The beat goes on…

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If I were to evaluate my high school journalism teacher, Miss S., through the  current thinking about what makes a teacher good, she’d get a pretty low grade.

Sometimes, she’d teach what looked like a lesson, sort of. I do remember her standing at the front of the room occasionally, sharing information about journalistic principles or practices for a few minutes. There were no learning targets on the board, no rubrics, no scoring guides, no real assignments other than the ones we were given to produce our student newspaper.

The teacher who chaired the English department told me that the journalism class wasn’t a good use of my time. When I shared that with Miss S., she laughed, and I understood that they didn’t like each other and that my presence in her class gave her a battle win in some kind of teacher war. It was the first time I understood that there were such things.

She was volatile and erratic. Once, in a fit of anger with one of us, she yelled and kicked a wastebasket across the room. I remember that, and the way we all went silent, afraid of what she might do next. We whispered among ourselves about what might be wrong with her. Someone once snooped in her closet and found an empty pint bottle. We wondered if she drank at school.

And yet, we produced an award-winning newspaper. Under her direction, our scope extended beyond the walls of our high school. She drove some of us to the state capitol so we could interview law-makers for a story about the impact of state budgets on our education. We wrote a story about the Green River Killer, who targeted young women in our area. We took national stories and examined what they meant for us locally.

Somewhere along the way, between flying trash cans and trips to the capitol, I learned the fundamentals of journalism that guide me as a consumer of information today:

  • You need to present all sides of a story.
  • You need credible sources of information.
  • There is a hard and clear line between fact and opinion.
  • You need to dig beyond the surface of a story to what lies beneath it.
  • Good journalists ask hard questions and tell hard truths, even when others don’t want them to.

One of my award-winning stories was about the dangers of “look alike” amphetamines, which students across the country were buying and selling. It included photos of such pills taken in our newsroom, as well as quotations from anonymous students who were dealing them in our classrooms. My principal did not appreciate the story. He wanted the names of my sources, the students who told me how they were doing business during class. For a people-pleaser like me, this was kinda scary stuff–but I was never really scared because I knew that Miss S. had my back. I also had the strength of convictions she’d instilled in me about the necessity of a free press and the duty journalists have to tell the truth and protect their sources. I wasn’t privy to the adult conversations that took place and don’t know what kind of heat she took from her boss, but I never did have to reveal mine.

When I went to a large state university and was looking for places that could make campus feel smaller, I sought out the newspaper staff. The first thing I saw when I walked through the newsroom door was a graffitied wall with “Fuck Objective Journalism” scrawled across it in huge letters. I was offended not by the language, but by the sentiment. Objectivity was a bedrock principle for me. I left and didn’t return for a few months.

Eventually I did, and I took the beat covering our crew team. I was not a sports writer, but it was a way in. I worked my way up to writing in-depth feature stories, and despite my colleagues’ irreverence (or perhaps because of it), I never abandoned the principles formed during my time with Miss S. Like so many experiences in young adulthood, though, it was one that showed me what I wasn’t cut out for. I hated calling people I didn’t know on the phone. I hated making people uncomfortable with hard questions. I hated writing under the pressure of a deadline and not having enough time to polish my writing or my thinking. Eventually I ended up working in education, not journalism.

As I’ve watched the demise of print journalism over the past decade, I’ve been thankful many times that I didn’t pursue a career in it. If I had, I may well have been objectively fucked, a victim of mass layoffs at a point where I’d be too old to easily switch careers but not old enough to retire. There are always casualties when industries and economies change, aren’t there?

But what’s happened in journalism isn’t the same as, say, what’s happened to the coal industry. Coal is, as one might say, a “disaster” for the environment. I truly do feel for those who are suffering because the backbone of their economy has snapped–especially those who, like me, are at exactly the wrong stage of life to be able to recover from such a catastrophic injury. But I also know that alternate sources of energy are what we need to survive as a species. I wish we could find ways to support those people without bringing back that industry.

Journalism is different, though. We need journalists–real ones, who investigate corruption and share truth and ask hard questions we all need the answers to–like we’ve always needed them. We need them perhaps now more than we’ve ever needed them. That’s something Miss S. taught me.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, not the least of which is that in spite of the economic challenges facing those who produce print journalism, we still have newspapers that adhere to the principles I learned decades ago. I’m thankful that in spite of all that is currently troubling and uncertain in our President-elect’s relationship with the press,  we still have a free one. I worry about the fact that so many of our youth cannot tell the difference between valid and bogus news. I worry about the proliferation of fake and clearly biased “news,” which may very well have influenced the outcome of our recent presidential election. I worry about lowlife scum who care more about the personal profit they make from creating and disseminating misinformation than the damage they do to all of us through their actions. But I take hope from journalists who are the ones who really tell it it like it is, and those who vow to keep doing so in this strange new world we seem to be living in.

I’m thankful, too, for the public education I received that’s helping me navigate it. A high school acquaintance of my daughter’s recently shared that he distrusted a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist’s article in The Wall Street Journal because she “went the school route.” I wish so much–for himself and for all of us–that in his education he’d encountered a journalism teacher like Miss. S. and wonder how things might be different for him if he had. Like pretty much all of us, Miss S. was flawed, a human mix of strengths and weaknesses. I think of her often these days as I reflect upon what went wrong in our election, one of the first people from whom I learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be (and do) good.

(If you’d like to contribute to the continued existence of publications that provide accurate information about matters of crucial importance to us all, please check out the links on the Resources page.)

Photo Credit: Christof Timmermann Flickr via Compfight cc

Grief is a luxury we can’t afford right now

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I get it. So many of us who wanted things to go a different way on November 8th are grieving right now.

Some of us are in denial. We want to believe that what happened was just politics, business as usual. We tell ourselves, OK, so our guy didn’t win. Let’s trust the system and wish him the best and wait and see what happensLet’s take a break from political news and figure out how to reconnect with the other side. Let’s trust the checks and balances of our system to do its job. We tell ourselves that practicing self-care will make us feel better. We dismiss those who are worried our democracy may not survive intact for four years because of course it will! It can’t not survive. (Yeah, just like Trump could never get elected.)

Some of us are bargaining. We think that maybe, somehow, if we just try to understand why all those people in middle American voted for Trump, we can broker our way to some better place. We think that if we develop empathy for those on the other side and reach out to connect with them, we can find our way back to one another and we’ll move forward together toward a peaceful, accepting, diverse culture. We’re hoping that if we do those things, Trump won’t make good on all those election promises he made.

Some of us are just flat-out angry.

(Righteous anger hurts so good, doesn’t it?)

Some of us are depressed. We can’t seem to move on. We feel powerless. We can’t concentrate or get anything productive done. We’re pretty sure it’s all in our head, and some others would agree. Our days have looked kinda like this:

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Well, if you’ve been bouncing around in these various circles of grief hell over the past two weeks, I’ve got a suggestion:

let’s get  ourselves to acceptance as soon as we can, because shit’s getting real, and it’s getting there real fast.

On November 9, I wanted to go along with the folks urging us to wait and see. But when Trump brought in Steve Bannon as a White House advisor, it became clear that we weren’t going to have to wait long. Just in case you aren’t fully up to speed on what the “alt right” (a Newspeak term for white supremacists) is, please listen to this interview with Richard Spencer, who coined the term. (Actually, please listen to it anyway. Even if you think you know what it is, listening to this guy will make your skin crawl. Unless, of course, you think skin color is an OK criteria for determining, well, just about everything.) And if you can stand it after that, go check out Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general.

