No time for much of a Sunday post today. I’ve spent the last few days doing almost nothing but working on a renovation of my home office. I’ll be back to work in about two weeks, and I’ve decided that if I’m going to be working from home (and I am) that I am going to have a dedicated space (with a door that can be closed at the end of the day) and that it is going to be a nice place to spend 8 hours. So, I haven’t been writing or thinking much.
I’ve been listening to audiobooks, sanding, and painting–sometimes while carrying Rocky in his baby sling, which adds a whole new level of challenge to the enterprise.
It’s been a nice space to hang out. It faces the south and has a good-sized window. I feel fortunate to have the dedicated room and a job that will let me work from it. It has felt good to do something concrete that gets me out of my head. I’ll share pics when it’s further along.
Although it was 100 degrees here yesterday (and is supposed to be the same today), I’ve felt the turn to autumn in the mornings this week. They are chilly in a way they never are in July. This morning I got out early to pick blueberries and and tomatoes.
I planted only two tomato plants in the spring, and they’ve turned into a jungle.
This mess of plants (which includes some over-run parsley) is being held up by three cages, and today I added a piece of spare lumber to get an especially heavy section off the soil. The blue blueberries are mostly done, but the pink ones are still going strong.
I’m thinking of making a blueberry crumble tonight. This morning it was really lovely to scramble some eggs with tomato, onion, and basil–all grown in the garden. I also made a lemon blueberry bread, but it’s still cooling so I can’t tell you how it is yet.
I hope you are well. Thinking especially about my friends in the midwest who were blindsided by the derecho (a word I didn’t know until this week). Take care, wherever you are, however you can, and best wishes for a good week.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, a Facebook friend posts about needing some advice on how to keep her house clean now that everyone is home all the time.
I want to tell her that she is, perhaps, asking the wrong question, but I don’t want to be one of those moms. I remember a day I stood in front of a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes in a drafty, rambling split-entry with four bedrooms and three bathrooms and two living rooms that I could never seem to get entirely clean at the same moment and wishing I could just have some time to myself and a tidy home. The next moment, I told myself that there would come a day when I would have plenty of time to myself and I would long for these days with my house full of the people I love, messy as it is.
I was right.
I was also wrong, in the sense that I didn’t know how quickly the day would come, or how empty the house would feel, or that the wantings are not, in any way, really, equivalent.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I google “are humans pack animals.” The answers are neither satisfactory nor clear, and I decide that it doesn’t matter. I am a pack animal, and I know it.
I am also an introvert, which is not a contradiction. In fact, it may be why I need my pack the way I do. My daughter, and only a few others, are in it. We can spend whole evenings in separate rooms of the same house, but it is an easy, companionable separation. It fills the house in the right way, and when I return home after taking her to the airport, it feels empty in a way I’d already forgotten it could be, after having her here for a few months.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, a friend shares a photo of taking her daughter to college for the first time and I wonder if I should tell her that she might have included a trigger warning.
On the night before I take my daughter to the airport, I help her wax her legs. We watch YouTube videos about how to make a wax from sugar and lemon. Her first batch is a gooey, scorched mess that turns to rock in cold water, and I am afraid it will harden in my kitchen pipes and ruin my pan.
“Oh, never mind,” she says. “I don’t need to do this.”
“No,” I say. “Let’s try again.” I am not sure why, but I really want this to work. I want to do this thing for her, with her.
I re-watch the videos and take over the stove duty. She sits on the couch with the dogs and TikTok videos. I call progress checks to her, testing the wax every minute or so, to catch it at just the right temperature. I feel triumphant when I carry to her a small ball that molds in our fingers just like the wax in the video.
We sit in the living room together, watching Frozen while she waxes her legs, and then the end of Coco, which we’d started the night before and abandoned when I couldn’t stay awake, and then Frozen II. When she came home in May, she bought a subscription to Disney+ and rewatched every single episode of Hannah Montana while she was stuck in quarantine. From her end of the hall I’d hear, “You get the best of both worlds” over and over and over. It was an ear worm for days.
When I moved to the big house I could never get entirely clean, I canceled cable, which meant canceling the Disney channel. If I had only understood how much those shows meant to her, I would have chosen different corners to cut in the house that I couldn’t, in so many ways, afford. (I couldn’t have known then, though. Not really. Some things we can see only from a distance.)
Frozen is my choice. I think there might be something in Elsa’s story that I need to see. I want to learn how to manage things (anger, fear, grief) that so often feel unmanageable now, how to let them go without destroying everything around me. But it is the signature song of Coco that turns into an ear worm the day I take my daughter to the airport:
Remember me Though I have to say goodbye Remember me Don’t let it make you cry
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, the house’s emptiness when I return is a presence all its own. The dogs run to her bedroom door, and I open it for them.
“She’s not here,” I tell them. I lift them on to her bed, where they settle in to sleep under her covers, one curled into the other.
