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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.

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

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.)

The size of things

My kitchen is small. Somehow, we’ve all — all five of us plus the two dogs — managed to be and get fed out of it for the last seven or so years including coming up on two years of almost every meal, every day for all of us. OK, yes, we got take out some of the time.

Last night, I made one of my favorite meals to cook: chicken katsu. It involves much handling of raw chicken. It needs to be cut and pounded out before being seasoned a dredged, in turn, through flour, egg, and panko bread crumbs. But, I have it down to a system now. There’s the parchment lined baking sheet for the coated breasts to rest and even a spot (over the edge of the kitchen sink, raw meat side up) where I place the plastic wrap after each filet is pounded out. Last night, Ms11yo came into the kitchen to wash her hands and I warned her, sharply, to watch out for all the raw chicken hot spots and snapped at her that maybe she should wash her hands in the bathroom. Not my proudest moment.

It’s time for a change.

This fall we stayed for a few days in a rental house for a family gathering. It was a moderately sized place but it had a more average-sized kitchen than our own and, let me tell you, it was lovely. Amongst other things, we made pie. I rolled out crusts on one counter whilst Ms8yo peeled apples on another and my husband sliced them in yet another spot. Later on, Ms11yo, who usually doesn’t partake in much baking at home, made some lovely lemon poppy seed quick breads. Turns out, it’s probably not that she doesn’t like to cook and bake, it’s just that we don’t have enough room for all of our culinary ambitions.

This is more or less the extent of my counter space. I enjoy laminating dough for croissants but it is perhaps one of the more challenging things to do in a small space. Our contractor gave us this tape measure the first time we met him. I now use it to measure out dough when I’m rolling it out. It serves as a reminder of the bigger things to come.

We have been planning our kitchen remodel for a while now. We have an architect and contractor picked out and we’ve been going through rounds of design options. It’s a slow process, made slower, it seems by the pandemic.

It’s a strange quirk of the human brain, I think, that creates a narrative around ways to acceptable certain, unchangeable conditions. “This small space is fine. It challenges me to be innovative in how I use it.” To the point where I almost convince myself that I’m a better cook because of the small space rather than in spite of it. I’ve come to think of it as my little space of refuge in our house at the end of the day. Of course, the underlying subtext is that I, as the mother, am seeking some sort of refuge from my kids and family at the end of the day. Plug my headphones in, focus in on cooking in this small space, my kids and husband just beyond the walls doing their own things. Staying in a rental for a few nights reminded me that this is, in fact, not how I truly think about myself and my kids and family. I don’t want to escape away from them into this small space and activity. This was the narrative that I had made to make the situation acceptable.

Seems unjust that a mushroom could grow so large in the space outside my kitchen. But perhaps it’s an apt metaphor for what can happen with more space? More growth?

Of course, now I wish I could snap my fingers and it would be done. I know that one day, I’ll look back at this time which feels glacial right now and in my retrospective timeline it will feel like the change from small to big was a blink, nothing more than a closing of eyelids and a re-opening. Mr3yo will likely not even remember “small kitchen”.

I think of our house and even the kitchen as “cozy” right now. And it calls to mind a sort of closeness between family members within that coziness. Is it possible that having more space will mean greater closeness within our family? It remains to be seen. I’ll post here once it happens.

November 19, 2021

It’s chilly here today: mid 40s or so. But sunny and dry. The leaves, a lively yellow dipping into dusty brown sprinkled with red, scratch, scratch against the pavement. Mr3yo threw his matchbox car (which fit so neatly inside his hand!) into those one of those piles. Which one? Certain losses must just be accepted.

I’m hibernation ready: sourdough starter at a gradual bubble in a mason jar crowded in between empty egg cartons and bread baskets full of not-bread on top of the fridge. I’m a sourdough newb. A few weeks ago, I was all: “I’m supposed to feed this now? What does sourdough starter eat? How often?” Now I’ve grown accustomed to knowing the hunger signs and comforted by the easy ritual of weighing out water and flour. The rhythm of the baking is what still eludes me. How do I slow down my brain to thinking in terms of days and overnights to double in size while, on the highway outside of my bedroom window, the cars are zero to sixty in seconds? I know it will come but for the time being, I page through books and websites, flipping and scrolling back and forth, watching the clock. I’d like to have bread on Sunday. But before you know it, it’s Saturday and I should have started the process two days ago. (Not really. But you get the point. I hope.)

