A Literary Feast

Animal Cruelty

Posted on January 1st, 2017

The feeling inside was powder and flame

in the gun of my throat.

 

I didn’t know how to shape my fingers ‘round your wrists

so that you’d understand.

 

When I said ribbons yellow and turn,

what I meant was the village burned. Here,

 

below our feet.

In the smoke, the sound was a fast hand erasing.

 

That winter, the sky was so very white

and nothing changed

until you—

you became this other in a flash of rapid oxidation: too

 

like the whole world: where nothing

could be counted

 

or meant.

 

* * *

 

When I broke the jar, it was because I threw it at the floor.

 

Or it was because a dark creature inside that needed stopping

had welled up,

 

urging: Come,

place your mouth over mine.

 

Seal this hole. Give me a pill. Give me

a promise.


A meal.

A bullet.
A seed.

 

 

for P.C., with thanks

The Unquiet American

Posted on January 1st, 2017

I spent my twenties living in two of the biggest countries in the world—China and Indonesia. One, China, remains firmly under the thumb of authoritarian leadership. The other, Indonesia, had recently crawled out from under that same thumb and held, to great contention and excitement, its first direct presidential election ever in 2004.

 

Twelve years later, Indonesia remains one of the biggest democratic flowers yet to bloom in Asia, while China, now under Xi Jinping or “Xi Dada”—Father Xi—experiences some of its harshest crackdowns on basic freedoms in decades. But I walked through both countries like these facts were foregone conclusions. Like my own country, America, could never backtrack.

 

I have no great insight on any of these three countries, despite spending years in each and speaking, to greater and lesser effect, their various languages. If anything, I find that hackneyed old adage to be true—the more closely I look, the less certain I feel about anything.

 

I started in China at 21, a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in one hand and a letter of introduction to a university in Beijing in the other. I would teach history and English in my first year out of college to, well, a bunch of college kids. It didn’t even occur to me to be terrified. Instead, my memory of boldly striding off the airplane into a dust-choked Beijing and demanding a “little car” for my luggage (I hadn’t yet learned the Chinese word for “cart”) strikes me as quintessentially American: childish, impetuous, eager, untested.

 

I got tested, to a degree. But, with my copy of Zinn and all my good intentions, I felt I could keep the worst accusations at bay. Yes, America had had slavery. Yes, the genocide of the Native Americans. Yes, Jim Crow. Yes, segregation. Yes, different pay for men and women. Yes, persistent inequality. But Clinton, however flawed, was in office and the pendulum, however busted, appeared to be swinging in the right direction.

 

And at least “we” can have these conversations, I told my students over bowls of cheap noodles that they showed me how to eat together with quick nips of raw garlic. (“It cuts the grease,” a student who went by the name Betty Sue told me.) I remember waving her away. “Fascinating, delicious,” I insisted. “But what about Tiananmen Square? What about Xinjiang? What about Taiwan? Or even just the Cultural Revolution—are these things that you can talk about without reproach?”

 

“What does reproach mean?”

 

“You see,” I continued, “If America has made some mistakes in the past—and we most certainly have—we must also realize that the broader course of history is moving in the right direction.” Sanctimonious, I was getting used to this little institutional pulpit I had acquired. I’d even reach for the bill when it came. “No worries,” I say, my tone reaching a high holy pitch. “I got this.” The bill would have come to about $3.50 for all of us, but I thought it was a good demonstration of American hustle and ingenuity, if not downright generosity—Here, children of a lesser God. Let me get these noodles for you, seeing as I have already nourished your mind.

 

Indonesia—moving toward democracy, fractured after the fall of Suharto—was different, freewheeling. Jakarta was, to me, like one big party where all the lights had gone out and someone had just found the keys to Mom and Dad’s liquor cabinet. There were very few Americans in town, however, so I didn’t have many people to crow with me about American exceptionalism. My friends were Australian and European and we watched together as Bush secured his second term in office, sipping beers out of teacups because it was Ramadan and alcohol was forbidden. We had devised our work-arounds in a country that looked to a god that was not our own, and we reassured each other.

 

I think we were all a bit sanctimonious, all these privileged white people (and we were mostly white) working high-end development jobs in fancy office towers in a crumbling city besieged by floodwaters and corruption. In our home countries, we assured each other, infrastructure worked. In our home countries, officials could not be bought and sold. Unlike here, we tut-tutted as we leapt in and out of Toyotas with tinted windows, glad-handing officials, getting paid vertiginously more than our Indonesian counterparts.

 

We could see the suffering and inequality all around us, sure. But we had come from countries where such suffering, we insisted, was a thing of the past and it was our job, now, to similarly eradicate the suffering of Indonesia while turning, naturally, a profit. We were proud. We had won. So these were the stories we told ourselves. These were the ideas we lived by. Soon Obama, a man who had himself spent childhood years in Jakarta, would be in office. See? We assured each other. The great pendulum does swing in the right direction.

 

Pendulums, of course, swing back. Now the reality television star and unrepentant huckster Donald J. Trump is preparing to assume that high office. I am back in the United States. Most of the expat friends I made in Asia are also back in their respective home countries. And I am not so proud. America had never, of course, eradicated its own suffering, its own enduring divides, nor are we above the allure of brute force and hawkish division. The dream of totalitarian order and lockstep oppression is the nightmare to which we are now, perhaps, only just beginning to wake. “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism,” the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” 

 

What will this learning look like? What does it mean to “learn from their experience” when we know so many Americans are unwilling to learn, even, from our own. The dominant narrative—land of the free, home of the brave—doesn’t fit anymore. For many Americans, of course, it never did.

 

One of the most painful aspects of this awakening, such as it is, is its impact on families and close relationships—yielding conversations between people who had previously taken our shared values as just that—something shared. But sharing, as we know from kindergarten, is not always easy. True sharing is wanting to hand your toy over to another kid, not being forced to and then peevishly ticking off the seconds until you can get that toy back and inspect, immediately and thoroughly, for damage.

 

My parents met at Purdue University in Indiana, Mick Pence’s home state. Recently some posters when up in the school’s Stanley Coulter Hall.  They depict white faces and the words “We Have a Right to Exist” and “White Guilt—Free Yourself from Cultural Marxism”. It’s white supremacy propaganda, the likes of which has never hit the mainstream since my parents (both white, both in their 70s) were children.

 

I sent them the images, with a text that read simply: “At Purdue!”

 

Mom: “Wow! Where did you find this?”

 

Me: “It is on Facebook, posted by a Purdue student.”

 

“Would be fun to know what happens,” my Mom replied. “Thanks, Caroline!”

 

I had—and still have—no idea how to respond to this. Because we know what happens. So what’s fun? What is there to thank?

Yes, the more closely I look, the less certain I feel about anything.

 

Spilled Milk

Posted on January 1st, 2017

Twice this week I have cleaned large amounts of milk off the floor of my classroom. Once, white milk after a student accidentally dropped it; the second time chocolate milk, after a student had thrown it to the floor in anger. This is not typically in the brochures or posters that advertise teaching programs, but it is, after all, part of my job. Over the last several years I have learned to see tasks like this as less degrading and more meaningful. There is the academic side of my job, but on some level I also care for children and this involves both physical and emotional labor. As I cleaned the milk I imagine I felt something like an office worker feels when they click send on their final e-mail of the day- a satisfaction at having concretely finished something. Cleaning up milk on my hands and knees felt useful and necessary. The other side of teaching, the actual teaching, can be much more elusive and ambiguous. How does one know for sure a student has “learned” that day? Standardized tests and data try to measure this, but the truth is that the process of truly learning something is often mysterious, like learning to talk, it just slowly happens to us over time; much harder to quantify than spilled milk. The milk was there and then it wasn’t. Task completed.

I knew Donald Trump had won by two in the morning on the night of the election. Nobody seemed to be “officially” announcing anything, but I knew in my bones we had been wrong. We had spent the past year saying to everyone we knew that he couldn’t possibly win.  When my students came to me in fear, often expressed in the strange ways of children as jokes or half muttered comments, I would reassure them that nobody like him could ever truly be President. I, like so many others, miscalculated. Wrapped in a left-wing sounding board I had forgotten about everyone else, I had no idea how deep the divide truly was.

That weekend I walked past Trump tower with some friends. Helicopters flew overhead, protestors screamed from across the street, and hundreds of armed policemen stood in front of the giant golden phallus. I had always thought it was an ugly building, (once I went in the lobby to use the bathroom) but now it was no longer just some rich man’s home–the President-elect was beginning to run the country from within those walls. The sheer force of the police presence outside paled in comparison to the protestors who were there when I walked past. All I saw was power, displayed aggressively outward. New York had felt alien to me many times before, but perhaps never as alien as it did in that moment.

