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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.”

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

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.)

Book Review: Murder on the Red River

I’m trying to remember how this book, Murder on the Red River by Marcie R. Rendon even landed on my shelf. I’m thinking that it must have been a Minnesota Public Radio email — perhaps a book newsletter from Kerri Miller. However it was that I found the title, I’m confident I went to Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books to order it.

Because to find an indie press book (and especially in this time of no bookstore and library browsing) feels like stumbling across a needle in a haystack or, as in this case, a gem in a haystack, when I wasn’t even necessarily looking for one.

Murder on the Red River is set in the Minnesota-North Dakota Fargo Moorhead border area along the titular river during the Vietnam War and centers around a wise-beyond 19 year old Cash Blackbear. Cash grew up on the White Earth Reservation before being shuffled between a series of foster homes. The consistent adult in her life has been Wheaton, the county sheriff, and so it is that Cash (who otherwise mostly drives trucks on local farms and shoots pool at the local bars) ends up at the scene of the murder of a man from Red Earth, another, more remote reservation. Cash is both earthly and not and uses her otherworldliness to gain insights into the crime and more importantly the victim and his loved ones.

My husband grew up south and east from where this book takes place. (The opening descriptions of the landscape in Murder on the Red River mirrored his geological narration of our drives out to his hometown.) As a coastal, city kid, driving out into this flat, flat black earth with its sky so open I could almost see the curve of the horizon, it was an unfamiliar, almost scary feeling of isolation. Of course, Cash is tethered to this place by birth and 19 years and by family and people (however few) in a way that I wasn’t. Rendon’s prose feels similarly and simultaneously open and sparse. As such, she drives both plot, meaning, and exposition into seemingly singular objects (Cash’s prized pair of boots, which she found on a farm, her newly installed phone), memories (sleeping on the bench in the police station) and rhythms of life (her morning coffee, the thwack, thwack of the pool table). A few pages in and I was already felt in my bones that Cash was a real person.

While a good book is a good book, I happened to read this particular one during a pandemic and, as such, was attuned to the ways in which Cash’s story felt like it mirrored my own in isolation. Absent many of the normal outside distractions, everyday items and moments and relationships have taken on new meanings and been the objects of further study and fascination in this pandemic. It’s been an opportunity to drill down into more substantial ways of being and seeing, like Rendon’s prose.

Books, of course, have always been a way to connect but it’s felt more profoundly necessary as of late. Murder on the Red River took me into a world that was familiar and relateable in some ways (Cash’s waist length hair is considered a few times through the story and mine has grown nearly as long in the pandemic) and yet from a completely new (to me) point of view. I was somewhat familiar with the landscape of this part of this country but it was primarily from the perspective of the Scandinavian farmers and college students. I had not considered what life near and around the Red River might be like for indigenous people like Cash. I ordered the next Cash Blackbear book even before I finished this one.

One line of poetry (her own, I think) runs through Cash’s mind at different moments in the book: “Sun-drenched wheat fields, healing rays of God’s love wash gently over me.” It calls to my mind Malachi (3:19-20) “for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Like these lines, Murder on the Red River is a deeply satisfying work.

Making Kairos Happen

I have an iPad. I don’t need a journal. I read the daily gospel. I go to church (or at least I did in the time before). I don’t need help drawing closer to God. I’m good. I’m Catholic, for crying out loud. What could I possibly gain from

Still, the elegant grey notebook, with its regal purple ribbons kept appearing on my IG feed, almost taunting me with its simple photos and premise. “Oh IG,” I lamented, “you know me so well.” And so I clicked the “add to cart” button almost in spite of myself. Or perhaps to spite my self.

My 12 weeks with my Kairos journal happened to overlap with Easter Monday, thus the hot cross buns.

I was not disappointed. The book that arrived soon after my order was sturdy and thoughtfully laid out. It was satisfying to my touch and sight. I wanted to write in it and it felt full of potential even (or maybe especially) in its emptiness.

