Commentary

Love Letter to a Crumbling World

Last Saturday, the day after inauguration, I woke before dawn and remembered who was president. The thought felt like an injection of lead through my veins and I lay awake wondering if the world might be ending. It was quiet outside and dark. There was no sign of anything wrong, but still I wondered if bombs could be going off in nearby states and cities and I might never know. I decided that, if this were the case, if we were suddenly at war, then at least I was in the right spot. My younger son, who had turned four the day before, had cried for me in the night, and now he slept next to me, his matted hair against the pillow. The bedroom door was open, and so I could hear my older son snoring gently.   I thought about the fields outside my house, and the swamps where hundreds of geese land and lift off every day. Somehow it felt like all of this might cushion me for a moment if the world were turning to ash.

As morning came and as my mind moved from dream-world to real-world I knew that I needed to march. I had spent the week hemming and hawing about whether I’d make it to the women’s rally. I told myself that I had valid reasons to stay home: My brother was visiting from out of town. I had a memorial service to attend at noon. I had been to a student walkout the day before and had told myself: one protest is enough. But, deep down, that felt like bullshit. “I’m marching,” I told Kellie as I passed her in the kitchen. “I’m marching for both of us and you’re watching the kids.”

Minutes later I stood over the kitchen counter with a Sharpie and a piece of cardboard. “What should my sign say?” I asked.

“Love Trumps Hate?” Kellie suggested.

“I can’t write that one,” I said. My brother and his girlfriend had now emerged from the guest room and were pouring their morning coffee.

“Why not?” Kellie asked. “Is it because you don’t want to use his name?”

But it wasn’t that, I explained. I just don’t take for granted that love wins.

My brother’s girlfriend nodded like she understood. “It definitely feels like evil is winning right now.”

A year ago, if you asked me how I felt about the word evil, I might have told you that I didn’t really believe in it. I might have explained that I thought that people were complicated, that their motives were often misguided. But now it’s 2017 and I seem to have changed my position on that. I believe in evil as a powerful force. I can already feel it tugging at the edges of my world.

We joked about a sign that would say Evil is Winning, but in the end I settled on Facts Matter. I scrawled it out in fat letters, dressed for the rain, and drove downtown.

I had no idea that the day would be so bright, that marching would feel not like an obligation but like the very medicine I needed: faces of friends and people I knew, faces of people I barely knew, faces of people I’d never ever seen. We moved, amoeba-like, one organism, from our capital lawn to the heart of downtown. Nothing changed because we marched. The president is still the president. Everything changed because we marched. We were one cell connected to other cells all over the world, and for those moments we were a united body, vital and thriving, filled with light and not dread. Light and not dread.

Through all of this—the first day of his presidency, the brutal week that has followed—it does feel to me like our world is turning to ash. Every time I check the news, our country has taken another step towards fear. I am filled with dread, and so, there is one face in particular I try to remember. It’s the face of my son on his birthday—it was also inauguration day. I’d been fighting gloom all day, but just before his bedtime we stuck a candle in a cupcake and gathered in the kitchen: me and Kellie, my two boys, my brother and his girlfriend. We sang to him, all of us standing, the birthday boy seated at the counter, and at the sound of our voices he glowed. I mean, he radiated light. His whole body was purpose, and that purpose was receiving our love. He knew how to take it in. He knew how to drink it. I keep trying to remember this because I know that I will need it. I will need to borrow his brightness; I will need to give it back.

I can’t promise anyone that this will be the thing that saves us. I can’t promise we will win or that we will be saved. But I do know this: Beauty persists. Joy persists. Love persists. They are all nestled there next to my anger, like ribs holding a heart in its place.

Post-Election: All I’ve Got Right Now

On Sunday evening, Smoke and I found out that his friend Sam’s dog had died. He looked sorrowful for a moment, and then he set to work. He made a small gift out of things he already: three bouncy balls in a box. He stretched three rubber bands over the box so that it doubled as an instrument. And then he grabbed a piece of white paper, made a card, and inside that card he taped three pieces of gum. On the outside of the card he drew this picture: a dog with angel wings and a halo. The dog was chasing a truck that said, in large letters, “Ham.” It was, of course, a dog in heaven chasing a ham truck.

The next morning, I dropped Smoke off at Sam’s house before school. He ran up the stairs carrying the box. When Sam opened the door I could see that he was somber. His head hung low. I couldn’t see his face.

