments to Upstream, via Powells.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

“We don’t?”

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

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

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

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

“I want to be a writer,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

What do you want to do?

Who will you be?

What is your temple?

How do you need to tell your story?

What’s your whimsy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Via jessicacloe.com

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

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

Via happycactusdesigns

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

Via aliciapaulson.com

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

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

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

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

Via kimstaffordpoetry on Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following some whimsy on my birthday last week.

Begin again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, I can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter

I know we have several weeks of autumn left on the calendar, but winter arrived here this week. Wild winds tore the last leaves from the trees and sharp air bit our cheeks (when we stepped outside, which we did as little as possible).

I’ve largely made my peace with winter, with this winter, particularly, and what it promises to be. I don’t mind the dark. There’s something about it I crave, actually–the way it reveals so much by stripping life down to its essentials: heat, food, drink, touch, sleep.

After taking the holiday weekend completely off, I hurtled into the work week, all spinning wheels and pumping cylinders. By Tuesday night I was tetchy and taut; nothing but take-out pizza could be a reasonable response to the interminable question of dinner. Wednesday was no better–worse, actually, because Wednesday my primary task was bearing witness to hardship and trauma I felt powerless to affect–and when I woke Thursday to the familiar tightening at the top of my head and the stiffness in my neck and the shadow of nausea that means migraine is descending, I almost cried with frustration and fury at…everything. (No need to spell it all out, is there?)

Migraine arriving on Thursday is typical for me, usually the herald of a weekend mostly lost to lethargy and pain, a cloud that drifts away sometime on Sunday, returning me to my best self just in time to give it away to another week of work.

“Screw that, ” I said to no one but myself this past Thursday morning, still close enough to the restorative powers of the previous weekend to be unwilling to let them go. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose yet another weekend to this shit.” (No need to spell out what “this shit” is, either, I suppose.)

And so I took first a pill (eschewing the mental dance in which I pretend/hope the migraine isn’t coming or hem and haw about whether or not I really need it) and then a sick day. I called in for leave because I wanted a day entirely off screens, and there is literally no part of my job I can do now that doesn’t involve being in front of a screen. I often take my meds and then go ahead and work because, well, I can, and it feels necessary. Thursday I decided it wasn’t. Thursday I decided it was most necessary to give my body what it was telling me it needed.

I made a mental list of all the things I could do that were possible while on meds and didn’t require screens: decorate the Christmas tree, sweep and mop the floor, clean the kitchen, sew Christmas stockings, take a walk, bake cookies, read a print book.

After registering my absence, I made a cup of tea and settled in with Daisy and Katherine May’s Wintering, so we could be quiet while Cane continued to sleep. After breakfast I swept and mopped the floor, and that wore me out so I decided to lie down on my bed for just a minute. I listened to an audiobook, then turned it off and drifted in and out of consciousness for a while. Then it was time for lunch, and after lunch we went for a walk and picked up some groceries and then it was time to make dinner. And that was the day.

Other than cleaning the floor and grocery shopping, I didn’t do any of the productive things on my list. I only did being things. I did not sew or decorate or clean or bake. After dinner I just sat on the sofa for a bit, listening to music and appreciating the warmth and soft lights of the living room. Just being felt strange, as unusual things do, but also good.

It was a very winterish kind of day, and it restored me. It broke my usual migraine pattern; I woke up Friday with no sign of illness and had a productive day. I moved slowly and steadily through it. No spinning, pumping grind. Did I accomplish everything I “needed” to? No. Would I have if I’d pushed in the usual way–gutting through both Thursday and Friday, overdosing on meds and feeling sick and wrecking myself for the next two days? No. So what, really, was lost? Nothing of value, I think. What I gained was my health and my weekend.

In Wintering, May reminds me that humans sleep more in the winter, and that in earlier times, when artificial light (among other things) didn’t shape our days in the ways it does now, we commonly experienced periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night–a time for drinking water, peeing, contemplating, wakeful dreaming, lovemaking, quiet talking–before returning to more sleep.

