Teacher-Leader & Other Words I Make Up

This past year, 2021, was not my best year as a blogger. I somehow wrote thousands of words, however. Just not here. Close to having a draft of a book, this girl. A Memoir.

No, really. It’s a memoir. 

I am the closest I’ve ever been to finishing a book. Let’s hope I live to be 146 so I can finish the other four books I have in my head. Writing that took place during a global pandemic, heat waves that melted glaciers, forest fires, and catastrophic floods in an area that I love. Daily life is filled with chaos and horror where we all just press on with business as usual. Writing, most days, feels like the only thing I can control. La vie continue.

I count myself among the lucky.

What I would like to share here is a follow-up response to a question. I will try to tell you a few stories to help some researchers and I’ll end with a short, short story that I wrote.

First, let me say, thank you, researcher friends, for finding me and letting me chat your ear off for an hour. It was pretty refreshing to share ideas with strangers who had interesting questions. It was lovely to think Big Picture and lift my eyes towards the horizon again.

Apparently I used the phrase “teacher-leader” during our chat. So poetic! In fact, when I read the request to say more about it, I was like, “Wow! I said that?”

I have to admit I have no idea where that phrase–teacher-leader–originates in my brain. Look at me making things up! Allow me to use a phrase and then not have the energy to do a single bit of research.

Call it poetry. Then I’m off the hook to pretend like I care, right? I’ve decided to do research for academic publishing once the federal government stops harassing me about my school loans. In other words, I plan to haunt some future writer from beyond my grave. Ninety years from now after I write my four other books.

This Teacher-Leader phrase, to be honest, has filled my thoughts quite a bit. A few questions come to mind.

What do I mean when I say “teacher-leader”–and most horribly, was I one when I was a teacher? Is it fair of me to look back and judge the teacher I was? I feel very far away from being a teacher.

So far, in fact, when I am asked to talk about my teacherly experience, I feel like I am gossiping about another woman. Somebody who used to dress better than I do now. Somebody who had a hair style. Somebody I used to know. A day in the life. Was another lifetime one of toil and blood. Where I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. Another day, in other words, when I might have cared if I was plagiarizing song lyrics.

Also, in my short career as an administrator, how did I treat “teacher-leaders?” How have I interacted with them as whatever the fuck I am now?

Three stories come to mind where I’ll change the details slightly, not reference any organization, and hopefully make myself laugh. Everything I write beyond this sentence may or may be not be true.

A Memoir.

Researchers, you can add any of this to our interview. I’m really interested in your project, and I also promised you I would unearth my old thoughts on teacher creativity. Here is a talk that I gave that I really should finish with some research. Here is where I blathered a keynote about change management. And here’s my working hypothesis about adjuncts and their labor conditions, which are also student learning conditions.

Ready? Ok, Magic Machine, let’s see if we remember how the bloggy works.

Let’s start with the question of what a teacher-leader is. 

This is a person who has no ambition to be anything else but a teacher. She might catch the hot potato to be department chair and lead an initiative here and there, but mostly she’s engaged with the business of teaching. She likes students. She cares. She has empathy for the impressionable minds she works with; she likes to collaborate. Most importantly, she’s a life-long learner and her curiosity leads her beyond the scope of her discipline. If you don’t already know, my beat is the community college. I’m somewhat interested in regional publics, very bored by R1s, bewildered by privates. Endlessly fascinated by community colleges, technical schools, and any programs that help students without safety nets get a job and/or to improve their lives. My Commonwealth colleagues have the best title for this beat: The Trades. Give me the open-door policy, scarce budgets, programs connected to blue-collar jobs with more problems than you can solve; and I’d like to think I’m your girl.

I may have been a teacher-leader in a situation that I don’t talk about too much these days. I’ll whisper in your ear a secret: I got into educational technology as an environmentalist. Put simply, I saw an open (hee hee) to reduce handouts and thus lowering the budget for the dean of my division while saving a few trees. A small local tangible goal connected to very interesting technologies. My department had a heavy hand on the college’s print budget so I looked ways to Reduce paper–my R before I knew there were others. I learned about all of the things that currently helps me do a job I now have. Lucky me. All things considered, I’m quite grateful to my former teacher-leader self. At that time, however, I did not see myself as a leader. I was a teacher trying to do some good in the world by saving some trees and money for students. It also gave me a free-ish ride to professional development events we used to call “conferences.”

For me, back then, in The Before Times, being a teacher-leader was pure selfish creativity that helped me get funding to learn. In short, I was curious and easily bored, and I got to travel to different cities, meet like-minded people, and present ideas that other people found interesting. I loved it. Helped me out of the doldrums of teaching the same class over and over. Sustained me until it was a life no longer sustainable. 

Take a look at any long-term change with your campus culture. Chances are it was a teacher-leader who did work outside of her discipline to help things along. For example, my former self connected ways to learn interesting things about open-source projects and small initiatives that brought me to professional development and instructional design. In the Before Times, we had time for circuitous playful self-serving curiosity. Before we were all so fucking exhausted by the pace of change.

Teacher-leaders these days? Probably very exhausted.

My teacher and leader and staff friends, I say this to you, if you need to hear it: do not feel bad for anything you are not doing, love yourself for everything you are doing, and just keep walking forward. Working in education has always been hard; it’s somehow even more difficult than I could have ever imagined. What I write here is a reflection, not advice on what to do next. This I do not know.

This I cannot tell you. Just look down at your boots and keep walking. Or take a nap. 

Here’s the second story that came to mind about the teacher-leader.

What if the teacher-leader is an administrator? (A Memoir). What if winter was always coming with her checking account and that euphemism of “being off contract” started to feel like the tangible unemployment it is? What if “in between contracts” means you will not be paid for three weeks of the month? Let me whisper this in your ear, those administrators are teachers at heart but they most likely made a financial decision to move up the pay scale. They see themselves as caring about the business of teaching and learning, but they have budgets and spreadsheets and meeting agendas centered on the business of the college. Not ideal, but they also have a consistent paycheck and a contract. They lose the “teacher” and just become the “leader,” I suppose. It’s really hard job. If I had to give advice to teacher-leader-administrators right now, I would say to seek out two types of God-tier leaders. One who is interested in the idea of a legacy, and/or one who is really fucking tired and needs a win. They are usually one and the same, so let me parse a slight difference.

The Save My Legacy Administrator probably made a bad call that is now way outside of the zeitgeist. I can’t write about any examples that I can publish without worry, so I’ll write a sentence that I hope helps you see this administrator in a new light. If you can, envision this person with empathy. We’ve all made mistakes. Some more public than others. Some more private than others. Finish this sentence to find the leader on your campus:

Dr. OutsideTheZeitgest does not want to be remembered as the leader who did not support_________.

There is one on every campus.

As for the teacher-leader who became an administrator and needs a win? Ask what they need for their accreditation report or for the next budget planning session. Really fucking boring, but a win. Low hanging fruit maybe. And most importantly, connect a policy or an initiative that actually helps students succeed. There can be creativity with end-of-the-year reports, substantiating budgets, and planning future initiatives. Do I have specific advice for you? No. Take a nap or take a walk. Everyone’s so exhausted. Disappear into a book for a few hours. It helps. I don’t mean to be flippant here. I just have no answers for you. There is no playbook for what we are living through.

