Writing trouble; Trouble writing

Finding it hard to write. To focus and shake down an idea for the insights it offers.

That’s a very extractive take on a practice that ideally seeks to be generative. Yet, here we are. Here I am.

Photo by Annika Thierfeld on Pexels.com

I don’t write because anyone has asked me to. I write to let go of things, to exhale my concerns or at least breathe through them. I would love to believe that my writing has nothing to do with sales. But social capital is capital; a currency. Writing can be a way to build social capital which leads to other opportunities to expand reach and influence. Appearing publicly means participating in a specific economy of attention, of favor, of visibility. When I write publicly – when I blog, tweet, newsletter – I am negotiating attention, favor and visibility. I am both spending and accruing social capital.

I listen to other writers. I hear their wisdom, envy their capacity to say so many things I wish I could say, too. Colson Whitehead says we should write the things that scare us the most which is hard. But what’s the point of doing it if it’s going to be easy? he adds. I am a scaredy cat writer. It’s not that I’m harboring great secrets that I dare not tell but I know, for now, pretty well, what I’m not gonna do. Remember that social capital? Part of playing the game is limiting the risk of losing that capital. Reducing the risk of falling out of favor. Hedging against the danger of disappearing or being disappeared.

Writing as trouble. Writing to trouble. I do these things but usually so politely. I choose my words carefully, resisting the impulse to offend. “I” and “we” are my preferred pronouns. Call it a humility strategy. Never wanting to get “too big for my britches” I stay contained, restrained, palatable. If I hold stock in anything, my portfolio runs deep in respectability. My good girl legacy remains in tact. Even if social capital is contingent, I suppose I came to this particular marketplace with a certain endowment comprised of an elite educational pedigree and a rich collection of professional connections. I’m a conservative investor. I imagine I’m playing the long game.

And we have to ask for what? What is this capitalist rumination on a practice at once globally irrelevant, yet potentially contextually meaningful? Illusions exist. Which is to say, yes, I have illusions, perhaps like every other person who writes, who creates, who persists in showing up. I have the illusion that some words matter. I have the illusion that my words can matter sometimes to some people. Sometimes I have the illusion that writing matters. I have the illusion that my writing matters.

How do we engage in a capitalist framework based on scarcity, extraction and fear and still expect to create beauty for ourselves and those we love? How do we resist the deadly pull to produce and become content (I hate that word) in an economy that tells us we’re only as valuable as our last big click generator? Even as I quietly and civilly rage against the machine, it’s impossible not to notice how it eats me and feeds me back to myself. It’s an ugly process made to look sleek and appealing. It’s a wildly efficient robbery; always underway where everyone’s a perpetrator and witness at the same time. We stay busy. We stay busied.

Writing trouble, writing trouble; trouble writing, trouble writing. Where is the emphasis? What seems to be the trouble? The trouble is neither paucity nor order of words; trouble defines the context into which the words are released. The trouble is the world we inhabit. The trouble is in the world we’ve created. The trouble is in us. The trouble is us. We are the trouble. The writing speaks of trouble. The writing shows the trouble. Trouble shapes the writing. The writing consumes trouble. Trouble consumes the writing. Writing made of trouble. Writing made for trouble. Writing trouble is not the same as trouble writing. Troubling trouble while writing writing, we create an illusion. Maybe it matters. Trouble writing no longer an illusion but a fact.

Repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating. Repetition may not save us. Repetition, though, shows us patterns. Repetition can help us see and then unsee. Help us hear and then unhear. Repetition can take us to clarity. Kicking and screaming, if necessary. Repetition got patience. Repetition can hold the note. Repetition will wait you out. Repetition been down this road before. Repetition ain’t afraid of you. Repetition knows its purpose. Repetition never forgets. Repetition is a song that keeps singing. Repetition is a beat that keeps beating. Repetition is a breath that keeps breathing. Repetition is neither the beginning or the end. Repetition keeps going. Sometimes we need to follow.

Writing here, now, becomes a release valve. A relief release. A loosening of the shoulders, an unclenching of the jaw. I am not free but at ease. It’s a start, a return, a diversion, a turn, an entry, a temporary arrival.

Welcome.

56=7 X 8 An Accounting

56 opportunities to say a thing, more than less, perhaps enough
Born, yes, in Cleveland. A negro of negroes. Documented.
Raised right, in the church Lutheran and steadfast
We lived down the street and had the extra key to St Philip's.
Wordy child, moody and temperamental
Youngest, some said spoiled; an entertainer.
Black neighborhood other
You talk like a white girl.

