Things We Carry

We are in the process of doing some home improvements that we have put off for five years. When we sat down with our priorities and budgets five years ago, we decided to buy bikes and live with gnarly carpets (you can buy rugs to cover stains), the horrid light yellow paint on the walls (we call it Sun Faded Cat Piss), the uncomfortable futon we’ve had since 2003 (our dog loved it), and the cheap blinds (rental unit level quality). Every time we have had a bit of extra money, we decided to go places rather than invest in home improvements. Then the pandemic hit, and we spent almost a year with those floors, those walls, and the blinds, and whenever I had regrets, I went out to the garage and looked at our bikes to remind myself we’re doing okay in life. 

Before we have folks to do this flooring work, I have decided to see this as an opportunity to cull through my belongings. My husband and I both moved out west (separately) in our twenties with what we could fit in a car, and when we moved in together, we chose the best of anything we had as duplicates. He and I have moved close to a dozen times in the twenty years we’ve been together, so we’ve pared down our belongings. Books and bikes take up the most space, and we’ve always seen it as worthwhile to keep some possessions. If you look at our library and if you know us individually, you can easily tell which books belong to whom. Only he and I know which books we’ve both read (we have different tastes). As we have moved, we have also accepted that there are some things that we will never part with as individuals. One heated exchange is all it took for me to accept moving things of his, and he mine. 

For instance, after our third time moving together, I peeked into a box and found this black leather jacket covered in art that I’ve never seen him wear and I suggested that he part with it.

“I’ve never even seen you wear this, and what’s all of this other crap in this box? It’s gotta go to Goodwill, yo.” I had thought he was the only offender of keeping unnecessary things, but he came back swinging with the snark.

“Oh, you mean like that heavy-ass sewing machine you make me carry. I’ve never seen you fire that thing up.” 

He had a point. I loved that machine. It was from my life before him. It was the only thing left from a certain era, a time that feels like it never happened. Maybe he felt the same way about his jacket. Space in the U-Haul was precious real estate. We parted with a few kitchen gadgets and he kept the relic of his punk rock youth. I blew him a kiss when he carried the machine up three flights of stairs, and he extended his middle-finger with a smile in his eyes. That was the last time we had that discussion. 

Now that we are faced with moving all of our possessions to put in new floors, I am motivated to streamline my things mainly because of a short story by Ann Patchett, whom I love with all my writerly heart. In “How to Practice,” she writes about helping her friend clean out an apartment of her recently deceased father. Both Ann and her friend do not have children like me and my husband.

Here’s the section that gave me pause: 

Over the years, we had borne witness to every phase of his personal style: Kent as sea captain (navy peacoat, beard, pipe), Kent as the lost child of Studio 54 (purple), Kent as Gordon Gekko (Armani suits, cufflinks, tie bar), Kent as Jane Fonda (tracksuits, matching trainers), Kent as urban cowboy (fifteen pairs of boots, custom-made), and finally, his last iteration, which had, in fact, underlain all previous iterations, Kent as cosmic monk (loose cotton shirts, cotton drawstring pants—he’d put on weight).

I love this description for two reasons: We learn so much about this man both by popular references and the way that she uses parentheses. Rather than telling a story within a story, she gives us details about Kent’s life in between those parentheses. I used to teach my students that if you are going to add parenthetical information, you should read it aloud and if it doesn’t make sense like you’re whispering an aside, it doesn’t work (when in doubt, leave it out). 

Explicitly this is a story that teaches readers to think about their things and what might happen when you die, what might happen if you do not have children to clean out your closets. It’s also about what this man brought into his life as he aged and changed through different phases.

Implicitly this story is about so much more, and I thought about how that sewing machine (for me) was the first time I had extra money to buy something I wanted as a working adult. That leather jacket signifies something intangible to my husband, I’m sure. My mind then wondered some more.

When I think about stories of intangible and tangible things, I see the cover of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. If you have not read this book, click away from this bloggy drivel, and treat yourself to an incredible book about the Vietnam War.

Here’s one of my favorite passages: 

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations…men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to.

We have two copies of this book, by the way, we read it as graduate students and loved it. I know his copy by the handwriting in the margins, it’s a given we’ll keep both copies. The day my book arrived in the mail 22 years ago, I cracked it open and read the whole thing in one sitting. I canceled the plans I had that night, ate cheese and crackers for dinner and read O’Brien’s masterpiece, a banned book. I had heard both of my parents tell stories about the Vietnam era, and I’ve seen all of the movies and documentaries, but that book took me inside the mind of an American soldier, inside the complexities of that war. He taught me the weight of intangible things (like memories) can be heavier than any real thing (like carrying your friend’s dead body). 

Memories are heavy.

When I bought that sewing machine, I justified the purchase because I knew I could always sell it if I really needed the money in the future. I’ve learned from my middle-class friends, they didn’t have to think this way about their possessions. For those of us who survived childhood with parents who lost jobs and the economic destruction that ensues, it is hard to not think this way even if you have moved into a new tax bracket yourself. That sewing machine signifies a sort of success for me (I never got desperate enough to sell it). I’ve never asked my husband what that jacket means to him, but I will carry that box should we move again (some stories are personal, it is also lighter than my sewing machine).

As I started to go through the things I have accumulated since we moved here five years ago, I cut the tape on a box that I have moved but have not opened in probably ten years (if I’m honest, the mister has probably carried this one, it’s really fucking heavy). I have letters from people who are (sadly) no longer in my life, my high school yearbooks, really old family photos, scrapbooks, and my high school diary. I spent some time putting a few photos on the Insta writing captions (Insta is all about self-entertainment). When I cracked open my yearbook and a weaving project from my senior art class fell out. I had forgotten that we done weaving in that class! 

