seeking the mechanism

Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.

Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?

I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.

I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)

But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.

Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.

You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.

I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.

I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.

Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?

the hazard of self-knowledge

One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).

After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.

I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.

Not everyone was a coward, though — there were many extraordinary selfless people

One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.

One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.

And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:

  • I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
  • But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.

One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.

Live and learn, and do better.

black

Without pointedly intending to do this, I’ve been heavily focused on race in America for the last few months. Like everyone in this country, for the last few years I’ve watched black people being slaughtered and their white murderers walking away with no consequence, and with the tacit approval of the institutions they belong to. I’ve listened to white people insist that “no, all lives matter” when black people assert that black lives matter.

I’ve read three books — Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines, and Between the World and Me — and I saw the extraordinary documentaries I Am Not Your Negro and 13th. Here is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro:

The movie is quite powerful, in large part because of the forceful brilliance of James Baldwin, who was spontaneously eloquent and thoughtful and indicting and willing and able to name the truth of things no matter what was happening, or where he was. I want to read everything he ever wrote.

I grew up in Texas, among very racist people. I was not allowed to invite my best friend to my 6th birthday party in 1964 because “it’s not done.” Rhonda was black, and she attended my school most likely because her mother worked in the cafeteria. It made no sense at all to me, and no fuller explanation was given. My paternal grandmother, a nurse her whole working life, told me when I was an adult that black people “aren’t like us, when they die, gallons of oil pour out of their bodies.” WHAT??? She saw them as truly not human beings as we are. My stepfather and mother regularly called black people niggers, and I flinched when I heard the word, as much from a response to the venom they seemed to spit when they said it as from any real understanding of the potency of the word. (They were equal opportunity haters, and had only venom for Mexicans too, and for Muslims—I remember my stepfather calling Benazir Bhutto a cunt—and for gay people.)

My first two years of college were at the Huntsville, Alabama campus of the University of Alabama. Huntsville is interesting; it’s got a very educated population, and the campus feeds engineers to Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s in the far north of Alabama, butting up against the Tennessee border. In most of my classes, the majority of students were white but there were usually a small handful of black students. In my Philosophy 101 class we talked about racism and all the white students piped up saying it doesn’t exist any more. Nope, no more racism. That was then, it’s all gone now. After class, I walked alongside a couple of the black women who’d been silent in class and asked them what they thought and they busted out laughing. Right.

Like everyone else who was old enough at the time, I watched the OJ murder case unfold, from the very beginning with the slow car chase all the way through to the verdict. I was shocked and terribly upset, because it seemed so clear to me that he was guilty, that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and how could that jury let him off? Celebrity, I muttered. I remember so clearly how I felt. I remember seeing the split screen on television when the verdict was announced: white people in shock with their hands over their mouths, and black people rejoicing. I was bewildered. Then last week my husband and I watched The People vs OJ Simpson and I saw it so differently. I still believe he is guilty, but I completely understood why the jury made the decision they did. And I had to sit in the complexity of it, with no easy corner to sit in: I believe he murdered those people, and I understand why they let him off, why they probably even believed truly that he didn’t do it. A guilty man was set free, and the community was understandably and righteously thrilled that he was not convicted.

Those white kids in my philosophy class said that because they probably didn’t think they themselves were racist, and so therefore there was no more racism. WE ARE ALL RACIST. It’s the very dirt of this country. It’s the reason for the war we fought against each other. We are all racist. Period. If you can’t start by owning that, you are the problem. I am racist (but I am not racist). I was trained by racists in my childhood home, and I grew up in a racist society. How could I be anything but racist? I do not have to follow those ideas, implement them in behaviors, allow them to bloom or grow — be a racist — but they are in me as an American, without a doubt.

You have to start somewhere, and you cannot go wrong with any of the books or the Baldwin documentary or 13th. I have no idea how to fix the problem, how even to begin. The intransigence of so many white people in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, their complete unwillingness to give up insisting that no, all lives matter, leaves me bewildered. I’ve started replying that when black lives matter, then all lives will matter (but that leaves out Muslims and gay people and refugees and immigrants and all the others who are being shoved out by the Republican party that’s in power, and by far too many straight white people). When I attended a Black Lives Matter rally, and when I read pieces written by black writers who are addressing this issue, their anger is obvious and understandable, and I struggle when they aim it at me standing there trying to do better, trying to start changing whatever I can. It’s not their job to teach me anything, or tell me anything, and at the very same time I don’t know how to move forward together with them. I just don’t know.

This is not a sophisticated or in-depth post about such a huge topic, and I’m not claiming that it is. It’s a quivering start, and a hand reached out, and a plea for help. I welcome advice and other recommendations.

one thing: 1/20/17

distress signal

And so today begins our real work, friends. Our country is entering into the darkest days we’ve had since the Civil War. We have to fight, we will fight, and it’s going to be long and hard, and there will be more losses than wins. “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president” (Theodore Roosevelt). Take the oath with me:

Throughout my 58 years, I have always cared about issues of fairness and justice, but I’ve never been overtly political. Before this past year, I’ve only marched once, back in 2003 when our formerly-worst president GWB declared war on Iraq. Then, my son and I marched in Austin, in protest, with so many others. This is a new era and it’s not at all a question for me, it’s not a question of whether I will fight, whether I will resist. I will resist with all my power. I will speak out and call lies lies, call tyranny by its real name. I will defend speech and the right to protest. I will call fake news propaganda. I will identify censorship when the powerful demand apologies from artists. I will identify the corruption that is now lining the halls of our government. When protesters and petitions are threatened, I will point out the authoritarianism. When the minority is identified as an internal enemy, and when calls are made for militarized unity, I will shout FASCISM. I will march, and fight however I am called to fight. And I will live my life with words and poetry and art, I will love my children, and I will fight for my grandchildren’s futures. I will hold up my friends and ask them to hold me up.

The inaugurated leader of our country is not my president.

Who Are They And Who Are We?
by Ahmed Fouad Negm

Who are they and who are we?
They are the princes and the Sultans
They are the ones with wealth and power
And we are the impoverished and deprived
Use your mind, guess…
Guess who is governing whom?
Who are they and who are we?
We are the constructing, we are the workers
We are Al-Sunna, We are Al-Fard
We are the people both height and breadth
From our health, the land raises
And by our sweat, the meadows turn green
Use your mind, guess…
Guess who serves whom?
Who are they and who are we?
They are the princes and the Sultans
They are the mansions and the cars
And the selected women
Consumerist animals
Their job is only to stuff their guts
Use your mind, guess…
Guess who is eating whom?
Who are they and who are we?
We are the war, its stones and fire
We are the army liberating the land
We are the martyrs
Defeated or successful
Use your mind, guess…
Guess who is killing whom?
Who are they and who are we?
They are the princes and the Sultans
They are mere images behind the music
They are the men of politics
Naturally, with blank brains
But with colorful decorative images
Use your mind, guess…
Guess who is betraying whom?
Who are they and who are we?
They are the princes and the Sultans
They wear the latest fashions
But we live seven in a single room
They eat beef and chicken
And we eat nothing but beans
They walk around in private planes
We get crammed in buses
Their lives are nice and flowery
They’re one specie; we are another
Use your mind, guess…
Guess who will defeat whom?

checking out

It’s time to save my own life. I’ve been here before and I’ll probably be here again, so it’s familiar terrain, but with a difference. I’m not actually depressed, although I cry a lot and had a quite terrifying experience on Christmas Day that you’ll read in tomorrow’s post. But the events in my country, combined with my son’s daily choice to be gone from our family, are truly overwhelming me.

Since I’m not depressed, intensifying treatment for depression — including hospitalization — isn’t the fix. I am of course continuing taking my medication, as I always will, but instead the fix for this extraordinary despair must be:

Checking out of Facebook. I will still participate in the secret groups I belong to, all of which nourish me. I will check the Events tab daily so I can be informed about the various protests and marches that I will participate in. I’ll still feed this blog to my Facebook blog page. But I won’t be looking at my feed, at all. Of course this means I’ll miss the personal things my friends post, but that’s a price I’ll have to pay and at the moment, it’s a necessary price. All but two of my friends share my political views, and my feed is also filled with real news sources, so there is just too much dosing of the poison for me to keep living, and I say that and hear that it sounds hyperbolic, but at this moment it isn’t.

Other social media I will keep are Instagram, which nourishes me, and Facebook Messenger, so friends can easily communicate with me. If you want my cell to text me, and you don’t have it, email me and I’ll give it to you. I don’t want to avoid my friends, or make personal communication impossible (or even difficult).

Upping the medicine. One-on-one time with friends who nourish me. More walks. More yoga. More reading. More music that lifts me. More art. More time in thought. More time creating things. A focus on creating a world for myself. A temporary suspension of working on my book, because the themes and experiences of my childhood and the person of the incoming president overlap too much. Fighting the fight, holding my hero John Lewis in my mind as the model of long-term, persistent fighting for what’s right.

I am not giving up the fight for what’s right, friends, even during this moment. Today I’m going to the local meetings of the National Poets’ Protest, a training session for non-violent action, and then the National Writers’ Protest. All I’m doing at this moment is stepping outside the flames so I can stay alive. I won’t be responding to your Facebook posts for a perhaps long time, but I am still with you.

three things: 1/10/17

1)  Are you a completionist? I’d never heard the word until Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia) said it when she was introducing her reading of a Mavis Gallant story in a podcast I listened to yesterday. She described herself as not-quite-a-completionist of Gallant’s writings, and I got to wondering:

Is there a writer whose entire set of works you’ve read? All of them? Not just the big-name ones, but all of them?

I started thinking about some of my favorite writers, and I don’t think so:

my very favorite memoir

Nick Flynn — sure, his big three memoirs (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (x4), The Reenactment  (x2), Ticking is the Bomb), and one or two collections of his poetry, but not all his poetry. Dang.

Cormac McCarthy — Child of God, Suttree, Blood Meridian (x6), All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men (x3), and The Road, but not The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, or Cities of the Plain. (Nor any of his screenplays, short fiction, or plays.)

Salman Rushdie — Grimus, Midnight’s Children (x4), Shame, Satanic Verses (x3), The Moor’s Last Sigh, Fury, East West, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Imaginary Homelands but not The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Luka and the Fire of Life, Joseph Anton, or The Jaguar Smile.

Victor Hugo — only Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris. 🙁

Dante — ding ding ding! Yep! I read The Divine Comedy, which was his only published work. And in several translations — my favorites being the John Ciardi translation, my sentimental favorite because I read it first, when I was a brand new mother, and the edition translated by the Hollanders, which is just extraordinary in every way.

William Faulker — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, These 13 (which includes “A Rose for Emily”), but not The Hamlet, The Town, or The Mansion.

Ernest Hemingway — The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast, but none of the rest.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — all his novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and The Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon, but none of his novellas or short stories.

this is the edition I have; my copy first belonged to my dad

Kurt Vonnegut — Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan (x???10?), Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle (x7 or 8?), God Bless you Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, Timequake, Welcome to the Monkey House, Happy Birthday Wanda June, God Bless You Dr Kevorkian, Wampeters Foma and Granfaloons, Bagombo Snuffbox, and Palm Sunday. I missed a few novels and a bit of his non-fiction.

I guess one approach is to pick writers who don’t write very many books (like Dante). I get on these jags where I fall in love with a writer and just want to read it all, so I dig in. I did that with McCarthy for sure, and Vonnegut, and Rushdie, and Nick Flynn. As I’ve mentioned before, here, I bought these sets of hardback books when I was a teenager, four books by Hemingway, four by Faulkner, and four by Fitzgerald, and read them all at once, which I don’t recommend — especially for writers like those, who have such a specific and distinctive style. It then becomes hard to remember which one was which. (My favorite joke: Now which Hemingway was it where the guy dies in the mud, under the bridge? Oh yeah — all of them! 😉 )

I’m working on Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, completing all their published works to date. And then sometimes I kind of outgrow a writer, I guess; I’ve read so many of their books and I come to feel like I understand them and their projects, and maybe they get a little tired, too, and a new book of theirs comes out and I just don’t have the interest. That happened to me with Salman Rushdie.

Some people love mystery writers and read all their works; Sue Grafton is a good example, with her alphabetical series. I guess I started early, reading all the Nancy Drews, all the Hardy Boys, all the Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, all the Trixie Beldens, and all the Boxcar Children books. It was not the worst habit I formed in my childhood. 🙂 So, you? I suppose you might do this with film-makers too, or musicians! Or actors. Or other artists. Hmmm. Any completionists in this crowd?