Independent School of East Cleveland
a mouthful
Belonging and not belonging, in and out
School life in a nutshell
Brady, Eric, Tia carpool 
Dads who called each other Mister
After school at Mrs Atwater's until mom came
I remember those days.

Middle school, Lutheran school
Desks, bells, grades, rows, blackboards
Obedient and built for it
3 wishes: cheerleading, saddle shoes, to be liked
Meatloaf sang: 2 out of 3 ain't bad.
Billy Joel sang: Vienna waits for you
Steely Dan sang: Sure, he's a jolly roger
Until he answers for his crime

I didn't know what that was about
Still I sang.
High school, preppy prep school
Button downs, corduroys, turtlenecks
Fit the fit, fitting in, to fit
Everybody's friend, 
bravely naive, blessedly compliant
Never a fuss. So nice.

Good girl goes to college
East coast Ivy league
Solo arrival by Greyhound with a heavy chest;
a literal cedar chest with my stuff
Best friend roommate from the coast of Maine
My biggest takeaway from the Hill
was Cath, the lack to my luster
What college was for

Everything else is Vienna
Everything else is German and English
Everything else is language and misunderstanding
Everything else is men, kids and change
Everything else is stories of the story of why I'm still here
Everything else is choosing and making the most
Everything else is living without so much knowing

What's missing is all the in betweens
What's missing is all the details no one needs
What's missing is where you fit in exactly
What's missing is when the scales tipped
What's missing is the time I chose to be me
What's missing is all the times I chose to be someone else.
What's missing is all the squishy parts
What's missing is the end.

The Writing Retreat

I did and I didn’t do/go on/ experience a writing retreat. In the most basic sense I took a solo vacation. Booked a package including flights, transfer, hotel stay with meals. 6 nights, no complications. I brought my laptop, a stack of books, 2 notebooks, a couple of good pens. For this cordoned off period I enjoyed two great resources I often lack: time and opportunity.

Indeed, I read generously, journaled frequently, scratched meaningfully at two or three ongoing projects with actual deadlines. I also spent time in the sun; took naps, walks and a handful of photographs. I got my hair braided! Rather than explore the surrounding territories, I remained within a few kilometers of my hotel, exploited the convenience of requiring little extra diversion beyond my own imagination and the steady beat of waves against the beach.

Sun, sea, horizon. Image: Nadine Aish-Longden via Unsplash

About a week before I booked the trip, I downloaded directions for a DIY Writing Retreat. It’s designed to help writers of any kind create the conditions that allow them to achieve some writing goals. As a tool, it is well thought-out, encouraging and accessible. While I didn’t follow the steps, per se, I can say at the end of my stay, that writing happened. I met some goals which I hesitated to articulate in advance. I’ve decided I can leave here with a little feather in my writing cap.

But there’s more. Of course, there’s more.

I didn’t come here expressly to write. I mean, this was my first vacation abroad in two years. While not the first time going solo, this trip held a different character – an unspoken potential for adventure, perhaps. Or a weird extra acknowledgement of my recent status as a single single; fully unattached and at liberty. That said, what I actually did was read, write and stroll around. I did not talk to anyone besides service personnel. I enjoyed each and every meal at a small table with good food and a book. I went to the bar maybe twice, again with a book. I realize that I don’t have much faith in random encounters. And with time and opportunity, my choice to engage with authors on the page rather than surrounding tourists can hardly come as a surprise. I have no regrets.

I also spent huge blocks of time in my own head which is where a lot of my writing still resides. Part of recognizing the week’s outcomes rests on accounting for all that remains unaccounted for. All the thoughts, fragments, ideas that didn’t get written down does not mean that they don’t exist. It might be a passage I underlined while reading. An image that comes to mind while I’m observing people at the beach. The way my scalp itches two days after having these tight cornrows with extensions put in. My language is varied and multifaceted. My writing is more than words on various pages.

And here is where the retreat feels palpable. The retreat I took was from expectations of what one is to do on vacation. I took a retreat from my day-to-day in order to view it more clearly. What I found out is that I’m still mourning a loss that has accumulated slowly and steadily over years. Behold, an ambiguous grief that is heavy but lacks clear dimensions or handles! I took a retreat from my usual markers of productivity. I worked on some stuff but I found myself in a very forgiving state. Not too pressed about grasping at oddly shaped ideals. I let whatever out onto the page or screen knowing that it might all change again and be fine. I retreated from the people in my immediate vicinity and found fellowship with the characters who genuinely interested me in my books or through the screen.