I’m wondering now how life might be if we viewed the winter season as a metaphor for sleep, and our winter days as those periods of middle-of-the-night waking. How might we spend them, then, these hours of scant light, if we could view them this way?

I know it’s not possible to live such a vision completely. I did work all day Friday–because I have to work–and I could work as I did because I had no pressing external deadlines that day. But I moved through the day differently than I have been, and I realized that the pressing deadlines are often finish lines of my own making. Friday, I chose to move some ribbons further down the track. Friday, recognizing both the arbitrary nature of perceived needs and my actual physical need to work and live differently, I ran my race at a different pace. I took time for conversations with colleagues. I got up periodically and moved my body. I took a full lunch break, reading a book while I ate at the kitchen table. I did what I could and accepted what I couldn’t, and I let all of it go at the end of the day when I closed my office door and turned fully to my family and the rest of my home.

What I felt the most, in those two days of stripped down living, was a kind of abundance. It’s not the abundance of spring or summer, days lush with fresh leaves and vibrant grass and birdsong. It’s an abundance of space, the kind you feel standing in front of a fallow field or at the top of a mountain.

Not everything that comes in to fill winter’s emptiness feels wonderful, despite what some carols would have you believe about this time of the year. This past week tears rose in response to the scent of my great-grandmother’s spaghetti, the sound of Elton John’s “Levon,” and the sight of a nearly 20-year-old Dollar Store tree topper. But there’s a gift in those moments, those tears: clear sight.

Oh, the things we can see when we’re not rushing through chock-filled moments of our lives, when there is white space enough to highlight what’s at the center of our pages. Written on mine are nourishment, history, connection, tradition, love.

One morning this week, I stepped out my back door and realized that the vine I planted two springs ago had shed most of its leaves. We built a fence and planted the vine to obscure the view of the rest of the yard, which turns to a field of scorched grass by mid-July. This past year, it did just what we hoped it would, creating a cozy backdrop for summer visits with friends and family.

Part of me longs for those days right now, but another part of me is just fine with where I am, in this season and in my life, which, like the year, is also on the cusp of its winter. Part of me misses the season of supple blooming, but another is grateful to look out the door to see the vine’s tangle of naked sticks weaving in and out of the fence slats, its exposed network of branches clinging to what supports it, and to know that the vine, like my life, is still here, still alive, still growing.

Choose your own adventure

I have a confession to make: my weekend was wonderful. Almost a little magical, maybe.

Oh, I wish I could have seen my kids or my parents (or, even better, my kids and my parents). I really do. I miss them terribly. But as my mom and I admitted to each other over the phone on Thursday morning, it was nice not to have to drive anywhere. Or make a huge meal. Or clean the house. Or navigate any familial tension.

After weeks of stress, insomnia, migraine, and worry, it was really nice to step off the treadmill of my life and just be.

It has been such a gift, to have four days so truly off. For Thanksgiving we did make a nice meal, every dish a new recipe we’ve never tried before. (Pork loin, brussel sprouts, dinner rolls, Bourbon-cranberry cocktails, and bread pudding for dessert.) Because it was just for the two of us, we weren’t also trying to entertain and get everything to turn out perfectly. We overcooked the roast and mis-timed the sprouts, but it was all good. Doing something new, working together, laughing at our missteps, and feeling no pressure mattered more than the food we eventually ate.

In the days since, we’ve gone for long walks and snapped photos of interesting things, taken naps, bought new porch plants, put up some lights, cleaned out a kitchen cupboard, Christmas shopped (online only), talked with those we love who are far away, and watched frivolous TV (Home of the Year). One evening I took a bubble bath with a new (to me) book, feeling so content with my modest, quirky home. Another night, we lit a fire and played a long game of Upwords and ate big helpings of leftover bread pudding.