Later that day, I would get a text from Sam’s mother. It said:

Thanks to Smoke! Sam was a mess. Wasn’t going to school because he was too sad. Smoke made it all okay.

For the whole rest of the day every time I remembered the text message I cried just a little. I cried because I was proud of my son for being so big-hearted and earnest. I cried because I had already lost a night of sleep anticipating our elections and so I was feeling raw. I cried because some part of me was preparing for my own grief at the state of our world.

Also: I cried because I knew that it was the dog chasing the Ham truck that fixed everything—not forever of course, but for a brief moment, that a crude gift assembled with love had the power to pull his friend from grief, to help him get up for the day and move forward.

I keep trying to convince my students that the art we bring into the world—the pictures we make, the songs we write, the stories we tell—that it has actual consequences. It changes the chemicals in our bodies and guides our actions. I’m telling myself that now.

And so, in my post-election grief, I am holing up with stories. I am treating them as light, as sustenance. I am snuggling on the couch with Stump and Smoke and watching The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I am replaying this life-giving Radiolab episode about Mel Blanc—the voice of Bugs Bunny and a thousand other characters. I am reading the poems that friends have been placing in front of my eyes. It is escape, but also it is medicine, a salve that allows me to re-gather my strength, regroup, and prepare for the fight ahead.

This is all I’ve got right now: It’s a box with three bouncy balls, three rubber bands, and three sticks of gum. It’s a picture I drew with a black pen on white paper. But I hand it to you with the intention that we can laugh together, or throw things, or make some boingy sounds, and meanwhile, deeper down, we are preparing to smash the patriarchy.

image: Infinity Symbol made from a Rubber Band by zeevveez, CC BY 2.0

What if America Kept its Promises? (some thoughts after watching the DNC)

It was nearly 10 pm PDT on Monday when I pulled up Michelle Obama’s speech on my computer. I was sad to have missed it in real time, but my toddler was finally asleep, and now the house was quiet enough that I could watch. I filled two bowls with ice cream and handed one to Smoke, who was reading on the couch. I pressed play and waited for the video to load.

I didn’t expect that Smoke would watch too. I thought he’d return to his book or complain that the sound was distracting him or ask me to put on a funny cats video instead. I was preparing to fight for my Michelle Obama moment, but it turned out I didn’t have to. Smoke sat there riveted, his spoonful of ice cream poised in front of his open mouth as he watched our First Lady in her blue dress. He listened as she described loading her daughters into a black SUV with the secret service on their first day of school. As she went on to say “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” and described the feeling of watching her daughters run across the White House lawn, Smoke looked over at me and seemed to understand why I was pressing tears away from the corners of my eyes.

 

Smoke was born in October 2008, one month before Obama would win the presidential election. This means that President Obama is the only president that Smoke has known. “That’s our president,” I say whenever we hear him speak on the radio. I say it with a certain pride not because he’s never disappointed me, but because I admire him. I appreciate that he models grace under pressure, that he manages to articulate truth in times of grief, and that he is not too self-important to display a sense of humor. These are qualities I want my children to have too, and they are qualities I wish we could take for granted in our world leaders.

 

 

Last week, as my mother was visiting, Smoke came across a set of American flag stickers he’d been giving at the grocery store for Independence Day. His eyes lit up when he saw them. “I’m going to make you a picture for your office!” he said and ran into the kitchen. Twenty minutes later he returned brandishing this:

 

America.jpg

“Wow!” I said, and then made the mistake of making eye contact with my mom. We silently laughed until tears gathered in the corners or our eyes. We laughed because of the utter innocence of it, because apparently Smoke hasn’t caught on to my feelings about America, which have always been and always will be fraught.

The America my son has seen is different from the one I see. To him, so far, America is just his school and his friends and his family, and a president his mom admires, though she occasionally shouts in frustration at the news. To him, America is a cartoon of Uncle Sam, the promise of liberty and justice for all, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. To him, Donald Trump is an unkind man who surely won’t win the election because no one would vote for a bully.

I want to have the America that my son thinks we have.

On Thursday night my sons and partner arrived home just as I was watching Hillary Clinton give her speech in real time. I hadn’t expected to cry, but then she came out in her white pantsuit and stood there, alone, on a podium that floated above a vast sea of bodies. Smoke took his place next to me on the couch. When HRC declared “I believe in science,” Smoke whooped along with the audience and for a moment I wondered if understood the layers of meaning implicit in that statement. Then I remembered he just really likes science. My own whoops and hollers were probably every bit as mysterious to him.

