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America’s unofficial rest stops

It is a sunny, fall day and my neighbor, Lawrence, and I are on his front porch. He’s sitting in one of those outdoor chairs with plastic straps running across a metal frame to comprise the seat and back. I’m standing on the brown concrete floor, my hand on the bar of the stroller, pushing it rhythmically back and forth to lull the baby, M, dozing under his green and white blanket. This was in the days before we homeschooled and so the girls are off in their classrooms, the dog tucked in the house, across our abutting yards.

“I’m just grateful to be alive,”Lawrence says to me. Not long before this, he was in the ICU with pneumonia. His daughter had been over at our place playing with our girls right before he went in. When he’d walked over to our front door that night to pick her up, he’d hustled her along, saying he didn’t feel well and needed to get back home. It would be months before we would see Lawrence again after that evening on our front stoop. In the process of treating him for the pneumonia, they had to amputate both his legs below the knees. He’d lost fingers as well.

Really, this attitude of “I’m just grateful to be alive” is all you need to know about Lawrence.

He’s just gotten through telling me about the time, back when he was still in a wheelchair after his surgeries, when he’d had to go to the doctor. He points up towards a brown building within eyeshot but somewhat obscured by a few trees and other foliage. To get to the doctor that day, he was going to have to cross the 6 lane highway* next to our houses and he didn’t have time to call and wait for the public transportation service. So he’d called for a car and driver using a popular app/ driving service/ side-gig to drive him up the street.

“I don’t know what I was thinking or if they’d had me on some sort of drugs that day, but I decided to get myself back home.” Neither the curbs nor the pedestrians signals are amenable to wheelchairs or really, for anyone, who isn’t basically in above average physical condition and in a hurry. Fortunately, Lawrence explains to me, a kind soul had been there to help him across the highway and safely home.

The conversation turns towards various other issues in our neighborhood. The garbage and litter, empty beer and wine and liquor bottles that the neighborhood middle schoolers occasionally smash into the street or sidewalk walking home from school. The car accidents, particularly at the two closest intersections. Lawrence says he once watched someone, a young man, get mugged in his front yard. But, from his wheelchair, he’d been unable to do anything and had to watch as the two assailants made off with the young man’s back pack. I recalled the time someone threw a brick through a neighbor’s car window and stole $500 cash. He tells me about all the cars that pull over in front of his house. Sometimes, drivers get out to pee against a tree. “Hey, man!” he shouted once. “Well, I’ve already started! I can’t stop now,” the guy shouted back.

We both have time that day, chatting on his front porch, so Lawrence launches into another story. “I had taken the bus down to the gym.” While it wasn’t too long ago that he was in a wheelchair, he now works out regularly on two prosthetic legs. He describes how he’d decided to pick up a six pack of beer. And he spends some time on this detail of the story, as if somehow he feels like he has to explain it to me, as if picking up a six pack isn’t a completely ordinary or reasonable thing to do. On his way back to the bus stop, his legs started to hurt, so he grabbed a bench in a nearby park. He set his beer next to him. It was after dark and quiet, so he did what everyone would do and he checked his surroundings. That’s when he noticed a policeman in a marked car watching him. The policeman approached Lawrence, sitting on a bench in a public park and asked him what he was doing.

To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details of the conversation that Lawrence relayed to me. But I do remember that he kept saying the policeman “just kept trying to trip me up.” The officer wanted to know what was in his bag. And as Lawrence relays this to me, on the front porch of his home on a sunny fall afternoon, he says, “I just kept thinking about Freddy Grey.”

“Was I being racially profiled?” Lawrence asks. Later, in the comfort of his own home, he wrote letters about this experience. “The words just flowed,” he says, smiling slightly.

He goes on to tell me that, eventually, the police officer backed off. “He told me that the reason he noticed me was because I was looking over my shoulder.” Remember? When Lawrence started the story by explaining that he was in a park after dark and thus checked his surroundings? That was him “looking over his shoulder.”

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A year later, on another sunny fall morning, we wake up to the surprise of a construction crew at an intersection near our houses. It appears that they are setting forms and pouring concrete to change the shape of the curbs. I am hopeful that this might be an effort to slow down cars driving through our neighborhood. We have large, broad streets and few sidewalks, crosswalks, and four-way stops. Between these car-friendly conditions and the 8 lane highway which runs to both the beltway and into DC, our residential neighborhood is often used as a quick and easy “cut through” for drivers on their way someplace better.