We called each other and cried. There were days of stunned faces everywhere I looked. When I turned on the television though I saw the celebrations, the smiling faces that believed change was going to come. In some ways the same faces I remembered seeing everywhere the day after Barack Obama won in 2008, except something was different in everyone’s eyes- an anger I did not recognize and had not seen before. I am angry too. I am angry that there are children who will go to bed tonight hungry, not just in this country, but all over the world. I am angry that hundreds of people will die senselessly while I am writing this. I am angry about so many injustices I could spend pages writing about them. These people seem angry about different things, they see injustice too, but not in the same places I see it.   What do these people think of me and my partner, an immigrant from Mexico? What do they see when we walk down the street holding hands? All at once it occurred to me that I no longer knew who they even were. Millions of people, sixty million people, had voted him into office. There wasn’t an us and a them, there was simply the fact of his election.

I could spend the next several paragraphs in a rallying cry, telling everyone it is going to be alright, but we know that it isn’t. People have suffered in this country for a long time. Even those of us who voted for the first time in the millions in 2008, bringing Obama to the White-House on a wave of young people’s support, know better than that now. People suffered under his presidency and I have no doubt it will only worsen with Trump.

What I would like to talk about is walking along the water, on the far West of Manhattan, alone with my headphones on and my hands in my pocket a week after the election. I was listening to Zadie Smith being interviewed on Fresh Air and she said the following: “I guess I’m always thinking of duties, rights and gifts. To me, that’s how social worlds and our intimate lives are structured: What is your duty? What accrues to you? What is your right? And what are your gifts?” It was the first moment I felt calm. The wind was blowing hard against me, it was dark and cold that night, but I meditated on those words and I think we all should. What are your gifts? What can you do? What will you do?

For some I love I know that will mean continuing to make art. For others I know it will mean surviving, living as their authentic selves no matter what is thrown at them. Still others I know will fight, visibly, in the streets because they feel like they can and should. I have not decided what particular form my resistance will take, but I refuse to be dishonest about any of this with anybody I know. It is time that white people in particular have difficult conversations with people in their lives, people we know voted for bigotry or at the very least did not care enough about bigotry to not vote for it. We must also continue to find beauty where there is beauty to be found. I hope that people sing, dance, write, make love, travel, hold their friends close to their bodies, have long conversations, and more than anything try to connect. It is easy to burrow at a time like this, and I am certainly one who loves the occasional burrow, but now is the time for us to do everything we can to both survive and thrive. For the least protected among us we need to think of everything we possibly can do to shield them when the time comes. I know for my students it means being honest with them; if there is fear, I must find ways to comfort them. None of this will be as easy as cleaning up the spilled milk, in fact there will be times when we are brought to the precipice of what we believe we can handle, but even then we must push through. Ideas cannot be killed and we will continue to create no matter what is thrown at us, in fact we will create more.  

I want to end this reflection with a line from my favorite childhood book. I believe, I have to believe, there are more people fighting the darkness than falling into it.

“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe, it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”

A Wrinkle in Time- Madeline L’Engle

Move Forward, Look Within

Posted on January 1st, 2017

The other night I lay in my son’s room as he fell asleep. His love of cuddling surpasses still our need for him to fall asleep on his own, and for now that’s okay.

On this evening, a day or two before Christmas, the light in his room radiated in a low glow from the Christmas lights on the tiny tree we set up on a side table by his window. His breath had slowed and deepened and I watched his chest rise and fall, his mouth slightly open, his eyes gently shut, one arm up towards my head with his fingers tangled in my hair, the other on his chest.

My heart constricted, my breath caught for a moment. I love watching him like this, just being with my little sleeping lion. He’s the same kid who exasperates my patience at dinner while he grins mischievously while explicitly doing something he’s not supposed to, but for now, he rests in all his innocence.

As I lay next him my mind wandered to the news. Earlier that day or day before I caught on the radio that the President-Elect announced via Twitter, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he believes the U.S. should expand and strengthen nuclear arms capacity, and that it indeed would be an arms race. I listened for a brief moment to the talking heads attempt to suss out exactly what the President-Elect meant in 120 characters before I shut it off. Then I focused on getting back to the present, not my anger, fear or sadness. Not some horrible imagined non-existent future. The present.

I was driving the car on a grey Pacific northwest day, my foot on the pedal, my breath in my body, the air in and out of my nose. I looked at the intensity of the light. I felt deeply the life growing in my belly, a new child ready to join us any day now. Life is here. Life is around me and within me. If I hadn’t heard the the news my heart would not have twisted in anger and fear, I would not have to make the effort to unkink the unknown future and bring myself back to now, but I have this practice of centering and for that, I’m grateful.

But laying in bed, the news came up again in my mind and the fragility of the life in front of me, within me, twisted me up again, fraught me with a deep sadness and pain.

I lay in bed and started to strip away everything about the world. All the things I do every day, how does it matter if everything I know about the regular world evaporates at the will of someone I have no control over. What will have mattered most in my experience on this earth?

And fundamentally, I arrived quickly at the only thing that matters to me.

Love.

When I went through the apocalyptic stripdown of everything I have, I saw that all I want is to keep the feeling and experience of love for my kids, my husband, my friends and family, and to know that no harm or pain has come to them. I want for them to feel that same loving kindness. I want the same for those who are unlike me. And I want us to have more of it, always. For that to be the focus of our experiences.

We live in such a world where it is the deprivation of love that creates a deep need, and creates behaviors to fill that need that are out of step how we can actually feel and experience love more deeply, every day, in every moment.

A couple weeks ago I attended a workshop in Seattle. The topic focused on “Activities to Facilitate Courageous Conversations on Race”. I’m a facilitator in my work and I’ve been shaping my career the past three years to focus more on culture change in organizations with an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. Talking about race is hard, deep, emotional work, wrought with anxiety for many. Totally questioned by some, and fought for with straight-laced radical action by others. Structured and well-facilitated conversations to help identify without attacking individuals around race and racism in our society are incredibly helpful tools to help people come together across differences, to learn and to find understanding and common ground. To create the common language to help us come together.

One of the activities we worked with at the workshop continues to come to mind as a powerful tool for reflection, both within race related contexts and life in general.

It worked like this – take a sheet of paper. Draw a line down the center of it. On the left side label it “Core Values” and take a few minutes to think about your core values – those unshakeable tenets that you try to live your daily life by. Those things to which you can say “I’m all about this…”

On the right side, write “Deepest Needs” and think about what you need from other people to validate your self-worth. Lastly, on the back of the sheet, write the behaviors you enact when you don’t get your deepest needs fulfilled. Are you living your core values – or the opposite of them to fulfill your deepest needs?

Let’s say my core values are love, integrity, honesty, and understanding. Let’s say my deepest needs are to be seen as intelligent, to be viewed as an expert in my field, to be accepted among my peers, to be validated in my thoughts and opinions. Within my deepest needs, what will I do to ensure that I am seen as intelligent, viewed as an expert, and accepted among my peers? What if a few people don’t show me somehow, that I am all the things I want them to see me as and it twists me up in knots? What kind of behaviors would I exert to get what I want? Would I start to withhold information from others so I hold the power and look smarter? Would I depart from my own ideals or values to fit with a group so that I’m accepted? If I did these things – would I actually be living out my core values day to day?

Deep needs are rarely, if ever, fulfilled by others. They’re a game in insecurity. In doing this activity I realized how much I’ve learned and also how important it is to reflect like this. If I’m acting in some way that feels wrong – that is angry or attacking another person – or I’m feeling resentful and bitter and my actions are stemming from these feelings – what’s really going on? Have I compromised my integrity, honesty, understanding and love for myself and others? What am I showing to the world about who and  how I am? Is it even close to what my core values are? Am I out of alignment with who I truly am?

It was a striking example for me, of what plagues so many of us in this modern world, and indeed, much of the human condition today. We’re always doing things to have our needs met within families with deep political or religious divides, across race, gender, sexuality, everything. Marketing and advertising devour us with this every day, tapping into our deepest insecurities and getting us to dish out our dollars to buy our way into whatever we need to have fulfilled.

Knowing this, and reflecting on this, I can take the control back. I can be aware of my deepest needs and my core values and understand when I start to fall out of alignment with myself. A strategy I use is to stop, breathe, and remind myself that my feet are on the ground. That it’s 2 o’clock on a Tuesday. My purpose isn’t to shame and hate and control others, to manipulate them into everything I want them to see me as (they never would that way, anyway). My job is to stay true to myself and bring light to what’s hiding, structure conversations and dialogue around tough issues to bring together understanding. And I won’t get there with everyone I talk to – but I will try – and it is hard, but I will try to do it with love.

