Flowers for graduation

My eldest finished high school this week, including the traditional march across the stage, and I’ve got all the feels. When you have a baby, they warn you of sleepless nights and dirty diapers. But they don’t mention that there comes a moment when you have to applaud the fact that your baby is no longer your baby.

We don’t follow many traditions in our home, and I can’t recall buying flowers, well, ever, but to mark this occasion, I grabbed some tulips and mini-carnations when I was in the store. I found one of my mother’s pottery pieces and, as you do, began to estimate where I should cut the stems before placing them in the tiny pitchers. I hesitated about cutting them, knowing that it would shorten how long the flowers might last. I reminded myself that these are cut flowers, meant to fill a space with light and joy for the moment, not forever.

Variety and consistency are key

I’ve been more successful this year in cultivating an exercise habit. Avoiding human contact has meant I haven’t caught colds or non-headline-grabbing viruses, and so far (knock on all things wooden) I haven’t pulled a muscle or injured myself in some way that would cause me to lose all momentum. The biggest break in the routine was the week after I received the second dose of the moderna vaccine. I was wiped out on day two, and just a little lower energy and babying myself the rest of the week, trying to encourage my immune system to put on its superhero cape.

In a workout video, a trainer stated that “variety and consistency are key,” and this year I’ve definitely added more variety to my workouts, including more time and more intensity. I’ve also discovered that I do better if I take one day off each week and switch each day between high intensity and lower intensity workouts.

But this advice made me wonder if I should aim for the same in my writing. I admit that I make more progress if I identify one main project as my top priority, either for the day or for the foreseeable future. Consistency tends to help. If I work each day or every other day on a novel, for example, even if just for a half an hour, the story simmers on a back burner in my brain the rest of the time, and ideas come to me at random moments. I’ve even gotten better about writing those stray ideas down. So consistency and habits of some sort work for me. Variety, now that’s an interesting idea, even if it sounds almost antithetical to consistency. For example, compare a consistent diet of one type of food versus a diet full of variety. But I guess the distinction is that one should be consistent in making some kind of effort, or starting over after essential breaks, but also aim for some variety in the actual activity. I realize that I have also found it helpful to designate one or two days a week as “pressure-free.” That is, if I want to write, great. If I don’t, that’s cool too.

I like to dabble with various forms of creative and reflective writing. Yet I found that I am more successful if I work on whatever I’ve deemed top priority first. If I dabble first, that effort often saps most of my writing energy.

But I know that a certain playfulness helps me too, at least to enjoy life in general. I want to believe playfulness improves my writing. If nothing else, it supports my ability to keep writing.

I am on summer break from my part-time job at the local university so this is a good time for me to experiment to see if and how I can add more variety to what I write. I noted on the blog post by S.G. Browne that writing for fun can help when one hits a wall in the longer project.

So I will explore ways to add some variety while still making the top priority work, um, top priority. Stay tuned! I’ll report back later this summer on how it’s going.

Holding space for emergent occasions

I’ve been itching to write posts on light topics, to immerse myself in the inconsequential, but I have a few thoughts gnawing at me, like a splinter that needs to be removed.I just need to take a breath and be present, acknowledging losses as well as the grief and trauma felt by those left behind.

Some of the losses are worldwide—more than 3.3 million people have died, according to the NY Times (and I’ve heard this is an undercount). I sometimes see photos of people in Covid19 memorials on different media outlets (PBS NewHour, for example). It hurts to see their smiling faces, caught in a better moment. It is almost puzzling, this moment where you think, “But they were fine then….”

There are also losses closer to home—one of those human landmine moments occurred here in Boone, when a tortured young man committed homicide and suicide, including two members of law enforcement sent for a welfare check. Many of us know the families affected in one way or another, including neighbors shaken by this event, reminding us that tranquility is sometimes an illusion.

A young man on a motorcycle died in a car crash a few weeks later.

Others leave us with less fanfare, from age, from illness, from some other long-simmering challenge. Or due to ancient malice, the recurring flash points of war or violence exploding around the world.

I know it’s a bit dusty, but what makes the most sense to me comes from John Donne’s devotions, which I transcribe this way: No one is an island, entire of itself; every human is a piece of the continent….Any death diminishes me, because I am involved in humanity. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

That is, whether I know the person who died or not, each death is a loss to us all. We need everyone. I may connect or feel a loss more strongly depending on how I relate to or how well I know the person, but each death matters no matter who dies, or why, or how. It feels sometimes as if people try to build some kind of distance from these deaths, maybe even pick a side, feeling sympathy for one death but not another. I understand the impulse, but I think this too diminishes us. The experience of grief can vary, but it exists nonetheless. We are part of everything that happens, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

I also find comfort in these dusty readings too:

Do not go gently into that good night by Dylan Thomas.
We may know death is inevitable, but we never have to accept it.

