On (not) drinking coffee

Over the course of the pandemic, my daily coffee intake slowly ramped up. I was already using a stove top espresso maker without really having considered that two cups of espresso is not really the same as two cups of coffee. And I somehow completely overlooked the cup of green tea I was having most afternoons — in spite of the fact that it was matcha, meaning whole leaf and therefore quite a bit more caffeine than the steeped stuff.

And then one Saturday morning, I woke up, became absorbed in some other task, and forgot to make coffee. By the time I thought of it again, I decided I didn’t really need it. And eventually it was too late in the day for me to caffeine. It was then, of course, that the headache crept in. I’ve read the pain of this type of headache as being like “a vise grip”. The was not accurate for the pain I was experiencing. This image is one of my head placed in the grip and an external pressure exerted. But the ache I was experiencing was very clearly coming from inside my head. And the cause was clearly that I had denied my body the substance it had come to expect everyday, at the same time, in great quantities, over the last year or so.

What had made me increase my intake so much? Was I looking for some sort of “normalcy” in the face of major shifts that the pandemic brought? Was it that I felt I deserved maybe even craved a little “treat” in this pool of seeming deprivation? Was it simply that as it grew cold, I wanted something warm and warming and a little cozy-feeling in the discontented winter of 20-21?

The book I’m currently reading is Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendon, which probably would go well with coffee, but I’m not having any right now. The book is just as good without it, which is to say: fantastic.

Probably all of this and more. I suspect I was also at the time (and perhaps always am) particularly susceptible to of comfort scrolling (through IG and Twitter) and there I created this image of my head of coffee as being some sort of flag of normalcy and “everything is fine”.

This is not my first time going off coffee and it’s probably not my last time drinking it. Although, hopefully the few days of head and muscle aches that I experienced will give me pause before I head down that road of copious consumption. And I’ve definitely had periods of time in my life when I haven’t been drinking coffee on the regular. (See: I did spend some time in a refugee camp where there wasn’t electricity much less coffee makers and where making a cup of coffee would have involved making a fire to boil the water.)

So how has it gone, no longer consuming coffee for nearly two months? It’s honestly been good. I no longer really miss it, most of the time. I bought some lovely green tea that was grown in Shan State and from time to time, I’ll have a cup, just like I used to when I lived in Karenni Refugee Camp #3, which was located not far from Shan State. Luckily, I don’t need to make a fire to boil the water. I might have a cup a week or so, just when I want to feel cozy and comforted.

No one else in my household drinks coffee so I don’t miss the social aspect of it and it doesn’t exactly feel like I’m denying myself anything as I’m not really surrounded by it. For the time being, I’ve been able to use the time I was spending grinding beans and brewing of the stove for other things: proper breakfasts and exercise. My mom mentioned recently that coffee is supposed to have some components (antioxidants perhaps?) that are good for health, but I feel pretty good about replacing that time on things like exercise that are supposed to be just as good if not better for your health.

After that initial withdrawal period, my energy through the day feels more even than it did when I drank coffee or, at least, I think I have more productive ways of getting through those periods when my energy lags (like, napping if I need it or going for a walk). A thing that I really enjoy now is not feeling tied to having to have something in order to feel good. I enjoy not wanting to grab a take out cup from places or even just putting one on the stove.

The other day my daughter made some cookies and my husband was enjoying one when he turned to me and said, “These cookies seem like the type of thing that would be good with a cup of coffee.” (Yes, my husband doesn’t even drink coffee). “Hmmmm…,” I said to him. I didn’t really know how to answer. Coffee hadn’t crossed my mind for a while. Which was probably — no definitely — a good thing.

Home is Where Health Is

Here’s the thing: everything I need is right here.

And here’s a sliver of what I see when I look back at pre-pandemic days and then today, as if I could fold time so that those two periods (pre-pandemic and this morning) could line up next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip.

In the days before, I spent a lot of time (most of my time even) looking out (both literally and figuratively) beyond the fence around my home. Even on those days when the kids and I didn’t leave the house, the immensity of all of the things out there that we could and should be doing crowded in on us, me. In other words: I felt this world inside this fence wasn’t enough.