I tried to finish a knitting project I’ve been working on, but when I attempted to sew it together (it’s a pillow cover), I realized I’d gotten the gauge wrong. Significantly wrong. I considered some half-assed solutions, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with any of them. So it went from this…

…back to this:

I realized that the project is like our Thanksgiving dinner, where the process of making it matters more than the product I’ll eventually end up with. I realized that I want to do it right more than I want to get it done, a sentiment I’m feeling about many things lately.

In this time of continued suffering and uncertainty, it feels wrong, somehow, to feel as good as I have this long weekend. But what I’ve seen these past few days, more clearly than I did even in the spring, is that some aspects of pandemic life are good for me, and when we are past this enough to safely gather again, there are things from these months that I want to hold onto.

I know that it might not be easy; if I excuse myself from fast-paced living and unnecessary obligation I won’t have the ready excuse of a pandemic, which no one in my circle has questioned or pushed back on. I have been able to say both “yes” and “no” to things I normally might not, without hurting anyone’s feelings or disappointing anyone’s expectations (including my own). We have been giving each other all kinds of grace in acknowledgement of the hard time we are living through.

As I’m feeling myself come back to physical and mental wellness from just these few days of deep rest, I’m wondering: Couldn’t we maybe keep doing that for each other? It’s not like anyone I know was living particularly easy before last March. Couldn’t we keep accepting these kinds of choices as being necessary for our health (in the widest, most global sense)?

The things I want in my life are not controversial (or shouldn’t be). I want fewer superficial connections and more deep ones. I want more time at home, living slowly. I want time to rest my body and time to move it. I want to do and have fewer things, and I want the things I do have to be the right things. I want to take more long walks, spend less money, eat more good food, make more things, and live in such a way that I support people and causes that make this world the kind I’d like to live in.

I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it, once the world starts back up again, but that’s OK for now. Figuring out what we want is sometimes the hardest part of getting it.

I hope you’ve had a nice weekend, too, and find comfort and joy in the coming weeks, by doing whatever creates them for you.

Why your students won’t turn on their camera

Or talk in the chat or during whole-group discussions.

Or participate in your Nearpod/Jamboard/Flipgrid/cool tech tool du jour activity.

Or stay off of other tabs/devices.

Or complete your assignments.

Well, I don’t really know, of course. I’m not your students. But I can tell you why I turn off my camera/remain silent/get on my phone/do other things during the Zoom meetings and professional development sessions I’m required to attend.

I do it because there is no new learning happening for me.

Or I do it because I don’t understand/don’t know how to do the task I’m supposed to be doing and don’t have what I need to solve that problem.

Or I do it because the content of the meeting/PD is not relevant to (or is maybe even counter to) my goals and the context in which I’m working.

Or I do it because I have other things I need to get done and attending the meeting/PD rather than working on them makes me so angry/frustrated/anxious I can hardly stand it.

Or I do it because I’m struggling emotionally or physically—sometimes with things that aren’t even about work—and don’t want to reveal that to others.

Or I do it for reasons that have nothing to do with the person leading the PD/meeting but have everything to do with pressures I’m feeling from other people in the room.

Or I do it because I think the person leading the meeting/PD doesn’t really want to hear what I have to say.

In short, I do it because I am so uncomfortable that disengaging a little feels like the only way I can safely and appropriately manage my feelings/behavior and remain engaged at any level.

When I first left the classroom and became the person standing at the front of the room during staff PDs, I got really frustrated—and judgy—when adult peers engaged in behaviors I’d long associated only with students. They talked when I was talking, they got on their phones, they didn’t follow directions, they rushed through assigned tasks, they were off-task (often doing other work tasks, but not the tasks I’d given them).

“They are being PAID to be here,” I’d grumble to fellow instructional coaches. “It’s their JOB to show up and participate positively.”

Yeah, sure, 2010 Rita. You were right–but not very effective.