2) Do you know about this project? What’s Underneath:

You can click the image to go to the site, and I also provided it in the link, above. It’s a collection of stories (each accompanied by a video) by women (almost entirely, but not completely, and in some cases a story is about non-binary gender) and race, age, weight and size, illness, hair, work, motherhood, gender, identity, sexuality, all the things of real life and how they don’t immediately fit the Barbie image of “American woman,” but how the storytellers have found their way through, because of, despite, in celebration of their differences from Barbie ideals.

Diane Goldie

The one I most want to share is by London artist Diane Goldie, whose piece is called “Maybe I’m not ‘fuckable’…That’s fine, I’m not for you to fuck.” She is “a larger, menopausal, 51-year-old woman. I am not invisible.” When she was 13, she was raped by a 36-year-old pedophile. “After he raped me, I lost ownership of my body,” Diane says. “It became the vehicle in which I pleased other people.” I get that. Her video is no longer available on the What’s Underneath site, unfortunately, but I can share this, a video of Diane in conversation with Sue Kreitzman about wearable art. As you can guess by her picture, she isn’t trying to be invisible.

Me, I have a huge craving for a pair of cherry red tartan plaid pants and a close-fitting cherry red blazer.

3) I love this quote, which I saw in the caption of a beautiful photograph by author Maggie Mackellar, who lives on a farm on the east coast of Tasmania:

“…beauty & grace are performed whether or not we see or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard

In addition to her gorgeous photography (I linked to her Instagram account above), she’s just the most beautiful, eloquent writer (two books published so far, she’s working on her next one). She published a three-part series last fall about her father’s death; this link will take you to the first piece, which will then lead you to the other two. Anyway, Maggie knows very well about suffering, and perhaps this is what helped her recognize the power of the Annie Dillard quote about beauty and grace.

It’s there, beauty & grace, even if you have to look very very hard. Even if the day feels heavy and ugly, even if you look out your window and see gray and brown and filth, even if you’re just sitting in the same old place you always sit, beauty & grace are happening somewhere — maybe you don’t see it right now but it is. When I’m having a hard time seeing it in my surroundings, for some reason I always think about the glacier valley we walked through in Norway — Lyngsdalen — and that no matter what’s happening, those mountains are just standing there over that valley. In the months-long dark, they stand there, and maybe the Northern Lights dance through the valley, or maybe not, but they stand there, solid and present no matter what. Whether anyone is looking, whether war is raging somewhere, whether I am lonely or bleak, those beautiful mountains are standing over that valley.

I walked there. I drank handfuls of cold glacier water out of that river running through the valley. It’s doing its thing RIGHT NOW.

The least we can do is try to see the beauty & grace where and when we find it. That seems like the least we can do. See it, notice it, take it in.

Flying day for me, back to Austin — xoxox

three things: 1/5/17

1)  I once knew a very bitter old woman named Ann-Marie who said NO, no matter what you asked. Back when her kids were almost teenagers (she was in her late 70s when I met her), she had gotten tired of doing for everyone, of always being the one who sacrificed, and so she decided that whatever they asked her, she would say no. “Will you take me there?” NO. “Can you bring—” “NO.” There was almost nothing they could ask her that would get a yes answer. She stuck with it too, to a truly remarkable degree. Even in her dying years, she would still say no to almost any request. It was stunning, and sobering, and her bitterness is the main thing I remember about her. My kids were pre-teens when I met her, and she became a cautionary tale for me, about the poison of years-long, intense self-sacrifice. As with all things, it’s a balance and we all have to find our own way, but I know I’ve too-easily felt like I gave away the farm, like I just said yes, sure, I will, OK, whatever you want way too often. And the underneath of that (the “the dark, tarry smear” of it, to steal a bit of a quote that Peggy shared yesterday, by Amy Bloom) is resentment. And resentment is definitely a poison. I tell my daughters all the time not to constantly set themselves aside. To get themselves a new shirt when they need one, instead of wearing a ratty old one but buying another toy for their babies. To go out for some time to themselves.

So at the guided meditation at MoMA yesterday, when the meditation teacher asked us to think of a characteristic we might want to focus on in the coming year, I heard in a very quiet but clear voice that I want two things: (a) quiet, and (b) selfishness. And by that I mean that I want to privilege myself in the coming year, I want to pause before every commitment and allow my own needs and desires to be my first consideration. I’m a pleaser and a sacrificer so it’ll be hard and that probably means I don’t have to worry too much about becoming the bad kind of selfish; privileging myself will just help me course-correct and bring me a little closer to some illusory middleground. It’s hard even to say this! I don’t want to be like Anne-Marie, obviously, but this is something that will be helpful to me, I hope. YES. I say yes to this.

I would ask if this is something you struggle with, but since everyone who reads this (as far as I know) is a woman, I imagine the answer is yes. And to the degree it’s less true for you, I also imagine that’s because you pointedly worked on it. Yes?

2)  Tonight I’m meeting my friend Craig for dinner at an Indian food restaurant, but before then I’m going to the main New York Public Library because the Rose Reading Room reopened in October after an extended period of renovation. I’ll take my moleskine and my beautiful pen and sit at a long table with a low light, underneath the magnificent ceiling, and write for a while. That will be a slug of beauty in my day, for sure. My friend Anne mentioned seeking out a beautiful thing to photograph every day, and January in NYC makes it pretty tough but I am sure I’ll find a corner, a bit of architectural detail, a book jacket, something to relish.

Ceiling detail
Isn’t it so lovely? And it’s even more lovely when there are people reading and working there.

3) So, my new theory. Going to MoMA for the Quiet Morning event was as juvenating (not rejuvenating because I was so low in the trough there was no juvenation to re-ignite) as I’d hoped and maybe even more. This depression, this new kind, isn’t about my deep psyche, and so I imagine that’s exactly why art is working. My depression is about the world, the bitter cold wind of it, the tyrant-coming of it, the fear and dread. Because every day brings new terribleness, it’s hard to find space to catch my breath and get my head above the depressed water. But art is still in the world, and artists. Poetry, and poets. Music, and composers and performers. Dance, and dancers. Beautiful novels, and novelists. That’s all still there, too. And so are blue skies (just not where I am, FOR REAL) and all my favorite clouds, and Bali, and Vietnam and Laos, and all the places I’ve loved. To help with this depression, those are the medicine, soaking them in, being reminded. Unusually, my people aren’t the direct medicine this time, because the dread world is going to steamroll all of them and so they remind me even more of my fear and dread — oh no, not them too, please. Please.

I’ve already bought my ticket for the next Quiet Morning at MoMA, February 1, and in between I am planning to keep inoculating myself with art. I think I’ll pick an artist for each week, and a poet for each week, and sort of assign myself to soak them up in a more focused way.  OR I could choose a color for a week, here and there — brilliant golden-yellow, find art that features that color, maybe, or crimson, or blues (OH MY the blues, I saw some extraordinary blues at MoMA yesterday).

I cried like a BABY. I stared at all his brush strokes and thought about his own suffering, and his ecstasy, and how I could feel his and my own. This was the third time I’ve seen it in person and it’s never less than the same electric experience.

And that reminds me of a thing Sherlock used to do, back in the pre-digital camera days. I did this with him one Saturday our first year of graduate school I think, and it was fabulous. Before we set out with our cameras loaded with a roll of film (36 pictures, if I recall), we each chose a theme. Circles, maybe. Red. Words. Something abstract like that. Then we just drove. We drove through the countryside, we stopped in very small towns, and we took photographs of whatever fit our theme. When we’d taken all our pictures, we dropped off the film to be developed and printed, and we went out for lunch while we waited. It was so much fun, I remember it still (and that was probably 1999, which is….what? No, really? Eighteen years ago??).

Republicans don’t appear to think so, but we need art. We need beauty. We need the abstract. We need the Big. xoxox

three things: 1/3/17

1)  I started reading Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, following on the heels of The Underground Railroad, and so far it’s spectacular. Honestly, I don’t know why the black people in the United States aren’t raging and fighting white America all the time. (And we women, too.) They (we) have every right to be doing that, and every single time some white American says something about slavery being a long time ago just get over it . . . well hell, even want to punch those people in the throat. This country. We arrived and right off the bat started killing people and stealing their land, and just kept doing that (through to today). And then we stole people from another continent and brutalized them in unimaginable ways to enrich ourselves, and then enacted laws to keep them from getting anywhere (through to today). One horrible thing I learned when a friend did my ancestry is that someone in my history owned slaves in Georgia. She shrugged a little, it’s the thing you learn, and yet it’s horrifying to imagine. And so I too deserve the rage. In the second episode of The OA, a new series on Netflix, a voice-over read the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty (“The New Colossus”) and vomit came up in my throat, it’s such a lie.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The world is going mad and it’s so scary. And the United States is the engine of so much of it. How does a person work with that? (I’ll say more about Underground Airlines after I finish it….)

2) Depression status stable. Not feeling better but not feeling worse, and when you deal with depression you know that’s a good enough report. One thing I’m trying (among many things) is a daily inoculation of art, and today I’m rolling my eyeballs around in this glorious color — great thanks to my beautiful friend Anne for posting the painting on FB a couple of days ago:

Max Kurzweil (Austrian; Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession; 1867-1916): Lady in Yellow, 1899. Oil on canvas. Vienna Museum at Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria.

That color! I would really like to take my eyeballs out of my head and just roll them around in it, coat them like you do a sugar cookie, and then pop them back so that color can seep into me. It’s so glorious, especially in these very gray NYC days. Tomorrow I’m going to a special event at MoMA, 1.5 hours of silence on the 4th and 5th floor galleries, ending in a guided meditation (in front of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” I think). That ought to help too.

My dear sister-friend Peggy gave me the suggestion to make a long list (25 items on mine) of small things I could do, simple things, nourishing things, and you know, when you’re mentally flat and blank the problem is that nothing feels do-able anyway, much less thinking up a list of things. But with her help I did, and daily art is doable. If you are prone to depression, make your list when you’re not depressed, it’s much easier.

3)  Another bit of art stolen from a friend’s FB (this time from beautiful Kathy, who understands so much):

This is not an age of beauty,
I say to the Rite-Aid as I pass a knee-high plastic witch
whose speaker-box laugh is tripped by my calf
breaking the invisible line cast by her motion
sensor. My heart believes it is a muscle

of love, so how do I tell it it is a muscle of blood?

This morning, I found myself
awake before my alarm & felt I’d been betrayed

by someone. My sleep is as thin as a paper bill
backed by black bars of coal that iridesce
indigo in the federal reserve of

dreams. Look, I said to the horse’s
head I saw severed & then set on the ground, the soft
tissue of the cheek & crown cleaved with a necropsy
knife until the skull was visible. You look more
horse than the horses

with names & quilted coats in the pasture, grazing unbothered

by your body in pieces, steaming

against the drizzle. You once had a name
that filled your ears like amphitheaters,
that caused an electrical

spark to bead to your brain. My grief was born
in the wrong time, my grief an old soul, grief re-
incarnate. My grief, once a black-winged

beetle. How I find every excuse to indulge it, like a child
given quarters. In the restaurant, eating alone,

instead of interrogating my own
solitude, I’m nearly undone by the old
woman on her own. The window so filthy,

it won’t even reflect her face, which must not be the same
face she sees when she dreams

of herself in the third person.

– “Age of Beauty” by Emilia Phillips

What a wonder art is. Thank you to everyone who puts it into the world.

three things: 1/2/17

1)  I’m thinking a lot about saving vs leaving behind, and in the way things work, it’s showing up in media I’m consuming. I’m near the very end of The Underground Railroad, and Marc and I are rewatching The Wire (season 4 right now), and in both story lines is the question of how to move a people forward. Some Africans were so severely damaged by enslavement, and some corner boys were so left behind and damaged by their own type of enslavement, and what do you do for them, and for the rest? In The Wire, the corner boys were pulled out of the regular classroom so the other kids might have a chance, and an effort was made to socialize the corner boys to “regular” life — how to order at a restaurant without cursing and starting a fight, etc. I’ve got squarely liberal values, and a deeply empathetic heart, and it’s hard to think about shrugging off some people as too far gone, and yet maybe that’s not a helpful position. Maybe that dooms everyone. I know that not every single American kid needs (or wants) to go to college, but we pretend that everyone does and so we no longer have technical training tracks . . . which leaves so many kids kind of aimless.

on the park bench at the end of my block, as if it’s there for me.

And thinking at a bigger scale, I think about getting rid of Hitler vs saving whatever Jews one could save during WWII. Just because no person could get rid of Hitler on her own didn’t mean there wasn’t a world of value in saving the lives of any Jewish person she could possibly save. The Torah says, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

I’m obviously grappling with my place in the battle to come, and thinking about the importance of doing exactly what I can within my sphere of life. What do you think? I’m asking everyone I encounter — do we save everyone or agree to leave some behind? Obviously I’m just a tiny small person with a tiny small sphere, so the question doesn’t determine my actions but I’m struggling with my own answer to it so I’m curious about yours if you’re willing to talk about it.

