Migraine trigger #248

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

Oh, y’all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, just 4 more things:

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

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

OK, just one more thing:

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

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

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

30 years

When I began teaching, 30 was a magic number. After 30 years, a teacher had earned full benefits in the public employee pension system and most could retire with an income close to the one they’d been earning.

Back then, it seemed to me that almost all colleagues nearing their 30-year mark were just a bit past their sell-by date. They looked tired. They sounded tired. Many said they were ready to go. I could hardly imagine ever being one of them. I knew, of course, that one day I would be, but that day was so far away it didn’t seem or feel real.

And yet, here it is. Here I am. I began my career as an educator at the end of January, 1990. 30 years ago this week.

A lot of things have changed in 30 years. In my initial teaching certification program, we had one half-day class on instructional technology that included a rotation on how to use a ditto machine. There was no mandated language arts curriculum in the Seattle public school where I did my student teaching, so I was able to make up my own. I had a snazzy new Mac with software on floppy disks, but no email or internet. There were no standards, no annual standardized tests, no school report cards. And–oh, yeah–no school shootings, no lockdown drills, and no room clears, either.

I finished my licensure program at an odd time of the year (December), and I was entering a tight job market. In a seminar on how to conduct our search for a teaching position, we were told that only one in eight of us would likely get a job. The eight of us earning a secondary language arts license all looked at each other when the presenter said that. Well, I thought, if only one of us is going to get a job, I need to be the best so I can make sure it’s me. I braced myself for a grueling search and at least six months of being a sub (the idea of which terrified me), but then I applied for a mid-year opening at a high school just outside of Portland, and the next thing I knew my young husband and I were packing up our belongings and heading south.

I don’t really know how to capture 30 years in a short blog post. I’ve been an English teacher, an instructional coach, and a district librarian. I taught grades 7-12, in 6 different schools, including an alternative school and a charter school. Twice I’ve been involuntarily transferred, which isn’t really the same thing as being fired (but it feels like it is), and once my colleagues recognized me as one of the best teacher-librarians in our state. In addition to teaching English, I’ve also taught keyboarding, humanities, and personal finance. Right now I am the librarian for every student in my district, grades K-12, a job that’s had me reading stories to Kinders and teaching seniors how to use databases.

Over the 30 years I have been on the receiving end of curses, tirades, tantrums, tears, and hugs (from both children and adults). Last year a 2nd-grader threw a pencil in my face and last week a 4th grader asked me for my autograph and last Tuesday high school girls outside my office talked in pretty graphic detail about their sex lives. I have kept confidences and reported secrets. I still choke up when I think about the autistic boy with finger-shaped bruises on his throat or the smart, loud, provocative 14-year-old who turned silent the day we read a short story about a girl with a sexually abusive father. I have both thrown out lifelines and blundered into situations I didn’t know enough about, causing damage I couldn’t repair. I’ve been frustrated, shocked, devastated, and disappointed, but also delighted, surprised, elated, and profoundly happy. I have never been bored. I have some regrets.

It’s such a cliche, but it’s all gone so fast. In my 30 years I have lived in 3 different cities, in 6 different homes. I divorced 2 men and raised 5 children. I graded at least 30,000 essays, give or take a few. (Probably give.) The years fly when almost every day feels like a race against the clock. Starting in year 5, I worked 3 shifts: I taught during the day, parented in the evenings, and after the children went to sleep I graded papers or planned lessons until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Every single week day. Well, I didn’t do third shift on Fridays, but I did it Sunday nights, and I can’t tell you how many sick days I took so that I could work all day to try to catch up. I also regret all the times I was not fully present for second shift because I let third shift intrude upon it, grading papers at soccer games or mentally planning the next day’s lessons during dinner.

It has always, in one way or another, been a struggle. Until a few years ago, I kept thinking that some day I was going to figure out the thing I was really meant to do. In the space that opened after the last of the children left home and I no longer had three shifts or a perpetual stack of papers hanging over my head, it occurred to me that it was probably too late to find that thing and that maybe I had been doing it all along. Maybe what we’re “meant to do” isn’t necessarily what feels most comfortable or enjoyable. Maybe it’s what feels most meaningful and compelling. Maybe it’s the thing we can’t bring ourselves to walk away from, even when part of us really wants to–and it’s not because we’re co-dependent or afraid of risk or incapable of doing something else, but simply because we can’t imagine anything else that could matter as much to us. Maybe it’s not so different from loving a partner or our children: No matter how hard it gets, we just can’t give up on it.

Like the teachers who were ending when I was beginning, I now look a little tired and am past peak freshness. Thanks to pension reforms, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and the aforementioned divorces, though, 30 isn’t quite the magic number it was when I started; I cannot afford to stop working yet. Still, there is a window opening. Being at full retirement age means I could retire from teaching and do some other kind of work that doesn’t pay as much to bridge the gap between here and social security.