My day job is deeply social, communication-intense and physically demanding. Only now, a week out of the routines that shape my normal workdays can I appreciate how urgent my need for retreat actually was. I needed this time to retreat into myself.

One of the outcomes is the chance to rewrite my own stories.

“As the relationships I crave become more and more difficult to find, as the consistency I need from other people seems almost impossible, the one thing with which I have a consistent relationship is my writing. So it’s hard to take any part of that away.”

Mattilda Berstein Sycamore, The Freezer Door, p. 250

Enough said.


*In case you’re wondering which books I brought along…

I arrived with about 150 pages left of The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. I continued with MBS and The Freezer Door which I had also begun before leaving home. Next up was Zora Neal Hurston’s Baracoon and I’m drawing out the final chapters of A Separation by Katie Kitamura which will likely blow my mind before I get on the return flight in the early morning hours. To my surprise, I actually cut it pretty close. I almost ran out. Oh, yeah, I also started Jessie Daniel’s Nice White Ladies on my laptop, so there’s that.

Writing On Your Own Terms Of Endearment (an ode)

A pile of writing. Photo by edifiedlistener.

If you’re a writer, and even if you don’t call yourself that, you know how it happens. One day you hear a voice saying all the things you needed to hear in the just right tone and tempo and you suddenly commit. All further work will be dedicated to emulating this new voice from what appears to be, surely must be, the heavens. You have a model. Now you will find your way because someone else is holding a flashlight over the path you think you’d like to follow. Maybe you’re also like a new puppy: super eager, begging for treats, sniffing and test chewing everything you can find. Everything is interesting and when you sleep, you sleep deeply, curled up on the floor, so content that you have found your purpose.

Maybe that’s going too far. Maybe you’re not a puppy, per se, but a temporary hyper enthusiast. You are so hungry for changing the things you’ve been doing. You crave being done with the things you’ve been doing. But you still can’t stop because then no one would be able to find you. You fear getting lost in the shuffle, becoming unrecognizable. It’s like when your favorite running shoe is discontinued, you mourn the loss. Whatever comes after is never as good as the 33 previous pairs you had. So, to stop doing what you’re doing would mean to discontinue your series. To phase out that long line of production. You really want change, but not into oblivion.

So here comes this voice, this singular voice, that seems to say, “Hey! Relax! Breathe. Write or don’t write. Walk or run. Be who you are. Breathe again. Now try writing.”

The message feels prophetic even if it’s just a talk on a podcast that you listened to on a series of devices. You feel singled out. You feel heard although you never uttered a word. It feels as if this person, this author you had never heard of before, sat right down across from you and said, “Honey, What you’ve been doing is what you’ve been doing and it matters, and it’s worthy and it’s exactly what I mean when I say we should all be writing on our own terms.” That’s what it feels like and so you listen to this voice over and over again telling you, you’ve been on the right path all along. “Most great writers never get published.” And even if that’s not your primary concern (neither being a great writer, nor getting published), it still feels healing to hear it at the right time from the right direction.

You think to yourself about the mountains of writing you will leave in your wake. A never ending coming to terms with being and doing. Writing, writing, writing. The outlet, the release, the correspondence, the container, the magic hat, the timepiece, the storage – all this writing – multipurpose, year-round, all-season habit that finds no end.

What you know about your own writing could fill a book. And here comes this voice that reminds you: we who write are never in the singular. We exist in conversation with each other, in conversation with language, in conversation with conversation even if we can barely stand it to hear that word again because it seems to stand for everything. Yet here we are saying that word to mean that we are talking to each other, we are witnessing and creating exchanges, we are operating in what amounts to the opposite of a vacuum. What’s the word for that? Not every gathering or collection of people, things, voices creates a community. At any rate, we exist in the not-vacuum and together (and apart) we create what we create: messes and havoc, beauty and symphony, struggle and breakthrough, lapses, gaps and gasps. No list is ever exhaustive which is part of what makes them so fun to write. Make a list. Exhaust yourself. That is writing, too.

