It’s the time of the year when my failure to become my generation's Martha Stewart hits hardest. I look around the house and see empty shipping boxes and cat toys littering the floor, and piles of mail and books on the living room and dining room tables. Instead of making myself feel better by picking up, I decide to try some new holiday recipes from Pinterest!
Yesterday’s failure of white chocolate candies did not help me learn any lessons. But, for your viewing pleasure, observe:
Pinterest candy (no photographer credited, which now makes me think this is an Urban Kitchen Myth photo):
My candy shot:
Today’s experiment of “homemade turtle” candies came out much better, but with some caveats.
1. Do not bake unless you’ve had a hearty breakfast!
a. Three mini-muffins from Wal-Mart is not a hearty breakfast;
b. A scoop of homemade Bolognese sauce helps, but not much.
2. Get out a baking sheet and heat the oven to 200-degrees Fahrenheit.
a. Oh, right. The oven light is out.
b. Have husband order an oven light.
c. Forget to actually turn on the oven.
3. Put parchment paper on the baking sheet.
a. The parchment paper is about 15 years old.
b. This is also when I thought I could make a living being Martha Stewart.
4. Unwrap 100 caramel candies.
a. I have no patience for this.
b. Who the hell wraps these candies anyway?
i. Why don’t they just put them, unwrapped, in a bag for bakers?
ii. I hate milk chocolate
5. Place 100 pretzels on the parchment covered baking sheet.
a. It’s okay if I eat a few pretzels.
i. Especially the broken ones.
ii. Especially if I drop them on the floor.
6. Give up counting because counting is boring and I don’t really have time for this shit since I just unwrapped 100 candies.
7. Put the candies on top of the pretzels.
a. Oh, shit! I still forgot to turn on the oven.
b. Also, good luck because 100 pretzel candies doesn't leave any room to grip the sheet
with my thumb and now I've lost a few more candies and pretzels to the floor.
8. Bake for a few minutes until the candies become melt-y.
9. Take the pan out, careful not to lose anymore pretzels/candies.
10. Line up 100 pecan halves.
a. Notice they look like roaches
b. Remember that apartment in Albany where roaches lived in the silverware drawer.
11. Place the pecan halves on top of the melty candy.
12. Look at those chocolatey roaches.
13. Be sad this is how I spent my morning.
Cloudless sky, I will always remember that. But otherwise, I don’t talk about those first two nights when I couldn’t sleep because I waited for someone, anyone, to tell me there were survivors.
I dreamed I also survived. That I wafted through the flaming air on a piece of scrap metal, maybe the top of someone’s desk, somehow floating more than 80 stories down to the ground. But then I imagine that I remember walking down the flights of stairs and never quite reaching the bottom, going around and down, around and down, hugging the wall. I remember images from the news--the pregnant woman, the waiter, the stockbroker, who all fell and fell and fell until there was no more falling. Eventually, I couldn’t breathe because I imagined the asbestos and bone dust choking me. Or was it the fuel fumes that choked me? Or the constant replay on television of the pancaked buildings that choked me?
I have spent years pretending I am fine. People I know returned to work in the surrounding buildings less than a week later, a month later, two years later, with their desks moved, half turned-toward and half turned-away from windows where below, they watched and didn’t watch and pretended not to watch bulldozers pushing aside steel and glass and charred flesh and bones and dried blood and then, nothing but dirt and bone dust, the bulldozers like some kind of death-clearing Zambonis.
And there, these people I visited for my job who had these offices, once a feature, these corner window views, sat watching, not watching, pretending not to watch the clearing and the construction while pushing paperclips and collecting more paper, pretending everything was fine while a deeper hole was dug and then a new structure was built on top of never-graves, as if they (or I) could ever forget.
Every year, I brace myself for the friend who calls to ask me the question of where I was on September 11 not because she cares, or that she ever listened to my story the first few years, or because she collected paper or paperclips while overlooking or not quite overlooking the never-graves, or because she moved dirt and steel, or breathed bone dust, but because she is waiting to tell me her own story of that day; to regale me with her false normalcy as though the time passed so many years ago and now, it is done. As always, I will give her nothing. I will say nothing, nor will I not tell her that this is not over. That every day, I breathe bone dust and dried blood and pretend I am fine. Everything is fine. Some days, I even forget people are overseas, still fighting a never-war. There are so many distractions. Stolen homes, stolen identities, bodies still burning.
I want to reach the bottom of the stairwell. To walk out clean glass doors into a world that is different. But I understand after all this time and that with each breath my body is still choke-filled with inhaled bone dust and dried blood.
Leap by Brian Doyle (Audio and Text)
Thursday, 9/13/01 by Lucille Clifton
To Waiting by WS Merwin
I made a lot of promises to myself back in May. My summer to-do list included some pretty big categories: cleaning, writing, organizing, reading, and kicking my macaroni and cheese addiction (although this one was a "maybe"). I wanted to get back to reading for pleasure, recently misplaced during my first year teaching composition full-time. Reading 72 student essays each week, although its own kind of discovery and reward, cannot supplant personal reading, I reasoned.