I wrote recently about the revelation it has been to notice what I want. That’s something I’m doing now in the realm of work. I read about or watch the kinds of things other people do, and I pay attention to what creates a spark for me, that feeling of wouldn’t it be cool to do that? I don’t think about what might or might not be possible. I’m just noticing where the spark is. I peruse jobs on LinkedIn that I’m not qualified for and ones that I’m over-qualified for. When I see someone out in the world doing something I think I might like to do, I ask them about how they like their job. As I work at my jobs each day, I pay attention to what I love and to what I don’t, and what information those feelings give me about the qualities I might want to have in whatever is next (even if what’s next is more of the same). It’s been eye-opening, all of it, and kind of fun. I never realized how much I shut some thoughts and desires down before they even rose up, just because I thought there was no way to incorporate them into my life. (That’s a regret, too.)

Make no mistake: I am tired (of many things) and a little wilted (some days more than others). But the more I’ve been paying attention, the more I’ve been thinking that I might not be done yet, and not just because I can’t afford health insurance. I can see now what I couldn’t really see in those first years: Energy and freshness are vital, but so is the knowledge and wisdom that come from deep experience. I’ve got a value that no new teacher–even the most well-read, creative, energetic, and dedicated–can have. My profession and our children need both kinds of educators. I’m thinking that (maybe?) 30 is the new 20. Maybe it is not time to leave, but time (again) to make some kind of transformation within this field that is probably the one I was always meant to be in.

Or maybe not?

It’s hard to know. I guess time–and attention, reflection, questioning, and opportunity–will tell.

Wouldn’t it be grand if we still thought 36 students in a class was a newsworthy problem?

Radio Silence

My father doesn’t understand how I can keep up on current events, as I don’t watch television news and I don’t get a print newspaper at my home.

“How do you know anything that’s going on?” he asks.

I used to tell him that I got much of my news listening to NPR in the car, but that’s not true any more. I stopped sometime last winter. I’m more prone than I like to admit to feeling a little ragey behind the wheel (OK, a lot ragey), and listening to the news–even NPR news, which feels less inflammatory than any other–only exacerbated that.

I tried listening to music stations, but the inane patter of the DJs also made me ragey. And driving is boring. Or it forces me into my head in a way I’ve had a hard time tolerating in recent years. Or the internet has rewired my brain such that I can no longer peacefully endure a lack of mental stimulation. Or I have ADHD that’s getting worse. (Seriously. I just took a self-quiz. Yikes.)

For whatever reason, my old ways of being in the car just weren’t working, so I started listening to audiobooks when driving. My friend Kate recently asked me to recommend some, and over-thinker that I am I soon realized that I couldn’t do so without some tips, caveats, and explanations:

1. The narrator is everything.
If you don’t like the narrator, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. The narrator will ruin it for you. Xe Sands was one of the narrators of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, and I almost returned it before I’d hardly started because her inflection drove me crazy. I finally accepted it as part of the character she was reading–it did fit her–but I sampled another book she narrated and her way of reading was exactly the same and it kept me from buying it. The other reader of the Wendig book, Dominic Hoffman, was one that I mostly liked, but he’s also now on my (Probably) Do Not Listen list. I recently finished The Starless Sea, and although there is much I love about his voice, I’ve realized from that one that I can’t stand the way he reads women. They all have a slightly British accent, and they all sound simpering and breathless, whether they are badass scientists (Wanderers) or badass otherworldly beings (Starless Sea). Which brings me to my second caveat:

2. Complex structures aren’t great for an audiobook format. The Starless Sea is comprised of 6 different recurring books with characters and plots that intersect over places and times, and time is a construct the author is playing with so the multiple narratives aren’t linear. I now want to get the print version of the book and read it; I know I missed big chunks of it because I was consuming it in bits and pieces and I couldn’t re-read. Multiple times I told myself to give up on it and return it because I was just sort of lost in it, and I got tired of so many things smelling or tasting like honey and various twee old things and things that don’t really have a scent/taste but that sound kinda literarily hip when you are told that they do, but I wasn’t sure if my irritation was really with the writing or just the challenge of taking the story in through my ears rather than my eyes. I did finish it, though. Tommy Orange’s There, There is another example of a book that might not be the best candidate for audio. It is a powerful, beautifully-written book and the audio version has fabulous readers, but it has many narrators and characters, and they re-appear throughout the story. Multiple times I wanted to be able to flip back to an earlier part of the book to remind myself of something that came before. I suppose you might be able to do that, sort of, with an audiobook, but it feels too cumbersome, even if I wasn’t driving while listening.

3. The longer the book, the better. I tried getting audiobooks from the library, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that work well for me and I’m not very motivated to because I have a Gold Monthly subscription to Audible. I pay $14.95 each month for one credit. Most books cost more than $14.95, so I get a bit of a discount by having the membership, and there are often sales and free books, as well. But, I only get the one credit a month and I’m on a self-imposed austerity plan, so I do pay attention to the length of the book. I recently finished Stephen King’s The Institute, which clocked in at just about 19 hours. That was a good, long listen, which took just about a month for me to consume. Every time a student used to choose a book based on the number of pages, it felt like a tiny piece of my soul died, but I guess I’m now that kid.

4. Fluff books and audio go together like cheap wine and cheddar cheese. Which is to say: Kinda wonderfully, especially if you’re thirsty or hungry and too tired to cook and aren’t looking for a nutritious meal. As a person who spent her formative years immersed in the worlds of Pine Valley, Port Charles, and Llanview, I am not averse to high drama, shallow characters, quick action, and a little suspense. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like a soapy, fast-paced, easy-to-follow story where all I really want to know is what happens next, especially when I’m listening while merging onto the freeway during rush hour. Some recent favorites in this category: Ruth Ware’s Death of Mrs. Westaway, Kate Morton’s The Lake House, Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over, Taylor Jenkins Ried’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and any of Liane Moriarty’s books read by Caroline Lee. There are a few historical novels I’d also put in this category: Lilac Girls and The Alice Network are two recent ones I liked well enough.

