Brave New World

It’s no exaggeration to say we’re in a different world than the one we woke up in on election day. Or that I’d felt paralyzed by fear and disbelief following the results.

But a week later I’d had enough of that.  I looked at my life, weighed where I could squeeze in time and mental resources to do more, did some research, had a little convo with my husband, and made some decisions.

Most of us, I think, tend to find our place in life and decide This is who I am. And when presented with something outside of that scope, think, I can’t do that — I don’t know enough, haven’t done enough, don’t have the right credentials, the right experience.

Not Betsy DeVos, apparently, but that’s a topic for another day.

Times like these, however, demand that we stretch and reimagine what’s possible and what we can do to make what’s possible happen.

We can do more. We can be more. And it’s never been more important to try.

Every Vote Counts

My parents never missed an election, but they didn’t like to talk politics. “My vote is my business, not yours,” they’d say. No exceptions. To this day I have no idea who or which political party they believed in.

So when it comes to this year’s contest, I can’t say for sure on which side they’d fall. But I can wager a few educated guesses.

Dad was very Catholic, traditionally minded, and protective of his family. When I was about 14 a man used a swear in my presence  — “That’s no way to speak in front of a young woman!” Dad rebuked him. Dad voting for Orange Julius Caesar? Inconceivable.

I didn’t lose Mum till I was 40, so we had a few conversations here and there. She had sharp comments for most politicians, but she favored gay marriage and believed the government had no business interfering with a woman’s autonomy over her own body.

In fact, she thought the government had no business doing a lot of things. Probably she’d find a lot of common ground with Libertarians.

Her father didn’t believe women needed school, or that they should wear pants. Her mother only had a third grade education, but made sure her daughter graduated high school, and sewed shorts inside her skirts.

When Dad died, Mum went to business school, wrote her first resume, and found a full-time job in medical referrals. Surely she’d recognize that core of strength in HRC, and cast her vote for another woman who knows how to get things done.

My parents aren’t here, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. But I wish we’d talked more about these larger questions while we could.

Politics aren’t just politics. How we govern our country affects none so deeply as the powerless, and our vote shouldn’t only be about what’s best for our own backyard.

I love HRC’s wonky brain. I admire the life she has devoted to public service. And when I cast my vote tomorrow for the smartest, most qualified candidate in history, who just so happens to be a woman, I’ll be thinking of both my parents, and my grandparents, and also my kids, this next generation that’s inheriting a world of trouble, and possibility.

I’ll be thinking of how progress trips over its own feet sometimes, and how sometimes it finds wings.

As Luck Would Have It

“Several studies suggest that when we feel gratitude we’re more generous to strangers. When we’re reminded of luck’s importance, we’re more likely to plow some of our own good fortune back into the common good. But, we underplay luck. Because we can recall our own struggles far better than the fateful but fuzzy role of chance. And because the very idea corrodes our faith in free will. But mostly because we’re deeply invested in our own autobiographies.

Take me. My parents went broke a couple of times. Once we had to put all our stuff on the lawn to be auctioned. I went to college almost totally on aid. But I always knew I was going to college. Even on nights when dinner was leftover Kentucky fried chicken I brought home from the job. I knew that this was temporary. So I can say, Wow, I’m really self-made. But I know I’m not. Sure, I always kind of knew I was lucky, but not until working on this series did I really begin to understand what that meant.

Hard work is real. But bootstraps are bunk, and social mobility, a myth. Unless a nation chooses to build the infrastructure, the roads on which a person can move upward, you pretty much can’t get there from here.

—Brooke Gladstone, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myth,” On the Media podcast

harli-martenIf you’re not listening to On the Media’s series on poverty in America, you’re missing out on investigative journalism at its most vital.

I’ve written previously about the stories we tell ourselves.

But one of the most insidious stories we hold dear in America is that of the self-made success story. It infiltrates conversations about class, about gender, and yes, conversations about race.

Insidious because to insist that we have earned what we have is to imply that those without have earned what they have not. Is to pass judgement, however unconsciously. Is to be blind to the many ways chance plays a hand in each of our lives.

