Surroundings

I’ve spent a ton of time at my desk during pandemic.  Usually I prefer to work in one of my walking-distance spots, with little asides from neighbors, the noise of life going on, views of old architecture, and dogs, and the taste of some baked something I loved.

One of the pieces of my grief is walking past my favorite “fancy” coffee place, which has been completely closed for maybe four months.  Whenever I had especially difficult work to do, I would take myself there.  The bathrooms have beautiful painted tile, and a swan pouring water out.  I was taken care of.

At home, I have usually had a little work space that I never used.  In my carriage house, I had a beautiful window in a gable, and a desk my dad built for me, but most often, when I sat down there, I was petrified by the idea that I was supposed to write something good.  So I wrote out in the world.

In this home, I have a jutted out piece of the house, so there are big windows on both sides of me.   I never understood the importance of light in a home until I lived here.

I have the table that my dad found in my step-grandma’s basement.  The table was in bad shape.  My dad lovingly brought it back to health.

Let’s continue our tour.

On the left corner, a Black & Decker five cup coffeemaker.  It took me a while to bother to get one, because I almost always got coffee out.  Then I realized just how little money I had as a GTA.  I have a can of New Orleans’ Famous French Market coffee and chicory.  The red makes me happy, a bold red.  The picture on the can is clearly Cafe du Monde.  Assholes.

I have a tarnished silver sugar bowl that my stepmom gave me.  It has two jaunty hands on its hips, and little feet with line details.  I don’t sugar my coffee, so I thought it was silly to have a sugar bowl, but I use it when I make spaghetti sauce, I add a bit of sugar.  My stepmom just told me step-grandma did the same thing.

I have a Rubik’s cube covered with bits of text from a friend who worked with me in an experimental writing group.  This was unexpected, and I was touched.

I have a San Francisco cable car pencil sharpener from my middle sister.  She loves California like I love New York.

I have four coasters underneath various items on my desk.  They were made by my cousin, from maps of Disney World, our favorite place.

I have a plastic shoe that squeaks when you squeeze it.  It looks like an old-fashioned house slipper.  I found it out shopping with some colleagues when I worked in Queens.  At a dollar store, I think.  I just loved it for no reason.  It’s a cartoon character that exists in life.

I have an aloe plant I bought at a big church garage sale a couple blocks away.  In the aloe plant are two tiki swizzle sticks, one from Trader Sam’s at Disneyland, and one from Tiki Cat in Kansas City.

I have a mother-in-law’s tongue in a blue pot.  Also in that pot, I have a bear finger puppet from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.  I was very into bears then.

In front of the bear, a wind-up photographer in a pith helmet, ready to crawl on his belly.  He’s from the KC Zoo.

A small orange plastic cat who came with a My Little Pony set I got when I was a kid.

Finally, a dove mounted on wire, so I fixed him to the top of one of the mother-in-law tongue so it looks like he’s flying, and he’s reflected in the mirror behind him.

I have a red elephant cup that says “Nixon/Agnew.”  I love the color, I love that it is Nixon, the bastard, reminding me of the house I grew up in, where there was a bumper sticker on the basement wall that said “Nixon’s It.”

I bought a gold-painted bust that I say is Diana, the warrior.

I have dirt from Kurt Vonnegut’s yard in Iowa City, and dirt from Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up.

I have another elephant, this one baby blue, with his trunk raised.  He cost $3 and I love him so much.

What I see on the wall before me: a photo of my great-grandma and her sisters in cloche hats, a picture of my cousin and I in the middle east, having just finished our rose petal desert.

A picture of a whale wearing a boat, another cousin gift I adore.

A poster from the cat circus I volunteered at in Brooklyn.  (Yes, yes, yes.)  A poster for “The New Woman” at the Comedy Theater London (from a book).  \

An illustration called “Prairie Fires from the Great West,” with a train.

The quote “I urge you to notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”

A framed napkin, on which a former student wrote a passage from the Iliad.  My principal was mad as hell that I was teaching that text.  I can’t read it.  But I loved that kid, Joe, who was smart as hell.

A postcard showing the dreaming barn where people pay homage to Walt Disney.

An image I found in some art magazine that I just loved.

A soldier/saint from the Notre Dame cathedral we built last winter for Mardi Gras.

This quote from Pema Chodron: “What do you do when things become unbearable?  Did we become wiser or more stupid?  As a result of our pain, did we know more or less about what it means to be human?   Were we more critical of our world or more generous?”

A 1950s illustration of the Brooklyn Bridge.  A framed picture of King Kong hugging the Empire State building, from a friend.