5. Non-fiction can be just as good a listen as fiction. I prefer fiction. My audiobook habit is about escaping the world more than entering it, but there have been a few non-fiction titles that have a quality of story to them I really enjoyed. Favorites include Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (which has a pretty strong soapy element to it), Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which is only 3 and a half hours, but so good). My hands-down favorite in this category is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, a book I resisted because it was such a thing when it was published, but it’s one of my favorites in any category. Hers is an amazing story, well-told, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it–so I’m glad she is the narrator.

6. There is a sweet spot, but it can be hard to find. Books with easy-to-follow structures, some good drama, a little (or even a lot) of literary weight, and a narrator I like take me to it. In this category, I’d put: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee, (which I almost put on the soapy list, but it’s got a bit more heft to it than the others there), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The only drawback with any of these is that sometimes I’d really like to savor the language a bit, or go back and re-read some passages.

But what about my dad’s concern–which is really a concern that I am somehow not paying enough attention to the world and am not aware of all that is wrong? Is my new audiobook habit just another manifestation of my privilege, a way of turning away (because I can) from engagement with the barrage of injustice and corruption that we’re all living with and through?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not going to connect all the possible dots for you that are informing my thinking about this question, but I can list some other questions that I think are useful to consider as we all figure out how to consume information and be OK(er) in the world. (One more caveat: I am fully aware that in many regards, the world/my country has always been as bad as it is right now for many people. I know that my relatively recent understanding of that is a sign of the protected places I’ve occupied. In my thinking/search for coping strategies, I’ve been turning to those with much longer and deeper experience of living with/through hard things than I’ve ever had.)

Questions to consider:

  • What does it mean to be informed?
  • How can we stay informed and engaged without playing into the hands of those who are using media to manipulate us and control our political systems (this is a global question, not just a US one)?
  • How do we both stay informed/engaged and stay mentally healthy?
  • How is our current media landscape changing our brains and how we process information?

Things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface. Contrary to what my dad fears, my turn away from broadcast media and local news outlets is not a way of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la-la while Rome burns. And it doesn’t mean I am uninformed; I still keep up on the news through trusted print resources whose aim is to adhere to standards of ethical journalism. Listening to audiobooks rather than broadcast news is simply one way of preserving my well-being so that I can stay aware and informed and engaged. I’m not burying my head in the sand; I’m simply recognizing that miring myself in muck isn’t going to do any more good to heal my country of its sins than wearing a hair shirt would.

So: If you have audiobook recommendations, please do share. I’m all ears.

Dot-to-Dot

Fuck these guys! Really. But also: Let’s all understand what they’re doing so we can stop playing into it: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/16/20991816/impeachment-trial-trump-bannon-misinformation

Evidence that both/and is more valid than either/or. You can be pissed and righteous about all that is wrong AND still be joyful. In fact, maybe that’s the best thing we can be: https://www.self.com/story/charlottesville-joy-is-resistance

This exploration/explanation of self-care blew my mind open: https://blog.usejournal.com/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467

This is about the relevance/importance of reading poetry, but I’d extend the ideas in this to any kind of imaginative literature: https://electricliterature.com/why-all-poems-are-political/

This is not perfect, but it’s one of the best tools we’ve got: https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart

I’m glad to see this idea more and more: https://twitter.com/matthewjdowd/status/1217815533975941130

I really want more people to understand the differences between these things: https://guides.library.jhu.edu/evaluate/propaganda-vs-misinformation

This historian’s analysis of each day’s events has become indispensable to me. She posts daily on Facebook, but if you’re off FB (as we should all probably be), she also shares through a newsletter: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/

This is your brain on the internet: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/06/06/internet-giving-us-shorter-attention-spans-worse-memories-major/

This is old-ish, but relevant: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-worry/201206/the-psychological-effects-tv-news

Radio“Radio” by Under The Sun is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s beginning to look a lot like January…

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Christmas,” eh?

And yet, I like it.

I like beginnings. I like cozy. I like sweaters and warm socks and red wine and hot chocolate. Fires in the fireplace. Heavy blankets on the bed. A long happy hour in a restaurant bar with warm lights and small bites of perfect food and deep conversation with a good friend while rain pelts the windows behind us. (How I spent my early Saturday evening this weekend.) I do miss all the twinkly lights on the houses, but when I was driving to work Monday morning, I told myself that there’s a similar kind of something in the way the car lights illuminate the early morning darkness. Even through a rainy windshield.

On my winter break I did a whole lot of nothing much…
…ate good-tasting food (whenever I wanted to)
…sat around tables (with family and friends)
…read (novels and poetry and books about home improvement and starting a business and preventing burnout and embroidery)
…savored (movies, naps, my son’s face)
…laughed (a lot)
…cried (a little)
…moved slowly (through time and space)

I did the things I had to–cooking and cleaning and exercising–but only as much as I had to. Mostly, I gave myself permission to just be. The days passed swiftly, but there was a languid quality to them. Every afternoon I was startled by how quickly darkness descended and by how little I had to show–in conventional terms–for the day that had passed, but it was fine. It was wonderful, actually.