I set up "reading camp" in the living room with my To Be Read stack of books and magazines. Camp started well with new books by Sarah Manguso and David Ebenbach, and I caught up on a backlog of blogs and journals. Oh, and that stack of New Yorkers from February--I'm happy to report that progress was made! But the book that has taken almost all of my reading time the past two months was not even in my pile. I have a confession: I've fallen in love with Moby Dick.
I don’t remember exactly what put me on to the idea of reading Moby Dick, especially with so many other books ready and waiting. But, a few years ago, I started re-reading novels from my high school reading lists. I realized with some classics like Slaughterhouse Five and The Great Gatsby that I had no idea what I was reading when I was 17 years old. I didn’t understand the complexity of loss and grief back then. Returning to these books with some life experience has given me a greater appreciation for both the stories being told and each author’s craft.
Although I never had a high school teacher (or college professor) assign Moby Dick, I have always known it was a book I "should" read. Although before this summer, I honestly thought my life would be rather complete without reading it and that I could get by in literary conversations with common knowledge I had of the novel. In other words, I would have been perfectly content to "fake it" the rest of my life. <*hangs head in shame*>
The main reason I wasn’t interested in reading the book was influenced by others. They all complained about the 800 pages (which never stopped me before), organized into chapters upon chapters of things that seem irrelevant including, but not limited to, how to pack a ship for a long voyage; the belief systems of cannibals as understood by a New Englander; the best way to stow tow lines on a wooden deck (spoiler alert: two boxes, not one!); how to extract spermaceti (don't ask); and how whales are classified. When I settled on reading the book, I opted for the easily-transportable electronic version of the text which alleviated size and weight concerns. Crisis averted!
One thing I hadn’t counted on was how much Moby Dick would teach me about my own writing and reading habits. There are lessons that are staying with me as lessons-by-example that would not have registered, or had practical application, had I read these ideas in a how-to text. Here are five things I am (still) learning (because I'm only 54% of the way through the book according to my e-reader):
Well, the school year is beginning and I did not finish my summer reading project. The good news is Moby Dick, Ahab, Ishmael, and the sailors on the Pequod await me every night, those precious few moments I can read a page or three before falling asleep. Seeing the e-reader on my nightstand is its own kind of rewarding dessert at the end of each day. If only I could stop dreaming about whales.
The Road to Melville by Nathaniel Philbrick
What Moby Dick Means to Me by Philip Hoare
David Gilbert’s take on Moby Dick via The Atlantic
Last but not least, my most favorite Moby Dick cartoon by Zachary Kanin from The New Yorker:
I didn’t recognize the number when I picked up the receiver on my office phone. If I had, I don’t know that I would have answered, although my morbid curiosity would have probably gotten the best of me. It was my former boss, calling to congratulate me on my new opportunity.
Although this boss wasn’t the worst boss I had ever had, I would count him among the most challenging. Nothing satisfied or pleased him and he delighted in telling me at all times that he “knew better” than me even though I had been doing this kind of specialized work for almost 20 years. The worst day together was when, frustrated with my inability to read his mind, he stormed into my office, slammed the door, and, while poking his finger in my face, yelled that he shouldn’t have to tell me how to do my job. I can still see his angry underbite—even his bottom teeth appeared clenched—and the spittle collecting in the corners of his lips.
Earlier in my career, this kind of yelling paralyzed me. My first boss yelled at me in front of the entire office that I was so stupid, he couldn’t believe my university “gave” me a degree. Another boss took me to lunch and berated me for over one hour as I pretended to eat my salad. Another boss asked me who the fuck I thought I was. Another boss kicked my desk and swept all the papers off of it. Another boss told my colleagues that I was mentally ill. Yelling, having my desk kicked, being cursed at, being questioned about my own personhood, having things swept off my desk, and, even being taken to lunch under false pretenses (to this day, I am afraid of ordering Cobb salads) not only had the effect of making me hyper-vigilant in the workplace, but also had me wondering what the hell was wrong with me that I incited this kind of behavior from supervisors.
This day, I remember that a preternatural calm took over as I walked around my supervisor, opened my office door, and, standing in the doorway, talked half at him and half out into the reception area where several colleagues were standing. I told him, loudly, that he was behaving inappropriately. I continued standing in the doorway, holding the door open, hoping he would take the hint. After staring at me, dumbfounded, he left my office. Shaken, I told a few colleagues what had happened and, after hearing iterations of “that’s just him,” I decided to drop it. Everyone has bad days, I rationalized. The next day, I brought in what amounted to a small boulder from my yard to use as a doorstop. Several months after this exchange, my boss announced unexpectedly that he was leaving.
The real reason for his phone call to me that day a few years ago was not to congratulate me. It was to tell me that I was the reason he left. The story he told me was surprising. After realizing what he had done with the yelling, door slamming, and finger-jabbing, he went into damage-control mode. He caucused with human resources, the head of our department, and others, all of whom told him he handled the situation poorly and that he should avoid me lest I file a complaint against him. Sure enough, a complaint had been filed, but not by me. Rather, by a colleague with exquisite timing who was going through her own issues with him unbeknownst to me. Because of the complaint, and, finding rumor and innuendo so powerful that he felt he could not even discuss the situation with me, he decided to leave, always assuming it was me who filed the complaint.