Our foray into a traditional school was brief, and so on this day, the children are all at home. But it’s sunny out, so they opt to play in the front yard while I’m inside with the littlest one, no longer small enough to nap in his infant car seat like he was last year while we were on Lawrence’s front porch. I don’t know what makes me look out the front window at them, but when I do, the bushes right outside the fence are shaking strangely. It takes me a moment to realize that I can see the shape of a hat above the fence that runs between my property and Lawrence’s property, in the plants. I open our front door, shouting, “hey”. I think my voice can’t be heard over the sound of the cars and trucks on the highway. I start clapping. The girls look up, alarmed and then back behind them, where I am looking. The both scream and start running towards me. “Get inside and close the door,” I tell them. I see the hat begin to move back out of the bushes as I open the gate. There’s a man, obviously from the construction crew, walking away from the fence and back towards the intersection where the construction is going on.

At this point, I’m yelling as I follow the man. Everyone on the crew is looking at me. “Where’s the supervisor?” A man approaching me. He’s holding a cell phone, as if this indicates his status as the one in charge. He seems to be insisting that nothing happened. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m having a hard time understanding his English.

There were three of these on this particular day that I was clearly garbage from in front of our house.

Lawrence comes up next to me. “What’s going on, Rhena?” I hear him say.

“One of these guys was in front of my house, in the bushes. Right next to where the kids were playing.”

Lawrence says, turning towards the man with the cell phone. “I saw someone else peeing on a tree over there.”

The man with the cell phone tries to explain that he has been calling the boss all morning. He keeps talking about a “seat” and it takes me a while to realize that he’s requested a portable toilet but in the meantime, he’s told his crew to go and pee somewhere far away.

“There are children here!”

“This is bullshit,” Lawrence says. He looks at me and then behind me. My 9 yo, A, has followed me out. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He nods towards A.

He turns back to the man. “If this happens again, I’m calling the police.”

But I know, and I’d wager a guess that everyone here knows: getting the police involved is the last thing anyone here wants to do.

***************************************

I’m perhaps even a little jumpier than usual that day and the following. I’m a little unsure what to do with myself. I have the post-adrenaline come down but no resolution. On regular Sundays, Eric and I meet with some other parents at our parish. One of my responsibilities is to send out an email ahead of time with the Sunday reading and gospel. I decide that maybe typing it up will give my hands, at least, something to do. It’s a little early, but at least it will be ready to go out. The reading is from the prophet Habbakuk, as follows.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help/ but you do not listen!/ I cry out to you, “Violence!”/ but you do not intervene./ Why do you let me see ruin;/ why must I look at misery?/ Destruction and violence are before me;/ there is strife, and clamorous discord./ Then the Lord answered me and said:/ Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,/ so that one can read it readily./ For the vision still has its time,/ presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;/ if it delays, wait for it,/ it will surely come, it will not be late./ The rash one has no integrity;/ but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

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We used to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is popularly referred to as “fly-over country”. The truth is actually that Minneapolis, as a hub for one major American airline, would be more aptly called “fly through” country. Over 18 million passengers pass through the airport there each year. Much like a sanctioned rest stop on the side of America’s highways, the airport is equipped to deal with the basic needs of those passing through. Needless to say, such a high volume of passengers and aircraft can have a profound impact on local residents. Perhaps most detrimental are noise disturbances. In order to distribute this impact so that no one community must bear the brunt of low-flying jets overhead, the flight paths are rotated around the airport. In addition, grants are available to upgrade HVAC and windows on homes to keep the noise out.

For those of us who live in residential neighborhoods next to highways and which are “drive through” country, none of these types of accommodations, even those around basic pedestrian safety are provided for us by the county or the state.

**********************************************

Later that fall, I am once again in our front yard. I notice a car pulled over in front of my house, next to the “no parking” sign. I watch the car, wondering if the occupants need help. A few times in the past weeks, I’ve seen someone get out of a car and then walk to the median of the state highway with a cardboard sign to ask drivers at the stoplight for money. I’m not entirely sure what to do when I see people right in our neighborhood, begging for money. So I pray.

Watching the car now parked on my street, I can see the outline of a driver and someone else, another adult, hunched sideways in the back seat. I watch for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. Eventually, the person in the back seat moves to the front passenger seat. The car drives off. I see on the side of the road, a familiar neatly, folded white package left behind. A used diaper.

(*In an earlier version, I mistakenly described this as an 8 lane highway as I inadvertently included the turn lanes visible from my neighborhood. I apologize.)

On Living Small

A few years ago (maybe as many as ten or twenty, I’m not sure about things like that) it seemed that the idea of “decision fatigue” was in vogue. Or, at least, I read one or two articles about it and ran with it. The idea is simple. Making decisions, even small ones, involves an investment of energy. The more decisions we make, the more energy we use up and therefore the less we have in reserve even for basic things like eating and activity. This also translates into decreased willpower or an ability to say no to poor choices (or yes to good ones).