I recommend, as an act of humanity and society, that we take some time, 25 minutes, the length of one sitcom streamed on Netflix, to look within and identify our values, needs and behaviors. I recommend we practice a strategy that causes us to pause when things start to feel sideways before we start to to do things that are harder to undo later. We are each responsible for interrupting behaviors that contradict our core values. We are responsible for interrupting our own internal oppression (insecurity) and only from there can we honestly move forward across our many differences. And it won’t be perfect, it won’t be a kumbaya moment, but it will be honest, real and authentic. This is what will move us forward.

And so, in a bizarre way, I’m grateful to have been pushed, because of the news, to look within again, at my core values and what I want to do, how I want to live. Not how I feel because of the actions of a person I can’t control, but what I can do when I’m in control of myself and acting in alignment with my core values and treating others with the honesty, integrity, understanding and love I expect for myself. Especially if we don’t agree. My job is not to convince, it is to create opportunities for more light.

The Conscience of the King

Posted on January 1st, 2017

It was never plausible and it was never smart. We did it anyway. We had to, I guess—we had run out of choices. It’s hard to remember how life felt before. I can only recall a sort of seething numbness. When everything goes that grey, you need to light something on fire.

When it had finally begun and we couldn’t turn back, when the first real shots started flying and the air turned yellow with gas that stank like a mockery of the grave, all I could feel was an angry heaving that stretched from the pit of my stomach to the roof of my brain. I wanted to throw my head back and laugh, ecstatic, perverse. I wanted to yelp to all the generations of the dead, Christ almighty, we’re doing it again, and I wanted them to hiss me off the stage. I hated myself for letting it come to this—but hell, I hated them more.

I don’t know how many of us were left by the end. Some had gone home. Some had gone over. Maybe a handful remained, or maybe it was just me and Barlow, two mostly-unarmed agitators whose only real goal had been to stay out in the streets till all hours making a fuss. The men in the armored suits didn’t like fusses, though, and the big man hated fusses even more. Fusses were bad for business.

The first burst caught us off guard. I think they started shooting just for fun. By then I wasn’t paying much attention anymore. I’d given up on the insurrection, the nation, the future—probably myself as well. I didn’t really care what hit Barlow in the shoulder or whose face tongued the dirt like a drunk lover. I didn’t see the sparks fly off the iron plates I’d dug from a dumpster and hammered flat into a parody of armor, strapping them to my forearms as if to show off my rank to the alley walls. I didn’t notice the high whine that swelled through my head like the alarm you don’t want to hear in the night, or the flashes of white light that burned my eyes like the sun in a skillet.

All I could think was how this wasn’t going to work and how we’d all be corpses buried under a footnote in an hour or two. We’d lasted a few days, which was longer than we’d expected. The bastards had shown a little restraint and come after us with cops and dogs instead of drones and smartbombs. That surprised us. They liked to take out a foreign city every few months with a little burst of neutrons, leaving streets and walls and pipelines unaltered except for a smattering of the peaceful dead whose brain cells had scattered and sizzled before they even heard the champagne pop of the trigger. I guess the bigwigs on the Defense Committee played by different rules on home turf. Maybe they were worried about collateral damage among their constituents. It’s hard to gerrymander a ghost town.

So there we were, barricaded behind a heap of garbage and car doors, wearing stolen overcoats and sucking wifi from the public mains like outcasts from Victor Hugo’s cyberpunk nightmare, trying to change the world before they crushed our heads with truncheons. The news said we were trying to bring something down, whatever that meant. It didn’t sound right to us. We were trying to bring something back.

Then their ugly black vans sealed the mouth of the alley and none of it really mattered anymore.

They never planned to kill us outright. There’s no theater in a pile of corpses no matter which way you char them. No, they wanted to play out the narrative as something comfortably familiar: the rebels quelled, the rebels brought in, dusty faces staring out from the back of a truck, looking more tired than defeated. There’s no nobility in boredom, and that’s what they wanted most: our nobility. Strongmen run nations on fear and P.R. We were a threat to both.

A hush came over the scene, louder than the gunfire. The whole thing felt unreal, like I was watching a movie of us, the scene where the smoke gathers into tidy clouds to blow through the foreground as a stranger walks out of it, a stocky man with a cocky stride that makes you hate him on sight, half Woody Harrelson, half Mouth of Sauron. Of course he’s wearing a fucking windbreaker, his hands buried in its pockets as though to remind us that it doesn’t matter one bit whether or not he’s packing. He walks right up to the camera, which of course isn’t trained on us. His whole face wrinkles up as though he’s trying to huff the fumes of insurrection out of a paper bag, and he waggles his head to one side in case we didn’t notice the bulky headset that makes him look like an air traffic controller with failed dreams of shock jock stardom. Then he opens his mouth. It’s red and wet, with a tongue that looks like it wants to get away. His lips smack on their own. He speaks.

Only he didn’t speak just yet—not this time. He made a little humming sound and peered up at exactly the holes we were peeping through, playing for time, maybe hoping one of us would take a shot at him for the cameras. He made another little noise that was almost laughter, and then he waited a long time, hoping, maybe, that we’d make job easier by bleeding out.

“‘Every schoolboy to his sport,’” he said at last, and snickered.

I looked down to where Barlow bled beside me. Barlow looked up at me and winked, grimacing less than I’d expected. She brought a damp hand away from what was only a little hole in her side and pointed to a small gap in the rear wall that wasn’t there a day or two ago. Which meant it wasn’t on their maps, either. I looked around at the empty rubble. We were alone—the others must have run or limped or crawled away as soon as the shooting started. I’d never even learned their names.

Barlow leaned up on one elbow and whispered something in my ear. I don’t remember what. The words didn’t matter. There weren’t many of them, and I would have known exactly what she meant no matter what she said. I nodded. I nodded again. The weird, warped, impossible plan we’d dreamed up over several sleepless night watches suddenly seemed like the only course our little world could take. Besides, I didn’t feel like getting killed today. Martyrdom in the age of Chirpdown looked hopelessly banal.

The negotiator took another huff of the fog of war and lowered his head like an angry bull or a man who wonders what he’s stepped in. “Look,” he said, as though we had any choice. Stubble grew down his throat like mold on a ripe peach. We couldn’t look away. “You know we don’t want to hurt you. But you’re the last rats’ nest in the city, and there are—what, three of you alive in there? Two?”

I glanced over my shoulder to see Barlow’s feet vanishing into the gap. “One,” I shouted back, trying to sound weak.

“You want to keep it that way,” he asked, “all you’ve got to do is crawl out of there with your hands up. Nice and civilized. Can probably walk out of this with only minor domestic terrorism charges, too. If you’re real nice about it.”

I used my last free moment to fantasize about his depressing home life, sexless marriage, and estranged teenage children. Then the thought hit me that I might never see Barlow again, even if we could pull off our crazy five-year plan, even if skill, luck, coincidence, the stars, and the wiles of cafeteria life all conspired to make our wildest dreams come true.

Then I stood up slowly and took a tranquilizer dart straight to the jugular. I was already too numb to care when I hit the layer of rusty scrap metal at the base of the rubble heap we’d called a barricade.

 

*******

 

The next five years were something of a blur.

Of course the big man stayed in power. They always do, for a while. Of course there were more petty insurrections like ours, but they only fueled the zeal of his swooning admirers. Everywhere we turned we saw his perfect hair, peppery-grey and glinting with dominance. Everywhere his eyes looked out at us. Some of us felt seen and loved it. Some us just felt watched. He was a clever guy, good at what he did. He didn’t put up banners or force Parliament to stick his name into the national anthem. He let the rest of us do the work for him—on our newscasts, our placards, our Chirpdowns, our Crowcaws, even on the bumpers of our cars. He was like some fairytale monster—every time we said his name, his power grew. No news is good news, and the news was all him. He became us, and piece by piece he took everything we loved. Call it whatever you want—fascism, vampirism, tyranny, deliverance—the name never mattered. Measure the movement by what it takes from you.

Me, I started to feel like a freak of history, the last of a dying breed. The wet-mouthed windbreaker had been right: I got off easy, minimal jail time with just enough of a record to make sure I never held a decent corporate job again. I limped through the remnants of the welfare system for a few years and threw myself at the knees of the first employer who offered me an interview. If anyone cared or was watching, I was the very picture of desperation.