This is his story, anyway. I have my own, of course, and somewhere between the two is the truth of what really happened. But none of this matters anymore. It was a lifetime ago.
I forgot to mention that all of these situations happened while working for nonprofit organizations. It wasn’t as if I was at Fortune 500 companies well-renowned for widget-making, killer stock options, and six weeks of vacation. At one organization, the lights were kept on, but we struggled to meet payroll every two weeks for almost six months until my colleague in accounting started borrowing money from reserve funds. Legal? Technically, yes. Ethical? No, not for our donors who contributed to reserve funds only. But that boss didn’t care. It was when I brought up the ethics of the situation and offered a solution that he kicked my desk and swept the papers onto the floor.
What happened to Bill O’Reilly felt like schadenfreude in absentia. Initially, I imagined all of these yelling, kicking, teeth clenching supervisors forced to leave my former workplaces. I imagined all of the workplaces I had been in where someone (not me!) rallied a group of oppressed colleagues together and ousted the abusive supervisor. Or that the company I worked for that had an Employee Wellness Hotline had operated as well as it did at Fox and immediately forced an investigation and a series of actions to remove the aggressor. I imagined that I worked in places where safe work policies were upheld, human resources professionals fought for the employees rather than working to save the company from lawsuits, and that sometimes, a modicum of humanity and justice had prevailed.
The office environments in which many of us work are at once simple and complex. We can imagine that in any workplace, seeing bad behavior on display from a colleague or a supervisor—racism, sexism, harassment—would be immediately handled and resolved. We believe that hostile work environments are apparent to all. I contend that the problem is two-fold. We put up with bad behavior because it is pervasive and insidious. On some level, these behaviors become normalized in the workplace. Telling myself it was me, or convincing myself that other people certainly experienced this horrible behavior as well, was what I did to get by and show up to work every day.
Sometimes, a culture forms around someone “too big to fail” in the form of a supervisor, colleague, or personality like Bill O’Reilly, creating an aura of normalization. These people are allowed to build reputations for their unprofessionalism, oppression, and cruelness. We hear refrains of “oh, that’s just him,” or “you know how she is,” or, “he’s just joking” any time we try to call attention to their unethical and/or illegal behavior to other colleagues, other persons of authority, and even departments of human resources, equity, or access. The people in our workplaces who are supposed to uphold these rules, regulations, and laws, are more than willing to look the other way for the sake of profits. They fail time and time again to uphold the rights of the aggrieved, the harassed, and the abused even though the law is on our side.
But we also put up with bad behavior because we have bills to pay and limited choices and options. As we become more aware of diminishing job opportunities and the unequal distribution of wealth in this country, as we take on more debt for the reasons of education and day-to-day living expenses such as food and shelter, we can no longer deny that capitalism is oppressive. No one is “getting ahead” anymore except those who game the system and keep others down. It is in this dollar-as-the-only-measure-of-worth culture that Bill O’Reilly thrived. Over the course of 20 years at Fox, he was the leading personality—ratings and dollars earned—for the network. Because of this, Fox paid out two sexual harassment settlements for O’Reilly amounting to $3 million. O’Reilly paid out three on his own amounting to $10 million. These five women are just the ones we know about. How many more signed non-disclosure agreements? How many more incidents of harassment went unreported? We are about to find out as a new series of complaints comes forward, two from the employee hotline at Fox that actually worked.
My only surprise in this is that Fox let O’Reilly go. Many articles claim the ratings for O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, have not been affected even with the news of more harassment cases on the horizon and with O’Reilly on “vacation.” The truth of the matter is as long as the ratings prevail and the network continues to make money, it doesn’t really matter who is in the pundit chair.
The boss who had me choking on my Cobb salad was of similar worth to the organization for which we worked. The head of our nonprofit called me to his office shortly after hearing that I had resigned. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him and for our organization and hated the idea of leaving, but the work situation had become untenable. We sat across from each other and he asked me what happened. After listening to several of my complaints, he steepled his hands under his chin. This is a problem, he confided. For a moment, I felt hopeful. I waited for him to ask me to stay and to promise to get rid of her. Instead, he shared that it was more cost-effective to turn over 50% of the staff every year than to fire my direct supervisor. He ran the numbers, he assured me. But he was sorry that I was leaving.
When it was announced that O’Reilly was “let go,” my moment of schadenfreude was short-lived. As soon as I started reading more articles about his situation and writing this essay, reality hit me. Although I have twenty-some years of workplace stories to tell, every time I sit down to write them, I re-experience individual workplace traumas. My stomach knots when I think about all of these situations and, even while I am compelled to write this essay, I wonder if I dare post it anywhere. It will go and die on my blog because every time I open myself up to reliving the door-slamming and clenched teeth, I open myself up to retreaded advice from well-meaning people who assure me that it’s time to move on, or that my life is so much better now, or that I could have handled it differently, or still, after all these years, that so-and-so couldn’t have been all that bad.