I’ve thought about this a lot as each of our three kids have moved through the phase we are currently in with the youngest wherein we are encouraging him to make “good choices.” But I’ve also waffled between wanting to teach them to make good choices and wanting to protect them from experiencing decision fatigue. Fatigue is, after all, the mother of poor choices. It’s a tricky balance to strike. Surprisingly, it’s also one that has become easier under pandemic conditions. In part, this is due to the fact that we simply have fewer choices to make. The museums, for example, have all been closed and even when they have been open, with three unvaccinated kids, I’m not likely going to be spending much time in public indoors with them soon. Without having even the option of going inside a museum (or any number of places like to a movie or a play or live music), I have one fewer decision that I have to make in any given day or week. I think of this a being able to drop one more marble into the decision making energy jar. Had all of these optioned for activities been open to me, to us, I would have been spending a lot of time and energy fretting about what I was not doing with my kids and I would have spent far too much time and energy concerned that each day NOT spent at a museum was a day I was depriving my kids.

My brother recently posted a video to the group chat of a man who had been incarcerated (I seem to recall about twenty years) and was standing in the cereal aisle overwhelmed by options. In this case, he couldn’t believe all of the different flavor options for cherrios. For me, it was toothpaste. When I was living in a small town (a handful of shops and restaurants) in Thailand for a while and I would return home, I would sometimes have to go shopping. I most distinctly remember standing in the toothpaste aisle wondering to myself “where do I even begin?” In the coming years, I was acutely aware, at times, of all of the time, energy, and resources I had to commit (felt forced to commit) to toothpaste. It was simultaneously frustrating and foreign. We are often taught in the US and perhaps in the western world in general that having options (Whitening! Sensitive gum?! Herbal?) is good, even when those options are ultimately and completely meaningless.

(To be continued…)

On Painting

A few weeks ago, I ordered and received a watercolor kit from Mossery. It was a little pricey but I’ve been wanting to learn and create watercolors and this was a complete kit that would help me to learn and it felt worth it to order. Thankfully, it has been.

Many evenings since receiving the kit, I have been sitting down with my notebook, small instruction booklet, and supplies and doing a few minutes here and there of watercolor. I worked through the color chart at the beginning and have been playing with color since then. It has been intensely satisfying.

A completed page of fruits and vegetables. My daughters were especially impressed with the broccoli and I had to agree

For me, painting like this involves a fairly high level of concentration, but not so high that I can’t perform the task in the more open space in my house with my kids and husband nearby. It requires just enough concentration to make it interesting but not so much that I ignoring the needs of the people around me. In fact a few times this week, I needed a second opinion about some color options and it was great to have someone nearby willing to give their two cents.

My husband DID ask if he could take a picture of me doing an activity that has been bringing me peace and calm in recent days.

I named this blog, Wild Goose Land, in part because in some places in the world (mostly in Ireland, I think), the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Wild Goose, going wherever it pleases. And for me, chasing the Wild Goose means pursuing creativity and those moments that transcend whatever it is that is getting me down or stressing me out. Some people, I think, sometimes call these moments, “being in the zone” where physicality and intellect and creativity become one. In the zone (or with the Holy Spirit), I am (and I think most people are) able to let go of the worries and troubles of everyday life.

Painting can, from time to time, get me there, into the zone, can allow me to empty myself out to a degree that the Holy Spirit (or muses or however else others might think about that) can enter in a take charge.

With the palette and the paints that came with this set or kit. I’m looking forward to also using the blank (those fruits and vegetables and every other page in this book is pre-sketched to make the whole learning process a bit easier) notebook that came with the kit.

My description is sounding perhaps more dramatic than the product of my paints and brushes are in reality (mostly a page of fruits and vegetables at this point): it is, for me, after all mostly about the process and that energy I put into the things I am painting. The final product is merely a side benefit, but it is still immensely gratifying to look at something I’ve painted or drawn (or even, from time to time, written) and to know that I had something to do with bringing that image into reality, even if it is that I tried to extend an invitation to the Wild Goose.

Book Recommendation: Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendon

One of the things that makes Cash Blackbear such a great literary character is the way in which she is not only fully realized but that she is a relatively isolated. Readers are invited in to be a part of a life that (in direct contrast to how so many lives these days are lived splattered and public all over social media) is quiet, seemingly simple, and very, very private. We get to experience her full interiority in ways that even those around her do not.

TLDR: pick up this book, Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendon. It would make an excellent summer (or winter!) read and they’re only a few more weeks of summer left.

Whilst reading the first Cash Blackbear book (Murder on the Red River), I ordered Girl Gone Missing, the second one. I knew that I would be disappointed if I couldn’t almost immediately find out what Cash was up to after I finished the first one. I was not wrong. And while each book would be fine as a stand alone, I highly recommend reading both in order.