This morning, I ran inside that fence. And somehow I found that it was enough. I didn’t turn on an audiobook or music in my headphones. I forgot about the woman from the couch to 10K program so that I startled when her voice came on reminding me that I was “almost there” or to slow down to a walk. The morning was slightly overcast so I was able to run on the otherwise blazing hot concrete, giving the grassy spots a break from the pounding of my soles. Can you imagine a time and place when these minute details are what occupy me? Would my previous self have thought, “Your concerns of the morning are the sun and the grass? BORR-RRING!” My present self is pleased with and grateful for the mundane.

My current home. It’s lovely but much too small for three kids, two dogs and two parents, one of whom is working from home for now and the indefinite future. If anyone has an spare second floor, we’d happily take it off your hands. (I drew this on Procreate.)

Yesterday, I wrote a little about my house in Karenni Refugee Camp #3 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. It, too, eventually had a fence around it, a fence I asked some of my students to build because my house was on multiple well-trod paths and children kept coming around and peering into the small gaps and holes in the woven bamboo walls. Part of me felt a bit reluctant to ask for a fence, which would potentially isolate me from the rest of the community in a way that might suggest that I thought I was better than them. And it would mean that people would have to walk around rather than but through by my house in order to get to the high school. Privacy was available at a premium which I was, it turns out, willing to pay.

Perhaps these previous experiences are, in part, why staying home in the pandemic has not felt like a struggle. I suspect that this fall and winter, I might feel a bit like we are missing out, with our children not vaccinated (under 12 are not eligible yet) but museums and movie theaters open. Then again, perhaps I will feel grateful to have an excuse to not have to venture out; perhaps I will know then too that what we have here inside this fence is, indeed, enough.

Utopia in a Yard

I’ve been exercising more, in my own yard, as I mentioned last time. I know. Even running a bit. It’s not a huge area, but it’s definitely bigger than the area that some of those runners on YouTube who have posted videos of themselves running an entire marathon on the path traversing their postage stamp garden from their backdoor to their back gate have had to work with. Or the balcony of their apartment runners.

Someone commented on one of those videos about how much mental strength it must take to do that sort of thing. Personally, I wonder at the mental strength it takes to run (or walk or to stand waiting for a bus for that matter) along the six and eight lane highways around here as I’ve seen some runners do or to just cross them to get to a less car-ific area. Talk about fortitude.

So I’m grateful to have enough space outdoors for this running in circles. The bathroom is nearby, as are my kids should they need me. I don’t have to carry any water or even my phone. I don’t have to plan out a route or tell anyone where I’m going. I just plug in my earbuds and go.

And my yard? Well, it’s nice. There are shady spots I can stick to more or less when the sun is doing its thing. The concrete driveway is large when I feel like not having to negotiate with uneven ground. Sometimes one of my dogs will even run along with me for a bit. Ok, he’s actually running more AT me, thinking that I’m playing and usually slinks off pretty soon after realizing that what I’m doing is not playing and quite boring, for a puppy anyway.

On my last circuit around the garden, I was reminded of another person who I knew, ages ago who would do a similar thing next a house I used to live in. I once taught English in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. My house was a little bamboo and wood one next to the high school where I was teaching. (“Artistic” rendering below as I don’t have that many pictures of it. This was about 20 years ago before decent phone cameras which is a timeline that makes me feel suddenly quite old but in a good way.)

My house in Karenni Refugee Camp #3 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. There was a latrine-style toilet off to the side and, later on, there would be a small dirt-floor kitchen to the left.

My current house is not made with bamboo, but a previous owner planted some which now grows between my yard and my neighbor’s providing some of the shade I mentioned above. It’s not native to this area but it is in Thailand. And with a strength to weight ratio higher than steel with greater flexibility, it’s a great building material.

In any case, a man that I knew there (who worked in what was called the Foreign Office and therefore helped foreigners such as myself) would, on occasion, go for a run around the high school, a loop which led him, repeatedly, past my house. Although he was a refugee, he didn’t actually live in the camp so it wasn’t every day that he did this but from time to time he would come and stay in the camp for work or to visit with friends and so he’d run along the dirt and rock paths.