The yogurt is coming easier, as long as I have whole milk stocked somewhere in the fridge. I know the easy rhythm of scorching and cooling, sterilizing and incubating. I guess I’m more of a bacteria girl than a yeast one although I’m not sure that’s something I should admit.

I’ve heard tell of people who have kept yeasts or other cultures for years or even generations. My husband studied yeast in a laboratory his first job out of college. He’s dubious about how long these sourdough strains or yogurt cultures have been around. But maybe a home isn’t a lab or a lab isn’t a home. Maybe yeasts need a less sterile environment and a lot of love?

When I lived in Thailand, along the Thai-Burma border, I visited a house where the family distilled rice whiskey. The distillery was an elaborate series of bamboo poles and pots and fire. The woman who was running it showed me the cake of yeast that she used to create the alcohol: a small meringue-like lump, hard and light. The outer shell yielded to reveal a mushy inside inside. I don’t know how long she’d had that strain, but I know that she had carried it from her home village in Karenni State to where we met in the distillery in the refugee camp she was calling home, at least temporarily, in Thailand. And here I am, trying to keep mine alive through the winter on top of my fridge.

There’s something to all this: the meringue, the mousse-like consistency of my starter, the sweet smell of a well fed yeast, the things we choose to carry and the things we lose in a pile of leaves. But I’m quickly losing daylight and my mind is heavy. I’ll make sense of it all. Another day.

Writing in the time of C19

Yesterday, I wrote about how I miss writing. So here I am, back for more, searching for answers about what writing does (and does not) do for me. Why should I do it? Why should I not do it?

A few weeks ago, a friend (Sarah Smarsh, who wrote the book Heartland, which everyone should read) texted me about a magazine she’d seen at her local co-op in Kansas. I miss co-ops, which seemed to be much more of a part of life when I lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Would I give up the little local Asian and Central American groceries stores up the street from me? Probably not, but it sure would be nice to have both. The magazine was Taproot, one that, as it turns out, I’d been following for a while on IG. But Sarah’s text brought it back into my current (albeit narrow) depth of field: “very kid-centric with projects that reminded me of you and your kiddos,” she texted.

The tag-line reads, “Inspiration for makers, doers, and dreamers.” A few weeks later, I bit the bullet and subscribed.

My first issue arrived yesterday.

It looks like many issues of Taproot have a knitting pattern included. This new cast on isn’t from Taproot but is just a project (a short sleeve sweater for my daughter) that I happen to have on my needles right now. I knew the stars (or maybe the gluten strands) were in alignment when my first issue of Taproot arrive just as my first sourdough starter was getting going (in the mason jar above).

I like receiving and having new things and especially things as satisfying as magazines. I used to subscribe to a fair number of them, or at least periodically (pun intended) picked them up at bookstores (or co-ops!). But it’s been a while. Yeah, it’s been in part of the pandemic has meant that I’ve been lingering less often in front of magazine racks, but it’s also been a while since I’ve received magazines at home just because, well, life. And, perhaps, because it has felt like between my phone and my iPad, I seemingly have access to more of this type of content than I could ever possibly consume. Of course, it’s not the same, but I don’t always know that.

So when I ripped open the heavy brown packaging on the latest (and my first) issue, I have to admit that my excitement was laced with trepidation. Why? This is part of what I want to explore as a writer and reader.

I just happen to be working on creating a sourdough starter this week. (For the curious: it turns out that even on top of my fridge, my kitchen might be a little too cool most of the time to really get it going. I might have to utilize my incubator from time to time.)

First, as a writer. For many years of post-graduate school magazine consumption, I read magazines (really any form of literature and written media) with at least 57% (give or take) of my brain preoccupied with, “Should I pitch a story here?” And then I’d run through different possible story ideas. Would it be a good fit? Should I? How would I do that with this magazine? Most of the time, none of these thoughts would actually lead to any pitches or stories, and yet they occupied enough space to intrude upon any potential enjoyment or edification that I might get from consuming the words in front of me.

What I don’t want is to fall back into that way of thinking. I want to be able to reclaim simple enjoyment (or edification) or, perhaps best of all, connection through reading.