I think of the night before, and of how it has only been in the most recent of days that I’ve felt able to fully relax into her return home, to let myself really feel how much I love having, again, the kind of regular, everyday time we’ve been able to have, and I think of how I wish I’d been able to have a whole summer of such days.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I come to understand two things:
1. Today’s good-bye is a dress rehearsal. She will be back in 10 days, but the next time I take her to the airport she likely won’t be coming back in the same way ever again. She will be going to another continent to live, intending to build a life where she and I won’t share the casual intimacies of life lived together in our pack. I understand that for all our efforts to remain close during the years she was away at school, we could not maintain over time and distance the kind of bond that comes from sharing such mundane things as regular meals, informal visits, shopping and walks and boring errands, parcels of time so bountiful we can afford to waste some. We won’t have the kind of ease that comes with proximity and abundance.
2. The careful peace I constructed when she moved away the first time was a house of cards, and I need to figure out how to make a more solid structure in which to live what remains of my life.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I have to get out of my house filled with absence. I drive up to the mountain, to the river where I raised my children for the first half of their lives. It is not that I want to go back in time; that mountain, that river, was a place I once needed to leave, too. But sometimes, we need to go back to figure out how to move forward. I want to get grounded, literally. I want to dig my toes in the river’s sand, to let its water cool my feet. I need to see water flowing past me.
I spread a blanket in some shade, doze to the sound of children playing in the water with their mother. I sit on land one of my children once named Dogarnia, and another called The Forest of Enchanted Wieners. Rule of this kingdom was hotly contested. When I close my eyes, I can see them climbing in the trees, our tiny Dachshunds kicking up sand as they run in circles around us.
I want to call across the water to that other mother. I want to tell her: Imprint this day in your memory. Don’t worry about what you’re going to make for dinner or how you’re not getting the house clean before starting another work week. Soak yourself in these moments, right now, so that later you can remember this sun-drenched summer day when all of you were golden. But I don’t. I don’t know her life, and I don’t want to impose my reality and regrets on hers. Also, no one in the thick of it wants to hear this kind of thing from some stranger whose time has passed.
On the afternoon of the day I take my daughter to the airport, I understand another thing: My attempts to keep my house of cards intact, to keep her unexpected stay from coming in and blowing down my hard-won peace was futile and stupid. I’ve let anticipatory grief rob me of embracing all that she–and this terrible, unexpected, wonderful chance to mend and grow and be together–brings. She, like all children, was born to make and remake me, to strip me to my foundations, to give me reasons to build (and build again). I see now that I cannot protect my heart by clinging to what I constructed the first time she left. It served me well enough, I suppose, but now I need something strong enough to stand, open, both when she comes and when she goes. Because I have to let her go; that is what I was born to do.
The morning after I take my daughter to the airport, the sun is shining. I’d woken in the middle of the night, hot because I wasn’t blasting the AC the way she does, and I responded to a text she’d sent to let me know that she’d safely arrived.
“Omg go to sleep,” she’d answered. It was daytime for her, but 1:00 AM for me. I’m sure she thought I’d stayed awake waiting for her text.
At 6:30, when I wake again, I feed the dogs who, again, run to her door after eating. I lift them to her bed. “Go for it,” I tell them. They settle in, even though her body isn’t there for them to lean against. They lick her sheets, a behavior I find disgusting, but it is one she sometimes lets them do, and now I do, too. I tell myself that we all need our comforts, and I can wash them before she returns.
I go to my computer and cast lines in rivers of words, the most constant comfort I’ve ever known.
Her absence is still a presence, but I know it won’t always be so. Or, it will, but not in the same way. I have so rarely had second chances, and I know that there’s no do-over for the months we’ve shared since May. I also know that, likely, we couldn’t have lived them any other way than we have. We are who we are, each of us; ours is not a pack of easy animals. When she returns, she will be in quarantine, and then I will be returning to work. Her visa could come through at any time now, and then she’ll be gone again. She’ll be back in 10 days, but it won’t be the same. (It is never the same; isn’t every good-bye a tiny death, a rehearsal for the big show we never want to perform?)
But: The cards are flattened now, and re-building is necessity, not choice. When she comes back, I won’t give any of what I’ve still got away to the future. I’ll heed my own words to that mom at the river. When she goes again, I want to hurt for the right reasons.
Another week, another picture of fruit on the kitchen table.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m deeply grateful for these small pleasures, the fresh flavor of food grown just outside my door.
This week I’ve been grateful for laughter with my daughter, a soft morning rain, evenings filled with warm light and conversation, and a fair number of other small, vital gifts.
Still, it was a hard one. Again.
Drought-evading plants – non-succulent perennials which restrict their growth activity to periods when moisture is available. Typically, they are drought-deciduous shrubs which go dormant or die back during dry periods.
The particulars of my personal drought are not important; we all have circumstances that can blanch us brittle, especially now.
Standing in the shower one day this week, water streaming over my body that feels more and more foreign, a land I neither recognize nor feel at ease in, I wondered why I cannot find much interest or joy in things that once provided an abundance of both.
When our lives rest upon hardpan, there’s only a skim of earth, fingertip deep, that we can dig into with our hands. Roots find little purchase in such soil.
There are workarounds for hardpan: tools to break it loose (forks, spades, chisels), amendments that can be added.
Or, we can adapt: Go dormant and accept that we will grow and bloom only when sufficient hydration is available.