I liked the work and made sure never to show it. There was something deeply satisfying about laboring away the morning in a school cafeteria. I learned a lot about mashed potatoes and what never to do to them. I coined at least seven terms for frozen meat in various stages of decay. I got a reputation as the jolly man under the hairnet. I got fat and liked it. Everyone called me Kitchen Steve because they didn’t know any better. Sure, I’d had another name once, and that name was flagged with several red stars in a government database somewhere, stars that meant I was a threat to the social order and an enemy of the state—but as it happened, my lunchroom benefactors didn’t ask many questions. The lax labor rules of the new regime turned a blind eye to such formalities as Social ID numbers if an employee seemed willing to take half of the minimum wage and stay clear of the underground unions.

I didn’t see Barlow again, but letters came every now and then to the flood-prone basement that I rented from Harriet the senior custodian. She was good, Barlow was: she always sent them from a postcode that wasn’t her own, always signed them Aunt Joelle, always talked of her work in artisanal candles. If anyone trailed her, it was a plausible cover story—the wanton destruction that the new regime had wreaked on everything we held dear hadn’t so much as bruised the artisanal candle industry.

More importantly, it gave her a good excuse to talk about chemicals.

See, Barlow was one of the lucky ones. Even our new overlords couldn’t keep track of every face at every riot. The ones who got picked up, like myself, were pretty much doomed to a life of menial labor and legal abjection whether or not we managed to pass checkpoints with names we’d picked from the phonebook. But the Barlows of the world, the ones who slipped through cracks at the rear ends of alleys, had a devil’s bargain from the powers-that-were: leave us alone and we won’t come looking. Crawl back to your offices and let’s pretend this never happened. Keep your hate inside, or hell, blog about it—we honestly don’t care. Just be petty, be helpless, be small. Feed the machine.

So Barlow fed the machine. She walked back to work on Monday with a few bandages and a good story about a bike accident. She addled a fat paycheck from a state-owned biotech lab. She ranted about the government online, like a good Ph.D. She contributed monthly to privatized public radio and the Civil Liberation Union. She was exactly what half the country hated and exactly who the other half thought might save the world sooner or later by reposting the right articles.

But she also fed me. A few milligrams in every envelope adds up if your Aunt Joelle writes weekly. And there’s nothing quite like Cinnamon Sunrise, Jasmine Commodity, Vanilla Bliss, and the sweat of the revolution to keep the dogs from sniffing too urgently.

 

*******

 

Sloppy Steves, the kids called them, which made me uncomfortable. They were sort of made of meat, or something like meat, but with a hearty dose of syrup and tomato paste to hold them all together. My radical twist had been to throw in a little black pepper. A couple of children fell into sneezing fits the first time I tried it, but most of the fifth grade talked for days about flavor explosions in their mouths, and they hounded the vice principal until I said I’d do it again. I let Steve the Dish Guy think he made them up himself, and he enjoyed the zenith of his career while I waited for the day when the kitchen gloves would come off.

Even though she warned me in cursive italics not to, I tried a little of Aunt Joelle’s powder one night. It was good stuff—better than her Jasmine Commodity tealights, which made my basement smell like a nine-year-old vampire’s boudoir. I’d tried a lot of white powders over the years, but this was my first brush with a bona fide chemical weapon. Just to make sure it worked, I phoned the guy I’d been seeing on and off for a few months, a radiator technician named Carl with thick hands and bad technique, and finally explained to him why I hadn’t been returning his calls. Two birds with one stone. I went to bed grinning.

They called it Triptych-HB.  Everything about it was almost impenetrably classified, or so Aunt Joelle’s letters seemed to imply. The relevant passages were about how hard it is to talk to men at the hardware store, so I couldn’t be certain. It was intended for use in a new Level-Up Interrogation program (“a special place in the back of the store where they take naughty shoppers for questioning”), to replace some less effective and less palatable techniques that the pubic couldn’t help but get wind of from time to time (“They must know that the slow leak in the sprinkler system is bad for business—no one really wants to get all wet, even while shopping”). The final paragraph of the letter seemed to say that it was either an infallible truth serum or a deadly poison.

Luckily for me, and with apologies to Carl, it was the former.

We waited for the day with fear and trembling. Without an enormous stroke of luck, I would have remained a schoolhouse line cook under the thumb of a tyrant until I grew old and frail enough to have my pension denied. But our stroke of luck came. Sloppy Steves hit the big time. I never figured out why, or how, but suddenly they were everywhere: on the Wakeup Alert Show, on Chirpdown pop-ups, even on Broprah’s Faves list. Sloppy Steves put Bellwash Elementary on the map for something other than flagrant affluence. And the big man answered the call.

They scheduled the assembly for a Tuesday morning. It was a routine campaign-stop photo-op affair, a minor notch on the bedpost of the big man’s year-round seduction tour. Every kid would get a nice Sloppy Steve on a tidy red plate, and the big man would watch them eat, slapping backs and rubbing shoulders. The press would be there, local and national. The principal would offer the big man a Sloppy Steve, and he’d turn it down with that look of disgust that the people loved him for. Maybe the press cadre would even get a few shots of the noble blue-collar lunchroom staff singing and smiling as we toiled for our betters. It would be over in twenty minutes, forgotten in twenty-four hours.

Unless he asked a question.

It was our only chance. Five years of revolutionary schemes and impossible hopes would come down to a single moment at the tail end of the country’s stupidest press event.

I lurked in the back of the lunchroom, near the industrial dish machine. Someone had to look like they were operating it, since Steve the Dish Guy was busy working the floor and sopping up the attention of kids who liked his meat. More importantly, it gave me an excuse to stay more or less in the shadows. No sense in getting my picture into the paper.

Out on the cafeteria floor, flashbulbs blared like little neutron bombs as the big man hulked from kid to kid, boxing ears and tugging forelocks. He moved like a lizard. The students tended to lean away, or lean in to gawk at his grey skin as it passed near enough that they could touch it. None of them did. If he wasn’t a god, he was the very model of every god mankind had ever imagined, lousy with perverse charisma.

“Eat up, kids. Eat up. Sloppy Steves, huh? The greatest food. You get the greatest food here, your parents pay for something. You should. They should get what you’re getting. The greatest.”

I thought I heard a third-grader giggle. I fingered the empty envelope in my pocket. Five hundred doses of Triptych-HB in the ground meat. There would be no half-truths today.

The big man grinned. Cameras fired at will. The big man shook hands and scratched at his pepper-grey hairpiece. The cameras turned toward the kitchen window. I ducked behind the washing machine. Steve the Dish Guy did a dance. The crowd went wild. The big man waved and pursed his fat lips.

“Okay. Okay, now that’s it. Sorry, kids. You’ve got classes, the best classes here—classrooms to get back to, with these, all these wonderful teachers. This wonderful meat here. You’re lucky. We are, this is so lucky. It was a day, meeting you here. The best day. The best kind of people, at our schools.”

My fingers curled in my pocket and I think I actually gnashed my teeth. In a minute he’d be out the door. In five minutes he’d be out of town. I thought of the children—whether they’d learn to hate him, whether it would do any good. I thought of Tantalus in the Underworld—inventive meat, thwarted desire. I thought of Barlow, of that wound in her side, of all our big plans leaking out over the years like a slow trickle of arterial blood over a pile of rusty scrap. Maybe she and I were the last ones. Maybe the revolution ended here, in the privatized cafeteria of an upper-tier charter school. I made a quiet list of all the poisons in my bathroom cupboard as the big man whispered with his staff and eyed the door.

Then he waved them away, grimaced at them, took a step back toward the long furrows of Sloppy Steves, and gestured to the press to roll the cameras. As if they’d ever stopped. “Okay kids. Look, I’m here for the meat. It’s really about the meat, you know, Sloppy Stephen or whatever you call it, but it’s really about you—it’s really about—it’s your meat that matters, the best future, we’re going to make it—a great, great future. So I want any of you to tell me, before I go, tell us all—because everyone, they care what you think, when you’re as best as you are—as great—tell them what you really think of the country today, our great, great nation. Tell me—tell me, or let me ask you—just how great a job do you think we’re doing? Just how big, how great a job?”

Few sirens have as much power to startle as the sudden silence of two hundred jaws suddenly not chewing meat. The principal looked nervous. The vice principal looked confused. The big man’s staff looked terrified, and the press looked hungry. I leaned out of the shadows to get a good look at the children’s faces. They looked confused, thoughtful, wiser than their years. Sloppy Steve sloshed in their tummies, Triptych-HB pulsed through their amygdalae. I waited. They waited.

He didn’t.