I, too, in an effort to understand what the hell happened and how to fix it, went looking  for explanations and solutions. I wondered about my bubble. Then I realized that even if I (and so many of us liberal white people) have been in a bubble, we aren’t the only ones. Those struggling midwest white folks are likely in a bubble, too. I wanted to believe that if we all seek empathy and start having hard conversations about race, we’ll get everyone moving in the direction of social justice and we’ll work to dismantle our systemic racism.

I don’t disbelieve that, but it’s clear we don’t have time to wait for that kind of change. And if the person we’re trying to move is a narcissist (like, you know, our President-elect), best just to move on.

So:  Let’s get to acceptance. 

Let’s accept what is and figure out what we’re going to do about it. Let’s stop focusing on who voted for whom and why. While there are plenty of reasons for folks to be angry with those who voted for Trump–and implications about what it means that a majority of white men and women voted for Trump should be wrestled with–the election ship has sailed. It’s over.

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Let’s focus on how we’re going to get on board the next one. I’m still really pissed about lots of the reasons people voted for Trump, but like this guy, I care more about what people are going to do now.

And like this guy, I am absolutely on Team Nah. Since election day, Trump has shown us exactly who he is (the same guy he was in the campaign), and as the article linked to above explains, when we’re dealing with narcissists there is no appealing to reason or a sense of what’s right.

Rather than waiting and hoping we can reason Trump and his administration onto some higher road, let’s get to work doing whatever we can to demand that all citizens are treated fairly and that our rules and best practices for governing be followed. And let’s obstruct any attempts by anyone in our government to do otherwise.

Because honestly, what else can we do? I suppose we can keep on denying and bargaining and turning away from the overwhelm of what’s happening, but lots of people don’t have the luxury of that any more than they have the luxury of prolonged grieving. I don’t want to roll over because what this requires of us is hard and feels maybe futile. I’m more realist than idealist; I know I might end up on the losing side of history, but I want to know I went down fighting on the right side of it.

So:  Let’s get our boots on the ground.

(If you want some concrete ideas of things to do, check out the Resources page.)

Did some walking this weekend in Portland.

Literally got our boots on the ground in Portland this weekend.

Statue Photo Credit: Aramisse Flickr via Compfight cc
Boat Photo Credit: serbosca Flickr via Compfight cc

Boots on the ground

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In first grade, I coveted Heidi Bernasek’s boots. Shiny, crinkly, white patent leather, lace-up knee boots. I remember seeing them as we lined up on the playground, waiting to be ushered into school. We all knew what go-go boots were, but I’d never seen anything like them on anyone I knew, much less someone my own age.

Like me, Heidi was blonde, but she was tall and beautiful in some way that I was not. In our class picture, she is standing in the back row, beaming. I am in the front, scowling. She would go on to be a Las Vegas showgirl, while I would go on to be a librarian. After sharing my admiration of her boots with my mother, I ended up with my own pair, eventually, but they were not white. They were black, and although I was grateful to have them I knew they were lesser than Heidi’s. I didn’t wear them much, probably not because they were lesser, but because they just weren’t me.

I was more of a sneaker girl.

*****

For a brief time in college, I lived in a sorority. It was a “good” house, meaning that most of its members were pretty and rich and smart and accomplished, and I was accepted into it only because a good friend from high school was already a member. I was smart and attractive enough, but I was neither rich nor particularly accomplished.

I fell in love with a boy who lived in the fraternity across the street. He was not really a frat boy, any more than I was really a sorority girl. I suspect that was a large part of our bond. Late in the fall of our first year together, Seattle was slammed by the kind of snowfall we get only occasionally in the northwest. Having no snow boots, I slipped around in my regular shoes, feet wet and freezing, and coveted the kind of footware I saw on the feet of my sisters.

Finally, I broke down and headed to the Nordstrom store on University Avenue with a newly acquired credit card to buy a pair of boots I couldn’t pay cash for. The relief I felt, slipping my feet into those fleece-lined boots!  I didn’t share with anyone except my boyfriend what they meant to me and how I felt about not being able to simply purchase this near-necessity that everyone else I lived with seemed to take for granted.

Six years later, when that boyfriend and I were divorcing, those boots were long gone. What wasn’t gone was the debt on that credit card, which we’d used to purchase a bookcase, too many pizzas, a sofa, a dog. I didn’t really understand then how you end up paying much more than an item is worth when you make only the minimum payment each month. I hate to think how much I really paid for those boots–and everything else I bought with credit that I couldn’t actually afford.

*****

When my daughter was a freshman in high school, she wanted a pair of Doc Marten’s boots. When I found a great pair at a thrift store that December, I bought them for a Christmas present.

She loved them but rarely wore them. “I just don’t think I can pull them off,” she’d say when I’d suggest them for some outfit. I sensed that the boots were aspirational, about something she wanted to be more than something she was. “I think I’ll wear them more in college,” she’d say.

I ended up wearing them more than she did. I liked that they were a little bit sassy, especially for someone like me–a middle-aged, suburban mom. I’d wear them and feel like maybe I wasn’t the stale white-bread person I suspected I’d become. Still, even I have hardly worn them for the past year.

When my daughter left for college last August, she didn’t take the boots with her.

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*****

Last summer, my friend Lisa and I made plans to attend an event headlined by a famous blogger/social activist whose work I admire. She would be joined by a small but diverse group of women, and their message would be about transforming the world through love. Lisa and I were down with that, so we bought tickets and put it on our calendars.

By the time we met in mid-September for the event, I wasn’t as excited about it as I’d been in July. I was feeling uneasy about the presidential election and what it was revealing about us. I had recently come off an intensive, two-week training on leading for equity, and my thoughts and ideas about how I need to show up in the world were changing.

Dressing for the evening, I selected my black heeled ankle boots. Not because they meant anything or had anything to do with my election anxieties, but because they looked good with my outfit. Before the show Lisa and I tried to catch a bite to eat at a happy hour across from the theater, but it was packed with women who all looked a lot like us. White. Middle-class. Middle-aged. Women who had taken care with their appearance and could afford both tickets to such an event and wine and appetizers at an upscale restaurant beforehand. The bar was so packed we couldn’t get in, so we ate at an inexpensive Chinese place a few blocks away. It wasn’t packed, and no one in there looked like us.

Lisa and I found our seats in the filled auditorium just before the event began.  As the speakers talked about the power of love to fight hate, I could feel something in my core saying, “yes, but…” The presentation was too slick, and I was reminded that the whole show was supposed to be in lieu of the blogger’s book launch.

When they had us all fill out a canned template to help us write a personal mission statement that would tap into our best talents and desires, my “yes, but” shifted into “Really?” When the first speaker shared a moving personal story about reconciliation with the man who killed her uncle in a post-9/11 hate crime, I found myself thinking, “Yes, OK, of course good–but it just doesn’t seem like enough.” When, right before intermission, recognition of a woman for her volunteer work was a thinly disguised commercial for an insurance company, Lisa and I were done.

We went back across the street to the now-nearly-empty restaurant bar and ordered whiskey. We dissected why none of it felt right to us.

“I just don’t see that making a personal mission statement is really going to do anything that matters,” I said. “I think we are in a time that calls for more than simply loving each other and doing good works. This feels like some thing that all of us privileged, liberal white women in Portland can attend and feel good about and feel like we’re actually doing something to make a difference–but we’re not.”