I keep coming back to what Michelle Obama called “the story of this country”, the story of progress that has allowed Barack Obama to become our first African American president and Hillary Clinton to become our first female major party nominee. My newfound right to marry is also a part of that story. But somehow, I keep getting stuck trying to convince myself that our progress towards equity is real and not an illusion. There’s a small but persistent voice in my head going: Really? Are we truly evolving towards justice? Or are we about to take an irrevocable step backwards?

This November will begin to answer those questions for me. I hope that Smoke can continue to love America. I hope that I can love it too.

Voices in the Wake of Yet Another Tragedy

I’ve been having trouble writing here lately. The last time I posted,  I was writing about the Orlando massacre. Since I posted that, there have been three more national tragedies, and still more international ones.  Adam Gopnik, in his most recent essay about gun violence for The New Yorker,  writes “The one thing we can be sure of, after we have mourned the last massacre, is that there will be another. You wake up at three in the morning, check the news, and there it is.” I don’t have words, but I wanted to leave here a collection of things that I’ve seen or read over the last few days, things that have helped me make some kind of sense of my world, or things that have at least spoken directly to my bafflement.

Roxane Gay, in an essay for Marie Claire,  asks us to examine our understanding of the word “ally”.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015, upon the release of his book Between the World and Me. When I asked him about allies, he said, “I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” I mulled his words over for weeks because they were so pointed and powerful. Those words began to inform the ways in which I try to support other marginalized people—making their fights my own because that’s the only way forward.

Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.

Vox ran this first-person essay by former officer Reddit Hudson that offers a compelling explanation of some of the dynamics at play in any given police force.

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

That’s a theory from my friend K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country in use of force.

Finally, in one of the most beautifully written essays I’ve read, Garnette Cadogan writes about “Walking While Black.” Cadogan writes about walking the streets in Kingston Jamaica, and transferring to a new world when he began attending college in New Orleans:

On my first day in the city, I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place and to buy supplies to transform my dormitory room from a prison bunker into a welcoming space. When some university staff members found out what I’d been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen. They trotted out statistics about New Orleans’s crime rate. But Kingston’s crime rate dwarfed those numbers, and I decided to ignore these well-meant cautions. A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn’t let inconvenient facts get in the way. These American criminals are nothing on Kingston’s, I thought. They’re no real threat to me.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

I’d love to hear about anything you’re reading that has shed some light on the darkness. Please leave me a link in the comments.

Some Conflicting Thoughts in the Wake of the Orlando Massacre

Monday June 13: As I pull up to my son’s elementary school, my breath catches at the sight of the American flag at half-mast. It’s a symbol I associate with fallen war heroes, with uniforms and helmets. It’s also a symbol I associate with DOMA, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and an unchecked AIDS epidemic in the nineteen-eighties.  They mourn us. My own thought startles me. They mourn us when we die now.

Wednesday, June 15: It’s noon when I learn that Senator Chris Murphy is staging a filibuster to insist that the Senate vote on gun control legislation. My heart leaps. Something is happening in real time.  I click on a link to open the live stream and leave it open on my desktop all day. I can’t get any work done while it’s playing, so I listen for three minutes at a time, pause it for a while, and then check in again.The filibuster isn’t boring; it’s not what I’ve been taught to picture: a man in a tweed suit wiping sweat from his brow and reading from the phone book. Instead, each time I open the live stream, I see senators delivering considered, impassioned words. I see Elizabeth Warren invoking the names of those lost in Orlando; I see Senator Dick Durbin tell his colleagues, “If you use an AK-47 to hunt a deer, you should stick to fishing.”

Late that night, once my kids are asleep and my house is finally quiet I go online and see that it’s still going on. Everyone in my circle is tweeting with the hashtag #filibuster.

I have it too; I have the fever. I stay up past midnight. For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for our government. I see our officials working their asses off to push through legislation that they know their constituents support. I read speculation about how Senator Murphy can hold the floor for so long without a bathroom break. I am brimming over with gratitude for all the senators who took the floor.

At the same time: I doubt. I read forecasts that a vote on basic gun control measures still won’t pass and, sadly, I believe them. I brood over the senators who vote nay on these measures time after time and wonder how they sleep at night.

Friday, June 17:  It’s raining as I scramble across campus in my black cap and gown. I’m on my way to attend commencement at the community college where I work. By the time I reach my seat the rain has stopped, but the dark clouds loom.