A picture made of circles that I made at an art gallery in Kansas City, in the kid or grown ups willing to participate area.

A picture of my grandma and her dad, in front of a car.

A tambourine with our krewe name, used for Mardi Gras.

A flying pig, a gift from former colleagues who used it as inspiration to do our job teaching inner city kids.

Two sconces with the new glass I put on them.  The old ones were horrible country ’70s frosted with flowers.  Now they are sleek ribbed glass.

The spiderweb image I created with Elmer’s glue and dirt.

The mandala I made at the monastery in March.

Two more quotes.  Simone de Beauvoir: “It is the knowledge of the genuine conditions o our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”‘

Tolstoy: “Most people worry and suffer because they have been involved in so many bad things in their lives.  In truth, though, good things often happen in spite of our wishes, and sometimes even in opposition to our wishes, and often after our excitement and suffering over unworthy things.”  That one seems especially helpful now.

Tuned in to one frequency, when the conditions are right, we are surrounded by love.

Image: Place card holder, ca. 1872, Minton ceramics, England.

Coming to Community

I was hoping that the uptick in cases in Johnson County would make it clear that in-person school is not safe right now.  Johnson County has 10% of tests positive for covid.  One teacher ask was 14 days with no new cases.  One union ask was that if positives were over 5%, there we online school.

It’s a lot of numbers.

Today’s morning reading included a bit about mature spirituality, including this tidbit: “We never know reality directly; we only know our internal experience of it.”  The author is referring to Immanuel Kant, who apparently, in addition to writing one of the most famous books most likely to put you to sleep, also had some wisdom.  (I’ve never tried to read Phenomenology of Spirit-– seeing a friend suffer through it was enough.)

I feel like the debates I keep having over this school reopening issue are all existing in the “internal experience” realm, and not moving to the realm of ethics.  Discussing and setting standards for ethical behavior is how we come together as a community: what do we value?  What behaviors are so destructive that they require intervention by law enforcement, or removal from society?  (Needless to say, these conversations are rife with institutional racism and every kind of prejudice, but they still need to happen.)

When do the desires of an individual (parent or child) trump the right of another person to health and life (teacher)?

I’m just as shocked as anyone to see how I’ve become concerned with ethics at this point in my life.  I’ve always been a laissez-faire, you do you sort of person.  I’ll push for my agenda, and you can push for yours.

This is different.

I understand how reasonable people can see abortion differently.

I understand how reasonable people can differ on where power should be held, at a local level, at a national level, an international one.

I don’t understand this difference.

Maybe it is that our leadership and our culture have created such a pronounced split between the servers and the served, that those who are served can’t imagine the servers as people like them.  People who not only have a right to health and life, but also a right to make choices about the risks they take with their health and life.

One wonderful thing about being a teacher is that I can immediately put my concern into my teaching.  I reconstructed the class I’m teaching to focus on what various fields have contributed, and how they might contribute in the future.  I’ve focused even more on considering values and noticing the prejudices we all have.

Another wonderful thing about teaching is that it teaches me so much about myself.  I don’t think I would feel so angry if I didn’t also feel like I had sacrificed for the education of our community, again and again, and I’ve ended up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that regardless of my years of service, no one will forgive, and a broken heart about how teachers are treated.  I can understand my own subjective experience better.

We have to take our subjective experiences and consider them in the context of how we want to proceed as a community.  I know that when asked, teachers are extremely willing to jump in and make sacrifices.  What I don’t know is if the people in their communities will return the favor.

What would it be like if we valued the lives and health of teachers so much that we would all sacrifice a little to protect them?

Image: “Plaque with Scenes at Emmaus,” Carolingian, ca. 850-900 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Quote from Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis.

 

Findings

I read this today: “The laughter was a final answer to the question, Am I nuts?  Certainly you are.”

My family are usually good at balancing each other.  One or two people may be designated the people who need our support, and we align temporarily to shrug in the face of their bullshit, pay for them emotionally or financially, and let them be a fifth wheel.

Pandemic, of course, strains this system.

The times that are hard are times I realize everyone has glazed eyes, everyone is barely afloat.  The children pull each others’ hair.  The adults say less, because they have fewer nice things to say.  Every time we meet, there is an update of what might or could happen when school starts, if “start” is still the word we use.

Why can’t these people believe covid is real, and dangerous? Being out, spreading the thing, objecting to the mildest measures of public health? This is serious!  How do people read the news that 50 people got the virus from x, and then immediately go out and do x?