On my way back to the car, I turned my ankle and stumbled, the way I almost always do when I’m wearing those boots with a heel.

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*****

Last Wednesday, the day after the election, I stood in front of my closet, wondering what to wear. What would be fitting, on a day such as this? I thought of the students in the school where I work, many of them living in poverty. About half are white, and about half are people of color. We have students who are Muslim, students who are immigrants, students who are refugees. What did I want to communicate to all of them?

I reached for my black jeans, a black shirt, a black sweater. I did  not want to make a difficult situation harder, but I also did not want to communicate that the day was business as usual by dressing as if it were. I wanted to wear something that would broadcast my alliances. Something that would say that I am in mourning over what my country has come to, something that would demonstrate the grief I feel about the price so many of my countrymen are willing to pay to get what they feel they need.

At the bottom of the closet I saw my daughter’s Doc Martens. I wondered, again, how she was doing, 3,000 miles away from me, in Washington, DC. I thought about how we’d hoped we might attend, together, the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States. I thought about her and about the young women who are her friends, so many of whom live in the intersection of race and gender and have so much more to lose than she and I do. I thought about what it will mean to her and to them, that our country elected a man who bragged about his ability to grab women by the pussy because of his power and position.

As I reached for my daughter’s boots, which suddenly seemed the only right choice for the day, the music that always plays in my head switched to Nancy Sinatra.

Nancy of the white go-go boots. Nancy of the song that says, I am not going to take it any more. The song that says, one of these days I’m gonna walk all over you.

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*****

Before the election, I went boot shopping. I had a pair of brown ankle boots, but they weren’t made out of leather and they were cracking and falling apart.

The boots I fell immediately in love with were expensive. They cost more than any pair of shoes I’ve ever bought.

“Those are Wolverine 1,000 Mile boots,” the salesperson told me, assuming I would know the significance of the brand. “They’ll last the rest of your life if you care for them properly,” she added.

“Rest of your life” has a different meaning to me today than it did when I coveted my first pair of boots back in first grade. I thought of all the things I’ve wanted and bought and discarded in my life.

“I wonder if I’ll like them that long,” I said. I’ve already traveled more years than I likely have left to go, but there could still be a fair number to walk through.

“Well, they aren’t necessarily stylish,” she admitted. “They are classic, though. They are almost beyond style, and good for someone who isn’t about trends,” she said, looking at me. I could see her wondering a bit uneasily if I was offended at her implication that I am without style. I wasn’t. They are the kind of boots a sneaker girl would wear.

“They are made in the US,” she added. “It’s hard to find that today.”

Yes, it is. And yes, that’s part of why they are so expensive. It’s part of why, a week later, after thinking about how I want to spend my money, I went back and bought the boots, the only pair of footware I’ll buy this season.

We have to put our money where our mouths are, I thought, handing over my debit (not credit) card. I’d rather buy one good pair of boots that will last years than keep buying cheap, imported crap that hurts our environment and our economy. It costs more upfront, but not in the long run.

I was acutely aware that not everyone has the means to make such a choice.

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*****

In the days since the election, I–like so many of us–have been thinking long and hard about what its result means, where we are and what is really happening. I have been thinking about boots and what they’re used for, and our economy, and cultural war, and who is walking over whom and how they’re doing it.

The Nancy Sinatra song playing on repeat in my head saddens and angers and embarrasses me, much as my country does right now. I’ve watched the video of her and her back-up dancers prancing around in spiky-heeled boots and short skirts and know that men in the ’60s must have seen her song as a joke, not as any statement of strength. She’s still playing their game, even as she appears to be denouncing it, which is evident in the trump card she plays in the final verse: she’s found another man who is her “new box of matches.”

Still, I can’t help wanting to reclaim the first few verses of her song and turn it into some anthem for our country:

You keep lying when you oughta be truthin’
And you keep losin’ when you oughta not bet
You keep samin’ when you oughta be a-changin’
Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet

For how many of us have the systems of our country been treating us in the same way cheating men treat their women?  And for how long? What compromises and bargains have we made to stay in the relationship, hoping it will get better, that we’ll eventually get the kind of love we’ve been promised?

War these days–the way many of us think of it in the US–is not war the way it was when last fought on our soil, in the Civil War. It’s not horses and muskets. It’s drones. It’s bombs we drop from above. It’s troops whose members belong to only a small number of our families. It’s something that happens somewhere else, and many of us are OK with the idea of fighting our enemies as long as we don’t have to put boots on the ground.

Maybe war is actually closer than we think, and we just don’t recognize it because it (like so many things these days) is changing so rapidly we don’t see it for what it is. If war has changed–if we are fighting each other in not just a cultural war, but also the kind of conflict that every war is over–resources and who will control them–and the rules of engagement are changing from what they’ve always been, then I have been complacent and complicit. It is I who have been samin’ when I need to be a-changin’.

I have been flying over head, removed from the real action, thinking that it was enough just to do good work in the public sector and be a responsible consumer and love others who cross my path. Thinking that it was somehow enough to engage in conversation on social media and drop my link bombs and vote my conscience.

It has become clear to me that what is required now is something different.

I need to get my boots on the ground.

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Go-go boots image via retrowaste.com
Lyrics: Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking Lyrics | MetroLyrics

 

Ode to Mr. Elwell

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Doing algebra homework, circa 1978.

I’ve always been pretty sure that I was the last kid they let into the advanced math track. At the end of 7th grade, we took a test to see whether we’d be going into Algebra or some other kind of not-ready-for-algebra math. I don’t know what that was, but my ensuing struggle with math that was more about letters than numbers made it clear to me that I must have been the cut-off kid on the Algebra list, the last one that got into the advanced party.

I have few memories of that math class. I know I had Mr. Elwell, a kind, quiet man with the kind of dark, bushy mustache that lots of men had back in the late 70s. (The kind my second ex-husband, who probably came of facial-hair age at about the same time as Mr. Elwell, still has, although his is now white.) Despite learning very little algebra from him–and learning was generally a huge part of the criteria when determining whether or not I liked a teacher–I liked Mr. Elwell.

I had him not only for Algebra, but also for Driver’s Ed the fall of my sophomore year. That was the year our junior high was transformed into a middle school, and the 9th graders who should’ve been top dog at Sylvester Junior High were instead lowly freshmen when we all migrated to high school together. A handful of teachers came, too, one of whom was Mr. Elwell.

I’m sure one of the things I liked about Mr. Elwell was that it was impossible to rattle him, which made him different from so many of the men I’d known, starting with my dad. Any other teacher probably would have had some misgivings about my driving group the first day we all climbed into the Driver’s Ed car with him. There was Dorrit Norvell, who, I guessed from her skill, confidence, and obvious boredom, might have been driving since about the 3rd grade. She had eyes sharp as her Pat Benatar-esque attitude, and she made it clear that she did not suffer fools gladly. She scared the shit out of me because, when it came to driving, I was everybody’s fool. Unlike most parents, mine did not do one thing to prepare me for Driver’s Ed before it began. No practice drives, no sitting in the car introducing me to the controls, no nothing. I was a driving virgin that first day in the parking lot, and next to Dorrit, with moves as smoothly polished as her nails, it showed. The only saving grace for me was that the third person in our car was Cam Tu Nguyen. She was no fool–but she was a worse driver than me. Our first day Cam Tu tore up the parking lot at about 5 mph, and I thought Dorrit was going to get whiplash from the way her head snapped every time Cam Tu slammed on the brakes, but Mr. Elwell’s calm never faltered.