Our president opens with words about Orlando. He comes out to the crowd of thousands as a member of the LGBTQ community, and spends some moments reminding us of the legacy of hate that his people have faced. Our people. I notice I’m not breathing. Instead I am sitting there frozen, feeling like one vulnerable body in a sea of bodies. I wonder if I were straight, would I feel this exposed? I look around the crowd and wonder who is listening, and who might be rolling their eyes, looking at their watch, wondering why we have to be talking about the gays, about tragedy and guns, when they just came to watch their nephew or daughter or cousin walk across the stage and be handed a diploma.

Our college president invites us to honor the 49 lives lost as the bagpipes play Amazing Grace. The bagpipes. They seem to stutter their way into the song and for a moment the whole thing seems wildly absurd and I stifle a laugh. But then the music lifts, and the sun comes out–sudden and blinding and hot. I lift my hand to shade my eyes. It’s one of those moments where even if you don’t believe in God, you can at least understand how someone could. You understand how someone might think that there’s an order to things, that the world runs on grace and forgiveness, and that even in tragedy the light that we bring to each other somehow gets recycled.

 

 

Explaining Donald Trump to my Son

Last week I decided it was time to have the conversation. I wasn’t sure my son was ready—he’s only seven after all, but how do you ever know? NPR was on the in van. Commentators were analyzing Donald Trump’s ever increasing viability as they seem to do every hour of every day. As we drove to pick up Smoke’s little brother up from preschool, I sat there weighing the consequences. Should I talk to him about Donald Trump?

I didn’t want to give my kid information that would complicate his life on the playground. I thought about Smoke’s friends at school and the possibility that some of their parents are Trump supporters. From my own childhood, I remember how kids can so easily internalize their parents’ politics, how those politics can divide them from one another long before they truly understand what’s at stake in any given election. I remember how profoundly disorienting it was when, in grade school or middle school or even in high school (hell, maybe still), I learned that a grown-up I respected didn’t see the world in the same way as my parents. I would learn that a teacher was a lifelong Republican, and my brain would hurt trying to figure out how they could be so nice, and yet vote for a person that my parents had told me was the bad guy. Now that I am a parent myself I struggle to identify the line between orienting my kids to my values and indoctrinating them.

But Donald Trump has been haunting my thoughts after sweeping Super Tuesday. On Wednesday I watched this video, where a young African American woman was shoved, pursued, and harassed at one of his rallies, and the image ran on a loop in my mind. When I watch this footage, I see the same flavor of vitriol that I see in old footage from Klan rallies or neo-Nazi parades. It’s not that I thought this brand of blatant racism was dead, but I didn’t expect to see it play out so transparently at the rally of a leading candidate in 2016. I didn’t expect that a candidate who encouraged this would gain traction.

Some months ago a small part of me wanted Donald Trump to win the nomination because I thought it would allow Bernie or Hillary to win by a comfortable margin. But after viewing that video, I saw how wrong I was. Trump’s candidacy has already cost our country greatly; it has legitimized racism and hate. For me Trump has become more than a candidate I wouldn’t vote for—he’s become a cultural force that terrifies me.

I turned the volume down on the radio and said to Smoke, “Do you hear that they’re talking about this guy named Trump?”

“Who is he?” Smoke asked.

“Well, he’s this guy who’s running for president and I think he would make the worst president ever.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, and started in by explaining how a president’s job is to work with other leaders, to listen them to understand their perspectives, to make circumspect decisions to avoid needless war. “But this guy Trump is actually pretty mean. Like if someone disagrees with something he says, he just calls that person a loser.” As I said this I was struck by how literally true it was. “Loser” is Donald Trump’s go-to rebuttal. I wasn’t having to dumb this down at all to get a seven-year-old to understand.

“He sounds awful,” Smoke said. I had parked the car by now and we were walking towards the daycare center. A grin crossed his face. “Well at least no one will vote for him,” Smoke said. It was a logical conclusion, but I couldn’t let him believe it.

“That’s why I’m nervous,” I explained. “I don’t think he will win, but lots of people ARE voting for him. More and more people.”

“Are you voting for him?” Smoke asked me.

“No, I’m voting for anyone but him.”

“You’d vote for anyone but him?”

I thought about this. Certainly there were people out there who were as bad or worse than Donald Trump. I mean there were actual neo-Nazis. But of all the people who would conceivably run a presidential campaign, Trump was at the very bottom of my list. There is a person in my town who runs for City Council every year under the name Prophet Atlantis. I would vote for Prophet Atlantis over Donald Trump in a heartbeat.