Of course, you’re thinking too about joy. Why can’t we talk more about joy? We all have more than enough responsibility. So who’s going to advocate for joy? You will and yes, because the voice also does this. The voice talks about making space for sentences to breathe. The voice talks about all of us writing together in a single document and seeing what would emerge, all the mysteries and magic and magnificence that might surprise and scare us at the same time. The ridiculous pile of energy we would produce. It wouldn’t necessarily be all joy, nor all pain, but it would be space – for all of us to be in and breathe.

And sometimes to be in space where you can breathe is all the joy you need for a moment.

Now you’ve written this thing which doesn’t care about what it is so much as it is relieved to have spoken. Finally. To have said the things that have been swirling around and put them down on a page – this is a fantastic relief! You don’t have to know exactly where you go from here. You can go wherever you want, actually. You can write wherever you need to go. That’s the beauty of this thing; this occupation that is not your occupation. You belong to each other. You are your own symbiotic not-vacuum in a world full of other not-vacuums.

Audio version:

Deep gratitude to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for her revelatory talk “Writing On Your Own Terms” via Tin House Live and host, David Naimon.

This is just to say

Again, I'm speaking in emotions, that language you find so difficult. I'm sorry
not sorry, it's all I've got right now. How come feelings get such a bad rap?
How come you're not supposed to speak in feelings out loud where other 
people can hear you? Why are feelings supposed to be bottled up? Is it some
kind of marketing campaign? Is someone else going to sell my bottled up
feelings and make a profit but I'll never know about it? Is that how this works?
Let me say this: the right words to flimmer across my screen can make me cry.
Sometimes I shout to signal that I really prefer order and my voice wants to be
the law. I shout not to scare you but to command your attention. It's a 
primitive method, I'll agree. It often works. My emotions are talking and 
sometimes they get loud and don't ask permission. What I want for you and what you want for yourself 
are probably not the same thing but they might be related, like second cousins
once removed. And if you know what that means then maybe my emotion language
is not as foreign as you thought. And maybe my communication follows, falls, 
finagles a way into your hippocampus around about your frontal cortex circumventing
your hungry amygdala but probably not. Maybe it's just going in one ear and out the other,
unscathed, unbothered. This is just to say
This is just to say
just to say
to say
say
nothing more.
I might be done. You can stop listening if you ever were.

Saying Some Things/Hearing Some Things

Two voices: a call and a response. Speaking and listening; hearing and being heard: A process.

Saying Some Things

I’ve been saying some things. Some are true. Some are wishes. Some are exhales. Some are just so damn necessary. I’ve been saying some things that keep me up at night, that make me wonder, fret, and suck my teeth. I’ve been saying some things I’ve been meaning to let out. I’ve been saying the things that might be hard to hear but I say it nicely in my white lady voice and it turns out okay. I’ve been saying some things that will tell you that I’m a little old and kinda tired and brave in a smoldering kind of way. I’ve been saying some things that matter. Not just to me but to other folks too. I’ve been saying some things and I guess I’ll just keep on.

Hearing Some Things

I’ve been hearing some things. Some are real. Some are dreams. Some are gasps. Some are silent screams for being. I’ve been hearing some things that keep me up at night, that make me question, fumble, and grind my teeth. I’ve been hearing some things that have burst whiteness. I’ve been hearing some things and responding without saying it nicely in my white lady voice and it didn’t turn out okay for me, but it’s okay.. I’ve been hearing some things that will tell you that I’m new at this and kinda exhausted even though I’ve just begun. I’ve been hearing some things that matter. Not just to me, but to my students, the future. I’ve been hearing some things and I guess I’ll just need to do more.

Saying Some Things first appeared on Sherri’s Slice of Life Project and Hearing Some Things was shared by Melanie White in response. She was kind enough to allow me to post it here.

On Reading “Death Is Hard Work” By Khaled Khalifa

I love our school libraries. I try to be a frequent flyer in both the elementary and secondary collections. They never disappoint. While coping with the brief disappointment at discovering that Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, was checked out (bittersweet, because also, Yay! someone else is enjoying excellent fiction!), I browsed the shelf for reasonable alternatives. In that case, I tend to select based on how the title lands and do a quick check of the cover dynamics. That’s how Khaled Khalifa‘s novel, Death Is Hard Work, ended up in my hands.

Cover of Death Is Hard Work (white background with Black lettering, pencil detail drawing of minibus where bullet holes on a wall are where tires should be.)