Eventually we all made it out onto the streets, even Cam Tu. Although I got better at it, driving was not something that came easily or intuitively to me–kind of like algebra, which is maybe why Mr. Elwell was kind to me, the way we are kind to those who are a little slow or a little fragile. Although I was considered to be a smart kid, driving challenged me. The only test I ever failed was the written driving test. I remember coming out of the DMV office and telling my mom I didn’t pass.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know…” my voice trailed off. “I think I got confused because of the colors of the cars,” I said.

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Well, it seemed like the colors of the cars in the drawings had something to do with the colors of the stoplights in the scenario questions. I was sure it did on this one question, and I got the right answer, but then it didn’t on some others…”

What are you talking about?” she asked, not even attempting to sound sympathetic or like I was making any kind of sense.

“Well, like, if the car approaching the intersection was red, I thought that had something to do with the color of the light, and so if the car was yellow or green…but it didn’t work if the car was blue…” My voice trailed off for a third time. It had made so much sense when I was taking the test. But trying to explain it to my mom, I could hear that it made none.

Later, I would attribute some of my failure on that test to being upset over my break-up the night before with David Ravander, my senior boyfriend who treated me so poorly I finally felt forced to end things between us. That morning of the failed test I couldn’t connect the dots between my broken heart and my foggy, over-thinking brain, but later I saw the lines linking one to the other.

None of my test failure was Mr. Elwell’s fault. He had been a bastion of calm support in that Driver Ed car with Scary Dorrit and Whiplash Cam Tu. Driver Ed cars came equipped with a brake on the passenger side, so that the teacher could, if necessary, save us all in any kind of near-death situation, but I never saw him use it. He didn’t even do it the time I came to a red light, carefully looked both ways to make sure the intersection was clear, and proceeded to turn left.

It wasn’t until after I had completed the maneuver that he said, “Uh, Rita, you might remember that we can’t make free left turns in Washington. You can get a ticket for that.” I felt my bowels begin to turn hot with shame, the way they always did when I’d made a public mistake, but his voice was quiet and calm, and that was all Mr. Elwell ever said about that.

Maybe it was because of that time that I asked him to be my escort for the Homecoming assembly that fall. Or maybe it was because I didn’t really know any of the other male teachers at the high school yet, other than the world history teacher who didn’t like me because I questioned why we spent a whole period watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, or Mr. Carmignani, whose creative writing class I had dropped because he made it clear on the first day that if we didn’t share our inner selves in our writing and our writing out loud with the class, we would not be earning A’s or B’s. I would no more reveal my inner self to my peers than frolic naked down the halls, and a C was unacceptable, so that was that. No creative writing for me.

I needed a teacher escort for the assembly because I was the homecoming princess for my class. This was an uncomfortable honor for me. I had no date for the dance and was facing the humiliating prospect of the Pep Club girls arranging to have some boy ask me if no one came forward. I didn’t want to ask my parents for the money to buy a formal dress, because I knew that we didn’t have much of that kind of money, but I was told that I would have to get one. And, I needed a teacher to escort me down the aisle and up the steps to the stage during the big assembly, and I didn’t really know anyone for that, either.

So I asked Mr. Elwell, who seemed both mildly surprised and quietly pleased. At the morning assembly for underclassmen, I hooked my arm into Mr. Elwell’s and we made our way down the auditorium aisle without incident. It was the stairs to the stage that proved to be our downfall. As I stepped up to the first step, I failed to properly lift the hem of my long, formal, faux-pioneer girl Gunne Sax gown, bringing my shoe down on the inside of its skirt. I realized my mistake immediately, but I didn’t know what to do about it, what with my arm hooked into Mr. Elwell’s and everyone watching and me needing to get up those steps. So I just kept going. When I stepped up to the second step, I also stepped further up the hem of my dress. And I did the same with the fourth and fifth and sixth step, even though I knew I was only making things worse. By the time we got to the stage, Mr. Elwell and I were both bent nearly double, as he’d never let go of my arm, and I fell onto it, ears filling with the laughter of my fellow sophomores and those lowly freshmen. Mr. Elwell didn’t say anything; he simply helped me up, re-hooked our arms, and walked me across the stage with as much dignity as he had given me all those times in the driver ed car and in algebra class when I didn’t know the answer.

Years later I would come to see this as a seminal moment, a metaphor for so many things that went wrong in my life. I have had a confounding need to just keep moving doggedly forward, even when it is quite clear that stopping would be the best thing to do–the only thing to do if I did not want my trajectory to end in tragedy. It is has not served me well, nor has my propensity for sticking with others who don’t treat me with the same kind of respect I got from Mr. Elwell.

He was not a very good math teacher for me. I began this essay with the intention of writing about Algebra II, the last math class I ever took because I could no longer fake my way through math without the fundamentals I’d missed in Algebra I with Mr. Elwell. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that he was teaching me something probably more important than how to determine the value of x. He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it.

I like to think he’d be both mildly surprised and quietly pleased.

The poor guy I manipulated into asking me to the dance.

The poor guy I pressured into taking me to the dance.

*******

This piece came out of the last session of my writing class with Kate Carroll De Gutes (the one on writing about serious topics with humor). I almost didn’t attend; I’d had a terrible week, and I was feeling so tired and broken on Thursday night that I didn’t think any good would come of it. But as Leonard Cohen told us, the cracks are where the light comes in. The prompt was simply to write about taking algebra. Although I missed 2 of the 5 sessions, getting this essay out of the class was worth the price of admission. Kate is a teacher in the same gentle vein as Mr. Elwell. (Suck it, Mr. Carmignani.) I highly recommend her classes, which Portland-area folks can take at Attic Institute.

Bits and bobs

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Oh, hey there. Long time no see. Whatchya been up to?

Me? You know…busy busy busy these days…

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I’ve only made it to half the sessions of my writing-about-hard-topics-with-humor class. Which means two. Yeah, that might not have been money so well spent after all, considering the per session cost. And that the response to my last piece was heavy on adjectives such as “hard,” “dark,” and “serious.” I believe the word “grim” might have been used. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be looking for places to let some light in.

Funny how a seemingly innocuous prompt–

“Two dollars doesn’t seem like much, unless…”

became a piece about income inequality and powerlessness and regret. (Except it wasn’t funny. At all.)

So, I guess I haven’t been busy going to my writing class. Or writing, with humor or anything else.

I think it’s because I’ve been really busy fighting all that’s wrong in the world on Facebook. (I know that sentence’s likely got a misplaced modifier, but it kinda works just the way it’s written.) Scrolling Facebook these days is like driving down a highway clogged with one horrific accident after another. I know that I should just look forward and keep moving (or stay home more–a lot more), but I can’t seem to stop myself from getting on the road and then fixating on the wreckage. I’m either staring in fascinated horror or actually stopping to try to do something–even though I have no useful skills to save anyone or anything and am really just adding to the carnage by getting in the way.

Unless, of course, I’m posting mindless things I think are funny, like this exchange between my son and me in the hours before the stormaggedon that never quite materialized here in the northwest last weekend.

Although sometimes I just post silly things like this exchange with my son.

Sometimes I get something positive out of my social media travels, though–like this piece by Magda Pescayne at AskMoxie–which helped me understand that what I’m feeling in response to this damn presidential election (and systemic racism and rape culture/misogyny and violence andandand…) is grief as much as anger and fear. (If you’re in the same place, take a minute to click on through. It’s got some great advice on how to get through the next few weeks. Not that I think everything is going to be all better when the election is finally over. In fact, I’m starting to fear that things will be worse.)