When we got home that day, the sun was out and both of my sons wanted to ride their bikes around the block. As they put on their shoes and helmets, Smoke kept asking me questions about Donald Trump and politics. We talked about how women didn’t always have the right to vote, and how neither did black people. We talked about how weird that was, and how stupid that was, and how terrible it would be to move backwards rather than forwards. Stump, my three-year-old, half-listening in the background, did a crazy little dance and chanted “Donald-Trump-Donald-Trump-Donald-Trump.” For a moment I was comforted. One of my sons still knew nothing about Trump’s growing political power. To him Donald Trump was just three meaningless syllables he was hearing way too often.

Image credit: original drawing by Smoke. (Something about it just reminded me of Trump.)

 

Beloved Strangers

Yesterday, because the sun was out, I took Stump, my three-year-old, to a park we don’t often visit. The playground area was overflowing with kids and parents, and so Stump and I were quick to move on. We moved to the sunny field for a while and then Stump pointed to the tennis courts. No one was actually playing tennis. There was just a sunny court, a few puddles, and a little girl, maybe five years old, whose mother was helping her learn to ride a bike. The moment I opened the tennis court gate, the little girl jumped off her bike and ran to us. For a moment I was confused. Was there someone behind us that she knew? Did she mistake my kid for someone else? But I didn’t have too much time to wonder, because she was already standing beside me, tickling the inside of Stump’s hand with her index finger, and Stump was tickling her back. They stood face-to-face. The little girl began tracing Stump’s forehead with her finger, and he reached up to trace hers as well. Their greeting was at once ceremonial and natural, as if they were beings from a faraway planet, one that had an intimate custom for meeting strangers.

The exchange went on for minutes as they stood there exploring each others’ faces, both of them captivated, smiling. The other mom and I stood on the sidelines laughing, not sure exactly what to do or say—I mean what do you do when your child has fallen so suddenly and utterly in love?

Eventually the little girl ushered Stump into the center of the court where she showed him her bike and invited him to check out her handlebar streamers, which were silver and purple and fluttering. She told him where he could stand while she practiced riding, and then after a few laps around the court, her mother told her it was time to go.

“I’m going to a birthday party,” she explained to my son. “Do you want to come too?”

“Yeah,” Stump said.

“That’s nice of you to invite him,” her mother said. “Do you want to tell your new friend goodbye?”

She embraced him. He returned her embrace. She kissed his cheek. He kissed her back. They were quiet and radiant, wide-eyed and giggling. They kissed each other quickly on the lips (the lips!) and then she stepped away and hopped on her bike. “Wow,” said the little girl’s mother. I shook my head in amazement. My eyes were wet and I could not stop laughing. When they were finally out of sight, Stump looked at me and said, “I want to go to that party.”

The night before, because I couldn’t sleep, I had been lying in bed considering the word beloved. I thought about who was beloved in my life, and a row of faces appeared to me. At first they were the faces you would expect—my children, my partner, my brother. But my pre-sleep brain kept going, kept presenting me with rows upon rows like a stadium, concentric circles of beloveds. I saw the faces of family and friends, colleagues and students, people I’d worked with behind a counter in my twenties, friends I’d made in summer camp and then drifted from. My waking brain was skeptical. Really? I asked myself. All of them?  Yes, all of them, my sleep brain replied. And then the rows of beloveds kept expanding until they included everyone on earth. Even Donald Trump? my waking brain asked. Even Donald Trump, sleep brain replied. It made so much sense at the time. Sleep brain took over and I finally drifted off.

There’s this moment in the book Fun Home where the narrator, Alison, is five years old and eating with her father in a diner. A woman—a stranger—walks in wearing a flannel shirt and short hair. She’s delivering boxes on a hand truck. She gets the waiter’s signature and leaves. This is the first butch woman that our narrator has ever seen and she describes the moment this way:

Like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.

When the narrator says “I recognized her,” what she means is that she saw herself in that woman, that the very sight of her opened a door, gave her permission to become a self that she both feared and longed to be (in this case a woman who expresses gender on her own terms). On the next page, the narrator says: “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained me through the years.”

I keep pausing there. The vision of the bulldyke sustained her. It fed her and kept her alive until a moment in her adult life when she could finally own who she was.