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

2) Part of my mission as a 58-year-old woman in this world is to be exactly who I am. I do not color my hair because I’m 58 and 58yos have gray hair — even women. And 58yos have soft, loose skin in places it used to be taut, like along the jaw, and on the throat. I’m kind of militant about it, actually, and while I slather moisturizer on my skin and try hard to take care of myself, I plan and intend to be my age, whatever that means. That doesn’t mean it isn’t shocking to see time all over me, and it doesn’t mean I don’t resist finding a filter that might just smooth out that throat sagging a little bit, but then I remember: I spent my life as a woman talking shit about my appearance. “I’m so fat, I hate my thighs, my stomach is disgusting,” and I regret every movement of breath that was needed to put those sentences into the world, and every molecule of ATP I wasted having the thoughts. I don’t know any women my age who aren’t coloring their hair, and one of my secret missions is to be in the world so they see someone like me in case they want to stop — and if they don’t more power to them! (But if they do…..)

3) I finished The Underground Railroad last night and started reading A Man Called Ove, which is as opposite as possible from The Underground Railroad! It’s hilarious, and about a bitter curmudgeonly white dude. It caught my interest originally because of the name Ove, which of course led me back to Karl Ove Knausgaard. I can be so shallow like that — nothing more than a character’s name or a nice font on the cover will grab me. But oh it’s funny. In the opening scene, Ove is in a store for “people who drive Japanese cars and need to buy white cables.” I gather it’s not going to just be funny, but the observations that allow the reader to see Ove are certainly funny, and it’s a nice change of pace after the heaviness and shame of The Underground Railroad. I’ll let you know how it is when I finish it.

It’s January. 2017. March, march, march.

here we go.

And so it begins. I have not been able to say the three words one says on the first day of the year—the ones that begin with ‘happy.’ I do not see the possibility this year, even though of course I know I will have my own personal, private moments. Inevitably, they will involve my family, my friends, my pleasures in books and movies, good food, poetry, and travel. And they will exist in the context of our horrorshow government which, well, I can’t even find words. All the ones I can think of are too ordinary.

I ended 2016 with this poem, which I think also gives me a way into 2017:

In a dark place
in a dark time

start with black.
Stop. Soak up its energy.

Remember the circle
however bent and broken.

Prize balance. Seek Pleasure.
Allow surprise. Let music

guide your every impulse.
Support those who falter.

Steer by our fixed star:
No Justice, No Peace.

Jim Haba, 2016

Excerpt from “French Window at Collioure,” 1914, by Henri Matisse. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. (Image: Wikipedia)

I am certainly in a dark place, my own deep depression and my bone-clenching fear about the incoming government, and as my dear sister Peggy suggested in a long conversation about depression, one step is “Be OK with it.” As Haba echoed, “Start with black. Stop. Soak up its energy.” Only when we stop and give ourselves over to fully taking in this darkness can we begin to gauge its scope and scale, he said.

But then unfolds the rest, right? Prize balance — and so I need to find that, and I’ll find it on my yoga mat to start, and I’ll figure out how to balance activism and life. I’ll need to seek pleasure, which means allowing the cracks to let some light in, because right now I’m too flat to feel any of it. Anhedonia, donchaknow. That poem is a flashlight in the dark, the guiding star I needed (among the rest, including friends who reach out in all the ways thankyousomuch), and perhaps, if I’m lucky enough, it will deliver me to this beautiful place shared by my friend Jacqueline:

To dance so hard my heart will learn to float above water again. It doesn’t feel possible right now, but it’s a goal. I have a feeling this year is going to be characterized by all the extremes. I will be marching, and shouting, and protesting. I will be crying, and raging. I will not be nice. (That one will be good for me.) I will be angry. I am angry.

This year I don’t have a ‘word’ for the year. I don’t have resolutions (except one: RESIST). I don’t even really have goals beyond surviving it and fighting back. In January I’ll protest on inauguration day, and I will march next to my friends Cindy and Don Ray in the Women’s March the day after, wearing our pink hats. I’ll attend rallies and organizing meetings. And to help myself survive, I’ll see Katie and her kids, and (we hope) Marnie and Ilan, and I’ll spend time with friends. I’ll make myself good food, and listen to music and try to make my feet dance — and as my beautiful friend Judi dreamed, I’ll hugdance whenever possible.

I just choke on the words, so I won’t wish a happy…but I will wish a powerful year, a productive year, a committed year, a meaningful year, and if you aren’t in this country and having to fight, as we are, those wishes apply to whatever you’re facing or embracing.

Let’s get going.

(p.s. I love you.)

 

three things, 12/29/16

today’s Riffle deals

1)  One more book thing before I move on from books (for the moment). Do you get daily emails from Riffle and BookBub, notifying you of very good (i.e., super cheap) daily deals on e-books? That’s really all I’m interested in because I only get to read for fun in the middle of the night, and don’t want to turn on the light and wake myself up more than I have to. The light from my Kindle Paperwhite doesn’t wake me up so it’s my favorite middle-of-the-night thing in the world. There are also book giveaways on GoodReads, based on books you’ve tagged as “want to read,” and while I haven’t yet won one, it’s nothing to enter so I continue to do that. Do you have another source? I get the Kindle Deal of the Day email from Amazon, but can’t tailor it as precisely as I can the Riffle and BookBub subscriptions, so it’s a little less useful. There are really just a few categories of books I want to read for fun: literary fiction, translation/world literature, and memoir. Occasionally non-fiction. Always good poetry, but I have to read poetry in real books, and very rarely in the middle of the night so I don’t get notifications on that genre. Let me know if you have another source for deals on e-books!

2)  It’s not quite the last day of the year yet, but I love this poem so I’ll share it today. It’s a cold, rainy, dreary winter day here in New York, and I was to meet Jim to retrieve my son’s belongings — but he has a terrible cold and is coming a long way, and the rainy dreariness was breaking my heart harder, so he and I will see each other another time, and I will pay attention to my real gratitude to him for the gift he’s giving me.

Year’s End, by Richard Wilbur

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

3)  Hasn’t this been a hard year? It has held its wonders in my personal life — Ilan and Lucy born, travel to southern China and the UP and Laos and Thailand and Taiwan, hours of poetry group meetings, meals and drinks with beloved friends, weeks spent with Marnie and so many days spent with Katie, the opportunity to help my daughters and their families even though I have less than no money, time spent laughing and walking with my sweet little Oliver, good movies, gorgeous food made and shared. Those are great things. And it seems like the world is about to end, too, with the horrors of Syria and South Sudan and Palestine and the true hideousness of the American election and the death and destruction that are about to follow from that. And so many people dying, largely just a generational thing that will be increasingly notable to me as my generation (and older) are nearing that point on the wheel. It’s easy to tap into this feeling of gloom since I am depressed, but that doesn’t mean the horrors in the world aren’t also true. I’d like to say something lovely like ‘It can only get better’ or ‘Maybe things won’t be as bad in the coming year’ but one word answers those thoughts with a big loud no: trump. I’m trying to find purpose in the way most of my friends and I will fight so hard, we will protest and boycott and make calls and march and show up and call out lies and gaslighting and it’s hard to feel the energy I will need for all that.

Plus my lost son.

How are you managing all this? Are you picking one hill to defend? Are you simply doing everything you possibly can, in a scattershot way? Are you pulling back and focusing on more immediate things, your own life and its joys and needs? Are you looking harder for the good? Maybe you’re doing all of these, either purposely or in a swinging back and forth way? I have no judgement on any of them; we’re all going to have to find our way to keep going, and the world needs everything — and especially everything good we can pour into it as this horror and destruction is about to come raining down. If you have any wisdom, or if you have arrived at a path or plan that makes sense for you, please share. I’m looking for help.

apathy is privilege

It’s like a death has happened. Enough people in our country voted in just the right places (note: not the majority of us, though) to elect a demagogue. So the majority of us are grieving, and mourning, and aching, and lost, at the moment. We’ll get ourselves together, we’ll rally, we’ll organize, we’ll work to protect the vulnerable among us . . . unlike the stated plan of the Republicans had they lost, which was to call the election rigged, to fail to concede, to imprison the opponent, to bring out guns and violence. No, instead we will organize and work, once we get through the pain.

But you know, none of whatever Trump does will affect me personally and immediately. I’m white, not a person of color. I was born in this country, and my family has been here for generations. I’m straight. I’m not in the stage of my life where reproduction is a concern. I have a bit of work. I don’t have any family in the military, serving in dangerous places. I’m not disabled. I will be nowhere near our new president so I guess my pussy is safe from him, at least. I don’t have a pre-existing condition that will disallow me from getting health insurance. Of course he will affect me quite personally, down the road, when he ignores climate change, and when he and his Republican Congress gut Social Security, which I’ve been paying into my entire working life and have depended on as a substantial part of my retirement because I am so far from wealthy it’s not funny.

But the part that has me grieving the most is the threat he poses to others, people who just barely have the same rights I have already, and whose rights will probably be snatched away. Marriage equality, for instance. Reproduction rights, already unavailable to most poor women in my own [current] home state of Texas even though they are currently granted by a Supreme Court decision — which I expect they will try to overturn. Gun reform? Forget it, now. Ending Citizens United? No way. And so all the dark money, all the Koch Brothers etc machinations to make the rich even richer and screw everyone else, that will continue on. Giving refuge to immigrants, that ain’t gonna be happening, no way. Climate change? Oh, didn’t you hear that it’s just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and so no worries, man. Fair treatment for women? Tossed back a decade or two, if not more, because you can bet they’ll post Supreme Court Justices, even though they failed to do their job when Obama was obligated to replace Scalia. The sheer irony I choke on is that everything the far right complains about most, corruption and money in politics that keeps the little guy down, they just voted to ensure.

But you know, I don’t have any money anyway, so whatever. I pay 100% more taxes than our president-elect has paid, and there’s not one thing I can do about it. Not one.

Can I, though, sit in my privilege and just shrug, since I won’t be personally and immediately affected? Because my daily life won’t be impacted. I don’t have to worry that a knock will come on my door, or when I’m moving around in the world. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be brutalized on the street because I’m gay, or brown, or of another religion. I don’t have to worry that some ignorant white thug with a trucker’s cap and an assault rifle, newly emboldened by his president-elect who has championed that violence, will kill me. I don’t have to worry that during a routine traffic stop a cop will kill me and get away with it.

Instead, I have to get up. I have to fight. I have to pick which fights I can engage in, because although I want to engage in all of them, I don’t have the available time that would require, and I’m not in any one place long enough to have a sustained commitment to a local group, in a meaningful way. But I have to fight, however I can. I have to be prepared for trouble, because I also have to speak out when I see something terrible happening, whether it’s a cop harassing a black person, a thug harassing a gay person or couple, or a Muslim, or anyone harassing another woman. I have to be honed and ready, and not be caught off guard. It’s go-time, y’all. It’s get off the Facebook meme and go time. It’s speak-up time. It’s speak-out time. It’s self-defense time. Here is a list of outlets you can study to find when and where you can fight back, if you’re interested.

My friends helped me through the worst of the immediate aftermath, and now I’ve found the little crack where the light is getting in. Let’s hold hands and do this. Let’s remember

John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work. I admire her for this more than I can ever say.
Martin Luther King, who said "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Martin Luther King, who said “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Still waiting.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.

These people will be my touchstones, my sources of energy and persistence when mine flags, because mine flags too quickly. Help me, let’s help each other, because I meant it when I said with her that we’re stronger together. Let’s make her rallying cry reality — for her, for ourselves, and for everyone else. I’m still with her.

Another happy birthday for me

Where I started. Graham Texas, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should've put a blanket over me!
Where I started. Graham, TX, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should’ve put a blanket over me!

 

This was such a spectacular year in my life, it boggles my mind. How can my life just keep getting better and better? And yet it does. These aren’t the best pictures from my year, or of each place, but they’re the ones I labeled “happy Lori” when I filed them away; this year,

 

We went back to Vietnam, and to a tiny fishing village on the coast of Thailand.

happy me, in Tam Coc
happy me, in Tam Coc Vietnam, in one of my favorite places: on a little boat in a gorgeous landscape

We went to southern China.

happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo
happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo — I was drunk on those karst mountains, man.

We went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

happy, flying around Manistique Lake
happy, flying around Manistique Lake, getting to be part of a place that was important in Marc’s life.

Next week we’re off to Laos again, and back to that same tiny fishing village in Thailand.….so only the happy anticipation of that trip properly belongs with this year of my life.

My family grew so much this year!

Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn't know Lucy would be coming, too.
Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn’t know Lucy would be coming, too.