It’s not like I needed another thing to add to my List of Things I’m Grieving, but I guess there’s some comfort in recognizing that that’s what’s going on.

Speaking of grief, well…that’s the kind of thing that can just fill a person’s day right up, isn’t it? It takes so many minutes to talk yourself into getting out of bed, to wander aimlessly around the house from one unfinished task to another, to remember what it is you came for at the grocery store, to make and cancel the plans with friends you promised your therapist you’d reach out to, to make and cancel appointments with your therapist, to pick up take-out because grocery shopping used up all the energy you have, to fixate on the question of how one can distinguish between grief and depression and get online to Google it and get sidetracked by Facebook (which only exacerbates your grief/depression or whatever it is), to revise and revise and revise a blog post you’re never going to publish, to fight a series of migraines and other physical ailments, to put on a happy face so you won’t have to talk about any of the things that are making you sad/numb/angry/numb/hollow/numb.

But even though I’ve been so busy with those things, I have found time to pick up a needle again. I’ve decided that embroidery is my version of all those adult coloring books that are going to be on all the year-end lists of things that are this year’s equivalent of the pet rock.

A long while back I found a piece of fabric with finished edges that I bought because I wanted to embroider on it.

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Rather than embroider on it, though, I let it sit in various closets around our house. I think I didn’t let myself do anything with it because there is no practical reason for me to spend hours embellishing this piece of fabric. It won’t even serve any kind of decorative purpose, most likely, as the style and color scheme is unlike anything in the rest of our house.

But a weekend or so ago I picked it up because I was home alone and feeling really sick with migraine-med hangover and my grief/depression/whatever means I don’t have any house-related projects to do (because I no longer care much about doing things to make our house nicer) and because I just wanted to. I turned on an old movie and made a cup of tea and sat on the couch with the dogs and started “coloring.”

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This is not going to be an awesome work of original art. It may well end up spending more time in various closets when I’m done with it. But, when I am lying awake in bed and my mind is spinningspinningspinning about all the things that trouble me these days, I’ve started turning it to this canvas. I imagine what I might add to the tree’s white foliage. I wonder how I can make it look like the trunk has been yarn-bombed. I consider the kinds of stitches I might use to fill the leaves.

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Something about those middle-of-the-night wonderings calms my mind the way the actual work of it does in earlier hours of the day, and I’m usually able to get back to sleep.

That’s a good thing, I guess. At the very least, it keeps me from becoming another wreck for others to rubberneck at on their journey through this world.

So, yeah. That’s what’s new with me. How about you?

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I almost forgot. It’s puzzle season again.

 

Laugh, dammit!

Once, as I was regaling a friend with the latest tale of my ex-husband’s abhorrent (to me) behavior, she laughed so hard she had to wipe tears and said, “You have to write about this! It’s hysterical.”

I was puzzled.

“What do you mean? This is terrible!” I said.

“Oh, I know,” she said. “But the way you tell it is hysterical. Seriously. You have to write about this some day.”

I have never thought of humor as my thing. I was the kid adults described as “7 going on 37.” When I was a preschooler, my grandmother’s sister called me The Judge. Even now, I almost never LOL.

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As I explained on my About page, I once thought I could find my way to lightheartedness and laughter through crafts (hah!), but I’ve recently abandoned that.

Last week I began a class with Kate Carroll De Gutes that promised to teach me how to write about difficult subjects with humor. I signed up not because I feel driven to learn how to write about difficult subjects with humor. I signed up because:

a. I knew I’d need something positive this fall to fill the spaces opening up in my life.
b. I do better creative work with structure. Especially structure I’ve paid money for.
c. I’m still hanging onto the idea that this is the year of Voice.
d. I like Kate, who was in the cast of Portland’s Listen to Your Mother with me earlier this year.

It was really mostly D. For me, whether or not a class is good is almost never about the topic. It’s the teacher–and Kate is a wickedly good writer and a warm, interesting, kind person who does not suffer fools gladly. I knew I would learn stuff from her.

After our first class meeting, I decided that this is probably going to be the best money I’ll spend all fall. (Although I did, this weekend, finally find a pair of jeans that feel good and fit well and that were made in the US and sold in a small, locally owned shop and did not cost more than the hospital bill for my premature twins. That’s right up there, too.)

My biggest take-away so far? Humor doesn’t have to be LOL.

In fact, although I really liked Kate before signing up, I think I might now love her just for saying that she’s not a fan of A Very Popular Humor Essayist because their writing is mean. And that good humor isn’t mean. That being droll is being humorous. That there seems to be, I don’t know, a kind of humor that is serious.  I often find the world (and my walk through it) infinitely amusing, but when I try to share my amusement it seems there are always people telling me to look on the bright side or cheer up or not be so hard on myself or some such thing.

I want to snap at them, “I was being funny, dammit!”

Clearly, there are things I could learn.

Anyway, I’m sharing here a piece of writing I began in our class. Our prompt was something called a list essay (which is, as you’d think by its name, an essay in the form of a list). The topic:  A list of things you won’t do tomorrow.

It took me a bit to get started. My first few attempts were less than riveting:

I won’t wear yoga pants.
I won’t drink a latte.
I won’t wait in the pickup line at school.

Then I started thinking about a concrete tomorrow–the actual tomorrow I was going to be living, which was a Friday on a weekend Cane wouldn’t be home. That sent me down the path of thinking about all the different kinds of Friday nights I’ve lived in my life. The list I wrote (and shared) in class isn’t this one, but it’s what this one started from:

What I Will Not Do This Friday Night

Sit on the couch with my mom and my dog Fritzie, eating popcorn and watching Carol Burnett.

Attend a slumber party.

Lie on the living room floor with Fritzie and not-watch TV while wondering what the tall, skinny boy in the locker next to mine is doing right now.

Go to a high school football game and shake my pom poms in front of the crowd.

Drink a half-rack of Rainer pounders with my boyfriend and eat nachos and call it dinner. Feel rich even though we live in a shitty apartment infested with roaches.

Plan lessons.

Grade papers.

Know, with righteous conviction, that my work matters.

Fall asleep on the couch in front of a movie to avoid sex with my husband, a guy I once ate nachos and drank beer and laughed with on Friday nights.

Go into my babies’ room after they’ve gone to sleep and rest my hands lightly on their chests to make sure they’re still breathing.

Get home from “date night” by 7:00 so our babysitter can make it to the football game.

Snuggle my kids on the couch in front of a Disney movie while their father sleeps in his chair across the room.

Host a slumber party.

Anything with a husband.

Wonder if I should be writing more poems and grading fewer papers.

Make Grandma Spaghetti, which the kids will eat whole platefuls of even though it won’t be as good as Grandma’s.

Swallow hard at a high school football game because the cheerleaders and the jocks and the band nerds and the self-conscious kids shivering in their thin hoodies are so damn tender it makes my throat ache.

Fall in love.

Drive my daughter home from school, wishing I could listen to NPR on the radio but letting her bounce from one synthesized song to another because pretty soon I’ll be able to listen to NPR any time I want to.

Putter contentedly around my home.

Make dinner for my entire family and wish we could get through just one meal together without someone turning silent or mean.

Knock on my daughter’s door and poke my head into her room to tell her goodnight.

Slide between flannel sheets and fall asleep spooned into the body of the man I love.

