I am a passionate listener to voices from many sources. Ideally, every conversation is a learning one and attentive listening makes that possible. This blog is the chance of a lifetime to share the fruits of so many edifiying listening experiences with friends who have appetites for inquiry and dialogue.
A Piece of Scarf
I've made you a piece of scarf.
Yes, a piece of scarf.
It's blue and bluish in a
crisscross kind of pattern I've just learned
called a basket weave.
Except it's not a basket
and I didn't weave it.
It's a piece of scarf.
Quite striking actually,
interesting at the very least.
And yes, I suppose it is only the very least
a piece of scarf you can never wear,
you can never wrap around your neck
or drape over your shoulders.
It's only a piece, mind you.
A piece of scarf
for you, though
a token of my affection
a hint of warmth and coziness
that I can't quite deliver in full.
A piece of scarf that is visible
in its incompletion,
whose potential shows up
in thousands of missing stitches.
Es hilft nichts
Da ist nichts zu machen
Das wird nichts mehr
You are hitting a wall. You pick at projects rather than dig in. You know there will be an end but at this stage that is mere abstraction. Every haul you make to the recycling center merits a cookie and you take it in other forms: a beer, an ice cream float, leftover Christmas chocolate. One day there will be cookies again, but not now.
You now have a deadline. A point by which you need to have your sh*t together and ready to leave. This is singularly clarifying. You have to beat the clock, or in this case, the calendar. It’s not so much a rush as it is a test of your organizational capacity. Attention to detail without losing sight of the big picture. Can you do that? Can you focus long enough, wisely enough, operationally enough? That’s a rhetorical question. Don’t tangle yourself up trying to answer, just go to one of those corners get back in the game.
The nightstand you at least cleared. The books form piles against the wall awaiting for their next station. The nightstand is still not entirely empty but it no longer holds untold secrets of the last dozen years or the caking of dust that protected them. As you pick apart these long undisturbed collections of books you also come across journal after journal where you really have to search for the year. Chronicled hurt, joy, love and plans – so many, many words of you trying to tell yourself your own story. The infinite process, right? Of course you have to keep them all and yet they shall find no universal reunion. They will not be herded into a sensible archive for posterity. Too much order has never been your style. That can be both charm and a drag. Preparing this move offers a lot of drag with minimal charm. It’s bound to get better.
Is it funny to you that the word “invent” now only leads you to “inventory”? You cannot walk into a single room without scanning its contents for trouble. You see work that looms. You are constantly categorizing what must go and what to keep. Every surface that must be freed of its contents seems to mock you.
The kitchen dares you to even think of laying a finger to it. “I just fed you! You cannot possibly reduce me to pieces and parts!” And it has a point. Yes, the kitchen will likely be the last harbor of stasis. Proceed cautiously. Try gathering first from the distant edges: the deep recesses of the lower cabinets. Extras of everything that you never needed these 12 years but simply held anyway. Who needs 15 plastic water bottles? Or what about that stash of disposable chopsticks? You can keep them but give them a better home next time around (the chopsticks, not the water bottles). Of course like all these other projects of removal you will be called to reminisce as well. You will find forgotten gifts, ornamental artifacts which wait patiently for their arrival into public view, plus more candles than you know what to do with. Get rid of it all, pass it on. Someone else may benefit.
Emptying and filling boxes. It feels like this is all you’ll ever do for weeks (besides go to work, cook, shop, etc.). Some nights it may feel like doubt is slipping into the room to smother you. It’s OK if you need to get up and shake off some dread. The boxes will be ready and waiting for your return. “My life in boxes” you’ll think while you sort. That’s right: your boxes, your life, your stuff.
You’re making progress. It may not seem like it yet but when you reach the later stages, you’ll thank yourself. After a second pass through the main bookshelves, you create new towers of paperback manuals – for parenting, teaching, coaching, meditating, communicating, understanding the world. These too will not really be missed. Still it’s an idea you struggle with, at least briefly. By now you have sharpened your book-to-box spatial ratio awareness. It’s actually amazing how differently books occupy a space based on how they’re positioned. Once they’re packed up so efficiently, it would be a shame not to see them off to the second-hand vendor.
You pat yourself on the back. You can do this.