He (Doh Say was his name) told me once that he liked to run right there because he there was a good hill there. The high school was along one edge of the camp and so it was quieter than the rest of the camp too, especially when school wasn’t in session. Previously the idea of “going for a run” had always struck me as a sort of western, even specifically American, thing to do, involving pricey gear and leisure time. It’s obviously a foolish misconception on my part, founded, I now think, on being raised in a western culture where my body (and health and care of and even understanding of) has felt like something a bit out of my control. I wasn’t a runner (or much of an exerciser) in part because I always feared that I would hurt or injure myself, that I required coaching from experts in order to do things properly. There were no coaches or experts out here on the edge of the jungle so I was surprised that people were exercising. And as someone raised in a urban place, this edge-of-the-jungle terrain was so foreign to me that an injury wasn’t out of the question.

Some of my students had set up a gym next to the high school too. I never used it but there were some bamboo and wood benches at different inclines and, if I recall correctly, different sized wooden logs and various re-cycled containers filled with water or rocks to add some weight to their training. They used what they had available to them.

My students, all the refugees in the camp, were indigenous people fleeing from the destruction of their lives at the hands of the Burmese Army. At first blush, they idea that they would set up ways to exercise upon arriving to the relative safety of the camps seemed incongruous to me. But of course it made sense, it makes sense that everyone wants to use and strengthen and protect their bodies. What else do we have?

Doh Say once told me that he ran because he felt he was getting fat. He placed his hand on his abdomen and laughed a slightly embarrassed laugh. It struck me as vain. At some point, however, I saw a scar along the skin of his belly. He’d been shot. I don’t know anything about the circumstances of his injury, but he said that he tried to keep his waist size in check because if he put on too much weight, his skin stretched painfully along the scar tissue. It was hardly vanity driving him.

And so it is that I’ve been thinking about Doh Say on occasion as I run or exercise in my yard. I think about how him, up and down the hill next to my bamboo and wood house in a refugee camp on the Thai side of the Burma border. He ran, keeping the pain at bay.

On exercise

I live, for these intents and purposes, in the suburbs. Unwalkable, hostile suburbs. As such, getting exercise is something that must be done with some intentionality, and perhaps even more so in the past year. We even went so far as to buy an elliptical (for me) and some sort of biking contraption I don’t fully understand (for my husband).

When I have lived in more urban (read: less hostile) areas, exercise (mostly in the form of walking) was a matter of course, no real intentionality other than trying to go from point A to point B, potentially whilst carrying heavy loads. I have, in my past, gone through phases where I’ve been a jogger never going much further beyond completing the occasional 5K. And of course, I have yoga. I will always have yoga.

Still, it was something of a surprise to me when nine or so months into the pandemic, I realized I hadn’t really been exercised, barely moved it seemed, constrained, as it were, by a feeling that the virus was, well, everywhere and that breathing too deeply or moving through public space at all meant certain infection. I’m being hyperbolic. Well, sort of. Because something about the pandemic has made me feel a bit hemmed in, not just physically to my home, but also it’s dropped the idea of movement, of exercise down a long list of things that must get done, things to do. Ironic, of course, given the impact of exercise on overall physical (and mental) health.

I’ve cranked it up again more recently. Initially I was walking a lot through my neighborhood. Walking outside can feel like a particularly dangerous activity for women and others viewed as vulnerable and adding the car traffic dangers in my area, walking felt like a bridge too far for me. I resorted to the elliptical, which was effective to a degree, but I’ve always known that I’d need to mix it up more and get some higher impact exercise in my legs.

With the longer, sunnier days of summer, I decided to try out running again outdoors in the morning before it became debilitatingly hot. This worked for about a week. And it was a lovely week, but on the last day, I went out for about a 5K run down to a nearby wooded path. The path ended up being rather crowded with pedestrians and cyclists and the run to get there and back felt, well, dangerous with cars far exceeding the speed limits on a road I had to step into for the too narrow (for social distancing or due to a parked car) sidewalk.