“Okay, you. You in the, in the shirt—that great, green shirt. What do you think of this. How good—how good is it? How great are we right now?”

The little girl—a third grader, I think—I knew her from the lunch queue,—stared back at the grey lizard looming over her and swallowed hard. “I think—I think you’re a terrible man and you’re bad at your job. You treat people badly, you’re a bully, and you should know better.”

The lizard stared down at her. Rage flashed over his face for just a moment before he tamped it down and forced a laugh. “That’s a great, that’s a brave great answer. You know, I happen to think you’re wrong, but that’s what makes us great—agreeing—or not agreeing, agreeing not to agree—of course, you’re just not right, very—very wrong, but we can disagree on that.” He turned away, scanning the crowd, picking a new ally. “Now you, on the other hand, you—with the hat, that nice hat—I love baseball, no one loves it more than I do—you think nice things, nicer things about all our great people than she does, don’t you? Tell us what you think. Come on.”

An older boy, twelve or so, stood up, trembling slightly. “I also think you’re a bad person. My mother says you have a personality disorder and my father says you’re too thick to run a corner store.”

“Oh, well. Well you picked the wrong parents, I guess. Good thing you have a best school like this to set your facts straight.”

But the boy wasn’t done. “I think my parents are right, though. I think you’re a serious threat to the global balance of power, and I worry that the damage you’ve done to our basic rights and liberties may take decades to restore, even if we manage to find a sane government to replace yours.”

His lizard skin turned a whiter shade of grey as he backed away from the table. “No, you’re a global—you’re a threat to the globe, a globe threat, with that face, with that—glasses, you read too much, kid. Too many books. Terrible idea, terrible. The girls don’t like that—no action for your till college, not with all that face. Threat. You’re a threat.”

The vice principal’s eyelids peeled back, fascinated. The boy nodded and sat down, wondering, perhaps, how he had said that. The big man, who had never once cut his losses, grabbed another victim. Literally. By the hair.

“You. Girl with the, with the hair. With the head hair, nice and straight, that’s good. That’s what we call an asset. What do you think—you want to be a star, here, today? Tell them—tell the nice men with the cameras, that’s right, tell them what you really think. We’re doing great things in this country, aren’t we? Go on. Tell them. Tell them exactly what you think.”

I’ll never forget the look on her face. Something in her eyes told me it wasn’t just the Triptych-HB. She really, truly hated him. She hated everyone like him. She’d met them before—on the street, on the train, maybe even at home. She’d never said a word, and if things had gone differently, maybe she never would have. But none of that mattered now. She didn’t even need the chemical incentive. She only had to open her mouth. Truth will out.

“Get your hands off me, you disgusting monster.” She got up from her seat and stood facing him as a dozen security officers stepped forward. The big man threw them back with a sweep of his arm. The girl stepped forward, half his height. “I think you’re out to burn us to the ground. I think this is a joke to you. It’s a game. You’re like a rock band smashing up a hotel room. You’re a little boy ripping the legs off a honeybee. I hate you when you’re on the TV and I hate you more now that I’ve seen your face. Don’t you ever dare come into my school again, and don’t you ever dare come near me.”

He looked up at the crowd and tried to laugh. She didn’t let him. “You really think you can make us like you just by smiling like that, don’t you. Well I’ll tell you the truth. No one really likes you. We don’t. The people in the kitchen don’t. Even your wife doesn’t. I can tell when I see her on TV. She’s just a little afraid of you, that’s all. Not even a lot. You’re really not that scary—you’re not even good at that. You’re a little balloon that’s going to pop one of these days. You have no sense of decency, and you forget that we do. You’re not one of us. You’re nothing, and you’re small, and I think you had better go now.”

Not a mouse stirred. She stood with her arms crossed, a four-foot pillar of righteous vengeance. He backed away from her slowly as a log on the water drifts before the wind. Then he broke.

He turned on his heels, stamped his foot like a lesser devil, smacked a fist on a table, shoved a tray to the floor. He bellowed like a dying ox.

He turned to the press corps. “Get those—off! Cameras, no—no cameras. No cameras—no!” He reached down to the table. He shoved an eleven-year-old boy to the cafeteria floor. He picked up the remains of a half-eaten Sloppy Steve in his right hand, and he cast it across the room with all the strength his frail body could spare, snarling as it flew.

The meat sailed through the air, dragging history behind it. For a weak old man propped up by bravado and makeup, his aim was remarkable. The meat wad landed dead on the lens of a local TV news camera, splattering and dripping down the glass like the limp dead thing that it was. It cleared just in time to capture a final shot of the big man rushing the length of the cafeteria and smashing the camera to the floor with a limp and pudgy fist.

Fortunately for the future, the feed was live.

 

*******

 

So I guess we won, whatever that means. Let’s not talk about the ugly aftermath—the viral video, the embarrassing attempts to suppress it, Parliament rushing through indictments, security agencies withdrawing their loyalty, four-star generals saying they never liked his pasty face. The only important thing is that the nightmare is over now, good and done and ever shall remain so. When your power lies in fame alone, you have to stay pretty for the camera. Blink and the wolves close in. The emperor has no makeup. The king, as they say, is dead, and long live whoever.

No one ever suspected we had anything to do with it. No one ever learned our names. Why would they? It’s in the blood of our species to claim credit for whatever might bring us a little more power. The Neogelicals said it was an act of the Deity, and that took care of fifty million minds who might have asked too many questions otherwise. The academics said it was the natural order of things, thought they all put their own spin on the meaning of “natural,” the historicists muttering about three-body dialectics while the psychosociologists declared it the final proof that civilization had outlived its discontents and that the death drive was safely back in the hands of the private citizen. The autopundits of the digisphere all proclaimed from basement desks that they’d seen it coming all along, while proud parents across the country insisted that any child, especially theirs, would have done the same if given half a chance.

That’s the thing about changing history: you have to make it look easy enough that no one gets jealous. And you have to realize that it has almost nothing to do with you. A hero—the kind whose name you get to learn in school, if there are still schools—is often just the last guy standing in a bar brawl. It’s only a matter of time before someone sobers up and knocks him down, too. We weren’t heroes. We were no one. We were one of a million little arrows that happened to find its mark. The meat wad that landed.

You think this sounds far-fetched, don’t you? You think it all sounds too easy, or too poetic—from the mouths of babes and all that. You don’t believe in the power of shame anymore. You don’t believe that embarrassing a tyrant can take the wind out of him as readily as peasants’ giggles stripped the clothes off that emperor who long ago had none to begin with. Or maybe you’ve lost your faith in lunch programs. Maybe you’ve haven’t even lost faith, exactly, but tossed it in a bin in a corner of a car park because a magazine said you didn’t wear it well.

Then here’s another story for you, but I’ll warn you that this one really is nothing but a tall tale, a little something to help you sleep at night. Barlow and I gave ourselves up at the barricades, the last splinter of our petty insurrection. We toiled and schemed for years, we pulled a ploy quite like this one, and pulled it off rather well—only no one ever noticed, and nothing changed. The public had a good laugh. The school principal dutifully wrote a few letters home to well-connected parents, apologizing for the puerile antics of his student body and offering his resignation, which no one called for. The press kept their distance. I was unemployed at dawn.

Will that help you get some sleep, you who lie on your pillow-top mattress and dream of the sun as you count penned sheep? No? Still too much fantasy, too much angst? Then try this: we gave ourselves up, they stripped us of our robes and cast us in a pit where I scratch this on the wall over Barlow’s body, which has kept me alive for a month now although her bones grow grey and lose their savor.

You like stories like that, don’t you. Sometimes it makes me wonder whose side you’re on.

Or consider this, dear waker: we never fell because we never rose. I write this from my third floor office and will forget it by suppertime. They read every word through the wires in the wall, but the worst they ever do is dock my pay by the hour, or hold back my overtime checks until I stop asking. I have four children and food for some of them. The schools teach nothing.

That’s your favorite story, isn’t it. The one you like to write, the one you’ll never admit to. The only one that helps you sleep because it keeps the others at bay, like a pale ghost waving a charred stick on the verge of a dark forest.

Take it if you want it. And goodnight.

Kyoto Protocol

Posted on January 1st, 2017

“…and now your insides are raising 
an ineffable racket…”

 

–Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Elizabeth Bishop trans.)

 

I finally turned to you and said,

I’m scared of what is happening to my body.

Oh, person! The week before,

 

I’d held you inside that fear.

It was a kind of heat, a realness. The

wish to transmit

 

kindness without pain is a form

of pain.