I can’t accept that people can’t accept how serious covid is, and I can’t accept that I do not have the power to protect myself completely, or the power to protect others.  I can’t accept others, or myself, and round the merry go round of human neuroses goes.

A big part of this crisis, for me, is accepting just how selfish and evil people can be.  That includes me, though I prefer to focus on other people’s selfishness.  I very much prefer it.

I’ve lived this life with so much consideration for others, with sacrifice to help the common good, and they….

I’m taking a moment to step away from that right now.

They are me, I’m them, are there actual political and cultural battles to be fought here, yes, but again, just for a moment, let me acknowledge that I am selfish and evil.

Do I imagine that other people’s moods, rudeness, kindness, or compliments are somehow pointing out that they do not like me?  Is there no one on earth qualified enough to approve of me that I could relax and feel like I’m okay?  Is there any way I could stop discouraged perfectionist fucking things up, or doing a reasonable job and obsessing about the ways it wasn’t actually good enough?

I was deeply roped into the fight for teachers to teach remotely.  Around and around, knots and tightly cintured around limbs, if the vote did not go my way, I could not keep breathing.

It happened to go my way, but it doesn’t, always.

Yes, it is important, but nothing is more important than being in, and living, an authentic life, a life coming from your heart of hearts, and not what someone else told you would make you happy.

Any fight for justice that comes from a place of self-righteousness, rather than a grief at human imperfection, is built on unsteady ground.

Because people cannot accept that what happens to others may happen t them, I grieve.  Because a parent is so convinced that the “right” schooling is the only way their child will “succeed,” I grieve.  I grieve for people accepting and exchanging false information.  I grieve for ministers who hold services that seem more important to them than the risk to their parishoners’ health.

I grieve as I struggle to put down my ravenous hunger to have someone tell me I am a good  person, and smart.  That I’ve done meaningful work.  That I am only middle age tummying, nothing to fret about.  That I’ll never have a panic attack again, because I’ve done the right things to manage my brain.

I bring the rage of 15 years of feeling overlooked, ignored, infantilized, and criticized as a teacher in public education.  And the rage that comes from seeing others experience the same things, over and over again.

I bring the rage of my child self, who is still mad as hell that life is not fair.  Who is still scared because they shut the door on a cell when we visited Alcatraz, and I knew complete loss of control.  Who is still scared that knocking a Christmas ornament off a tree in a department store in 1979 will get me thrown in jail.  Who realized around 1985 that her great-grandma was actually a person who died, just as she is a person, and so she will die.  Who was unable to stop her parents’ fights.

Who hid things in fourth grade: the divorce, a book I stole to learn about how breasts were supposed to show up, and the plastic money I accidentally took home from math class and was afraid to return to the teacher who scared me.  Who has pooped her pants.  Who is afraid to date anyone.  Who throws parties so she can feel comfortable at them.  Who talks a lot when she is nervous.  Who sometimes gets her feelings hurt so easily that she rockets off to a planet of hurt and can’t come back.

That’s all there.

It feels good to drain the pus.

Today I read some more of Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, which has the exact cringey butterfly on the cover that you are now imagining.  A butterfly I carefully hid, along with the title, when I read this book in public, back when there was “public.”

The content makes up for it:

When I was young, I fantasized that I could learn all that was needed to know in order to choose rightly; today I know that I can never know enough….

We grow more susceptible to ideologies that promise easy solutions, black-and-white values, and we often require a palpable enemy ‘out there’ to hate since that allows us to avoid self-reflection… individual sensibility is easily swallowed, moral nuance forgotten, and responsibility for individual choice avoided…

To free ourselves… we go the next step… and ask: ‘What is this touching in me?’ ‘Where have I felt this energy before?’ ‘Can I see the pattern beneath the surface?’ ‘What is the hidden idea, or complex, that is creating this pattern?’ ‘Is there something promising magic, Easy Street, seduction, ‘solution’ here, when, as we know, life will always remain raggedy and incomplete?’

What offers hope?

Some people could find the meaning of their suffering and finally align their spiritual compass with the purpose of the soul.

Finding meaning, not having meaning walk up and say, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Finding meaning, not angrily tapping your foot while you wait for some authority figure to say, ‘You are so amazing.  You are rated an A plus person.”

Finding it is very hard in a dark time, because we may lack the strength to do the most basic chores, let alone take time to consider ourselves emotionally and spiritually.  It may be easier, though, because as you may have noticed, in the dark, the bright spots call us, and satisfy, more powerfully.