Which leads me to the second part: examining why I feel trepidations around paging through a new magazine or piece of written media as a reader. I think it comes down, in part to this. Even as I was tearing open the thick brown mailer to reach the prize inside, I was mentally placing armor around my heart and mind. This is armor that I have unconsciously built up over years and it is armor that has, generally, served me well. In what way? So much of media that I have consumed, both actively and passively, creates a glossy image of life that is as hard to deny as it is hard to obtain. The images of ease and happiness, of deliciously seductive flatness are magnetic. And this attraction inevitably leads me down the road of comparison which can only end up in a quagmire of judgment, of both self and other, but once I’m in that state of mind, does it really matter where it is directed?

Would this experience of consuming lead to more of this comparison, judgment and negativity? Ergo: an armor of cynicism, of distancing myself from what is being said on the page, of dissecting and judging it in a way that prevents me from getting to the phase of comparison and dissatisfaction. But what does that armor do as a reader? Takes some (all?) of the potential for connection.

Still, I read on. I started with an essay by Sarah Kerch Gaffney “Flour, Needles, Soil, Pen.” I bake, I knit, I garden, I write all. So it felt a good place to start. In spite of my trepidation that I would find something that would shine a light on these things that I also love to do in such a way to, at the very least, spur some annoyance and at worst cultivate a judgmental attitude, I found the exact opposite. It was a lovely piece about how we do these things to ground us especially through grief. These activities of the hands bring us a little grace. And I felt that I had had a lovely, relatable exchange with a kindred spirit who I had never met and likely never would.

The visual art is charming, cozy, and comforting too.

I’ve skimmed over a few other pieces in the magazine. In more than one place, I’ve seen writers (Farai Herreld and Alyson Morgan stood out) waxing eloquent about some of these very issues: the responsibility of creators to share the messy failures and difficulties alongside (or maybe even in place of) the glossy images. I found a certain acknowledgement of how hard it can be to live by your convictions.

The pull quote (from Farai Herreld) above: “I think that simple living bloggers can be unrealistic sometimes with the things they share. Like they make everything seem perfect and don’t share the reality of how challenging this work is. Sure, it looks beautiful when I talk about collecting eggs from my coop and having my pretty gardens. But if I’m not sharing about chicken poop in my hair and other aspects and struggles, then people who don’t have the background will not be able to understand the hard work involved and can get disillusioned with it when they try.”

I feel buoyed by this and these words, in the hope that, even in the seeming isolation of a pandemic, that there are like minded people out there with similar struggles and concerns and that, somehow, our paths will cross at just the right time.

On (not) writing

I miss writing.

Last time I posted here, it was post celebrating the 35 posts I’d done over the course of something like seven or eight weeks. I had set a goal to write on the regular and I had achieved it. I’d hoped that this streak would kick start me sitting down and writing as regularly on a larger piece of fiction that I’ve had kicking the hard wires of my brain and the hardwires of my actual computer a little less.

It wasn’t to be so.

Part of me thought that with shifting my kids from homeschool to the virtual option offered by my district would open up daily writing sessions for me. This hasn’t materialized.

I haven’t given up hope that these dream writing sessions will happen, but I will admit that I skimmed over bits and pieces of the long essay “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf. In it, she argues that women need space and time to write. I’ve always cringed away from this sort of idea, so deeply, perhaps, engrained in my neural pathways the idea that only real work deserves time and money and only real work involves producing, not creating.

I remember I once heard a writer equate one book-length project to raising one child. This idea was then framed by the speaker with the further thought that each child is one less book and vice versa. I cringe away from this idea too: that I have to somehow choose one over the other. Children or creativity? You can’t have both. And, of course, it’s obvious which I would choose, which I have chosen.

What about all the books unwritten and the pieces of art unproduced? Or children not raised?

And, yet, here I am. From time to time I convince myself, very nearly, that the novel is percolating, as I bring the 3yo to the toilet or help the 8 year old through her math, or stir a pot of soup. And perhaps it is. I also know (from experience) that the real writing truly only happens when I’m sitting down and writing, undistracted. I know that it will never happen until, maybe, my children have grown up. My prefrontal cortex is so consumed by the basics of their health and safety, completely subsumed by it and unable to devote any energy to other higher level executive functioning.

Which, honestly, it pains me to even write about because, thinking about it in this way, the writing seems a selfish endeavor even though part of me knows that it’s also important for caregivers to feel fulfilled, to feel like we are contributing to something.

And I think that this is what I have been missing about writing — either here or in other more private places. Somehow organizing my thoughts into words, sentences, paragraphs on a screen would place them somewhere outside of pinging around inside my own head. And this, I suppose, is, in a way, what fulfillment means.