These past few weeks, I feel myself becoming sharp and prickly, my words sometimes barbed as a xerophyte’s spines. Deep, quiet anger is a constant, terrible presence threatening to scorch the earth of me.
I share with a friend my intention to shut down, conserve my resources, grow a less pervious skin, and she answers with thoughts about my integrity, a feature she considers defining.
Her words wash over me and tears breach the dam of my self-control.
It’s been a structure lacking integrity for weeks, allowing leaks, streams, torrents precipitated by almost nothing–a word, a flash of memory, a stray item happened upon–and it feels like such an extravagant spilling, an excess of fluid that leaves me nothing but parched.
What I would give to feel complete, incorrupt, and sound once again.
I grew on land bordered by tides, water that advanced upon and retreated from rocky beaches. Now, I live next to rivers that run in one direction past sandy banks.
I need water to be the person I think of as me.
How do we survive drought? I don’t really know. Sometimes we don’t.
Last year I planted a small hydrangea tree. It has been a gorgeous thing, full of creamy petals and vibrant, supple leaves. I love the tree, whose only purpose is to be beautiful. This week, after days of relentless heat, I realized its branches were drooping and its leaves were spotting, some turning dry and dropping.
“Nononono,” I whispered to it. “You cannot die.”
I brought out a sprinkler and soaked the bed it grows in, only then noticing how its edges had cracked and pulled away from the pavement bordering it. When did that happen? How did I let it?
We are all connected, my drought contributing to its.
What are the limits of adaptation? I’m thinking that a hydrangea cannot simply mutate into a xerophyte. But what do I know? The cactus was once a rose. Still, I think we’d all agree: A cactus is no longer a rose, which begets the question: What does it mean to survive?
I clip a branch from the hydrangea, and another from a brambly variety of rose that grows in an unruly thicket in the back corner of the yard. I put them in a vase to decorate a table for a birthday dinner. I light candles. I take pleasure in contrasts of line and color. We eat good food and have a nice time. I celebrate that I can still feel such pleasures and experience such times as much as I do the birth of the life we are honoring.
There are many things I don’t know, but I do know this: 73% of the brain and heart is water, and movement is water’s constant. Tides and currents. Evaporation and precipitation. What’s here will go, and what’s gone will come around again, in some form or another, even though we can’t step into the same river twice.
When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher read Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys aloud to her 8th grade students. This might be my Summer of the Naughty Dogs. Or, Summer of the Painted Paws. And Tongues.
Friday I painted all of the laundry room trim while carrying Rocky in his baby sling. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. He’s demanding human contact almost all of his waking hours. I am, in many ways, living a life similar to the one I lived when my children were babies and toddlers.
Only I’m 20 years older and geriatric dogs aren’t as adorable as my babies were. (Though they aren’t without their charms. See above.)
This week my friend S. came for a visit, and we talked of making things and the importance of doing so in times such as these. (Well, any time, but especially times such as these.) It’s good to ground ourselves in what we can do, when there is much we feel powerless to do.
She brought me raspberry jam that she’d made, and I decided that to properly honor the gift I needed to make something to eat it with. I found the easiest bread recipe (the only kind I can probably pull off). It’s in Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple, one of my current favorite cookbooks. (Recipe here.)
When my daughter saw the dough rising, she arched an eyebrow and said, “Oh, we’ve reached that stage now, have we?”
Yep, I’m a cliche. So be it. It tastes good.
Last spring (of ’19) my friends A & S (a different S) visited and brought me this little blueberry bush. It’s planted next to the ones that I already had, which have been keeping me in berries for weeks now.
I was so delighted to see that, after only one year, this little guy is also bearing fruit. I was friends with both A and S in high school, but they were not friends with each other. They later met in law school, and they’ve been close ever since. I moved away and lost touch with both of them, but thanks to the magic of social media we reunited about ten years ago. I just love that, the way these people I loved found each other and then found me again, and I now have a tangible symbol of that kind of magic growing in my yard and feeding me.
Speaking of feeding: Mother-daughter Naan pizzas. Although the bread dough recipe above is also a pizza dough recipe, my smart daughter turned me onto the idea of Naan flatbread as the perfect individual-sized pizza crust, which is even easier. As you can see, we have different ideas about what should go on a pizza. Mine has onion, garlic, and cherry tomatoes, all from our garden (along with feta and Mezzetta garlic-stuffed green olives). She favors red peppers and pepperoni. Maybe I’ll figure out how to grow peppers next year. Or maybe not. She likely won’t be here to eat them, and the reminder of this summer’s bounty of time with her, a gift I expect never to receive again, will make me sad and miss her.
Gardens can be tricky, in more ways than one.
We have added morning walks to our routine. Daisy walks the whole way, straining at her leash, impatient with the pace Rocky sets. He makes it about two blocks, tripping over his paws, and then I carry him for the remainder. He’s happy to walk, and then to be carried. He looks around, alert in my arms.
It’s good for me, too. On Wednesday I had a nice long chat with a neighbor I’d never met. A yard sign let me know that he has a child in Marine boot camp, so I stopped to talk when I saw him outside with his dog. It was good to be able to talk with someone who knows that experience, to be able to share some comfort from my vantage point several years ahead of his, and to see and feel how far my son and I have come since those weeks after he left home for that grueling trial by fire that scorched us both.