The third story that comes to mind is the teacher-leader who likes to collaborate outside of his discipline. There is so much opportunity for cross-discipline collaboration, and I bet there are already initiatives that didn’t work in the past that you can recycle. I used to say it’s 2009 somewhere, and now it’s 2011. Maybe 1991. Depends on your perspective. Maybe you try something cozy and familiar that you tried once. Writing across-the-disciplines. Teachers teaching teachers technology. STEM teachers incorporating co-requisite material into their courses. College success support in every course. Business teachers working with sociology teachers. Marketing teachers working with psychology teachers. Teacher-leaders always already see how their disciplines overlap with others. Giving teachers the space to figure this out together used to happen in the gaps of time between professional development and initiatives.

This time is now scarce, if not gone.

Where this collaboration happens now, I do not know. How it happens now, I do not know. How you pay for it, I have never known. Why it needs to happen, I do know and I can tell you with one word.


Alas! I need to wrap this up. Getting a little Ranty McRanterson here. I hope this helps, dear researchers. I really look forward to your work, and if I can help, please let me know. I’ve had the honor to get to know a lot of very smart leaders, teachers, teacher-leaders, and leader-teachers. They care about students. They care about the business (literally and figuratively) of teaching and learning.

There are two or three things I know, I suppose. Or I am willing to make up.

I count myself among the lucky.

rocks on a beach

I will conclude this bloggy with a short, short story I finished at a friend’s house while I hung out with her pets as she travelled. I wrote the first draft of this near her homeland during my magical month of October 2021. I spent some time on The Peninsula writing like I was a writer, and I followed a few writing prompts by Ursula LeGuin. I don’t remember the exact prompt, but I think she asked reader-writers to capture a scene in as few words as possible using action words. From start to finish. Lines like poetry but really a story in form. A narrative arc of two people meeting.

I share this here for you, dear friend, whom I love to walk with on the mainland and in the mountains. And anyone else who has made it this far. A short short story from a rocky stormy beach in the shadow of the Olympic mountains.

Steel Reserve

Wearing several layers of clothing and a hand-knitted hat, I walked along the stormy beach of the Dungeness Spit near Sequim, WA. Not far from where I was staying in a yurt outside of Port Townsend. I walked towards the bluffs, down the primitive trail, then along the rocky spit.

High tide was two hours ago. The walking was hard. Unsteady. From a distance, I could see a person with a metal detector. As I walked closer, I noticed the hip pouch made of canvas cradling a tall beer can of Steel Reserve. 

An older man. His face. He’s lived a harder life than me. Walking my way. Swinging a metal detector machine across the rocks, pebbles, and sand. Eyes looking at me.

I took the low line by the water. 

Right as we were about to pass one another a larger than normal wave hit. Clopped an arc of watery foam spreading in my direction. Fast.

I hopped and skipped up the beach. Got closer to him than I wanted to be, but away from the wave. 

The sun appeared on the horizon in between the massive grey silvering clouds. 

We looked at one another. 

“I can see the sunset in your eyes,” he smiled. 

I laughed with my best Not-Going-to-Happen look. Nodded. Started to walk away. 

He watched me.

“Does that work for you, ya know, quoting Peter Frampton to women?” I wondered aloud walking backwards.

He smiled. Stagger-leaned a bit towards me. 

Raising his eyebrows he pointed his chin in the direction I was walking.

“Last one who got that reference just divorced me.”

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Now Some Thoughts on Writing

Now Some Thoughts on Writing

This past weekend I printed out all of the chapters I think will make up the book that I have been working on in some shape or form for over twenty years. I have not researched old journals to pinpoint the exact date where I started this story. I don’t have the energy to return to the pages written my younger self. Not just yet. I am, however, pretty sure I started crafting sentences with this story arc some time around the moment that I decided I really disliked living in California and that I needed to return to college. Ten lifetimes ago. Since I first started to type up these stories, I have learned a lot about myself and the world–both personally and professionally.

What I have now are nine chapters that might actually become essays with illustrations that I want to paint. Maybe not. Here are the five points I jotted down as the printer worked on recycled blank pages from my last draft. 

  • The main symbol, metaphor, or hub of what makes the story move. (If you’ve ever experienced a bike flat tire where all the rubber explodes, that’s where I’m at with a few chapters. A few feel perfect. A few are lacking tread.)
  • A research question. What am I trying to teach the reader that will help this person in a real life backpacking situation? Where is the separation between wants and needs as a backpacker? (I thought a lot about this question this summer as I hiked solo).
  • Find at least three readings so I can create a selected readings at the end of the book. I love reading books that give me ideas of what to read in the future. (Somebody really wants to write for The New Yorker, but I’m not naming any names.) 
  • Start the editing by hand process. Again. Only this time, type up the edits before moving on to the next chapter. (Gonna try and not let the part I like the least pile up). 
  • Research what is Next. (This is a big fucking question that I’ve chosen to table during The Plague). 

This is what I do. It is progress that does not look like progress.  

This is the closest that I have ever been to actually having a collection of stories/essays/chapters where somebody could actually sit down and read it. As I was backpacking solo this summer in the North Cascades, I thought about how I want to write something that I would like to read. For the first time, I could really see my audience. A person taking a nap in a tent. A person wanting to arm-chair hike. A person who really wants to take a nap in the tent but the story is too entertaining. A tent-bound page turner.

If you normally check in with me this year for back-to-school-type reading, I am giving my brain a break from all that outside the jobby job. I have returned to thinking about some ideas that I started with my first instructional design gig. What I notice is now being called “upskilling.” I see some Big Questions finding their way back into the leadership conversations about labor and education. What happens when sectors of the economy fade and there is not a need for certain types of laborers? What then for those people? What does it look like when an organization provides education for its employees? Does it look like a college program? A certificate? A badge? I’m not really sure, but some days I think it sounds like a word that rhymes with MOOC. 

I am also thinking quite a bit about formal, informal, and nonformal learning. There is learning for The Workplace, then there is something that benefits your social skills or something else not really related to work but it is also not entirely personal either. Then there is the learning that you do all on your own, and that’s a space where learning for craft and art meet. It’s the Third Place outside of capitalistic pursuits. A respite for your brain. Growth for your soul, if you’re comfortable with that word.

If you’re not, allow Emily Dickinson to change your mind:

The Soul selects her own Society —

Then — shuts the Door —

To her divine Majority —

Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —

At her low Gate —

Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling

Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —

Choose One —

Then — close the Valves of her attention —

Like Stone —

Now, a few thoughts and ideas to round out the summer.


Book Summaries or Summer Reading

Most hilarious: I read a historical fiction bodice ripper in the backcountry. I was solo, so I did not get the experience of reading the more saucy parts to my backpacking partners, and let me admit that I had other books to read when the bacchanalia and carnal delights got a bit tiresome. Books like these feel like they are written by historians who have realized that nobody is going to read their academic hot takes so they might as well slut it up with sex to get published. Whatever it takes, man, I’m not judging. I feel for these scholars. Here we are watching the defunding of the humanities and the constant bloat of STEM’s importance, yet nobody trusts science. Here we are with more access to information than ever before, and people trust random shit on a platform that was built to compare the looks of women. But alas, don’t give up hope, fair reader. You can read about history not as a movement about politics and ideas but of hot nookie. I laughed so hard at these turns of historical significance that took place because of one woman’s sex drive–usually brought on by large quantities of alcohol, gifts of jewelry, or dancing. Truth be told, I was ready to put it down when the main character murdered her rapist with a mortar and pestle she had been using earlier to make flour for his daily bread. He thought he was being crafty by backing her onto the kitchen table (he didn’t have the best fitness) and she was slowly guiding him to her weapon of choice (she’s a crafty survivor). That same kitchen maid would use those same skills to become the great queen of one of history’s most brutal kings. Who knew?

