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February 2014   01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28
Look, I know traveling in February is a very poor choice, especially during one of the worst winters on record for *most* parts of the country. Except mine. Where we were having a drought until I left. But I didn't have a choice, since I'm on the road for work, I have to recruit at schools before their off-campus application deadlines, these deadlines have not been changed to accommodate the wildness of climate change, and there is no mercy in the universe for travelers. Anyway, I've managed to hit up several prime, polar-vortex impacted regions during my past two trips (I'll have racked up a month on the road by the time I get home. Assuming I get to go home tomorrow, of course...): Chicago, Southwest Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota. And while I'm working on a lovely little elegiac piece on geography and driving, I have had an absolutely terrible past couple days and am too grumpy to access my deeper emotions. I do, however, feel superior to most of the human race that I have encountered during my travels and thus I remain capable of accessing rage. Now, this is not me ragging on parts of the country that have had to rapidly adapt to freak weather; this is not a "Haha, Atlanta, you got snow and can't take it! I'm from the North and I can take it!" burn. Those are boring. The city of Atlanta can't handle snow for a reason: they don't usually get any. But what is completely incomprehensible to me is how people who live in the aforementioned regions cannot handle inclement weather. Two point five of your seasons are defined by various kinds of inclement weather. But nevertheless, the bulk of the population seems to have overlooked some key rules that will guarantee personal success, social peace, and universal harmony during the winter. Let me help.

1. Driving: People. That rumbling noise you hear? And that weird jerky feeling? Those are your anti-lock brakes kicking in. It means the road is slippery. This means it will be hard to stop, hard to start, hard to turn - basically, hard to do anything. The best thing one can do in this situation is stop panicking. I mean it. I am pretty much perpetually in a state of panic, but even I can achieve a zenlike state for winter driving. It's all about recognizing that each threat has simple solutions. Steer against the skid. Foot off the brakes. Ease into starts. Ease into turns. Put it in a low gear - those numbers you see on your shifter that you never use, right? If you can't see, slow down. If you start to slide, breathe. These reactions aren't natural. But find someone like my dad to take you to an empty community college or Wal-Mart parking lot and do donuts in the ice; the lamp posts motivate you to learn. You can learn!! I have the physical agility of a fat raccoon and the temperament of a deer on a highway. Meaning: if I can learn to drive calmly through the snow, you can too!

1b. Following Distance: I feel like this one subcategory gets its own bullet point, because it is one of the most elegant and simple formulas in the universe, yet the most universally flouted. Not in Michigan - good job. But everyone else with whom I drove this winter: pay attention. Rule: the more the road gets slippery, the larger your following distance should be. Most accidents can be avoided if there is sufficient distance between cars. I mean, if you got propelled across the middle of the 94% frozen Lake Michigan while another car was propelled too, you could, in theory, never hit each other if there was enough space between you. That's the basic principle. You don't want to hit people. So give yourself more room to stop! The coefficient of friction for ice is not very much, so you don't stop very well. Urban drivers  - I understand that you have developed your driving habits in response to intense density. If you don't latch onto the front car's bumper like a tick, other hungry little cars will weasel their way in front of you (happens to me, the rural driver, all the time). But have you just resigned yourself to fender benders in a fit of seasonally-affective fatalism? Can't we all agree to just STOP DOING THAT when there is ice everywhere? No stalking and sneaking! That is how you avoid 87-car pileups.

2. Walking: I thought this task would be simple, but it's not. Look. There are suddenly these giant snow piles on the edge of every sidewalk. They have been put there by humans wielding tools. Their dream was to create a clear walking surface, where people could move efficiently around densely populated areas without falling on their asses or getting ice chunks up their pants and down their boots. But these humans were limited in this battle against the elements by their mortal bodies: they could only clear so much space while the world could just keep on snowing. So that paths, by February, weren't very wide. This means, pedestrians of the Winter Realms, that now is not a great time to be walking in clumps and hordes. I know college feels very threatening at times, but you are not herd animals, and there are not wolves waiting to pick off stragglers (unless Jimmy Kimmel is around and pranking you). So please, when you see someone carrying large boxes and a laptop, could you get out of the damn way without making me plow through you like a rampaging moose? I hate bonking you with my giant display board, but you leave me no choice.

3. Pants: I gave up on the whole "leggings are not pants" thing a few years ago, because it just got tired and I had my own kind of wardrobe fatalism. I even own a pair of pants somewhat like leggings now, though they give me slight traumatic flashbacks to the time in middle school when I kept wearing leggings during the Denim Years and got made fun of constantly. But. My leggings are very warm. They are actual pants, just stretchy. They have pockets on them too, though that doesn't help with warmth. But because they are warm, I don't need the buildings I am in to be 75 degrees. You think I'm exaggerating? I was in a classroom yesterday (PENNSYLVANIA) to do a presentation and I wondered why I was sweating profusely; showing a video doesn't usually make me nervous. Then I saw that the classroom thermostat read 75. 75! This is one of the most curmudgeonly of my grumbles. It's not Siberia - put on a sweater! And if it was Siberia, just put on two sweaters! But at all these college campuses, the buildings have the heat cranked up to accommodate fashion choices that are not designed for warmth. This was one of my pet peeves at Oregon - a "green" campus with buildings so hot I had to teach in short sleeve blazers all winter (yes,I bought some of those!) and could only wear long sleeves in the spring. And it's not just leggings. It's athletic clothing and fancy clothing, too. I saw girls in miniskirts and boots in Minnesota. I am not judging based on morality or anything; I love miniskirts when it's warm. But just putting furry boots beneath your skirt won't make it warmer. And let's not single out the women. I see women and men alike going out of the gym in their running shorts after working out. You are sweaty; you will get cold; it is not a good time to go to class, dressed in just that way. So. If you want to wear leggings, wear leggings. Or skirts. Or shorts. But then expect to be cold. Don't except the exterior climate to reflect your favored clothing selections! Please help stop this massively escalating warming-of-buildings madness, which makes people like me (who are never, ever cold, except when sleeping) have to wear bikinis, which is not good for our professional image. And do you know what it does to your lungs when you walk from 5 below outside into 75 inside? So please. Put on real pants. And coats - coats are great. And even hats. Then turn the heat down.


Notes to Self

Posted on 2014.02.06 at 15:59

I've been wanting to start writing on a daily basis, as a kind of life-structuring, getting-my-shit-together thing. But I keep putting it off, because I want to write something awesome and poised to launch this project. But of course, the whole POINT of trying to discipline oneself to write everyday is that...well, external forces are so chaotic that it is impossible to have any poise and awesomeness without some self-saving discipline. This week has sucked, for reasons I can't write about - I know it's super-annoying and supposedly the worst thing on the Internet ever to say that (see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/annoying-facebook-behavior_b_4081038.html), but there really are times you can't write everything about your life publicly without repercussions. And frankly, I think most of the insufferable things on facebook are the very reasons we all continue to love being on facebook. If you take all the narcissism out of facebook, is there any fun left? But I digress. My point is that this week has been awful, and that's the very time to try and get your #@%* together by just doing the traditional writer's discipline: ass-in-chair and fingers-on-keyboard. So instead of trying to muse on deep things in life, I'm just going to jot down some things I re-re-re-realized today as I shook off my defeatism and weariness and got my sorry self to the office.


"Notes to Self: It Has Taken 31 Years For You To Temporarily Grasp These Things, So Could You Please Post Them Somewhere Your Eyes Tend To Drift When You're Feeling Flattened By Life?"

1. NOBODY is going to protect your work time except you. Did you get that? You feel legitimately frustrated that it is so hard to find time to write, because of never-ending life and work responsibilities. You get frustrated that first grad school, and now a job, has an infinite series of tasks for you to complete, none of which are as fulfilling as actually writing. And you know what? You're right. It's NOT fair. It's not fair that academia evaluates your worth based on your ability to produce mind-altering brilliance and yet is structured in such a way that you can almost never get the uninterrupted time you need to work yourself into such brilliance. It's not fair. That's why your dad told you over and over how unfair life was. He wasn't just being contrary. He was trying to point out that your well-tuned sense of injustice was going to wear you out if you didn't get used to the many, many ways life isn't fair. It is equally unhelpful for you to a) sit around and stew in your self-pity because your talent is not being cultivated like a hot-house flower and b) flagellate yourself for your privilege at feeling self-pity, yelling at yourself because your suffering is relatively minor compared to the bulk of the world's. No, your suffering isn't that bad. But yes, it still sucks and is sometimes unfair that you have to fight so hard for time to work. Get over it. Self-pity and self-hatred are both ways to just still not work. If you want to work, make yourself work and find time, even if that means doing other parts of your life less perfectly.