In Girl Gone Missing, we find Cash in her first year of college. A girl from her town has gone missing and Cash soon learns of the disappearance of a second girl from the same region. Cash, of course, ends up trying to help Sheriff Wheaton locate this girls. (Spoiler alert: she ends up pretty much on her own tracking down the girls, although Wheaton does offer a soft landing pad.

Cash’s brother shows up unexpectedly and while his reappearance is obviously painful for Cash as it stirs up the most painful memories and feelings of abandonment from her childhood. As she works through some of this, however, she and her brother end up taking care of each other. We even see Cash laugh a few times, which are welcome moments which involve her brother, who struggles as much if not more than Cash as he recovers from both a difficult childhood and time served in the Vietnam War. Especially after the ways in which so many people failed Cash, it has been life-affirming to watch Cash begin to allow herself to form meaningful relationships.

During a book club meeting to discuss the book There, There by Tommy Orange, other Native American authors came up. I mentioned Marcie Rendon in part because it could probably be called a “mystery.” In other words, I enjoy books written by under-represented groups in which the struggles and conflict all center around the characters being members of said underrepresented groups. In this case, Girl Gone Missing is a mystery and while Cash’s identity are important to both solving the mystery and to her survival, she’s also a great person with whom to spend a whole book.

Girl Gone Missing is a fast-paced (in spite of the seeming slow pace of Cash’s life) mystery with a strong woman central character. I highly recommend, especially as a summer (but really any time of the year) read. Enjoy.

This morning, I sewed new masks for two of my kids (the two older ones who will actually agree to wearing masks, the youngest, the three year old does not care to wear a mask so we don’t take him places where he might need to be indoors) and myself. I’ve only made myself one and the “VOTE” painted on the front feels a bit out of date now.

For the girls, I’ve made a few masks over the past year or so. Today, Ms8yo pulled out the older ones and laid them next to the ones I made this morning. “Look how much better these new ones are, Mom!” Everyone needs a hype-person like my Ms8yo.

Three different sizes, two different styles, everyone picked their own fabric from our stash.

She wasn’t wrong. In the rush of trying to get everyone masks last year, I slap-dashed a few together. Today, we reminisced about how we couldn’t even get elastic last year. I’d used stretchy hair ties for them to loop over their years, which are predictably rough especially on little ears. And then even when I was able to get proper elastic, it was still too heavy a stiff. We were eventually able to get our hands on some soft, light elastic like those found on disposable masks. (For a while, I had been cutting it off the old ones, but quickly realized that that is part of the mask that wears out the fastest so it wasn’t really worth it to try to recycle it.)

I made ones in two styles today. Both of them agreed that the old ones I’d made that mimicked surgical style ones usually ended up in their mouths. They prefer either the curved ones with a seam down the middle or the “3D” ones where the cloth is held pretty far from one’s lips.

I did recycle some bendy metal nose pieces and inserted those into these new masks. So when my hype-daughter said these ones were better she meant design, materials, and comfort.

Truth be told, I don’t know that I imagined I’d still be making masks at this point in this year. But my husband and I talked about how masks are probably something we won’t give up too soon, even perhaps once our kids are able to get vaccinated. “I liked not being sick this past winter,” he told me. Same.

And it was soothing, in a way, to be sitting at my sewing machine again, cutting and piecing together fabric that my kids had chosen from my stash. One selected the remnants from the first skirt I ever made for myself, ages ago. It’s nice when the masks can make me think about something other than being sick. And it’s nice to feel competent at making something, and something that might possibly be keeping my kids safer. We’ve realized that it’s still going to be a while — perhaps this winter — before our kids can be vaccinated and so in some ways not a lot has changed for us over the past year. We’ve had second thoughts about a lot of activities and things we’d otherwise feel comfortable doing. At the very least, I suppose, all the things we’ve had to do differently over the past year have started to feel a bit more like second nature. The new normal isn’t so new anymore and maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s the best we can hope for at this point in time.

God willing, we’ll get there, though. We’ll get there.

On Writing This Blog Post

A few weeks ago, I set a goal for myself: write (and publish) at least five hundred words on this blog five evenings a week before I go to sleep for four weeks. So far, I’ve been following through on this goal. The pay-off has slowly become noticeable. The first few days, I would jot down a few notes here and there during the day in order to prepare myself for the evening’s task, to make sure I wasn’t caught out, so to speak, staring at a blank screen with nothing to say. But this week, I’ve let go of that practice, finding it unnecessary and the blank screen less intimidating.

This is not to say that these posts and the words contained within them are coming easier or faster but perhaps I’m trusting myself a bit more that when I do sit down with my iPad, something — an idea, an image, a story — will come forth. Trusting this hasn’t coming easily to me, which is ironic if you consider that much of my adult life has been dedicated to communicating through the written word including teaching others how to use language.