As I started my second year of developing and delivering PDs, I decided that maybe I needed to do a better job of walking my talk when it came to learner engagement, and I was much more purposeful about doing the kinds of things in my PDs that I was suggesting teachers do in their classes. And waddya know? Things went much better. By the end of that year, I’d developed a new mantra: Learners are learners. Whether you’re 5 or 55, a lot of the same principles apply: We all want to see purpose and meaning in the things we’re being taught how to do, we all want to believe that we can do them, and we all want to feel positive connections with our co-learners. If we don’t, we disengage or find work arounds or go through the motions.

My behaviors might lead my bosses or co-workers to conclude that I don’t care (or am lazy, unprofessional, undisciplined, etc.). What I would want them to know is that, paradoxically, the opposite is true: I care so much about doing my work well that if something in or about your meeting/PD isn’t congruent with my values and goals, I do what I have to do to get through it enough to get on with what I think my real work is.

What I wish the people in charge of running meetings or delivering PD could know is that I turn off my camera or get on my phone or do another task or refuse to share my thoughts because doing so is the only way I can remain engaged at all. It is me choosing these behaviors rather than engaging in others that would be far more problematic: leaving the meeting completely, blurting out my negative/angry thoughts, crying on screen for all to see (and feel uncomfortable about).

I wish they could know it is me doing my best to manage a bad day. And this year, there are more bad days than usual.

Teaching and learning is always a two-way street, and there are some things students bring into a classroom that our best efforts cannot truly mitigate. (Also: Teachers are human, and sometimes the choices we make are the only ones possible for us in any given moment, and we should be given grace, too.) So, I’m not putting all responsibility for my issues on the people at the front of the room. But maybe it would help students–and teachers and parents!–if we accepted that our students and kids are not fundamentally different from adults; they are just younger. No matter our age, we all want to feel connected to others, safe to be ourselves, and able to succeed in the things that matter to us.

I’m sure not perfect in this. I still get frustrated (see: human) and when too many things are pushing on me I can go right back to a rigid, judgy place (with folks of any age). But when I can remember and live the truth of this, it’s so much easier for me to accept and respond without judgement to what I might label as resistance; instead of concluding that someone doesn’t care, I wonder what it is they care about that I might not be seeing, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for different ways of engaging.

Wouldn’t so many things be better if we could all do this more? Especially now, especially in the hard weeks just ahead of us.

‘Tis the season

Two nights after the election my friend Lisa and I sat out on my dark back patio and drank gin under the twinkle lights and talked, as we’ve been doing pretty regularly since June. We wore sweaters and decided that, no, we didn’t really need to light a fire in the pit. It was dry and we were plenty warm; we told ourselves that the winter we’d spent the summer dreading might not be so bad after all.

“It’s already November and look at us!” we said.

A week later, the weather had turned cold and the patio cushions were soaked from days of rain. We canceled our Saturday lunch plans because on Friday our governor announced a two-week “freeze” on activities (which will be at least 4 weeks in our county) and because it’s too damn cold and wet to sit outside, even for us.

I talked on the phone with my mother yesterday. Back in the summer, when I was pushing hard for her to let me visit, she told me that she and my dad had decided to think of this as a lost year, but that they can be OK with losing it if that’s what’s necessary to have more years in the future. Yesterday she told me that they’ve decided we’ll just need to celebrate this year’s Christmas next July.

“But I’ve already gotten you a gift,” I said.

“Oh, we’ll still do gifts,” she said. “What’s on your list?”

Begging the question: What is a holiday, anyway?

For years, my feelings about the holidays have been ambivalent, at best—and my feelings about the holidays are rarely at their best. I’ve chafed against the commercialism, the materialism, the waste, the busyness, the stress. I’ve hated missing all the people I love who I’ll never share a holiday with again. I’ve wished we could all just hygge down at home with some candles, soup, and puzzles and call it good.

Careful what you wish for?