The daily lay out is simple and invites a morning and evening reflection. Fill out the date and a few spots in the morning and then reflect at the end of the day with a quick sentence in the weekly reflection spots in the second half of the journal (ergo, not one but TWO ribbons to mark pages). At the end of the week, use the short daily reflections, which I had been filling out as I went, to spark a more in-depth weekly reflection. Very simple but very effective.

At first glance, filling out a form might not seem like a spiritual practice but it is satisfying and confidence building. And there’s much to be said for easing into things, getting a little kick start with putting pen to paper with the know-ables (“The date? Oh, I know that!”) before launching into exploring the mysteries of life, the undefinables.

This was not my first time using a journal. I’ve had stretches of time in my life when I was fairly consistent about writing down my thoughts in a notebook of sort. But, like many of these sorts of things, this practice has waxed and waned. I went to graduate school for writing and so, for those four years, everything I wrote was for classes or my thesis, which shifted the way I thought about writing. I wrote reams and reams (more like RAMs and RAMs if you know what I mean) for an audience or a class or a professor or an assessment. I traded in my writing for therapy for writing for judgment. It’s a hard rut to drive out of.

In a recent book club discussion, we explored for a few brief moments the differences between books written to ultimately be turned into movies and those that are written for an audience of readers. I was reminded of emails when I was working towards my MFA in writing. Every so often, one of the film students (same school, different division) would send out a plea to the writing students for material, short stories or other source material that could be turned into a film. The idea that writing could (should?) be cinematic was in the ether floating along holding hands with its friends: story, narrative, scene, visual. It was in this highly visual Petri dish that many of my notions about what my writing should be were formed.

And so it was, that I, more or less, stopped writing.

Yes, in part, I was also busy with my kids and life. But I was also waiting, waiting for the narrative (holy of holies) to reveal itself. Waiting for the stories. My MFA was in nonfiction and one of the notions I walked away with was that you can’t force the narrative, you can’t cantilever the story into reality (nor vice versa). We can’t lie. And how often does reality show up on your doorstep in neatly packaged stories replete with narrative arc and denouement? Does reality reveal itself in scenes? I suppose Jaques would argue yes, what with his thoughts on entrances and exits. And certainly, I had long been training myself to find the scenes, to experience life in writerly vignettes.

Let me tell you what, dear reader, it’s no way to live. It’s impossible to inhabit a moment, to be fully present to it when your brain is trying to figure out how each moment might look “on the page.”

What does this have to do with the Kairos journal? It got me back into writing. Kairos (as the book designers remind us on an opening page) is Greek for “the appropriate time for something to occur or for something to be accomplished.” It seems the time was right for me to remember what writing had done for me as a kid or in times in life when I had regularly carved out some time to write for an audience of one, before I convinced myself that only good writing is worth doing and only narrative writing is good.

Because here’s the truth: all the writing is good.

And the Kairos journal, with its clear questions and fill in the blank type structure felt solid and do-able and not overwhelming at all. I felt I was bolstered by having the daily missal to read and choose a passage from, a sort of mini lectio divina. And it was less overwhelming than hauling, say, the entire bible out each morning. And pretty early on in my Kairos journaling, I let go of the idea of memorizing the chosen scripture. I know, I know, we Catholics are the worst for memorizing. The ideas are in my heart but, well, if Saint Peter asks me to name chapter and verse, those gates are NOT opening, I’ll tell you what.

In the end, I have twelve weeks of daily reflections and those pages feel like an accomplishment on par with even my MFA thesis even though it’s fewer words and intended for fewer readers (although not by much because I’d be shocked if anyone other than my two advisors read my thesis).

In the final days of the journal, I started to not really use the questions or guidelines much at all, just sort of using the pages to write and reflect. But I needed those guidelines in the early days just to get myself to put pen to paper and in glancing over the pages from the the latter days, I can almost feel the eagerness to explore the passages and document my days as I write through and over the guidelines and instructions. So it was a good thing.

In an era when I spend far too much time on devices, handwriting has become a deeply spiritual practice. I feel like I’m holding on to, preserving, and accessing an ancient wisdom when I write by hand.

