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.
It’s a fairly recent development in my reading life that I know enough to anticipate a particular book’s release. This has a lot to do with social media and following writers and readers who regularly geek out over what’s hot and what’s not; who is ascendant and who is new on the scene. Having followed Clint Smith for a few years and shared his poetry with friends, colleagues and followers, I was aware that his next book, following the completion of his PhD (I, mean, what??), would be a reckoning with slavery and how it is handled (or exactly not handled) in America’s telling of its own history.
As the publication date drew nearer, I read some articles, listened to podcast interviews and also included an announcement in my social justice newsletter for educators. I was ready. Or, so I thought.
At the end of his talk with Brene Brown, Clint Smith reveals that people often presume him to be older than he actually is. He graduated high school in 2006. He’s only 34 years old. I can say “only” because he’s more than 20 years younger than I am. When I think, HS senior in 2006, I think of my track team that spring. My strong sprinters claiming their flowers before they left the stage of international school track meets. It blows my mind to think of Clint Smith as someone I might have coached or taught (based on age, not geography).
At any rate, I almost immediately began reading. Here’s what I noticed:
The book presents places, locations, sites as leading characters that help us get proximate to the book’s central question of how we come to understand the role of slavery in American history. As I read I am thinking about place. Clint Smith takes us with him, sharing details with a poet’s eye for detail and nuance.
I’m also thinking about this book in conversation with other things I’m reading. My nightstand currently looks like this:
These texts are in conversation with me and with each other. All three address the overlapping concerns of history, education and liberation. They prod me to observe carefully, acknowledge what I don’t know, to stay curious especially if and when the material is difficult.
I’ve noted in other places that history has never been my strong point. How The Word Is Passedtakes me on a series of distinct field trips. Clint Smith uses remarkable sensory detail – the sound of the wood beneath his feet, the roughness of the jail cell wall, the reddening of his conversation partner’s face – to place us in each scene with him. I found myself needing to take deeper breaths while reading about him sitting in a replica of the electric chair at Angola Prison. I marveled at his patience in probing the thinking of Sons of Confederate Veterans at a Memorial Day event at a Confederate Cemetery. I can’t quite get over how he maintains the level of mental and emotional presence that these encounters, individually and taken together, require to bring them to the page with such immediacy.
I’m nearly done reading and I’m sure I’ll have more to say later. For now this is me taking stock of the book’s initial grip on me. Someone on my timeline described it as enthralling. Yes, and/but/or consuming, piercing while also fundamentally clarifying and mind-shifting.
That’s a lot for one book, for one author. And yet, here it is.
I’ve been feeling a little emotional lately. No specific cause, really. I mean, we’re healthy, school is fully back in session and it looks like we’ll end the year on a positive note. But I keep feeling … a lot. This evening I’m a bit teary; other times I’m just spent or a little extra cranky. My teen navigates all these mood appearances with remarkable equanimity and for that I am extremely grateful.
I remember when it dawned on me and my siblings that my mother’s memory was deteriorating. The initial signs were subtle but presented a clear enough pattern. As her dementia progressed she managed to retain so many of her distinctly prosocial qualities. She was kind, gracious, appreciative and curious. Any upset was quickly forgotten. At some point it was no longer possible for her to stay angry. When she passed away, it was the sound of her voice that continued to ring in my ears. That upbeat tone of interest whenever she picked up the receiver. I believe she left this world thinking the best of everyone.
Of course in her dementia, she also knew pain, frustration and sadness. But her reservoir and access were severely curtailed.
Through the course of this pandemic year plus, I have had some ups and downs but my existence was never threatened. My health and that of my loved ones was never significantly impaired. We have come through this world crisis relatively unscathed.
But not untouched.
At the end of her post, Sara encourages us:
So, reader, speak whatever must be said. Speak for what you know is true. Speak when your body tells you something isn’t right. this…isn’t right. Speak even if you are conflicted (maybe especially so). Speak and release this energy that threatens to consume you. Speak because you know that ultimately this action is fundamentally one of armed love.
Speak. And know that you are not alone in the telling.
Precisely here is where I felt fully unmasked and my losses were revealed. I haven’t cried a lot during these pandemic months but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want or need to. I experienced loss and change and painful adjustments. My marriage of 15 years broke up. Not in a knock-down, drag out kind of way but in an entirely practical and unremarkable way. Our common household was dissolved and two separate but satisfying new living arrangements established. There was mainly agreement and cooperation. But it still hurt. It still constitutes a loss.
I’ve muddled through a year of pandemic teaching and my students are alright for the most part. I learned some new skills, discovered some hidden capacities. Progress showed up in predictable and also surprising places. And yet, I wasn’t able to teach my best. The year was rife with improv and scrambling to adjust to shifting conditions. My case was not at all special, I know. At the same time, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed. I missed teaching with the benefits of consistency, routine and a dedicated enclosed space. That was a loss and I feel it in lots of small ways. Taken together, they’re like a slow-healing bruise. Not really painful but tender and sore; sometimes on the surface, other times deeper in the tissue.
Thanks to moving house and making the most of a new set of circumstances, I’ve been confronted with myself in a way that hasn’t happened in quite a while. I’ve had to ask myself some hard questions about who I am and who I intend to still become. What do I like? What are my priorities? Who is on my team and what is worth doing together? In principle, I love these kinds of big picture questions. I’m a trained life coach, after all. But the introspection remains challenging. I don’t have more or better responses than anyone else. I get tired. I lose steam, motivation and sometimes heart. Here, too, amid discovery I also found holes.
The older I become, the more similarities I find with my mother as I remember her in her 60s and 70s: I keep mini Snickers on hand in my pantry, I’m more interested in cooking by recipe, I like gin with tonic or ginger beer, I’m concerned with what ails the world, I still celebrate and relish independence. It’s a funny/not funny thing to notice. If I can stay stay so stubbornly optimistic about humanity like my mom, then I’m pretty sure I’ll pull through these and the next challenges and the ones after that just fine.
In the meantime, I hope I have courage enough to speak my losses and hurts. Also that I may bear witness for others with humility, honesty and presence. In speaking my pain, I also tell you: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here and for now, we are alive.
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