This is a different kind of making and doing. This spring, I almost got rid of the hammock. It’s a hassle when I need to mow the lawn, and for the past two years it’s gotten almost no use.
This week, temperatures were in the 90s every day. Monday and Tuesday it was 100. There’s something that’s an odd kind of wonderful about swinging, just a little, in a hammock through the heart of a hot afternoon. Something healing. I gave myself permission to do it. This is me making space for space.
I’m glad I decided to keep it.
This is a postcard from the past. It’s from a picnic my daughter and I and the dogs had one evening at the river in the last week of July, eleven years ago. It came up when I was looking for something else, the way things that haunt us often do.
I didn’t say this in my earlier cards, but it’s been a hard week. The heat. The increasing burden of the dogs. Work disappointments. Distance of several kinds from those I love. Camp Pendleton Marines dying in a training accident, and my son’s brief words about it: “It’s the job.” And then there were the things beyond just me, ways of this world I can neither change nor make peace with, and the weight of our collective pain. There was this photo, this message from the past that feels like a poem I cannot write about a future I don’t want to live.
What I would give to feel again the way I felt on that night, dogs kicking up sand as they ran in circles over it, my sprouting girl so pleased to have an evening alone with me. I can’t remember the last time I smiled the way I smiled when she turned the camera toward me.
On a day that I give into it all and do little more than sleep and eat and write these postcards, I wonder about the missives I send out into the world. Why does it matter to write snippets about bread and berries and walks and hammocks, as if such things matter in times such as these? Can it? Do they? If I write about the sweet and omit the bitter, am I delusional? Am I in denial? Am I bearing false witness if I crop loneliness and sorrow and fatigue out of my stories, or if I leave only their shadows at the edges of the margins?
Late that night a friend shares an essay, and Lyz Lenz reminds me that our stories in times such as these–all of them–are “a struggle of memory against forgetting.” They are “a struggle of nuance in the flat face of fascism.”
Reading, I understand what I often forget, and why I force myself to do joyful things even when they bring me little joy and why I write about them. It is a struggle to hold onto old joys in a new age of despair: To shape the dough, pick the berries, move the legs, still the body long enough to feel warm breeze against hot skin–and write about it. It is a struggle when such acts and the writing about them may feel trivial, inconsequential, or even self-indulgent. But they aren’t, and it isn’t.
To do such things and write about them, to remember what was sweet in the past and keep it present–even if flawed, even if lesser-than, even if the gesture feels cliched or hollow–so that it won’t disappear into some dark forest of the future, is a making-and-doing of the highest order.
As Lenz reminded me, when writers write they know: “At least I am still here.” And when we read their stories of living plot lines like our own, we know that we are, too.
We take an early morning walk, the dogs and I. It’s still high summer. Flowers bloom, and leaves, though faded, hold onto their green. A trio of young squirrels skitter across telephone lines and disappear into a cedar.
Daisy is jaunty in the sun of what promises to be a 100 degree day, light on her paws. Rocky’s drag against the pavement; he has trouble “finding his feet,” but his nose still quivers in the air and roots happily in grass tufted at the neighbor’s mailbox post. She pulls ahead and he lags behind, my arms a fulcrum to their needs.
I remember another summer day, nearly 40 years ago, when I sat in a hospital room and watched my grandmother spoon food into her mother’s mouth, my own mother looking on. My great-grandmother had been a fierce presence, and I didn’t know what to make of her—of life—seeing her so diminished, our generational line arrayed in plastic chairs at her side, feeling that it was not so much a row of seats as a conveyer belt that would carry each of us, in turn, to the place in the bed.
Rocky’s legs stumble and I scoop him up, letting Daisy set our pace. He has never been as happy on a walk as she. He’s always been anxious, even as a young dog his tail tucked so tightly beneath his legs it hugged his belly. He’s content to be carried.
“When you get old you become a child again,” my grandmother told me twenty or so summers later. It was sometime after the time she nearly died, after the day my mother and I stood vigil by her hospital bed, one of us on either side of her, soothing her as she emerged from anesthesia. As we stood there, hour after hour, meeting her agitation with calm voices and touch, I remembered the earlier hospital room and thought about how we were all one chair further down the line. Later, on the last day of her life, I wiped her bottom for her, who had once wiped those of nearly everyone I love.
I am older now than my mother was then.
I see another squirrel and think of the friend who has been raising a squirrel the past few months. Her daughter found it huddled on the ground not long into our pandemic shutdown, so near to birth or death (or both) its eyes were still closed. Every day she posts photos and videos of the squirrel they’ve named Lucky, who has grown strong and lively in their care. I remember the three squirrels on the high wire–siblings?–and wonder what Lucky has lost and gained—not that such an accounting makes much difference. Without my friend’s care, Lucky would be dead. The squirrel is, indeed, lucky.
Rocky is alert in my arm, his head moving in response to sounds, shifting so he can see with his good eye. There are birds chattering, a car door slamming, a siren not far from us. We turn a corner and see a neighbor’s chickens pecking in their cage. I stop to take their picture, noticing the clatter of traffic a block away.