I attended a prestigious school (Columbia in New York City) to earn an MFA (Masters of Fine Art) in creative writing. And the truth of the matter is few things can more shatter ones trust that the words will come than to dedicate four years of your life (and no small amount of money) to the study of words, especially perhaps at a world-renowned institution and especially perhaps at a world-renowned institution that never lets you forget that it’s a world-renowned institution. Or, at least, it shattered my trust. I can’t speak on behalf of my classmates or fellow students.

How does that happen? one might ask. Five hundred words and mere minutes before I would like to tuck myself into bed is not enough space and time to get into all the details. Suffice it to say that I had various moments with professors and instructors wherein their over-riding feeling towards me and my writing was irritation. I’m still not clear why (and will probably try to not put too much time into figuring it all out) but on several occasions, I would turn in work and the professor’s comments revealed that they were intensely annoyed that I hadn’t gotten it right; that by writing what I had written in the way I had written, I had personally injured them or at the very least I had put them out. Very rarely did I receive any comments or feedback or guidance on what I might do to get it right. One professor refused to read one of my submissions because it was “a mess”. (Yes, it was not lost on me: how could she know it was a mess if she didn’t read it?) We were then required to meet with the professor after class time to discuss my work. She had asked that we meet at her apartment, which meant I had to trek across town to discuss my work which she had not read. My only consolation is that in that particular class, there was one other student’s work which she refused to read. Years later, I learned that this student, in her turn, had not met with the professor. There was nothing to talk about if she hadn’t read my work, she told me later. Shit. Bold. Why, I wondered to myself, couldn’t I have the backbone of my classmate?

In a way, this challenge that I’ve set for myself to write and post blog posts of a certain length and for a certain period of time, is a way to force myself to get over all of the messaging I received with regard to my writing all those years ago. It’s a way to ignore the voices of criticism and to publish my writing on my own terms and in my own space, not waiting for approval from instructors and professors or even editors. It’s not even about attracting readers. I’ve mostly stopped tracking numbers of visits. (Although, I am well aware that my husband is a consistent reader and tireless supporter. Hi, Eric!) And I suppose that I should be grateful that, if nothing else, this professor who did not read my work has taught me that one thing: if even a person who you are paying to read your work, whose very job is to read your work refuses to read your work, then what do you have to lose in writing for yourself and yourself alone?

On cutting hair

Most days, lately, I have to remind myself that we are still in a pandemic. I’ll be moving through daily tasks and suddenly feel incredibly exhausted and I’ll wonder for a moment or two whether there’s something truly physically wrong with me. “Oh no,” I’ll think to myself, “remember? We are in a pandemic. These times are unprecedented, or at least that’s what they used to say.” And for a short while, I will feel a bit OK with being tired.

But I still have moments when I think, “wow. I haven’t done anything today.” And I guess I have to remember that what I mean to say is, “I haven’t gone anywhere today.” Because I’ve done loads each day. And I’ve been doing loads each day. And will continue to do loads each day. But when much of these loads of things that I’ve been doing all day feel a bit ordinary or a bit mundane or even a bit merely life-sustaining, it feels like it doesn’t add up to much. The keeping the children relatively well-fed and moderately engaged doesn’t feel like much. Perhaps this feeling is compounded with all the Olympic achievement in the ether.

Take today for instance. Amongst a few other things: I cut two heads of hair. (Please note, I did not say I cut two heads of hair WELL.) I’ve been cutting my dad and my husband’s hair for the past 16 months or so. It’s not that it’s so hard to do at this point (again, please note that I did not say I do it WELL), but it does take time and not just today. For at least a few days now (and probably longer), I will look at my dad or my husband and all I can see are the mistakes and what I could have done better. This in and of itself takes time. Those who cut hair in a shop or salon have it made: they don’t have to assess their work daily over meals and throughout the day. Because its the self-judgment that’s the energy drain, innit?

And they have those comfy-ish chairs with the clever foot lever so they can smoothly move the head of hear up and down to a reachable height. We have … a kitchen stool for my dad. And for my husband we move between a barstool and a dining room chair depending on the height I need him. (Honestly, it’s a step up from when I cut my son’s hair and I have to put him on a footstool and then kneel). We

When I first started cutting my dad’s hair, I asked him who used to cut I when he was a boy in Thailand. “A Vietnamese barber,” he told me, “he was very good, very detailed.” I considered this as I hacked away at his thinning coiffure. But more than whether I too was being suitably “detailed” in my work, I was surprised that my dad’s barber as a boy in Thailand was from Vietnam. Somehow, I’d always associated immigration almost exclusively with my country of birth, the US. Apparently this mythos is so strong as to make me surprised when I hear about people immigrating to other places in the world. Which is particularly close minded on my part when you consider that my grandparents immigrated to Thailand from China.