Originally published in Arabic in 2016, Death Is Hard Work relates the struggle of three estranged siblings transporting their father’s corpse through war-torn Syria from Damascus to the father’s birth home of Anabiya. It is Abdel Latif’s dying wish and his second son, Bolbol feels obligated to carry it out with the help of his sister and older brother, Fatima and Hussein. What Khalifa weaves together are relationship strands that run through the past of these family members and shows how these play out in their at once terrifying and matter-of-fact commitment. On a trip that would have taken a few hours under pre-war circumstances, the family requires over three days to navigate checkpoints and territories of various combatant factions.

I was a little worried at the outset because my knowledge of the conflict is Syria is abominable. My ignorance defines my relationship to the region. I need to be honest about that. Through these richly portrayed characters, Khalifa leads the reader into a Syrian society of lower middle class families where a full range of human possibilities are on display. Bolbol, the selectively dutiful son of small time revolutionary, Abdel Latif, serves as the primary narrator. Through him we learn the histories and heartbreaks of his father and siblings and their further relations. Bolbol is a wonderfully complex and somewhat tragic character. We get the feeling that he’s simply not cut out to ever, ever get what he really wants. Only in the last third of the book do we learn that our narrator’s real name is Nabil rather than Bolbol, a childhood nickname he gave up trying to correct.

On many levels, Khalifa writes about longing and disappointment; the constant struggle to make do with dream remnants in the midst of sour realities. The metaphor that appears several times is that of a bouquet floating down a river.

“Discovering love is like seeing a bouquet floating down a river. You have to catch it at the right time, or the river will sweep it away: it won’t wait for long. You have only a few intense, mad moments to give voice to your profound desires.” (p. 65)

Later when Abdel Latif describes his late stage marriage to an early sweetheart, Nevine, the floating bouquet makes another appearance:

“But his father surprised him when he added the following night that every door should be thrown open to love, that love could sweep away the past all at once, which had helped cleanse his being and strip away the withered branches that would never put out leaves again. It was agonizing, of course, to slice off your awful past and throw it away, but it was necessary if you were to catch the bouquet of roses floating down the river and carry it safely to the other side…” (p. 71)

Bolbol offers us insight into everyone’s peculiar form of suffering, from his own cage of fears to his brother’s unrelenting anger and his sister’s wounded pride – these all against a backdrop of a nation descending into the civil war through which the protagonists end up traveling. Of course, while transporting a rotting corpse across a landscape where the primary distinctions are degrees of physical devastation, death is constant companion. And, as the title makes clear, death is and becomes hard work. (Translated literally, the title would be Death Is Hard Labour)

Precisely Khalifa’s handling of death – the grossness of decay, the numbness that develops by constantly being confronted by it – demonstrates the author’s remarkable craft and sensitivity. The book has its share of humor. I was struck by this crisply related image:

“The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue-tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers or checkpoints.” (p. 127)

Rather than build our sympathies with a particular faction of the conflict, through Bolbol’s desperate attempt to survive and experience a modicum of respect, we are confronted with a kind of futility. At the final checkpoint run by an extremist group, Bolbol is arrested and his siblings are allowed to proceed. Unable to pass a test demonstrating sufficient command of Islam, he is held for religious re-education. It’s here that he contemplates the emptiness of existing in constant fear:

“Bobol reflected that when the walls of fear around you crumble, there’s only a strange emptiness inside. Nothing can fill it but a new type of fear, perhaps. You don’t know what to call it, but it’s still fear, no different in flavor, really than the old type. It makes you feel like you’re the only one afraid in a tide of humanity that regards dying as the ultimate solution to the enigma of living … He was convinced this was his own personal problem, not the problem of humanity as a whole: each human losing themselves, then finding themselves again by banding together with the other humans who seemed to most resemble themselves, or else transforming themselves in order to resemble those groups . . . all drowning in emptiness.” (p.174)

I had no idea what to expect when I pulled this book off the shelf. Death Is Hard Work caught me unawares. It has, as a reading adventure, convinced me again that fiction matters. Invented stories allow authors to tell us truths we need to hear without exactly designating which ones are ours to believe. How to write about the callous inhumanity of war while bearing witness to the range of human behavior that makes war not only possible, but commonplace? Khlalifa’s answer seems to be: You make space for regular degular people to reveal their own stories of survival. As outsiders looking in we are forced to acknowledge that folks have so much more going on in their hearts and minds than living to see another day, precisely when no next day is guaranteed.