Most enjoyable: I reread Viriginia’s Woolf’s The Waves. Ginny is a guilty pleasure of mine, and I can somehow reread her books and experience what the Buddhists remind us about crossing rivers. That we and the river are never the same. Same goes for me and the Woolf. This turn–maybe my third reading–I noticed how she creates the passage of time with the use of the word “Now.” I’m sure the word appears dozens of times throughout the book, but I checked out a library edition that I could not annotate. I’m sure somebody has written a dissertation that nobody will read about this very topic. Now, I’m sure of it, is the main transitional word which brings you to new scenes and perspectives of the different characters. Words of liminal spaces. As in, Now, we’re going to discuss something different. Now the wind blew waves like soldiers rolling onto the beach. Now, the character is actually the sea and not the person thinking. Now, I can’t believe anyone is still reading this blog post. Now allow me to devolve into self-sabotage and despair. I mean, holyhell, Ginny wrote those masterpieces while bombs were blowing up her fucking town and she just went for a walk. What’s my pathetic deal? Surely that era was worse then the Fire-Murder Hornet-Sky-Plague-Earth Burning Late-Capitalism(tm) moment I’m living through. You know, I think about those kinds of things. That’s all. No big. Carry on.

Most useful for writers: Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. It has kind of blown my mind, and it has also really slowed me down as a writer. I didn’t really get into the last third of the book where he does a close reading of passages. I’m still paying interest on my last experience with close reading (also known as college), so I’ll return to those activities some other time.

Now a quote that speaks to my soul:

“One of the hardest things about learning to read well

Is learning to believe that every sentence has been consciously, purposefully shaped by the writer.

This is only credible in the presence of writing” (p. 44).

Tell it, Verlyn. He chose this spacing. Not me. Very poetic.

One more: 

“Don’t try to distinguish between thinking and making sentences.

Pretend they are the same thing” (p. 97).

I do. Some days, I’m better than others. 

Most useful theme: Thin Places. I’ve read several books that describe the “thin places” this summer, and it’s made me think about the period of sadness that I went through this past year. Aside from the pandemic (ha!ha!), I lost my dog of fifteen years, most of the mountain where I love to mountain bike, and little bits and pieces of life’s rituals and who I was. What used to be a rich dark loamy dense forest has all been logged. We’ve traded wildness for timber. Tamed the trails that used to be so wonderfully challenging. The new zeitgeist of mountain biking is just disappointing and boring. I don’t want to write too much here about how I really feel; some days it’s too much heartbreak. Some days are better than others.

For about six months, I was not sure who I was. Not really even sure if I’m fully back. Life was just a lot–not the “thin place” at all, but I wasn’t here. Present. The paintings I created during this time helped give structure to my days. Daydreams had dark corners for far too many days. Relentless. I’m not ready to write about it here, but I have hope that things are improving.

Some More Thoughts About Writing

My book? Moving along as I wrote above. 

Now I’m at this painful step in the process where I have stack of papers printed out so I can do conceptual and technical edits. Then maybe I’ll take forever and a day to actually fix the work. I think about this book a lot, and this summer has been pretty good for researching my main topic which is narcissistically me walking on trails. Or becoming the woman I wish I was. Or the woman I had hoped to become. Or just about the importance of wild spaces in a world that I increasingly do not understand.

I do think this book is turning into something I would want to read. If I think about the hiker who is exhausted resting in her sleeping bag, I can better envision the story I want to tell. My audience needs a new sleeping bag or she needs to remember to repair the zipper.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard captures this present moment of writing with the following: 

“It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.”

Exactement comme moi maintenant.

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Water. Paint. Ratio.

The language of watercolor is poetry. The naming of colors is a history I’ve never learned. Colors help us classify animals, minerals, and plants. A language of colors is classification. A science of color.

The definition of color reminds me that it is actually light. Waves. Movement. Defined by my eyes.

The artists and the DIYers create a new spectrum of names. Of words. Of thoughts. Sometimes color names are local. Regional. Reflective of a climate. Sometimes they are the raw materials of an environment. A mortar and pestle grind pigments from the ground beneath the artist’s feet. 

A story unfolds of where you live. Reflected by color. 

A color with a good name is memoir. 


Ruta’s Dream

Rose Ashes

Rosso Magenta

Night Raspberry

Gerda’s Pink

Ponder (a grey)

Emotion (an aqua)

Rose Madder Deep

Burnt Sienna

Blue Gray Deep

Cerulean Blue


Painting is the language of fantasy. Values, shapes, shades, and forms take the place of words. 

Learning different painting techniques slowly unfolds a story. Stroke by stroke with paint and pigment. Saturation.

A short story is told in hues.

A novel is told with layers. 

A library builds of paintings. 

The language of drawing–a bit different–is very much the language of fiction.


Disappearing lines



Atmospheric perspective

Gestural line


Vanishing point

The pigment to water ratio is meditation. 

The language of a mood. 



Warm, cool, hot

Wet, dry

I have a special love for botanical drawings that capture all the phrases of a plant’s life.
A memoir in paint and lines.

My hands can’t do what my mind dreams.

What I see. What I think must be easy to do, but is, in fact, quite difficult. Much like the books I want to write. What I dream up and what I try to conjure never really comes together. Sometimes I don’t have the study space to make the mess I want to. I’m trying to plan for that someday. Some days I make do.

I’m not sure how to draw or paint in a way that would stop me in my tracks if I saw what I’ve done hanging on a wall or in an airport or a school. Anywhere public really. I’m trying to get there. I miss wandering art galleries and museums. Some days. Somedays.

I create circles and tear drop shapes with layers of paint. I’m practicing lines. I’ve watched some painters use a lot of pigment onto the page, and they pull or “lift” the paint off the page as they try to control what happens to the water pigment ratio.

I didn’t know what that meant until just this summer. It’s a way of absorbing the paint onto the brush, so you can control the water. I did it by accident beneath three waterfalls in one of my favorite mountain chains. It took me almost a year of practice to be able to do it. Maybe I just needed to walk fifteen miles like I did that day to give me a loose enough hand and lack of precision. I wasn’t so focused.

Every single watercolor teacher I’ve listened on the interwebs tries to convince listeners that you have to embrace the lack of control. Don’t let it frustrate you, they advise. They try so hard to convince you that this is the beauty of watercolor and that it should not frustrate you. I feel like they spend a lot of time talking you into why it’s amazing, and I’m like, yo. I’m here. Let’s get to it.

I’m not the audience for this advice; the chaos of water and color is why I’m in love with it. What I’ve loved from the start.

I’ve been trying to make my way back to writing.

This is the thing. Here’s the thing.

Names of pigment I love to whisper.


Red Ochre


Deep Smalt

Used in a sentence:

When I try to explain the labor conditions of adjunct teachers, it feels like a pit of red ochre I have to climb out of or it will swallow me whole. Some days I’m lucky if I can turn my thoughts from minium into sentences. The deep smalt tastes like smoke and burnout.