2. Some days, you have to set the bar lower.. Ambition, drive, and perfectionism have their time and place. Yes, you have made it quite far in life by driving yourself with a combination of fear, shame, and grinding. But perfectionism is also a sickness, a kind of addiction, an impossible attempt to control everything in your life, a dream that if you do everything right, at the very least you cannot be held responsible for the things that don't go the way you want. The reason you end up crushed by defeat is because you set yourself up to be defeated. You refuse to acknowledge any victories except the ultimate ones. You don't stop to savor the minor victories, for fear that if you don't immediately capitalize on them, you'll let another potentially fulfilled dream slip away. Stop it. It's really annoying. Yes, a perfect article to submit will be awesome; a completed one might be even better; and simply having delivered a great conference paper is worth a pat on the back. Getting a PhD was a great feat, but it did something to your resolve and your mental health, and now sometimes you have to go easy on yourself until you fully regain your equilibrium. So, some days, the fact that you didn't just watch 30 reruns of Flashpoint while eating coconut ice cream is worth celebrating; sometimes the fact that you came to your office and tried really hard but didn't make progress on your writing is OK. Some days, you are allowed to be mediocre, and only make dinner or do the dishes or finish the laundry or read the new materialist book on Thoreau or finish thank-you notes. America does not celebrate mediocrity, but it doesn't really celebrate mental health either. If you want to be happy, nobody is going to protect that sanity except you (see above, about fairness and all the things you might want to whine about when faced with this simple truth).

3. Super cheesy but important and true: You have to let yourself be loved if you want to be loved. Again, see above re: perfectionism. The whole thing about love is that you get it in spite of being a disaster. You deserve to be loved, but "deserving" does not equal "did everything right and cannot be accused of ever doing anything wrong." Surely, your theoretically sophisticated concepts of grace should help you figure this one out? What this also means is that you should not try to hide away from the world every time you get sad and dysfunctional. Your friends will still love you, even when your fish are dead (http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html) and they will think you are "bruetiful and good" even when you are whiny and sad and a pain in the ass. Don't get me wrong. Love isn't an excuse to be a jerk to the people you care about. But everyone deserves to be forgiven for falling apart sometimes, and everyone who loves you is ultimately going to bump into some uncomfortable and ugly parts of you that you like to pretend aren't real. Instead of spending all this energy pretending that everything is fine or wallowing in remorse after you spent a day crying and refusing to leave your house, just take the hug and then stand up. Get a snack. Stop reapologizing. Ass in chair and start typing.


slow healing

Posted on 2013.06.29 at 14:50
Any small and secret hopes I had for having a slightly normal wedding disappeared the first time I really looked at my incisions. Well, at one of my incisions, to be exact. I had been hiding it beneath non-stick gauze and surgical tape, an over-size Band-Aid layered over for good measure on excursions like my trip to Portland, a six hour drive to pick up my wedding dress. I had been dutifully resting an ice pack over my wrappings, averting my eyes quickly when I had to change the dressings, calling the surgical center with a high squeak in my voice once a week to check that seriously? this is okay? In between their increasingly bored responses and my increasingly detailed descriptions, I tried to coordinate a wedding between two coasts and a big Midwest city: the bride in rural Oregon, the groom in touristy North Carolina, the big event and the families in and around Chicago. I called caterers and squinted at GoogleMaps to determine the location of places I would not see in advance. I looked at cakes on the Internet and signed off of on pictures sent through cell phones – floral arrangements, invitations. I wept on the phone with my efficient, list-wielding mother, weak with gratitude for her work – weak with self-loathing for my own exhaustion. I drove an hour down the mountain to go to the mall and look at wedding rings, cringingly apologetic and only too ready to fling the logistical nightmare of a romance forward by means of apology – I know, we should have done this months ago. But two coasts. Thought we had inherited rings. Lack of phone service. Six months to plan. Surprise surgery.

Yes, the surgery. That was really when the love story went from charmingly quirky to painfully absurd. Yes, the story had been full of whimsical challenges: two long-separated lovers, driven apart by graduate school and religion, by summer camp and seminary, reunited long-distance with advanced degrees in hand, trading long–distance analyses of Dostoyevsky over the phone, flying back and forth for a few short visits before deciding, ten years after meeting, that it was time to get serious or give it up. And yes, it wasn’t like things hadn’t been difficult at other points in our restarted relationship. Like the month-long recruiting trip I did for my program, that sent me stumbling to seven different schools and four different cities; 14-hour days and constant road travel did little for our long-distance communication, leaving me brittle and seething at slight comments about my evening choice of HBO movie. Like the long, difficult conversations about the differences in our religious practices, our understanding of gender politics, our hopes regarding family and careers and the future. Like our decision to marry and then move in to a small, intentional community up in the mountains, where we had little privacy. There had been difficulties. There had been stupid fights. There had been second-guessing and third-guessing and deciding all over again. And then there had been the CT scan, supposed to diagnose the mysterious and constant dull ache that had haunted my left side for years. The lifeless phone call from a doctor I didn’t know: “Left side looks clear, but there’s an abnormality on your appendix and you’ll need to see a surgeon. Have a nice weekend, and call on Monday if you have any questions!” The kind, searching eyes of the surgeon as she said “tumor” and explained the only way to know for sure was to take it out and biopsy it. As soon as I was ready. While it was still small. Yes, probably best before my wedding.

So there had been a long month of anxiety, the word “tumor” bouncing hollowly around my head as I tried to do more than go through the motions. And there had been relief at another emotionless phone call: “We wanted to let you know that your results were benign. Let us know if you have any questions.” I had my life back, and I thought that I would surge back from surgery, just the way things were before – challenging and stressful, but just life. Sure, the recovery had been harder than expected  - “on your feet in two days,” they cheerfully estimated, which I (optimistically) took to mean walking normally, not shuffling and leaning on your sister’s shoulder every twenty feet for support. But for those first two weeks, as my sore abdominal muscles loosened and as I stopped sleeping fourteen hours a day, I felt only determined and future-oriented. The actual wounds from my surgery were conveniently hidden beneath layers of glue – swollen, sore, but smooth-surfaced and innocuous. Okay, so one didn’t look so good – but the surgeon simply requested photographs (oh, technological age) and assured me that it was fine, offering by way of explanation, “It wouldn’t stop bleeding – I had to cauterize it.” But even then, afraid, pressing ice gingerly to the welt between my hips, I could ignore and pretend. Stick some more gauze on top.

Until, it turned out, my body started rejecting the stitches I couldn’t even see. One day, after a few more anxious phone calls, a few days of determined ignorance, and a few sneaking suspicions that my body just wasn’t healing, I finally worked up the courage to look. I felt I hadn’t known what the word “wound” meant before. Not scrapes or burns, not even the gash on my ankle that required a trip to Urgent Care. This was ugly, disfiguring, a rending. I had been anxious before; now I was horrified. My body looked awful. What if it never healed? What if it was horrifying, garish, fucked up forever? But more than that… For the first time, it sank in that I had had an organ removed. This was the kind of wound that went into my body. It didn’t stay on the surface. It healed slowly. It didn’t look right. I couldn’t control or speed it up, wish it away, put my body back the way it had been before. The surgery had been an event that forever changed me, the belly I knew so well. I  had escaped from my fears about cancer and death, but this was the price I would pay. Of course I would pay it again. But still. I was filled with feelings I never anticipated, when I jutted my chin in the surgeon’s office and agreed to a surgery, squeezed in between my conference and my wedding – horror; shame; grief.

It’s still hard for me to say just what that grief is. My fiancé told me to expect it. When we had first been dating in college, he had almost died from a collapsed lung and resulting infections; surgery saved him, left his body riddled with scars, grew a sadness in him I didn’t then understand. But this? I didn’t feel I was entitled to any sadness. An appendectomy – no big deal. Laproscopic surgery – again, so what? There wasn’t cancer. The worst I was going to have was one gnarly scar, only slightly worse (I still hope!) than the dozens that grace my active, accident-prone body. So why did I wade through depression, then intense anxiety, and now keening sadness?