My grandson Ilan was born in March, and I got to be with Marnie and Tom in Chicago for a month, to welcome him to the world and to take care of their sweet family. Tom reached out to me this year in a way I will never, ever, ever forget (my eyes instantly fill with the hottest tears every time I think about it), and Marnie’s regular weekly phone calls to me are an ongoing treasure, more than she knows.

happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan's life
happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan’s life
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.

My granddaughter Lucy was born in Austin in September, and I got to stay with sweet Oliver so Katie and Trey didn’t have to worry about any of that, and then I got to welcome Lucy home. The easy chances I have to see Katie, opportunities to spend time with her (which I love, she’s so sweet and funny and smart), opportunities to help out a little and be their regular old Pete, those moments are the real stuff of life and are a big glory in my heart.

so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl
so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl, applet of my eye
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together, and listening to him call me Pete.

The BEST Halloween costumes — their mamas are so creative.

I got to cast my vote for a woman, for president. Two heroes entered my psychological world this year: Hillary, for the way she just keeps moving forward, she never gives up EVER, you knock her down and she gets right back up, ready to work as she has for at least 30 years; and John Lewis for his quiet persistence for 40 years. When I feel like giving up, I always think of them both, now. This year they joined Mister Rogers in my own personal pantheon.

happy and crying, my steady companion combo
happy and crying, my steady companion combo, but especially present as I voted.

I read so many wonderful books this year; especially, I found Vivian Gornick, Lidia Yuknavitch, Irene Nemirovsky, and Lucia Berlin, new favorites; Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust and Berlin is also gone, so I can only cherish the books they left behind — but Gornick and Yuknavitch (the latter most especially) are still writing, and on my forever watch list, now. My beloved poetry group continued meeting at my place throughout the year, and they shared so much extraordinary poetry with me, and taught me so many things I can never repay them. Our monthly meetings focused simply on reading and talking about poetry, all of us hyper-thrilled about that, what a pinch-me gift, man.

I spent time with so many beautiful friends in Austin and New York — and made new friends, too, an ongoing source of joy, to make new friends at this stage of my life. I’m so lucky to have friends who take me as I am. And I’m also lucky to have friends all over the world (shouting out especially to my antipodean beloveds, whose love I feel this far away, but also to friends in England and France and Canada. I fear this makes me seem like an extremely old person going on and on about these new-fangled devices called telephones, but I was once again blown away by Laura, calling me from Perth to sing Happy Birthday to me).

I’m always shy about getting a picture of us together, and I don’t know why — I so love having your pictures.

cindy
getting mehndi with my Cindy; I thought about using the photo of us celebrating my birthday together, but I liked the rhyme of “mehndi with my Cindy.”
don
my darling, precious friend Don, who calls himself (and is, in my life) my Jewish father.
girls
A subset of the “book club” women, my dear friends. Some are missing from this picture, (Anne, Diane, Jen….) but always with me otherwise.
nancy
Nancy, my boon companion and quirt-wielder and I don’t know what I’d do without her.
sherlock
Sherlock, one of my oldest, dearest friends. I wish I had a picture with Peggy.

This year I tried oysters and now cannot get enough. If I had a million dollars I would eat a million oysters. Thanks, Sherlock, for showing me how to eat them. And thanks, Nancy, for eating them with me too.

from the first batch, eaten with Sherlock
the first dozen, eaten with Sherlock
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Marc's surprise for my early birthday celebration. He knows me. :)
Marc’s surprise for my early birthday celebration. 🙂
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.

I went back and forth to New York City, and while that’s also quite hard and wearing, I never fail to also feel so lucky, like I get the best of two very different worlds. Marc and I continue to find our way to make things work for us, and I’m so grateful for that. When I’m in Austin, his morning texts start my day off with great joy (and usually mystery), and when I’m in NYC I delight in his delight in making food for me, and in the way he always takes my hand. We both grew this year in ways that were good for us individually, and definitely that were good for us together. Would I have dreamed any of this was possible in late 2012? NO. Even though I love every gritty, urban street and curb and subway platform (well, almost), I never get tired of walking in Riverside Park, ever.

park-snow
my beautiful park during the epic snowstorm
parksummer
and on any day in the spring, summer, or fall
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once

I survived a few very hard things — in largest part because of my own strength, forged and honed over my 58 years of sometimes-difficult life, and in critical part because I have the best friends, who check on me all the time, like Dixie inevitably does and always at the right moment; who say my name to me over and over when I’m lost, like Nancy did when I was despairing one night; who call me darling, like Anne does when I’m in deep need; who sit next to me at parties or anywhere else when I’m barely there and help me through, like Lynn did at a big happy birthday party; who reach their hands out to me in ways immediate and virtual (oh gosh, all of you), and who also laugh with me, and share themselves, which is my favorite thing. The violent reappearance of my brother, after decades, and with scary threats, was probably my worst trouble this year, in ways most people can’t understand. That one nearly done the old girl in…..but I’m still here, blowing and going. And speaking of that, a book was dedicated to me this year:

I cry no matter how many times I read it.
I cry no matter how many times I read it.

I didn’t have nearly enough work all year; another year has passed without my son, an ongoing pain I’m not always sure I can bear; I caught the flu a couple of times, the worst on our terribly long travel day from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to Trat to Mairood; the Republican candidate for president has left me feeling terrorized all year and I am praying so hard that goodness prevails; and as stressful as those things might be in moments, they pale in comparison to all the rest. Yep, being 57 was amazing. I’m the luckiest person in the whole world, with the best life, far better than I ever dreamed it could be, it would be.

Fifty-eight. Amazing.
Fifty-eight. Amazing.

Let me tell you this. It’s really a privilege getting to be 58. I’m proud of it! It’s a privilege to have lived so many years, to have seen the wonders and survived the pain; it’s a privilege to learn and grow; it’s a privilege to soften and open. My hair has more bright silver in it — so beautiful! Why would I want to pretend that isn’t true? When I smile, now, you can see the evidence of all the years I’ve smiled. My skin is changing, my memory isn’t the same, and that’s OK because it’s part of it, and I’m grateful to have the chance to have every part of it, every last bit.

Thank you for being in my life with me, in whatever form you’re here. Thank you for the words, the touches, the drinks and breakfasts and lunches and dinners, the happy hours, the notes, the calls, the many, many ways you hold our connection. Your presence, your words, your friendship, and your faithfulness mean the world to me, and I count myself so lucky to you know. Happy birthday to me, and now on to the next! oxoxoxoxox

perfect knowledge

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about perfect knowledge, after realizing that again and again I was wishing for it — I just want to know exactly why people came to vote for the completely monstrous Trump, for example, how did that happen? I don’t mean the equally monstrous alt-right people in this country, I mean all the rest. How did that happen? I want to understand it completely. That’s maybe not even the best example of the spate of wishes I’ve had lately, but it’s the only one I can think of because I am so absolutely terrified of him right now my fear is consuming me.

f1And then, without quite [at least perfectly] realizing that the book focused in part on this theme, I started reading Frankenstein for the first time. I actually started reading it because the Lars Book Club was reading it (especially fun to follow via her Instagram account, because she finds the most extraordinary images to accompany each book). This is one of those books I always meant to read but for one reason or another I thought it wasn’t right for me, like my idiocy in thinking I wasn’t smart enough to read Moby Dick….and we see how that turned out! I’m not sure what deep prejudice kept me from reading Frankenstein, because I did always want to. And it’s extraordinary, and what surprises me most is how much I detest Victor Frankenstein. Detest him, completely. He sought perfect knowledge in terms of creating life, and then when he did, and looked at his creation, he flung him away and threw his hatred on him, again and again and again. And everyone suffered for it.

f2Of course this is the same moral as Adam and Eve in the garden; everything but perfect knowledge, y’all — can’t have that, the consequences will be fatal. “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein). (Without meaning to circle back to Trump, though, that quote reminds me of the recent report showing that one big predictor of voting for him is if you still live in the same hometown you grew up in. Hmmm. The danger of not seeking knowledge, right there.) Setting aside the fact that perfect knowledge simply isn’t attainable, no matter how much we may yearn for it, why is it always cast in such terrible terms, I wonder? Is it just our Bible-focused western culture that raises that spectre, that threatens us? Is it that this framework only allows God to have perfect knowledge, so anyone who attempts or reaches for it is threatening God, or seeking to be like God? Is that it? As a method, science understands perfect knowledge as an accretion, each scientist adding his tiny thread onto the pile, a final Truth very rarely acquired and held in place with the eternal possibility of a conflicting finding toppling it to the ground.

In my recent obsession about this idea, I’ve also been thinking about my desire to be known . . . fully and accurately. I got on a jag of watching every version of Annie Lennox singing “Why” that I could possibly find. The line from that song that always crushes me — crushed me when I was getting divorced and feeling completely unknown by my husband, and crushes me still to this day is

And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel?
‘Cause I don’t think you know how I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
You don’t know what I feel

Of the many versions, I think this my favorite because of the way she performs the last stanza, with the dramatic STOP.

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That kills me. I’m no slouch at telling people how I feel, and I’m pretty sophisticated at understanding and describing my emotions. No alexithymia here, folks. But there is a huge gap between what is said and what is heard, and everything falls into that gap. The listener doesn’t hear perfectly, and even in the telling, the teller gets it wrong. I even get it wrong, in part because the current moment is attached to so many different things that plucking it out of that constellation to tell it gets it wrong. But how I long to be perfectly understood — for my mistakes, my longings, my fears, what’s underneath, what I’m trying to do. And how I would love to perfectly understand those in my life! I long to do that.

The world is stewing in hate, and the temperature is coming to a boil. Why? Why? I want to know, I want to understand, and it’s a HUGE picture to take in, so many variables feeding in, but perhaps it’s just one or two, and the story is too complex to see since I only have my tiny spot to stand on. And what would I do with that perfect knowledge, anyway? Maybe it would be a torment, because I could not change anything. Maybe I would see that it’s really simple, but it looks a terrifying mess and unless everyone else knew, too, it would simply come to its rolling boil and I would understand why but be helpless. I’m helpless now, anyway, and it feels terrible. Would it feel more terrible if I understood, perfectly?

I’m getting nowhere except lost-er. Scared-er. Despairing-er.

courage

tattoosOne of the tattoos on my spine is for the character that means courage — the third from the top. I’ve thought a lot about courage over my life. I got the tattoo out of some sense that I’d been courageous in my life, but when I chose it I hadn’t really thought as deeply about the idea as I did in the years after I got it.

Courage means doing something WHILE you are scared. If you aren’t scared, it doesn’t require courage. If you are filled with adrenalin and testosterone and you race into the fray filled with the belief that you’re going to prevail, that isn’t courage. That’s just being fired up. Courage is what it takes to put your hand out, your foot out, scared that you’ll be chopped down for it. Sometimes courage is quiet, sometimes it’s loud, but it’s not courage if you aren’t afraid you’ll lose big. It’s not courage if you might lose a buck or two, or take a punch. You can afford to lose a buck or two. A punch hurts for a little bit and then it’s done. I’ve taken punches, I know what I’m talking about.

I’ve had some courage in my life, I’ve put my hand and foot out in ways that could’ve gotten me killed, although those instances were just about staying alive — and I don’t discount them, but when it’s a life or death situation it’s a little different. But more often than I’d like, I have had a failure of courage. I’ve allowed my fear to swamp me. I’ve taken easy ways, ways that didn’t make me feel [at all] good about myself but they seemed do-able. I’m ashamed of myself for those choices, each and every one.

And I’ve spent my life afraid of men. It’s no mystery why, and it’s understandable. And I haven’t beaten myself up for it, even when I’ve wished I could be braver. I get it, I have every reason to be scared. It’s the rare woman who can’t find a reason to be scared. Men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them.

They rape us. They beat us. They murder us. They belittle us. They decide our fates. If we’re lucky, they “let” us decide things for ourselves.

The only good thing about the orange monster is that he just keeps pushing his horror out to the edge, farther and farther, and finally we come out of the shadows. Me too, someone did this to me. And to me. And to me. Men did this to me, too. And to me. Yes, and to me. And to me. I am afraid for my daughters, a man did this to me. And to me.

And so finally, finally, I find my courage. I want to live to the end of my natural days, however many they may be. I’d love to be 115 and just die in my sleep, that would be great. I would love to see my grandchildren have children. I’d love to be wrinkled old Pete, cackling and cussing and saying come here, let me kiss you, you sweet thing. I hope I get that chance.

But I am also done. I’m done hiding in the shadows in the hopes that no man hurts me again. I’m done hoping a man doesn’t hurt someone I love, or even another woman I don’t know, but I see it happen. I’m DONE. And I have the orange monster to thank for that, for shining a light on the country I live in, the vast numbers of people who think he’s just fine, and even worse, the vast numbers of people who don’t say a word. Their silence is every bit as complicit as the voices of those who think he’s great. If you haven’t said anything in the wake of the most recent terribleness, you are on the other side of the line from me. And fuck you.