So good in fact, that even though my Kairos journal is filled up now, I have continued and even expanded this practice and using some of what I took away from the Kairos journal and making it my own and to fit my spiritual needs. I still write twice a day, but now I use two different texts: the daily mass reading and gospel in the morning and the Tao Te Ching (which I’ve read before but it’s been a while) in the evening. I’ve split up my journal so that at the end of the week, I still do a weekly reflection at the back, which I’m hoping will work as sort of mini summaries of each week.

It has proven to be a fruitful practice.

Let me leave you with this. The early evening May shadows flicker across the table where I sit writing on my device. A motorcycle whines over the birdsong outside and the click, click of my keyboard and that of my daughter, on the computer and just out of sight behind a wall. My son calls out for me or my husband, either one will do, and kicks, bang, bang, the side of his crib.

Single tasking

Here’s part of the after dinner routine. I plonk myself down in a corner of the couch, next to the lamp, with my knitting project bag in hand and summon one of the older two children to my side. “Can you please come read to me?”

They read. I knit and listen. It’s lovely.

And then comes the moment when they finish reading and they go off to watching a TV show or to get ready for bed (depending upon what time it is). Some of the time, I am still sitting there, my knitting in my hands. What do I do now?

Because while they were reading and I was listening and knitting, my hands and my head felt busy but now I’m just knitting and it feels, for a moment, that that is not enough. Is sitting and knitting doing enough? Am I really being productive enough? And there it is, that word, enough, three times.

And so I’d pick up my phone and hop on social media, maybe even post something, but mostly just scroll and see what other people are up to here, there, and everywhere around the world. And my one thumb and my head are filled just enough so that I don’t wonder at whether I am doing enough or being productive. Until it’s time for bed.

So the other night, my daughters finished reading and I held on to my knitting. I just kept going. Initially, I had to actively resist my hand reaching for my phone. But once I shouldered through that, it was natural and easy to just keep on knitting.

A “stereoisomer sock” (pattern by High Contrast Knits) in yarn from Neighborhood Fiber Company. My older daughter has been reading The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse to me and my younger daughter has finished Snow and Rose by Emily Winfield Martin.

At the time, I was participating in my first knit-along (where knitters on IG knit the same pattern together at the same time). I was a long ways behind completing the pair of socks in the timeframe, but it still felt fruitful. I was learning some new techniques and using some that I was less familiar with, like knitting socks toe-up. It was an easy to follow pattern and I was using beautiful spring-colored, hand dyed yarn from a local (I’ll count Baltimore as local) yarn store. What I was doing with my hands, in other words, was hitting all my marks. It was sensorially and mentally stimulating. (The pattern is written as part of a four-part STEM series of patterns.)

In spite of this, there’s part of my inner monologue during moments like these that is saying, “you aren’t doing enough” or “it’s not enough just to be knitting.” And thus the lure of the phone. This, let’s face it, makes to sense, because scrolling through my phone is doing even less.

But as I settle into something like knitting, something that I can do with my hands, something that is mostly muscle memory but occasionally requiring some thought, something that paradoxically allows me to be simultaneously mindless and mindful, I know that I am doing much more with both my mind and hands than scrolling allows.

I think of a verse I read recently, Matthew 6:26: Look at the birds isn’t he sky, they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they?

With scrolling, the same neural pathways are stimulated over and over, like a bicycle tire slipping into well worn ruts. No, or few, new connections are made. Even the news or what is supposed to be the newest information entering my brain whilst scrolling starts to feel old. Is the truth that we live in a sort of groundhogs day with the same events doomed to repeat themselves over and over or is the truth that, taking in the information in the same fashion at the same time every day stimulates the same over-utilized surface neural pathways? Is it time to stimulate some different neurons, some found (perhaps with some difficulty) lying deep inside the folds of our brains? Does this perhaps require, from time to time, doing nothing or, at least, very little?

I argue yes.

And I would argue that those deep, hard to access neurons are where something from which we would all gain from reaching: wisdom.

Book Review: The Midnight Library

One of the side benefits of being in a book club is that I end up reading books that I wouldn’t choose to read on my own. The most recent book club selection, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, falls into that category.

A head’s up: spoilers may abound ahead (in as much as they can for a book that doesn’t have a whole lot of twists or surprises).