5 posts a week for 7 weeks = 35 blog posts

And I’m feeling pretty good about it. I set out about seven weeks ago having decided that I was going to post five days a week. (Truth be told, I actually was going to go for 7 days a week, but I got to my first weekend and decided it would lead to burn out so I backed off a bit.) I didn’t have an “end date” in mind or a goal for how long I would sustain it. So while the idea that “30 days set a habit” was bouncing around somewhere in my head, I mostly just wanted to see where it would take me.

And I would say that definitely it has become a habit, and a good one. Even if I don’t always look forward to sitting down and writing, it definitely doesn’t feel like a chore (if it ever did). But through the day, and even through the week, the thought of “maybe I’ll include that in a blog post” definitely crosses my mind. I don’t usually feel stressed about jotting down a thought or an idea because I know that I will be sitting down to write and post later on in the day and that the content will bubble up to the surface at the time. Making blogging a regular habit has, therefore, made me less stressed out. I’ve shown that meta cognitive part of my brain that I will, in fact, be writing down my thoughts and experienced in a semi-organized fashion on a regular basis and so I feel a little less of the desperate, clawing anxiety around the thought that I might have a REALLY GOOD THOUGHT and miss out on it because I didn’t write it down. I might not have arrive yet at the point that I trust that even a worthwhile (recordable and shareable) thought might not stick with me longer than a week, but these 35 posts have shown me that I can manage to hold those thoughts in my head for at least for a day.

I’m managed, I think, to blog one or two pursuable thoughts over the past month or so. Perhaps I edit myself a little less and am finding a bit more freedom in the process of writing down ideas. Key to this is that I’m not just writing five hundred words but I’m also hitting that “publish” button five times a week. And the world did end each time I did it. It’s not just the writing that I’ve needed to work on, I’ve needed to practice putting it out there, even on something as small as a personal blog. And the end result has been intensely gratifying. I’ve written a few times here about how for much of my life, most of my writing (and there’s been a lot) has been for assessment by one or two people (professors or teachers). And for a long time, every time I would think about writing, it would be to pitch something to an editor (or agent). A substantial part of my thought process was trying to guess at who might like what and then trying to write that best guess. It’s liberating to a shocking degree to write something, anything that is more than the product of a guess at what might please someone else.

In spite of all of the gains that I’ve made from blogging five days a week, I’m going to back off a bit here. It doesn’t seem to make sense just when this habit seems to be embedded, I know. I’m definitely not burning out. If anything, I’m just as inspired as I ever have been. Perhaps more so. That being said, I do have some other goals in mind. One is that I hope that my decreasing the frequency, I might be able to increase the quality (and perhaps length if that is what the topic calls for) of each post. And two, as I feel that this weekly habit of at least five hundred words a day five days a week is sticking, I’d like to use some of that energy to work on my fiction project. So it’s not so much that I will not be writing as much or as consistently, but that I won’t be hitting that “publish” button as often.

And I’ve gotta say, I feel pretty good about it.

(Word press just informed me that this is also my 100th post on this blog, so I’m feeling pretty good about my progress on a few different fronts. Proud of myself!)

Two more sentences than I had yesterday

I wrote two sentences today. With virtual school starting this week, most of my time has been taken up with trying to get the older two kid’s schedules, technology, and space sorted out whilst still meeting the third’s needs and interests and not neglecting him. You know those moments where everything seems to be chugging along and then suddenly you find yourself with a few spare minutes here and there that you don’t know what to do with? Yeah. Neither do I. But it’s a nice thought. I rarely ever reach those moments because I usually have a whole bunch of things lined up that either need to be taken care of or are things that I want to do (I count lying down on the couch to get caught up on a few minutes of sleep amongst those things that need to be taken care of).

Still, I managed two sentences today, sitting at the dining room table on my iPad while the two older kids were in class and the littles one was still asleep. I’m not going to say they were brilliant sentences but they got written and they weren’t terrible. As I wrote yesterday, I’m chipping away (two sentences by two sentences, just like on the arc) at this fiction project. I’m sure that there’s something to be said here about Virginia Woolf’s idea that a writer needs a “room of one’s own.” In this case, however, a writer-mother requires not just a room of my own but, more importantly, rooms (multiple) for her children.