First quote from Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing, pg. 191

Quotes from James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, pg. 163-164, pg.176

Image: “The finding of Moses who is rescued from the Nile by the maidservants of Pharaoh’s daughter,” Bartolomeo Biscaino, 1650-57, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Carry that Weight

I’ve been thinking about supporting my own body weight.

Also I am supporting my body weight.  Don’t worry.

Recently I took a yoga class about arm balances.  I had previous to this thought, arm balances are for people who are strong.  Who have upper body strength.  I do not have this.  I am female, so I don’t have much naturally, and it’s fine.

While I am thrilled that regular yoga and stretching has given me a higher kick (I love kicking!), and most of my life I’ve done a lot of standing and walking, so my legs felt strong, I never really got into it with my arms.  I was just like, whatever guys, do your thing.

I went ahead and did the workshop because my teacher is so kind, and I know she is coming from a genuinely loving place.  That makes me reflect on other people who got me to do things: the youth leader who convinced me to be a chaperone on a trip to Juarez, leading me to realize I loved working with scrappy city kids, and working with people who didn’t have much money; several teaching mentors who again and again were like, you can do this.  It’s fine.

Lately I’ve been ending my evening yoga with moving from a squat to standing upright.  Apparently being able to get up from the floor without using your hands is a good fitness test.  Anyway, usually I can do it, but last night, I almost fell back, and grabbed my dresser to keep myself from hitting my head.

I spend a great deal of my time trying to prevent myself from getting hurt.

It doesn’t work that well.

I’ve also fallen, or almost fallen, several times lately when I’ve climbed on the furniture to hang a picture or place a bit of stained glass in a window.  I’ve stubbed my toes, lately.  The indignity, the outrage of having a thing be where you didn’t think anything was!  The anger at having your body fail!  Even in a tiny way.

At the workshop, I learned some ways I could practice, and build up to, supporting my weight with my arms.

I don’t know that I need to go anywhere with that particularly.

But it felt significant to know that I could.

The fear of not being up to the task is insistent.

The fear, now, of making a mistake physically (mask wearing, hugs, hand washing) is amplified.

I know that if I got covid, I would have no control over how it affects me.  None.

Supporting my own body is a focus for me right now because I used to have a deliberately physically active life.  Teaching keeps you on your feet and moving around all day, every day.  I got a place near enough the university that I could walk.  I was used to doing 3 miles from that, and part of it a crazy steep hill.  I was used to hauling things, books, groceries, what have you, because I like having actual activity be part of my fitness, useful activity.

Now I move around so much less.

And when I do, sometimes I’m swimming.

We can still swim.  Public pool, lessened capacity, and my people I talk maskless to (though not close up, and never inside), we claim a corner of the pool, and are quite successful in keeping it our little safe zone.

Swimming, though, the water holds your body weight.  Is that the right way to put it?  When I climb out to go on the water slide (at least three times, and with no line it is glorious), I suddenly feel the weight of my body return, like an astronaut entering the atmosphere again.

Whoa.

Or like when you ice skate, and for a while, your feet still feel like you are ice skating.

I’m interested in supporting my body weight better.  This relates to changes I made when I had that spell of ill health, migraines and panic attacks and all.  I realized that if my belly did more to hold me up, my shoulders wouldn’t have to hold up the whole place.

A big part of figuring out the body weight is balance.  Pandemic has pulled out blocks in the Jenga game of my balance.  I struggle much, much more to balance.  As I mentioned, I stub my toe.  I trip.

Some of it is strength, some of it is balance.  And maybe the most important part of balance is laughing at yourself when you lose it.

If I actually scared myself (like last night, falling back from a squat) then it’s hard to laugh.  If I’m just in a class doing tree pose, I have made a lot of progress there in laughing at myself.  Basically laughing at myself got me out of my twenties and into my thirties.  So freeing.  I can record goofy videos for my students, or my nieces and nephews, and if Some Serious Person ever wants to Tell the National Enquirer, I’d be like, I know!  I’m so goofy!  What of it?

One of the strangest parts of these years of my life has been that with four decades of life under my belt, I do not feel more competent, or more steady.  I feel less competent, and less steady.

Oh life you joker.

I think some of that is my field.  As a teacher, I have been hurt deeply.  As someone who was always looking to mentors and people who were older, I find how often people value the new and the shiny over the voice of experience.  And then people started saying teachers should all get cyanide pills so they can teach through a pandemic because otherwise they don’t love the kids, and… straw, camel, back.

Times of weakness are opportunities to pause and observe.

So I will get on with observing how I handle my weight.