When the break ended I wasn’t excited to return to work, but I wasn’t unhappy about it, either. It was all good.

I have been thinking about what created the sense of well-being that is remaining even as I’ve returned to the routines that had me feeling so spent before the break: sleep, and rest, and physical movement, and connection with others, and creativity, and meaning. I had all of those in spades for two weeks. It was wonderful.

And you know what? I don’t want to give those up. I know that prioritizing those things just listed can feel selfish or self-indulgent or some other negative thing that begins with “self” (and if I had more time I’d do a deep dive into why we think that and how F’d up that kind of thinking is), but I think I’m a better person when I have those things–kinder, more patient, more fun. So, figuring out how to prioritize having that is a win-win, for both me and those whose orbits collide with mine.

January is a perfect time for doing that. It’s a time for the quiet and contemplative comforts of winter, without the expectation and demands of the holiday season. It’s not as outwardly sparkly, but I’m going to be looking for some inside sparkle. Or making some. I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about how to make that happen, but I don’t have any big answers yet.

Dot-to-Dot

My friend Kim told me that she likes reading this blog on Sunday mornings over coffee (see, she already knows what I’m just figuring out about time and how to use it!) and one of my favorite features of my friend Kate’s blog is her Friday Finds, an eclectic and interesting collection of things to read. The offerings below are all, in their own way, connected to the ideas above, and my usual inclination would be to delay hitting publish until I could write some (probably overly long) piece connecting all the dots for you–which would likely mean never sharing them at all, because I’d never quite find the time to do it right and the moment would pass (by which I mean that these particular dots would have been pushed to the bottom of the dot pile in my head by newer dots because the dots never stop coming)–and so I’m going to experiment with just leaving the dots for you to peruse or not, as you see fit. Please let me know if this is something you’d like more of (or not).

The most powerful thing I read this week, about living and dying and marriage and the state of the world. It helped me understand why my own committed relationship (sort of) imploded in the wake of 2016 and really hard personal situations out of my control.

I want to be like Ken when I die. I already shared this on Facebook, but it’s so, so good. As a piece of writing, and as a guidebook for living (and dying).

I want to read and think more about the idea of a secular Sabbath.

This isn’t a read, but it’s about reading. And living. And meaning.

I love this case for blogging, and it’s part of why I’m hitting publish on this post even though it’s not in the state I’d usually want a post to be.

Happy Sunday, all. May you be as good at wintering as my Daisy, who is expert at finding a soft place to land and generally has a pretty good time, which is saying something when your lack of teeth keeps you from being able to keep your tongue inside your mouth.

In memoriam

34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.

I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.

But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.

The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.

I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.

I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.

Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):

“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”

You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:

We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….

Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”

Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.

I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.

He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.

Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.

In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.

Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.

Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.

The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.

I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.

This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.

I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:

Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.

Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.

I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.

I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.

We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:

…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”

Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.

It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.

Of vanishing children, time travel, story beginnings, and affirmations for a new year

Hey, Friends–

Happy New Year! I’ve missed you. Although the holidays have been good (really good, better than they’ve been in quite a long time) I’ve been missing a lot of people lately. People like these two:

My brother and I (circa 1974)

A few weeks ago, I read a stunning essay in the New York Times Magazine, with a line that stopped me: “The writer Joy Williams once observed in a novel that children vanish without dying.” Of course, I thought first of my own children, and all the different versions of them that have vanished and that I miss.

But then I was putting together a photo calendar for my parents, filled with pictures of our little family from the days when we were all living and growing together, and I found myself missing those earlier versions of all of us, who have also vanished without dying.

In the swirl of those feelings, and a birthday, and the holidays, and thoughts about love and loss and passing years, I began listening to Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, a complex, twisty tale that plays with ideas about time and story. Early on, the narrator tells us, “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.” In the novel, time is sometimes non-linear, and different characters experience it differently, even as their stories intersect. When I had fewer years of living under the belt of my life, I would have seen the idea of non-linear time as one that could exist only in the realm of fantasy, but lately, maybe especially because of the holidays, I’ve been feeling like a bit of a time traveler, living sometimes in the past, sometimes in the future, and sometimes in a time out of time–which makes notions of endings and beginnings fuzzy. Calendar years, with time divided into boxes and categorized by numbers, are full of arbitrary divisions that have meaning–if, indeed, they have meaning–only because we have given it to them.

In important ways, the children in the photos above are as present for me as the adults they have all become, even though I can no longer hold them on my lap and my brother and I are long past any lap-sitting days of our own. I miss all the early versions of all of us even as I still have them with me. The girl who sat on my mother’s lap is the mother who held my daughter on hers, and all three of us–my mother, my daughter, myself–are still able to exist corporeally in the same space, today. The years are both far away and close enough to touch; decades expand and contract depending upon how I am looking at them at any given point in time.

And reality, or truth, or story? Those can be as malleable as time, too. I may not be able to write new chapters in my story with those versions of us that have vanished, but I can revise the ones already lived. Or, maybe, I can write alternate ones.