The Midnight Library centers around Nora Seed, a 35 year old (I was surprised when I was verifying that because I remembered her as a young twenty-something) living in small-town England. The narrative opens with a countdown to her attempted death by suicide (the tone came across as a little too flip of a way to use a mental health epidemic for my taste). She finds herself in the titular library filled with books through which she can visit lives other than her main (or “root”) life. She is guided by Mrs Elm, her elementary school librarian and a sort of mother figure.

I found myself mostly annoyed through most of my reading of the book, annoyed by the fact that a male author’s main character was a woman. It was a story that I had read, heard, or seen before in various formats (person experiencing other lives through books, or film, or other art or narratives comes to a deeper understanding of his own life) but this time it was a woman as the main character. More specifically, it was a woman as the main character written by a man. Haig seemed to be practicing, for lack of a better phrase, a sort of “femme pen”. Was this book taking up a run on the printing press that should have belonged to a woman author?

In addition to being annoyed, I also spent a lot of time (perhaps too much time?) thinking about what might motivate a male author to write a female protagonist. And more broadly, what did my experience with this text say about men and women’s experiences in the world and how they are different.

I was struck by how little Nora seemed concerned for her own physical safety in spite of seemingly being plunged into these other dimensions with little to no warning. I first had this thought when she woke up on a ship which ended up having at least some other men on it. Personally, this would have scared the shit out of me. And one of my first thoughts waking up around strange people and in a strange place would have been: what did they do to me, how am I going to defend myself, and how am I going to survive and get out of this situation?

You might think it would be refreshing to read something where a woman character is landing in each of these places and her safety isn’t a concern. But it didn’t feel like to me as a reader. It felt to me that the writer had not spent any time considering how this experience would actually feel to an actual woman.

Nora lands on the ship, specifically, because one of her dream alternative lives is to be a glaciologist. In her “root life”, as it is called, she worked at a music shop. Some of her other lives involve being a pub owner, an Olympic swimmer, and a “rock star.”

I recalled a time when I was in Thailand and I went to go visit a local fortune teller/ palm reader. Amongst other things, I asked him, “what am I going to be?”

He looked at me, slightly confused, tipped his head slightly, gestured towards me and answered, “That.”

Turns out asking what I would be is a very western (capitalist?) way to look at the world and myself. For this particular fortune teller, I was already what I was. So much for all the time spent thinking about and answering questions about, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I already am what I am. And so are you.

I digress because for Nora, her first few slides (into other dimensions) are basically slides through different jobs, as if identity is a career costume. Perhaps I was just fortunate to have met the right fortune teller at the right time who disrupted this western notion that you are your career. Or perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and thus have always had fewer career options (and role models in those careers in real life or even in fiction realistically portraying what it would be like to have that career, potential sexual harassment and all). And perhaps it’s because Haig is a man, the link between job and self is stronger than it should be if one is to maintain a healthy sense of self.

On the ship, Nora meets Hugo who is, it turns out, another slider (and, in fact is the one who introduces her to that word). He has been sliding in and out of alternate lives (his library is actually a video store) for much longer than Nora. The whole deal seems effortless to expert Hugo, especially in contrast to newbie Nora.

Which is all to say that what struck me whilst reading this book is that it seems that men (and, of course, I’m writing very broadly and generally here) seem to have a very expansive exterior life while women have been forced, by lack of exterior opportunity, to have a rich and deep interior life. And that this rich interior life (which might be something that Nora could use and lean into during this particularly stressful time in her life) is largely absent in Nora and perhaps that is because she was created by a man.

Nora seemed incredibly alone to me. In most of her lives, including her root life, she was largely shown primarily in relationship with men and her one close woman friend was, in most of the lives, far away in Australia. And this made me feel a little bit sorry for Nora. But mostly it made me feel sorry for Matt Haig and for other people who feel like him because it felt like one thing the story was getting at was a sort of unexpressed sense of isolation. Perhaps this isolation is too painful to write about and so he ended up writing it onto a woman character where it ended up feeling flat.