My mother used to feed the chickens on her grandmother’s farm, but the chickens were long gone by the time I came around. While my elders sat in the kitchen drinking coffee, I used to wander through hen houses empty of everything but decaying hay, wishing I could have been born earlier, wishing I’d known the farm when it was really a farm.
What is a farm, now? Yesterday Cane sent me a picture of blackberries he picked from vines growing wild along Glisan, a street so traffic-choked it’s hard to make a left turn onto it. “Be sure you wash them well,” I said. “They’ve got to be covered with exhaust.” Yesterday I harvested blueberries from bushes someone else planted in my backyard. This summer I’ve eaten my own onions, parsley, thyme, and tomatoes. Neighbors have told me that my home’s previous owner liked to think of the yard as an urban farm. How many times I’ve wished for my great-grandmother’s knowledge of how to grow and preserve. I am a rank amateur. The bounty I gather now feels like the product of dumb luck and a credit card.
I think of Cane’s blackberries and wonder if my mother’s blackberries are ripe enough to pick. I think of mid-August as blackberry time, not late July. But maybe that’s changed with the climate? I hope not. Maybe August is still blackberry season up home, where I grew up, where marine air keeps the temperatures cooler. This is the first summer, ever, I haven’t made it home. The first summer I haven’t seen the waters of Puget Sound and listened to the gulls, their cries a kind of shelter like no other. My parents are afraid of infection, afraid of what I could bring with me. What are we missing, my mother and I, in these months apart we’ll never get back?
The conveyer belt is always moving.
I remember my children picking blackberries with my mother in my parents’ lower yard, water visible down the hill and across the road, a field where deer graze and coyotes sometimes lurk, and how the night before my grandfather died, my grandma and I and her sister and my cousin walked from my grandparents’ house down to the wild bushes near the railroad tracks and picked buckets of blackberries to make a pie. My cousin and I are the only ones still alive, though we’re both now old enough to be in the age group the CDC considers to be at high risk. My grandpa’s been gone 39 years. It’s been so long since he’s visited me in a dream. My throat closes when I think about how much I miss them all, how much I miss the treasures I didn’t know to treasure at 16.
I put Rocky down again, give him another chance to find his feet. It’s a constant balancing act and judgment call, being his fulcrum between life and death. Yesterday I got an email from my uncle. “I have always been optimistic about your future,” he wrote. “All you have to do is find and follow your whimsy.” My uncle, the former Naval officer, the one held up to me by my grandparents as evidence to prove work their ethic theorems (not that I needed convincing). He is encouraging me to follow my whimsy.
“She’s 7 going on 37,” I once heard my grandmother say of me to one of her friends. What does it mean, to become a child again, if you’ve never really been one? If Whimsy was never your native language? The year I was in second grade, all of my relatives gave me books for Christmas. My grandma was a little horrified that no one gave me toys. I was delighted.
I spent much of the day thinking about whimsy. Will I even recognize it if I find it? I spent the afternoon reading poetry, playing with paints and thread. Is this whimsy? I wondered.
“Maybe Rocky gets agitated because he’s bored,” my daughter suggested last night. She and I take turns soothing him. “Maybe he needs a toy.”
“How would he play with a toy now?” I asked, thinking of his legs so stiff he cannot run, his paws that drag along the ground, his mouth absent of teeth, his one blind eye. He can no longer chase his braided rope and toss it in the air, or chew on a bone or disembowel a favorite stuffy. Still, she has a point, which is why we are on this walk.
He’s still got life in him. I see it in his nose, lifted to interrogate whatever the breeze carries past him, even if he can’t chase it.
Maybe the world can be his toy. Maybe it can be mine.
This place could be beautiful, right? Fresh-washed and fair,
a green that will never again be so green.
You could live inside this rose, in flowering bulbs voluptuous in the spring,
but the garden sprawls and spoils, worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,
and all winds go sighing for sweet things dying.
The coming night will not lift. I am exhausted,
a bleached shirt flapping alone on a laundry line, arms pointed down.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I’m singing your name now.
This poem is a copyright violation, perhaps–a multitude of them–but I’m sharing in the spirit of fair use, primarily because I know this won’t impact anyone’s financial bottom line, my purpose in sharing is primarily educational, and I’ve worked not to steal the heart of anyone else’s work.
Still, almost every word of it is lifted from another writer. You might have guessed, as some of the lines are from well-known poems. I tried not to change any of the original wording, but I added an occasional conjunction or preposition and changed a few punctuation marks. Below, you can see links to all of the original works the words come from (though not quite in the same order as the poem above).
I call it a collage poem, only the gathered bits are lines and phrases of language rather than images. I don’t know if this is an exercise others have used or written about; I made it up for myself years ago, when I was teaching a poetry unit to high school freshmen. It was a low-risk entry into writing poems, and it got them to read poems, which has always acted as pump-priming for me and most writers I’ve ever talked with about process.
I haven’t written a poem in a long time, but this was a week in which prose wasn’t working for me. What I like about this exercise is the layers of meaning that might come, not just from the collage poem (or maybe call it a remix, if that term makes more sense), but from reading all of the original works as a collection. I also found immersion in poetry to be a healing thing.