I wasn’t sure what I was mourning. I was worried about the wedding and this wound complicated things, but why did I feel devastated about having to go to my wedding only half-healed? I had never been a big wedding-y person, and mostly I had felt a mixture of embarrassed, defensive, and shy about our wedding. Marriage? Great. Love the idea of marriage. But weddings? Heteronormative, capitalist, you know. I was grateful for the hard work my family was putting into making the wedding a cool event for friends and family, a celebration, a shared time between people from all over my life. But I wasn't expecting the best day of my life so many women gushed about. I didn't think people came into these days perfect and whole, healed, dancing forward into new life flawless. I had never cared about getting into shape or fixing my fucked up toenails or hiding that weird scar on my wrist, the one from the car trunk. So why did I suddenly find it deeply sad that I was the only woman I knew whose body, as I approached my wedding day, got worse and worse? Why did I find it tragic that I could do nothing about it but change the dressings, sleep, hydrate, be patient? Other women dieted and tanned, exercised, used lotions, read about hair-does, scraped dead skin from their feet, waxed and preened. I was just praying my skin would be solid again before we headed to Lake Michigan to spend a few quiet days on the beach. I couldn’t get fit - I couldn't run or walk in the hot, desert air as I struggled to keep my wound dry and cool. So I was losing the body I had known for years - tough, tan, lean and long, hardened by sun and miles and stray rocks in my sandals. It’s hard to explain. It’s not that I’m gaining weight – the fear of most brides. It’s that the muscular shape of my body is slowly slipping away, as the running and crunches and hiking and climbing stay on hold and I beg my body to heal. And with it, I'm losing some comfortable fictions I had about myself - a sense of myself as inherently strong and capable because of my physicality. Because, despite my chronic illness, my body could do whatever I asked - run harder, hike longer, carry more weight. And now it couldn't.

And somehow, the whole thing is forcing me to confront some deep-seated issues about control and fear and vulnerability. Because it brings home what I’ve sworn I believed in for years but that few of us can ever really believe in American culture – my body is not identical to my will or my sense of identity.  I’m not trying to resurrect some kind of Cartesian dualistic crap. It’s not that ME is spiritual and my body is NOT-ME. It’s that there is this alienness to my body, that defies my will and autonomy. It forces me into encounter with a world I also cannot control. While defining who I am and giving me a way-of-being in the world, it frightens and terrifies me. It refuses to heal. It points to its own frightening depths. It demands care from me  - I cannot force it to get better, just be kind and try to let go of the grasping sense of control. And while this is a way of living I want to embrace, it’s terrifying. It’s not who I am. I am a control freak to my core and I’ve been trying to pry myself free from the clinging, the clutching, the held-breath, the rigidity of will, will, will. But my body is suddenly so alien and out of my control, it brings home with a swift kick exactly what we risk when we lose control. Don’t get me wrong – we risk it all anyway, being alive, and we just delude ourselves with a pretense of control and power. But to admit that? It knocks the breath out of me. This is what it means to love. This is what it means to heal. This is what it means to keep moving forward. Wounds and ugliness that only get better with gentleness, fear and grieving that also require space to heal, slow or sudden changes to the world around us and the body we live in that we must accept and try to live with graciously, kindly, patiently. More life, more imperfection. A scarred bulge or a divot of a wound where there used to be youth, flat abs, smooth skin.


Other Ways of Loving

Posted on 2013.06.08 at 12:16
It's been about 4 days since I had my appendix out, and today I woke up feeling incredibly grateful for my sister, who drove 1000 miles round-trip in order to be with me during my surgery and the first bleary, drug-muted days afterward. This whole surgery thing has been startling and humbling for me, a person who, despite my chronic disease, is pretty healthy and energetic on the day-to-day level. I don't sit still much. I push through illness and pain to get done what needs doing. I rely on a combination of brute strength and stubbornness to work more hours than is physically possible when that's what the job requires. And for the past few days, I've been relatively helpless. I couldn't bend over the first day - no putting on shoes, no picking up things dropped on the floor. I could barely get out the couch or out of bed without wincing. I couldn't put on pants due to my poor, swollen abdomen, so I was shuffling around in thin cotton sundresses and flip-flops, slow and hunched over. All of this was a bit of a shock to my normal self-reliance, which has only increased since I moved out of the co-op (which taught me something about interdependence) and into the mountains 21 miles from any town - a habitat that fosters greater self-reliance and toughness, where simple tasks like grocery runs require planning and where getting the mail can be a weather-threatened adventure.

So thank God my sister ignored my protestations and just came down to take care of me. The doctors had said some people go back to work the day after an appendectomy, and with my usual stubbornness, I figured I would just will myself into being one of those people. But my sister and I see through each other - see through our "I'm-tough-I'm-fine" demeanors to the scared and hurt parts underneath. We tease each other so that our vulnerability doesn't seem so palpable. We cuss at each other and call each other names, all the while that we take care of each other. And so, I was lucky to have my sister here, bringing my pills and my water bottle, helping me photograph my incisions to send to the doctor for evaluation (you have to get creative in the far-off mountains!), carrying my purse for me as we shuffled slowly around the millpond in the early evenings, a slow motion parody of my usual daily hikes. For her, coming wasn't a choice; it was inevitable, obvious. Once she heard I was having surgery, she insisted that she was coming. Deal with it, she said to me.

It reminded me of the time, over two years ago now, when the end of grad school was looming up and I was having constant panic attacks - employment? health insurance? student loans? where would I go? And she said if worst came to worst I would live with her for a while and she would help take care of me. I wouldn't have to die in the street, begging for insulin money - a fate that felt frighteningly possible to me as I sat in my therapist's office and tried to explain why, year 5 of a PhD, I was getting too depressed to do my writing every day. My sister went on one of her famous tirades: "Why can't I take care of you? I love you! Lots of people finish degrees and have a husband or wife who takes care of them for a year or two! Why is it different? Because we aren't going to sleep together? I freaking love you and I want to help take care of you!"

Her fierceness changed my life - helped give me a step out of that depression. Why? Because it was such vocal, visceral love. It was love that valued and chose me, even while I was depressed and broken. It didn't ask me to earn anything. It just asked for the right to be present, to share caring. And it wouldn't take no for an answer - at least, not while "no" was really a mixture of shame, embarrassment, and self-protection.

As I've been thinking about all this today, I keep dwelling on my sister's question - "Why is it so different?" Why is it so different, all the kinds of loving that don't look like heteronormative marriage and straight romance? Those of you who know me know that I've spent a lot of the past couple years realizing that I'm really pissed off at the heteronormative character of social institutions. Which may be weird, since I am straight and, well, now I'm getting married this year. To a straight man. Heteronormative as could be, it seems. Yet I'm really frustrated with the way that our society has built so many institutions around the marriage institution, as though that kind of love is the only kind valuable or necessary to society. I'm 30. I'm getting married after a decade of single adulthood - but even saying that sound wrong, because there was no way I would have made it through my 20s if I was "single" - that is to say, alone and unsupported. Sure, a great deal of my support did come through the heteronormative marriage network, in as much as my parents were hugely supportive of me, monetarily and emotionally. I am forever grateful for that. They bought me plane tickets home for Christmas and helped me defer my loans; they gave me a place to come home when life got rough and a constant voice on the other side of the phone when grad school kicked my ass.

But a lot of my 20s was also about building incredibly meaningful relationships outside of any marriage or romantic structure - relationships that will last my whole life, in one for or another, and that I wish could be given some form of social recognition. My sister, thank God, is immediate family, so the doctors at the hospital were able to talk about my condition with her while I drifted in and out of anaesthesia. But if she hadn't come? If some of my close friends - who helped drive us up and down the mountain that day, so my sister could focus on me and not hairpin curves or the threats of deer - if they had been the only ones there, then I would have needed to present a written note to the doctors to enable them to talk about me. I get it. It's about privacy. But it got my rage stirring, because it points to a whole social structure that, out of fear of privacy laws and litigation, out of protection for reproductive heteronormativty and capitalism (sorry, angry feminist Marxist coming out) can't figure out any way to help people who find love and support in their lives outside of marriage and the family. And that just breaks my heart. Why can't my sister share her health insurance with me? We've cared for each other our whole lives and will continue to do so, without a question or a flinch, whenever shit like this comes up. But she couldn't do anything to help me, with a lifelong chronic disease, when I faced possible unemployment and a lack of medical benefits. Why can't we have legal recourse to take care of each other? Why are medical benefits and tax breaks reserved for the married, when there are so many other ways of living together and caring for each other that can relieve financial and social burdens - the co-op I lived in for years being just one model of people coming together in adulthood to safeguard each others' mutual well-being. Why can't the government recognize moves like that, which save resources and energy and time and are socially savvy? Why are we in murky legal waters when friends drive me to the doctor or come with me to help me buy a car? Why is sexual union the ultimate legal sanctification of long-term caring? Why is it my sister could not get the same time off to be with me, a companion of almost 30 years, that she could have gotten had it been her spouse who needed surgery? Why do we value that one human interrelation over the many, many lifelong or life-defining relationships that we make with the people in our world? Is it an illusion of self-reliance, one we only let down for our sexual partner, one that helps us believe we are all individual nuclear families floating through life alone without need of the others of our community?

This is why, I say when people ask, I was such a fervent proponent of gay marriage. Some people said, "Why support gay marriage? It's just normalizing - it's opposing heteronormative relationship standards onto other people." I can see the point. But my point has always been - in this society, marriage gives us avenues of legal caring that are not open outside of marriage. It lets us help others in tangible ways. And I want more people to have that recourse! I want more people to have someone who can hear their medical news, act in their financial interests, do taxes together. Ultimately, I wish we could recognize that there are so many ways to love and live together than marriage - and I don't just mean that in terms of sexual cohabitation, either. There are ways to build family and community that rely on things other than sexual attraction and the production of children. These ways of living together make all our lives better and help us navigate a tricky world of challenges and loneliness. Why would we slam the door on any hopeful, life-giving ways of being together?