And Thomas’ Fern Hill, expressing joy and sorrow at the speed with which our days fly past.

Enough.

Even before our world turned upside down and/or made all of our fault lines even more distinct, I wanted to reflect on the concept of enough. If I am allowed to be judge-y this morning, and even if it is my blog, I am not sure it’s a good idea, but still, I tend to define as toxic the insatiable desire for more that permeates my culture. Whatever you have, your job, your house, your car… there is this tendency to want more. To feel as if you are missing out or failing if you don’t get more of something, somehow.

One of my superpowers (and alas, it falters at times) is to be content with enough. Or at least, to try to be. And if necessary, redefine or be creative about what I see as enough. What is enough? This moment, this breath, can sometimes be enough. The sunlight casting a pattern across the room. The birds singing as if it is spring. Kind words from a friend or a stranger.

It is daunting, though, to write on this topic now as I worry about people who do not have enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough human contact, enough medicine. It is hard right now to have enough hope, even though that is something we can, sometimes painfully, try to construct on our own.

There is a saying that I’ve seen out in the world, a bumper sticker, I think: Live simply so that others may simply live. Is it possible, and I ask this sincerely, to find ways to be content with enough so that others might, too?

Hold on.

This weekend I was pondering what to write on my blog today. I thought I might list all the people I am worrying about, fellow humans who I do not know but who are in extreme danger. Syria comes to mind often. Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan. People around the world and within my country living in places in a permanent state of violence and/or deprivation. All the refugees adrift in a world that itself is coming adrift with each passing day. Individuals who are made vulnerable by circumstances or systematic oppression. And the people who are not in extreme danger but who are experiencing heartbreak of the small kinds. Perhaps something they have worked for and planned for is suddenly crashing to a halt due to this pandemic. Or who took what seemed like a small risk in 2019, a new venture of some sort, that now appears catastrophic in 2020.

I am not especially comfortable with organized religion, but I have a spiritual side. A phrase from the American Friends Society always resonates with me: I will hold you in the light, one says, the way others might say I will pray for you. I like the idea of light, the echoes of healing, of renewal, of better days, of hope and possibility. I like the idea that I might be able to hold someone in the light, that this is an action I can take to make the world a better place. I am holding you in the light. Everyone, really. I send out light, hope, and love to the world.

As I write these words, the first two weeks of Full Scale Pandemic Alert have passed, and the threat has become very real, and in some places, nightmarish. It is predicted that in two more weeks, we will reach the peak moment when we are least able to manage the spread of Covid19.

I don’t know how to prepare for that. I hide away. I peek at the news, then turn it off when it threatens to overwhelm me. I take deep breaths, trying to make sense of the knowledge that a worldwide disaster is unfolding, slowly in some places, and at light speed in others.

Hold on.

End of week one

It may be helpful that my current goal is to blog once a week on Mondays. Weekly posts may give me some kind of measure to keep track of what is happening, so many seismic changes even as time seems to slow down. Today marks the first full week of Nothing Is Normal in my neck of the woods (schools closed, work halted, more people have heard of Social Distancing). So here’s a weekly check-in, of sorts.

On March 12, I began jotting down key data points from the New York Times map of the virus (and it is true that different sources provide slightly different counts). At that time, 127,800 people had been tracked with the virus. 4,718 had died. In the US, around 1,200 had the virus. I didn’t jot down the number of US deaths until a few days later.

As of this morning, 341,500 identified worldwide; 15,187 have died. 33,018 identified in the U.S., and 428 have died. And based on the slowly improving but still insufficient amount of testing available, those numbers likely do not show the full picture. The story of what is actually happening will not be told for several years, I fear.

An odd thought came to mind just now. In movies, there is sometimes the dark trope of a person falling from an airplane or off a tall building, plummeting to a certain death. I have always wondered what someone thinks about during such a fall, because nothing hurts yet. Everything that you know, everything that you are, is still the same, still intact. The ground below must seem like an illusion. And all of the actions that one usually takes for self-protection or survival are suddenly futile.

It’s not a pleasant thought, I know, and I am hoping that human ingenuity, compassion, and sense of community will outpace human frailties to help us survive this current state of free fall.