So in a way, the hair cutting ritual sometimes gets me thinking about things perhaps even in ways that goes against my upbringing.

I didn’t need to ask Eric while he was “in the chair” about his childhood haircuts in rural western Minnesota. I already knew that he had a regular woman whose house he’d go to. I don’t think she was Vietnamese but I supposed I’ve never asked.

In any case, it’s not lost on me that in some ways my husband and my father had, in some ways, childhoods more similar to each other than to my own. I grew up, like my mom, in DC. I don’t remember having a place or person I went to for my hair. I have a feeling it was just kind of whatever place was convenient, and usually it was a Hair Cuttery. My uncle brought my brothers to a regular barber, in a shop called, “Camello’s,” but I think that as a girl I got them less frequently and thus never had a “spot” where I’d typically go.

Which is all a long way to say that the hair cutting I’ve been doing has not been without its benefits. But so too, in spite of my moments where I tell myself otherwise, I have not been doing nothing.

On the slow life

Life is asking me to slow down which is a little odd as I feel as though I’ve been moving through peanut butter for the past year or so. Everything seems to take so much damn effort. Still the signs are clear and present.

The first one isn’t the heat, it’s the humidity, the air muddy and thick. I’d say that first step out the door is like hitting wall but it’s not: the heavy air seeps in around the doorway so it’s more like a zero entry sauna, if such a thing existed. Not slowing down is not an option. I haven’t gone for a run or exercised since Friday, the last time the dew point was high enough that a slight breeze was even a possibility.

The second sign is my left foot. I don’t know how or when, but I injured it at some point. I’m guessing it has to do with simply pushing myself to run more and longer than I really should be. So I’m not running at all right now. I’m getting my exercise other places. Slow down, my foot tells me. Don’t forgot about us extremities.

The third sign is sleep. Or lack thereof. I know I need it, so I’m trying to take it everywhere I can get it.

The fourth sign is my kids, who, when I’m really doing a good job of paying attention, remind me always and in myriad ways to slow down. Today, two kids were off in a bedroom “playing” (which is to say, throwing stuffed animals hither and thither) and the third, the oldest, was lying down on the couch. “I’m SO tired,” she moaned.

“You can rest,” I told her but then I took out my notebook and sat down at the dining room table, pen at the ready.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“Writing,” I told her. One of the things I really like about kids (or at least my kids) is that they rarely ask for more specifics in situations like this. Perhaps she could tell that I was absorbed in the task enough that I wasn’t likely to expound.

She went and got her notebook that contains one of her recent writing projects. And we sat writing, jotting down notes in companionable silence. It was only a few minutes and I don’t think either of us wrote more than a few notes here and there (or, at least, I didn’t do more than that). But we both got a little bit done. My 8 year old daughter came in whilst we were writing. She saw what we were doing, didn’t ask any questions, and immediately turned and left the room. She returned a few minutes later with her science project. She paged through a book and took a look at her project. I glimpsed the page she was open to and saw the word “nanotechnology” across the top. The three of us worked on our individual projects for a few minutes and then put them all away.

I’ve been trying to carve out a little time here and there to work on a piece of fiction I’ve been writing, but this was far and away one of my most productive few minutes of working on it. In large part, this was because my sitting down and putting pen to paper had inspired my daughters to work on their own projects. I don’t often work on my own “fun” projects around my kids. In part because it feels a bit self indulgent. But the truth is, of course, that they see and are watching everything we do. By pulling out my writing this morning, even just for a few minutes, I conveyed two things to them. Your work (of learning, of creating, of doing whatever it is that inspires you) is important. And two, even just a line edit here or there or a reread or just opening the pages is moving you closer to the goal, whatever that may be.

I know that part of why my foot is injured is that I pushed myself too fast. I was getting tired of the too slow incremental gains on the running program I was following and so I jumped ahead. My body wasn’t ready for it. Writing and even other creative tasks can be like this too. The best and most lasting type of change and growth and learning is incremental. There’s something deeply satisfying in that.

On New Habits

Tonight I made pita bread for dinner. It’s a process that I have down, more or less, by rote, or at least well enough that it’s the sort of thing that I have, most of the time, done with something else playing in the background: the radio, an audiobook piped in through my earbuds, even the odd TV show streamed in on my iPad. We’ve been cooking at home a lot lately and the specter of boredom seems to haunt the corners. Media is my talisman against it.

But tonight I put my earbuds aside. I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks, some great, some less so, but enough so that they are starting to mesh together into one mass. I guess I was looking for a break from those anyway.