Posted on 2013.06.07 at 11:53
It's an okay day to be an invalid. Maybe 70 degrees outside, a breeze thick with the smell of incense cedars and the warm scent of sun warming dead pine needles. I lay on the couch with a book propped on my knees, all the windows propped open to the summer, and I feel almost as though I'm outside, missing only the hot weight of sun on my skin. I am restless by nature, never good at silences or sittings, but the doctors took my appendix out this week. Despite their promises of an unnaturally quick recovery, I am sore and slowed, weighted down by this sudden absence, couch-bound by the pain of a newly hollowed space inside. I have to sit and let the world come to me - the bees buzzing in frustrated forward-motion against the window screens, the baby birds chirping their shrill hunger from the eave above my door. Yes, part of me wants to be out in the world, running down a dusty trail to work off the anxiety of the past and coming months - the constant strain of conferences and meetings and weddings and doctors appointments. But truly, part of me is grateful for the forced sitting, my quiet space in my cool, dark room, my passive waiting under breezes.

Yesterday, my sister helped me walk around the pond, a quarter-mile loop I usually disdain in favor of longer treks down switchbacks and over streams. We stopped every few feet, panting in the heat, watching fish dart between shadows and vultures wheel lazily over the meadow next door. I walked like an old lady, or a pregnant woman - like all the women I spend so much of my life trying not to be, with the my hardened fierceness and my sheer muscular force of will. I bent my back and held my fragile stomach, that once-firm plane of muscles now ballooned out, swollen, scarred. I leaned on her shoulder for support, shuffling my feet over rocks, slowed not by breathlessness but by the simple weariness of a worn-out body. It was slow, and sweet. I felt a quiet fullness, a simple gratitude that I had come through anaesthesia and narcotics and bleeding and brokenness to be able to at least walk - to have this, if nothing else - this one day of healing, with one of my most beloved walking at my side, in a place so beautiful that even a simple turn around the pond had my sister exclaiming in wonder - the deer crouching in the rusted out bark burner, the swallow scything over the water in sudden pursuit of flies, the cracking soil providing the first hint of this mountain meadows gradual summer transformation to alpine desert, the dangers of fire.

That's all I really have to say today, I suppose. It's something so many of my friends and I have recognized over the years: we do not stop until our bodies break. We wear our spirits out with running and hard work, holding ourselves upright through sheer muscular tension. We strain and rush and keep the hollowness at bay. But when our bodies break, when a new kind of pain takes over from the daily agony of trying to build a meaningful life, we suddenly find a wild happiness in the midst of hurting - in the midst of being thwarted. Once we cannot run or write or seize the day, we spend a few days wringing our hands, then find a sort of magic in the slowness. What could be missed opportunities - a gorgeous day for running or biking, for hiking, for working - becomes newly found opportunities - a perfect day to be an invalid, to let the breeze do all the moving, to watch the world instead of trying to do something in or to it.


To Bear a Sorrow

Posted on 2013.04.19 at 15:16
You must be able to bear your sorrow; even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong, and your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself, part of your body and your soul, you mustn't run away from it, but bear it like an adult.... Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate.

But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge--from which new sorrows will be born for others--then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply. And if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.

-Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life

Today is the kind of day when writing becomes a ritual, a litany, a desperate and material touchstone in the midst of fast-changing events, fast-changing emotions. Today is the kind of day when I write for an hour, feel grounded enough to return to the menial tasks of a normal, human life. I call the insurance company and the pharmacy; I flip through overdue paperwork; I cook a pot of beans and warily eye the now-cold French press full of coffee. But then the fear and anxiety creep back in. At first, I was so relieved when the Internet connection became reliable enough to work in my mountaintop retreat; now, I feel both blessed and besieged. It is good and important, I believe, to know what is going on in the world: it is necessary to be present to the suffering of others – to the floods and storms, to the bombs and explosions. But it is also hard, a penance, a shared suffering. I sit here and scan articles. Boston shut down. Gun reform denied. Floods creeping too close for comfort to the homes of friends and family. I become anxious, and what I want to do is click more links, watch more streaming videos, re-post the snippets and soundbytes that resonate with some of the outrage I’m feeling. I want to jump into the swell of voices and opinions and drown my sense of helplessness in vocalization. But living here, in solitude and slowness, is teaching me a few things about the hard estate of being human: mortal, helpless, circumscribed by limits. Shouting and gesticulating won’t help right now – not the victims and not me, in my anxious pacing. And so, it’s back to the litany. I write again.

I write with a sense of guilt. It’s not productive. I’m an academic with work to do, and I should be digging through drafts or working on that backlog of assessment rubrics. I should be sorting books in the library. But I want to do something in the face of this day, this week, to feel more human. I don’t want to be a set of fretting hands moving books and papers back and forth while my mind gnaws on the injustices of the world, frets about the dimness of the future. I want to do something besides steep in sorrow. I want to be present with my sorrow and make it into something of value or of solace. That’s why I write.

I’m not sure I understand how it is that writing has value. I’ve tried to argue about it and teach about it in humanities and writing courses. I used to think it had something to do with reasoning, argumentation, and developing understanding. I used to think the value of writing was its uniqueness as a tool of analysis – it let us dig in ways we couldn’t with our mind alone, as it focused and organized the strength of our higher thinking skills. But that’s not it, either. Not entirely. The value of writing does have something to do with processing. But it is an emotional kind of processing, too. On days like today, I am tired of reasons and arguments. I am tired of positions and evidence. I am tired of going back and forth. Ideas are heavy. A new explanation will not save me, blessing me with sense. But a new reflection, a thoughtful essay, an attempt to convey and share suffering – well, that may bring me solace. Thus, confronted by a week where I cannot even begin to understand – where I do not even know a position from which to begin shouting – I still find value in writing. It is a way of practicing being present, I think. Of lifting yourself from the rapidity of whirling thoughts and accelerating communication and instead, abiding. Letting your feelings have a space. Letting your thoughts be unsettled. Taking the time to pace all the complexities of your mind and heart. Granting each complexity and paradox and deep, wounding question its separate reality. It is a space where tensions can hover, suspended like the smoke I watched drifting up from incense sticks as I prayed this morning – prayed in an effort to focus my troubled mind.

This troubled thinking is not new for me. This week is not unique in its ability to rattle my calm and send me fretting about the inevitable collapse of our screwed-up world. I’m often on the brink of such anxiety, trembling on the edge of outrage as I read about all of the injustices of the day. I’m often burdened down and weary as I consider all the hard things in the world and feel my relative helplessness. But something about this week has crystallized the tensions that make up every day in our modern world. The events have forced some hard realities to the forefront. I don’t want to get caught up in the debates that have been spiraling through my newsfeed today – about how to mourn the Boston tragedy without an American exceptionalism that elevates national suffering over the ongoing violence in other parts of the world. My mind is not struggling to define who suffers the most or to decide what drives or justifies various acts of violence. My mind is struggling to come to grips with what will happen next, what is happening now – with the upswell of rhetoric and writing and thinking and opinions that occurs after a tragedy as people make meaning and seek a way forward. I am thinking of the power of rhetoric – and not, as usual, of its power to help us be reasonable but instead about its power to divide and drive us to even greater acts of violence. I’m thinking about how when we don’t take the time to acknowledge our suffering and be present to it – when we have not, as Etty Hillesum so beautifully said, “given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand” – we become angry and violent. We use our reasoning and our rhetoric, our writing, our information sources, our voices to yell anger when we should, perhaps, keen in anguish. I do believe there is a space for anger in our hearts and minds, in our societies, in our world. But I think we are usually too quick to run to anger, to “hate and revenge,” and that this is part of our pain – this is the way in which, again and again, ever and ever, “new sorrows will be born for others.”

There are layers and layers of politics beneath the things I’m saying, and I cannot address them all. I cannot, in one act of writing, address when violence is a valid response to injustice and when it is not; when anger is a useful emotion and when it is a mask for hurt and sorrow. I cannot tread carefully enough around issues of victimization and blame. All I can speak to is a sorrow that sits beneath my anxiety. All I can do is try to make space for my sorrow so that I do not slide down through anxiety, clawing and afraid, landing in hate and despair. All I can do is make the space to say: I am anxious because I am afraid and when I face those fears, I see that truly, I am sorrowful.