I consider also the “surge of joy” she describes in that moment of recognition, and the surge of joy I felt vicariously for Stump when that young girl greeted him with a wide-open heart. She saw him. He saw her back. Their love filled a tennis court. It filled my whole weekend.

image credit: Sean Connors, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://www.flickr.com/

 

The Tyranny of Weekends

I have a confession to make. I hate Saturday mornings. I’ve been fooling myself for decades. I thought I loved Saturdays. I spend the workweek dreaming of them, thinking I will wake up rejuvenated and blissful, that I will relish every moment of not having to be somewhere.

Instead I stumble out of bed at six-thirty and feel uncertain. I make my morning tea and my to-do list starts pinging around in my brain. On Friday I was so optimistic. I packed a set of student papers in a folder thinking I could just casually sit around and grade them while my children played. I thought I’d crank out an essay that’s due in ten days. I thought that I would fold all the laundry, do five more loads, prepare my taxes, and defrost the freezer. Small goals, I told myself, and these were the goals I set. But on Saturday mornings I wake up not wanting to grade papers or fold laundry. I don’t want to engage with my to-do list, but to relax would require letting go of the list, and I can’t quite do that either. And so I spend all of Saturday morning trapped between these two places, unable to commit to doing, unable to commit to not-doing.

This week my compromise was to walk the dogs. I thought that the air and movement would help me, that I’d be performing a pleasant but useful task. I was already feeling brighter as I put on my boots; I was getting ready to cure myself. But then Wally, our younger dog jumped all over me with muddy paws and insisted on sniffing my crotch. And then Winnie, our older dog, was shedding his winter coat in giant fluffy tufts. When I bent over to gather some of loose fur, I noticed his coat was oily and matted. He was in dire need of a bath. When I got home, Kellie and I would spend the next two hours cleaning and brushing him—a large chore that neither of us had planned on. Meanwhile, as the children played inside the house, our refrigerator began dying an angry, loud death. The following would become the soundtrack to our weekend as we searched for working refrigerators on Craigslist and tried to deter Smoke and Stump from their usual habit of opening the fridge and just standing there for minutes on end. Listen:

I hope that this is not a woe-is-me post. I hope that this is a life-is-life post. The problem is not my stinky matted dog or my crazy-loud refrigerator or any other spontaneous challenge. The problem is the trouble I have in making space for these challenges. I crowd my weekend with expectations. I make the mistake of thinking I can tame these two days every week, and inside tameness I will find comfort. When the weekend proves untamable I’m mad at myself, and mad at life.

Sundays are often a little better. This morning I left the death-rattle of the refrigerator behind me and went for a run. The sun was out. I ran through the woods. I jumped over puddles and brooks—everything was wet from the rains we’ve had this week. It was nice to be outside, but dread still nestled in my sternum. On the last mile of my run, when I was back on the pavement, I spotted a tiny plastic dinosaur that some child must have dropped while on a walk. I backtracked to pick it up. I thought about bringing it home to my kids—because if there’s anything my household needs it’s one more tiny plastic toy. I had no pocket, and so as I ran, I held its tail between my thumb and forefinger.

Here’s a funny thing about that dinosaur. My mood instantly lifted. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re wearing green spandex and holding a tiny t-rex. The longer I ran with the t-rex in my hand, the more I saw him as the angst that had been ruling me, a tiny monster inside who thinks he’s more important that he is. Now that I held him in my hand, I could see him as a small and ridiculous thing. I could get some space, some vantage. I could put him on the shelf and walk away.

When I came home, both of my kids instantly noticed the dinosaur in my hand. “Is that mine?” Stump asked me. “No, it’s mine,” told him. “Can we have it?” Smoke wanted to know. I told them they couldn’t. I need it.

Riot Grrrl in a Minivan

Last Thursday, as I was walking through a rainy parking lot, I spotted a bumper sticker that read Reelect Obama, 2012. I smiled at first, because I thought it was a joke—that 2012 was the year of our next election, and that the owner of the car was suggesting we elect Obama for a third term instead of Hillary or Bernie. Then I did the math, and realized that we’re approaching 2016.

Every day I do math like this. How old am I again? 38. How long has it been since I graduated high school? 20 years. But hasn’t it been just two years since my fifteenth class reunion? No, that was actually five years ago.

Huh, is my internal response every single time. I remain unconvinced. I don’t quite feel twenty anymore, but I’m not sure how I arrived at middle age, and so I keep looking around, befuddled, trying to get my bearings.