For years, this was a photo of fault:

That’s me, 5 decades ago. First grade. It is the only school photo my mother didn’t buy the 8×10 version of. She said it was a bad picture because I wasn’t smiling.

Although I don’t remember her blaming me, I remember feeling at fault for her disappointment with the image. I knew I’d made a choice to be unsmiling. I wasn’t sad or incapable of smiling, and I understood that smiling was expected. But I was pissed. And I was damned if I was going to give the photographer who angered me the satisfaction of my smile. I hadn’t understood that denying him satisfaction would also take some from my mother.

Later, when I was able to explain to her why I had been angry, this became a story not about my willful failure to be pleasing, but about the cuteness of my righteousness. I was angry because the photographer combed my hair, even after I’d told him I didn’t want him to. Such a trivial thing to get upset about, right? And so, wasn’t that pouty face of mine cute? The story became a funny one, about a stubborn little girl. There was some admiration of my spunk in the telling of it, but “spunk” isn’t a word we attach to anything very serious.

Now, I look at that photo and I see a girl at the beginning of a story she didn’t know was beginning. I see a girl at the beginning of losing her sense of knowing. She knew that she should get to control who touched her. She knew that if you tell someone you don’t want to be touched, it is a violation if they touch you anyway. She knew that it didn’t matter if the person doing the ignoring and the touching was older or male or in a position of authority. She knew how to express her anger about the violation.

She didn’t know, though, that she was at the beginning of a story of losing her sense of knowing, about so many things, and that it would be decades before enough others would tell stories of their knowing about touch and consent that she would finally believe the truth of her knowing back then, in the beginning.

I miss that vanished girl, but she still lives. She’s still me. Or, at least, she’s still in me. I can still feel what she felt, if I travel back in time, a journey that feels both swift and impossibly long. And her story is still unfolding.

Last week, on the subject of new year’s resolutions, a friend told me that he is more inclined toward affirmations. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I’m still not, but the notion has been rattling around in my head in the form of a question:

What do I want to affirm in the coming year?

Even though I find calendar years an arbitrary marker of time, knowing as I do that stories can and do begin every day, I appreciate the chance that our annual marker of a new year gives us to reflect and set intentions. Last year, I created a vision statement of sorts, a list of things I wanted to keep or bring into my life. This list became something I returned to again and again as the days of the year unfolded. Many times when I found myself feeling conflicted or frustrated or sad or meh, I returned to my list, and it always provided clarity and a direction for moving through the feeling and the events creating it.

It was through the list that I came to a new understanding last fall. In the face of a large disappointment in a situation I’d worked hard to improve, I decided that the only way to have many of the things on my list was to stop doing things because I felt I should and only do things I wanted to do. That felt all kinds of (perhaps) selfish and (potentially) unkind, but I concluded it was what I needed to do if I was going to realize my vision.

That decision immediately raised a question I had to consider over and over again, almost daily:

What do I want to do?

Not, What should I do? or What’s best to do? or What will happen if I…? Or, How will ____ feel if I…? Just, What do I want to do?

Often, I didn’t know. I realized it’s a question I’m not used to asking, and I was so out of practice I didn’t really know how to answer it much of the time. To just inquire about want–and not interrogate the want to determine if it (me) is right, wrong, good, bad, healthy or not, as well as what the likely outcomes of acting on it might be–was something I probably began to stop doing back when I was a little girl and learned that I needed to smile if my image was to be worth keeping large and that my boundaries weren’t important in the face of more powerful others’ determinations of my needs.

The more I began asking the question within the situation that sparked it, the more I began doing it in other ones, too. Although stopping at my answers and never considering any other questions would be a short path to becoming a narcissistic jerk, I think the question is one we all need to center in the process of making decisions about how we will live.

In another book I’m reading right now, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout, the authors write about the importance of being able to hear the voice inside us that tells us what is right and wrong, harmful and safe, and how difficult it can be for all of us, but especially women, to listen to that voice and act upon it. There are so many other ones clamoring all around us, full of ideas about what it means to have discipline, grit, strength, and faith. About what we need to find and keep acceptance, safety, and love.

It is especially hard, I think, when we don’t have words or frameworks to name what we know in ways that make sense to ourself and others, as it was for the girl I once was who knew it was wrong for a strange man to touch her hair against her wishes.

As we all move past the artificial marker of time that is a new year (a new decade!) I am realizing that what I want to affirm is the question that emerged from me over the past year (what do I want?) and the importance of asking it. I want to affirm that girl who knew what she did (and, maybe more importantly, didn’t) want–and controlled in the situation the only thing she had control over: herself. I want to keep her from vanishing by living my/our way toward a satisfying ending to the story she didn’t know was beginning, one in which she knows without doubt what is right and what she needs.

Wishing all of you who read here a year of stories full of good things that are right and true for you.

Gratitude and such

The turn from October to November has always felt like a kind of tightening to me, a turning of the calendar screws. Tonight darkness will fall an hour earlier than last night, the days that have already been feeling too short now feeling even shorter still–right at the time they seem to fill with more demands. Every year I tell myself to savor October, the last days when I come home to sunny daylight, the calm before the holiday storm, and every year it flies by as swiftly as the leaves fall. Last week, yet another in which I didn’t finish the laundry by Sunday night and it is still lingering in the basket this morning, a full week’s worth of days later…

…Damn, I got up to let the dog out, and then remembered I needed to unload the dishwasher, and then I responded to a Snap from my daughter, and then I let the dog in, and now I can’t remember what I was even going to say in this sentence.