I am sorrowful because innocent people were killed in an atrocious attack and I am sorrowful because it takes such a close attack for so many Americans to become sensitive to the level of suffering that takes place in the world every day. I am sorrowful because two young men, whose stories are not yet fully known to us, felt driven by something to commit such acts of violence. I am deeply sorrowful that these men come from a country torn by war, and I am deeply sorrowful when I anticipate the likely responses that will be springing up around the country in the coming weeks – xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance. New sorrows born for others. I am sorrowful because my very impulse towards sorrow will be interpreted by others as justification and excuse, as a way of forestalling what they would see as justice. I am sorrowful because we as a people – I speak mainly to Americans, but to all the citizens of technological modernity – so easily forget how to mourn without wheeling immediately to vengeance, buoyed forward by knowledge that comes so fast it leaves us no time to consider and act wisely. I am sorrowful because I live in a world of strident voices, where quick answers are valued and fast information is prized, where slow reflection and patience are scorned, such that innocent men were accused via social media and there was no time to check facts before unleashing our rage. I am afraid and sorrowful, because events like these always reveal the darkest and brightest parts of humanity – and I don’t just mean the darkness of bombers and the brightness of heroes, but also the danger and promise of the power latent in the masses. The danger and the promise we can see in the people reading through media, writing on the Internet, and talking to one another. The power to reach out and comfort; or the power to rise unreasonably, crush, hate, and destroy.

If I have a prayer for the coming weeks, it is for patience and humility and a willingness to wait. It is a prayer for healing, with the belief that healing does not come from hatred or quick vengeance but from sitting with our sorrow. I do not write to understand. I write because otherwise I also would form quick and angry opinions. I would be hasty and anxious. I would lash out and feel anger swelling in me, anger and anger and anger. I write so that those emotions won’t become the poison that spills out towards other innocents, guilty only of sharing a religion or an ethnicity or a home country with a person who committed a single act of terror. In my case, it is perhaps more true to say I write so that I will not fester in a poison of resentment towards the people who are quickly pointing fingers, naming names, calling for sweeping and unnecessary change in immigration policies. I write so that I will not hate, and I write so that I also will not despair. 


"Rage! Rage! Go suck an egg!"

Posted on 2013.02.01 at 12:18
I have had a very angry week. One of those weeks where my personal frustration at seemingly minor set-backs keeps lining up perfectly with deep frustration at systemic social injustices. Hence, rage. I woke up this morning too angry to get out of bed. I know, that sounds strange. Normally one is, say, too depressed to get out of bed. But I woke up quivering with rage, afraid that if I left my bedroom I would start breaking things.  You know, that kind of anger, that gets down into your muscles. The only solution I could begin to imagine was writing, so please forgive the writing below for being a rant.

So why am I so mad?

Some of my rage is certainly circumstantial. I have had a weird pain in my side for a few days now. Well, that's the short and non-explanatory story. I've had this pain in my side on and off since I was an adolescent, at which point I underwent weeks of tests, ultrasounds, and x-rays. Inconclusive examinations, all. But now the pain has come back with a vengeance in the past two weeks. No, pain is too strong a word. It's just a chronic discomfort. My rage isn't at the pain. I'm good at putting up with pain. It's uncertainty that I can't stomach and that is gnawing at me now. The tentative theory doctors offered in my childhood was that I had a weird nerve bundle that occasionally spasmed and made me feel as though I had a pulled rib muscle. But my imagination, joining forces with the powers of the Internet, has conjured up much more dire scenarios. Ovarian cysts. Ulcers. Gallstones. I went to Planned Parenthood the other day (which, of course, prompted some of the self-righteous anger. Because the doctors and nurses there are so freaking awesome. Seriously. They made me feel like I'm not a psycho because I'm afraid I'm dying from my ovary, and they made me laugh through a rather painful personal examination. Something about being back in that office, with all the friendly staff acting as though my neuroses and fears were just human and with all the posters shouting at me about taking back my rights and my choices, set off the militant feminist voice in my head. Why the hell are people so eager to shut down Planned Parenthoods, when they are some of the only places that can see frightened women like me in a reasonable time frame and for a reasonable price? Why are we so opposed as a society to equal health care? Why is the specter of abortion so scary that it outweighs other very real fears, like cancer or STDs or poor health? Dear God, it's so illogical. Do we think limiting women's access to reproductive health care is going to limit the number of abortions or abused children? Let's think with our brains and not with our fear!) But anyway. I went to PP, and they couldn't find anything wrong with me, so now I'm stuck poking at the bottom of my ribcage and wondering if I should go to the walk-in clinic tomorrow or not.

Because it's tomorrow or nothing. Part of my circumstantial rage is almost certainly attributable to the fact that I'm headed out on a 20-day recruiting trip on Sunday morning. I hate traveling. We all know this. Airports are like a national shrine to anxiety. Hotel staff constantly remark on my youthful appearance. I have to iron things before I put them on. Renting cars and trying to figure out insurance is this tortured ritual about trying to control a future with little information and time, all the while feeling you're being duped by the capitalist machine. And then there's driving. Driving in Philadelphia sounds like one of the worst ideas I've ever heard of, and yet I have to do it. I don't like big cities. Or highways. Or cars. And now, on top of all those standard worries, there's the fear that I will suddenly be dying of, like, an exploding spleen in a hotel room and I will have to get medical assistance. Perhaps my youthful appearance could help in such a situation? As long as it's not on the goddamned highway.

Such fears about travel and health and control burst into flames of uber-systemic rage when I tried to pick up my last round of prescription refills before my trip. MEDICAL INSURANCE IS CRAZY-MAKING. Don't get me wrong. I am incredibly grateful that at my new job I have wonderful health care. But...this whole insurance thing is like THE LEAST LOGICAL SYSTEM EVER. It only makes sense in a capitalist framework that prioritizes profit over all. What I mean by that is, well, insurance companies make profits for people. That's the only benefit I can find. This bureaucratic system frustrates doctors and medical care providers. It frustrates patients. It makes it ten times more complicated for people to get the care they need, because the care they need may or may not be covered. So instead of having medical treatment be directed by the laws of physiology, they're now molded by some weird invented set of laws involving costs - laws that change all the goddamned time. So, you think you're on top of your prescriptions that you need to survive, and then surprise things happen! Like yesterday, when I found out I had to have doctors pre-approve my test strip prescription, send a form to the insurance company, vouch that I need that many test strips, an then call the pharmacy before I'm allowed to get my prescription (which I have had for like seventeen years and never had to have pre-approved!)

Now. I am not one of those people who is inherently opposed to Western medicine. I love Western medicine. And I'm not opposed to limiting people's access to certain medications. I get it. Some medications are addictive, or they can be abused, or they can be sold on the black market to, like, partying teenagers that will then end up on a primetime news special about the urban epidemics of twenty-first century ennui. But test strips? TEST STRIPS? They're expensive, I know. BUT DEAR GOD. What is the insurance company afraid I'm going to do with them? Make model airplanes? Decorate my skirts? Use them to start the fire in my woodstove because I just have so many and the newspaper pile is just so far away? Weave them into my fucking hair? Send them as postcards to foreign countries? They can't be used recreationally! They don't taste good! They don't make you feel good! They're little chemically treated pieces of paper! I use them to check my fucking blood sugar! When you give me more of them, I check my blood sugar MORE! (Quel scandal!) Because the more you check, the better control you can get of your blood sugar and the less likely you are to need really expensive medical treatments in the future due to diabetic complications. USE YOUR LOGIC PANTS, PEOPLE!!!! Even if we can stretch our capitalist brains to cover, like, one fucking decade...we can figure out that it's economically profitable to invest in preventative medicine now than in drastic care later. An extra $100/month of test strips now, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in dialysis, hospitalization, and surgery in the future because I couldn't control my blood sugar now? DO THE BASIC MATH THAT EVEN AN ENGLISH PHD CAN DO IN HER WEARY, CYNICAL MIND. If one box of test strips costs $100, which it does retail, I am asking for $2400 a year in preventative medicine. Which, for the record, I'm sure is way more than the cost of actually producing these little suckers. Even in ten years, that's not as much as some hospitalizations and procedures cost. AND NOT MATH, BUT RELEVANT: they can afford to give them to you for free in Scotland, even if you're just there on a student visa and not a citizen. So, rage rage, it's the same reason why we continue to do all sorts of stupid things in this country. People say, blah blah, we have to make a profit! Nevermind that our environmental and health care policies make a short term profit that will cost a bajillion times more to fix later. WHY NOT JUST DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME, LIKE MY DAD ALWAYS TAUGHT ME WHEN WE WERE MEASURING WOOD AND THEN CUTTING IT WITH A SAW? Can't you plan ahead?!?! Where's the "measure thrice, cut once" philosophy of the American economy? Why are we killing all the things - individual, social groups, plants, ecosystems, animals, cultures? JUST STOP IT.