None of those sentences make sense, but I love the way they sound.

Watercolor is the first thing I’ve learned to do where I am aware of building muscle memory. I’m aware of what isn’t possible as I am learning something for the first time. It’s made me more empathetic. It’s made more empathetic towards myself.

I’m currently working on a project where I practice painting lines, small boxes, shapes, and curves. Drills that somehow look like something whole in the evening hours. Then I write a quote that helped me through the day or something that I’ve learned. To call it an art journal is generous.

Here’s what I quoted yesterday in the journal. Words that help me after a really long week of smoky skies, waves of rage and acceptance for the beauty, my life, all the things I hope to either notice, paint or type someday. Some day.

These words? They help too: 

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

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The Heft of Grief

Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings. ~Elisabeth Kübler Ross

One of the words you frequently when you read about grief, is the adjective heavy. It’s made me think quite a bit about how we explain a complex emotion that is both physical and emotional. This week I finished the best book I’ve found about the topic of grief, and it’s not just about the sudden loss of this woman’s father, she also writes about her relationship with a hawk, and her study of T. H. White. It’s a story about a woman who isolates herself during a hard time while she communes with nature and spends a lot of time reading.

Here is my favorite passage in H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald:

There is a time in life you expect the world to be always full of new things and then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow, and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of space where the memories are (17).

I love this passage not because it’s beautifully written–it’s the way she makes a feeling tangible. An emotion–a loss–takes up space. It become a noun. It becomes a thing with heft. Heavy.

It’s not just my personal loss that has me on this subject, it’s this life we’re living in the pandemic. The weight of the affective labor to pretend like everything is okay. Maybe it’s to perform a job during the week. Maybe it’s the face you put on for those on the other side of the screen. Maybe it’s words you say to support those who need you. This life we live during this time of unprecedented loss and uncertainty. It’s a lot.


Something else.

This week I checked out about a dozen art books from the public library. Well, really, I picked them up at curb-side. I want to learn more about watercolor paintings. Still. This thread is with me everyday. I need to turn pages as a break from the screen.

One of the books had an old photo of the AIDS Memorial quilt–something I have not thought about in quite some time. I decided to look up the current status of the quilt as a public memorial, and what I learned gave me great pause. The amount of deaths does not shock me, the size of the quilt isn’t a surprise, it’s how much it weighs. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, it weighs 54 tons. To put that much grief into an art form to remember a loved one. It’s heavy. In the literal sense of the word.

A very public memorial to help people feel less alone in their grief. Those little squares represent somebody. A life lost too soon. This week a friend told me that grief is really love searching for a place to go, and I thought that was the most succinct way to think about it. When a loss happens, you are also faced with thinking about other losses. Things you haven’t mourned. What you ignored finds you.

The weight of it forces you to pause. Unexpected beauty.


Another book.

I read one of my favorites writer/illustrator, Ella Frances Sanders, her newest book Eating the Stars: Small Musings on a Vast Universe. She’s one of the most interesting writers, and her posts on Instagram delight me. I drop everything to read her newsletter. I feel like she draws and paints what she cannot express. Maybe her drawings expand more on her writing. Either way, I find her work so inspiring. Interesting.

Here is a quote from her book that I love:

I want to remember that the sky is so gorgeously large, I feel stranded beneath it. ~Anis Mojgan


One more thing. A lightness. Something hopeful.

I finished my part of a future art exhibition Kumihimo Wishes. Two lovely things happened as a result of working on this project. I learned how to weave using a kumihimo disc, and I got to make a mess on my dining/art studio table yesterday. When I finished it, I walked it over to a box in front of the artist’s house, and it felt so wonderful to finish my part in something that is yet to be finished. I have no idea what the full project will look like.

The artist asked us to write a wish. So I did. I copied a bit of Rumi and made a wish.

Each night/ the moon kisses secretly the lover who counts the stars. (Rumi)

May that lover be you. (My wish)

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Thoughts on Ambiguous Loss(es)

“Scientific discoveries happen not through method or magic, but from being open to discovery by listening to one’s emotions and responding to intuition. Like a poet, the researcher, as well as the therapist, needs the ability to imagine what the truth might be. Each tests it, but in a different way. The poet words a couplet, the therapist tries a strategy, and the researcher tests hypotheses. A theorist, however, must be aware of all three.” ~Pauline Boss

Hiraeth (noun) A homesickness for somewhere you cannot return to, the nostalgia and the grief for the lost places of your past, places that never were. from Lost in Translation

These two quotes have brought me to this post, and my thoughts still swirl.

I still have much to read, weigh, and consider, but I can’t let go of this thread. Of whether I can weave these thoughts together. Of whether I am seeing something new or if this is an old idea in a new context. Either way, I am rounding the corner of one year of thinking about this pandemic, and I am not ready to make any declarations of what life will be like or what I will do differently in the future. A very dear friend of mine said a beautiful phrase: “When Covid fucks off, let’s…” and it is wonderful to think about. Let us go you and I, when then evening is spread across the sky and Covid fucks off.

Or another: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when Covid fucks off, I fear no evil.

Or another: What will you do with your one wild and precious life, when Covid fucks off?

Or another: I’m with you in Rockland/ in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night when Covid fucks off.

Though I may be willing to butcher prayers and poetry with this phrase, I’m not even willing to make plans (beyond my job) because I cannot stand the idea of feeling more disappointment. My single focus right now is to be with what I have. Stay healthy, not contribute to the spreading of this disease, and try to ride out the horrific grief of losing the one thing I’ve loved the most. Grief has been my research question, and I’ve been spending a great deal of time trying to understand it.

When Covid fucks off, it will still be with me.

I’m trying to understand two things really. Grief, and why I feel more drawn to creating things than to writing. To put some things in context, I write all day. When I’m not talking to the laptop, I’m writing. I spend a fair amount of time with words. Documenting, correcting, fixing, planning, outlining, revising, answering, remixing, responding, organizing, drafting, publishing, saving, suggesting.

At night, when I clock out, I have not felt like writing since my dog’s brain slowly shut down and I greeted this new life without him. What I am drawn to is watercolor painting, a bit of drawing, some cross-stitch, a wee collage, and knitting. And reading books. Always books.

I haven’t really shared anything that I’ve created because I’ve watched others do this, and the first thing people usually say is, “You could sell that.” Or they bring up the horrid phrase “side hustle.” Or they tell you story about a beginner they know turned full-time artist. Maybe they mean it as a compliment, I’m not sure. And let’s be clear. Nothing I am making is anything anyone would want to buy, and I’m really okay with that. Is it art? Is it craft? Is it handiwork? I’m just not sure I care to name it.

For some reason, I am okay with not being a very good artist, crafty person, or whatever but it bothers the fuck out of me that I have not finished a book at this point in my life. It’s odd.


Writing has been a daily practice for as long as I can remember, so when I read that journaling helps you process grief, well, it has not held the magic solution for me like it does others.

Making things? Small paintings of birds? Sketches of my coffee cup? This helps.