And so, I’m also trying to clear space so that my kids have designated spots for their virtual learning. This has meant going through boxes and boxes and shelves and shelves of old things, clearing away the unwanted stuff, which, truth be told is most of it. I don’t know why I’ve spent all of these years thinking that I am a person who holds on to the little flotsam and jetsam of life. And I think at some point, I squirreled away things because I felt like hanging on to sentimental items was something I was just supposed to do. There is no good reason that I can think of why I was under this impression, but to be perfectly honest, this week I’m transforming myself into someone who very much enjoys throwing away unnecessary things. I guess it’s true that it does feel like bit of a (much overdue) unburdening of myself. I’ve heard before that when people are at a point of a bit life transition, they will chop off all of their hair. In spite of the fact that mine might nearly begin to brush my lower back, I haven’t been able to get up the energy it would involve to get my hair cut in a pandemic in which my kids still aren’t able to get vaccinated. In short, absent a bold hair cutting life transition statement, there is the purge statement. I’m looking forward to the moment when I can look, full face frontal into the camera, and say, “this house is clean.”

(Not) Having a Literary Agent

Before the night of my thesis reading for my MFA in creative writing, I had been told that it was possible there would be agents, publishers, and editors in the audience coming to listen for those who might be the next up coming talent in the literary world. I read a few pages from my thesis, which I had been working on for the past two years. The focus of my thesis were the three or so years I had spent teaching and then visiting in a Karenni refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border. The passage I chose to read from retold a day which one of my students had told me about when he returned home from watching his family’s buffalos to find that Burmese soldiers had shot and killed his grandmother and his little brother in his home.

In spite of the fact that I had been told there might be agents there, I was honestly a little surprised when one contacted me the next day asking to meet with me. I was excited, nonetheless. I asked my thesis professor for advice. “I’ve never done this before,” I told him. I was more than a little deflated when his response was, “Tell her that you’re not ready for an agent yet but you will be in touch with her when you are.” And, yet, what I read around the edges of his response was the idea that once I was ready for an agent, I would be able to pick and choose.

This was not the case.

I did end up meeting with this agent. But, truly, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea that agents are people who work for writers and what sort of questions I should be asking her. And at the end of the meeting, I told her (almost verbatim, I’m sure) what my professor had told me to say.

In the intervening years, I did write to a few other agents, some of whom I had met through my MFA program. I didn’t receive any responses. I gave a reading at an event at a bar in New York that was specifically billed as a way for grads of my program to meet agents. This event resulted in a single email from an editor at the new Vice website. My reply to this editor’s request to see some of my work did not earn a response. Eventually, I decided that I’d been waiting around to be “ready” for too long and with no clear signs one way or the other, I decided to contact the agent who I had met after my thesis reading.

I sent her some more pages of my thesis. And quickly signed with her thereafter. I was an agented writer. I sent her more pages. Months passed with no response. When I followed up, she apologized. She had decided that she couldn’t represent non-fiction work, but sent along a list of agents who might be a better fit. The only person on the list who responded to me was a woman who I had gone to high school with. We reminisced via email briefly but she never asked to see my work.

I would like to say that this is a blog post about persevering and not giving up in the face of rejection. I’d like to say that I kept trying and pitching and writing until finally I contacted the right agent and so on and so forth. But that’s not what happened. The truth is that I pretty much stopped writing for a long, long time.

And perhaps that was for the best. The truth is that what I had been writing about in graduate school was other people’s stories of incredible hardship and heartache and pain and destruction. In retrospect I think perhaps those are not the stories that I want to tell or that I believe I have a right to tell. Part of me knows that had I had any measure of success by telling these stories that belong to other people, I likely would have felt very guilty. Rather than feeling like I was helping by bringing attention to the situation, I would have been piling more pain on to it.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself: some version of “it was for the best.”

And I have started writing again. Here, on this blog and from time to time I chip away at a longer piece of fiction. I don’t get paid for it (in fact, I pay to maintain this site). And I don’t, perhaps, reach hoards of readers. But it is satisfying nonetheless: the routine of it, the sense of accomplishment that I’ve sustained over a month’s worth of five posts a week. I wish I had any kind of bold, reassuring words for fellow writers out there who might be struggling. The only thing I’ve got is incredibly trite (perhaps cliche the real reason why I’ve never gotten and held on to an agent!): do it for yourself.