After I finished the book, I happened to be talking to my brother about it (who also is in the same book club and had also finished reading The Midnight Library) and he had just been reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. One of the things that he commented on was how the main character of that book is a man, Milkman, who is shown in relationship with a number of women who are ostensibly supporting and, yet, in Morrison’s pen are fully realized characters. And how it is in these relationships with fully realized women that Morrison gives us Milkman, also fully realized both through these relationships and in his story.

The Midnight Library was the opposite of Song of Solomon. Rather than a man at the center, Haig places a woman in relationships with mostly men, but it feels ultimately rather two-dimensional.

Haig’s narrative did make me reflect quite a bit on how expectations placed on men and women have boxed us all in perhaps most noticeably in terms of our ability to participate in exterior versus interior lives. Nora eventually finds a way into her own life which on the exterior, at least, she seems to find some measure of fulfillment. I wonder whether Haig, too, found whatever (perhaps interior?) fulfillment he was searching for in his creation of this narrative.

As for me? I’ve already slid past The Midnight Library and on to the next book where, perhaps, I’ll find another dimension that resonates more with my own.

She Come by it Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh and Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall.

Brave on a Bike

I don’t want to have to be brave to get on my bike to run errands. But I do. And it’s not as if I haven’t biked before. When we lived in Minneapolis, I’d bike to parks or to the Farmer’s Market, trailer in tow. And when I lived in Madison (Wisconsin), I owned a bike a used it from time to time.

Here, now, where I lived, it’s not just that there are a few hills here and there. In fact, I bought myself a decent bike precisely because I knew I’d have more hills to contend with than in the flat, flat Midwest where I was used to biking and where I could get away with a heavy hand me down.

It’s the car traffic. That’s it. That’s what I fear.

But the county is attempting this “shared streets” program lately and so I set my sights on using those, where drivers are more likely to be on the look out for cyclists. Some of those shared streets are on a route between where I live in and the closest central business district.

Plus, a bakery opened up. How could I justify not biking for bakery errands. So I finally did it. My husband double checked a few things on my bike and I biked up to the nearby bakery. And it was lovely. The morning air was still crisp and light. And the croissants were flaky.

And so the following week, when I planned another bakery trip, I asked my 7yo daughter if she wanted to join me. She’s up for almost everything and is awake before most of us most mornings.

I went over a few things with her beforehand (I would lead, look out for parked cars and their doors, which might suddenly open, use signals and follow me). And it was a lovely trip too. She handled even the hills beautifully and the car traffic was light enough that it didn’t feel particularly dangerous even for a young biker.

(Full disclose: we do go on little bike rides as a family in the area. This was just the first times we were going into areas with more cars.)

She helped pick out the breakfast baked goods and we even managed to lock our two bikes up together so we could run into the store unburdened. It was warm, but not hot. And we arrived home ready to enjoy and share our loot.

It was warm enough that that evening , at dinner, we ate with the windows open and so siren after siren that wailed past our house was all the more obvious. There were more than “normal” so I checked on-line to see what sort of emergency was happening.

A driver had hit a pedestrian on a sidewalk. It happened a few blocks from our house and a block from where we’d been biking earlier, near one of those shared streets. From my understanding, the pedestrian did not, fortunately, sustain any serious injuries.

Still, it gave me pause.

In fact, I hadn’t biked up there again in the last few weeks. Until today. (Although, I definitely didn’t invite any of my kids along. I wasn’t ready for that.) But I needed some items that I would be able to get at the nearby Asian grocery store. So I biked up again to run in there.

And it was lovely. Again. I am not sure whether I am ready to take my kids along with me, but it was freeing to be able to exercise and run an errand and support local businesses. I grabbed what I needed, which fit neatly into my new pannier/ bike bag from the Vietnamese-Chinese owned grocer where I overheard to proprietor speak Thai with another customer and English to me. Outside, as I unlocked my bike, a man asked me if I knew what kind of flowering trees were along the sidewalk in a Spanish-English hybrid.

“Excuse me,” he asked, “Cerezo?”

“Cerezo?” I asked him, bewildered.

“Yes, Cerezo. You know. In Washington, DC” and he pointed south of us.