We had just started to be good

 

at teaching each other

words for things:

persimmon, catkin, mosaicism, friend.

 

I’d already decided

I didn’t want you living in me like that:

all that longing, unthrottled cry

 

in the dark. But then, walking back

in the pre-dusk,

I watched you tremble once with a smallness,

 

and so learned the fragile way

your body answered the cold.

and I wanted—

 

I want—

so badly to reach inside myself and hand you all this beauty

that I see. 

* * *

 

It was one of the best days of my life.

 

All around us, flowers, actual flowers,

 

were blooming, and the smell of the fallen pears made me so hungry,

and neither of us was dead, 

 

and everything 


everything 

everything hurt.

Dancing on a Hot Skillet

Posted on October 14th, 2016

Rain patters on fallen leaves and the maple trees across the street blaze red. The companion oak trees next to them more modestly shift to gold while the conifers and evergreen shrubs hold fast to their northwest green. It’s grey this morning and cars hum by below, spraying water in their wake. The window is open, I sit on the bed, the door is shut. My husband is in the kitchen cooking Sunday breakfast while my nearly 3 year-old sits at the table contemplating the oatmeal I made for him 20 minutes ago. Once in awhile I hear him pick up the whistle his grandma sent him last week, giving an enthusiastic toot every few minutes.

 

This morning I both asked and took the permission to sit alone in here to write. I didn’t have to purloin the time by encouraging myself up in the flat darkness of predawn light, but by just saying, I’ll be in here, please don’t disturb.  Though of course, I’m still thinking of them, and hearing now the strumming of a slightly out of tune ukulele as played by a small child.

 

The open window for now connects me to the outside, I had so many thoughts on “settling” last night as I went for a walk. The thoughts of course evaporated as soon as I came home and re-immersed into family life. I hoped the ideas might float back to me in here this morning, with the window open, that they might be out there in the ether of other things, my body an antennae saying, I’m here! I’m not distracted, flow into me oh profound wisdom!

 

So this morning, I sit, considering the many ways to settle, in sweats, on the bed, a third trimester worthy belly stretching my waistband, hearing the sound of my husband now getting ready to take my son with him to the grocery store. A draught of cool, wet fall air breezes in across my face, relaxing and refreshing.

 

 

I turned 35 this year and I recently found a stack of my journals in a box. The books range a span of maybe 20 years in personal ramblings and I picked up one of my favorites. Beaten and decorated, a section-sewn book with cloth backing, built like an early 20th century novel. It’s filled with notes, reflections, grocery lists and simple math (what bill could I pay right then?).

Its pages are filled in with watercolors, pasted-in pictures,  and jotted goal lists, all this ephemera of a life lived more than 10 years ago. I read through it, impatiently at times (oh, the things we go through), and am so profoundly aware that the young woman in those pages is me, dancing on a hot skillet, believing it’s the only way to experience the world.

 

Back then I jumped from one rock to another on an epic journey with little money in the bank , a credit card for the rest, and a lot of energy to experience fully anything. Fear of boredom constantly lurked behind me and I ran forward headstrong into the wind.

 

In February 2005 I took a drive to the desert southwest for a two-week volunteer river trip down the Grand Canyon, we removed invasive plants in exchange for the journey, and I was hooked. I decided on a whim after the trip not to go back to Texas. I stayed and sought out a job as a river guide (with no experience as one, mind you), and found two Grand Canyon river companies willing to take me on as a trainee. I picked one, signed up for the training trip a month later, and got going.

 

I worked a long but fast summer, met many people from different walks of life and I struggled to be as good as the other guides, none of whom had any less than 10 years of experience. I stressed out about how much I didn’t know, how I wasn’t fast enough to anticipate x, y or z.  Big water tossed me around in a little boat in a hot, remote, desert desert canyon for 225-mile long trips that lasted two to three weeks at a time.

 

Not yet trustworthy enough for people I primarily rowed gear and baggage boats, though passengers joined me on slower stretches. We hiked slot canyons, side canyons, and discovered things about the earth, and ourselves, that only river pace allows you to see. At the end of a trip, I’d be in Flagstaff for a week, maybe two, living on the couch of friends who also worked outdoors jobs, occasionally crossing paths with them when we all happened to be in town. Then I’d be back on the river.  

 

I spent more nights that year sleeping outside under stars, watching constellations march across the sky, than I did indoors within four walls. I built upper body strength most women don’t experience and developed a sense of bravado mixed with mirth, naivete, and pure gumption. I learned how to read water, maneuver rapids, and turn a fully loaded boat I’d flipped back over again (with a little help from everyone), not losing more than my hat and sunglasses to the river.  I became who I always felt I was, but didn’t have the space for, before.

 

During that summer a job I applied for earlier in the spring offered me a position.  A 15-month teaching fellowship at an outdoor science school starting at the end of river season. The job required a Spanish-speaker, many people living in that part of ski country were Spanish-speaking immigrants working primarily in the service and construction sectors, and I’d be teaching their kids in the public schools and on programs through the summer in the Rocky Mountains.

 

While I took some Spanish in highschool I didn’t speak it well. I had however, the opportunity to study in Brazil as a part of my undergraduate studies work and spoke Portuguese with the ease of someone unafraid to make mistakes in order to communicate. Three weeks before the position started in Colorado I declined an opportunity for a last river trip and flew to a coastal town in Oaxaca, Mexico, enrolled in Spanish classes, and proceeded to coax my tongue into saying yo hablo espanol instead of eu falo portugues. Spanish and Portuguese are like cousins where language is concerned, and so once I understood a few of the fundamental switches, it wasn’t too bad.

 

My time in Colorado turned out to be an amazing year of teaching kids in English and Spanish who were slowly finding their identity between two places – settling in to make this mountain place their home. I helped them in some small way by showing them more about the land they lived in, why aspen trees grew on certain slopes and evergreens on others. How to use a compass for wayfinding and how macroinvertebrates tell us how healthy streams are.

 

That year I met the man who would eventually be my husband and moved with him the following year, after another trip guiding in the Grand Canyon, to Jackson, Wyoming.  In Jackson that year, which became two, I learned to telemark ski backcountry through in the Teton mountains, cross-country ski through Yellowstone to hidden hot springs to soak in sub-zero outdoor temperatures while bison foraged nearby. I guided day river trips during the summer on the Snake River, taught English as Second Language at the high school and local literacy program, worked at a gear shop, and assisted at a medical clinic in Grand Teton National Park.

 

At the end of that term, we landed in Portland, Oregon.

 

We’ve been here eight years now, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and it’s a life of a different sort. I went to graduate school, we got married, he went back to school, we had a child. It’s quieter, it’s hard, it’s exhausting, but it’s also steadying and fortifying.  I’m more grounded than ever in my life. I don’t move as quickly or jump at a whim like I used to, and I ached about that for a long time.  But I’ve changed a bit now, and I have comfort in weighing the choices because now I must consider my actions before leaping. I also see the value in the long game. My wellbeing is paramount to that of small beings who depend on me, a spouse who leans on me and that I in turn lean on.

 

Vacations are not as glamorous as our outdoor lifestyle used to be. We camp near the the coast or the Cascades. We visit Colorado primarily to see family.  But we’re slowly exposing our young son, soon to be joined by another child, to the things that we love about the world, in child-sized bites and fashion. And we can sustain ourselves, no longer needing to work two or three jobs at a time,  I just completed the feat of having one full-time job for a full 2.5 years. It’s no coincidence that this is the length of time I’ve been working since my son was born.

 

There is a nuance today to small actions having large impacts that went undetectable to me before in a life constantly on the move. This motherhood-stability asks me to find the strength to confront the urge to constantly keep diving into new things. It asks me to refine who I am and what I do so I can still find that charge of energy while working on consistent adventures. It includes waiting for a young child to eat breakfast, while my husband cooks, while I write in a bedroom with the window open, and I feel the baby in my belly kick, and I listen to the rain and the cars drive by.

 

Settling for me is settling into the strength of self, the gregarious cowgirl I was does not always have to be on display. She’s turned inward, and learned the value in the willingness to pause, listen and see what’s inside. To learn what moves more slowly, but with great power and strength. This is the foundation from which I now root, and soar, it is the journey I’m most interested in today.