My past has been haunting me extra hard this month, and for some reason it keeps taking the form of Carrie Brownstein. Maybe it’s because she has a new book out and so she’s everywhere—she’s on Fresh Air with Terry Gross; she’s on a book tour of major cities. If you don’t know Carrie Brownstein, I’m not quite sure how to introduce you, except to say that plenty of queers like me spent a chunk of our youths standing in line and then pushing through crowds to be near her, to watch as she played guitar next to Corin Tucker. Corin may have been the vocal powerhouse of Sleater-Kinney but she sang to a distant point beyond the audience while Carrie looked into the crowd and danced as she played. She welcomed you.

If you lived in the Pacific Northwest you might have spotted her buying coffee on Broadway in Seattle, or you might have seen her lined up for a show at the Midnight Sun in Olympia. You might have heard that she sat next to the friend-of-a-friend in a college writing class. You might have lost track of whether Carrie was really a celebrity or some kind of distant acquaintance.

http://www.electrip.com/sleater-kinney/1html/showsH/1998shows.html

Though it’s been about a month—wait, I mean a decade—since I last walked downtown to watch a Sleater-Kinney show, Carrie has been reincarnated into my adult life as one half of the TV series Portlandia. A few weeks ago I took up the project of catching up with it in the late evening hours after my children had fallen asleep. (Because of the way that time moves now, I had missed four full seasons.)

For me, Portlandia is part sketch comedy, part internal reckoning. As I watch the show, my ghost-self is always hovering, mulling over Carrie Brownstein and the Sleater-Kinney legacy. Why is she an actress now? When your band has been widely acclaimed as one of the most seminal voices of your generation, what makes you want to set down your guitar and do skits on TV instead? I ask myself this question over and over because it is unanswerable; I am not Carrie Brownstein and so I will never know. Also: I ask myself this question because I am struggling to understand the choices we make in our twenties and thirties. I wonder if there’s a linear process to becoming who we are, a point of destination at the end of a long path, or if there is no true self, just a series of options, some of them more interesting than others. Carrie helps me remain confused by all of this.

Last Thursday, on the rainy evening that followed my sighting of the Reelect Obama sticker, I met a friend downtown for drinks at a bar I hadn’t visited for years. We settled into a private booth and hanging directly above her head was a Sleater-Kinney poster. I must have blinked and shook my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. My past was following me everywhere.

For that hour at the bar my friend and I remembered our lives in the late nineties. As we talked, my ghost-self wandered my old neighborhoods: I stood in the crowd as Sleater-Kinney opened a set with Little Babies at RKCNDY. I sat on the floor as Miranda July led interactive performance art at The Midnight Sun. I made spaghetti in the kitchen of my studio apartment with the music turned way up.

I looked again at the poster over my friend’s head, signed by Corin Tucker, and realized that it was memorabilia, an artifact from a bygone era, not so unlike the vintage Beatles lunch boxes and figures that my older siblings collected.

I’ve always thought that the pain of nostalgia is simply the sting of longing to visit a time you can never get back. But that night I started to wonder if it was more than that. For me nostalgia is tinged with regret at having been there without fully having been there. I went to a few shows, but not all of the shows; I bought some of the albums, but not all of the albums. Sometimes it takes the space of years to appreciate how good something truly was.

As I drove home I thought about how just as I pine for my early twenties, I also pine for a future life several years from now where my children don’t bombard me with multiple requests every waking moment, one where work-life balance comes with a little less effort. Most days I’m just trying to make it to bedtime.

And then I pined for Now. I wondered what it would mean to immerse myself more deeply in the present moment so that twenty years from now I won’t feel the same sting. Because that sweet spot that I’m waiting for—the one where both of my kids are young and sweet but not so relentlessly demanding—that will not a be a permanent life. Before I know it, my children will be gone and I will meet myself once again in a home so empty and quiet it begs to be filled with loud music.

There’s a Sleater-Kinney song, one of the first I ever heard, that’s kind of an anti-conformity rock anthem. Here are some of the lyrics:

They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify
Analyze and terrorize you

Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you

(from Call the Doctor, 1996)

When I was young I was suspicious of this track; I could never tell to what extent it was satire of that heavy metal fuck-the-man trope, to what extent it was in earnest.

Now that I’m thirty-eight, I no longer care—in fact, I prefer earnestness. At thirty-eight, I realize that I need that song more now than I did at nineteen, that I need rock and roll while I’m driving my two kids around in a minivan, juggling family and work and asking myself what really matters, when I’m noticing how quickly my own life is passing, when I’m coming to terms with the fact that some day it will all be over, and if time keeps speeding up the way it does the end will be here faster than I think, and I’ll have wondered what I did with it all, and why I made the choices I did. That’s the moment I most need Corin Tucker’s voice reminding me of what I knew as a young adult: that the forces of the world conspire to make you numb and normal, that owning your life requires a battle.