How to start one of your own? I began this one by revisiting poems and poets I know from long ago, as I have been dwelling in the past in recent days, and thinking about time and wrestling with questions of hope and purpose.
As I started to play with the language of those old favorites (most of which fell away as I tinkered), there were two sites that I found particularly useful for this exercise: Poetry Foundation, which has thematic collections that are a great starting point if you have a particular topic you’d like to write on, and poets.org, from the Academy of American Poets, which also has collections. I visited collections on summer and illness.
(A note: These sites are not very diverse in their representation of poets; the poetry establishment favors white, male academics (see recent news of Poetry Foundation’s leadership resigning recently over their bungling of a Black Lives Matter statement). Given issues of appropriation and my own identity as a white European-American, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the work of BIPOC poets in this way, though this collage poem does contain a phrase—“you could live inside this rose”—from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet and one of my favorite contemporary writers. Perhaps I should cut it, but it seems fitting that the collage poem hinges on these words from a writer whose work examines what it means to be both of and apart from a place.)
If you decide to try one, I’d encourage you to make up some rules for yourself. My best creative works come when I have limitations, not complete freedom. If it’s helpful, these were mine:
No more than one poem per poet. (But I broke this rule.)
No more than two lines per poem, not divided.
You have to like the original poem. (Loving it is even better.)
It’s OK to add conjunctions, prepositions, and joining punctuation to the beginning or end of the borrowed language.
You can’t change pronouns or verb tenses.
It can be a tricky line to walk, the one between honoring the integrity of the original work and building it into the one you’re creating–but isn’t that the task of all creation, really, when you think about it? Because we never create anything all by ourselves; we are always building upon the work of others who have come before us.
An elephant garlic from the garden, next to a one-cup measuring cup for scale. They are big and mild and fresh and make the dried up grocery store garlics seem like an entirely different food. I get about five of these each summer; each time I pull one from the ground it’s a giant tiny miracle I get to savor and consume.
This is a picture of four plants: one parsley, one thyme, and two tomato. I stuck them in good dirt that gets a lot of sun, provided cages to support the tomatoes, and remembered to water somewhat regularly. That’s it. There’s a lesson there, for how to grow things–talents, children, love.
Sunday socially distanced picnic in the park. Sure, I have a back yard. I love the back yard. But there’s something about being alone together in the company of big trees that nourishes as much as salami and cheese and olives and wine. Something about the young woman, so small, sitting before those trees that will stand long after we have fallen. All the words we didn’t exchange that I can read in the curve of her back. Or perhaps that I’m writing upon it.
This dog. He is demanding almost constant contact with his humans. It is wearing on us, to be honest, but there are gifts here, too: forced rest, space to contemplate, time to prepare. Grace for the taking. Much of this experience of walking him to his end feels like a dress rehearsal for a play not yet written. Love is a verb.
My girl, with her dog and her love. He is on the phone, half-way around the world, ten time zones away, sleeping with the bear she sent him. Every single thing in this photo cracks a different part of my heart, fissures that spread and branch and intersect. It will likely be years before I can write anything substantial about this summer’s tectonic shifts. Maybe I never will. Time is no longer infinite.
Late afternoon swing in the hammock on a sweltering day. Things could be better, but they could also be worse. When they are, I’ll bring up this photo and remember the mid-summer day of relentless heat, children running through sprinklers, ice cream sandwiches and lemonade, sweat trickling beneath my shirt, hellos and good-byes with no hugs, and this quiet moment in the shade minutes before surrendering to sleep.
A paycheck, of course. It is what literally feeds us. In a poem about my grandfather that I wrote after his death, I said that he “worked to eat to work,” and isn’t that true of all of us, really, when you drill down into the essence of why we work?
There is nothing wrong in that. There is much that is right, and it doesn’t mean that food is the only thing we might gain from our work. But what if the work eats us, too? What if we can’t get the balance right, between eating for ourselves and feeding the mechanisms that allow us to eat?
When our schools shut down in March, I felt an immediate easing in my life. There was more give in my day. I no longer had to pack lunches. I spent less time on laundry and other clothing tasks. My commute is short (moving closer to work is a strategy I employed in my perpetual quest to make life more manageable), but working from home gave me back a half-hour every work day. When I needed a break from my computer screen, I could get up from my desk and throw in a load of laundry or unload the dishwasher. My weekends were no longer filled with a litany of small chores. I had more time in the place in which I feel most comfortable, and more hours free from interaction with others, which always depletes me, even if I treasure the interaction.
It all felt so much more healthy.
Good thing, because as we settled more fully into “distance learning,” work became even more stressful than it had been. By June, despite the easing of some stressors, I felt jangly all the time, a wire stretched tight and constantly thrumming.
It has taken weeks to return to any kind of calm, but my body has finally stopped humming. I have had nights with 8 or more hours of sleep (not continuous hours, but total hours). I’ve been migraine-free for more than a week. I’m no longer taking hours-long afternoon naps, and my brain has released most of its (bad 80s) ear worms.
I am quiet, on the inside as well as the outside.