 

My Kitchen

Posted on October 14th, 2016

My kitchen needs an upgrade. It is furnished with old painted cabinets…hollandaise yellow on

the outside and rust red on the inside. Why anyone painted the interior of kitchen cabinets I will

never know. The range is a mid-century electric with two large and two small coil burners. The

kind that don’t sit level anymore and laugh at the idea of ‘even heat’. The ‘hood’ is just a GE fan

cut into the wall through to the exterior of the house, with a pull string to open. It might be the

propeller from a very tiny plane – I can’t say. It starts a few minutes after you open it – perfect for

when you have a forgotten pan of oil on the coil burner and you must just watch it, smoking

away, hoping for the fan to start soon. The apartment-sized wall oven is newer – maybe twenty

years old. Stark white set into the pale yellow cabinets with the green digital display that gives

off an eerie glow at night. The floor is sixty year old linoleum with geometric yellow brick design

that has never looked clean once – not even before the toddler. The sink is set kitty-corner

into the sherbet orange countertop with something between 4 inches and a mile between you

and the sink. Luckily there is a wonderfully large dead space behind it which is fantastic for

collecting gunk. To further the efficiency on display there is an 18” dishwasher sandwiched

between the awesome sink and ‘antique’ range. One feature this affords is that opening the

dishwasher to put soap in prevents you from accessing the under-sink storage where the dish

soap is. The dishwasher and the plain jane refrigerator are new shiny stainless steel – fits right

in. So after the range, sink, dish rack, microwave, oven and fridge there is just enough counter for

1.5 plates. So few houses are built these days to accommodate the ever popular half-plate. So

there is a portable kitchen island in the center. It’s white and after serving me in two kitchens for

nearly a decade you can see in its eyes it’s mostly just coasting toward retirement. Luckily it’s

on wheels because shoving around a whole counter to unblock the way to the cabinet where the

dishes live strengthens the core.

 

My kitchen needs an upgrade. This has been true for the seven years since we bought the

house. It was first on my wide-eyed and naive list of home improvements. But then replacing a

forty year old olive green toilet with a blue lid and a silicone-patched corner became necessary.

And then it became clear the ROI on replacing sixty-year-old single pane windows in a fourteen

hundred square foot house with eighteen windows was greater. Next it was time to purchase

real grown-up furniture that hadn’t been acquired for free one way or another. And then, and

then, and then.

 

And so I begin my eighth year with my hideous kitchen and yet there are few kitchens I would

prefer. People always remark ‘don’t you want a double oven or a full size dishwasher?’ or ‘I

wouldn’t be able to stand such an old coil electric stove.’ (Truth be told I would prefer a coil range

to a flat top any day). ‘ You cook so much I think you would benefit from a larger kitchen.’ At

this point I usually become curt and defensive of my little corner of the world and respond with

a snarky ‘It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.’

 

For the past two years (how old is that toddler? Ah, yes…) we considered purchasing a different,

larger house. I allowed myself to get swept into the romance of real-estate and anticipated

possibility. As I looked at listings and pictures and imagined the wonderful new life we would

have in these larger houses with much more recently remodeled kitchens than mine I realized I

hated most of them. They were ugly with their oak cabinets and matching appliances. The

ubiquitous look of granite countertops is monotonous, particularly ones with salmon pink veins

mottled throughout. Why are all the freezers on the bottom of the refrigerators? The pro and con

list of moving versus staying eventually landed steadfastly in staying for a myriad of reasons not

the least of which is that it would be hardly justifiable to spend the money on a larger house with

an updated kitchen – and then remodel the kitchen.

 

As the proposed romance of a new house waned the romance of what I have grew; far beyond

the kitchen or even the house but of all that I have. I surely didn’t know eight years ago what

was in store for me here. It is a remarkable privilege to get to be able to ‘grow-up’ in a house

that is yours, even if it isn’t quite so picturesque as you imagined it might be. I live in the home

where I learned the value of patience and the reward of forgiveness. The place where I learned

adult life has way fewer rules than I had become accustomed to. This is the living room where

my husband proposed on our very first Christmas in our house together a few months after we

bought it. The kitchen and the tiny oven where I cooked my first turkey. The bathroom with an

‘L’ tiled into the shower from the previous family and not one ‘L’ initial in our entire family. The

kitchen where I made gluten-free vegan cupcakes for Rich and Rose’s. The basement where

we hosted glitter fueled dance parties throughout our twenties. The kitchen that my two-year-old

daughter calls ‘chicken’ because she inverts the consonant sounds. The dining room I turn into

a handmade chocolate factory one day in December each year. The kitchen where I exploded a

roasted eggplant so loudly that my husband thought someone threw a percussion grenade.

The living room where I watched all of Mythbusters while under house arrest with a newborn.

The kitchen where I spent a summer writing recipes on the fly for my CSA. The place where I

realized I am in the love story I want to be in and not living on ideas of what could be.

I will certainly enjoy when I do finally remodel my small kitchen the way I want to but I think next

year I will get the yard landscaped instead.

Going To Ground

Posted on October 14th, 2016

The mud under her boot soles rasped and rattled as though it had something to say but couldn’t remember how. It hadn’t rained since the last week in October, and the small river that ran through the cellar was little more than a trickle; along its banks lay little hillocks of earth neither wet nor damp. Dry mud, she thought as she dragged her feet through it, wishing she could kick off her boots and drag her toes through it. She imagined it would feel cool and crisp between her toes, like the scales of a fish that hasn’t been dead for long. She didn’t smile.

The ceiling above her bounced like the underside of a drumhead, or at least she felt it did, like goatskin stretched over the broad oak beams running across the top of the foundation. My home is made from living things. It was her mother’s footsteps making the floor above leap and twitch as though it had a little heartbeat of its own, her mother’s footsteps as she roamed from cupboard to cupboard looking for what she had already forgotten. She cocked her head to listen, wondering whether she really could hear the hiss and rumble of simmering water on the stove just over her head or whether the sound was just the blood in her ears or the house settling. She had to go back upstairs soon or the water would start leaping from the pot as though a column of silvery fish were feeding at its surface, snatching at mouthfuls of fluorescent light and cigarette smoke. My home is made from living things and I am not one of them.

Potatoes. Above her, her mother was looking for potatoes. She wouldn’t find them, she thought. She already hadn’t, which was why she had offered to go downstairs herself to get them from the root cellar, since her mother was too weak for the stairs and always seemed repulsed by the darkness at the bottom, not frightened but disgusted, as though it were an old friend who had done her wrong and never apologized, a face she remembered she hated without remembering the name that had gone with it once. Potatoes for the pot at supper time, an arrangement as primal as the number line yet ever more obscure.

It had made so much sense once. She’d been a girl here. She had sat at the table upstairs while her mother, a younger mother, had taken potatoes from the icebox or the bin alongside the cabinets and dropped them into the water carefully, glancing over her shoulder after each as though afraid her daughter might see the splash and learn the wickedness of water. Each fell with a plop all its own as she looked out the window and pretended not to hear, out at the driveway where the stubble fields once stood every fall like a province of heathen graves, or at the fields themselves, golden as the sun and dry as the skin on November’s palms. She felt the juices running across her tongue as she stood in the cellar and glared back at the darkness all around her, the darkness that didn’t know about winter or the color light should be.

A light. She needed a light to find the way, because the ground under her feet felt unwell as though the dirt itself had caught a fever and gone clammy in the night, its own sweat soaking its bedclothes as it tried to toss and turn under the weight of the foundation and the great oak beams that ran across the top of it like the frame of an old drum. She groped for the dirty string that she always wished she hadn’t touched once she saw it by the light of the bare bulb, a yellowed, pendulous thing that sometimes listed to one side with the weight of cobwebs that seemed to spin themselves. There were never any spiders, just dry husks that had been spiders once, calcified and brittle. When she was a girl she had lifted one out of a dirty corner, gripping one of its legs between her fingernails and trying to feel its weightlessness. It was all she knew of the grave then, and when her own mother had gone into the ground she had dreams of her bones thinning like spider’s legs, and the space between her bones growing swollen and white like mothballs, all of it dry as the last leaves of November and liable to blow away at the first touch of a real winter wind. Then she dreamed the bones of the dead like milkweed drifting through pale morning light, and that was all she knew of heaven, which worried the minister until she learned not to mention dreams.

But she couldn’t find the pull string, and she couldn’t find the door to the root cellar without it, and she thought she heard the water in the pot splashing more insistently now, which always made her think of the way her mother would splash and flail in the bath long after it was safe for her to do so. She had to find the light and hurry. Her mother was still wet from the bath, and she shouldn’t be up at all with her feet all wet and only a flannel robe to keep the drafts off her desiccated frame. But life went on like the clock she never remembered to wind, and nothing could keep the old woman from going through the same motions night after dark autumn night, hauling the great pot from beneath the counter and filling it with more water than she could carry to the stove without a struggle or a hand to help. Then she would forget that the potatoes still lay in the cellar down below as they had lain since the house was built, if not longer, and she would thrash from cupboard to cupboard like a bear insulted by a row of empty baskets, just as she now thrashed overhead in the kitchen, though she couldn’t quite hear her over the sound of blood in her ears and the house settling.