I have nights painting where I am like, “Holyhell, where has this been my whole life?” Other nights I feel like a kid with fat crayons who can’t seem to pull anything together. I go from feeling like I am improving to just making a mess. Wasting paper and pigment. The time I spend at our downstairs table, however, moves by so quickly. It’s astonishing to me how painting kills my internal clock. I know what 20 minutes and 50 minutes feels like with everything else thanks to the years teaching. Try getting students to do something for more than 20 minutes, and you’re doomed. Fifty minutes marks the end of a Carnegie clock hour. Time, in this time of pandemic living, makes very little sense.

Here are some things I feel I understand today.

I have found that I love the language of watercolor. Here are a few phrases I think are accidental poetry.

When you mix water into the pigment, you “wake up the color.”

When you get hard lines because of too much water or paint, you can “take the belly of your brush and you smooth it out.”

When the pigment to liquid is unbalanced, you get “a bloom in your painting.”


When you have the three primary colors, you “create any color that you see.”

What about the colors I don’t see, and how do I not spend every hour of my day imagining them?

While I paint, I listen to podcasts or I watch videos or short tutorials. I’ve been really loving the unedited versions of On Being lately, and it is there, that I relearned the phrase “ambiguous loss” from Pauline Boss (quoted above). She spoke of our current moment–the pandemic, global economic meltdown, all the horrors of America–and I found this phrase quite comforting.

It explains so much. It’s a bit where I am with a lot of things right now, and I didn’t have a word for it, or a phrase. I was at a loss of how to describe this feeling and here it is. Here we are.

This week I’ll read more, think more, paint more, and maybe the words will come together. Like pigment to water to paper.

Until then. This:

Let yourself be silently drawn/ by the strange pull of what you really love./ It will not lead you astray. ~Rumi

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Wintering & Handiwork

“There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open and you fall through them into somewhere else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.” ~Katherine May

Not gonna lie. I took a peak at my drafts to see if I could spin some old words into a post. Nope. All too focused on things I don’t want to talk about right now. So here goes. A quick reflection on two books. One I’m still reading, which always so tricky. And one I can’t stop reading.

I’m half way through, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, and it could go south, but I don’t think so. Just listening to Katherine May talk about the book made think it’s a book that I need to read. Very much on the topic of Burnout–a subject that brings me like a moth to a flame.

In particular this quote:

People admired me for how much I got done. I lapped it up, but felt secretly that I was only trying to keep pace with everyone else, and they seemed to be coping far better. After all, I had colleagues who regularly replied to emails after midnight, long after I was asleep. In actual fact, I was ashamed. I always thought that I, so very wise, would never succumb to work addiction. But here I am, having worked so hard and for so long that I’ve made myself sick. And worst of all, I’ve nearly forgotten how to rest (p. 23).

She goes on to discuss the eventual illness that lead her to take a break and write this book. So two things come to mind for me.

I don’t usually like listening to a writer talk about a book that I want to read before I’ve read it. Because I was in the middle of painting with watercolor, I let the podcast advance to the next episode. Once you’ve got the brush to paper, there’s no stopping on that layer. The magic of watercolor, at least in my eyes, is that it forces you to be in the moment. Once the paint dries, you can see the layer. More importantly the water to pigment ratio changes and you lose what you’re doing. Once you start, you have to stick with it.

Controlled chaos–it’s somehow really relaxing to me.

Second thing. Holymotherofgod they edit the shit out of On Being. I’ve been a fan for years, and I’ve always felt like Krista Tippett is a master interviewer–and she is–but woweeee wow they really edit that first cut to make conversation magic. If only I had an edit team like that! I’ve known they make an unedited version available, I just had never listened until this interview about Wintering. It was somehow really comforting listening to Tippett say um, stammer for her words, and interrupt her guest. That first cut is more like life, more like my watercolor painting–it made me feel better for some reason.

It’s a book I can’t stop thinking about given the time we are living through. I’ll write more once I’ve finished it. Indeed, I am in the state of a wintering after losing my furry best friend.


Another book I can’t stop thinking about is Handiwork by Sara Baume. I’m on my second reading, and it’s the perfect little book about craft, grief, and creativity. She discusses the spaces where she makes art, and how she passes her day. Ugh, it’s so much more. I’m still processing it. There is so much that speaks me in this book. It’s an artist statement in the form of a book. It’s poetry. It’s essaying. It’s a journal. It’s just beautiful. These two pages, in particular, floored me:

BETWEEN THE ACCESSIONS and retreats, the take-offs and the dissents, come rare phases of flow, of soaring (p.56).

Stephen Knott defines the concept of flow as utopia in a moment: the atemporal release and liberation from capitalist time and its schedules by intense concentration on an activity (p. 57).

There are no other words on these pages. Just these mindblowing sentences. Lots of blank spaces to think and consider. The design of the book is lovely.

I don’t want to ruin the book for you, but what she admits at the end became the invitation for me to reread it. That’s really the thing, isn’t it? That’s really what you want to do as a writer. You want to create something that makes a reader say, “Now how does this connect to the beginning again?” It’s that space between showing and telling where the work is on the reader. It’s my favorite place to be. I type of wintering.

Baume also includes photos of the birds that she created for 100 days. A bird a day.

I had already thought about painting one thing over and over again to see if I can improve. I started with house plants, but I think I’m going to take up birds. They’ve helped me on walks now that I don’t look at the ground and at the end of a leash.

So it is.

Baume says it best:

AND AFTER the finishing point, what then? (p. 185)

I suppose I’ll know 101 days from now.

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Place & Shape

“Words will follow your path through the garden, on the walkways, benches, and walls. Yet unlike a book, the way in which you read the poem is multidirectional.” ~Maya Lin

I made a small intention that I would blog twice a month this year, and welp, I need to publish something today and tomorrow as to not fail myself so soon in the year. And really, is this a new year? I found myself saying last year when I meant 2019, five years ago when I meant ten, and I still can’t believe that it is February next week. Today the day got away from me without getting to typing on the magic machine, but I really needed a break from words, and the blinking cursor. I have been writing a lot–and thinking a lot–at the jobby job, so it’s hard to get in front of the screen when I have a completely open day. Who cares? Get on it. Okay, here we go.

Earlier this month as I watched the shitbaggery at the capital of my country, I thought about a class that I took on The Word & The Image from a Blake scholar. We spent some of the class studying Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial in DC.

I finally got to visit the Vietnam Memorial in 2013, and it is one of the most deeply moving public sculptures I’ve ever seen. I was on a bike share bicycle, so I didn’t get close to the wall, but I did take a selfie near the year 1974. I saw people crying and doing the ritual of etching names. A very old man in a wheelchair. A woman touching a name with flowers in her hand. People from all over the world speaking different languages. I walked my bike feeling thankful I was able to spend so much time in DC. Grateful I got to see a work of art I admired in person. I love that city. 

This memory led me to a few cairns–a trail of thought.

Thinking about DC led me to see if there were any eBooks available about Maya Lin’s work. On my library app, I found her book, Boundaries, published in 2006. In The Before Times, I would have gone to a library or a bookstore. Thankfully this eBook was available, so I downloaded it while I watched the news feeling horrified by my country.

From the very first pages of Lin’s book:

Somewhere between science and art    art and architecture  public and private  east and west

I am always trying to find balance between these opposing forces,    finding the place where opposites meet

Water out of stone    glass that flows like water    the fluidity of a rock     stopping time

Existing not on either side   but on the line that divides and that line takes on a dimensionality      it takes on a sense of place and shape.