Which is fitting, no? Back in January, I thought I might be able to change my experience of time–make it feel as if it were moving more slowly–if I slowed down and took more notice of things. If I savored it, I guess. Savoring, though, doesn’t look the way I tend to fantasize it looking. It isn’t long, sunny afternoons on the couch with a good book, or hours working on a crafty project, or slow dinners with a group of close friends, or hours to linger in a coffee shop with a decadent pastry and a beautiful beverage. Not for me, most of the time, anyway.

Although, there was a leisurely lunch with this one day in October.

More often, savoring is something that happens in the moments between: When I see the spider web illuminated by sun on my way to the car in the morning, or when I notice how pretty the herbs from the garden look when I toss them into the pot with a roast, or when, on my way to let the dogs out for the morning, I feel grateful for the twinkle lights I never took off the ficus after the holidays last year, and the way they softly light the early morning darkness.

Sometimes, it’s just the smallest of comforts: the delightful surprise that is grilled cheese on focaccia on a night I get home too tired to really cook; the tiny thrill I feel every morning when I open the door to the flowers still blooming that I planted in June; the warm feeling I get seeing my tired old dogs curled up on a blanket my great-grandmother crocheted that I keep in a basket I once used to carry my tiny preemie babies from room to room.

The best I have been able to do, when it comes to savoring, is to stop for 30 seconds and take a quick photo when I see something for which I feel grateful. When I take the time to notice everyday things, and then spend a few minutes at the end of the month looking at them, I realize that the days and weeks that have passed so quickly were actually full of small wonders. I realize that although it might feel as if I somehow missed the month, I didn’t. Not really. And it changes the story I might otherwise tell myself about what the month (or season or year) has been.

Sometimes I tell others that I really do love my new house, but I wish it didn’t have so much yard. I have said that I spend so much time working in it I never really get to enjoy it the way I’d like to. (See: fantasies, a few paragraphs back.) But when I scrolled through my October photos and saw the nest I found when pruning back the rose bushes, I didn’t remember how sore my body felt at the end of that day, or how frustrated I was when I ran out of time to finish the job and had to leave it–like so many things–hanging. Instead, I remembered the thrill of seeing the nest, feeling like I’d found buried treasure; how carefully I extracted it from the brambly tangle; the cawing and swooping of nearby crows when I pulled it free and sensed that everything is more connected than I know; the minutes I spent marveling at how tiny its bed was.

Right now, writing these words, I realize how much my joy and wonder and savoring happens not in spite of all the tasks filling my days, but in many cases because of them. If not for the overgrown roses, I’d never have seen the nest. On a different Sunday afternoon, I mowed the lawn for what I am sure will be the last time of the season, pleased with how tidy and green it once again looked, only to wake after a windy night to find it, as I rushed out the door to work, covered with leaves. It startled me, the change, and delighted me for some reason I still don’t really understand. Maybe it was in the contrast between what had been and what was that I found something to savor, or the way the leaves looked like tossed confetti. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that the moment was a gift that would not have been possible without the chore that felt like it was keeping me from life’s gifts.

Three days into November, I am still a little sad to see October go, and still feeling a little trepidation about the holiday season now upon us. There’s a line to walk in these musings, some place between too much and not enough. I wish I could figure out some trick to both make time move a little more slowly AND still fill it with good things. I suspect, though, that it doesn’t work that way, and that the only way time is going to move slowly again is for there to be too much of it, which will mean that my life is empty of the things I now love–family, friends, meaningful work, and good enough health to have all those things filling my days.

Catch and release

Last week was a tough one. Not hard in any life-wracking sense, just tough. No illness or tragedy or loss. Just one of those weeks in which your work seems maybe mostly futile, a game of whack-a-mole you’re never going to win, or a dike springing 10 times the holes you have fingers to fill. One of those weeks in which your to-do list becomes so much longer than your capacity to get ‘er done that you abandon any idea you had of being able to stay on top of things.

There’s a gift in that, you know. When doing All the Things is still within the realm of the possible, most of us push ourselves hard to do them. We give up such things as sleep, healthy meals, and time with friends and family. Because All the Things are Really, Really Important, and we want to do them. On Wednesday, however, I realized I’d crossed the border into the realm of the impossible (despite having given up all three of those things in the previous few days), which is why I gave myself permission to leave early Thursday afternoon for library conference starting early Friday morning at the Oregon coast. I mean, if I couldn’t get it all done anyway, there wasn’t really anything to lose, right?

I treated myself to a late lunch at a favorite spot, and I hit the road heading west in full daylight.

And when I got to where I was going, I saw this:

I wasn’t ready for my conference presentation on Saturday, but I did not hole up in my room to get ‘er dun. I threw on my sneakers and high-tailed it to the beach, clinging to the words my friend and colleague Heather had given me that morning: “Give it all to the waves. Let them carry it out to sea for you.”

That is a thing easier said than done.

I was a little melancholy, despite the glorious sun and waves and sand. Maybe, truth be told, because of them. There was a time when I would’ve gone to my conference with a companion, and it hurt to be in such a place alone, with no one to whom I could exclaim, “Isn’t this wonderful!”