One note: The New York Times shared a report today based on extensive interviews with health experts (rather than the random guesses of someone who studied something once) that laid out what needs to happen, so I will share that link here, in case you are curious   https://nyti.ms/3dkfoCc

Viral anxiety

This weekend I became an expert in epidemiology. No, not really, but you’d think that was my goal. The past few weeks have not been ideal in terms of limiting the time I spend on Twitter or skimming the news. It’s been several years of what feel like daily shocks running the gamut from cringes to gut punches. I stumble to find a response, any response, to all that is happening.

Today my mind is still sifting through what I’ve read. There’s a story I can’t tell in detail because it belongs to a loved one under 18, who went through a nightmare of a health crisis a few years ago. At a moment when we felt most helpless to understand what was going on or how to stop the suffering, we had to go back to the doctor’s office during the height of flu season. I walked as if in a dream because I couldn’t imagine how to deal with what was already happening AND the added risk of flu.

As of today, though, my loved one’s crisis has abated. On the other hand, I have a beloved parent in assisted living, another beloved parent with respiratory issues, both over 80, not to mention friends battling cancer, others living with asthma, and quite a few working in health care. For all of them, coronavirus is one more threat among many ongoing risks.

Though we learn more each day, none of us know what to expect from this coronavirus. My new online colleagues in the field of epidemiology make clear that without sufficient testing and mitigation, we will reach new levels of crisis within weeks and may have to endure several really tough months. But none of us know what will happen, not for certain.

What is certain is that so many people who already bear heavy loads, including just the challenge to make it from one day to the next, are weighed down even more by the thought of what might lie ahead.

I feel that weight, too. So let me hold us all in the light, as the Friends say. And I will do so every time I wash my hands, like a prayer going out into the world around me. I can’t do everything, but I can do this much to keep you healthy. To let you know that it matters to me what you are going through. Hold on. Stay in the light.

Slow Down

Today’s affirmation arrived over a decade ago. I was attending a professional development workshop that included an optional visualization activity in which you identify an obstacle to your success. For me, the obstacle itself was unclear, but my reaction was to whisper to myself, “Slow down.”

Those words made sense to me. In order to achieve goals that matter to me, I need to slow down rather than hurry up. Not stop. Not avoid. Not hide. Keep working but accept that it takes time for the work to unfold. It reminds me of when I took art classes and the goal was to look again and again at the model to see what I was missing in my attempt to draw what was in front of me. It took hours.

I’ve heard and read similar advice in recent years for writers specifically. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sulky about this advice. I don’t want to slow down. I want to be some kind of super-writer, soaring across the pages, generating enviable daily word counts that amaze every reader. Every reader! (Ha. I had to rewrite that phrase because it reminds me of another thing that makes me sulky as a writer is the fact that I won’t be able to connect with every reader. In fact, the only way to connect with every reader is to say almost nothing, and that seems, um, pointless.)

This advice also reminds me, at least as a caution, of one of my favorite pieces of advice from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes a man leaning his ladder against a wall and climbing up the ladder as fast as possible. The man appears to be moving quickly, but what good is this effort if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? In time management terms, you have to slow down at least long enough to find the right wall. Make sure that your efforts are leading you in the right direction.

I suppose this affirmation relates well for where I am right now. I have been taking stock of my writing and re-assessing next steps. It makes me feel restless and uprooted. I am much happier when I am in the thick of a longer writing project. The direction is set, and I can move forward, sometimes quite rapidly. Even then, though, I reach a point when the work grows unwieldy, and I have to navigate more choices and search for changes to make it better. No matter where I am in the process, I always observe other writers generating a constant flow of polished, published works while I move at what is sometimes a snail’s pace within an endless round of not-yet-finished drafts.

Our culture is not a fan of slowing down. I am a bit amused by the memes of people outraged that someone in front of them in traffic is moving more slowly than necessary. The sight of someone paying by check rather than a card seems to wound the people waiting in line at the grocery store. The assumption is that if we aren’t moving quickly, we are falling behind.

But what if the only way to do something well, to say what you mean to say, to fix a problem rather than put a band-aid on it, is to move slowly, thoughtfully, forward? Of course there will be moments when the best response is a quick response, especially in an emergency. And then there’s the siren song of procrastination, so I guess I need to remember that slowing down is not the same as NOT doing the work. It is okay to be slow. This is not a race, not if “this” is something meaningful.

Let others pelt down paths that might lead nowhere. Find your own path. Take one step forward. Another. Breathe. That one step forward is the destination, no matter how small or gradual the movement.

laptop

Relaxed and happy

So one of my oldest affirmations, or perhaps, quasi-affirmation, or well, if I am honest, this was my mission statement in 1994, so I was young, and this sentence is now violating so many grammar rules that I think I will start again. Ahem. One of my oldest affirmations is “Be relaxed and happy like that woman we met in the grocery store.”