After I use my rolling pin to cajole the dough into something resembling a circle, I sometimes pick up the disc-like dough and use my hands and gravity to stretch the thicker parts out a bit. As my fingers slide the slightly floury dough from one hand to the other, it makes a satisfying sh-sh sound against my hands. It’s subtle and, of course, had I been listening to anything else, I wouldn’t have heard it but tonight for a brief moment that dough-against-hand sound struck me as something that many women and moms and caregivers and providers and humans have been familiar with throughout much of human history and throughout much of the present day world. Flatbread, after all, is beloved and a staple in many diets.

Had I missed this sound because of my earbuds, I would have not had this feeling of connectedness and of having a place in history. As I’ve tried to cut back on consuming media, I have been encouraged to find that what rises up (which is to say, mostly my own thoughts) has been at the very least, not boring,

I’ve been trying to write more in a more meaningful and focused way and as I’ve spent less time consuming social media (please note I said less and not nil), it hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be to find the time to write and to find content that interests me.

When I woke up this morning, I had been planning to run or at least some sort of exercise. But when I let the dogs out, a wall of humidity greeted me. And then as I crept around the house feeding the dogs, I realized that my left foot, which has been sore for a few days, didn’t feel much better. I’ll hop on the elliptical, I thought, or do something else later in the day. I needed to lie down for a while longer. I hadn’t gotten enough hours of sleep the night before and it felt that I was receiving a reminder that rest, and specifically sleep, should be a priority. There was absolutely no sense in powering through a sore foot and wall of humidity. Yes, I have certain health and exercise goals and not running one morning was not going to help those goals … well, except for the obvious fact that I needed rest and sleep and that my body was telling me that that would be better for my help than running on a sore foot.

Later on, I didn’t end up having time (see: making pita bread) to exercise on the elliptical or anywhere else for that matter and yet, and yet, I managed to meet all of my daily exercise goals including steps and moderate activity minutes. Turns out, without rest and sleep, I can’t meet any of my other goals like daily writing and exercise. Speaking of which … I’ve got to sleep now. I was planning on creating an image or images to go with this and to do much more, but it’s nearly midnight and I need rest.

On (not) scrolling

A few weeks ago, I started to periodically feel a sharp pain in my right elbow. It was particularly painful — to the point that I could not help but inhale a sharp breath — when I was doing push ups. (Ok, not real push-ups, which I cannot do, yet, but any exercise that was push-up-adjacent.) I had been writing a lot, with pen and paper, a least a few times a day, and I thought that perhaps because my elbow wasn’t always supported properly that this is what was causing the inflammation.

More recently, however, I’ve decided that it is some sort of side effect of the way in which I hold my phone, elbow bent so that my phone is near my face, thumb working the scroll. Phone thumb scrolling repetitive stress elbow irritation? Is there such a thing? I don’t know. But I’ve latched on to it as yet another reason why I need to put my phone down. If the psychological toll that mindless scrolling takes isn’t enough to deter me, perhaps the physical discomfort (pain even) will be.

Why do I always reach for my phone in all sorts of different moments of down (and up) time? Particularly during this time of increased time at home, have my devices been an absolutely necessary way in which I can carve out a little mental (if not exactly physical) space for myself? Is this just the way I’m keeping engaged in the world beyond our home?

Truth be told: I can come up with 3,000 unique justifications for why my phone — and the social media checking and re-checking — is something that I need. But even 3,000 justifications do not add up to a reason.

I studied one year abroad in England. I remember at that time being impressed by how accessible live theater was there. I lived in London, which, of course, had loads of shows, many of which were reasonably priced especially when they offered student tickets. But even when visiting smaller towns, it usually seemed that live theater was accessible and a part of everyday life in the way that movie theaters are in the US. I can’t say that I took advantage of it as much as I wish I had, but I would occasionally take in a show as I might have gone to the movies in the States, usually on a whim and on my own.

This reminds me of how I use my phone these days. No, not that enjoying live theater is like mindlessly reaching for my phone and scrolling through social media. Rather, it is like the large boxes of Cadbury Chocolate Roses that were sometimes sold at the concession stands and which audience members were allowed to, unlike here in the US, TAKE INTO THE THEATER. In other words, I could sit in a darkened theater watching an actual live show with a massive box of individual chocolates in my lap, which I was free to consume as I wished. I do not recall whether I could ever finish an entire box, but I seem to remember coming awfully close. And when I saw awfully, I actually do mean awfully. It was so easy to just unwrap and pop them in my mouth one after the other, not noticing the uncomfortable sticky sweet coating in my mouth and growing ache in my belly until it was too late.

And that’s what it’s felt like with my phone and the way in which I engage with social media too much of the time. I pop image after image, video after video, tweet after tweet into my brain, ignoring the back and forth feelings of interest and disdain, connection and judgment until it’s all just one giant melty blob of non-feeling.