You walk into other rooms: the son’s, your own bedroom, the back room, the kitchen. It dawns on you: there are books everywhere! In and on your nightstand, on top of the son’s dresser and in the corner behind his bed, on that extra odd sized chair in the kitchen, not to speak of the shelves in the back room. You have built a life with books. It’s that simple. Forgive yourself. Count your blessings and keep weeding. Not every book ever acquired must remain in your care and possession. Move on to other areas.
The bathroom. Take it one drawer at a time, start from the bottom and work your way up. Unused bath mats, old sponges, odd containers that never came into use. All of that into the bag. You’re warmed up, the rest will go quickly. All those ridiculous gift soaps and scrubs, bath oils and nail polishes – once or never opened – dump them! The candle you lit one winter night when your pre-schooler was finally in bed and you dared to draw yourself a hot bath and play an old Tony Braxton CD. Well, after collecting dust these past 8 years you can finally remove it from from the forest of tall standing packages of creams, shampoos and lotions. Surprisingly heavy when you pick it up, this Yankee candle – all it did for these many years was take up space. Pitch it and you immediately become lighter.
Why hold onto old toothbrushes, baby hair brushes, nail files and razors? Astounding how effortlessly these details collect and hide their existence. There’s little negotiation needed here. So much is expired, perhaps ever hazardous by now. It costs you next to nothing to add their collective weight to the bag and claim the Bathroom temporarily conquered. Lift the bag, grab your shoes, dispose of today’s booty of miscellany with joy.
The bathroom was an easy target after all – low hanging fruit, as they say. You know what? You’ll take it. Book the win and keep it moving.
Listen carefully. This is how you dismantle a household:
You begin by shedding; getting rid of stuff. Begin in the back, wherever that is for you, and work towards the front. Those boxes you never unpacked from the last move over a decade ago? You’ll have to make a decision: keep or dump? Open up and wonder or keep it closed and drag it along. Move on to something easier. The stained mattress that’s holding up the wall? That can go. That faded blue chair holding plastic bags of random balls of yarn? Keep the yarn, say goodbye to the chair. Books and papers piled high on flat surfaces? Weed the books. Make stacks of those that have outlived their active service, you will not miss them. I know, they’re books, but you’ll take them to a place where they’ll line up with other books, ridiculous books you’d never known existed, and those books that used to be yours will be swallowed into the mass of other people’s discards. It’s OK. Many books never even make it this far. You’ve done your best and they’ve done theirs. Say goodbye.
Toys. So much waste! Get rid of as much as possible. This is all the stuff you can’t give away to friends with younger kids. You can really only pitch the majority of it. Stray Lego pieces, Chocolate egg surprises, monumental plastic detritus in boxes, bags – all forgotten and irrelevant now, yet urgently desired at the time of acquisition. There’s a sweet revenge to seeing these micro momentos meet their end. Collectors of dust! Hazards to bare feet! Oh, but it’s harder with the soft creatures! To send them off in unceremonious fashion, you’d have to be a kind of monster. The pandas, bunnies blue and beige, ducks and doggies, fluffy and furry with the patience of saints. They wait to catch your eye, to pierce your otherwise rugged shell and trigger a fountain of warm memories. You cannot possibly let me go, I belong to your past, your present, your future, they say, almost in chorus. Oh my God, they know you, they know your children, they have you cornered. Collect a few and put them in the washer. If you must take them with you, they will at least be less dusty.
You are still in the back, mind you. It will seem like you are stuck here but at some point you will emerge. Promise. Don’t get discouraged. Keep coming back. Bring your mental shovel and just take one small pile after the other. Dig, sort, remove. Dig, sort, remove. Distinguishing between history and trash gets easier. There’s no need to hold onto every thing you’ve ever written. Leave a bit of a puzzle behind. It will make your legacy ultimately more interesting. That’s what I tell myself, at least. Give back the painting you never intended to hang up. Release the unused massage table from its storage room confinement. The blue chest of age old children’s refuse? Empty and clean it – repurpose for holding growing things. This will be a relief in the long run: to have salvaged and gently reclaimed a thing. A silent ode to middle age.