I’m going to get self-defense training. I’m going to look men in the eye — not daring them, exactly, but not hiding from them. If I witness any woman anywhere getting any kind of harassment, no matter how “banal,” no matter how “joking,” no matter what, I’m the avenger. Women are not objects for your fun, fuck you. I can’t fight every single battle in the world, I have to pick and choose. I wish I could fight for black people, that’s a worthy fight. I wish I could fight for immigrants, they deserve to be fought for. I wish I could fight for poor people, for the mentally ill. I can’t fight for everyone. I’m one woman. I’m one older, pissed off woman, and I have to pick my battles.

I am a defender of women. And whatever comes of that, let it come.

TRUTH

“Leslie Marmon Silko whispers the story is long. No, longer. Longer than that even. Longer than anything. With Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath drink at the bar. Laugh the dark laughter in the dark light. Sing a dark drunken song of men. Make a slurry toast. Rock back and forth, and drink the dark, and bask in the wallow of women knowing what women know. Just for a night. When you need to feel the ground of your life and the heart of the world, there will be a bonfire at the edge of a canyon under a night sky where Joy Harjo will sing your bonesong. Go ahead—with Anne Carson—rebuild the wreckage of a life a word at a time, ignoring grammar and the forms that keep culture humming. Make word war and have it out and settle it, scattering old meanings like hacked to pieces paper doll confetti. The lines that are left … they are awake and growling. With Virginia Woolf there will perhaps be a long walk in a garden or along a shore, perhaps a walk that will last all day. She will put her arm in yours and gaze out. At your backs will be history. In front of you, just the ordinary day, which is of course your entire life. Like language. The small backs of words. Stretching out horizonless. I am in a midnight blue room. A writing room. With a blood red desk. A room with rituals and sanctuaries. I made it for myself. It took me years. I reach down below my desk and pull up a bottle of scotch. Balvenie. 30 year. I pour myself an amber shot. I drink. Warm lips, throat. I close my eyes. I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. I am not alone. Whatever else there was or is, writing is with me.” —Lidia Yuknavitch

words

it’s fragile

The world just feels so mean right now. I wince most of the time, and know that people call me idealistic — those who are willing to be nice about it. Trump and his hideous supporters terrify me, one bit of uniform away from being brown shirts. I’m reading One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway and its Aftermath, about Andres Breivik, the man who slaughtered 76 Norwegians in cold blood, mostly teenagers, out of his hatred for feminism and immigration. This is what hatred does, it spills out onto innocents. Small men make themselves big by slaughtering innocents, and that feels like the direction our world is going as fast as it possibly can.

My husband is a clinical psychologist and has told me that it’s impossible to break into the system of a paranoid person, because whatever you might say is proof — ah, see? You would say that. I know people in Austin who are paranoid, and I know what ‘news’ they take in and how they are constantly preparing for the onslaught wrought by “others,” just as Brievik did. I feel scared and bewildered in their presence. I’m increasingly feeling like I just can’t live in Texas any more. The state politics are so mean, many of the people bewilder me, and their ‘evidence’ bewilders me too.

It’s such a scary world, and this is at stake for me:

marnie-ilan
My lovely Marnie and her Ilan — waiting with us, the day Lucy was being born, for the happy news
little-family
My sweet Katie, with her young children, happy and cuddling
o-kisses-lucy
Oliver kissing his little sister, just a couple of weeks old she is
lucy
And little Lucy, the newest member of our family

I guess this is the way the world moves: forward into slaughter and worldwide destruction, and then a recovering into humanity again. And it’s just the slaughter cycle now, I suppose. How can my country possibly be this close to electing such a monster as president? How is this possible? I am terrified, and that’s not hyperbole. After last night’s debate, how anyone can have watched that and think that the orange monster is their guy….I don’t understand them at all.

Lewis and Obama at the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. SO MUCH in that hug. So much knowing.
Lewis and Obama at the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. SO MUCH in that hug. So much knowing.

And then I think about John Lewis, who marched across that bridge in Selma, and who has fought quietly, without noise and arm-waving, for decades now as his brothers and sisters were murdered, and belittled, and pushed aside by white America. He is relentless and he believes and he keeps putting one foot in front of the other. As police officers in our country keep killing unarmed black men, one after another after another after another, he just keeps putting stepping forward, day after day, believing. Can I be like him in the face of this horror that’s growing in my country, and in the face of a monster like Trump, and fellow Americans who plan to vote for him? I just want to run away, but pieces of my heart are scattered everywhere — in Katie’s loving home, in Marnie’s loving home, with friends far and wide — and how can I leave them behind? Where could I go, anyway, that would be far enough away?

life

This morning I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and was stopped, as I often am, by _nitch. It was this post that caught me by the throat:

David Bowie // “Life. I love life very much indeed.”

A video posted by NITCH (@__nitch) on

“I love life very much indeed,” he says. Something about that specific articulation felt fresh to me, even though the sentiment is familiar and true for me, too. I think I usually say I love my life, or I’m grateful to be alive, truths for me no matter the weather, but to love LIFE very much seems different.

To love my life is to note the personal: my cozy little home, my people, my interests, my longings, my struggles, my thoughts and feelings, the range of my experiences. To be grateful to be alive is to recognize a greater context. There were times I might not have survived, how grateful I am that I did. It automatically places the thought in connection to not-alive.

But to love life very much is notice the miracle and wonder of existence. To love others’ lives. To love the existence of all living things, the wonder of that. To love the persistence of it all despite….despite….despite. To note and appreciate the sheer miracle of consciousness, of birth (despite… despite… despite….), of endurance. To hang on to wonder, to remember to see dandelions forcing their way through sidewalk cracks, clouds drifting in the blue, whales (blue or otherwise) singing through the oceans, friends helping each other along, people helping loved ones live and die, people rallying or disappointing, inspiring or scaring.

What a gift, right? Remember.

rumbles

Tectonic plates shifting, that’s the image I keep getting as I think quietly about this change I feel — a change you aren’t aware of, but you are if you come back here to see if I’ve posted and then see that I haven’t. For people with my particular struggle, going dark like this might mean depression is lurking around in the dark corners, but this has nothing whatever to do with depression. And thank heavens for that. I mean it, I’m so grateful not to be depressed.

Instead, I’ve been going through a tremendous shift that has very much to do with telling on/about myself. It has mattered to me a lot to tell my own story, which I’ve done relentlessly for more than a decade, now; I can’t remember exactly when I started blogging, but it was in the LiveJournal days….oh, wow. Anything you want, and everything you’ve ever done, can be found online, and I just found mine. I started my LiveJournal on March 3, 2004 (here’s my profile, wow, that’s amazing, and my posts here). No need to look at the posts, because they cover the same major themes and topics back then that I still write about. My kids and I all started them at the same time, because the girls were off in college and we figured it was a way we could easily keep up with each others’ lives, and then when we spoke on the phone we could talk about the big stuff, with the little stuff already shared and covered.

Writing like this stuck with me, and I moved away from LiveJournal to a blog called Out of a Stormy Sleep, which I then transitioned over to Thrums, and had to hide that one because of the creepy stalker who sued me, so I came here, to my pillbug palace. I’ve said everything I have to say, over and over and over and over and over.

But that isn’t why I’ve been quiet — because God knows, the mere fact that I’ve already said something several times didn’t stop me any of those instances, right? I’ll say it again. Instead, I’m having a big shift to wanting to hold my own thoughts and experiences for myself, and to share them in a different way, a closer way, a more personal way.

This change also goes along with another shift involving other people. I kind of atomize myself and spray outwards, falling on anyone who will accept my presence. I have a lot of friends in Austin, and that’s great, but it feels unwieldy, it feels like I can’t keep up, and because I’m gone so much, the connections remain relatively shallow. My “book club” has disintegrated because really, almost none of them wanted to read books, and absolutely not the books I want to read. Without that central pole of “book club” holding us together, I think we’ve drifted apart into our friend-pairs and that’s a change — but one that goes with this deeper change I’m feeling, too.

As autumn approaches, a time that feels more focused and ‘serious,’ the mindful focus I’ve been working on the last couple of years turns toward my social connections, and by extension, toward the way I share myself. I do want a book club, but this time I will create one from a thoughtful place instead of “hey I want a book club, everyone in the pool who wants in!” And to be fair, when I first moved to Austin and had to create a world from scratch, and didn’t know anyone other than my kids, I did the best I could — and my poetry group worked out beautifully.

And so I will be letting a bunch of acquaintances continue to drift away in their own streams and I’ll dig my own stream a bit deeper. I’ll share myself more discriminantly, not with groups (with one exception), but instead with a few very good friends and thus deepen those relationships. That just sounds so good, and less frantic.

I’m not sure what it means for this blog. I’m certainly not shutting it down, and I’m not making any claims for what I will and won’t be doing with it. I’m also feeling kind of social-media-fractured, between Instagram where I love sharing photos, and Facebook where I love sharing funny or moving things, or recommendations, and Goodreads, where I loving keeping notes on books I read. And in all those cases, I really enjoy friends’ photos, and friends’ posts.

Mostly, I’m leaving this post here by way of explanation. I’m still here and will still be here, I’m just shifting things around and trying to figure things out. Some of my friends are so far away I only share my life and keep up with theirs in this online way, and to lose these forms would be to lose those connections…..and that feels like a loss I want to avoid.

Anyway. Still here, still changing, still figuring it all out. xoxo

Keller and Frank and modern times

kellerWhen I was a little girl, among the books I read were two that had a tremendous and long-lasting effect — the same books most little girls read: the biography of Helen Keller and Anne Frank’s diary. Both books asked me the same question:

What would you do?

What would I do if I faced the kind of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that Helen Keller faced? Would I have her grace, her perseverance, her will to help other people? Would I turn outwards, as she did, or would I turn inwards, clinging to the unfairness of my obstacles, insisting that no one had it as bad as I did, everyone else should help themselves, I have all I can do with my own stuff. Who would I be in the face of that level of difficulties? Of course I wanted to believe that I would eventually find my way to the kind of grace and courage that she did, and as I’ve gotten older, I think now I can say that it’s likely I would at least try. But younger me? I doubt it.

anne frankWhat would I do if people were being identified, marked, rounded up, taken away? What would I do if another Holocaust happened? What if I were married to someone in the hated group, would I join him so he didn’t have to be there alone, even if we were separated? Would I shelter or help escape those who were under threat? Would I do so if it meant I might be killed for it? Luckily, that danger seemed so unlikely that I could entertain the possibility without concern. Oh, yes, without a doubt I would. No doubt. As I was raising my kids, and bore those responsibilities, I came to a different conclusion, that I just couldn’t do such a thing because my obligation was primarily to my dear kids. And then there were many times I’ve said (and meant it when I said it), “No way I’d stick with a belief or opinion if my life were at stake! Renounce my religion? DUH! Of course, no brainer.” (Of course I’m also not a religious person, but I also thought that what I held in my heart would be the part that mattered anyway, and I couldn’t be forced to go against that.) I’d say whatever it took to save my life, though in all my thinking there was never someone else’s life at stake. Such a privileged little safe and easy fantasy.

Now, though, in this Trump hate-filled world that’s gathering around us — and not just here in the US, obviously, but all over the world — I’ve been returning to my thoughts. What would I do? There was a browser app that identified Jewish names on any web page, identifying them with triple parentheses around the last name. (((name))) I had been naively telling my husband that for once, at least, he wasn’t a member of the identified Other to be eliminated, at least this time the primary focus wasn’t on Jews. At least this time it was Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants of all kinds, women, the media (if they are at all real journalists), the judiciary now, brown people in general. Jews hadn’t shown up on the loudest lists, but when he told about that web app, vomit came into my throat immediately. Even if we succeed in not electing Trump, all his ignorant, hate-filled supporters are still here. All those sentiments, still here.

What would I do? If the times ask something of me, will I step up? We’ve all been memorializing Muhammad Ali for his courage and conviction in refusing the draft (a black Muslim, note). Will I step up? Will I be a person I can admire? If it comes to it, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine that it would, would I accompany my husband? Would I hide Muslims? Would I help brown people? Now that it’s not idle fantasy, at least in terms of a growing landscape of context and possibility, the question makes my heart race but I am pretty clear on what my answer would be.

I would.

I could use your thoughts, please

lidiaSo I was listening to this beautiful short series of free writing lectures by Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the gutting memoir Chronology of WaterHer writing is not like anyone else’s. I hadn’t read any of her books, only short stories here and there, but I had Chronology of Water on my Kindle and after seeing these lecture clips, I decided to read it finally.