But people are apparently averse to logic pants. And that, really, is the source of a lot of my rage. Social justice things in general seem so obvious to me, and I don't understand why people get so complicated and illogical in service of strange moral rules that will self-destruct and undermine their own principles if you just follow the consequences out for more than a heartbeat.

And I'm not just frustrated at what could be called conservative illogic. I mean, yeah, I had my Marxist feminist dander up this morning when I went on facebook, but then I stumbled on a link about Christian privilege and realized that inconsistent logic is an equal-opportunity duper. At first, seeing the link, I was excited. I've been trying to talk about privilege a lot lately, and it's one of those things that are notoriously difficult to explain. And it's hard to admit it when you have privilege. So I was prepared to be slightly off-put by the article, because I do identify as Christian and hence I bet that it would be uncomfortable for me to face some of the privilege that comes with it. But instead of discomfort, I felt furious. Not because I thought Christians don't have privilege. I do! I admit it instantaneously! But some of the claims this article made about Christian privilege were inherently wrong. Or perhaps true in, like, the Bible Belt but not in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. Or these claims were generalized in the same way that this article deplored. It categorized all Christians together in the same way that it accused Christians of lumping together, say, Muslims. Wait! If it's oppressive and privileged to make generalizing assumptions about religions...well, then, it's oppressive and privileged to make assumptions about all religions, including Christianity. Ugh, it's the same problem I have when talking about feminism. I know that men are privileged. I would never challenge that. But that doesn't mean we can dismiss all men as automatically complicit in patriarchy. We need to find a way to talk about privilege that recognizes the inequality of situated positions without becoming accusing or exclusionary. That's why "patriarchy" is actually a helpful word, despite its spook-factor. I as a feminist don't hate men. I hate patriarchy - the systemic perpetuation of privilege that makes it easier for men to self-actualize, survive, and succeed. I feel the same way about religious injustice, and that's why I acknowledge many of the articles social claims about Christian privilege. Yes, it's easy for me to find Christian colleges and churches. That isn't fair. But that doesn't mean that my religious beliefs are promoted at the national level. The vocal minority of evangelical conservatives don't speak for me anymore than radical Muslim freedom fighters speak for the majority of Islam or that men like Paul Ryan speak for the majority of men with regards to their relationships to women. So no, article, I do not find my beliefs parroted on major media, because what I find is a parody of my beliefs being spread around by its alleged proponents and its critics. I won't deny my privilege, because I find that appalling, like when white male students argue about the need for reverse-affirmative actions in college because there are no scholarships for them. I don't want people to pity me because nobody gets me! But I just want us all to have better conversations, that acknowledges the complexity of privilege - how religion, class, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, political beliefs all play into privilege and blur the clear distinctions that we like to make when we write blogposts or facebook posts or essays for writing class. We deplore the long-windedness of academics because it's boring to read long articles about privilege, but I think part of the long-windedness is a real commitment to understanding complexity rather than jumping to a tidy conclusion. Part of the reason why I'm an academic is because I have found it life-giving to have more complicated conversations that recognize how I am wildly privileged in some ways and fairly disenfranchised in others. It makes me able to hear others' voices and beliefs more clearly and judge more clearly what's wrong with society, what power I have to change things, what's broken in me, what's broken around me. I truly believe we need to keep finding ways of critiquing and challenging a) systematic injustice, which often goes unexamined, which is why pointing out privilege is important and b) individual acts that reproduce these unfair systems. But we have to avoid quick generalizations or simplifications. So. I agree that Christians experience greater privilege than other religions in this culture and that's a problem, one which pisses me off a lot. But, as ever, the final answer to unfair arrangements of privilege is never simply reversing the binary. Maybe you think deconstruction is just the stuck-up pastime of irrelevant academics, but at least it taught me not to be illogical. Repeat after Derrida: reverse the binary and then explode it. If you start simply reversing the terms of oppression, all you do is reinforce the status quo without doing any legitimate challenge. We need to strive for new paradigms, not simply take turns pissing on each other. I am tired of pissing! All this pissing! Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhh. And by that, I don't mean let's just ignore the privilege of Christians or white men. What I'm saying is, Okay, we see this assymmetry. Now what?

Writing is helping, because it's causing me to start identifying some common threads between my seemingly disparate pieces of rage. I am tired of spending so much time and energy doing nuanced, careful thinking, only to have people make sweeping assumptions about my beliefs based on labels - and labels that seem to contradict. I am a Marxist, a feminist, a Christian, an environmentalist, a pretty-much-pacifist, a pessimist, a realist, an idealist too. I am frustrated that evangelical Christianity has become an easy stand-in for all Christians. I am also pissed that for many Christians, religion means opposing women's rights. Today,  I got really pissed when I discovered that, apparently, Oregon is the only state that doesn't limit abortion access at this point. (This article really got me spitting today: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/31/all-states-except-oregon-now-limit-abortion-access/). Yes, that's right. I identify as a Christian and I also find it morally reprehensible that most states have limited women's access to abortions and, simultaneously, reproductive health care. My feminism and my Christianity have a tenuous and difficult relationship, but they don't cancel or explode each other. And like all humans, I want people to listen to my ideas and my questions rather than assuming they know what I think. It's hard. I've had a hard time this week and have been judgmental towards people whom I dearly love. It's hard to learn to listen to people who disagree with you. The idea of situated knowledge is a big one in theory these days, but how do we live it? How do we stand by our convictions while being willing to change our ideas if we hear convincing arguments or see convincing evidence? How do we validate those who oppose us while still disagreeing with them but also remaining open to their potential correctness? How do you acknowledge the privilege others point out to you but also correct their overly broad generalizations with the subtleties of your own experience?

So maybe my rage is just a familiar feeling of not belong anywhere. I am lonely for Eugene, where I could find people to have angry Marxist rants or feminist rants. I knew people would agree with me when I got worked up about the injustices of our economic system, the destruction of the environment, the mistreatment of women, the problems with heteronormativity. But in that world, although my social and economic positions tended to be amongst the most radical, I was still not radical enough because of my religious orientation. Now, in a world where people understand better how my commitment to a faith does not contradict but actually follows through on my commitment to social justice...well, people see me as too radical. Too anti-institutional. They still feel anxious about words like Marxism and feminism. I guess that's what I'm really tired of. The weight of words. How words like "Christian" or "Marxist" or "feminist" go equally unexamined. As an English professor, I spend so much energy unpacking the nuances, contradictions, and histories behind such words, doing my best to find the liberating potential and the limiting, conservative stuckness in all these words. And yet, in arguments - in Facebook discourse, in conversations with people from outside these words - these words collapse back to solidified, stuck meanings that are too small to get at all their nuance. And I'm angry, because I have great ideas, wonderful ideas, that grew from building words on more words, and when we suck those words back down to singularities, we can't communicate with each other but just toss around stale, sedimented sounds and ideas. And how do any of us grow from that? I want to hear. I want to be heard. I want to learn and discover and change and then make things better. I don't want us all, myself included, to be so afraid that nothing will change and as a result so very angry.


the assault of real things

Posted on 2012.09.11 at 22:32

It is strange to be living like an artist again. Piles of poem drafts litter my kitchen table, scrawled in every color of ink, pages covered with re-arranging arrows. I can’t seem to read a book page, go for a run, take a single walk, hear a single sentence from a student without some image jumping under my skin and screaming for a poem. They talk about the way we can only see some faint stars in our peripheral vision. They talk about the water striders on the pond and surface tension. They read passages of Annie Dillard aloud, horrifying with its insects and its bloodied mammals, and I scream, Where’s my pen? What made me so porous? When did the membranes of my mind get so thin that everything seeps in and mingles with my memories and hopes and dreams and fears, mates some strange way there, bursts out into the world in words?

It’s been a long, long time.

Part of it, I know, is the painful and wonderful process of coming awake again that has shaped the past few weeks of my life. I knew it would happen. Going through it is every bit as wonderful, awful, and terrifying as I ever thought it could be. You can know that it will hurt to have a tooth pulled, but only anesthesia, not foreknowledge or fortitude, can take away the pain itself. And the problem with such soul surgeries is that anesthesia is beside the very point. It is only feeling every bit of pain that can make you grow, when it comes to matters of the heart and soul. If you numb it, you shut down the process of your healing, arrest your anguish in a constant circle that erodes and never ceases. You have to go through sorrow, as so many a spiritual thinker has admitted, to get to joy – the alternative is amputated feeling, safety, a ceasefire with yourself that I would not call peace.