Impressive, hmm? Clear as mud. So a mission statement is a statement of what you want to be in the moment, not what you want to accomplish or possess. Around the time I was developing this mission statement, my now-husband and I ran into this woman he knew in a grocery store, and she was super relaxed and laughing as we chatted with her, and I thought, yes, that’s how I would like to be.

It wasn’t all I wanted to accomplish, but there was something admirable about not tackling every activity with a turbo charge but rather taking a breath and appreciating that which brings joy rather than focusing only on that which elicits sorrow, rage, or despair.

As I mentioned, I am revisiting my affirmations to bolster my commitment to writing, so I might explore briefly what this affirmation could mean for me as a writer. Relaxing instead of writing would not be what I want, but relaxing as I tackle my writing projects could be beneficial. What if I allow my writing to be a way to relax and smile, to celebrate the moment?

Can I make progress on anything if I am relaxed and happy as I work? Such an approach defies the Puritan work ethic. Can the act of writing be something positive and fulfilling? Can some of the issues I want to unpack be serious and consequential, at least to me, yet the work itself still allow me to be relaxed and happy? Can I be a caring, engaged part of the greater community and be relaxed and happy? At least, some of the time?

I know that my being stressed and miserable does not help anyone else, and it tends to undermine my ability to support others or create anything worthwhile. Being relaxed and happy does not mean I am not pursuing ongoing growth and improvement. Nor do I have to pretend that it is possible to be relaxed and happy all the time, nor that writing isn’t sometimes a difficult and frustrating activity. Indeed, as I think about it, what I most need is not necessarily to feel relaxed every time I write, but to relax rather than worry about what I am writing or where it is leading. Or how long it takes to get there.

Listening Notes: 1619 podcast, Episode 5, Part 2

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/podcasts/1619-slavery-farm-loan-discrimination.html

“The Land of Fathers, Part 2” is the last episode of the 1619 podcast series.

Phew. This podcast picks up where it left off by highlighting the weight of the grief and loss experienced by a family of African American sugar cane farmers. They compare the way this family was treated by a bank (perhaps better described as sabotage) with a landmark class action law suit on behalf of African American farmers.

I hope you have listened to this series of podcasts, too, especially so you can get the impact directly rather than through my comments. I will share some of my takeaway points, which will likely make more sense if you have listened to the episode.

First, the bank that sabotaged this family was doing so with money provided by federal government, specifically the USDA. In fact, I learned something about how this works in the alarming book that I blogged about earlier called the Fifth Risk. Banks often tout how much they are helping the community when the truth is, they are just a conduit for federal support. In the Fifth Risk, the author even documented one time when a conservative legislator pointed to one such loan as an example of how private enterprise solves problems better than the government.

So basically, this bank used my tax dollars to undermine this family by giving the family less than what was needed to succeed and by providing it to them too late in the season to succeed.

I was curious if the reporter asked the belligerent white man who now owns this family’s farm if he believed it possible to farm well without the funds or the time to do so? By the way, is it just me, or does it start to feel like, what’s the word, a ‘tell’ when someone like that gets angry, it usually means he knows that he is not in the right but he’d rather get mad than make amends?

It is painful to reflect on this episode and think, hmm, setting people up to fail, lying about what happened, and blaming individuals rather than the larger system… that sure sounds familiar, as if it is the same game plan used throughout history by people without morals, conscience, or any kind of guide rails who are pretty much steering our world to devastation right now.

This episode also made me think about farming as a so-called private enterprise, and I wound up having so much to say that I will move it to another post because it is somewhat tangential to this podcast (though some of those connection points are significant).

The last takeaway is based on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s parting comments at the end. I realize that I tend to be most concerned that injustice and discrimination are happening today, and they are built on what happened before, and that is absolutely a problem, but there is also a parallel question of how to reckon with what has happened, how to acknowledge it, how to make sure that this knowledge informs how we move forward. And that reckoning is painful and infuriatingly elusive,

Given her statements here and elsewhere, I worry about and also deeply respect the way she engages in this work given the emotional toll it can take.

Which is why I want to return now to the closing lines of the podcast episode by Wesley Morris reflecting on the history of Black music, which I will copy below, because it hints at a way to keep fighting while allowing for the possibility of joy:

What you respond to in black music is an ultimate expression of belief in that freedom, the belief that the struggle is worth it, that the pain begets joy, and that that joy you’re experiencing is not only contagious, it’s necessary and urgent and irresistible. (Wesley Morris)