Joy has returned to work, the kind that fills my waking hours now: Pulling weeds, cooking food, painting the house trim, washing laundry, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, doing taxes, going to medical and dental appointments, catching up on life chores I can’t seem to get done during the school year. This week I cut flowers and put them in a vase because beauty is starting to matter to me again. A day full of this kind of labor creates the right kind of fatigue.
I’m feeling like myself again, the self I think of as my true one.
I am 100% a grasshopper. I work (obviously) but I mostly do what I love (or at least love the finished project) and always make sure to pack in lots of play and rest because 1) play is fun and 2) I need lots of rest. I admire the ant (I married one) but whenever I try to be one, I get angry, burnt out, or sick.
And it was a revelation.
Somehow, Kate’s words dislodged something in me. Maybe because they have come on the heels of all that has been revealed through the pandemic, but it’s that one little word she used: need.
What if rest is not a want, but a need?
I, too, get angry, burnt out, or sick without enough rest–which means, every year for the past 30, starting in late September and lasting through mid-June, I am often angry and/or sick and/or burnt out. This has long felt like a character flaw, or–if not that, exactly–something I should be able to do something about.
Maybe it was the messaging I received from the German side of my family, or the example set by the Norwegian farming branch. Maybe it was being so close to my grandparents, children of immigrants who came of age during the Depression and weathered WWII as young adults. I grew up understanding that life was not supposed to be easy, and that the way to get through it well was to work hard and do good and be the best you could be at whatever you did.
There is nothing wrong in that, either, but my decades-long struggle to be OK during the school year has felt like a personal failing. I have tried everything I can think of–changing schools, changing levels, leaving the classroom and changing my role. I have tried changing how I do my work, in multiple ways over the years. I’ve tried implementing a variety of schedules and routines and boundaries for work and chores and sleep and even play. A personal trainer. Therapy. Downsizing and simplifying.
Every summer I regain my health and vow that things will be different when school starts. Every fall I return to insomnia and migraine and anxiety and fatigue within weeks. By November it feels normal–it is my normal–and I forget, in real ways, that it can be any other way–until break comes round again and I remember: Oh, this is what it feels like to be rested.
Throughout my life, since high school, I have regularly struggled with extreme sleepiness. I have endured painful meetings in which I felt tortured by the need to keep my eyes open and my literal inability to do so, despite being on full display to the others at the table. I have fallen asleep standing up. I have fallen asleep while reading bedtime stories aloud to my children. I have fallen asleep during sex. My children came to accept that we usually could not make the full trip to their grandparents’ house without me pulling over to take a quick nap in a fast food restaurant parking lot because I couldn’t risk falling asleep at the wheel.
“Do you think I have narcolepsy?” I asked my therapist once.
He snorted. “No, I think you’re chronically sleep-deprived.” (He really did snort. I suspect my obtuseness about some issues really tried his patience.)
We, as a society, are so full of judgment about sleep. We associate daytime sleeping with laziness, boredom, sloth. Unless a person is ill, we seem to assume that a person who needs sleep in the middle of the day is a person who is not managing their life well.
What if some of us need more rest than others? What if–as is the case with so many other things–our needs for rest change as we age? That’s a stupid rhetorical question. Of course our needs for rest are different at different ages. We accept and accommodate this in babies and teens; why do we not do so for adults? And why do we not accept that different people have different levels of need for rest?
But let’s go further: Why do we assume the problem is within the individual, rather than, perhaps, an individual’s circumstances? What if the problem is not individual, but societal, rooted in the ways we organize our work and time? Why do we not see the chronic sleep deprivation of so many of us (1 in 3 Americans) as a public health issue, a systems question, and an equity issue?
Rest, of course, consists of more than sleep.
I have attempted schedules in which I go to bed with plenty of time for adequate sleep, but there is then little time for anything but work, necessary chores, and sleep. No time for reading, music, creative play, relationship nurturing–the things that make life most worth living. No time to just be. What if Kate is right, and these things are not wants, but needs?
Of course we can live like this. I have for decades. Many, many people in the world live with far less rest than I have. But can we be well?
These might seem like frivolous or tone deaf questions to be asking in the midst of a pandemic, when living is no longer a given for anyone, even the most privileged of us. Perhaps, though, this is the best time to be asking them.
As I contemplate a return to in-person school in the fall, and read articles in which transmission (which will mean death for some) is a given and something “schools will need to prepare for”–because returning to in-person school without resources for adequate safety measures is increasingly being framed as an intractable necessity rather than as a choice our society is making–I am seeing more clearly all the ways in which what I’m going to be required to do is just an extension of what’s been required for all of my life.
And I can’t tell you, today, what my response to that will be–because the bottom line is that I work to eat–but I can tell you this: I am utterly sick of it and from it, both literally and metaphorically. I have zero interest in being a martyr or a hero, nor do I have plans to be either. If I get sick from work and die from it, it will be tragic, not heroic. And the tragedy will not be the loss of my life, but that the loss was preventable.
We all get what we pay for in a capitalistic society. Hope everyone will remember that as we send our kids back to school this fall.
My daughter tells me that it’s gauche to share food pics on social media. That wasn’t her word, but it’s what she meant. Oh well. This was a lovely dinner for three that fed my spirit as well as my body. Recipe here.