I left every workplace where I was treated poorly. Mentally, I was better for it, but not financially. My work history is checkered with not being vested in retirement accounts, taking pay cuts, and losing opportunities because I appeared to be a “job-hopper.” Many of us stay in workplaces because we don’t have the resources, financially or emotionally, to fight or to leave. We believe it is somehow easier to sustain repeated blows to our ego because we have bills to pay or only two more years before we are able to take our retirement accounts with us. The cost of leaving means taking a hit to our bank accounts and starting again somewhere else, hoping that this time, we’ll get a raise or be vested in the company retirement fund.
Capitalism rewards bad behavior in the workplace despite the impact this behavior has on employees and office culture. I learned the painful way from someone whom I admired that it is often more cost effective to replace staff than it is to replace higher-ups in organizations. In the workplace, what is the measure of one person’s complaint? It is superseded by the profitability of another employee who contributes more to the short-term bottom line. Fox took a chance on O’Reilly all right—the corporate culture enabled him to harass people in his workplace before public sentiment, and advertising dollars, prevailed. The numbers have been run. If only we could determine if it really is more cost-effective to normalize unethical and illegal conduct in the workplace.
How the Murdochs took a multimillion-dollar gamble on Bill O’Reilly—and lost
by Paul Fahri https://tinyurl.com/n8hp6oo
‘The mission was to bring down Bill O’Reilly’: The final days of a Fox News superstar
by Maunel Roig-Franzia and Ben Terris https://tinyurl.com/m6d5yxg
Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless
by Laurie Penny https://thebaffler.com/war-of-nerves/laurie-penny-self-care
I avoid conflict at all cost. Although I can’t see my own mouth when I disagree with someone, I imagine my lips stretched thin over large teeth and closed tight over a very loud laugh. I have the kind of laugh that makes people turn around in restaurants and stare angrily at me, or, as a few weeks ago, move across the restaurant to a completely different table. Recent unpleasant encounters leave me feeling slack and stony-faced and I wonder what visage I present to the world.
Meditation practice has helped me with conflict to some extent. Recently, when people felt it was their duty to tell me they “knew” I wasn’t going to win a community award, I did not feel my lips tense at all. Rather, I smiled and made some kind of small joke and moved away quickly. Why would they say that to me, I would ask in the dark later when I could not sleep.
That same week a group of friends invited me to their monthly dinner group and, although I was still raw from the non-congratulations and advice about what to do as a new kind of loser, I went to the dinner. I brought the problem to the group. It had been an honor to be nominated and to be considered in a field with visual and performing artists. I had a lovely evening sitting with friends who have been with me through my recent transformation from office girl to artist. Why did others feel the need to insist, repeatedly, that they knew I wouldn’t win?
The group considered the question and reminded me of things I could hold on to. We talked about “right speech” and our daily struggles with imperfection, but also impermanence. On this occasion, impermanence is a comfort--this too would pass. I hoped it would pass quickly, but it has not. I am still holding onto the negative rather than the positive. Not the losing, but the thoughtlessness of others.
A friend of mine from the group sent me a note a few days later. The dinner conversation reminded him of a time when we had a lot of conflict in our relationship. We were both going through tough job transitions and handled them in different ways. After feeling I had done all I could, I left my job. After feeling he had done all he could, he continued to stay and tried to be a positive influence on the office culture. At the time, I thought our arguments were about his disappointment in me—that I had somehow given up and that he thought less of me for it. Now I see what he really believed, which I didn’t believe at the time, was that I did have the power to be a positive influence. Perhaps his disappointment was not that I had somehow failed, but that there was potential for success that went unrealized.
In these moments of conflict, it is easy for me to be caught up in my own self-doubt and, sometimes, haunting failures. The former monk with whom I studied meditation would remind our group of the “stories we tell ourselves” about ourselves. When I am the center of the universe, all action seems directed at me. A colleague does not return my “good morning?” Clearly, they are angry at me. A phone call not returned? I must have done something wrong. Someone telling me they knew I wouldn’t win? Of course I’m a loser. I should have never gotten my hopes up.
If I take myself out of the story right now and look at the greater context of what is happening, I see something else. I see a time of unprecedented uncertainty and confusion. Several months ago, many were confident about how the election would turn out. It reminds me of the 2000 election. Of course citizens would vote for the most qualified person. Intelligence would win the day over feeling like we could go drink a beer with the president, right?
Living in Washington, DC, felt surreal at the time. I remember asking friends and family in different parts of the country if they had seen the protests on the news the night before. No one knew what I was talking about because that particular form of revolution was not televised and social media was nonexistent. However, people were protesting the results of the 2000 presidential election outside of the White House and the Vice President’s residence and probably other places, but I don’t remember reading about them in the news. Soon, the Supreme Court settled everything and we carried on. Less than a year later, I remember having to get off the DC Metro because of a panic attack. It was my first subway ride back to work after September 11, and a small delay with the lights off in the subway car and no announcement from the conductor made me afraid something had happened again.
Two weeks after the community award nominees were announced, the first travel ban was attempted. I remember going out to the garage to find two backpacks and started preparing “bug out” bags. This was like what happened before in 2000 and 2001. Surely with all the seemingly spontaneous protests, Martial law wasn’t far behind, and then worse. I thought I could be prepared. I still think I can be prepared.