There was a family on the beach, their little ones digging with shovels and laughing, their drawers droopy with wet sand, and I missed the children I once got to raise and take to beaches on cold, sunny autumn days.

There was a small dog racing in circles, his whole body quivering with joy, and I remembered how our now-geriatric dogs used to run in just the same way at our river, paws and sand flying.

It was all so gorgeous it hurt, and I started wondering (of course) if those children would have such beaches to stroll on 50 years from now, when they will be my age, or if they would be able to get to them even if they are still here, in the same ways they are now. I wondered if there will still be gulls crying in the air, and mussels clinging to rocks, the same tides going in and out. Even though I know the oceans will likely exist in some form long beyond any of us on the beach will, everything felt fragile and transitory and doomed.

That is when I saw it: A flash of pink in the distance. I took a deep breath (how many friends have reminded me in how many moments to just breath?) and kept walking toward it.

As I got closer to the pink, I saw it was a sprite of a girl, a dashing, dancing speck who clearly was not thinking of planetary change or the passing of things. She was chasing a seagull. Or, rather, dancing with one. It was clear that the gull did not mind her machinations, would flap its wings just enough to get beyond her reach–which was just enough to keep her thinking that maybe, maybe she might catch it.

When the gull flapped, her arms flapped, too, and her legs lifted from the ground, almost like the bird’s shadow or echo. I breathed, and watched the girl and the gull, and listened to the waves, and let it all go: the frustrations, the loneliness, the longing, the fear of future loss.

Heading back to my room and my presentation prep, I passed an older man, alone like me. He caught my eye, smiled, said, “Isn’t it a lovely evening for a walk?”

“It’s gorgeous!” The words burst from me. I am not a words-bursting-from kind of person, usually. I tend not to gush over gorgeousness. I knew the words weren’t just about the beauty of the sun or ocean: It was all of the evening’s beauty, and all of us in it, sharing it.

I was so grateful for that man, a fellow human who could see what I was seeing and who was in it with me, even if only fleetingly. My gratitude even included all the things troubling me; though I’d let them go, they hadn’t disappeared, and I could see then that all of dark, hard things were part of what made the beautiful parts as shiny as they were. There’s something about knowing that everything will pass–that the children will grow, the dogs will slow, the girl will become too self-conscious to dance in public with the birds, and that the man and I will die–that makes it all precious: It’s knowing we can’t catch and hold all the things we love any more than that girl could catch her bird, but that, like her, we try to, anyway.

And isn’t that, really, what the moles and dikes and all our frantic efforts with them are about, too? Trying to catch and protect and preserve what we find beautiful, feeling hopeless when we realize we can’t in the ways we want.

Today, Sunday, as I’m back at home getting ready for another week–the washer running and the counter filled with groceries that need to be put away–I can see that I didn’t quite understand what letting the waves have my worries would mean. I gave them by troubles, yes, but the waves didn’t carry them away. Instead, they washed them clean and tossed them back up on the sand–right where I could reach down to pick them up and put them back in my pocket again, which is right where they belong.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

In my very first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. We imported reading programs from New Zealand (which, I was told, had the highest literacy rates in the world), and my job was to “Americanize” the texts for the US market.

That meant the obvious–changing “colour” to “color,” and the like. It also meant sanitizing stories that would be considered too dark or grim or scary for US schoolchildren. I learned that in New Zealand, schools didn’t shy away from sad or hard things in their reading program stories because they believed children needed to learn about fear and how to address it. They felt that facing it and working through it was the way to build strength and resiliency.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, but especially lately. As I watched Greta Thurnberg address the United Nations last week, it was awfully hard not to feel as if we are all now living through the plot line of an apocalyptic (probably YA) novel. Because, let’s face it: We probably are. We are aren’t too far past the exposition stage of the narrative, I suppose, and it’s hard to know exactly how this story will play out, but the action is rising quickly. You know shit’s getting real when the birds start dying and the oceans start warming. In those narratives, that’s always a portent of worse to come.

Like the New Zealanders, I’ve never shied away from stories about hard things. I’ve needed those works to help me through them. If anything is my religion, it’s probably literature. So, today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites from a genre I think of as Extinction Lit, stories about people facing and living through mass extinction events. Because–and this is important–in these stories there are always people who live through.

Feed isn’t quite an extinction novel, but it’s the next-closest thing. (Technically, it’s cyberpunk.) In 2002 M.T. Anderson pretty much imagined a world with smart phones embedded into our bodies–before smartphones were even a thing. I haven’t read it since the early 2000s, so I don’t know how it might have aged, but I’ve thought of it often since 2008ish. This is YA, so steer clear if you don’t like teen-age protagonists.

I picked up Station Eleven in an airport, before it became kind of a phenomenon. I thought it would be a fluffy airplane read, but it wasn’t. This one isn’t quite an extinction story, either, but it is about the collapse of civilization via disease that takes out almost everyone. This is my favorite one on the list, crushing in all the right ways because it shows you how beautiful we are. Or at least, can be.