Ugh. When I think about all of the mental energy I’ve expended on social media… I suspect I could have single-mindedly powered our home — Nintendo Switch, air conditioner, and all — for a year.

I have started to try to make a conscious effort to be more thoughtful about how and why I’m consuming social media. Results have been mixed. What I have noticed is that when I am sitting without much to do and I make the effort to pick up a pen and notebook instead of my phone, a semi-amazing thing happens. As I write or sketch or otherwise engage in a creative process for myself and away from social media, I suddenly feel somewhat freer. I feel free from the judgment of others but more significantly, I am free from the burden of judging others, which, I have come to realize, has been the overriding way in which I experience social media.

This is not to say that I judge others harshly on social media but each decision to engage or not engage, to continue scrolling or not, is based, in part, on a judgment that I’m making about the person who has created the content. And in some cases, the person creating the content is myself. I don’t need that kind of judgment in my life and certainly not that kind of self-judgment.

On Habits

This morning, during the time I was waiting for the butter to melt on the cast iron pan before I poured the Dutch Baby batter, I had a vague, brief thought: what can or should I be doing right now? Mind you, butter does not take very long to melt, especially in a 425 degree Fahrenheit oven. And I was already doing something: making breakfast for my family. Well, actually two things because I was also listening to the news on the radio.

The Dutch Baby in question. Not such a bad one!

In other words: I have been so conditioned to feel that I must be busy at all times, that I feel that I should be doing a second, third, or fourth task whilst cooking breakfast for my children. I am, therefore, a soft target for the algorithms. Or perhaps is the other way around: the endless scrolling that I so easily slip into has made me feel that I must, at every moment, be engaged on multiple fronts, more fronts, even, than I actually have.

Where has this feeling of the need for constant scrolling come from? There is certainly an undertone for me of FOMO (fear of missing out). More specifically, I have a fear that if I just scroll through twitter enough, perhaps I will come across a problem that I am in a position to solve. Even if I done have the solution to any of the myriad problems that arise on social media like Twitter, I also have the fear that I could, at some future date be called upon to HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT or at least some knowledge of an event or exchange that occurred on social media. I will be asked to bear witness but I will have missed it all.

Instragram, with its beautiful visual images and flashy advertising, presents a whole other set of issues for me. On my account, I have mostly been following knitters, yarn dyers, a few writers and artists, and stationary companies. Want to take a wild stab at guessing what I’ve been, as a result, spending my money on as of late?

A Dutch Baby breakfast with some lovely fruit, an apricot sauce, and toasted almonds. Delish. (And so easy in spite of having to wait for butter to melt.)

For a while, I was searching around for and clicking on all sorts of images and accounts related to planners (both digital and analogue) and notebooks and pens. See, over the past half year or so, I’ve had great success using my Fitbit to monitor (and increase) my level of fitness. The tracker on my wrist motivated me to hit certain goals everyday and week and even provided some workout videos and other instruction, without allowing me to get to the point of being obsessive about it. I could hit my goals and be done with it. I haven’t felt any need to over do it.

And so, of course, I wanted to try to repeat this success in other areas of my life. Surely there was some tool out there that would help me to write on a daily basis, to meal plan, and budget and organize my household and chores but still remain creative and inspired. I know, it’s a big ask. I downloaded a few digital trackers and took a look at them. I’d been ordering various lovely, bound, ribboned, and elastic-banded notebooks in the hopes that I could come up with a system that would be both elegant and visually stunning. Instagram and its algorithm was more than happy to support me in my search for some sort of organizational system.

Repeat this on everything that I’ve shown an interest (art, books, drawing, knitting, learning French and guitar, homeschool etc…) in over about the past year and you might be able to begin to see how I might have been spending a lot of time scrolling through these images, in search of some perfect items that would help everything fall into place.

Alas, this never happened.

In fact: did you ever use those Mead black and white marbled composition notebooks back in school? That’s what I’m currently using for all my organizing and planning and even my writing and note-taking. They’re not even college ruled. I’m scratching out my notes to myself on elementary level WIDE RULED. And they each probably work out to a couple of dollars each. As for the fancier notebooks? They’re simply too precious to me. What I need is a spot to jot down a few unruly notes to myself to be wrangled into something more meaningfully later on. I needed a spot for a quick, end of day brain dump so that I could sleep. And all the beautiful notebooks and planners and digital bells and whistles were simply too much for this. So I’m going with a classic.

Which brings me to these two habits that I’ve been focusing on and which I hope to write more on here in the coming weeks. The first is a habit I’d like to break: thoughtless scrolling and meaningless social media pseudo-engagement. And the second is a habit that I’d like to cultivate: writing in general and writing here on my blog specifically.

I hope you’ll check back here in the coming weeks as I share more about my experiences with breaking one habit and cultivating another.