Tired of Achievement

Close up of tan short-haired dog stretched out on a sandy beach. cloudy blue sky and sea horizon in background.
Photo by Ruel Madelo on Pexels.com
I took my thoughts for a walk. Cold/cool/brisk air on my face feels good/not bad/needed. I walk
while others along the same route jog/cycle/push themselves. Few pant. Everyone in their own way is dressed for the elements. Everyone in their own way seems prepared for cold/cool/brisk air. All of us are out. I walk neither fast nor slow. This is no workout. I am walking to drop off our PCR tests then circling back, strolling through the little Saturday market, then past the side-by-side cemeteries. For a moment I think of ascending the big hill drive that divides them. That would feel like a workout. I easily decide against it. I walk and my head brims with useful and less useful thoughts. It's OK because I'm taking my thoughts for a walk. This is their chance. I don't begrudge my thoughts their moment in the sun.

I walk past the hillside vineyard which is striking in the midst of otherwise residential territory. The vineyard as breathing space, a clearing for the eyes to recalibrate. It is always a welcome break in the visual action. Today there is a small team of eight workers pruning the vines. I wonder which language they speak with each other, how much they get paid, how long it might take them to finish the whole plot. When I return on my way back they are absent, but their van remains. It's lunchtime. I wonder where they take their lunch although it is everything but my business to know.

I'm near the tail end of my loop. I notice the same venturers on bikes, on foot completing their own loop-de-loops. That's where it hits me that I am tired. Tired of achievement. Tired of driving/striving/edging myself and others forward, forward. Tired of achievement to measure my worth. Tired of achievement to identify belonging. Tired of achievement as the price of admission. Tired of achievement as the lens I use to recognize others. Tired of achievement as a false god to whom all sacrifices must be dedicated. Tired of achievement as gospel. Tired of achievement as mandate. Tired of achievement as an institutional safety blanket. Tired of achievement as a broken record. Tired of achievement as the only record.

Isn't it ironic that I have made a career working in schools? In achievement factories. 

But that's the thing. Students insist that there is always more than silly achievement. They show it. They speak and sing it. They write it. They play it. They dramatize it. They outsmart/outrun/outpace it. They skip it. They perform it. They hold it hostage. They hold it back. They hold it over our heads. They override it. They fake it. They make it. They deliver and withdraw it. They illustrate it. They erase it. They toss it. They remix it. They've got it. They are over it. 

They are why I stay in schools. I am studying their achievement of resisting/retiring/releasing achievement. They teach me. They make me less tired.

I make it home, allow my thoughts to run wild on the page. We are all relieved. Peace is a challenge and always only temporary. I can accept that on a walk in the cold/cool/brisk air. 

Decisions Instead of Reason

Fully foggy tableau with faint, shadowy outline of a broad evergreen tree in the middle.
We’ll see. We’ll wait and see. (image: Spelic)

I run on feelings and language. Emotions and words. When we return to school complete with our testing regime and mask requirement I should feel if not safe, then at least somewhat protected. After almost two years it seems silly to worry now, after 3 shots of the vaccine. We’ve come this far, right?

Austria’s newly appointed chancellor (who replaced the previous super young chancellor caught in the middle of a corruption scandal) tested positive for Covid-19 today. During a press conference of the government’s Covid Response Team, the health minister who is apparently a physician, took down his mask and coughed into his hand, only moments after reminding his audience about the importance of maintaining hygiene protocols. I suppose it could be funny, if it weren’t so tiresome. There is no Schadenfreude to be had here. It’s all the worst kind of cabaret. Bad jokes in poor taste.

Feelings and language. Emotions and words. Everything matters even if nothing matters – this is a whole mood right now. Ski season can crack on while infection numbers ratchet up. But now we should wear masks outdoors if we can’t maintain a baby elephant’s distance. Absurdity can have a certain charm on the page or the stage. It upsets my reality stomach though. When reason becomes the thing we choose to finally abandon, what’s the basis for making reasonable decisions? Aha! In that case, the only possible decisions become unreasonable! Decisions without reason; decisions instead of reason.

I think I finally grasp wit’s end. The Austrian government seems to have reached it and we are all spectators. We the people become the very end of wit. Humor lost, trust broken. The government’s credibility has been steadily gambled away.

Feelings and language. Emotions and words. Let me get this straight: if you’re vaccinated and boosted (3 separate shots) in Austria, you are no longer considered a contact person to a covid-infected person and must no longer isolate. That’s a new guideline. But now that the chancellor has tested positive, the health minister who has obviously been in close contact has decided to voluntarily self-isolate for 5 days although he just announced that this is no longer necessary for working folks.

Decisions without reason; decisions instead of reason.

I know that school will resume for at least a week or two. And then we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll watch and wait. See how attendance pans out. See what the test results tell us. Teach indoors, teach outdoors. Wear our masks. Carry on without carrying on. Do the deed. I’m bracing myself for not knowing. I’m bracing myself.

Emotions calling for words. Feelings overwhelming language. This is how I roll.

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.

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

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.

Sitting in quiet

It may not be easy to recognize but sitting in quiet is a kind of dare. It’s personal but deeply connected to our social understandings. When I sit in quiet – maybe stare out the window, or leaf through some printed thing – I am challenging my own impulse to ‘look busy.’ For what?! For whom?! I am at home on vacation with my teen and we are literally chilling out. And it’s not natural. Inside I’m holding onto all these ideas about time, productivity, domestic responsibility, and being an adult. It’s almost as if I’ve told myself that I am not built for rest, recovery and full relaxation.

In my late 30s and early 40s I invested a great deal of time, energy and money in developing my understanding of self and others. I attended a series of courses that usually extended over periods of 4-6 months at a time. Usually it involved 3 day weekend seminars with intensely interactive sessions which for me tended to be highly emotional and revelatory. These courses formed the basis of my later practice as a life coach. Above all, these experiences trained me to ask better questions of myself and others – questions that brought us closer to the core of a topic rather than dancing around the fringes. That training has served me well.

In a short post I wrote yesterday, some unusual questions emerged. Here are two:

Whose budgeted affections will we overextend to then regret our hasty indulgence?

Which personal histories are you writing today?

SOL Tuesday A Gentle Reckoning

When words show up like this I know that they have emerged out of my feelings, not my rational mind. Quiet time invites my feelings to show themselves. What I think of those feelings is rarely as pressing as what it is they are asking me to do: Back up? Slow down? Guess again? Let go? Hold on? Breathe? Quiet time is like visiting hours for all the disparate parts of who I think I am and who I might actually be to show up and mingle. If I’m lucky I’ll have a chance to write down a few things once the party is over.

Speaking Truths, Acknowledging Loss

image: S.Spelic

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’m fine.

This week I read a post by Sara Rezvi for the #31DaysIBPOC series and it made me stop, think and catch my breath. In it, she asks:

“What if we were honest enough to bear witness to our pain?”

from “We shall revel in the abundance of each other”

Lord, what if?

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.

That’s a lot and also a gift.

SOL March 22nd In Between

In between the end of school and leaving for skating

In between lunch and dinner

In between getting up groggy and hit-the-hay stupor

In between books and papers

In between leftover noodles and tomato pesto

In between the spoons and knives

In between I’ll call you and see you next week

In between we know this and I forgot

In between the right words and the I-don’t-care words

In between what’s started and what’s unfinished

In between I’m fine and I miss you

In between shut up and shut down

In between unicorns and donkeys

In between what you told me and when I lied

In between a rock and a hard place

In between the first and the last kiss

In between hello and goodbye

In between what’s real and what’s true

In between all of me and some of you.