Flipping Pancakes

I started my morning trying to get on to a zoom help call with the local school district whilst simultaneously trying to make pancakes. My kids’ schedules still seem to be somewhat jacked up. And we all gotta, you know, eat.

Of course, the zoom call didn’t start on time. And, of course, they let me into the room just as I was downstairs in the basement retrieving an ingredient so that I was hustling up the stairs lest I miss my chance. They put me into a break out room to get the problems solved almost immediately after I expressed my dissatisfaction. This is at least the second time that I’ve been under the distinct impression that they’ve tried to shuttle my chats or calls into a more discreet (and discrete) area just as I’ve gotten going asking questions like, “should I be concerned that these on-going issues are an indicator of the education my children are going to receive?” God bless the educators and administrators facing a parent who has been homeschooling for the past two plus years and the answer is, unfortunately, yes. Yes, this chaos is reflective of the education they are going to receive.

So here I am just trying to make it so that the technology is actually working, and I keep getting a lot of explanations and defensiveness muddying so-called apologies. “The adults need to remain calm so that the kids don’t pick up on our stress,” which really makes my blood pressure crank up. “No, I want to say, the adults need to take care of this scheduling and technology nonsense so that the kids don’t get unnecessarily stressed out,” But I don’t.

“Everybody has been working really hard,” an administrator says as I attempt to flip pancakes with one hand and mute myself with the other so that I can ask kid #1 to please go wake up kid #2. (Husband was taking the auto-immune disordered dog to the vet and kid #3 was, praise God, still asleep.) There’s more: “innovative program, the likes of which have never been done before”. I want to tell her to take this type of language to the school board or wherever they need to take it to get money. I don’t care. I just want my kids to not be upset because the links they’re clicking on don’t go anywhere as they are slowly becoming more and more panicked that they are missing something or that it is they who have done something wrong. “You’re doing everything right,” I tell her. “It’s the grown ups who’ve messed up.”

Which is pretty much always the case.

We go over to my parents’ place in the afternoon. The kids log on from there while I continue to work on getting some space there for them to set up their school laptops. We’re low on space at our own house and a little change of scenery and company has been a necessity during this pandemic. It’s becoming increasingly important with the kids all being under the age of 12 and therefore unable to get vaccinated. While many spaces and places have seemingly been opening up a bit more lately, from a parent’s perspective that has just meant that more places become riskier and riskier for unvaxxed kids. We are trying to spread out as much as we can within the confines of safe space.

I’m trying to clean and organize a bit there, but the tension from dealing with the so-called adults has settling into my hips, which, in turn, yank and pull on my lower back. I’m fighting a battle against pain with only a few weapons: myo-facial release, stretches, and Advil.

Part of me really thought that once school started, I’d be able to relax a bit. I thought I might even have some time to myself. Virginia Woolf wrote about the need for writers (and particularly women) to have a room of one’s own. It will be a while (if ever) before I have a room of my own, but I certainly thought that letting go of the homeschooling wold perhaps at least open up a little space (perhaps even a whole room’s worth) in my head. More room for creativity. For the time being, that creativity, that room is being dedicated to attempting to communicate with an entity (the school district) that doesn’t want to be communicated with. One of its representatives on the zoom call today said that I was sounding anxious and my first thought was, “You don’t sound nearly as anxious as I would think an administrator hearing about what’s going on in their school should be. Am I really entrusting my kids to people who seem to not even care about simply doing their jobs?” And the answer is no, no I’m not entrusting them to anyone. That’s why I’m on these calls and emailing and checking in with my kids multiple times a day, sometimes multiple times an hour. That’s why I’m putting as much energy as I am into this. And that’s why I’m flipping pancakes.

I

Transition Time

I kept thinking this weekend about what I wanted to post this week on this blog. Of course, as Monday rolled around, all the ideas flew right out of my head. And so it goes.

I know that mostly I had been thinking a lot this weekend about the differences between learning and getting an education. I guess generally, it’s just been the questions that perhaps always come up around the start of the school year: how do I do my best by my kids? How do I give them the best? What does that even mean?

And it’s a hard year for that for parents and perhaps especially for those of us who have kids who are too young to be vaccinated in a world that seems very eager to return to something like the way that things were pre-Covid-19. I waffle wildly back and forth between which schooling option is the best right now for my kids; my pendulum-like swings mirroring what the school district we currently live in delivers or fails to deliver. The district is offering a virtual option? Great! Amazing! That virtual option doesn’t have a phone number to field parents’ questions? Retreat to the safety of homeschool!