“Oh! Cherry Blossom!” I laughed, pleased at the surprise at winning this little verbal charades game.

“Yes! Cherry Blossom,” he, also evidentially pleased.

We carried on like this, about the little trees and how beautiful they are and that I thought were perhaps a type of Magnolia based on the size and shine of their leaves. And we parted ways soon after.

And I biked home, grateful that the trip back, now laden with a few pounds of rice, was mostly a gentle downward slope.

My loot from my bike ride. Rice and noodles tucked under there. The greens are Chinese broccoli and Thai basil.

Holy Week Monday

The gospel according to John hit be differently this morning. I’d heard of and spent some time being bothered by one specific verse that I saw differently this morning, finally released from my previous incomplete readings.

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It was a verse that had itched at me off and on for a while. In part, because I had read other translations which changed the tense to “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me,” which seemed to focus on Jesus’s foretelling of his own death, which would come by the end of this week.

In addition, a few lines back, John tells us that Jesus is talking to Judas, who has complained that Mary was using expensive oils to anoint Jesus when the oils should be sold to feed the poor. Here, John tells us that Judas was a thief who stole from contributions meant to go to the poor.

Was Jesus calling out Judas here? Was he suggesting that Judas had been carrying the poor (and the money that he was stealing from them) in his heart where he should have been carrying Jesus? Was he pointing out Judas’s failure to focus on what was currently present (Jesus, himself) in favor of recalling those (the poor) who were not currently present?

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
John 12:8; practicing my calligraphy with mixed results.

I love Judas because he always reminds me of two things. One, that all of this are always on the same precipice of turning towards evil as he did. And two, that God is all forgiving and merciful no matter the myriad ways in which we might offend him.

I pray for Judas because I have learned from the moments when he has faltered, including this one in which he holds “the poor” up as a means to shield his own sin. I have much to learn from this.

Breaking Habits of Mind

I spent 21 years of my life as a student and I am now 44 years old, which means that I have existed on this planet as a non student just barely longer than as a student.

Most habits are hard to break.

This is what I learned as a student: every word and sometimes even little dots or circles or otherwise nondescript scratching written (and most spoken) will be evaluated and judged. Same goes for most movements of body and mind. Everything I do is either correct or not. Right or wrong. Sometimes even good or bad.

No left turn

The grey matter, even muscle and sinewy, grown and wrapped itself around these dichotomies. It has been a matter of survival. Or at least each cell became so easily convinced that it was a matter of survival. So that body and mind built up around a pillar of assessments.

Now. I’m no longer a student. Those pillars have crumbled away. How long will the spiraling neural pathways take to build shortcuts through those now empty, dark spaces? At the moment, I feel all hesitancy and fear, fumbling through new freedoms, searching for meaning in the absence of assessment and judgment.

Am I going to be tested on this?

It was raining this morning. All day, in fact. Still the dogs need their exercise and so do I. I donned my red hooded jacket and grey rain boots to take the puppy out to the yard to chase the ball (him, not me). The yard is relatively small, just enough room for him to take short sprints to and fro. Still, it’s enough. And on a day like today, I imagine for brief moments that we are hiking on a wind swept Irish coast. And I’d like to do that and be there and to end up in a pub with a beer and stew and a fire for the pup to lounge by.

But outside my brain and yard, a truck rattles by and right into the barkeep with his hand on the tap.

So Much Depends on a Sidewalk

A few days before Christmas 2020, a crew of men and women pulled up on the road in front of myself and, like a team of angels sent by God herself, installed and finished a six foot wide sidewalk in a few days. In doing so, they removed almost an entire lane’s worth of car space that had been the bane of my existence. Happy Birthday Baby Jesus to me!

To be honest, when I first submitted a request for the sidewalk, I thought it was going to be a matter of a Department of Transportation types showing up one day, checking out the site, an scratching their heads a bit while they said, “hmmm. I don’t know how we missed this on-block stretch of sidewalk right next to a bus stop? Curious. Well, we better send out a crew pronto to get this thing built.”

Not so.