Know when my daughter slides between her own sheets 3,000 miles away from mine, or what sounds are the last ones he hears before closing his eyes in the apartment that isn’t our home.

Sleep easily.

*****

I know, it’s not funny. But I like to think there are moments of humor in it. Not the LOL kind. But humor the way it so often appears in life:  quietly, on the edges of things, or in the spaces between them.

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Falling up

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Thursday might be the first day of official fall, but there was unofficial fall all over our weekend.

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It was long jeans and short boots and even a light jacket kind of weather. It was a trim the spent blooms from the garden and be glad there are still a few left kind of time.

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My girl was home (sort of) for half a week.

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She was flown home to attend the Pendleton Round-Up in her role as Rose Festival Queen. I’m so glad she had to come back for this. It’s almost as if her leaving cast a spell over the house, the kind you read about in fairy tales, and in the weeks since she left we’ve been sleep-living in suspended time–the way everyone is knocked out for years in Sleeping Beauty’s castle but when they wake up it’s as if they never stopped living.

Somehow, her coming back was like the Prince’s kiss that broke the spell and woke everyone. (OK, maybe not everyone. Maybe just me. I’m probably the only one who’s been creeping through fog.)

She noted in a text to me today that the day she flew back to school was exactly one month after the day she flew there in August. Maybe there’s some kind of magic in that.

Her visit home was at least a little bit enchanted. We were able to get ice cream at a (pretentious) Portland shop that is famous for its long lines, without waiting in line at all.

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Of course, it might be that we got lucky because it was pouring down rain. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

I still miss her like crazy, but I’m getting used to the new normal. The grieving isn’t so much a howling these days as it is a quiet voice that startles me at odd moments. It’s more hollow than full, more yearning than demanding. It’s a companion whose presence I can yield to.

It’s nice to feel the season changing, a turning toward a different state of being. We had that glorious rain this weekend, and I unwrapped a puzzle that’s been wrapped in plastic on the living room table since July. We made chicken soup. I haven’t done anything in my studio, but I begin a writing class this week. It will be good to be forced to exercise those muscles with some like-minded people.

It’s nice to be looking up again.

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This seems like a fitting view for these days. A moody mix of cloud and shadow and shots of color.

PS: You might notice that things look a bit different here. Messing with blog design is something I do when I’m feeling at odds with the blog. And blocked. I also revise the About page.

Doing home, doing life

Summer in a nutshell:

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Beginning of summer

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End of summer

Back in June, struggling with tremendous change and uncertainty (which is where I’ve been living for at least two years), I gave myself permission to stop. Stop trying to figure everything out. Stop trying to make things better. Stop doing things unless they truly had to be done–so that I might figure out what it is I even like doing any more.

I think I had some idea that if I’d just stop, all the dust clouding my vision would settle and I’d find some kind of serenity and things would become green and shiny again. Or, at least, I would be able to see what is still green and shiny. And, well, yeah…what you see above is fairly indicative of how things look right now.

Most of you who read regularly followed me here from the home blog I used to write with Cane, where we (hopefully, optimistically, enthusiastically, joyfully) proclaimed that “how we do home is how we do life.”

The internets is full of people waxing philosophical about the meaning of home. My friend Laura pointed me to this (rather pedantic, privileged-perspective) piece last week that annoyed but also intrigued me a bit. In it, the writer posits that home “is a place where personal ideals are externalized or personal failures made visible.”

Well, clearly mine is more about personal failures made visible than anything else these days.

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This summer we did fix some things that have long needed fixing. We finally gave up on doing anything cool/creative that we love with our entry and painted everything the same shade of brown and covered the stairs with a boring, serviceable carpet.

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We got rid of yellowed vinyl flooring in a bathroom, painted the walls, and took out a plastic-covered vanity that surely replaced a solid wood one in a previous owner’s quest to attain a different sort of domestic ideal than any we ascribe to. We put in a new one that’s probably a lot like the original one.

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Some of you might remember when we put some lipstick on the pig of the room that it was when we weren’t ready to replace the flooring and cabinet:

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The bathroom needed new flooring and the new cabinet takes up less space, which is good, I suppose, but I’m not in love with it. I’m in meh with it. And though I don’t like to say it out loud, given the time and money we put into the changes, I think I  liked the funky lipstick version of it better.

Unlike so many of our earlier house projects, these were not labors of love. These projects were done not to make a home but to fix things that would need fixing if we decide to sell the house. (Kind of amazing how that shows, huh?)

When Cane and I wrote that “how we do home is how we do life” we saw it as a statement of power:  We can choose how we do home, and a complementary life would grow out of that choosing:

Want a simpler life? Create a simple home.

Want an authentic life? Create an authentic home.

Want a connected life? Create a home with routines and traditions and rituals that connect its inhabitants with each other and those who enter it.

What I’m coming to understand, though, is that this question of home/life might be a chicken/egg sort of thing:  Which comes first, home or life? Maybe how we do life is how we do home–and many of us struggle to do life the way we want to.

Some of us live in poverty. Some of us live with abuse. Some of us are living out the inevitable effects of multi-generation oppression. And, even those of us who are relatively privileged sometimes get thrown a curveball that we just can’t hit with anything resembling grace–if we can manage to hit it at all. Sometimes, life throws us not a curveball, but a series of fastballs discharging from a pitching machine set to its highest speed. Then, we end up doing life the best we can, swinging furiously, knowing we’re going to miss more balls than we hit.

Sometimes, life has us so worn out that caring about home feels really beside any point that matters.

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I really miss caring about such things as growing vegetables and sewing grocery bags and planning meals and restoring banged up furniture that no one else loves any more. I keep trying to “act as if,” thinking that maybe I can make the equation work the other way:  Maybe if I just start doing the stuff, the caring will return and the life will follow suit.

So far, it hasn’t been that way. But as so many on the internets constantly remind me, we’re all just living in one season of life at a time, and they all pass. I’m hoping that as summer fades into fall, this one I’ve been living in for the past few years will move on, too. I’ll keep you posted.

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This is not a dead pig. It was a live pig at the Clackamas County fair, which we visited at the end of the last month, and it has no super-important meaning to this post. I just like to end posts with a photo and couldn’t bring myself to use another dead plant one (although I have plenty of dead plants that could be up for the task.) Going with this because there was a reference to pigs in the post, and, to be honest, there is something in this photo that speaks to my current state of being. Especially that food trough is resting on the pig’s head.

 

 

 

Lingering

“I’m sure the next the next chapter will be wonderful but I’m going to need to linger a bit on this one before I can turn the page.”
–message from a friend whose daughter left for college last weekend

Photo on 2010-05-21 at 20.30

There is much I would like to be able to write about what I’ve learned in the past few weeks as I’ve been letting go of my daughter. It’s too close, though, and my feelings too raw, for me to begin sorting all the thinking I’ve been doing into a clear, coherent post.

I can offer this, though:

We don’t allow enough messiness in our culture. We want things–especially feelings–to be simple, clean, and neat, but living fully is not conducive to tidiness.

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This experience of sending my daughter 3,000 miles away into the beginning of her life apart from me–it is messy, and ragged, and complex. I am a big, hot, tangled mess of emotions these days:  elation, gratitude, sorrow, regret, longing, hope, relief, pride, joy, loneliness, love.

The day she left, these feelings knocked me to the floor–literally–but I keep reminding myself of the words I’ve offered to others in their grief:

The size of the pain is commensurate with the size of the love.