Featured image by Jon Rubin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonrubin/687640891

RKCNDY flyer from http://www.electrip.com/sleater-kinney/1html/showsH/1998shows.html

The Value of a Reader (and a few other things I’ve learned from blogging)

Goodnight Already had it’s first anniversary last January. I published my 100th post in June. I kept meaning to mark these small milestones, but they came and went quietly while I continued to write posts about rats and forest fires and birthdays. So I’m pausing now finally to reflect on what the last twenty months of blogging has offered me.

1: Numeric Feedback

I spent two years in the early aughts earning an MFA in Creative Writing. Those were good years. I got to immerse myself in the creative process, write new stories every month, and get immediate feedback on those stories from a community of peers. The feedback came in the form of written notes and long discussions about what was and wasn’t working.

Blogging doesn’t offer that exactly, but it does offer something else of value: data. The number of views, likes and shares I get on any given post is often as instructive as any workshop letter ever was. The numbers don’t tell me where my typos are, or where the story lags, or if my characters are interesting. But they do tell me if anyone’s reading, if they connected with the work enough to pass it on to someone else, and if they stayed long enough to click around and read other posts.

I’ve learned to appreciate these numbers for the objective truth they offer. They aren’t too generous or tactful. They also don’t judge. They don’t tell me that a post was poorly written, that it was too self-indulgent or too sappy. They simply tell me: people were curious about this, or moved by this, or else they tell me: they were not.

2: Process

When I started blogging, my goal was to post at least once a week. I assumed I could just carve out an hour, sit down and write a post, edit it once, and hit publish.

A few of my posts have gone that way, but most of them haven’t. Instead something happened that’s either annoying or magic, depending on how I look at it: a process took over. It demanded things of me. I started to move through my life with an eye out for possible posts. What was I worried about this week? What was I learning? Sketches of these posts took shape in my brain every day as I walked from my car to the office, or as I cooked dinner. Once I sat down to write them, they came out scrawled as half-formed paragraphs that needed active shaping and several visits of revision. I couldn’t sit down once and press publish. I had to return to them, learn from them, refine them at least a little.

Over time, I’ve learned to trust the process. I’m excited, not scared, when my first draft is a chaotic mess, when I can’t tell where something is going, or when a draft takes an unexpected turn. After dozens of posts, my body seems to know the rhythm of this thing. Like going for a long run, it’s work, but it’s pleasant—mostly—and it helps me feel expansive in my body and my life.

3: Practice in Letting Go

A related point: blogging has taught me to let go of my work, to make the distinction between the best I can do and good enough for now. If I manage to publish the book that I’m working on, I hope that I will have the patience to make to see it through countless revisions, to send it into the world not because I’ve grown impatient with it but because I’ve reached the limit of my skills.

But blogging has helped me learn that it’s okay to aim a bit lower than that in the service of experimentation, of getting things down and letting them go. Most weeks when I put up a post, some part of me considers what I could do with it if I spent another two weeks refining it. And then I shrug and move on because blogging should move in real time, and life won’t always wait for my revisions.

4: Understanding the Value of a Reader

This is, by a long stretch the most important thing that blogging has taught me: no one—not even my best friends, not even my mother—owes me their readership. The world is full of words and diversions. If I want you to read I’ve got to earn it.

Sometimes keeping a blog feels like keeping a home–the kind of home where people drop by because they were in the neighborhood, and they’re hoping you might have coffee on hand. When I was a teenager I had one friend whose house we always went to. In my gang of friends, we had a number of places to choose from, but we didn’t rotate. We always wound up at this one house. This friend had a comfortable kitchen and parents who didn’t mind having us around but who stayed out of our way. The refrigerator was full and sometimes there was a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Sometimes I think that’s how I want my blog to feel: like a place that’s comfortable and there for you when you need it. Sit down. Eat a cookie. Eat five.

Anyhow, that’s really the point of all of this. Thank you for reading. Thanks for checking in once in a while, or subscribing via email, or telling me when I run into you at the grocery store that you read my last post. Having readers makes my day. You are the gas in my engine, the butter in my mashed potatoes, the honey in my hive.

image credit: Message in a Bottle, Suzanne Nilsson, cc by-sa 2.0  https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomastern/12407730413