The Age of Miracles is the book that prompted this post; I read it last week. I picked it up because during the summer I read the author’s latest novel (The Dreamers). Both are about inexplicable events that tear at the fabric of society, but I’m linking to Age of Miracles because it is more extinction-y that The Dreamers. (But I thought The Dreamers was a better book.) As Goodreads reviews note, this isn’t a book for the hardcore sci-fi fan (which I’m not). This is an adult title that skews YA; the narrator is a young woman in her 20s looking back at what happened to the world when she was 11 and the earth’s rotation began slowing.

Life As We Knew It is another one (YA) I haven’t read in years, but unlike a lot of other books it hasn’t faded from my memory. Like Age of Miracles, what intrigues me about this one is watching the relatively gradual change that comes to the characters’ way of life. Things change in a pretty big way all at once, but in many ways life keeps going on as it had before the big change event. It reminds me that even in the midst of calamity, things can seem almost normal–can actually be almost normal. It was the first in what became a series, but I tried and couldn’t stick with the second book.

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Wanderers in passing here before. It’s a big, sprawly, Stephen King-like tale of near-extinction, with lots of bad guys and biohazards and mystery. Honestly, I got a bit lost near the end, but that might be because I was listening to it rather than reading it. It was in some ways the airplane read I thought Station Eleven would be, but it is definitely a novel that nods hard at current people and situations, so it’s more than just dystopian horror. (Maybe there’s no such thing as “just dystopian horror” right now? )

To be honest, after some responses to my last post I feel a little hesitant to publish this one. Some part of me is always, constantly alarmed about what’s happening in our world (just as some part of me is always carrying low-grade stress about work), but another part of me is just fine, thank you. For real. Some days I’d give anything to feel a little pre-2016, and if I project too far into the future I can feel panicked, but right now, today, everything’s mostly fine, especially for someone like me (and probably many of you who are reading here). Although these books are about hard, dark, very grim circumstances, they help me see that even in the midst of those (far worse than most things happening in our world right now), there’s still joy and light and hope. People still want to–fight to–live. These dystopian tales help us understand why, which is probably the real point of them.

Thinking about what to write in this post, I searched out articles on toxic positivity, a concept that seemed to be everywhere for a hot minute last spring. Pretty much every article I found talked about the negative effects on an individual’s mental health from insisting on a positive attitude about everything, but I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.

As James Baldwin famously told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Extinction Lit–and all the youth activists begging us to pay attention to climate scientists–can help us face what’s in front of us and what’s coming at us. If nothing else, it can help us prepare for it, even if we can’t change it.

Every teacher I know be a little like…

Leaving for work on the third Friday of the school year, I noticed my strawberry plants.

No, wait–that’s not quite right. I’d noticed them plenty of mornings before. They are directly in my line of sight when I walk out my back door to the garage. I’d noticed them drooping (and then browning and then shriveling) every morning, and every morning for at least two weeks I’d thought, I really need to water those when I come home tonight.

And then I wouldn’t. They weren’t in my line of sight when I came home, and even if I did remember them I was too tired/busy/late to do anything about it. (Or so I told myself.)

See, I had them hanging from the roof of my shed, which means that even though we had plenty of rain last week (thank you, weather gods), the poor strawberry basket didn’t get any because it was under the roof overhang. And the thought of dragging out the hose and giving it a drink of water–something I love doing in July–felt overwhelming in September. (See: tired, busy, late.)

I kept telling myself every morning that tonight, this night, I would water the poor thing. But I never did. And then, the third Friday of the school year I made myself go up close and really look at it to see if it could even be saved and then I beat myself up a little bit for letting it get so bad and then I wondered why I’m so lazy and can’t just do a better job of taking care of business.

Suddenly, lightening struck.

Not really, but out of nowhere I realized: I could just take the basket off the hook and put it on the pavement that doesn’t have any roof overhang covering it and the rain would water it.

No, it wouldn’t look as nice sitting on the pavement as it did hanging off the cute little shed roof. But half-dead wasn’t looking so nice, either. Wouldn’t it be better for the plant to be healthy in a less-optimal location than dead in a prime one?

For me, September has been multiple migraines, two rounds of antibiotics, 12+ hour work days, one sick day, fast food lunches, and lots of driving from school to school to school. (Last Thursday I never made it to my desk.) On the third Friday of the school year I finally paid attention to the strawberry basket, and looking at those dried up leaves and shriveled berries that could have been lush and plump–and that I might have eaten!–if only I’d stopped long enough to realize there was another way, I understood that, of course (of course!) this basket was a metaphor for every educator I know living through the month of September. (And most of the rest of them, too–but especially September, second only to May–not April–as the cruelest month.)

To suggest that all we need to do is somehow move our metaphoric basket to a place where we can get a little rain is not to ignore or dismiss or diminish the systemic and structural and resource issues that plague education and leave so many of us only half-alive by the end of the third week of the school year. But still, I’ve been wondering if there are things I might do to keep myself healthy that are as simple as moving my strawberry basket to a place where I don’t have to water it. And I’ve been reminded that we can’t just ignore our basic needs day after day after day because we’re too tired/busy/late to tend to them. Unless, you know, we want to end up like this:

Which doesn’t serve anyone. So, if you haven’t already–go water yourself this weekend! (Yeah, I know that sounds a little inappropriate. Or maybe I think that just because I’m surrounded many days by humans who love fart jokes. Whatever. Go take care of yourself!)