Is this a food pic? A view of what I like to call the back 40. Just because it’s in the back of the back yard, not because I have 40 acres (or 40 of anything, other than weeds). This is cauliflower and brussel sprouts. I really don’t know what I’m doing–I put some plants in and I remember to water them occasionally. There are a lot of holes in the leaves. You can read about the beginnings of this garden here.
Seen on a recent walk. I took this photo because: a) I wish it were in my backyard; and b) I wondered why that door is so skinny. It has a very Secret Garden feel to it, and I’ve always wanted a secret garden. But because I’ve been consuming sinister audiobooks, I also kind of wonder if it’s a murder room.
Well, dang. Another food pic. Blueberries from the backyard. I have a veritable bounty of berries this summer (thank you, previous owners of my home). The blue ones have been ripening for two weeks now. There are some pink ones that are just starting to come on. I made a berry crumble that I found in this book:
Highly recommend the cookbook. Can’t find the recipe online, so I don’t have a link to share. Next, I’m going to try a recipe that Kate shared from Shutterbean.
This isn’t a picture of food. It’s a picture of love. Last Friday I fell on my face and my daughter made us this dinner while I sat on the couch and read a book. I might have to see if I can figure out how to get her to do this without me falling on my face.
Rocky, chilling on my lap, looking out toward the open door. He’s a good dog. (Another image of love)
That’s about it for the week so far. Love and food, a little bit of mystery, and a mishap. Ingredients for a good run of days.
So many of you who read here are educators or supporters of educators–and if not that, reasonable human beings who are well-informed and understand how science works–so I don’t think I need to spell out the sources of my fatigue, frustration, anger, and sorrow over the past week.
Thursday, I was asked to explain how I see the role of school librarians evolving over the next five years. That sort of gobsmacked me. How will anything evolve over the next five years? After the past five years, and especially the past five months, how can any of us think we can know how things will be in five years? How we will need to be?
When it comes to preparing for the future, I have always been more ant than grasshopper. That has, in many ways, served me well, but being the ant requires knowing your geography, your climate, and your resources. It means knowing what you’ll need to survive the winter and how to preserve and store what feeds you.
After becoming a teacher, I learned quickly how important it is to use the summer to prepare for the coming school year. I learned how to store up what I needed to be OK (or OK enough) to get myself to the following June. For the first time ever, I don’t.
How does one be an ant now? Should one be an ant now?
I have long wondered why I’ve so needed the summers to recover and prepare, why working in public education has been so taxing for me and many of my colleagues. Sure, the hours are long, but many people work long hours. We don’t have the resources we need, but many people struggle with resource scarcity in their work. Over the past month or so, the debates about policing and school re-opening have illuminated for me something I couldn’t see from within our system (as is so often the case when we are trying really hard to be OK in untenable situations): The struggle comes not so much from the hours or the lack of supplies and tools; it’s from the weight of all that schools have come to carry, which includes not just educating everyone (a heavy enough bundle in itself), but also providing healthcare, social services, meals, and child care. Now, some would have us believe that the very functioning of the entire economy rests upon us.
I see that, perhaps, part of the reason my summer preparations haven’t really been getting the job done in recent years is that I haven’t really understood the landscape in which I’ve been trying to live.
As I think about how to be an ant now, I understand it’s not so much that the geography around me has changed as it is that I’m seeing it from a different vantage point. It’s like I’m suddenly viewing it from miles above, perhaps looking down through the window of a plane. Of course I’ve been aware of shifting plates, erupting volcanoes, rivers that have changed course and jumped their previous banks. Now, however, I can see the totality of those singular impacts, and how those of us working in country have been so consumed with responding to the seemingly small (yet never-ending) immediate crises of opening cracks and raining ash and flash floods that many of us failed to comprehend the bigger emerging picture. Now that I can see the landscape whole, I find myself lost. The topography doesn’t match any of my maps.
So, over these past weeks, I have been doing the kinds of things people do when they realize they are lost: forging ahead and hoping the way will reveal itself, spinning in anxiety, looking for trail markers, railing at the sky, hoping someone else will appear who can show me the way home.
I’ve decided that, perhaps, the best thing I can do in the next week is to step off the trail: no deep dives into news, no Facebook or Twitter, no talk about the fall. No doing school-related work or thinking or worrying or wondering about school-related work. I think I need some quiet. I need some true rest. I need to get my bearings. I need to be more grasshopper than ant, making what passes for my kind of music.
I think I will take the week to read books, care for and talk with people I love, try some new recipes, take walks, tend my garden, clean my house in ways both literal and metaphorical. Maybe I’ll do some writing about something other than fear, loss, and grief. I think I need to get grounded in the landmarks I know before I can hope to navigate terrain that once felt so familiar, but now feels foreign.
Perhaps, in the quiet, I’ll read or write or think my way to a new narrative that serves me better than that of the grasshopper and ant, which, at its core, is a story grounded in fear, judgement, and cruelty. That doesn’t sound like any kind of guidepost to me. Music is its own kind of food, isn’t it? And we all need to eat.
I’ll drop a postcard next week to let you know how it’s going.