My life has been financially precarious off and on since I had children. There have been tradeoffs, but, because I’ve always nurtured low expectations, they’ve never noticed the lack. No family vacations, for instance, no Disney World. But we have enough. And I know, no matter what, we’ll always have somewhere to turn if tragedy strikes. Even on the worst days I know I’m lucky — to be healthy, to have kids who are healthy, to have a roof over our heads and rewarding work.

Whether you’re just getting by, i.e., what they call “stable poverty,” or if you’re at a happy place in your life where money isn’t a concern, tune in to this series.

Unless we can face the role luck has in all our lives, for good and ill, we will never recognize that the poor are no different from any one of us, and no less worthy of our compassion. To believe otherwise betrays a larger poverty, of mind and spirit.


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Last week the trees were full and blazing with color, but now the October wind blows and the leaves fall by the hundreds. Out the window I can see a tree already half-barren that shone gold just yesterday morning.

Georgia runs outside to spin and laugh among the raining leaves. This is the first year that she’s tuned in to the changing seasons and how one leads to the next, how time works.

I love that maniacal laugh of hers, and the crescent shape of Aidan’s eyes when he smiles, and Vincent’s up-for-anything grin.

They’re not perfect, and there’s at least a minute or ten every day when I want to lock them up in a padded room and throw away the key, but even as I curse them under my breath I love them with a ferocity that bewilders:

How is it that I’m a mother of three, that this exuberant trio belongs to me? I know how, obvs, but still, how?

bistrian-iosipOctober makes me panicky. Another year is accelerating to its end, and I think, I’ll be 90 when Georgia’s my age, which is not a useful thought but there it is.

When Mum died, I lay down on the bed and tried to imagine it, being dead and absent from my kids’ lives, missing it all. But I felt my breath catch, my heart stutter — I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t go there. I want so much to be here.

Of course, it feels verboten to verbalize this, as if I’m inviting disaster. Such superstition we have! I’m already picturing the clickbait AOL News headline (“Mom Blogs About Fall, You’ll Be SHOCKED by What Happened Next!”).

I can’t be the only one — I’m not that original a thinker. (And not that I waste any less time than the average overly self-aware person either.)

But when we walk to school, smelling the organic clove rot of wet leaves on the sidewalk, or see the slow creep of frost on the windows first thing in the morning, it’s the kids, always my kids who catch me out, and get me out of my own self-orbiting head. I won’t be here forever, but the least I can do is be here now.





What We Give

〈”We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” — “Mirrorgrams,” Altoona (PA) Mirror, 1944〉

I grew up in eastern Massachusetts. My dad was a Teamster, a truck driver, the youngest of 8, raised with a strong sense of obligation to family and community. And every other month, he would drive into Boston to give blood.

I remember this so clearly because he often took a few of us six kids with him. Orange juice, cookies, and the Rainbow Swash are some of my defining memories of Boston growing up.

All these years later — Dad gone, Mum gone, that familiar dank smell of fallen leaves a reminder that the year’s going too — that post-donation process is still much the same: metal chairs at large plastic folding tables, with the addition of bottled water to the array of canned juices.

Now it’s me going every other month, and I bring my kids when I can, too. I want to show them, the way Dad showed us, that giving blood is as normal and necessary as breathing. Blood drives at the community center down the street are my favorite, because the volunteers there bring homemade cookies, and they’re usually delighted to keep the kids company while I’m busy with the blood-letting.

red-crossI bring this up because honestly, I’m finding the tenor of events in our nation disheartening, and one of the best remedies for despair I know is to be of use: to paraphrase, when I feel low, I go high.

And giving blood rocks the Usefulness Scale; it’s to give life in the most literal form there is.

Mum needed several blood transfusions during the course of her cancer treatment, so even without the memory of Dad’s dedication, I’d have still felt the need to pay it forward.

If you’re feeling discouraged about these dark days (and you’re already registered to vote), think about what’s meaningful to you, and how you might grow that light. I’m a blood donor because it matters to me, and it makes me feel good, but not everyone is able to give blood.