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If the size of my feelings is any indicator, well…my love for my child  is bigger than anything I’ve known. And what it’s been looking like lately, in concrete terms, is some mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime:

Picture me the day after she leaves, making myself go to the gym (because exercise makes us feel better! Right?) and feeling a dull, achey missing-her because the gym reminds me of all the yoga/pilates classes Grace took with me when she was working on an alternate PE credit and how I laughed and laughed at her half-assed poses and the way she went to bathroom every. single. time during the first pilates track.

If you were there you’d see me doing OK, holding it together despite my sadness, until the song about loving you for a thousand years comes on, and then there I am, losing it in child’s pose as I hear

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What’s standing in front of me

and I’m stuck there long after everyone else has transitioned to down dog because I don’t want anyone to see the tears dripping onto my smelly yoga matt while I tell myself to breathe, breathe, breathe.

Later, at home (after tearing up, again, in the produce section of the grocery store when I realize I won’t need to buy as many apples any more) I look up the lyrics to the whole song and watch the video (because the song’s chorus is now stuck on repeat in my head) and learn for the first time that the song is from a Twilight movie and it’s about Bella and Edward’s stupid vampire love–which, of course, lasts for 1,000 years because they never, ever die–and I think about how I got all torn up over a vampire love song (which could have ominous symbolism if I think too hard about it) and how Grace would roll her eyes at all of this and remind me of how awesome it was when my mother and I took her to a Twilight marathon that culminated in a midnight premiere at which 1,000 (or so) tween girls on Team Jacob squealed deliriously every time he took off his shirt (which he did about a thousand times).

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This is the kind of thing I’ve been keeping to myself not only because it’s strange and embarrassing, but also because in response to expressing the harder emotions I’ve been feeling–my sorrow, my fear, my regret–I have been given the message, more than once, with good intentions, I know, that I should be grateful, that I should feel good because it is time for this to happen, because my daughter has great opportunities, because her success means I’ve done a good job being her parent.

True, every word. I am, and I do. But.

It’s not helpful, and it feels like the world wants me to just move along, and I’M NOT READY TO.

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The raw, howling grief I felt in the first hours after her departure is waning–though it continues to flare unexpectedly–and while part of me is grateful for the relief, there is another part of me that wants to hold on to it, does not want to feel it subside, does not want to go gentle into any kind of parenting good night.

That deep, unreal, this-can’t-really-be-happening sorrow feels like shit, to be sure, but it also feels holy. It feels like a testament to having fully loved with every single part of my being. It feels like some kind of honoring of the deep bond I’ve shared with my daughter over more than 18 years.

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I get that we will still have a bond that transcends time and distance, but we are leaving behind the life that nurtured it. That bond did not live in the big, shiny, occasional moments we shared–the holiday dinners, the award ceremonies, the vacations and birthday parties and special treats. It grew over years of day-to-day, mundane, sometimes difficult, intimate moments that only those who live together experience.

And we won’t be doing that any more.

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Why would I easily let this kind of connection go? Why should we think that such a gift can or should be quickly and neatly packed up and put away?

Beth Berry, who writes the blog Revolution from Home, just wrote a beautiful post about resisting the messages to “bounce back” after giving birth. In it, she says:

The very notion that we are meant to change as little as possible, and even revert back to the women we were before we became mothers is not only unrealistic, but it’s an insult to women of all ages, demographics, shapes, and sizes. It makes a mockery of the powerful passage into one of the most essential roles a human can live into…

When my children arrived they completely altered the shape of my days–which altered the shape of my life. Their presence transformed every part of it. Why, then, wouldn’t their leaving do the same?

Why am I feeling ashamed to be so profoundly impacted by it, as if my inability to just be happy and move on means that I’m somehow weak or our relationship too close to be healthy? My children’s birth was a profound experience, and the one I’m having now–of letting go of what we’ve been, of entering into a new life that will reshape both of us, again–is profound, too. And profound experiences should not, I think, be rushed.

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So, like my friend, I am going to linger. I will not be bouncing back, and that is OK. It is OK to be the kind of mess I have been–just like it is fine to keep wearing maternity clothes in the weeks after giving birth and go days without showering and cry because  your baby’s fingernails are just so exquisite–because the whole thing is overwhelming and that’s all you can manage to do. It is OK because, just as it was during that first monumental transition, we are never going to be what we once were, but we are all going to be OK.

Just not right away. Like my friend, I need a bit more time before I can dive into the next chapter. I’m going to take it.

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Taking the long way home

Twenty-five summers ago, I lived in a sweet little house in a charming old southeast Portland neighborhood. It was the first house I owned, bought not long after I married and started my first teaching job.

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It was only a few blocks from a park where I walked every day with my dog, Billie. The previous winter we’d gone to the mall one Sunday morning to buy a Billie Holiday CD (remember those?), but the record store was closed. The pet store wasn’t. This was before I knew about puppy mills. Before I knew the first thing about taking care of another living being. Or about making commitments.

That summer, Billie and I went on many walks, traversing up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood’s tree-lined streets. I remember looking up into the trees, thinking that their branches looked like canopies. I wrote that into a poem I worked on later that fall, thinking that no one else had ever seen how trees looked like canopies. I didn’t know, then, that many people have seen canopies when looking up at trees that flank both sides of a street. These were so different from the trees of my childhood neighborhood, which was filled with Douglas fir and cedar. We had no sidewalks, nor any tree-lined streets. It didn’t occur to me that these new trees were common, or that my perception of them might be.

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I was lonely that summer. I had lived in that charming neighborhood less than a year, and in that city for less than two. I had spent most of those months working the long days of a first-year teacher. Although there were people at work I was friendly with, I hadn’t made any real friends, there or anywhere else.

My husband worked during the days and studied for the MCAT in the evenings. I spent my days walking the dog, working out to an aerobics TV show, sanding (probably lead-filled) paint from the woodwork of our 1920’s house (I didn’t know about lead-based paint then, either, even though I should have) while watching soap operas, planning dinner, and waiting for the hour or so I’d get his company when he came home. I made the uninsulated attic into the kind of private space I longed for as a teen-ager, not realizing that it would always be too hot up there in the summer and too cold in the winter, or that I didn’t need such a space because the whole house was my space. There was nothing I needed sanctuary from within its walls.

That husband–he was a smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle person who, like me, had no business getting married or adopting dogs. He was as good to me as any good person can be who is too young to get married. I was not as good to him. Or to myself.

Instead of facing the chasm within that my loneliness illuminated with blinding intensity, I ran away from it. I ran away from him, and our dog, and the house, and the neighborhood, and the park filled with geese that Billie loved to bark at. I ran away from all of it, too blind and scared to see that I had everything I’d ever wanted, right there:  a good person who loved me, a safe and cozy home, meaningful work, the promise of children with a man who would be a good father to them.

I didn’t know that many, many people had looked up into the same void and seen the same thing I’d seen, and given it the same wrong names I gave it.

*******

The weekend before last, Cane and I drove through my old neighborhood on our way to spend a late afternoon on the river. As I always do when driving through there, I felt nostalgic and wistful. The aftertaste of regret lingered at the back of my throat.

I thought of my house project, my recent fascination with small, working-class houses. My first husband and I bought that first house with the salaries of a first-year teacher and a lab tech. Although Cane and I both have equity in another home and advanced degrees and decades of work in our field, this neighborhood is out of our reach now, even if we could make our lives fit within its geographic boundaries. That is due as much to our respective (poor) life choices as to Portland’s gentrification, and we know the sting we feel is nothing compared to the pain of those whose communities are lost to them through the effects of systemic racism and other injustices. Still, it hurts.