This is easy to write and so hard to live. I’ve known it for years and done everything I could to numb the possibilities. The starkness of it is unbelievable – facing your loneliness, facing your fear that your life might be without purpose, looking each day in the face, knowing you are here and there is no more running, not for the time being. There are no stories you can tell yourself, no dramas you can use to distract yourself, no goals to drag you away from the hard and honest and lovely project of being present, giving yourself to those around you, giving yourself to yourself, living with yourself, living with others not because you chose them or because they chose you but because some chance or destiny shook you up and tossed you down together, in a little patch of land between a logging highway and a river gorge, and the deer walk through, and we all find a rock to hunker down upon and read, and we all pant and wrestle with the hard, hard work of trying to know things better, if not ever fully. And oh sometimes I want to run, to drink myself dizzy, to get in the car and go back to a simpler life – yes, simpler, because distraction and constant immersion is its own kind of simplicity, a buzz that drowns out the real spiritual work I’m slowly coming to think that we’re all born to do: to accept ourselves and love ourselves, not in a self-help-y way, and not in a feel-good way. Not by dancing with spinning scarves under moonlight or feeding ourselves cakes while watching re-runs. Not by chanting I’m okay you’re okay or by cultivating some finetuned style. But loving ourselves, in the midst of our annoying, tinny inner whining, our scrabbling fear, our tedious monologues, our impatience, our broken attention, our failures, our freakouts, our worst ideas, our less lovely impulses, our neediness and shame and hunger. Sitting down with that every day at the dinner table and making space for all of that, that craziness, that misery, that hopefulness, the brightness. Something starts to shine through, really, but it’s not a self that has been helped. It’s just this broken glimmer, this greatness, this open wildness that, raw and hurting, suddenly can give such love to those around you by some kind of wild laying down of arms, surrender. It’s the moment Anne Lamott says “Fuck it” to the tiny Jesus shadow that padded after her like a cat, and in the midst of her abortions and her alcoholism, she conceded, “You can come in,” and she didn’t get better but she started to write and write, the way a person writes a love letter, saying, This is all I can give, though it cannot be all of me. This is it. Day after day. Here. Take, eat, broken for you. You can come in, you quiet companionship, you inexplicable sense that all might one day be well though it sure doesn’t look like it from here, this odd grace that is an unclenched fist, one moment of steady breathing in the midst of inheld breath.

So I watch and write and try to let go and try to be okay with myself and find myself startled by how stark and sad it can be, by how gloriously bright it can be, by how easy and content and without feeling it can be. I run the roads and am learning to see lizards, to hear their rustle and catch their quick moves through the low, dry brushes and the rocks. I wash the dishes pumping Girl Talk in the headphones and shake my ass like the old days, alone, strangely pleased when the sink is empty. I drink so much coffee in the mornings and shake with happiness at the books we’re reading, at the students that corner me and demand to know more about Thoreau’s relationship to natural history. I wake up early, tired, no life of perfect balance here, but bribe myself with coffee and feel so suddenly grateful when, dodging the wasp’s nest on the library, I go inside to a familiar space and have the chance to share ideas with people all day long, as dogs lounge on the porch and the last summer days shake out hotly in our almost desert. I write and write and see and write and watch and cry and sit and run and mourn and call you on the phone and write.


My students and I talked a lot in the last weeks about the lenses that we take out into our experiences of the natural world. “All God’s children got a theory,” John said once, and all God’s children got their cultural lenses. When you go out and see Mt. McLoughlin, I told them, you’re not seeing the mountain in and of itself, the Kantian noumena, the really real. You can’t. You have to feel it through your mind and through your own pre-existing conceptions – through your John Muir essays, your Ansel Adams poems, your Lord of the Rings sublime. You laugh at the picturesque enthusiasts with Claude glasses, riding in carriages so they can imitate a painting in a mirror. You do it too, in your mind. But that’s okay. What’s so great about this really real anyway? That’s just fundamentalism sneaking around in a materialist coat. Why shouldn’t the whole world be both text and material, all at once? Thoreau didn’t have a problem with it. Sure, let’s measure the pond for science – and while we’re at it, let’s find out if its dimensions make it a good metaphor. (He thought they did). That’s what it’s like, these days. I’m walking around, seeing everything as a poem and as a world itself. I feel so in contact with the world, it’s like blinking from the brightness – like my eyes got dilated and I can’t quite see right, but I feel this rush of everything coming into my wide pupils. And then, it shifts, and slowly I discern, and I know things, and I move through the world with newfound brightness. Maybe more like new glasses, then. The way at first you turn your head and everything wobbles, but a few days  later there’s a new sharpness. And so, a grasshopper bounces off my leg as I shuffle through the rocky dust to class, and I stop to note the fringed pink of its wing but then I think of Annie Dillard, in a field with grasshoppers bouncing against her body, and then it is a poem and it is mingled with my mourning and my loss, my loneliness and my exhilaration to be walking here, on this patch of earth, so far from all I love, so close to what I’ve wanted. It’s sacramental, man, or Transcendental, or call it what you will. It’s something big and impatient pressed up against the hardness of the world, and it’s bouncing off me, and I’m the grubbiest spiritual pilgrim, blistered with walking, grinning with transcendence, light and sweat and sore muscles and the occasional tear and the loudest booming laugh.

I think I might finally get a chapbook together, after years of vowing that I would. The poems are coming now, and that’s a good hobby to be pursuing in the fall. Here’s one in progress, still lacking for a title:

This is what I had come for, just this, and nothing more. A fling of leafy motion on the cliffs, the assault of real things…Annie Dillard

The yellow bodies of grasshoppers
rocket off me – ricochet
from knees and ankles as I cross
the ditch before the cookhouse, clutching
my most recent letter to you. There is so much
I notice, these days – squeeze into the pages
I allow myself, ration out to temper
the steady thrum, longing. In how few words
can I say the dry cracking noise
of fleeing wings, the still shine of deer eyes
caught in my flashlight when I pace nights,
or the lattice of deerprints in the red dirt,
tiptoed to the highway’s edge, but turning
ever back towards water? This is not what I want
to tell you – this is just what I see,
what I grasp towards in your absence, filling
my wide mouth with words and pulling back
my once-stretched hands to brush
a bee from my hair, a mantis from my window,
a thought that slips like stray hair as I bend
over my work and, folding, think of you.
You are far and softened. Distance blunts
the rasp of your buzzing, the hard push of your body
banging into mine, as we cross and cross these dry paths
of late summer, flinging words
when we should hit and hiss with wings.


nobody said it was easy…day 3 on the mountain

Posted on 2012.08.16 at 12:53
(since I’ve been writing at night, “today” refers to the previous day from when I’m posting – I fixed it the first day, but that’s gonna get boring fast, so there you have it).

“Listen, Everett,” she said. “I’ll tell you a secret. It’s not the weather that gets better. It’s your ability to see.” “See what?” he muttered, glancing outside at the ceaseless greens and grays. “Whatever needs seeing,” she answered. “Maybe something in this world, maybe something in the spirit world. You’ll know when you see it. [. . .] By pure accident,” she said, “no credit to you, you been doing one thing right. You been living alone on an estuary where, come winter, most people often see the one thing in their life that most needs seeing. It’s been that way forever here. Smallpox and sawmills haven’t changed it. The likes and dislikes of some guy named Everett don’t change it either. We don’t push the spirit world around. Understand?” Everett nodded like a good boy at Sabbath School. “It’s the Bear. We’re the fleas. Understand?” He nodded again. “What you can do, though, is get horny and lonely and bitter and pitiful, decide this place and me are full of bull, and go be a funny white nobody someplace else. But I’m telling you, Everett—and I’m telling you because I like you—you been hopping around long enough. It’s time you at least tried to meet the Bear.”  --David James Duncan, The Brothers K

I’ve quoted this passage many a time before: Everett, one of four brothers from Spokane, Washington, has run away to rural Canada in order to dodge the draft. But while his act of defiance seemed right in line with the role of political agitator he had been cultivating throughout his college years, the loneliness that creeps over him as he faces months of solitude and the stark reality that he literally can never go home again (without facing arrest) leave him aimless and drifting, unsure of who he is or what he should do with his life. And it’s Yulie, the proprietor of the local bar and burger joint, who sets out to set him straight, laying out his two options: run away from the hard work of self-awareness and coming to terms with yourself by running back to the kind of life you’ve had all along and that hasn’t given you any contentment either; or sit down, dig in, try to ride out the loneliness as you shed the disguises and pretenses, and see if something real grows out of the pain and the honesty.