Space is beginning to show itself in the gaps where things used to be. Ever so slowly a sense of control returns. You are no longer as beholden to objects that seemed for a moment to own you. Whether you see it or not, you are creating freedom. In fact, freedom becomes action. You are freeing yourself. Keep going. Don’t stop short. Yes, it means disposing of things that are not directly yours. You are a parent making decisions for your children. Tough luck. They also don’t get to take everything with them. Out with the old math workbooks and kindergarten art projects, stacks of prized manga, a kite that never flew, the rod and reel that never met a fish. Some things can be recycled; carried to a place where other children will find favor with a wooden sword and painted shield. Not all will be lost, lost. As you collect such objects, you may need to remind yourself that the process will not be perfect but in each moment that you persist, it is decisive and that is what counts now. Disposal need not be painless, but always purposeful.
When you are pregnant in Austria, you receive a booklet called the Mutter-Kind Pass (Mother-Child pass) which records all the exams during pregnancy, details of the birth and forms for mandated doctor visits including the immunization schedule for the first 2 years. As a mother I found it an incredibly useful and reassuring thing to have since it kept so much information in one place. It also saved me from having to think too much about what needed to be done. I’m a rule follower so the document hit my compliance sweet spot.
Looking back, I can say that the document provides an effective public health nudge to parents. For every encounter with physicians from pregnancy through the first two years, there’s a place to collect and track a slice of family health information. While I was able to see myself as a beneficiary of sound public health policy, through my compliance I also became an agent of public health. Few of us think of public health until there’s a crisis.
Author Eula Biss invites us to accompany her on a journey to understand the interplay between health, immunity, disease and society. On Immunity: An Inoculation was published in 2014. In it Biss asks readers to consider how we arrive at and think about public health, particularly in response to disease prevention through immunization. To follow her lead in 2021 through this multifaceted and complex set of topics in the midst of a global pandemic feels like a lifeline I didn’t realize I needed.
COVID-19 has put us all on notice: We are interdependent. Public health is a shared endeavor. Individual actions hold consequences for the community with or without direct intention. That so many folks choose their personal privilege to publicly shop, dine, socialize, etc. over the opportunity to make their communities safer for everyone by putting those activities on hold tells us a lot about the trouble we are already in. Capitalist consumerism (and its destructive toll) seems determined to have the last word; sooner rather than later.
Eula Biss raises questions in these connected essays that offer us dry ground in an informational swampland. How are we related to each other in health and illness? Who is responsible for the health of the community? Which metaphors do we use to talk about immunity and how do they inform our actions? What does it mean as a parent to protect our children? I found myself both unsettled and sobered through these explorations. In each chapter we learn precisely how deeply these questions and their answers overlap and intersect. Biss consistently acknowledges the dark, the murky, the foreboding and the promising.
In considering the nature of risk perception drawing on research by Cass Sunstein, she notes
“…risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk as much as it is about immeasurable fear. Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us.” (p. 37)
I’ve been thinking about this quote ever since reading it the first time. Yes, our fears are dear to us. In an age where disinformation can take hold in the popular imagination faster and more fervently than ever, those dear fears mutate into an arsenal of potentially deadly actions (or inaction) that can hold communities hostage. We are living this reality right now as anti-maskers continue to assert their right to put themselves and others at risk of infection. The fear: that their rights (power) are being removed or curtailed. The threat of illness (to themselves or others) is not permitted to enter the discussion. Fear can make us do outrageous things. Our positional sense of power will influence our sense of appropriate measures we can and should take to counter those fears. In a different context I wonder about how the most entitled among us may respond when they feel threatened: call the police, demand protection, escalate violence, claim immunity.
Biss raises the question “What will we do with our fear?” (p. 152) And I have to acknowledge that it very much depends on who you are and where the fear is coming from. Throughout the book, she bears witness to the ways in which race, class and gender impact who is most often in a position to decide how medical care will be administered and whose health will be prioritized in the face of contagious and other forms of disease. Eula Biss does not allow readers to dwell solely in the realm of well educated middle class whiteness from which she hails. She shows us other times, places and circumstances and how these connect to a present day health care system which still caters to privilege.
On Immunity is a work of tremendous care and nuance. Where we might be inclined to jump to conclusions, Biss offers us earnest words of caution. In describing the tendency of anti-vax adherents to buy into shaky research, she suggests that they
“…are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used – to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.