In the face of this post-election conflict, my mind goes from zero to ninety in milliseconds. In the face of this conflict, surely there will be war. In the face of personal conflict, surely I am the worst of all human beings. And, in the face of all this uncertainty, we need to know we are sure of something. How many articles have we read this week about the “Four things you need to throw away from your refrigerator right now” and “Seven sure-fire ways to get hired”? What started off as click bait serves a new psychological purpose. We want others to give us clear, easy-to-follow directions for how to live this life right now. This life filled with so much confusion and uncertainty. Someone knows they answers, don’t they?
The things we say right now may be unskilled, not thoughtful, and they will unfortunately hurt others, even unintentionally. But behind all of these words, I’m doing my best to remember that statements of absolute fact may be coming from a place of absolute fear and uncertainty. Instead of a smile or a joke, the next time someone tells me they know something for sure, I am going to ask them how they are doing. How they are really doing. And be prepared to listen. The best gift I can give right now is to not walk away, wallowing in my own sensitivity and insecurity. The best gift I can give right now looks like trying to be a positive influence on those around me. The best gift I can give right now is cutting through someone else’s bullshit and bombast and insecurity to tell them it’s okay to not know how this all ends.
I am feeling the mad scramble to keep up with the events in the world as we know it. I am frustrated that my mind is not nimble enough to follow the minute-to-minute changes. Did she get confirmed, or not? When did he get confirmed? Who are these people? Do world leaders typically hang up on each other? What happened last night? What happened in the hour since I last checked the news? What’s happening now? And now?
A confession: I feel guilty writing this post. But here it is because I realize in the midst of all of this uncertainty, we are all still living lives where we get up in the morning, brush our teeth, go to a job, write our elected officials, and, occasionally, dwell in the mundane. I feel the need to keep writing, no matter how silly or discombobulated the writing is. I’ve always loved the title of one of Jack Kornfield’s books, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry." Now feels like, “After the End of Times, the Laundry.” Or, “After the News, the Balanced Checkbook: Moving to a Stick-Bartering System.” Or, “After Recognizing My Privilege, I Still Whine.”
The mundane for me this week involves rejection. My book-length essay collection was rejected by another publisher—the seventh publisher. But seven is supposed to be a lucky number, right? And, just this morning, another rejection from a publication I have been published in already. Maybe I am a one-trick pony, doomed to be known only for restroom hiding tips and midlife crisis book reviews. I’m reminded of a friend who had over 500 rejections before her beautiful book was finally published. Shit, I have a long way to go. I’m going to need a bigger spreadsheet.
What makes the rejections particularly noticeable to me this week is realizing that I am not writing as much as I did last year and, therefore, not sending out as much work. So, each little essay-baby birthed and sent out that is returned to me feels, well, crappy.
I wrote a little in my last essay about what it’s like to go through a spell of not writing consistently. I noticed for myself that it’s been hard to write since the election. Nothing I wanted to write about felt important, or wise, enough. Or, sometimes, when I’d have an idea, I realized I was too slow and someone really cool already wrote a better essay about the same topic. Sometimes, I’d go ahead and write a piece, but through re-reading and editing, saw that my words were simply a collection of hopscotch thoughts cross-stitched into a thing that only made sense to me.
Like any self-help devotee, I knew I had to get back to a daily writing practice and that I needed help. A friend recommended an online class taught by an editor whose work I admire. The text she uses as a guide is "The Sound of Paper" by Julia Cameron. Our daily writing consists of Morning Pages, which are also part of Cameron’s "The Artist’s Way." First thing in the morning, I scribble out two or more pages of stuff before I’m even fully awake and, painfully, before the coffee has finished brewing.
I’ve tried to write Morning Pages before, but usually give up after a few days. Part of it is I really hate seeing myself on the page—my thoughts, fears, anxieties, and, let’s face it, whininess and/or bitchiness. I’m accountable to a teacher and a writing group now, so I’m managing to keep up with the Morning Pages (almost) daily. I’ve noticed by the third page (Cameron’s minimum) that I’ve slogged through enough of my personal crap and whining to get down to the “real” work and, here, find the kernel of thought for a new essay. I never know if it’s going to be the kernel that pops or the one I bite into accidentally as I eat the last few fluffy pieces of corn at the bottom of the bowl. Not all kernels are salty, slick, or worth popping.
Facebook allows me the opportunity to curate my persona into an affable gal-about-town who likes whiskey, reads a lot, and watches sci-fi. In truth, many days, I slog through a collection of stiff, wet coffee grounds (my brain), arthritis in my hands (acute when writing/typing for long periods), thoughts of mortality, and both general and specific insecurities. If my writing life were a Kornfield book, the title might be “After the Ecstasy of Publication, the Rejection (and, more writing, more rejection, the laundry, the bill-paying, the kernels, the news, the everything, and, more rejection. Did I mention the rejection?).”