Even after three days on the mountain, I find that this passage and its depiction of the struggle to know yourself once your previous roles are stripped away has a new resonance for me. Days 1 and 2 at the OE were easy enough: I was busy with staff meetings, hikes, unpacking, and reading. But today, I had the entire day to myself and I started to go stir-crazy already. I tried to discipline myself, do the work I need to do, at least pretend I had something like a schedule. I got up and wrote for a while over my now-standard two cups of slightly too weak, percolated coffee. I loaded both laptops into my laptop bag (I’m still afraid my new one has a virus, so I only use the old Ubuntu trainwreck to check my bank accounts right now) and trekked around the pond to steal wifi from children and start changing addresses, looking up stores, emailing housemates, and (for far too much of the time) shamefully stalking my friends on Facebook, feeling little pangs of loneliness for my old, media-stuffed life. I stopped by some fellow professors’ house and offered to buy them milk when I went to town. I went cell phone shopping, tried to make a budget, tried to figure out where in the hell I send my first car payment in two weeks. I drove down the mountain, posted up in the AT&T parking lot to talk on the cell phone in the sweltering heat (it was 107 in Ashland today!), sweated magnificently, and talked to friends, family, and T-Mobile (about canceling my now mostly useless phone service). I drove to Medford in a fit of pique and vented my frustrations at the moving process by shopping at a strip mall, where Verizon, AT&T, and US Cellular were all in walking distance from one another. I almost bought a phone, but then they had to order the one I wanted: too cheap to keep in stock! I drove back to Ashland, bought pink wine and ice cream to avenge my thwarted phone feelings, and eyed the mountain with skepticism as I headed back up to unrelenting solitude – solitude not even tempered by digital technology and sporadic hits of texting.

Why so suddenly sullen? Day 2, I had been swinging my arms, hopping from basalt boulder to basalt boulder, and glorying in the freedom that I found upon being unleashed from technology. My obsessive mind is released! I thought. I can no longer wonder about who is texting me or constantly update Facebook, looking for that one funny story or wave hello that will jerk me out of my funk. I’m responsible for my own feelings! I felt free, so emotionally mature, pulling it all together. But then today, there was a wildness unleashed under my skin, and it wanted nothing to do with solitude and pine trees, with emotional maturity and self-reflection.

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Monday was a good day. And yesterday was a great day.

I woke up with a clearly defined purpose – something that is always good for my personality, and something that proved particularly valuable right now, as I continue my transition from the insane frenzy of end-stage graduate work, through the lazy jellyfish float of a summer of unemployment, and now into the very special cycle of engagement, community, academic work, and relaxation that defines the Oregon Extension. I’m still in the midst of relearning how to manage my own time, and it’s still challenging, but at the very least, the Oregon Extension is reteaching me a certain degree of spontaneity. I have certain tasks that I must accomplish, but I have ample time to do them all and I have total autonomy with when I get them done. Yesterday I spontaneously leapt into my car and rode down the mountain to Ashland to get groceries and make phone calls (my still unresolved phone switchover has left me completely cut off, the one part of this transition that has been maddening; I was sitting in the Safeway parking lot texting like a fiend).

Monday we had our first two hour staff meeting, where we doled out tasks and assessed what still remained to be done in the two weeks (eeek! so long! and yet so short!) prior to the students’ arrival. So yesterday I woke up early, determined to sort out what pages we’d be reading out of Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and to pick some pertinent readings of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold to try and bring Nash’s fairly dry and linear history to life. I had coffee out on the desk while I pored through books, and was visited by several deer and a gorgeously snake-skinned lizard. When my brain got to bursting, I pulled on my REI garage sale hiking boots (just 30 dollars! and so much more comfortable than the ill-fitting ones I’ve been tenaciously using for the past four or five years) and filled up my REI backpack (thanks, raffle prizes) and went in search of the gorge that was my absolute favorite spot during my stay here as a student in’ 03. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my application essay to the University of Oregon prominently featured a description of me reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish while propped against sun-warmed rocks at this gorge, explaining how this experience made me reassess what academia could or should be.

Walking is always the perfect antidote to head fog. Not that it lulls my mind to sleep or anything. It just makes thinking feel bigger and freer. And what I was thinking about today was gender, landscape, and loneliness. Now, I’m not trying to say that there are inherent gendered differences – y’all know me better than that. But I was thinking about how I experience my solitude in what seems a gendered feminine way. Let me explain that a bit more. Rather than experiencing my hiking solitude out on the sublime cliffside as a kind of ferocious self-empowerment, a manifestation of my independence and removal from the world, I find my solitude shot through with a kind of pleasant loneliness. I miss people as I walk, and every thing I see or remember or experience or remark connects me to a memory of a person. I saw these trails once with him! She would love that flower. He would really love the light on that rock. It’s a bittersweet feeling. Some people would say that’s not loneliness, because it’s not oppressive or painful – but it still has a bite. It still has an ache. It still has a longing and an unfulfilled quality. But it’s light, comfortable, expansive, even pleasant at times. It’s not like the heavy, oppressive loneliness that haunted me through the last years of graduate school and made me feel constantly on the verge of flight, so that the most lively of parties could suddenly send me rocketing out into the night when all the music and yelling and moving of bodies did nothing to fill up that space inside, that little hollow achy bit that longs to have something and give something and say something and know something. Somehow, that little hollow space feels both sharper and easier when I’m out breaking in my new boots, leaping awkwardly from one basalt rock to another.

From there, I headed back to Tad and Heidi’s house for our second staff meeting. This one lasted almost four hours, as we sorted out who would lecture on what, who might lead what backpacking trip, who would introduce which aspects of life at Lincoln, where the Internet would come from, when the students would buy groceries, who would talk to them about not drinking or doing drugs, where we should hide their cell phones, and what gorram pages we were going to read each day anyway. There’s something so wonderful and intimate about this kind of academic planning – sitting around Tad and Heidi’s dining room table, downing seemingly endless cups of coffee and gnawing on gluten free ginger snaps, Cosette and Jinx the dogs chasing each other around our legs under the table and occasionally pausing to lick toes, kids running in with biking mishaps, tangled fishing tackles, and small scrapes. Tad let me off the hook in terms of getting my Commercial Driver’s License (an idea that had been pitched and that made me squeamish, as it would require me to navigate this ancient Ford minibus up and down the windy 18 mile road that still feels venturesome in my trusty Subaru). Then Tad and Heidi invited me to dinner.

To fill the hours between the meeting and dinner, I put the boots back on and struck off to try and find the creek that McG and I used to favor during our stay here. There was something giddy about my sense of dead-reckoning – while I couldn’t see the mostly overgrown trail’s beginning, I was able to pick up the trail quickly. I can’t explain the feeling that hit me when it was right where I remembered it, despite my moments of misgivings – or when I passed through a particular log that some industrious predecessor had sawed in half and felt the twingings of remembering a place. I didn’t make it all the way to the creek because I was wearing ridiculously tiny shorts and there was a profusion of blackberry branches, but I know the way now and intend to make another foray later this week. This hike had me thinking about place – and about how the OE, like Camp Henry, is what someone (I can’t remember who) called a deep place. There’s this powerful emotion that comes with recognizing parts of this place, and I still can’t fully understand it. It’s not just a one-to-one correlation between my personal memories and certain geographic features. It has something to do with so much significant, memorable stuff happening to so many people in a concentrated place that really does seem to do something to the whole space – a place where wildness and human memory run up on each other and really do create some kind of hybrid, wild, cultivation of feeling. I felt it on the path to the creek and on the backroad I traversed back to my bunkhouse apartment – all while eagerly anticipating an unnecessary but psychologically important Technu rubdown (it’s too high here for poison oak to grow, but I still don’t entirely trust that blithe pronouncement while I do trust the power of urishiol solvents). 

The evening was filled with a  pleasant dinner with Heidi and her kids – we sipped a sharp, spicy white wine and nibbled on cheese while cooking polenta, eggs, and garlic spinach. Then I went on a meandering hike up the hill where I used to throw wood on Doug’s chainsaw crew. We were gunning for a meadow from which one can (allegedly) see Mount Shasta, but we had a full retinue of two dogs and four kids – with the kids trying to ride a mismatched assortment of bikes up the dirt logging roads. Forest fire smog made it impossible to see Shasta, and our trek back down the hill was in the mostly pitch black darkness, allowing me to break out my camp-cultivated night hiking skills (hint: don’t try to see the trail on the ground – watch the treeline in the sky, and you can see the trail gap and follow that!). Again, there was something so calm and pleasant and spontaneous about the evening, something exhilarating about just deciding to head above treeline after dinner.

Now, I have an invitation to a bluegrass concert at the local Greensprings Inn tomorrow and a potential scouting excursion down to Medicine Lake in California, as we’re trying to plan an initial camping trip for the students that will let them see either some desert or some lava fields. I also need to go to Ashland and switch my phone over so I don’t feel entirely cut off from the life that I left behind.

The Iron and Wine quote with which I titled this post really captures the way I’ve been feeling lately - full with love from the life that I left behind all the while missing it desperately, excited for the life that is opening while still entirely uncertain about what that life will look like or how it will connect with the unraveled threads of the life I’m still so in the midst of leaving. But cradling and living without – those are the two threads that help us through these changes, no? Learning to savor an intense awareness of and gratitude for the blessings we have in the moment or in the recent past while also learning to live with the steady ache of time passing on, people moving away, loss both certain and uncertain.

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