As we drove through again on our way home, I thought about the home of a colleague I’d recently visited. Her lovely Portland house sits in an even more charming neighborhood, and it is filled with photos of her family. I could see how all of them have grown, together, through two decades or more. I imagined, briefly, the home and life I might have had if I’d faced my demons 25 years ago, if I hadn’t left that kind boy I married and we’d done the hard work of growing up together.

“I should never have left here,” I said to Cane as we drove back home. “I had everything I wanted, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have had your children,” he said.

“Oh, I know. I know. That’s what I always tell myself. But as my daughter reminds me whenever I say that’s why I’ll never regret marrying their dad, I probably would have had different children I love as much as I love them. I’d never have known them, so I wouldn’t have missed them.”

“You can’t know that,” he said. “You might not have been able to have any children at all.”

He is, of course, right. We can never really know where a different choice at a fork in our life’s road might have taken us. We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had. In mine, I somehow get to have the same children I have now.

“Well,” I said, reaching for the hand of the smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle man who loves me now and takes no offense when I suggest that perhaps I should be married to someone else, “I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, so I guess I need to just get over all that.” I squeezed his hand, hoping he knew I meant it, hoping my daughter knows that any life I might have had without her and her brother would have been a lesser one.

******

On one my friend Jill’s recent, always-wonderful weekly list of Something Good, I found this post by Austin Kleon, about bliss stations. In it, he writes:

“It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.”

Between events in the world around us and those in my own private world, I know more than I’d like to about being distracted and despondent. But what is a bliss station? Kleon, quoting Joseph Campbell, says that it is

“a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”

Kleon wonders if it is enough to have either a particular place or a particular time, and reading his words I realized that in this summer I have been lucky enough to have both:  Time almost every morning, and my own, dedicated creative space.

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Although I found solace in this space during the spring, over the weeks of this summer I have entered it only to iron clothes or drop off junk I didn’t want to take the time to find a real home for.

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I thought of another post by another friend, Shannon’s musings about how hard it can be to get started again after a creative dry spell.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I wanted for years:  time and space to create. I thought of all the times in my life I’ve been blind to what is in front of me, and how I don’t want to be that way any more.

I thought about how good it would be to spit the taste of regret out of my mouth.

*****

I went back to my old neighborhood, to take photos for my project. To take inventory. To confront my regrets. To see.

The old park, which once had a big, flat, grassy open field, swing sets, and a square, man-made pond, has been transformed into a natural wild space.

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I didn’t see any of the geese Billie used to chase, but a stream was home to delightful ducks.

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I walked the neighborhood sidewalks I used to walk with Billie, remembering the young woman I was 25 years ago. Trying to figure out how to forgive her.

I took photos of houses I might want to do something with.

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You can’t see the older woman sitting in a chair in front of the window, reading a book. But she’s there.

I left when I felt a migraine coming on. I went home and took a nap, grateful for the time and space to do that.

******

A few days later, I went into my creative space, wondering if I could cultivate bliss there. I pulled out my scraps of text about houses.

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I set aside a few that spoke to me, when I thought about my first house.

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I sketched it.

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That was enough for one day.

*****

I had coffee one morning with a friend who is also sending a child to college in a few weeks. The day my daughter flies out, she will be heading south with her husband and son in a car packed with the college supplies that have been accumulating on her dining room table all summer.

We compared notes on the unfortunate places we’ve been overcome by tears.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the detergent row at Target,” she said. “Another woman took a tissue from the box in her cart and gave it to me.”

We laughed.

“I’ve come to understand,” I said, “that as much as I’m crying about how I will miss her–and I will, terribly–I’m also crying over my own mortality.” She nodded. We struggled for words to capture what it is, exactly, we’re mourning.

“Their lives aren’t going to be about us any more.”

“It’s just gone so quickly. I’m not ready to let it go.”

“Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“And it’s too late now to do some things right.”

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*****

I saw my therapist.

“I don’t want to talk about how things are going,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about Cane or his daughter or my daughter leaving for college or what’s happening with my son. I want to stop dealing with the surface of things.”

“OK,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Here,” I said, handing her a book open to a poem. “I wrote this maybe 20 years ago.”

A Map to the Future

You try not to despise her.
You know it isn’t really fair:
What more could be expected
of one such as she,
growing in the twin shadows
of anger and expectation?

She was the kind of girl who ran
to the edges of cliffs and jumped,
just jumped–
not because she was daring
but because she didn’t know
there were cliffs and once there,
jumping seemed the only option.
She was that blind
to her own geography.

You walk away
when you sense her
wandering through the dark
valleys of memory, wish
she could be forever exiled.
You can’t help but regret
all that she lost or wasted,
and you can’t seem to forgive her
for what she never knew,
want only to put that floundering
child away from you, forever,

do not see that you must
carry her with you
if you are ever to climb
from your desperate canyons
and lie upon the grassy meadows
that frame those gaping holes.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I want to know how to do it,” I said.

*****

Last Saturday I returned to my bliss station again.

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That morning, my daughter found me there. As she settled into the corner chair, I stopped what I was doing. I sat on the floor, and we chatted for a good long time–about the election, and how different some things were when I was her age, and about college, and the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family, and the meaning of life, and what kind of life she wants to have.

“My therapist told me the other day that it takes three generations for a family to fully recover from addiction, abuse, trauma,” I told her. “But it gets better with each one.”

It was just the two of us home together all day. I vacuumed the floor of her room, which she (and sometimes I) have been cleaning out for the past two weeks. It is still filled with her clothes, her toiletries, her scent, but it is empty of the things that made it hers. I did cry some, alone in there, but not the way I did the morning I took all the bags of stuff she no longer wants to the thrift store–her cheerleading uniform, her many school spirit t-shirts, the vampire series books she devoured as a young teen, the photo display thingy she wanted when we re-did her room a few summers ago, the pottery she painted over the course of many trips to visit her grandparents.

“Do you think we’re ever going to paint pottery again?” I asked her as she put those things in the bag.

“If you pay,” she said, grinning. I kept two small pieces and let the rest go. She thought I was being silly to keep them, that I should let go of all of them. Thinking of the clay monster I made in third grade that resides, still, in my parents’ bedroom, I told her that it’s good to be silly sometimes.

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After vacuuming, I thought about doing more of the things on my never-done to-do list, but she wanted me to watch Gilmore Girls with her, so I did. Somewhere during the second episode, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any of those things that day. I was going to just be, with my girl, all day long.

We might not get this again before she leaves, I thought, just the two of us alone for the whole day.

We puttered around a bit before going out to get pedicures. We had dinner at our favorite noodle place. We came home and made popcorn and watched Legally Blonde, an old favorite of hers. She deconstructed the feminist messages she sees in it. She left before the movie ended, to accept a last-minute invitation from friends.

I watched the end of the movie by myself, feeling the emptiness of the house settle around me. I didn’t let myself shrug it off my shoulders. The weight of it was uncomfortable, but I could hold it.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I’ve wanted for years. I felt grateful that the woman I’ve become is  stronger than that girl I was 25 years ago. That I knew it wouldn’t be nighttime in an empty house forever–that the next morning I would wake up to a day filled with light and the return of people I love, where I could enter into a bliss station and begin this post and keep working on projects with eyes that are becoming increasingly clear.

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Poem ©2002 by Bellowing Ark Press.