Last summer, when I anticipated the holiday season, I felt only dread. I hadn’t seen my parents since February or my son since the first week of January, and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing any of them during the holidays this year. When my daughter’s visa for Sweden came through we made plans for her to come home for Christmas; I let myself believe that fantasy for awhile, but I let go of it about two weeks ago when it became clear that the pandemic’s numbers were only going to go up. In the summer, knowing that I wouldn’t get to spend the holidays with any of my distant beloveds, I thought about maybe just ignoring them altogether this year–because for me, what holidays have been, my whole life, is a time you gather with family who don’t live near you. How can it be a holiday if someone isn’t traveling so we can be together?

Like so many things this year, though, things haven’t gone as expected and I feel upside down in them: As the holidays approach, I’m feeling neither dread nor a desire to ignore them. Instead, I feel a pull to embrace them.

Normally, gift-giving feels like nothing but a chore, and I find myself resenting it—which is about the opposite of what gift-giving is supposed to be. This year, I’m enjoying thinking about what I can give each person I’m not going to see. I want them to have something that tells them I love them and am thinking about them and want to care for them. I want them to feel my presence, even though I’ll be far away.

In previous years, seeing anything smacking of Christmas before Thanksgiving set my teeth grinding, but this year, two weeks out from Thanksgiving, I’m ready to clear out the pumpkins and bring in greenery and lights and peppermint hot chocolate. You want to put your tree up right now? More power to you. Do whatever makes you feel good.

The only thing bringing out my inner Scrooge are people on social media posting about how they’re going to have their holidays with whoever they want, Covid (and orders) be damned. No one can tell them what they can and can’t do in their own homes.

OK, sure.

This summer, when my mom was explaining why I couldn’t come visit them—even if we stayed outside, even if we wore masks, even though they understood that if we didn’t see each other during the summer we probably wouldn’t until the following summer—she told me their thinking about losing this year so that they could have a better chance at having more years in the future.

“Your dad is turning 80 next spring,” she said. “He’s really hoping he can have 10 more.”

I’m not unaware of my parents’ ages or the typical span of a human life, but something about my mother putting a concrete number–and such a small one!–to their life expectancy coalesced amorphous anxiety I’d been feeling about lost time into a gut-punch. All the fight left me, and I stopped pushing for a visit and started reading about radical acceptance.

Not long after our conversation yesterday (in which we established that yes, we’re still exchanging gifts), I saw this in one of my feeds:

I’m often wary of the idea of re-framing hard things; that can easily morph into toxic positivity and victim-blaming and lead to ignoring (or not seeing) systemic ills. But I sure wish we could re-frame what the coming holiday season (or hell, the whole pandemic) is or might be.

Given all that we must accept about our nation’s response to the pandemic and its current realities, I wish everyone would commit to having a small bubble and to celebrating holidays only with those inside it, and see that commitment not as an act of acquiescence to authority or of living in fear, but as an act of hope and love. Love for family in the largest sense of the word (especially our health care workers), and hope for a future in which we can all once again gather freely and safely.

My parents and brother and I have lived through 55 Christmases together, and there is only one year I can remember not celebrating with them. I miss them more than I have words to express, and I’m sad and angry (but mostly just sad) that I won’t be seeing them again until we have a vaccine or we can visit outside. But even if the worst happens–if we never see each other again–I won’t regret not spending this holiday with them. We’ve had 54 together. We’ve got such a full bucket of memories and love that we’ve shared, and our decision about this Christmas is rooted in that love and in our faith that if we can tough it out this year, we’ll get to fill our bucket with even more in years to come. I will never not feel good about that, no matter how things play out.

Maybe all of this is why I’m feeling more holiday spirit than I have in decades. When I consider what I have to be thankful for, I am so profoundly grateful that I haven’t lost anyone to Covid, and I can’t think of a better way to love my family (which includes all humans) than to do my part to keep the disease from spreading.