W.O.W. I can only read the book in snips and sips, it’s pretty raw and powerful, and quite hard. She does a thing I’d give anything to do, in my own voice. I recommend the book, or anything else she has written.

In one of the lectures she talks about the central importance of our metaphors, and in finding the story underneath the story, and the one underneath that. She said that if you just tell the story you’ve always told, it will be dead, and she provided a really great exercise that I’m dying to try. But in her conversation about metaphor, she said she’d shared an early draft of Chronology of Water with a trusted reader and she asked for deep feedback. Among the feedback, the reader mentioned that Lidia’s central metaphor was water, which she simply had not realized . . . even though a huge part of the story is her early life as an athlete, a competitive swimmer, and her return to swimming, and her feelings of drowning, and on and on and on. Realizing her central metaphor was a crystallizing and powerful thing, not just for her book but for her understanding of herself, and her life.

She said everyone operates with a few metaphors, and she named a couple of others that echo through her stories and her life. I thought it was fascinating that she couldn’t see her own most central metaphor, but at the same time I totally get it. Fish don’t see the water!

I do have a sense of one big metaphor in my life (by which I mean a metaphor that I see in my recurring experiences — it’s my storytelling, not something that exists in a reified way in my life), but I wondered about others. And since sometimes other people can see you more clearly than you see yourself, I thought I’d ask. If you’ve been around the palace for a while, what would you say are my metaphors? I’ll welcome any thoughts you may have.

And if you’re interested in Lidia (an interest that will be so rewarding, you’ll see), here’s her TED talk about being a misfit:

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says.

Thanks, y’all.

no imagination

You know how sometimes you have this vague sense of something about yourself, but all the ways you find to articulate it just miss the boat? That’s often true for me. I’ll say it one way and even I can see it’s not quite right, even though there’s something underneath that’s true. So frustrating, because it makes it hard to see how you might help yourself.

And then, if you’re very lucky, someone comes along and says it for you. If you’re very very lucky, it’s someone whose thoughts and opinions you trust, and so it’s just a snap of the fingers, YES! That’s it! My friend Nancy has done this for me a few times, and she did it again a few days ago. Let me go backwards a little bit, with a quote and a couple of specific examples:

  • In a job I had a long time ago, I worked with a consultant who did really interesting work. My first and only thought, and the question I asked, was, “Can I be your assistant?” It was a couple of decades before I realized it never occurred to me to find a way to DO that kind of work, only to assist someone who did.
  • When I was finishing my PhD and looking for a job, I often thought gosh I hope somehow I end up in New York City! Never once occurred to me to look for a job in New York City.
  • “You see it is important to understand how damaged people don’t always know how to say yes, or to choose the big thing, even when it is right in front of them. It’s a shame we carry. The shame of wanting something good. The shame of not believing we deserve to stand in the same room in the same way as all those we admire. Big red As on our chests.” (Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water)
nothing in those thought bubbles . . . but I don't think I have had thought bubbles!
empty thought bubbles . . . and I don’t think I even *had* thought bubbles!

So Nancy’s insight, her specific articulation of this, was that I do not have an imagination for myself. It’s obvious that’s what it is, when you read those examples, and you see it in the quote by Lidia Yuknavitch, but I’d wandered around in a vague morass of Maybe it’s that I don’t have ambition. Maybe it’s that I just don’t have the right set of skills. Maybe it’s that the things I like to do aren’t the kind of things that can take me somewhere.

And so with those vague ideas, I mis-thought my way around issues of ambition. No! I just don’t have any desire to climb a vicious ladder where you step on people! I mis-thought my way around “the right set of skills,” either getting new skill sets that I didn’t really care about, or dismissing what I thought were “the right set” (see: mis-thoughts around ambition). I mis-thought issues of the things I like to do — knitting, baking, handwork, no way to make money with those, no way to find security with those.

But no imagination for myself, oh that’s such a different animal. The trick with developing an imagination for myself comes back to that quote above, and while it’s not just simply solved by seeing it there, it’s a start. I deserve, as much as anyone, to have opportunities, to embrace opportunities, to find or make them. I deserve, as much as anyone, to find some security — boy do I deserve security. I have no problem saying that, believing it, feeling it. As I work to develop an imagination for myself, I’ll just have to break the kneecaps of that thought when it silently turns itself on in my gut.

One shift that has happened for me in the last couple of years is figuring out that one approach to life situations is to take a problem-solving approach instead of an emotional reaction approach. I never, ever knew that, as strange as that sounds. It’s by no means an automatic response for me, I still too often begin and end in an emotional reaction, but it’s just an issue of remembering. When I remember, I can do it. When I remember — oh yeah! How about a way to solve this, let me think — it shifts things.

And so it’s time for me to develop an imagination for myself, an imagination for my life. Do you have any advice to share? I know it’s a big, vague question — am I asking for ideas to put into my imagination? Am I asking for problem-solving tactics to implement the ideas when I have them? Yeah. No. I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what I’m asking advice for, but if something comes to you I’d sure like to hear it.

What a gift it is, clear understanding, and what a gift it is to have a friend who gives it to you. xoxox

the bright side

Some of the recent events of my life have made me think of this specific lyric:

Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true

But then, since it’s such a catchy tune, the rest of the song shows up:

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I mean, the whole song is on the money. Life IS a piece of shit. Absolute shit happens to good people, to loved ones, and you can’t do a damn thing about it except show up. Unfair things happen and yet no one ever said any of this is fair. Tragedy befalls people, they lose everything, a simple step off a curb turns into the end of it all, a quick trip to the grocery store is the last trip ever made, he suddenly leaves her with no warning, or she suddenly leaves him. A little cough, or an ache in the side, turns out to be the big bad thing and you never saw it coming. A little kid is born into a family that will brutalize and then kill her. Another little kid is born in a refugee camp. Another little kid is trying to stay alive in some other dread setting . . . and the handful of people who own everything don’t give a shit — and in fact, blame those people if you can parse their bullshit language.

But the other part of the song is on the money too! There is a bright side. We show up for each other, again and again and again. We show up even though (maybe especially though) there isn’t anything we can do. There isn’t anything we can say. If you think about it, isn’t that what makes it remarkable? That despite our misery over being unable to fix things for people we love, we show up anyway. I just find that so overwhelming at times, I cry in wonder.

Something surprising and bad happens, and people call. People write and say, “I have this access, how can I help?” Or “I’ve had this experience, let me share what I learned.” Or “I know someone, let me hook you up with her.” Or a complete stranger writes, “Our mutual friend told me, let me help because the same thing happened to me.” Or “Let me have all the books on this topic shipped to you, what’s your address?” Or “I love you.”

I think THAT is the bright side. Sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it gets even darker, and then sometimes you only thought it was dark but it gets darker still. The bright side is that people are all around you, and some may have been in this dark place already, and most haven’t but they’ll go inside with you, so you don’t have to be there all by yourself.

darknessIs anything really different? Isn’t the Big Bad Thing still there? It is.

Is anything really different? YES. You aren’t there alone.

 

Thank you to everyone who reads this for keeping me company. Sometimes you stand in the light with me, and sometimes you show up when it’s dark. Even if all you do is read my words, you are showing up with me. One thing I never quite get is that people comment on my honesty, my willingness to be vulnerable — and the reason I don’t get it is that I’m not doing anything that’s at all hard, or that requires courage, or that is in any way noteworthy to me because it’s just how I am, in the same way that I’m tall and have brown hair and blue eyes and a great big smile. So take this honesty as truth . . . ok, maybe just my truth but I don’t think so: Just showing up for someone is everything. Don’t be afraid to do that because “you don’t know what to say.” Sometimes there simply isn’t anything to say, and if there were don’t you think they’d have said it already? Show up anyway. Sometimes there isn’t anything to do, and sometimes what there is to do feels so insignificant that you feel embarrassed to offer. Show up anyway. Offer the insignificant help anyway. Show up for family, for friends, for acquaintances, for strangers. Show up willing not to have answers, not to fix things, but simply to be there.

Today is my son’s 29th birthday, and another time when he won’t respond to my birthday wishes. Last Sunday was another Mother’s Day I didn’t hear from him. Today marks another year of his absence from the life of our family. I grieve without the finality of grief — grateful for the fact that nothing is final! What there is to say has already been said to me (and by me, for that matter). I’m so sad, it’s hard to bear it but I will. The troubles that are befalling my friends and my loved ones are hard to accept, and my inability to make it all OK is hard to bear but I will. It’s what there is to do.

xoxoxoxoxo

the question is wisdom, the answer is complexity

In 2011 I read a great book called Difficult Conversations: How to Talk About What Matters Most. Difficult conversations are so hard for me, and I found the book quite useful. The real value of the book, though, spread so far beyond difficult conversations, and it all came from one little word: AND.

One point made in the book is that when you say “….., but ….” you essentially negate the first part. Saying, “…., and ….” allows space for both to be true. Because with very rare exception, there is truth in both.

  • “Yes, you do the shopping but you only do it when I ask.”
  • “Yes, you do the shopping and you only do it when I ask.”

The first makes the point in an oppositional way, the second in an acknowledging way. If someone said the first to you, wouldn’t you get a little riled up? My response might even include a bad word that starts with the letter F.

Escher gets at the complexity of 'and.'
Escher gets at the complexity of ‘and.’

And so I made a very conscious effort to use and instead of but, and I never came to an instance in which I really could only use but. ‘And’ was always appropriate. This fit easily into my understanding of the complexity of the world, leading me to a simple phrase for a big idea: It’s an ‘and’ world. I write about this over and over, and I can’t track down the original post I wrote in 2009 or 2010, so here’s one I wrote called ‘plucking out the story‘ that includes a good real-life example. It’s an ‘and’ world, y’all. It is. And that is a bigger issue than you think.

The problem comes in when we think or feel conflicting truths. Our minds are uneasy with conflicting truths, with cognitive dissonance, and we’re pulled to resolve the conflict. One of my favorite cognitive dissonance experiments had research participants in the US eating crickets, for which they were paid either $1 or $20, by random assignment. Afterwards they were asked why they ate the crickets. The people who received $20 said they did it for the money. The people who received $1 said they did it because they like crickets. Because they surely did not really like crickets, but they’d received so little money to do it — both true — so they resolved that conflict by telling themselves the story that they liked crickets. Isn’t that fascinating?

And then when you add in a should, it becomes even more complex. You have two conflicting feelings, and one comes with but I shouldn’t feel that way, or how could I feel that way! and so you rush to negate or ignore the “bad” one, and you certainly don’t admit it out loud. But both are true! You act on the better one, and you feel it fully, AND the other is also true. They both are true. BOTH. ARE. TRUE.

A made-up example: Let’s say you have a very dear friend in trouble and you want to help her, you truly do, because you love her. She needs help and you can provide the help, you have the knowledge or skill or experience. The thing is, she’s a pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful. She’ll try a little and then go right back to complaining about the very thing you’re helping her with. I’ll bet everyone has had that experience. So you feel super annoyed and irritated with her, and frustrated. Oh, but I shouldn’t be annoyed, I know she’s doing the best she can. And maybe there’s something that really is in her way, some very real roadblock, so you also think, God, what a jerk I am to feel this way! What is wrong with me?! So what do you do? You block those “bad” feelings. You suppress them and try not even to acknowledge them in your own mind.

But both are true! Because both are true. At the very same time. Because you are complex, situations are complex, the world is complex. You get to choose which one you act on, but both feelings are true and that is fine. In fact, if you need this point made, the fact that you are acting on the ‘better’ feeling and keeping the other to yourself—while you still feel it—isn’t that a good thing? It is!

One thing I have learned, though, is that talking about both sets of feelings upsets people. I don’t mean the person you’re helping, I just mean other people. So you’ve been helping your friend, feeling both kinds of feelings, and when you talk to another very good friend and tell the fullness of your experience, your very good friend will shut you down. She will focus on the “bad” feeling and discount it for you, disagree with it, explain it away, tell you you’re wrong. And maybe even judge you about it, though she’ll probably be too polite to tell you.

IT’S AN AND WORLD. You feel what you feel, and whatever you feel is absolutely fine. You choose which feelings you express (and when, and to whom), and you choose which actions to take in response. Social norms are so very strong, you may even shut down feelings you “shouldn’t” feel so quickly you are scarcely aware of them. I’ve come to believe that it is a sign of deep wisdom to be able to acknowledge the world’s complexity and simply let it be. In this feeling example, to resist pushing down the “bad” feeling and allowing it also to be true. You help, you want to help, you choose to help, you love your friend, and you feel frustrated with her even though she has this terrible roadblock.

I don’t have very many friends I can share the complexity of life with, but those few I do have provide my safe space, my true space, and the space where I feel it easiest to be who I am, in all my own complexity. I get to be my authentic, full self. There I feel deeply understood . . . because those friends know that BOTH sets are true, that the love and “good” is also just as true, that those are the ones I act on because I mean them with all my heart. It’s just that I also feel the other, as people do.

Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.
Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.

And so I share this with you, to try to help you remember that the world is complex, you are complex, your thoughts and feelings are complex, and when you think or feel contradictory things (when, not if, because you do!), it’s fine. Feel them both. Think them both. Breathe and allow yourself to be open, to learn how to hold them both at the same time without rushing to close one door. It’s good practice for all the other ways the world is contradictory.

(It has so become my habit to talk and think like this—which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes slip—that I have developed funny automatic sentence constructions. SO many of my sentences begin with “and,” so many begin with “and so” [which my daughter Katie pointed out to me], and also “and though,” which kind of is a ‘but’ construction but it brings the ‘and’ in, which I believe also reflects the truth of the world because it allows the essential tension between conflicting truths to be present.)

And so. Allow complexity. Acknowledge complexity. Hell, see complexity. Black and white categorical thinking is nice and easy (X is good. Y is bad. End of story, and I am absolutely certain about that…), but it isn’t real. It isn’t true. Hitler and the Holocaust were evil; Pol Pot was evil; but otherwise, there are so few things that are just one thing that the default toward complexity will keep you closer to the truth of the world.

And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

such a mess

Up and down I go, in this terrible mess of a world. Some days it makes me feel entirely hopeless, and other days I’m mostly able just to ignore it, not think about it.

  • Our political system as a whole is entirely corrupt, almost without exception.
  • As a consequence, most citizens of the country feel hopeless about it ever changing. Except for the increasingly tiny few with all the money, I guess, who can buy what they want — see above re corruption of the system.
  • Our media is not just irresponsible, they are no longer interested in journalism. They’re interested in entertainment. They’re not interested in examining their biases, trying to be objective, pursuing the story. It doesn’t even matter which form of media you point to. Which form, which outlet, which voice, which channel, which newspaper, none of it matters. None of it does what it should be doing. None. It’s not just Fox News, which is by far the most egregious; it’s the New York Times too, and pretty squarely.
  • People in the world who are fleeing for their lives are turned away from the countries that could take them in. People fleeing for their lives, for their children’s lives, die in trucks, on boats, in deserts, on foot. We tsk tsk tsk, isn’t that horrible that those countries are doing that (and ours is too, though “it’s different” here). Tsk tsk tsk. The wealthiest people in the world don’t want to give up anything at all, and it’s disgusting.
  • From my perspective, as a woman, I live in a world in which my existence is in very real peril. In the US, my peril comes around reproductive rights, and also in just living in this culture that seems to think boys will be boys, take a joke. Don’t be so sensitive. You shouldn’t have been wearing that. Or walking there. Or attending that party. Or having a drink. I recently heard a Republican politician say that women ought to be staying at home — in the kitchen, specifically — and then these things wouldn’t happen to them. The 70s were kind of the glory days for women. We were much freer then, and it’s been downhill ever since. We got a couple of decent years and that’s it.
  • Our culture is differently murderous for men and women. It’s horrible for men, horrible. We insist men be this very small and stupid container of things, and we simultaneously expect everything of them and nothing at all of them. What we do to men does not help our world whatsoever. And what we do to them surely has an effect on women, and on the culture at large.

What a world, what a world. What’s a person to do? I am often in deep despair about it. I believe we must do better, we must, but I don’t see how it will happen.

I recently joined a Facebook group — women only — called The Fempire. It seems to be primarily young-ish women, mid- to late-20s and through their 30s. They call each other badasses. They sing their own praises, and each other’s praises. They act as if they live in a different world than I do, one in which hell yeah of course it all can and will be different. And then once in a while a young woman will post that she doesn’t know how much longer she can take it, being a woman in this world. For her, I shared one of my favorite poems:

God Says Yes To Me
by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

It’s such a hard world. It’s always been a hard world — women died very young in childbirth, commonly; babies died and kids died young; people lived short and hard lives; young men left their lives to go fight in world wars, and so many didn’t come back, and many of those who did were haunted shells hidden away from us. Now we have medical care and treatments, and every kind of technology to make life easier, and long life spans, and the world is hard. Hard, hard, hard. What is a woman to do?

  • messWe have to support each other. We have to be each other’s ferocious advocates, and allies.
  • The world needs kindness, desperately. Where and whenever possible, add some. Be kind to strangers, be kind to people you know, and importantly, be kind to yourself. When you hear something unkind in your thoughts, or in your words — even if/especially if it’s directed at yourself — cut it out. Stop. Think, wait, I didn’t mean to think or say that. Even if it takes you years and years of trying to change that habit, change that habit. Be kind. It’s the only thing that matters. Be kind. And be kind to yourself. You are not a special snowflake; you deserve kindness too.
  • Find a couple of people to form a moai — a friendship group devoted to each other pointedly, dedicated to helping each other through. I think there is great power in this, I really do. Don’t just do handwaving in your mind—I have friends I care about and they care about me, that’s enough—actually and pointedly form a group with a conscious dedication. Two people, three people, five people. A friend-marriage, committed. Give yourself to that, and accept that from the others, and good will surely come into the world.
  • Do what you can where you are with what you have to change something outside yourself and your little world. Make little donations. Volunteer if/where you can. Read this article and adopt the strategies outlined, no matter what your political persuasion might be. Help bring the dialogue back toward reason and conversation. Applaud and share instances of curiosity, and apologies, and collaborative behavior, and feelings, and careful reflection. Do not applaud or forward into the world insults, and manipulation, and black-and-white thinking, and evasiveness. Do what you can to shape the world in a better direction. (This reminds me of an old social psych story; the story goes that a class decides to shape its professor’s behavior. When he walked toward one side of the classroom, they all paid attention and were engaged. When he walked toward the other side, they quit paying attention. Gradually he taught the whole class from the one side of the room where they’d given him their attention! He had no idea he was being shaped like that.)

I don’t know, none of this feels like The Answer, but maybe all of it is the answer. Maybe small shifts produce big ones, the way waves accumulate with each other and then there is a gigantic wave. That feels easy to say and I don’t know if it’s true, but good God, feeling hopeless about it all sure doesn’t help. Two of my heroes, the Dalai Lama and Kurt Vonnegut both said their religion has one tenet: Be kind [babies]. Just be kind. Be kind in word and thought — be kind in thought, don’t forget that. Put kindness in the world. Reward good whenever you find it. Help each other. Help me, I need your help, and let me help you, I need to be a helper.

xoxoxox

resolutions

I know, I know — I said I don’t make resolutions. And I don’t! I used to, and they all (no matter how I worded them) involved losing weight. I quit that one a few years ago and mysteriously(?) I lost all the weight I’ve ever wanted to lose and so far I’ve kept it off so easily for 18 months-ish. Curiouser and curiouser.

I look forward to the topic for this book, which is "Use discipline to catalyze creative magic."
I look forward to the topic for this book, which is “Use discipline to catalyze creative magic.”

BUT I do like to think about life and how I live it, and I do have some beliefs and values that I’ve already thought about a lot and others I want to think about more deeply. And then along comes this fabulous post on the also-fabulous Brain Pickings and thus a project was born. I’ve put the project up in the menu bar (see it up there? 2016?) for my own quick and easy reference. There I’ve listed all 16 of the resolutions, and for each one I linked it to the relevant book. Some of the books I’ve already read but I’ll read again, some are pretty quick, and some will be very slow (the Sontag and the Nussbaum in particular, though in those cases I’ll probably just read the relevant chapter and others that grab me).

My plan is to do this as a year-long reading and thinking project, and at the completion of each topic I’ll write a post about it integrating my own thoughts with those I’ve just studied, and if I find other relevant books and resources I’ll link them in that post too. Of course I read a whole lot already and have a couple of book clubs to read for so this will be a challenge, but what is a challenge if it isn’t a challenge! On the project page I’ll also link to my post on the topic.

Since I’m getting started late I’ll have to hustle, so I’m off to Resolution #1: Cultivate honorable relationships, which centers on Adrienne Rich’s collection of poems titled On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Yesterday I babysat Oliver all afternoon and while he slept I started reading. Hmmm. Lots to think about. xoxoxox

2016, whoa.

my darling family
my darling family

Well, happy new year, y’all! I used to do a year end/beginning post looking back at the year, and thinking ahead to the future. But then I started doing the looking back on my birthday (here’s that post for 2015), and the whole looking ahead thing came to make me laugh so hard because how the hell do I know what the year will bring! As soon as I make a prediction, I’m in fantasy land. That said, here are the things I think will happen this year:

  • My new grandson will be born at the tail end of February. Will he be a Leap Day baby? Will he arrive on his mama’s birthday (March 3), which I have superstitious reason to think he will? We will all be so glad to see that little face, that shayna punim.
  • Shortly after that, my darling Oliver will turn two. Two years as the apple of Pete’s eye, and as the love of his mommy and daddy’s lives.
  • In April we’re going to Southern China — the Guangxi province, and the Yunnan province, and a couple of days in Hong Kong at the end. The blog is set up but only barely. I just hope I don’t accidentally eat rat, that’s my big hope there.
  • We were going to Alaska around July 4, but all the places we can find are already booked. So maybe somewhere in Canada? Northern Michigan? No idea.
  • In late Nov/early Dec we’ll return to SEAsia, but no specific ideas just yet. Bali, maybe, which would make my heart sing.

Otherwise, I hope friends who faced difficult challenges with their health last year get clean bills this year. Friends who faced loss, I hope your hearts find ease. Friends who are dealing with fear around something, work perhaps, I hope you find resolution. Friends with money woes, cash all around! (Me too, please!)

I hope I read a lot of wonderful books. I hope I see sustaining movies and TV. I know I’ll spend as much time as possible with dear friends, either in coffee breaks or happy hours or over meals, or over poetry. I hope to see friends I didn’t get to see last year — Peggy and Tammy in CT, for sure, and anyone else I can! I know I will spend time with my family, and I know it’ll feel like not nearly enough, however much it is. I will continue my back-and-forthing between Austin and New York City. I have the same hope I’ve had the last two years: more of the same as last year, please.

One thing that has changed, the older I get, is a letting-go of making resolutions. For a couple of years I tried that deal where you adopt a word for your year, but I don’t seem to have what it takes to deal with that. I love the two resolutions my friend Kathy made (her blog is great, here’s her post from which I stole these two):

  • Less fear, more authenticity.
  • Say both Yes AND No more, but to different things than usual.

Man. Those are great, right? More authenticity, right on. I pretty consciously work at being authentic, which doesn’t mean I always succeed but it does mean that I value it, and work toward it. Less fear, boy I’d love that. For me, fear is less focused on specific things and more a general undercurrent, like anxiety. I would love to lose that too-easy fear. Swapping my overuse of yes and no seems like a brilliant idea. Otherwise, in addition to those two great ideas/formulations, I look forward to getting back to my daily yoga practice (highly irregular ever since our vacation to Vietnam and Thailand), my morning smoothies (ditto) and wonderful healthy dinners (ditto), my daily walking (ditto, though much more often while Marc has been here).

Whatever happens for me, and for you, I look forward to making my way through another year of my beautiful little life, and I am glad you come along with me. <3

the world

When I first started working in publishing as an acquiring editor, one of my lists was political psychology — a subject I knew only a little bit about, only the aspects that crossed with social psychology, my own discipline. So I attended conferences, talked with scholars, read related books (including those I signed), listened to academic talks, and tried to learn enough to speak intelligently to authors I wanted to sign.

And in the years since, I seem to have forgotten most of it.

But I do remember that for many people, their political beliefs stem from their values. (I wish I could remember the other source — economics, maybe? Now it would be fear, that’s surely a source.) It occurs to me, though, that even if we share values as a starting point, our beliefs stemming from that value could diverge.

PartisanPoliticsI’m torn right now. The political discourse is filling me with such despair and agitation. All that hate, all the snarling and contempt, and all the blind followers salivating behind the one who is being contemptuous of them! I don’t understand any of this, it makes no sense. Keep out all the Muslims but everyone including terrorists and those on the watch lists should be allowed to buy guns. What? It makes no sense. It feels like our world is upside down, and I can’t understand it.

And the parts I do understand are heartbreaking and tragic and adding to my despair. Poor people running for their lives, having lost everything, running from the very people we see as our enemy, and we slam doors in their faces. Who are we? Really, who are we? We are an ignorant country, a cruel country, a greedy country, an arrogant country. As a country that’s who we are, though most of my friends (not all) and all of my family are not like that at all. Our reputation in the world is horrible, as I know from traveling around the world. Terrified people who have lost everything want to come here, yes, but I feel for them because I know how they will be treated if they get here. They just don’t know it, it’s unimaginable to them.