There are spaces in her lines that may be a reformatting of a coffee table book into an eBook. They may be purposeful, like poetry. These lines also appear on several pages with images.

Just gorgeous. I’m not doing it justice here. Check it out for yourself.

I’ve been reading about each sculpture a day so I can think more about her art than the horror of the current moment. She’s introduced me to the work that it takes to create an artist’s statement. How she spends time articulating her art work into words before she creates The Thing. How you have to be able to combine poetry, description, pathos, and logos all in one while still leaving space for a viewer to think her own thoughts. Back when we could go to gallery openings and museums, I loved reading artist statements. She describes the function of the artistic statement same way we might think of Shitty First Draft as writers.

In a book about writing and art in my living room, I found a circle and a star on this quote:

All agree that it is an admirable invention: To paint speech, and speak to the eyes, and by tracing out characters in different forms to give colour and body to our thoughts.

Here’s The Thing. 

I am increasingly interested in creativity, craft, handiwork, trauma, joy, and the creation of Things. Where time goes when you are in a state of awe creating something. It starts to sound sloppy and overwrought when I describe it, and most disappointingly like “Flow” but it’s more than that. I just haven’t figured out how to express it yet.

So let me quote William Blake instead:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

Thinking about my recent dedication to painting over finishing my book (books if I’m honest), I’ve needed an explanation to help me sort why I am not working on them. You know, beyond living a global pandemic, an economic meltdown, losing my best friend, and the nonstop fuckery from my fellow citizens, that is.

This sentence from Maya Lin made me weep thinking about this past year:

“I think with my hands.”

Yes. And. Why did it take me so long to figure this out?

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Slush Pile

Dear Editor,*

It’s highly likely this piece will end up lost in your slush pile.

What to say to an editor of an anthology about traveling during a year when international borders were closed? How to differentiate my story from the others? I suppose I’ll just tell you the truth. Despite all the horror of the last year, I published something in the genre of travel writing. This postage stamp may be total waste, but I have taken you up on the invitation to send published work from 2020. Here it is. What joy! Look at little me accomplishing life goals as society around me collapses! I used to wonder if I would have danced to the violins on the Titanic, and now I know. Yes, I would have been there for the encore.  

This year, your anthology arrived at my house in a blue and white envelope in my mailbox. Usually I purchase ________________ in airport souvenir stores. Or I read one piece at a time standing in airport bookstores while I am on a layover. Little rituals of my life that ended this year as a result of the Covid pandemic. Like many people, 2020 marked a year where I did not travel. I have been 30 miles from my house by bicycle, and I’ve learned every walking path in the five mile radius from my front door. I’ve watched sunrises from my home office feeling thankful that I have a job. As the full moon crossed my condo skylight, I have blinked tears of gratitude for my home. This year has been remarkable because I’ve read more books than I ever have in one year—142 at the time of this letter. I’m hoping to get to 145 by the end of the year. The words of others have saved me. For as long as I can remember, if I’m honest.

I used to work in a bookstore and I would introduce visiting authors on tour. I sat in the front row and listened to them read and take questions from the audience. Most writers said something along the lines that they wrote their book because it was a story that they needed to read. Fantasy writers said this. Memoirists held back tears when they said this. Romance novelists smiled as they said this. Nature writers. Historians. Fiction writers. A story that I needed to read, they said.

I’ve thought quite a bit about authors this year.

I’ve thought about travel writers and all of the people who have lost their livelihoods. Have the words of others saved them? What books do they need now? What art is being created in the midst of so much grief? 

What I’m attempting to do with the piece that you are holding in your hands (quite possIbly poised over the recycling bin) is a chapter from a book that I’ve been writing for quite some time. Four editors turned it into something way better than my original. This past year I had planned to figure out how to finish my book but then Covid hit, as we say. After work, in The Before Times, I used to write. This year, I took up painting and I read the words of others when the sun set.

Being a writer felt too hard this year, so I carved out a predictable life in so much unpredictability. I learned how to enjoy my backyard, new trails, and the horizons close to my home. The girl I was in this story thought pandemics were a thing of other centuries, and if I remember correctly, books saved her too. Even if you don’t select my piece, I have printed two copies just now. One for you and one that I’ll use as a bookmark for the 2021 anthology. I’ll tuck it in between my favorites stories that I will keep close to home.

May the wind be at your back,



*This is how not to write a letter to an editor, by the way, but I decided to just say fuck it and send this stranger a letter in a hand painted envelope. Think Zodiac Killer sans the murders and with watercolor paint and better spelling. Forgive the vagueness of this post, but I really wanted to get at least one post per month this year, and well here it is. I removed the name of the editor and the title of the anthology so this horror won’t match up with the Internet Robot that pulls all our thoughts together. Forthcoming in the new year is my historical fiction novel about the woman Wallace Hartley left behind. She’s a time traveler and I’ll meet her at a Siouxsie and the Banshee concert. We’ll bond over both knowing all of the lyrics to “Night Shift” and we’ll smoke clove cigarettes. She’ll tell me how she begged him not to go. Never travel by ship, she’ll say, right before she wishes me a happy new year and tells me that I should really finish that book before I start another one.

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Nesting Through Grief

Grief, like an apple tree, grows crooked not straight. ~Robert Macfarlane

One month ago, the love of my life and I said good-bye to our dog. Our best friend of fifteen years. He was having more bad days than good, and we decided that the right thing to do was also the hardest thing to do. Neither one of us has been the same since. Each day we suffer his loss in different ways together and separately. I was the one who always woke up early to feed him breakfast and take him out before he settled on a small bed beneath my desk. My love would take him out at night, and he made sure he was covered up with his favorite blankets for the night. I recently learned that our dog would jump into my chair after I went to bed. He didn’t like the way I folded my blanket, apparently, so he’d stare at my husband until he got up and created the blanket nest he wanted on cold nights. The Jedi mind trick of a little dog to his human. I didn’t know he did this every night until we were both crying together remembering this little love of our lives. Little rituals like this we now have lost.

As always, I have turned to reading for solace. I spent time researching for advice on what to do. How best to adjust to this time of grief and severe loss in a time of so much grief and loss. World-wide so many people have lost loved ones, and I know of people personally who have lost dear ones in their lives this year.

One of the bits of advice that I’ve read about grief is that you should spend some time changing your living space. That you should “potter about” a bit to give yourself some purposeful purposelessness. I read somewhere that giving yourself a bit of time to nest will help you through the stages of grief. But this, I thought, is advice before the pandemic has forced us to do nothing but nest. What does one do when you’ve been nesting for almost ten months? Sheltering-in-place. Hunkering down. Quarantining.

In normal times, when I experienced something hard, I ran. Left. Moved on. In normal times, I would have booked us to go someplace where we wouldn’t feel the giant loss of his presence in all the corners of our home that he claimed. In normal times, I would have booked us a place to stare at the ocean together in a climate very different than this dark corner of the Pacific Northwest. I would have made sure we went to someplace bright and cheery. Sure, this would have prolonged our grief, and we would have had to come home to deal with the silence of a life without him, but it is something I would have done before this awful pandemic. What to do with that drive to go someplace and escape when you know it’s not the right thing to do? You stay. You stay in one place. Home. You deal with the pain of listening for his collar shake and loud little snores at night. You deal with the silence and nest. 