I guess I have to be grateful, though, for the few years we’ve spent homeschooling. It feels very easy, at this point, to figure out, intuitively, how to help our kids with virtual school without getting in the way of their learning and their experiences.

If nothing else, much of today was spent teaching our kids ways they can advocate for themselves, but recognizing when they’ve done all they can and taking a break for their own mental health. We encourage them to write down their questions or concerns so that they are ready for them. Raising your hand and having to speak in front the whole soon feels like too much? Use the chat to get your question answered. There are a lot of zoom conversations going on that you don’t need to be a part of? I’m fine with you turning off your camera and taking a break to stretch or walk around or, honestly, just flopping down on the couch with a book or playing with your little brother.

Whatever it takes to make it through and still be able to maintain a good attitude, even if that means not participating or doing anything at all.

So, yes, I suppose that in many ways, we are still teaching them and will continue to do some this year. It might just be about things that aren’t necessarily part of an actual subject matter. We might just be teaching you how to advocate for yourself and to speak up, but also to know that you don’t have to every time. We’ve got their backs and if it comes down to it, we will drop everything in order to make sure their needs are being met, even (or maybe especially) when those needs are related to them getting the schooling and education that every kid deserves.

Wu-Tang (alone) is for the children

Where is the spirit of the Wu-Tang Clan as explained by Old Dirty Bastard (ODB) at the 1998 Grammy Awards? “Wu-Tang is for the children!” Right now, it certainly feels like no one else is.

After homeschooling for a few years (and through the first part of a pandemic), we were looking forward to getting some support for our education of our children with the Montgomery County Public Schools Virtual Academy. We were hopeful that our kids might have some more socializing and we, as parents, might not have as much on our shoulders. The virtual option was appealing as we saw the Delta variant on the rise this summer, right when applications for the Academy were due anyway.

But it’s been another exhausting day of trying to get answers, trying to figure out if our kids will be able to log on on Monday (the first day of class), trying to grip the floorboards with our fingernails even as we find ourselves slipping through an ever-growing crack. I used to be a classroom teacher in a public school, a setting where the phrase, “slipping through the cracks” is bandied about like a shuttlecock. But to tell the truth, I never would have seen my own kids as the “type” to “slip through the cracks.” We are too well resourced and savvy and able to advocate for that to happen, I would have previously thought.

But the more I think about it and the more time I spend interacting with this public school system, the more I think that the cracks are not mere accidents. The cracks are there by design. And kids don’t so much “slip” through them as much as they are shoved.

Our kids will be fine. I’m extremely frustrated and I’m resentful that the last days of our waning summer are being taken over by this bureaucratic nonsense, but truly our kids will be fine. Even if this whole situation ends up being an epic waste of time, we’ve homeschooled before and we can homeschool again. Our kids won’t be in a high risk position for contracting Covid-19 in these months to come before the under 12 groups can get vaccinated.

But, clearly, we are in a pretty unique position. I read recently that somewhere around 2 to 3 percent of all the students in the district where we are are taking advantage of the virtual option. This seems a surprisingly low percentage, given the current pandemic numbers, that most of the student body population still can’t be vaccinated, and that Delta is still a bit of a wild card, especially for children (and especially with regard to potential long term effects).

I also think about how getting our kids into the program (and we STILL don’t have a teacher assignment for one kid and have only a half schedule for the other kid) took pretty much all of the knowledge and foresight of parents who are a virologist and a teacher. Are there other families out there who would benefit from and would like to be enrolled in something like Virtual Academy but don’t have the access to information that we do? Do many families just implicitly trust that the school district will do everything they can to protect the children in their care? (Or maybe my implicit mistrust became a self fulfilling prophecy? Although, I don’t think so.)

Is this just all part and parcel of the long, slow demise of public education in certain places?

Today, in between moments of blinding, heart pounding frustration, I was thinking about all the families that don’t have all of the resources that we do. Families from whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language, or who have one instead of two parents or caregivers in the home, or who can’t work from home, or don’t have one parent who doesn’t work, or who don’t have all the technology that we do to be able to engage a system (incidentally Virtual Academy doesn’t even have a phone line yet) through zooms and chats. Those who don’t have extended family or friends nearby.

Let’s hope that our whole district, our whole country, can get some of the Wu Tang spirit of being “for the children”, but especially for those in these most vulnerable groups.