Rejection of my writing isn’t as painful as getting rejected by crushes in high school (or college, or any time in the time BLP [Before Life Partner]), or realizing the world I used to know seems to be falling apart daily, but it is up there with tooth extraction. Necessary with the short-lived side effect of a wonky drug that has me wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life, along with some residual pain. I’m glad I’m able to have this writing life now at just-past-middle-age because these rejections would have prevented me from writing if I had received them in my early 20s.
There are more important things going on in the world while I sit, type, and whine. For example, I’ve written no emails or called any elected officials today, but at least 25 people I know have. I chose to not look at the news in the past two hours (privilege) while many people have been doing the hard work of keeping on top of things and letting us know what’s happening. I see what’s happening at Berkeley, and still, in this moment, complain about some rejections I received that hurt my feelings.
I wonder if another part of the ecstasy though is this moment of dwelling in the mundane. If I spend the rest of the day eating dark chocolate and searching for other publications that may consider my work, will I be able to be more thoughtful tomorrow? Will I be ready to resume the fight and pick up my pen for justice? When will I know that it’s time to step out of the mundane and back to the world of others? Perhaps when the laundry is actually folded. Maybe it will come to me tomorrow morning as I try to write all this out again, one page at a time, before I’m fully awake, before the coffee finishes brewing.
As much as I hate seeing this version of myself on the page, I’m sharing it with you today. Maybe it’s the thing you need to see right now to help you fold the laundry, or take a moment to be sad, or walk the dog with some sense of purpose and joy, or step into a classroom, or confront your workplace bully, all the while thinking of how to resume the fight in your own way. After the rejection and sadness, the purpose.
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
Sandra Cisneros: Telling the Truth in Poetry and Prose by Sara Di Blasi
The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron
When I got serious about writing, I stepped away from another community I had been involved with—a mindfulness meditation community. The weekly talk and “sit” fell on the same night as a weekly reading series. Rationalizing that I had left a stressful job and knew enough meditation to get me through a daily practice, Monday nights were re-dedicated to fellow writers. However, this week I was reminded of the Buddhist concept of suffering, which I had learned while studying meditation.
As happens, I’ve been challenged recently, meeting and working with someone whose beliefs are very different from mine. He is a young man finding his way in the world through an interesting combination of performance, argumentation, and annoyance. When he showed up for our meeting I was prepared for bombast and ready with my talking points for next steps on his project. He sat down, took out his notes and, before I could say anything, he started crying.
Initially, he brushed off his tears and told me he knew the project wasn’t going well, and that he wanted to make it better. As we talked through next steps, real tears started flowing. I asked if he wanted to talk. He told me about a fight he was having with all of his friends. The president had recently signed an executive order to ban federal funds to international groups that perform abortions or lobby to legalize abortions. He saw this as a victory and publicly celebrated on social media. To his surprise, he experienced a backlash from his friends. Frustrated and sad, his lips trembled as he asked me why people don’t understand that abortion is murder.
I was mad and started going through my mental catalog so that I could tell him exactly why everything he said was wrong. But what I saw on his face was suffering. In a moment that reminded me of Hesse’s Siddhartha, I felt like Govinda sitting at my desk, seeing this young man’s suffering. But also in his face, I saw all of the women and families who have suffered in their fight to make abortions safe and legal.
The best I could do at that moment was tell him that many people in the world are suffering right now, yet despite this suffering, we are still finding ways to talk to each other. I encouraged him to try to listen more instead of constantly being ready to argue—that sometimes, people with whom we disagree just need to be heard. As we all do. He gathered his notes and left, and I wondered if I had helped him at all. My words felt like a tiny round bandage for the gaping wound in his gut.
As I write this essay, I am reminded of the Aristotle quote about being able to hold a thought in our minds without accepting it. But a more applicable quote is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, The Crackup:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the
mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for
example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make
In this moment of hopelessness for many, others have felt hopeless for quite some time. Neither side understands the other, or else understands only so much as to decide one side is “more wrong” than another. It is in this moment of my personal hopelessness that I realize something else that makes me afraid: there is no present relief from suffering.
Buddhists will argue (politely) with me on this point. However, thinking of this young man in his suffering, me in my own suffering, suffering in general because we will never agree on this particular issue, I realize that I am grasping for some sort of harmony, or at least that moment of grace when we agree to disagree. And here the Buddhists will agree that yes, this constant grasping for harmony and understanding will continue the cycle, my personal cycle, of suffering.
We are the great dis-satisfied, Nietzsche claimed. It’s not that we can never be happy. Rather, many of us are built with the intellectual capacity to see that things can be better, and want to change things for the better, however we define “better.” In the Buddhist sense, suffering is the grasping for an imagined time when things are “just right.” But in the Nietzchean sense, it is precisely this restlessness of recognizing things as less than ideal that motivates us toward change.
I have put the judgement of “bad” on suffering (as I often do with anger as well), but thinking of Buddhists and existentialists standing together in my mind gives me a small sense of relief. Dissatisfaction is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it motivated me to make this major life change to a writing life. The suffering comes when I grasp at constant publication as a measure of my worth and success as a writer. As I go through a publishing dry spell, I’ve forced myself back to my desk (with the help of a group of new writer friends), so that the writing still happens. Daily. My life is still changed for the better. I no longer suffer as I used to. Yet, I continue to push myself, not resting because of the small successes I’ve already had.