She scraped or shook the dry mud carefully from her boots as she made her way to the wall with the light switch, reaching out and turning it upward with one sharp motion that planted a sharp twinge in part of her arm. Perhaps she wasn’t so young anymore herself, she thought, and thought of the little girl watching milkweed drift in the morning light while her mother, so young then, as young as the light, cooked potatoes for supper in the great pot that she kept under the counter and scoured on Sundays. A dim ache filled the cellar, a yellow ache from a single bulb that looked sick as though it had taken a fever and wet its bedclothes with cold sweat in the night. She didn’t like the light. It felt too much like the darkness, and she looked at the stairs with a sort of loathing, knowing it was nearly time to climb them.

The dry mud made her feet feel heavy, made her footsteps unsteady as she made her way to the door of the root cellar, a dark plane of splinters and gouges on the far side, over the little river that was barely a trickle now, because it hadn’t rained since Sunday again and the ground itself thirsted and rasped like an old man wondering whether to save his last breaths for a more clement season. The going was hard on the uneven ground and she nearly tripped on the little hillocks along the riverbank, steadying herself on the cellar door when she reached it. The splinters hurt her and she made a sound like a frightened animal, like a trapped animal on the other side of the door whimpering for release so it could dash out and drink its fill from the dark river and thrash about like an old woman in a bath, floating on its back past the stubble fields that lined the low hills on either side, white and yellow in the morning sun.

She opened the door to let it out, a hard haul against rust and the weight of hinges, and she almost smiled as she thought of it tripping past her, shaking the aches from its legs and haunches, glancing back at her once as though to say thank you before vanishing. She waited, looking for it, and wondered why it looked so black and tall, so dark and wide like a great bear already gone to ground for the long winter. She felt its breath like soft must and wondered whether it would dream of her looking in on it, whether it would know it was safe there, and know that she would come back in the springtime to let it out again, that she would always find a way to come back here by the time the crocuses began to sprout along the driveway where the ghosts of cornstalks still rattled in the first warm February winds.

She closed the door on the darkness that she couldn’t love and made her way back toward the stairs, leaving the light on so that something would remain of the things she had done and the things she had tried to do. It was a long walk up each stair and her thighbones felt as though they would drive up through her hips with every step, like the old nails driven into the dry beams that kept the old house from going to ground. She tried to remember what those nails once held. Sacks, she thought, and knew it was right, and she smiled as she wondered whether the potato sack might depend from one of them, just out of reach or just out of sight, and she almost lost her footing as she grasped at a patch of brown shadow that fled from her hand like a sparrow.

Three more steps, and she would have to turn the gas down under the old pot while she searched the cupboards. Two more steps, and she thought of the beasts that passed the winter in the earth, the earth folded over them like a quilt, and wondered whether they had enough to eat, whether they had enough of anything. One more step, and she would have to tell her mother that she was a dotty old fool, that she hadn’t kept potatoes in the root cellar since she was a girl, that no one on the road grew anything like that anymore and that there was plenty still from their last run to the market if she would only remember to use it.

But the dim fluorescence at the top of the stairs fell on four empty chairs, and the cupboard doors hung dead on their hinges. Even the smell of cigarettes felt like the first space of silence after an echo. There was nothing here living, and the light outside the window was black, the black of a winter night come too early and settled in too still, too certain. She shook her head from side to side as she opened the refrigerator and took two red potatoes from the crisper drawer, flecking off the nascent eyes with her thumbnail. No one here at all. A gentle frown tried to settle into her face, but it couldn’t find the right muscles, and her hips cracked like timbers. I thought I was myself, she said aloud to anything that might be listening from the next room or the spaces between the walls, and dropped the rough lumps into the rougher water, and watched the fog from the river spread in the yellow light of dawn.

Eating Lunch Alone

Posted on October 14th, 2016

“Work is always a little sordid.” –Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun

The shock of a new job came like fall this year, an icy unexpected blast at the end of a lazy hot summer. After three years at my previous teaching job, my only actual “professional” experience, I had moved on. Nothing had been typical about the position that I left. I founded the school in the South Bronx straight out of Columbia with nine other educators, over half of them under thirty, with all the bright eyed wonder of someone who had moved to New York from suburban Texas only eleven months before. Needless to say I had my teeth metaphorically kicked in, repeatedly, in a variety of different ways. That is not so uncommon for a first year teacher, but being a first year teacher in a first year school I do think exacerbates the typical growing pains a great deal. At the same time I was sometimes staying as late as seven pm with colleagues only to meet them again at seven am the next morning. Some of us lived close to each other, and even those of us who didn’t spent around fifty hours a week together. You don’t spend that type of time with people without bonding in often dramatic ways. For the most part I hadn’t made any friends in New York my first year. As thousands before me experienced upon arrival I found the city lonely, cold, and alienating. My school, the kids and teachers both, became a second chaotic home.

As I cleaned out the closets at the back of my classroom for the last time I found old pairs of shoes, sweaters, stacks of my own books, three years of student papers, and a sign that read “Empathy, Justice, Empowerment”- our school’s core values. I realized amongst the detritus that I had, in fact, been living there in many ways. My decision to leave was a complicated one, which involved crying with my favorite students and a near constant state of existential dread at the change. My students all had my cell-phone number, a rookie mistake I had made early on, and one night walking home from a friend’s loft in Brooklyn, I called my closest student confessing how sad I was to be leaving, both of us telling the other that it would be okay. I wanted to be closer to home, to spend more time with my boyfriend, to write more- none of these motivations made the chasm I was about to create any easier. Working with kids is a strange occupation, that requires a lot of emotional labor that is hard to describe or quantify, but it is real for those of us who live it. If I didn’t already have enough emotional baggage swirling around my head, I had also recently turned down a fully funded MFA offer from Texas State in order to stay with my boyfriend. In some friends’ faces I could almost see the incredulity, as if I was giving up on my dreams for his dreams, but I had long since considered them our dreams and felt I was doing the right thing.

 

The hard landing at the new school was like nothing I had experienced before. I no longer had the constant pop-in of teachers I knew just saying hi or the camaraderie of extended teacher happy hours to talk about our days. I felt like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, eating lunch all alone on the first day in my room. (I tend to use Mean Girls as a life reference so bear with me on that one). Over the next several weeks I spiraled. When I was young I was the type of kid who cried before every single one of my birthdays. My mother once gave me a self-help book called “Who Moved My Cheese” in an attempt to help me grapple with my seemingly insurmountable dread about the idea of changing teachers or really anything for that matter. I had a lot of angst for a nine year old and at almost every stage in my life since that angst has flooded back in. My poor therapist had to endlessly hear why I thought I’d made the worst decision possible and along with my thinly veiled attempts to parlay this into higher dosages on my meds. I essentially wanted to say, “please make me feel nothing” but of course being committed wouldn’t help anything (although I’ve always fantasized I’d be something like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted if I was- the cool girl at the asylum). When I wasn’t sleeping I spent my nights crafting dramatic Facebook posts, tipsy on red wine, and endlessly texting my old colleagues about how I wanted to come back. I had a near nervous breakdown when I realized I couldn’t access my old school’s e-mail account anymore.

And then I turned it all off, retreated, as I’ve always done when I reach these semi-manic states, embarrassed by my own vulnerability. I turned my phone off for days on end, staring at it across the room like it was some sort of animal ready to attack. I deactivated my Facebook, stopped talking to my parents, and contemplated what it would be like to vanish forever. I began to google things like “how to vanish forever so nobody finds you” and “Canadian Visa pluses and minuses.” My boyfriend watched all of this calmly from the other side of the apartment, occasionally reminding me that my entire world wasn’t doomed. As I cautiously began to call friends again, lamenting how alone I was in the world, they reminded me about my landline only weeks (nobody will call you on a landline) and said that, of course, they are always there for me.

As I mellow out, I find myself asking what the panic is always about, what exactly am I really so afraid of? There are so many decisions and to make one feels like a trap. Sylvia Plath once said, in an oft-quoted line made famous by angst-filled people everywhere, “Why can’t I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which one fits me and is most becoming?” I think in many ways I have never found that fit and like many people I want it all. Perhaps that underlying fear is that wherever I am, whatever choice I have made, I will miss something. Nobody wants to settle, but ultimately don’t we all in one way or another settle? Maybe settling is just making a choice, and finding a way to be content with it.