And this word and all its forms–nest–is what I’ve been thinking quite a bit about.

A friend shared with me a bird nest that she found and cut down to bring inside to her house. “I’m really making myself vulnerable telling you this,” she said as she showed us via Zoom the branches, the twigs, and the nest. I listened to her describe the things she could do with it and I felt nothing but awe and inspiration. This woman recently stayed with her mother as she died, and I saw her plans for the nest as inspiration that life can, indeed, move forward. That creativity can come back. When you know somebody who has lived through losing a parent, you can’t help but think of your own situation. You can’t help but think of beings you have outlived. She went on to share the ideas for felted ornamental birds and other tiny woolen bits she might create, and I shared that I would have judged her only if she had cut it down while a bird was still living in the nest. If there were eggs that she stole–this I would have judged–this beautiful piece of art from nature–I understand.

Later I thought a bit more about this nest, and I wondered if there was a word for stealing the nest of other animals. Are birds like squatters taking up residence in places that aren’t their own? I know that some species will drop off their eggs for other to raise, and I remember being in a biology class with a woman who was outraged about this. She ranted about how careless this was of the mother bird for not caring for its young. As if human beings don’t do the same thing, I remember thinking, wishing she would be quiet so I could listen to the teacher. My friend’s bird nest will become something else entirely in her home.

Her story also brought my eyes a little higher to gaze into the trees instead the tears falling on my shoes as we learn to go on walks without our dog. I’ve found myself looking for nests, and I’ve been looking for birds. Thankfully, I live in a place where there are many creatures to see. “Hope,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is a thing with feathers.” Maybe.

Four days before I made the appointment to end the suffering of my best friend, I heard a ruckus of birds in the trees while I was on a run, and I looked up to see a very large spotted owl. We stared at one another for five minutes or more. It looked me in the eye the whole time, and I stood in place for a long time after it flew off. A majestic creature of the northwest that you can easily miss if you aren’t looking. 

This week while walking I saw a bald eagle land on a branch of a tall tree. When it landed and tucked in its wings, the branch broke off. Claws held the branch in free fall. It let go. Swooped its wings once. Twice. Flew to a higher branch. Landed to perch. More hope with feathers.

Yesterday a flock of snow geese flew directly over my living room skylight. I heard them honking before I saw them. Quick white dashes and black beaks through my square skylight. Majestic creatures passing through the northwest. A migration through this home of mine. 

This home of mine. Nesting here. During this time of quarantine, as we now say.


One of the stages of grief is called the upward turn–like the way I’ve been watching the sky, but I’m not there. Seeing grief in stages seems so linear. Too clean. Easy. So unlike this life we’re leading. The collective grief of this pandemic and horrors of late capitalism. I couldn’t find anything that seemed quite right to describe what I’m feeling until I listened to “East of Eden” narrated as a podcast from Emergence Magazine.

Thinking of grief like an apple tree, as I quote above, makes sense to me.

Something crooked. Not straight. Something that looks different in every season. I started hunting for apple trees in my neighborhood, and I found several examples that help me visualize our loss. One neighbor has a line of young apple trees that will one day make nice fence as they as they trim the wayward branches into a neat square. Another neighbor has old gnarled trees that grow every which way–a bit wild. Not so manicured. Nobody has raked the front yard. Cleaned up the front yard after the last wind story. Another house has left the apples to rot on their branches and a giant buck gorges itself in their yard every afternoon. More neighbors than not have apple trees.

Another memory of apples from an airplane window. Another life now. When I would fly from the east, I would try to locate the apple farms in eastern Washington with their nice clean rows before the pilot would mention the presence of Mt Rainier and Mt Baker to the north. Home soon, those lines of trees would say to me.

Another bit of advice to process grief is to write, and I’ll admit, the words have not come easy to me. I think writing helps if you are not already a writer. I can somehow write for my job, but I can’t seem to bring together the stories I’ve been trying to write. To edit the book I’ve written. To outline new ideas.

So I do other things.

I’m painting a lot, I’ve knitted a dozen small blankets for my friend’s cat rescue project, I’m slowly working on this large cross-stitch project where I’ve betrayed my inner Victorian lady by going off the pattern. Six or so inches of little thread letter Xs are somehow creating a rose border that I quite love. My hands it seem, need something to do, but my mind just weeps and feels sad. My body doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. All the things, my friends tell me, are normal. It just takes time, I’m told.

Today, on this holiday, we are to give thanks, which I try to do every day of my life. I’ve decided to try on creating the words again and take on the advice of a writer-friend. She and I are part of an anthology just published. Very exciting. She texted me a week ago, and said that her mom thought my story was the best of the anthology after hers, of course. Keep writing, girl-fren, she said. It was the text I didn’t know I needed.

So here it is. This little idea of a nest in the act of nesting. A noun and a verb. Little bits of things found along the way of life that make a nest into a home.

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Turn And Face The Strange

This week, the Feminist Survival Project podcast is going to end, and they asked their listeners share what they learned, and so I thought I’d get bloggy with it as a way to express my gratitude for their podcast and their book. I also wrote this in the final days of my little dog’s life. He lived to 15 1/2 years old, and towards the end his mind started go. Dementia and senility took hold of my best friend, and I slogged up and down hills of intense emotions for over six weeks. He and I went from climbing mountains together to him barely making it to the backyard. Outliving a creature who brought me so much joy is one of the hardest things I have yet to experience. I see no other way to survive this current moment in my life other than to see it through. To face it and all the rituals of life that now seem so strange without him.

For the first time in my life, however, I feel a deep visceral understanding of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As sponges—Buckets—do—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
c. 1862

So there. Now you know. I’m not the best version of myself right now though I’ve tried to hold it together as best as I can. And that’s just what I’ve been doing for months. Holding it together.

I’m also going to write this blog as a simple wish I’m sending into the universe. I want to understand “burnout” as a state of being and feeling a bit more, and thus I’m really thankful for the Nagoski sisters–I’m going to refer to them as Sestre. Before reading their work, I used to believe you burned out, suffered, made some change in your life, and then you moved on to the next thing. That it was all a cycle, a state of being, and I was so wise because I had figured it all out. You have a problem, you live through it, and then you find The Next Thing. May the bridges I burn, light the way, I thought.

Not this year.

We aren’t just burning the candle at both ends; we are nothing but flame or ash. And when I say We, I mean me and anyone who might feel this way. If you don’t feel this way, please feel free to move on. I don’t need to hear from you that you’re doing fine. Good for you. The Internet is a wide wonderful place, carry on, and I’ll give you twenty minutes back in your life if you don’t need these words.

But maybe you do. So I will write. From syllable to sound.

I work in the space of higher education, educational technology, and professional development, and somewhere in the overlap of these three worlds, I see a lot of references to the word burnout lately. During my last journey through graduate school, I wrote extensively about teacher burnout, and I hypothesized that adopting/adapting/implementing open educational resources into one’s teaching could save people from Teacher Burnout. Capital T. Capital B.

Since that time, I’ve been more involved with the leadership side of adopting/adapting/implementing said resources and practices and this causes another form of burnout I’m not quite ready to name. But it’s a thing. Lowercase A. Lowercase T.