Believing that vaccination causes devastating diseases allows us to tell ourselves a story we already know: what heals can harm and the sum of science is not always progress.” (p. 70)
Her use of “we” is instructive. Underscoring the interconnectedness of individuals, communities and societies, she reminds us that “we are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here…Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.” (p. 20)
Biss refuses to cast us in our anticipated roles. She resists painting sides with a broad brush. On the contrary, she uses detail from immunology, the history of medicine, vampire literature, and personal experience as a parent and daughter to provide us multiple ideas which both contribute to and complicate our understanding of disease and society. In the end, we are still in the swamp but perhaps better able to appreciate all the ways we are also of the swamp that we create on the daily.
The pandemic has not yet left us. As the vaccine rollout reaches larger numbers we can begin to hope for better days, safe in the company of friends and family. Some of us have learned more than our fair share about the limits of a society running on unchecked capitalism and worker disposability. The weight of our losses will bear down on us longer than we can imagine. Given the socio-historical moment I am grateful to have spent time with this exceptional writing. I step away mindful of my role in supporting public health and also wary of the faith I have to place in others to keep society afloat. The more I know, the more I fret. Thanks to Eula Biss my fretting at least has a home away from home.
I’m not a tidy individual. I believe in allowing things to collect and form piles. 2020 held a lot; created more than its fair share of exhaust, debris, residue. There’s a lot of this particular year I will be relieved to leave behind me. And yet, here’s this list just the same. Stuff not only happened; I made some stuff happen. Opportunities opened up. I walked in and said yes. It seems important, perhaps more important than usual to lay claim to what I and you and everyone still managed to accomplish in 2020, despite 2020. Even if it’s simply a note to self.
Earlier this year I wrote about feeling confident, like a *&#$=/ Boss, in fact. I said, “ make sure you own some confidence somewhere. And feed it.” Making list is one way to feed that confidence for later days.
If I were looking for a title I might choose The Wrong Feelings. The wrong feelings, you know,
one of these feelings is not like the others…
Or can you see which feeling does not belong?
Child’s play essentially / so easy to spot because
of course THEY ARE THE WRONG FEELINGS
Anyone can see that!
The wrong feelings put tears in the soup, rage in the linen closet,
simple ass frustration under the underwear.
The wrong feelings love white bread and dark beer mixed with ginger ale
Will take vanilla ice cream also with ginger ale and a shot of rum well after 9pm
but just before 10.
The wrong feelings shun exercise and meditation, feel like
yeah, been there, done that, nah.
My very wrong feelings are so familiar like house slippers only
a few months old and already worn beneath the heel. The wrong feelings know how to create
their own groove, carving themselves deep into my hyperactive psyche
trying to get free on the cheap.
The wrong feelings got legs when all I want to do is sit down
They got time, they got patience
They wrong, not hurried.
The wrong feelings know my name, call me over
and over; they sing
girl, don’t you know we here ’cause we yours?
We not wrong. You can’t read and don’t wanna listen.
We are not what’s wrong here.
We just real.
Fear of sitting down
It’s never fully OK to report the extent or depth of my exhaustion. I have learned to lean in so close to the door frame that it’s impossible to tell who is holding whom or what. I hold myself over the flames that will also roast the chicken which will hold the flavor better if I keep it and myself covered and preserve the moisture of the flesh careful not to let it bake too long lest we become tough and unappetizing. The chicken and I are at risk of failing our potential. The parallels are so striking. Watch now. We are both done. Which of us is the burnt one?
is late and undernourished. lacking purpose, vision, art.
REally no reason such a stretch of words should bother to take up
Something I’ve perhaps forgotten about having a personal blog is that it can be fully what I want it to be. I can write what I want and need to write about. I don’t require an outside prompt or a random deadline. This is my space, for my thoughts, at any given time.
This has never been a blog to sell things. Yes, I published a book but that’s not my point. I’m not here so that I can sell you that book. At the same time, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a sense of audience. There are in fact a number of kind, generous folks who not only willingly but even gladly spend time with my words, and also tell me so. That’s a remarkable gift every time it happens. I will never outgrow the thrill of learning that my ideas meant something to someone else.
And yet this blog feels like it has become an addendum, a side bar to my other social/intellectual/educational activities. I now put out a monthly newsletter designed to inform and inspire. I still have a publication that holds an impressive archive of writing from educator authors I admire and hold dear. I tweet a lot. I’ve done more presentations in the last 3 months than over the last 2 years.