So, this past week, I’ve been bringing out the candles, working on gifts, and embracing the comforts of winter. I turn on the ficus’s twinkle lights in the now-dark mornings and now-dark late afternoons, and I light candles on the table while making dinner. I’m letting myself take breaks to just sit with Daisy on my lap (her favorite place to be) and read or write or knit. I’ve tried new recipes and enjoyed looking for others. (Pretty sure Lisa and I are going to try one of these if we can get a dry spell and brave the patio again.) Cane and I have sat at the kitchen table and just enjoyed long conversations, without any voice in the back of my head telling me I should be doing something more productive. This year, just being together with my tiny pack and finding any kind of contentment feels like accomplishment enough, and something to celebrate in whatever fashion we can manage.

Gratitudish

I’m not sure why November is the month so many of us decide to do (or not do) a thing for every day of it: NaNoWriMo, No-shave November, Dry November. In recent years, my social media feeds have been filled with daily gratitude postings. (This year, not so much. Shocker.)

These are bandwagons I’ve never hopped on. (I guess, in general , I’m not much of a bandwagon hopper.) But I was out for a beautiful walk on November 1, and happened to see some really cool things, and I decided that I’d really like to post one cool thing every day on Instagram.

This was not so much about practicing gratitude (because I don’t think this kind of thing does much for a gratitude practice) as about getting my body out in the world and moving. Moving my body should be easier than ever. I am working from home. If ever there were a time I could interrupt my day to take a lunchtime walk, now is it.

But it’s not happening. Last week, I could (and did) blame the election and all it brought forth, but this week, there’s no ready excuse. I just can’t seem to corral my day and/or work flow to make it happen. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. The days are so short and the tasks so many. Once again, every day ends with a to-do list longer than the one that began it. (I suppose I’ll soon reach the point where catching up is so unattainable I’ll let that goal go, but I’m not quite there yet.)

So, my fledgling practice is not daily and its purpose isn’t gratitude, but this paying attention to finding cool things has me feeling all kinds of appreciative and grateful. Maybe that’s just because we have (at least for now) staved off an autocratic take-over (I hope), but maybe it’s because there’s a little more light in the room of my life and I can see in a way that’s been difficult for a long time.

But none of that is the point. I don’t really care to excavate the why or what for of this; I just want to enjoy (and share) the joy of finding cool things on a semi-regular basis. Like this:

I found this on a walk in the woods with my friend S. She came into my life when it looked a lot like that stump: hacked off, crumbling, broken. And she helped me believe that something new and strong could grow out of it. I didn’t know, back then, about nurse logs; this week they were everywhere on our walk. Most nurse logs are fallen trunks, but some are like this, supporting a whole new tree that pulls from a broken trunk the nutrients it needs to grow. On the day after our election was finally called, this was just the metaphor I needed to see.

The next day, another gift appeared. Monday morning I pulled up the blinds to a world iced in frost, the first freeze of fall blinking at us like a turn signal: winter’s just around the corner up ahead. I tried to capture the wonder of it from a distance–the sharp surprise, the sheerness of the glittery curtain covering roofs and pavement and branches–but my photo didn’t catch it. The image was just a sort of pretty picture.

Instead of shrugging and stepping onto the day’s treadmill–which I would have done if not for my desire to share a cool picture of cool things–I slipped into shoes and out into the backyard, where I noticed the last roses blooming at the top of the bush outside my bedroom window and saw a crystal fur coating the drying hydrangea petals. The air bit at my lungs, and I shivered in my flannel pajama pants, and Daisy–backlit by rising sun–looked at me with what seemed to be anticipation, the way she always does when any of her humans behave in atypical ways.

And all of it–the ice, the bite, the light, the wonder–made me happy, which matters, even if it’s just for a few moments.

If you’d like to follow along, you can find me on Instagram. I don’t post images every day, and I could well lose interest in this project or wander off course, and there will probably be too many pictures of my remaining ancient dog, but you’re free to join the ride.*

*Unless you’re a skeezy-looking guy who has one post and only 2 followers, in which case: Go away. And on the subject of Instagram and joy, I discovered #wienerdogworld which almost made me flirt with the idea getting another one even though I have sworn off them forever. Highly recommend that hashtag if you need an endorphin boost.