I’ve lived through two pretty substantial periods of career burnout, and I’m not here to share with you how amazing I am nor am I here to make you feel that hair shirt of shame that is already so much a part of your 2020 skin. I’m not going to try to tell you what works, what you need, or what the best method is for saving yourself may be. Only you know. I have no tips or tricks. No cautionary tales. No words of wisdom.

I’m just going to write about what I learned from the Nagoski Sestre and it was a one ton bell clanging in the universe for me. The brain is wider than the sky.

So let me start there.

The phrase “self-care” makes my skin crawl. It smacks of what I think is disastrous about neo-liberalism, and every time I hear “self-care” as some solution, I find myself saying “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I first learned this phrase from studying Audre Lorde who, in my mind, taught us this phrase because, in short, if you are going to burn down The Man, you need to take care of your own shit in order to sustain the work. Self-care, in the way that I was lucky to learn about it as undergraduate from my feminist professors, is about making sure you have enough energy to sustain the action that will bring about change. What Ghandi called being the change that you want to see in the world.

It’s not getting your nails done or going to spa, or some product that you buy, it’s what you do to preserve your sanity so you have the power to take down The Man. Whatever your particular corner of The Struggle is, your first responsibility is to make sure you–the person involved in fighting an injustice–is rested and ready for what’s next. The notion of self-care that I learned from Lorde was about the long-game and how to sustain unsustainable action and passion for justice and truth that you believe in. That I believe in.

Lorde writes,

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Her message to me as an idealistic adult-returning student willing to get into debt for a college education was to prepare myself for the long-game. Beyond the mountains there are mountains. I wanted to be an educator who helped people like me, and I’m still doing that work, just in another setting than I originally thought. I’m not sure when this happened, but the phrase “self-care” started appearing everywhere in commercials, from Influencers (God help us) and from people who use phrases like “personal brand” and “my followers” without any irony. I feel a combination of disgust and despair when I see advice about “self-care” as an antidote to any stress.

Honestly, I could not really put a pin on what bugged me about this new focus and commercialization of “self-care” and I kept my inner Inigo Montoya words to myself when people gave me advice about taking care of myself.

When I listened to the Nagoski twins, and they shared that what we need isn’t taking care of ourselves, it’s taking care of one another, something clicked for me. I was mid-run and I stopped to rewind it (sorry, I don’t remember which podcast since this entire year has felt like one long Tuesday). Then the way one of them snarked “self-care” in the podcast made me see ten thousand rainbows. 

In other words, what we need as a society is not a product you can buy, it’s an action where you turn to yourself and to others with kindness and compassion. They preach this phrase quite a bit, and I honestly I needed to hear it every week in 2020.

From their book:

Wellness, once again, is not a state of mind, but a state of action; it is the freedom to move through the cycles of being human, and this ongoing, mutual exchange of support is the essential action of wellness. It is the flow of givers giving and accepting support, in all its many forms.

The cure for burnout is not “self-care;” it all of us caring for another (p. 214). 

I must have read that last sentence 50 times.

And let me tell you, I wasn’t a fan of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle when I first read it three months before I decided to that I needed to take a break from drinking alcohol. I read this book, and I was like, “Fuck. You. Ladies. You. Don’t. Know. Me.” I read the book quickly, and I slammed them with some snarky review on GoodReads (which I have since deleted), and I closed the cover of their book thinking I had it all figured out. I was good. Solid. Fine. Together. Totally good. Totally fine. This is fine.

On the outside, I was holding everything together. I was working for a growing company and I was helping to create a viable 501(3)(c) during my free time (ha ha) while trying be a writer and a recreational bike racer.

In other words, I had two start-ups in my life and I was trying to do All The Things. On the inside, I was starting to get very worried about my health, my happiness, and my ability to sustain the life I had created. I made a list of the things I could control and the things I could not control. And surprise–the columns were unbalanced.

One column was way longer than the other, so I committed to changing the things that I knew I could control, and I researched, read, and spent a lot of time sorting out what I could do to improve my life. A dry January or a Sober October wasn’t exactly what I needed; I haven’t drank alcohol since January 2019. But that’s a story for another day.

Every time I shared some of the things I’ve learned about neuroplasticity and my own habits and what I was doing to change them, somebody inevitably called it self-care. 

Sigh. No, that wasn’t it. You keep using that word…

And let me be clear, if this phrase works for you, then please use it. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life. Self-care it up, my friends. You do you.

What I’ve learned from the Nagoski Sestre is the following:

Caring just for yourself is not a cure for burn out.

Having a hard time understanding what burnout is? Me too. Let’s start with something really small. Like let’s say you bought twenty pounds of black beans in March. Bet you’re sick of those black beans right about now. Bet you feel guilty complaining about those black beans because there is so much food insecurity in the world. Bet you then feel helpless. Then you probably want to take a nap, but you have four hours of Zoom meetings where you have to not only deal with the faces of others, you have to constantly stare at your own. And your to-do list never ends. And so it goes. And you just keep thinking about the next thing. Anxiety. Worry. It’s not really cycle at this point, as I understand it, burnout becomes part of the way you’re living until your body takes over and makes you ill and/or depressed.

Here’s the thing.

I’ve become really interested in neuroscience and what it is telling us about learning, and I’ve started to read up on Trauma. I’m grateful to my friend who shared this incredible library guide, and she also taught me that we have to stop asking “What’s wrong with you?” and instead we have to ask “What happened to you?”

Suggesting there is something wrong feeds the flames of burnout while inquiring about what happened to you is that kindness and compassion that the Nagoski Sestre preach.

This subtle shift in the way that we interact with others may help. Especially if you are somebody like me who likes to fix things, act, get shit done. This moment is not for people like us, and all we can do is try to take care of another. We all know somebody who is struggling right now, and I think being able to listen to ourselves and others is crucial to seeing this time through. Kindness and compassion–a tone of voice that we need to hear in our minds. It’s the voice I’m trying to hear when I look in the mirror.

As somebody who likes to feel like I’m fixing things and contributing to something greater than myself, I’m at a complete loss of what to do right now. Sure, I still believe in my work, and I support people and causes that I believe in, but there is so much I cannot fix. Over the last ten months of this hellscape we call America, I have stepped away from my volunteer efforts, I’ve distanced myself from several friends, and I dove straight into working as much as could. I’ve worked on learning how watercolor, I’ve researched, I’ve written, I’ve gone on long walks and runs. I’ve kept a pretty consistent pace as any of you have who are lucky to have a job. You’re either working twice as hard or not all in this country.

This has all, I now realize, been a coping mechanism for me, and I’ve been fine up until six weeks ago when my sweet dog got sick.

And now I have to see this time of grief through.

I’m incredibly grateful for Nagoski podcast, their book, and the joyful experience of me not knowing which one is speaking until they mentioned music (Amelia) or sex (Emily). Thank you for your work, dear ones. I love the Nagoski Sestre for quoting David Bowie as the best advice for a time like this: “Turn and face the strange.”

This I can do. I have no choice.

Maybe you don’t either.

As I was thinking about how to end this post, so I can meet my self-imposed goal of blogging monthly, I looked out the window and got annoyed that I have somehow missed the changing color of the leaves near my house. Autumn has somehow happened and I feel like I’ve missed it. I started to cry thinking about my sweet best friend, and then I realized now that the leaves are gone, I can once again see the hills in the distance.

the view from my office window, attribution c’est moi
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