Fiction reading is the art of listening to characters as they are, not as we suppose they ought to be. That has been my lesson here. Read Death Is Hard Work. Savor its characters, its humor, its craft, and its capacity to teach us what we think we mean by “life and death.”

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, Faber and Faber, 2019.

image by S. Spelic

Coming Clean

Image by Leohoho from Pixabay (Alt text: abstract photo of orange merging into blue background with raindrops across entire surface)

One of the main reasons I keep a personal blog is that it gives me space to say what I need to say where others can also see it and also keep it moving. There’s a lot of bad news in the world and at the same time I must know that it has rarely been otherwise. Climate collapse feels imminent and will likely spell out our grandchildren’s realities in gruesome syllables. The related crises of existence that arise out of dwindling resources, persistent and exacerbated inequality, capitalist greed and self-sabotaging governments leave their marks on all of us, in varying degrees of severity. So, no, this morning I am not feeling particularly hopeful or optimistic.

I was listening to a podcast featuring the novelist, Katie Kitamura, talking about her recent book, Intimacies. I devoured the novel over the weekend and was eager to hear the voice of someone capable of such penetrating and precise insight. One of the things she mentioned was the desire to explore “how we make do with fragments of information” even as we are awash in torrential loads of stories, newscasts, articles, etc. We hardly realize how it is virtually impossible to learn or know a whole truth about events, about others, even about ourselves. And I’m struck by the notion of “make do” – how we work around the pieces we don’t know, can’t know. All the ways we fill in the blanks to compensate. “Making do” becomes our natural habit; a trick of the trade of general sense-making.

I’ve lately felt a bit of public disorientation, meaning that I wondered if maybe I have said all I can say to any topic of relevance. I don’t really know how to make anything better. I keep writing at topics. Throwing texts onto the screen, into the e-channels of Twitter and seeing where they land. If they land. I hardly have solutions that go beyond asking people, asking us, to get better at examining ourselves. Not in the sense of egotistical navel-gazing, but in a critical fashion where we finally open our eyes to the ways we have impeded fairness; stood in the way of another person’s or our own right to thrive.

And I can’t ask other folks to do what I am not willing to do myself.

My school year is off to a roaring start. Covid protocols in Austria are fairly clear. High levels of vaccination and regular testing of staff and students have allowed us to start at full capacity. Masks are also part of the formula. I have a new team colleague who is energetic and knowledgeable. We’re almost through our first 6-day cycle of classes and routines are becoming familiar to students and teachers. Here’s what I’m noticing: as much as I pride myself on being open and welcoming, I’ve found myself struggling to adapt to new input about “how we do things around here.”

Surprise, no surprise, I’m not the easy-peasy, hyperflexible colleague I frequently envisioned myself to be. When confronted with the prospect of change – or reconsidering taken-for-granted practices – I have, in various iterations, found myself tumbling into a defensive stance. Not feeling attacked, per se, but certainly unsettled and caught in a flurry of sudden self-doubt. That’s my truth. It has never felt good and cognitively, while I know better; emotionally, I have hardly been able to help myself in the moment. As the days have passed and I’ve gotten to know my students and my new colleague, I’ve been able to relax a little. To gradually lay down my institutional and personal armor. My fear of loss, because that’s really what it is/was, has subsided. I’m going to be alright.

I want to unpack those fears though because it might help someone else. I think I was afraid of losing power – of my standing through seniority, of popularity, of my own sense of efficacy. Simply the presence of a new individual with their own history, experiences, expectations and curiosity, was a welcome change but also a destabilizing one. My fear response was about me, not them. My emotions anticipated scarcity, that the addition of new ideas and impulses implied a loss for me and my perceived authority, importance, popularity. This is as real as it gets, friends. To what degree this was visible to others I cannot say. I do know that it cost me some extra mental energy I hadn’t anticipated.

The good news is that I’m over that initial hump of adjustment. The school is incredibly fortunate to have my new colleague. My own process or adaptation is certainly unfinished but my awareness of it allows me to navigate it differently than if I tried to pretend that it was not at play.

And this is where I hope more of us will get better, which means getting braver, about acknowledging where we need to grow. It doesn’t need to be public. Do it in a journal or in conversation with a trusted friend. We need the power of reflection to accompany us throughout our practice. We can never have enough rehearsal for being honest in the ways we show up for and with others.