When I used to run outside of my own yard, these were some of the flowers I saw: Black-eyed Susans, asters, Queen Anne’s lace.

I came back from that run simultaneously triumphant for having run as far as I had and with jittery and jangled nerves due to nearly being hit by a car.

I knew that exercising was good for lowering cortisol but with the car traffic and dangers, I was also feeling cortisol spikes, undoing all of the “good” work of the running. Going for a run next to speeding cars was undoing the point of exercise in the first place, making the whole thing a draw, a waste of time.

So, this week, I’ve started to run in my own yard. I know. I have moments when I’m feeling a bit like a caged animal doing this so I must also do unanimalistic things like listen to a good audiobook whilst running in my yard. I’ve seen a couple of videos of people running entire marathons in their yards or even along their balconies in the past year during various lockdowns. Back and forth. Back and forth. And whilst I’m not restricting myself to my yard because of a deadly virus but rather because of deadly car traffic, I’m buoyed by the idea that I’m not the only one doing this. And that I will be doing maybe a 10K in a few months time. Hardly a marathon or even a half.

After Black Raspberry Picking

(With apologies to Robert Frost.)

It’s been a few weeks now since we drove out to an orchard to pick black raspberries on a Saturday morning and I’ve kept meaning to blog about it but now it’s a hot Tuesday afternoon and I’m exhausted and I can’t for the life of me remember what I had ever intended to write about black raspberry picking.

Was it the way in which my middle child kept yelping and running to be exclaiming, “Mom! Blood!” only to laugh maniacally over the drips of juice dripping from her fingers. “It looks SO realistic!” she shouted at her older sister.

Was it how the littlest one at only three, picked more than his share from the low bushes in the pale morning sun before beginning to wail as the sun became stronger?

Was it how I doubled down on our initial four pints and bought a half flat only to then spend the last twenty minutes wondering if perhaps I had been overly ambitious and squandered my children’s good will and enthusiasm?

Was it about the chunks of sweet sour plums in the muffins we’d packed into a carrier?

Was it how my older daughter seemed so relieved to finally, FINALLY be out doing something, anything after this past year of hunkering and how she likely ate more than she stored, like the grasshopper of the parable? One can hardly blame her. I do not think the grasshopper had spent the past year plus cooped up in a pandemic.

Our final haul probably amounted to close to ten pints. (Five quarts?) What did we do with such a bounty? So much.

Black raspberry galette

I made galette, pictured above in all its rough, rustic glory. The recipe I was following had suggesting trimming and even considering a design before filling and shaping. But I have hot hands and crusts become tough in them. Besides, trimming would be throwing out bits and pieces and why would I throw away perfectly good dough? So my end products are much less photographable than they are edible. But oh boy are they edible.

Black raspberry muffins, some with white chocolate chips (browned up here).

I made muffins: half with white chocolate chips and half without out of respect for some taste preferences in my household.

Black raspberry turnovers.

I baked some turnovers with black raspberry filling and froze half of them. Turnovers are an excuse for pie for breakfast, basically.

Four half pints of jam, five pints of raw packed in light syrup.

Years ago, when we lived in Minnesota, I learned how to can at one of the many ubiquitous nature centers there and got a specific red raspberry jam making private lesson from my sister’s mother in law, who’s been at it long and seriously to have a “raspberry guy” at her local farmer’s market. Mine will never match hers, but I can certainly give it a try. So with the older two kids’ help, I “put up” the jam and whole berries pictured above. We will tuck these away until the fall and winter when we are craving a little taste of summer.

I find preserving food in this way to be an incredibly satisfying process. I suspect in part this is because I think that so much knowledge that I have is incredibly impractical. (I can say, for example, “thank you” in one or two incredibly obscure languages.) There’s just something about being able to store away food that we picked and, especially, to be able to enjoy it in the midst of winter when the flavors can harken back to warmer days.

Dutch baby with raw berries.

Dutch babies are always a quick, easy, popular breakfast, so I made one this past weekend, picked some red raspberries from our yard and paired them with the last of the black ones.

La piece de resistance: my husband and daughter made this lovely vanilla, black raspberry frozen custard for the Fourth of July. It’s truly incredible.