Maybe for you that means volunteering at the local food pantry, phone banking for Hillary,  donating to your favorite public radio station or nonprofit poetry press, or finally packing up those extra clothes to donate.

Or something as simple as baking pumpkin bread for your neighbor, apple-picking with your kids, running a race for charity (or both simultaneously), or exploring the local Goodwill for interesting Halloween ideas after you drop off your donations.

Whatever works for you, whatever helps.

If all else fails, and the kids are being rotters to boot, you might turn to The Happy Hedgehog Bandtum tum te-tum, diddle diddle dum, ratta-tat-tat, BOOM! — it’s the Pied Piper of books, a sly rally of percussive joy that no kid can resist.

Sometimes what we really need is to bang the drum, and bang it loud. Drum beat,  heart beat — give life, celebrate life. There’s work to do, but here’s to remembering why it matters.

If you’d like to become a blood donor, and have a smart phone, try the Blood App from the Red Cross. You can make and keep track of donor appointments, your donation history, and watch the progress of your donation as it’s processed. Plan ahead! You’re more likely to donate if you know where and when you can.





The Mystique of Work

I’m not thinking of the exotic here.

I count writers, musicians, and artists among my friends, and what they do is work, but what interests me are those out of the spotlight — stage designers and managers, roadies, or the folks who work in frame shops. People who work in offices. There’s no end to the work that gets done in offices!

Yes, there’s a lot of grappling over how we as people over-identify with what we do, but that’s not what this is.

I’m thinking about how little we understand what the people in our lives do with themselves in their workaday world.

At gatherings we chat with our friends about the kids, the books we’re reading (The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough), must-see TV (“Elementary“), and work is only mentioned with the vaguest flap of our hands.

hector-labordeBut I’m fascinated by what my friends do for work. No one wants to talk about it after-hours, however. The most I get is generally a job title, which I forget seconds after I hear it because I have no framework for understanding their words, and a quick description, which, again, words.

My husband will ask me what a new acquaintance does, and I’ll shrug, “Something for sure. More than that, I can’t say.”

This is one of the reasons I like LinkedIn, which I resisted joining for ages. Facebook is a dinner party where you can listen in on conversations, give hugs, click on a link & disappear, and then return for dessert.

On LinkedIn, you get a real idea of how your friends spend their days. How they’d describe their professional lives to others in their field. Get a feel for who their colleagues are and how they connect. I love it!

Imagine: Take Your Friend to Work Day. Pick the friend whose field intrigues you the most, and then shadow her for a day, or even contribute! Y’know, depending on whether that sort of thing is welcomed, or not. Probably you wouldn’t be allowed to assist in phlebotomy, for instance.

The possibilities, though! Think of the friend that always seems to be traveling for work. Or maybe the one that works funky hours. We’d learn and understand so much about each other if we had the opportunity to spend a day in each other’s professional shoes.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if I ask you more questions about your days. And then ask again when you wave them away with, “Oh, you know, work.”

No, I don’t know — tell me. Really.



Forest for the Trees

Consider this a love note to the man who squirms when I write about him.

My husband, he notices stuff.

When I watch movies, I easily suspend disbelief. That’s what I’m there for, to lose myself for a while. I grant shows and movies a wide latitude in terms of accuracy or probability. Precision in writing is one thing, but for movies, meh. Verisimilitude is in the eyes of the beholder.

Not Lance. He won’t appreciate my bringing this up, but he grasps that remote control and uses it frequently to pause a movie and point out its failures (of facts, of reasoning, of continuity, of imagination) until I’m forced to confiscate it if we’re to have any hope at all of reaching The End.

venn-of-marriageSometimes, though, what he notices and what I consider interesting overlap, a marital Venn diagram of the occasionally like-minded.

Like the locations of where many sci-fi movies are filmed. O Canada!  (Truly. Something to do with the variety and proximity of landscape and architecture, mixed in with financial incentives.)

I don’t consider myself an incurious person, but I never used to think about where a movie was filmed. It exists as a setting in a movie and I believe in it and there it ends. Thanks to Lance, I wander more.