I wonder about this particular form of what has become pandemic productivity. In this particular year where I have spent so much more time at home, in front of a screen, in correspondence with my students and almost everybody else, I feel like a kind of productivity has arisen that has a lot to do with reassurance in the midst of uncertainty. We write to indicate that we’re still here, still in the world, still at it, still fighting the good fight. We write to let our people know but perhaps even more to let ourselves know – something still works, some things can still be managed, some things are still possible.
I was in a conversation recently where a person spoke of a tension in the shoulders and neck that eased up a few days after the US presidential election. It’s only when we exhale and feel the rush of air escape our mouths that it becomes apparent we were holding our breath the whole time.
I’ve missed writing about feelings more than ideas. It’s a relief to step away from a false need to assert and substantiate every little statement. I am not a study. My emotional dips and crests are not the topic of extensive research. And yet I am a whole person; complicated, thinking, acting, venturing.
Sometimes I ask: what good is writing? when the world keeps asking: which writing is good? My courage these days lies in responding: IDC and that’s not the point.
That is not the point, that is not the point, that is not the point.
I voted by mail
won in the end.
I know you're
and I wish
I could cheer too.
I'm still not over
we have left to repair.
I envisioned being much happier, jubilant even. But it has not worked yet. No, not yet. Instead, I am restless and more than a little baffled at my willful contrarianism. My gratitude to all the poll workers, door-to-door canvassers, phone and text bank volunteers, in-person voters who waited in line for hours to cast a ballot, mail carriers who did double duty to insure that ballots reached their destinations – all of this in the middle of a raging pandemic – my gratitude is huge. And while there is no adequate means to express that at scale from where I sit, it is a gratitude I will carry for a long time to come.
I salute the President- and Vice-President-elect, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They were enough to bring the challenge across the finish line. They will represent a welcome change from what we have endured these hard four years.
And yet, I’m still not over the damage we have left to repair.
In conversation with a dear friend who kindly validated my ambivalence and sense of displacement, she mentioned the word “mourning.” And it clicked. Somehow, somewhere, a part of me is mourning. A part of me is very afraid of getting distracted, of taking our collective foot off the gas, of forgetting all the sacrifices people have made and that systems have made of people to arrive at this point. I refuse to be one who will forget.
Because already we – POC, Biden supporters, Dems – are being asked to forgive, which in the American fantasy also means forget. No. I will neither forgive nor forget the unfathomable level of corruption, crime, deceit, fundamental disrespect enacted by this administration. In a New York Times op-ed, Dr. Tressie McMillan-Cottom lays out exactly what a Biden presidency must prioritize in order to effectively govern:
Restoring baseline trust in social institutions’ survivability, and not necessarily their fairness, is critical to the integrity of governance. A President Biden should pursue all available avenues of punishment. Only a transparent accounting of what exactly happened during the last four years would allow us to pivot to radical responsiveness.
“[A]ll available avenues of punishment” stands out for me here. Who wants to talk about punishment when we’re finally able to dance in the streets? Maybe no one wants to, but we have to. To speak of Punishment feels harsh in this feel good moment and yet, it must be a deliberate part of the plan going forward. And this is not about vengeance. It is about justice; about restoring the integrity of the rule of law.
I find this thread on forgiveness and repentance very helpful:
Surprising to me but true: the posts I wrote following the election in 2016 still burn. In some ways, all that fear, anger, and dismay accumulated over these four years were not suddenly washed away with a media broadcast. Corona will continue to claim lives at an alarming rate while universal health care remains a distant dream. Corporate interests will continue to rule the roost ahead of programs to benefit the greater good, I’m afraid.
I cannot shake my reservations about the change we envision versus the change we will get.
That said, as my friend reminded me: It’s what all the people did – by voting, by canvassing, by supporting one another – to make a Biden-Harris win a reality. That’s exciting, that’s empowering, that’s what we need to celebrate! And of course, she is right.
I’ll come around in time. You may not get a “Ding-Dong The Witch Is Dead” vibe from me anytime soon, but know that I am glad that the outcome is this and not a different one; that there’s dancing in the streets rather than violence. I want to believe that we’ll get better, be better at taking care of each other and the planet. I do. I’m trying hard not to be a resentful curmudgeon. My inspiration may have to arrive from a different source. I long to feel your release and revival.