My husband is the ice cream maker in our family and so he turned some out with my oldest daughter. It was lovely and already has me wondering whether or not some of the raw packed berries we canned might be able to go into some of this mid-winter this year. I reckon we’ve earned it.

Is that it? Is this the black raspberry content I intended to write all along? Feels like I’ve hit all the high parts.

Make your bed, cook a meal

It started with a text from my sister a few weeks ago. Something along of the lines of, “[friend x] had a bad reaction to her second shot and is still feeling under the weather. Can you please drop off dinner for her and her family?”

What I thought and felt was, “uhhhhhhhhhhh, gahhhhhhhh.”

What I text was, “Yes!”

I love cooking. I love cooking for other people. But, well, it’s been a while since I’ve cooked for anyone outside of my immediate family. At least a year. I knew it was an easy audience, but the line between “excited to do something I enjoy and haven’t done for a while” and “nerves” felt pretty slim for a few days as I tried to figure out what and when to cook. Underlying it was low key dread. What if I messed it all up? Would I have enough time?

In the meantime, somehow my morning scripture reading was from the Acts of the Apostles. It began, “As Peter was passing through every region, he went down to the holy ones living in Lydda, There he found a man named Aeneas, who been confined to his bed for eight years, for he was paralyzed.”

I do not want to compare being in a pandemic to Aeneas, who was paralyzed, but I was feeling and had been feeling a little “confined”. And truth be told, I think I had started to become a little (maybe a lot) attached to the idea of being confined. Absent the pre-pandemic routines, the pandemic routines had become, well, comfortable. We had managed to make them work. And, well, honestly, the routines and comforts of home had kept us safe and healthy. Now I was being asked to take a step outside of that routine.

Over a few days, I decided which foods to prepare and settled on a spread of roasted chicken thighs in an herby marinade to be served with fresh hummus and homemade pita with tomatoes and cucumbers on the side. (Piling them all into pockety sandwiches optional.) My husband and Ms8yo would make brownies. It was a kid friendly meal that wasn’t too hard to double, pack up and drop off.

In Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 9, “Peter said to Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed.” In previous readings, this moment has often struck me. This man has been paralyzed for eight years, and Peter tells him he is healed and to make his bed? And I heard echos of my own voice as parent telling my kids to make their beds, which has always felt a bit nagging to me and tiresome all around. Now this man is healed and the first thing he’s supposed to do is make his bed?

In the meantime, I managed to pull off the “double” dinner with nary a hitch, sending an actual basket of food (I’d had the sense to pick up a few disposable food containers when I’d been grocery shopping earlier in the day) over to our friends. I’d even managed a trip (my first in well over a year) to the farmer’s market to find some seasonal items including some ramps which I was able to sneak into the yogurt sauce. It was the first sit down homemade meal our friends had had in a while and they sent lovely pictures and texts of gratitude. I felt warm and fuzzy all over seeing their smiling faces and clean plates.

The basket of food Eric is about to take to our friend’s house.

And what happened to Aeneas? “He got up at once and all the inhabitants of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.” It would be nice to think that in this story, I was Peter, sending healing foods over to our friends to help them out of their difficult health situation.

But, of course, you know by now, dear reader, that I was Aeneas and my sister was Peter, telling me to “make my bed.” Peter didn’t heal Aeneas, Jesus already did that. What Peter was doing was telling Aeneas that he was healed and giving him a task to do to show him he was healed. “Make your bed.” Imagine how absurdly impossibly that must have sounded to Aeneas when Peter said it to him. But he got up. Scripture doesn’t tell us whether or not he actually made it bed. But we know that he got up, which was far and away a bigger task than making his bed.

Sometimes we are already healed. We already have all of these things we can do and are capable of. And what we need is someone coming along and saying, “here: do this thing.” And that thing might sound absurdly impossible to us, but before we know it, we are at the farmer’s market in front of piles of ramps, devising ways to incorporate them into a meal that is already turning into something more than you could have imagined a few short days ago.

Dear reader, “Get up. And make your bed.”

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.