Reflecting on the recent meeting with the young man—confronting someone else’s suffering, confronting my own suffering, acknowledging but not trying to resolve anything in that moment—opened a moment of compassion for me. But, in turn, being compassionate to myself, my beliefs, and the many women and families who need support and advocacy now, I bought my ticket to our local Planned Parenthood dinner. Great dissatisfaction transforms to action. We should, as Fitzgerald reminds us, be able to see that, while things seem hopeless, we can maintain our determination to make them otherwise.
The Crackup by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron
#amwriting #nonfiction #writersresist #resist
A version of this essay was presented at Writers Resist in Flagstaff, AZ on Sunday, January 15, 2017. Special thanks to Nicole Walker for organizing the event and to all the writers who contributed their talent and voices.
One of the worst things I ever witnessed in the Star Trek franchise was the capitulation of Captain Jean-Luc Picard to the Borg. Now, in case you are not well-versed in the Star Trek world, I have a few very important things to tell you. First, Star Trek: Next Generation is, in my humble opinion, the best iteration of the Star Trek franchise mostly because, second, Jean-Luc Picard is played by Sir Patrick Stewart. Third, the Borg, an alien race, conquers and assimilates other races throughout the galaxy, warning each that “resistance is futile” before taking over their collective brains. Their quest for perfection ultimately dehumanizes everyone, bringing them into a collective or “hive mind.”
Now, if you want to imagine the Borg in earthlier terms, you may equivocate the hive mind with the Fox "News" machine. My husband and I typically block Fox on our cable channel guide. This is a privilege I own up to readily; we have cable AND we can block channels and programs we find offensive or just don’t like, including, but not limited to, Fox News, The Home Shopping Network, and all iterations of ESPN. I rationalize that I have seen enough Sham-Wow ads, professional poker tournaments, and hatred to last me a lifetime.
Unfortunately, recent house guests found the channel and I spent some time watching it with them. Which got me to thinking about the Borg. The Borg, like most Fox commentators, focus on simplistic expressions to conquer and assimilate other humanoids throughout the galaxy—sort of like Republican “talking points.” You may recall The Daily Show’s various video splices featuring a cacophony of republican voices shouting the same talking points repeatedly, carefully memorized in such a way as to appear spontaneous to each speaker.
With this in mind, as someone who was recently exposed to an extended period of time with the Borg, I mean, Fox commentators, I thought I would share with you the five most-repeated normalizing phrases from the right along with my responses. You, too, can memorize and practice my responses so that they sound spontaneous to the Borg:
First: We all need to get along now and come together!
Response: Uh, no.
Additional talking points: Remember how the Republicans sandbagged Obama when he won and basically brought government to a halt for eight years? I do. And so does everyone I know.
Second: The President-elect is not as crazy/undisciplined/conservative/crazy/or crazy as he seems.
Response: Yes, yes he is.
Additional talking points: I don’t know of any one of us here who engages in Twitter wars at 3:00 a.m. with former beauty contestants and movie stars or talks about our penis size or our tiny hands.
Third: But, he’s going to fix the economy.
Response: Actually, it was Obama’s administration where the US experienced 74 consecutive months of job growth. Oh, yeah, and he was the guy who bailed out--and thus saved--the American auto industry. The President-elect just yells at auto companies on Twitter, or lies that, thanks to him, he’s keeping jobs or plants here.
Fourth: He’s not even in office yet. Let’s wait and see what happens…
Response: You know, for a guy who is president-elect, he has done a lot of damage in the past few weeks. In no particular order, he has: provoked China twice; tried to get his children security clearance; appointed wealthy cronies to cabinet positions; appointed his son-in-law as a special advisor; appointed a neo-nazi as chief strategist; appointed a billionaire with special interests as a regulatory commissioner; refused to attend intelligence briefings; made public comments ON TWITTER about expanding our nuclear capabilities; and appointed Rick “I can’t remember that I want to abolish the Energy Department, OOPS!” Perry to the Secretary of Energy.
Fifth: He would have won the popular vote if not for all the “illegal voters”. Why can’t you just drop this?
Response: Ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha, ha, HA!
One important thing to know about the Borg is that the most valuable individuals for them to overthrow are those who exercise free will. This is why “Borgifying” Captain Picard was so enticing. It would be easy enough for the Borg to conquer and assimilate the already-mindless; it’s quite another thing when the enemy is formidable.
I want us all to know that we are formidable. We see what is happening in the “news” every day as the president-elect and his behavior are normalized and legitimized. We read. We take notes. We talk to other people. We fight for others. We are willing to say “this is wrong” to someone else besides ourselves.
The other side will tell us we are over-reacting, we are crazy, we don’t understand. They will continue to chip away at us. We will be tired. We will wonder if we are seeing and hearing things. We will wonder if it would be so wrong to assimilate. This is why we have to stand together. This is why we need to believe in our own selves. And why we need to believe others when they tell us of injustices. We have to keep saying “this is wrong” to everyone we know.