Then there are the forests.

There will be a scene set in the woods, and he’ll say, Look at the trees. 

And I will blink at him.

Look, he’ll repeat. They’re all the same size. They’re planted.

Turns out, the forest primeval is dwindling. “According to the World Resources Institute, as of January 2009, only 21% of the original old-growth forests that once existed on earth are remaining” (Wikipedia).

This has ramifications for biodiversity, for the health of our ecosystem, and impacts the climate as well.

Who knew scenery had so much to say?

Thanks to Lance, I wonder more.





World Enough, and Time

A photo by Jeremy Thomas.

My daughter, when trying to go to sleep last night, asked me to hold her. “I want to be tangled like a knot,” she cried. As if that’s a thing to want.

Wrapped up in those wants and big emotions, she’s more articulate than I can manage.

This world is tangled, knotted by history and just as intractable. Those of us who need a little context should read this piece, “It’s Not About Race,” by John Metta, and try on a new perspective.

And if you haven’t registered to vote yet, what are you waiting for? Our fellow citizens need our vote and support now more than ever. Every voice counts. Raise yours against the orange buffoon of hate and ignorance. There’s no surer way to make a difference than to keep him from the Oval Office.

Fire and Ice

Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

About that stress fracture

7 years ago...
7 years ago…

There’s nothing the universe hates more than a whiner.

Especially when they’re whining about what’s actually their good fortune. As in, I’m not in great pain anymore — I just feel ludicrous on crutches. 

So I have a stress fracture. Not the best thing in the world. Not the worst either. If I keep the weight off of it, my leg will heal. If I don’t, it won’t. Action, meet Consequence.

But honestly, this stress fracture seems like a pseudo-injury — no stitches, no cast, no gaping, seeping, or even visible wounds. I feel like an attention-seeking middle child clopping around on my crutches.

Not being able to move my body through the world with its customary ease is hard to take, but I’m trying to bear up. I don’t want to be that person. However, like many of you, I’m more comfortable helping others than asking for help myself.

There’s an egotism about it, a whiff of martyrdom. As in, I can take care of things ten times better than anyone else can, on crutches with my hands tied behind my back.  And blindfolded.

Plus, it’s selfish. Helping others feels good, and when you don’t let others pitch in, you’re denying them that heart-two-sizes-too-big sensation, the chance to be an everyday hero.

That’s what I told myself, anyway, when a couple dear mom friends rushed to the aid of my 4 year old popping a squat at the playground (“I just had to go, Mama!”).

And when another wonderment brought groceries to me and the kids while my husband was away for the weekend.

It takes a village, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whatever my numerous flaws, I hope I’ll always have the grace to recognize and be grateful for my village. Thank you, friends.







The more things change…

Was it a blink for you?

Now we are four

Though they’re older (hello, preschooler, 2nd grader, and 5th grader!), this past long weekend was still spent catching vomit in buckets all weekend long.

I admit there’s less spatter and clean-up involved now that the kids are older. They’re pretty amazing about running for a bowl and not letting it fly where they stand. No small mercy, that.

So in the interim of the Great New Year’s Splash Fest of 2014 and the 2016 Labor Day Weekend of GI Labor, besides parenting the threesome, Tupelonian whatnot, and Collected Poets et cetera, I have

  • read many prose books (most recently
  • visited Seattle, Minneapolis, and LA (be glad you missed that story, this time my own GI debacle #thankyoufoodpoisoning) for AWP;
  • ran a few 10ks and three half marathons, and suffered a tibial stress fracture for my pains;
  • and enjoyed the company of friends and family without feeling the need to talk about it.

The stress fracture is current news. Have I ever mentioned that we live on the second floor? Luckily my kids are the perfect age to commence child labor. Silver linings!

What I have not done in all this time, besides keep this space active, is much writing of substance.

Finding a new direction since my mom died has been a struggle. Turns out not writing doesn’t help with that either.

So I’m hitting refresh. If you’ve also been stumbling, you do the same. Let’s welcome autumn with our own grand conflagration and begin again.  Begin again.