The first response I received was someone telling me that there was already a sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. To which, you would think, a simple response of, “yes, but I don’t live on that side of the street” would suffice. No.

All told, it would take another two years of this type of back and forth until the crew of angels were finally able to complete their work.

A crew of angels. Angels, I tell ya.

Some things that have happened since the sidewalk has been installed: I’ve had conversations with multiple people who live in my neighborhood who I had never even seen before, my children have been able to go for actual walks/ runs, I have walked off at least 8 pandemic/ pre-pandemic pounds that I really needed to lose to improve my overall health, my two year old son ran down the sidewalk shouting, “the sidewalk is good!”

In the time before the sidewalk, many neighbors walked by our house but I wasn’t able to talk to them for fear that to distract them from their task of walking to the bus stop, would mean certain death as they had to walk into oncoming traffic.

I’ve seen some people remark about how extremely isolated they have felt in the pandemic. And I pray for them. I also remember how isolated I felt pre-sidewalk: something that I didn’t realize fully (and perhaps fortunately) until I experienced life with a sidewalk. Unknown drivers would often pull up on front of our house where there was room for cars. I spent much of my time trying to figure out what these drivers were doing. Most of the time (when I could figure it out), they were just using their phones watching movies or texting, sometimes it was other things (like pulling over to urinate). Regardless, the stream of stopped, unknown cars created a kind of vague paranoia or distrust in me. I felt my family and I were out in public and had the same feeling of guardedness even though we were at home, a place where we should have been able to be unguarded. I resented that other people could just drive their car up right in front of my house on a whim as if they were just in their own living room.

My kids love that this concrete flaking off revealed the image of a little girl on a sidewalk near our house.

The sidewalk has more or less ended this stream of cars stopping outside our house (on that side, anyway) by taking up the space where they used to pull over. And I’m grateful for that. The first time my dad came over after the sidewalk had been built, he settled into the living room and exclaimed, “it feels bigger in here!” He too had grown use to the way in which the cars crowded into my physical, mental, and emotional living space.

William Carlos Williams had it wrong. It’s not about the red wheel barrow. So much depends on the sidewalk, William. The sidewalk.

Book: The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis

I read this beautiful memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis, a few months ago for book club and am just now having some time (barely) to write down my thoughts about it. I have had a whole mess of thoughts about it and I will try to jot down as many as I can coherently (again, barely much time to do this) but, for both of our sake’s, here’s my TL,DR: Read this book.

The book opens with an incredible story centered around the narrator’s (Bridgett’s) robust shoe collection. This is Detroit in the 1960s and the narrator is a young Black girl with a white teacher who has a lot to say (in too few words) to her about the girl’s shoe collection. Enter Fannie Davis, the titular numbers-running mother. I don’t want to spoil what happens other than to say that the yellow shoes story itself does more to reveal what kind of mother (in short: amazing) Fannie Davis is than a handful of pages written by mere mortal writers has a right to do.

Initially, the story of the yellow shoes, which involved a school and a mom and a child being treated poorly by a person in a position of power, set me on edge. Surely, this would end in some disaster for everyone. The child would be embarrassed. Accusations would be thrown around. Neglect and failure would ensue. I don’t think it’s ruining it to say that my fears were unfounded. But what my thinking revealed is that I have become accustomed to the mother narrative, and especially one, perhaps, told from the point of view of a child, to be fraught and disasterous. I’ve read many essays and books and stories of parental failure. And while I think these stories are important, I also realized that I had been in a parent-child-success story dessert. I was thirsting for stories told from a child’s point of view showing a parent-child (and specifically a mother-child) relationship that was warm and loving and open. The World According to to Fannie Davis was that long, cool drink I didn’t know I’d been craving.

Through her personal story and details, Davis also gives us a birds-eye view of American history including the realities of redlining and discriminatory lending, “numbers” and how it birthed what we know as the lottery, and the rise of Detroit aka Motown aka Motor City. (This is the first book I’ve read in a while that could inspire a playlist of music that would be truly and definitively American.)