We would also benefit from recognizing that in most cases – with our students, colleagues, friends and family – we are constantly having to “make do with fragments of information.” Let’s bear that in mind and resist bridging our gaps in understanding with judgment and assumptions. It’s rare that we’ll know the full story of anything. Here’s where we can exercise our capacity for compassion. Also with ourselves. I suppose that’s what I’m wrestling with as I write now – exercising self-compassion. How do I forgive myself for feeling slighted and defensive in the face of new impulses? I’m not good at this part but I’m practicing.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for hanging in there with me. Maybe this disclosure/insight kind of post can help others get some perspective on a thing they’re working through. Even if I feel neither particularly optimistic or hopeful in this moment, I at least feel the release of having said the thing I hesitated to say and being able to move along. That’s what this space is actually for.

Gathering Life As I Go

My life now is different than it was a year ago. I moved during the pandemic; settled into a new place closer to work and surrounded in three directions by wooded hills. When I agreed to take the apartment I did not know how much I needed to be right where I landed.

I’ve spent most of the summer break here in my new home. Aside from a couple of getaway weeks in July, I’ve hunkered down comfortably in Neuwaldegg (the name of our neighborhood, pronounced NOY-Vahld-egg). To my delight I’ve found a new rhythm of movement that has helped me find a top-to-bottom joy I wasn’t sure was still possible.

Gathering life as I go

I wake up, drink water, put on my running stuff. Think
to myself what the route should be.
Schafberg, Heuberg, Exelberg, Hameau?
In any case, all routes will lead uphill.
Sometimes there's a stretch on the sidewalk before 
I can turn off and reach a trail. 
Other times, it's a walk along the periphery 
of small garden homes, now refashioned into pricey
real estate bordering on the Vienna woods. 
Houses on hillsides, a few with ridiculous views
overlooking the city.
I walk through these spaces on my way to the trails
that criss-cross these hills.
At the start I sought out marked paths,
keeping my eyes peeled for stripes on trees:
white-yellow-white, white-green-white, white-blue-white.
By now I have a handle on which trails lead where.
Each trek takes me a bit farther afield, not just up the hill 
but also down and around
until I circle back another way.
I try out the occasional unmarked trail 
and note how it links up with my familiar route.

I begin with the long walk,
pausing where I please, listening
lending my ear to the birds, bees and 
all the other life gathering itself.
I look up at trees
even though I can barely call them by name
I thank them for their shade,
I salute their resilience and adaptability.
I can hardly imagine how tired they must be 
of humans.
The paths are varied: combinations of rock, mud, roots,
gravel and packed leaves.
Weather adds variety: soggy, slippery 
after last night's rain;
parched and cracked following three days' 
baking in the sun.
I note these details as I go,
measuring changes that sharpen my sense
of scale and belonging.

While I walk, I let my mind wander.
Ideas get tossed up.
some stick 
in my mind;
others follow that dragonfly or catch me up
before I trip. I'm open to what comes
lingers and fades. 
these moments feel expansive
I savor my aloneness, the quiet, a peace.
There are few others out and about
so far, a couple of mountain bikers,
walkers, with dogs and without; runners. 
We greet each other and keep it moving.
I'm glad not to share
I am relieved of any shame
of being too slow
or too fast;
of going too far,
not far enough.
Every day I can make up my own pace;
determine my own course,
change my mind
as often as I like.
I'm giving myself this gift 
and I always make sure to receive it.

At some point it's time to turn around,
to head back to where I came from.
The route may be the same way
or the other half of a loop.
It's usually a descent
so I jog.
And as I jog I complete this puzzle 
of a gazillion micro decisions about where
to place each foot
to leap the puddle, clear the roots,
to dodge the brush, hurdle the log.
On my way down I feed my brain. 
Eyes are on high alert, 
ears attuned for potential scare.
As trails become my friends 
I can anticipate their tricky curves 
and slippery rocks.
I know I can't afford injury
so there's caution and daring accompanying
my every step.
When I work my way back to solid ground,
to forest drive, the sidewalk home
my pace is steady and pushing it
just enough
to know it's working;
I am accumulating a new sense
of self and place. 

I reach the entrance to my building
a sweaty mess and proud.
This is what it means to hit my stride.

Middle Aging

No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.