And so, these are my values, and how my beliefs evolve from them:

We have an obligation to help each other. Even though Jesus encouraged people to give everything they had, we don’t have to do that, it needn’t be that extreme. I have an obligation to people I know and to people I don’t, because we’re all interconnected. And I have so much, even though I have no assets and a dusty bank account. But I have so much, including the things I don’t have, like rockets tearing through my home. I have been in great need so many times in my life and people helped me in ways large and small. This is one of my deepest values. My most complete obligation is to my children and their families, but it doesn’t end there, even if it begins there.

So what does that look like, given that I have no power to effect legislative change, nor millions or billions to donate? It means I can offer whatever support I can to agencies and groups that help others. It means I can offer practical help whenever possible. It means I speak up when I see someone who needs help. Someone I know on Facebook said come on, those Muslim women who were verbally assaulted in public should’ve just spoken up for themselves, get over it. Should they have? In a great world, sure — but it’s easy to imagine that they were quite scared. Simply being a woman who is being shouted at by a threatening man is difficult enough, and when everyone standing around is not doing anything, I can imagine that might be silencing. My value, then, leads me to speak to her, with her, for her, to help her as I can. Since this is our world, now, I can prepare myself and not be caught off guard. My value leads me to help wherever I can, in whatever way I can — not in martyrdom, but we are connected.

This value means that I support spending some of my government’s money—taxes I paid, as a matter of fact—to help those in need. People with another value are quick to snarl that “those” people just take advantage and “those” people just want to use the system. I wonder if they’ve ever known any of “those” people. I doubt it. The ones I can quickly call to mind are quite privileged in a lot of ways and while loudly proclaiming themselves to be Christian, holding hands and praying, it’s hard to see any Christian values in action. So this value means that any vote I cast includes a concern about social welfare.

The world is not fair, but we should do what we can to make a difference. I think it’s a terrible situation that so few people own the bulk of the resources — money and power. I think it’s a terrible situation that our policies seem to operate from a position that hey, I got mine, you get yours, without any acknowledgement of our different starting places.

When I came out of graduate school, I had $50K in student loan debt. I’ll die with that debt. My daughters came out with student loan debt. My stepdaughter had everything paid for her and came out with zero debt, and a lot of resources given to her, in addition to that. They are not beginning on a level playing field. My daughters didn’t grow up in poverty, but they did not grow up with much. We always had a home and food, but they didn’t go away to fancy summer camps (my stepdaughter did), they couldn’t take advantage of programs offered by the school if they cost any money (my stepdaughter could and did), and they did not have parents with a college education. I got my education as they grew up, but even so their lives were difficult because of that — so it was less a benefit and more a difficulty. My stepdaughter had two parents with PhDs (and one stepfather most of her life with a PhD, and a stepmother from the age of 14 with a PhD…though all four are psychologists, so that’s perhaps a strike against her 🙂 ) and families on both sides with pretty great wealth. I’m not saying that my daughters should therefore be given something, but I am saying that it’s not a level playing field. And we are all white! When you add race (and gender, for that matter), the field gets rockier.

What this means is that I care about working toward seeing that disadvantaged people get help. This means I do not see them with contempt, and if there is a way I can help, I should. It’s a moral value. I should.

What this means is that I speak against the “I got mine, you get yours” position whenever I encounter it. I probably don’t have any power here, but it’s my value and I must do what I can when I can.

Really, all my political beliefs stem from that first value, and maybe everything stems from that first value, not just political beliefs. We are interconnected and are here to help each other when we can.

But I started this post with a dilemma, with a comment about being torn right now. The political discourse really is keeping me in a pretty bad place. I’m constantly agitated by it, and I easily slip into despair. So do I withdraw from it? (This would mainly mean stepping away from Facebook.) Is that hiding my head in the sand? It’s not like saying or doing anything on that platform makes one. bit. of. difference.

And then yesterday, in my despair, I read something by bell hooks:

bell hooks

And it occurred to me that I can think each morning, “What does Mister Rogers want me to do today?” And then I can decide what he would want me to do, and go into the world and in every way, small and large, build that community.

mister rogersThank you, Mister Rogers, for once again helping me live my life. For continuing to guide me as I try to figure out how to be a human being. This time the struggle is not with myself, it’s with the world, but it’s still a mighty struggle. Gentleness, kindness, saying the truth and living according to my values, helping when and where I can. Be one of the helpers instead of one of those setting fire.

a post, in two parts

PART I

The tide has turned. The worm has turned. It’s a beautiful morning. The world has turned. Morning has broken. And many other sayings like that.

Light is coming back. Light and air are coming back to me. Yesterday I actually laughed spontaneously, and I haven’t had “those” thoughts for three straight days, now. If bad language offends you, turn away (but then you probably aren’t one who reads my damn blog 🙂 ) — I think it’s fucking ending. Halle-fuckin-lujah. And thus ends the F word, in this post, anyway.

For you professional depression-havers out there, you know how it sidles up alongside you, a dark day turns into a week but you know, people have down weeks. A week slips into two, then three, and then you’re in it and don’t even remember that it ever was anything but this. I wish it announced itself in some way, that would make it all so much easier.

I told people slowly, very slowly, too slowly. One here, another there. This one. A hint of it to that one so as not to freak out that person. A secret group, and then another secret group, and then the last one, and then that last blog post and a public-ish post on open Facebook. Damn depression, the way it makes you unable to think and see! There was pretty much a linear correlation (thus ends the statistical stuff) between help I got and people I told. And a big duh right there. If I weren’t depressed I’d have caught it on the second person. So the next time this comes around, as I sadly imagine it will even as I hope it doesn’t, I hope I can remember this, and simply tell all my support people, my friends, those who love me, those I love, and accept the help they so generously give. Just do that. Tell, and as soon as you can. And as many people who love you as you can. You’ll know the ones who’ll get cold, or freak out, so don’t tell them but tell all the others, the ones who will rush toward you in even the slightest of ways.

This morning I was telling a group of friends about what this giant all-out launching of love has done for me, and a sweet little bit of writing slipped out of my fingertips so I’ll plagiarize myself: “this kind of love bombing I’ve been receiving ever since I went ‘public’ with it has been like a booster rocket, sending me above the ocean’s surface where I can take deep gulps of good air. And even if I go down again, I don’t go nearly as far.”  [pretty good imagery if I do say so myself. thank you, subconscious.]

Of course every time is different, and it’s different for every person (different each person x different each time = I can’t do the math but that’s a lot of instances), but I learned something this time that I want to try for others, and I hope to ask for, for myself. When you are way down in the hole, people who love you remind you how much they love you, and of course they do, and you know it even if you can’t feel it while you’re down there. But the nasty little sentences I was resisting were these: No one would miss you. It wouldn’t matter if you just died.

People not only showed up, they gently took me out for a drink, for dinner, they held my hand and looked into my eyes and told me what I meant to them, they told me they understood because they suffer depression, they sent me little notes, or they bought me music, or they wrote me letters, or they sent me gifts. They listened to me with great heart and compassion, and I could see it in their glowing eyes. They pinged me every single morning asking how I was, darling, and sometimes again at night. If I said it was really really bad, I got good practical advice — go outside and take a very fast walk, go do it now. And text me when you’re back.

And sometimes they wrote out what it would mean to them if I weren’t here. And there it was, the very real argument against those miserable thoughts. Liar! She would be devastated, and in these particular ways! Liar! Her world would change in these particular ways! Liar! Liar! Liar! Not only were those like silver bullets against the thoughts, they were also overwhelmingly wonderful to read — not that people would suffer, but that my presence in their life means all those things.

And so I will carry this with me out of the darkness, and not just wait until someone is depressed to tell them what they mean in my life, how important they are in the very fiber of my life, but tell them all. (I mean, not all the time, for heaven’s sake. 🙂 )  You might file this away for the next time someone you love is severely depressed. It may or may not help them, but there is no way it can hurt. And maybe it will just make them feel too guilty to leave. Whatever works, man. Whatever works.

Part II

Just the right person came into my life at just the right time. I didn’t recognize it at the beginning, because I was too far gone in grief and loss, and she went out of the country for six months. I kind of feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for her, but don’t tell her that, she’ll get embarrassed.

I’ll only be able to explain her importance when I write the dedication and acknowledgements for my memoir, but thanks to her, it’s an entirely different book now, and it’s amazing and flowing. Yesterday I wrote for five hours straight, non-stop, two chapters, 7326 words. I could have written chapter 3 and chapter 4, probably, if I didn’t have to stop and clean the kitchen and brush my teeth and go to bed. (And take my mighty-strong extra antidepressant, which is also part of the equation in addition to all that love bombing.)

And so my silence here is probably going to be prolonged, but for a very different reason. I actually have two books to finish, one the publisher is waiting for, and I’m ~75% through, and the one I’m writing now, like a river flowing out of me, and I want to spend all my non-working time on these two writing projects. My friend turned the dial so it’s oriented at a different angle, said a magic sentence, and flipped the switch. How can I ever thank her enough.

So many people have helped me, I’d need an index-length acknowledgement to include them all, and I hope you know who you are if you read this. For everyone who said a little something, sent a little smile, told me to write, gave me your attention, your love, allowed me to give those to you, I am forever in your debt.

bearing witness

In my own life, which has had an abundance of pain and trauma, I’ve had people very close to me tell me they couldn’t bear to hear a story, or perhaps they just withdrew in the midst of things and said they couldn’t bear it. As if I could! I couldn’t either, but I didn’t have a choice. And by telling me that they’re sorry, they couldn’t bear it, they are putting me outside humanity, in a way, though I doubt they realize that.

There is a photo in the media of a small dead boy in the surf, a refugee child, and many people are upset because the picture is there. Because they have to see it, because it’s too upsetting. IT IS! When I look at it I literally become unable to breathe. I have to turn my head for a moment so the hard lump gets out of my chest and throat, so I can take a breath eventually. That little boy, face down in the surf, could be Oliver in a different world. It’s excruciating. And people make all kinds of sophisticated arguments about the picture — it’s voyeurism, it’s unethical, it’s not doing anything but upsetting people, etc.

Does looking at the picture accomplish anything? What is served by my looking at it and getting so upset that I can’t breathe? It doesn’t put money in the hands of organizations and people who are able to help, that’s for sure. So what is the point?

I can bear witness. I can know what’s happening in the world, I can see that people are dying left and right in an effort to get their families to safety. By not turning my head, or turning the page, I can bear witness. It may be all I can do, but I can bear witness. I can know. The knowledge hurts. Since we have a little boy in our family it’s not a theoretical hurt, it’s specific. The little boy that we have seen in the surf is just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have died. Adult men and women, young people, children, babies. And that doesn’t even count the people being murdered, the reason all these people are fleeing.

Why the picture? You could just read all the articles and learn what’s happening. I don’t know about you, but I have not read all the articles. I have not read many articles. I’ve had a vague awareness based on headlines only. But that picture forced me to know.

What does it mean if I turn away and refuse to look, refuse to know? Doing that means I privilege my own delicate sensibilities and put my fingers in my ears and say la la la la la!! I say, “Well, I know enough.” And maybe you do know enough! I’m just talking about me, and thinking this through. I’m sharing it here in case it’s something you hadn’t thought about, and perhaps you want to think about it, too. To ME, refusing to look is like living in the smoke shadow of a concentration camp and turning your head away, stuffing rags in the cracks of the windows so you don’t have to see it, smell it, know it.

My bearing witness means those people’s suffering is seen. They’d much rather have a home, food, safety, but not having those things and having the world turn away because it’s too hard to see, how AWFUL that is. Bearing witness feels like the absolute least I can do.

OandP090215The father of the little dead boy is the only surviving member of his family, and he has said that “the world has nothing for me now. I just want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.” Me, I get to see Oliver whenever I like, I get to hold him and laugh, watch him toddle away to chase a dog, carefully pick up bites of cheese quesadilla or watermelon. Me, I get to see Katie whenever I like, be in the presence of my daughter, talk to her, hug her. I get to talk to Marnie whenever I like, and see her when I can. If something happens, I get to go help them. If they need something, I ache if I can’t help them because they are everything to me. And if I lost all of them, I imagine I would feel just like that poor father. How can I decide it’s just too hard to look, and just hold my kids and grandson as if that’s the whole world?

It’s very hard to look. It really is. It’s so hard it makes me hurt, physically. It makes my chest hurt. I can’t catch a breath. My eyes fill with tears. My whole body aches. I can’t stay sitting in my comfortable chair, I tear my eyes away and stand up and pace, not seeing anything as I wander around my comfortable home. And eventually I can breathe again, and when the story comes up in the news, or the picture — and others — present themselves, I take a deep breath and prepare myself and bear witness. It’s the least I can do.