One of the most striking aspects of the conversation in our book club was the ways in which several members (myself included) had experiences with playing the numbers in other countries or in small American communities. The book (and our experiences) were tinged by whether the games we were playing were legal or not in each time and location and whether they were considered a “vice” or not. It was a stark illustration of the ways in which the laws can be arbitrarily written (and enforced) to essentially teach entire groups of people or generations that their cultural practices are morally corrupt. Because while it was clear that Fannie Davis was providing a service (or several services including her home being a social hub and the entertainment factor of the numbers which allowed for greater social interaction) to her community, it was under the shadow and fear that what she was doing was illegal and somehow, therefore, wrong. And Bridgett writes about this. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to think that a book about a mother who was running numbers out of her home would be potentially full of vice and guns and violence. But it wasn’t. But as readers, or at least I, as a reader, have been raised on this idea that this sort of gambling is illegal and therefore wrong and therefore must lead to other wrongs.

And it’s clear that these larger social and legal pressures have been absorbed by Bridgett. She writes about the struggle to write this story (at its heart a story of a mother who worked incredibly hard to raise her children, keep them clothed, and housed and educated and more) because of the shame around their family business being illegal.

It doesn’t take much to draw the comparisons around the law in America around what has become perceived as “vices” like marijuana use. In both cases — with the number becoming the lottery and with the gradual legalization of marijuana — the people who end up losing out are those to created and built up these cultural practices under the shadow of them being illegal.

I want to mention the medical disparities in this country highlighted by her story. At one point her father, who Bridgett Davis was very close to, was in the hospital. One of the nurses asked her why no one had been taking care of him. So here we have a family who has been continually under attack from redlining and disability and the stressors of factory work and on and on … and when they try to access health care, the nurse asks them why they didn’t take care of each other. That’s abuse.

Bridgett Davis quotes Toni Morrison to describe her mother and I’ll close with that because it’s a beautiful way to describe her mother and because I feel that this quote gets at the heart of the book. And while it’s Morrison’s words and not Davis’s, Davis’s narrative flow cleanly outward from Morrison’s.

“Black women seen able to combine the nest and the adventure… they are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.” I feel she was describing my mother. (P181.)

Asking for more

Once upon a time, I lived in a remote village in northern Thailand. It was about 18 kilometers outside of the provincial capital, which was, itself, a sleepy but charming town which drew visitors to its fields of sunflowers every October.

The village I lived in was out a well paved road past rice paddies and an old rope suspension bridge currently only used by thrill-seeking teenagers. Next to the road out to the village where I lived, there was a steep mountain and, if you looked closely, you could see some rough steps hewn into the side leading a bright orange flag which marked a small cave where a hermit lived.

I am not making this up and this is not really a story.

I am merely pointing out the cave to say this: this village where I lived was remote. This village was so remote that in order to get there you have to pass a hermit’s cave wherein lives a man whose entire life is centered around not coming into contact with any other human beings. The village where I lived was “past the hermit cave” remote.

And yet.

And yet, I still managed to, fairly easily, get to and from this village to the provincial capital where I could get on a plane to a city and eventually wind up back home on the opposite side of the earth.

Buses should serve everywhere and everyone, even the spooky places.

And how did I transport myself to and from this village and the provincial capital? Some of the time I hitched a ride with friends or rented a motorbike. But some of the time I did it the old fashioned way: I took a bus.

That’s right. A bus. It didn’t look the way that you might think of a bus if you grew up in the western world, but that’s what it was. At a designated time, it passed by certain predetermined places and you could climb aboard and pay a fee and sit next to other commuters and eventually arrive at another stop where you could get off.

So here’s the thing. The next time you are lamenting that your local bus service doesn’t go where you want it to go or that you can’t ride it because it doesn’t come to your neighborhood or doesn’t take you the places you want to go, here’s what you do: you ask. Ask the bus company or the transit division in your local municipality (in my case it would me either/ both WMATA or Ride-on to please expand their bus service to serve where you live.

And when you do, remember the bus that I was able to ride to a “pass the hermit cave” remote village and do not take “no” for an answer (unless you are asking them to go past two or more hermit caves in which case, I’ve got nothing).

Everyone, and I mean everyone, deserves access to public transportation.