Human will is strong enough to resist the Borg. Resistance is never futile; it is hard, it is exhausting, but it is necessary.
(Picard artist unknown, but original image found at http://filmpopper.com/star-trek-the-best-of-both-worlds-coming-to-theaters/)
With special thanks to Theatrikos Theatre Company and Angele Anderfuren for requesting an original essay as a companion piece to the live performance of A Christmas Story 10 December 2016
Marc and I were sitting on the sofa opening our Christmas cards and presents, having a “private Christmas” a few days before my parents came to stay with us for the holiday. We had saved our Christmas cards for last. Marc had been hard at work since Thanksgiving hand-making and drawing all of his Christmas cards. Each card was a miniature art piece. I ran my hand over the bumpy watercolor paper card he gave me, noticing the beautiful drawing he made—a pine tree in a snow-covered field at sunset. I opened the card, closed it, and put it on the living room table.
“Thanks!” I said.
Marc looked at me closely and asked, “Did you read the card?”
“Sure, honey, it’s beautiful.” He wrinkled his eyebrows.
“Really? You read it?”
"I love it!” I exclaimed, noticing his face getting redder by the minute. I had a sinking feeling that I had said the wrong thing.
- - -
My husband, Marc, and I have never had a traditional relationship. We decided a lot of things a long time ago, without ever really discussing anything. It came instead in waves of realization. There we were, drawing each other in our community art class, even though we never spoke to each other. The same way we found ourselves on Friday night at his apartment or mine watching X-Files instead of going to loud parties with friends. And, on our wedding day, we found ourselves dressed up at a picnic with a small group of friends, a justice of the peace, and the Vice-President’s dogs running under the buffet table.
I should start with how we met—at a community art class. The class involved meeting at different coffee shops every week to learn how to draw by studying the people around us and trying to capture them on paper with charcoals, pastels, and pencils. At the end of every class, we sat in a circle and showed our drawings. I always drew Marc and he always drew me.
It took the better part of two months for us to move beyond drawing each other, but when we did, we made a plan to meet at the local art supply store. Marc was going to show me what charcoals to buy. Instead, he bought them for me. I treated him to dinner. I wasn’t even sure that it was a date, but realized several weeks later when we had seen each other almost every day since that first shopping trip and dinner that, in fact, we were dating.
I found myself looking for his next apartment with him because, he told me, he hoped I would join him there in a few months. I did. A year later, we found ourselves relocating to another city. We weren’t married, or even engaged, and all of this moving and moving felt like we were moving toward getting engaged and married, but it never happened. I had been engaged once before. It ended sadly, as those heart-heavy relationships always do, and honestly, I was afraid to jinx whatever Marc and I had by asking too many questions.
But then it came time to make a decision—our rental house in the new city came on the market and the landlords were giving us first dibs on buying the house. A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the real estate office with two realtors, two attorneys, and the landlords, signing and signing what seemed like a mountain of documents. The only thing that made me panic was the term of the mortgage. Thirty years. Thirty years? I was only 28 years old at the time, thinking I would be old and dead in thirty years. I might not even be with Marc in 30 years! Everyone paused to look at me. Apparently I had said this last thought out loud. Marc told me it was okay, and put his hand on my knee. I believed him and kept signing.
- - -
Well, let me get back to the Christmas card. Marc picked up the card from the coffee table and handed it to me again.
“I really need you to read the card.”
“But I did!”
“No, I don’t think you did.”
I was mad. I was already nervous about my family coming to our new house for Christmas. Was he trying to make me more upset about something?
“It’s beautiful!” I said again.
“Read. The. Card.”
I opened the card. Marc had written
“Merry Christmas, Stacy. Will you marry me?”
- - -
I no longer felt worried about my family coming for Christmas. Or worried about signing 30 years of my life away on the mortgage. Instead, we put on our coats and walked out into the December dusk. We walked around the neighborhood holding hands, watching Christmas lights come on house by house. When we came home, I looked through our living room window at the happy tableaux. A Christmas tree. Wrapping paper on the floor. Marc’s Christmas card on the table.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about the Vice President and his dogs, the dogs at least were uninvited wedding guests. We got married in a park adjacent to the Vice President’s residence in Washington, DC. As Al Gore jogged by on that beautiful October day, his two dogs thought the wedding picnic looked pretty fun. They ran across the park and decided to chase each other around and under the buffet table. The two Secret Service agents eventually captured the dogs, but not before my mother yelled across the park, “Hey, Al! Come have a beer with us!” He gave us the best Vice Presidential wave he could, but he did not take my mother up on her offer.
And, one last thing: don’t forget to read your Christmas cards very, very carefully!
I keep these feelings, this anger, locked up. At the jail where I volunteer, the sergeant tells me no papers with staples. That the inmates collect the staples, stuff them into the locks. I think about this. What can I stuff into my locks that will prevent the anger from getting out? I could simply collect all the locks and decide to throw them away and just let my whole self overflow. Overflow into the seat next to me. Into the space all around me. Unlocked and overflowing into something that no one can approach because every single space near and around me is full of something. Of skin and teeth and bile. Of memories hurtful and small. Of the angry air, which has just left my mouth.