Aging = facing myself

When I was in 8th grade and Tammy Fish was in 7th she said, “Sherri, you are so vain!” My feelings were hurt, not so much because of the insult but due to my ignorance. I didn’t actually know what vain meant. I was ashamed that Tammy had shown, once again, that she was smarter, more bookish and more mature than I. We two Black girls in a small Lutheran middle school and she had one up on me. Again. I did go home and look up vain that evening. “How could she know that word?” I asked myself.

Growing up, people used to tell me how much I looked like my daddy. As a girl I hated hearing that. I did not want to hear that I looked like a man. More specifically, folks often pointed to my thick eyebrows and long eyelashes. And when I say folks, I really mean heavily perfumed and powdered church ladies whose eyebrows were painted on. That said, it was long before I could appreciate my father’s legacy in my own face.

I really only knew my mother from middle age on. She had me at 42 and by the time I was paying any real attention to her example of womanhood, she was already in her 50s. She wore girdles and control-top panty hose. She went easy on the make up and I don’t remember that she had any skin problems to speak of. She mostly wore her hair short and practically dared anyone to say something about it. “People have asked me for a lot of things, but hair was never one of them,” she claimed. I do remember her stepping on a scale somewhere, in a store maybe, and being outdone that she was over 145lbs. I didn’t really know what that meant besides the fact that 145 was too much.

My dad was also middle aged when I came along, 4 years farther in than my mother. He didn’t talk much, it seemed to me, but later I understood that he chose his moments. He could be animated at family gatherings, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, after a few drinks. He could tell a story and get folks to laugh but he used center stage sparingly. It felt like I almost had to catch him in the act to believe it. I guess he was handsome in a way. He was slender and muscular, wore glasses and was clean shaven. He was my dad, so I thought he was alright looking, nothing special. Only once I was an adult with my own child could I appreciate that back in the day, he had been quite a hunk.


My eyebrows are thinning. And why wouldn’t they be? I’m mid 50s for crying out loud. It’s a gradual process. I wanted to say ‘slow’ process but that’s not entirely accurate. The process has begun and I don’t see a way to stall it. (Nor have I looked into it.) Those beautiful eyebrows I had as a child and never touched as an adult are changing; slowly fading, one hair at a time. Today I bought my first eyebrow pencil. I’m not ready to say goodbye just like that.

The messages I got from home about body size and taking care of oneself were clear. Don’t get “big” and cosmetics are mostly not worth the trouble. It’s astounding how deeply anchored these are in me. In old age both of my parents were shrunken. But my father, even at his weakest, had nicely defined forearms. Decades of carpentry work still visible in isolated parts of his physique. My mother grew thin, both her body and her memory. Her skin sagged but the complexion stayed surprisingly even and clear. Make-up was always optional for her. When I observed her in old age it was apparent to me that she had never really needed it. Who among us should be so lucky?

I believe that I own a nice lipstick. I cannot, however, tell you where it is located.

When I was a teen and curious about make-up, my mother confided in me, “If you want to look like your sister when you’re her age, then don’t start with all that stuff now.” My sister, Carol, is 19 years my senior and a poster child for “Black don’t crack.” She has always had a full round face that defies recognizing her actual age. I like to imagine myself following in her footsteps.

Most of my wardrobe consists of sportswear. Sweat pants, t-shirts, tights, hoodies. I have dresses, too, but rarely wear them. My career as a physical educator affords me good reason to stay outfitted in stretchy, comfortable clothing. For the most part I have stayed roughly the same size since undergrad. I have savored all the years that I was able to shop for myself and my sons in the same section of H & M. Slowly, sadly, that door is beginning to close. My middle aged hips and softening tummy are no match for teen boy cargo pants. The realization is as baffling as it is sobering. I am not the same as I once was.

I so often thought: “I don’t care about how I look.” But that of course was a lie. It usually is. The older I get, the more I understand about deception and trickery. The things we do to deceive ourselves, in order to better deceive others. We are not who we once were; instead we become so much more of who we are. And that’s a lot, a load, to manage. We grow tired of holding up the series of masks that keep us from disappearing. Our vanity turns out to be remarkably more enduring than we ever knew.

I don’t expect old age to be kind. I hope it will be gentle. My parents lived to be 83 (dad) and 90 (mom). Heredity suggests that I will have some time. For now while I’m middling, I’m grasping for clarity. There are ways that I want to be; ways that I want to show up; ways that I hope to be seen. Today’s clarity is a new eyebrow pencil and a confession: I am vain. Tammy was right.

Aging means becoming more of who we are.

Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019

Audio Version can be heard here.