Memories of my art teacher came flooding back as I touched the fibers and marveled at how good it was (humblebrag). I remembered the art teacher telling me my design was ambitious and that I may not be able to make it work, but she told me to experiment and try. Like a good art teacher, she had us sketch and make a plan before we started the actual weaving. I don’t remember my grade nor do I remember what anyone else made, but I remembered loving the feel of the loom, how I obsessed about the colors of the yarn, and that class was one of my favorites because I got to talk with my friends as we made things (a precursor to how my best friendships have matured and endured). 

As I turned the 4×12 inch weave over to see the right-side and the wrong-side, I now see how my plan did not work in reality (some of the rows do not connect, there are holes where there should not be). I am amazed by the teacher’s willingness to let me make those mistakes (she had to have known), and I think I can fix them now.

In this small artifact that has survived 30 years tucked into a yearbook, I see my 18 year old self choosing colors I still love to this day (greens, purples, golds, blues) and a design of a sun and a moon (always a hippy at heart). Until recently, that was my one and only art class. My heart aches for students who do not get to take classes like this or for kids who lose time in art class to do active shooter drills. I know for a fact there are fewer art teachers. 

I also looked at the teacher section of my yearbook, and I was amazed at how many of my teachers had graduate degrees from really good schools. Morehouse, NYU, Spelman, Syracuse, Boston College, and other regional publics from the southeast, I was so very lucky to land in that public school in Atlanta, Georgia though I am not sure I thought that at the time.

I looked at the photo of my history teacher (a Morehouse alum) who played “Fight Power” by Public Enemy during a lecture, and he stopped the cassette tape (I’m old) as Chuck D was mid-stream:

Elvis was a hero to most

But he never meant shit to me you see

Straight up racist that sucker was

Simple and plain

Mother fuck him and John Wayne

He asked us why Flava Flav was so mad at Elvis and John Wayne. I remember the entire class cracking up. We were freaked out that our teacher even knew this music (he was probably 26, ancient to teenagers). In my suburban Atlanta classroom, we loved that music and I remember us laughing at how hip our teacher was (he dug Public Enemy like us!)

I have never forgotten the power of music for what we call teachable moments. I don’t think (and I deeply fear) that a teacher could not do this today, and every time I hear that song, I think of him and what he taught me about poetic explication (though I would not have known to call it that).  

Can you imagine his lesson plan? Today we will discuss American history, cultural appropriation, and race relations as represented in It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Students will discuss key poetic lines from William Jonathan Drayton Jr. and Carlton Douglas Ridenhour. 

Maybe he did not write a lesson plan at all and that’s how it worked (I remember him shutting the door before he pressed play on the boom box). 

So okay, I’m digressing (as usual). 

Here’s the thing.

I want to express gratitude to one of my dearest friends (a textile artist) who bought me Ann Patchett’s new book and had her sign it for me in her bookstore as I housesat. As I fell deeper in love with her home and her pets. As I tried to write this book of mine. As I tried to essay and nothing came. As I tried to remember the hope that you can be an author who owns a bookstore in 2022.

cover page of These Precious Days with a personal message written by Ann Patchett "To Alyson, With love and thanks from Ruby, Ozette, and the chickens. Now get back to writing."
attribution: me & omfg Ann wrote my name

Patchett’s message has helped me through some really dark months, and she has helped me see that I am at my best when I essay (when I attempt, when I try). 

I’ll leave you with her words from (a tear-stained) page 4 and 5: 

…I could watch myself grappling with the same themes in my writing and in my life: what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take. Again and again I was asking what matters most in this precarious and precious life. 

As for death, I have remained lucky. Its indifference has never waned, though surely it will circle back for me later. Death always thinks us of eventually. The trick is to find joy in the interim, and make good use of days we have.

Amen, Ann. (And fight The Power).

Posted in All The Things | Leave a comment

cour-sera-sera

The French have a saying that I quite love. Plus ça çhange plus c’est la même chose. When I hear a French speaker say these words, I feel like I am witnessing a benediction, a resignation, an acceptance of all the horrors. A full use of the body to emote words.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sigh. This introduction applies to so many things and thoughts right now, but here goes. A post I’ve been working on for a few months, and I want to post this so I can think about my book this weekend. Bless the heart who told me my bloggy is better when I do not write about educational technology. I have, however, not written here very much, but the following has been on mind as a winter research question.

Last fall, I decided I would carve out some time to learn something new while I had a glorious sabbatical month. Keep in mind I spent most of my time walking in the woods watching the winter duke it out with autumn. Glorious. Just magical that sabbatical of mine.

At the time, I kept seeing the term “upskilling” along with a lot of hand-wringing about the Great Resignation. Professional development while you are working a job in this era? The odds are not in your favor. Nobody cares about your skills until they need them, so if you like to learn for the sake of learning you may have to make that time happen on your own.

Usually professional development, let’s be honest, rewards you with more work. I am a glass-half-full kind of girl, but I also know I don’t own the glass and the water may need filtering.

And The Great Resignation, mind you, is a bit like what Grunge is to music genres. A media concoction to describe a certain time. Meaningless, subjective, and crafted by people who are looking to classify and market things for you to buy. Plus ça çhange plus c’est la même chose.

But I’d like to take a closer look at the upskilling–it sounds like something a mime does with an invisible hula hoop. This improvement of your skills has been around for a long time but you may know it as professional development or professional learning, training, organizational development, and the like. All of these words and phrases summarize learning at work and it costs somebody money or time.

When an offer to take classes for free for a month hit my personal inbox, I decided to give it a shot.

What did I learn from the 2022 mighty MooC that rhymes with the title of this blog? 

Let me start with some questions I had when I signed up.

Could I learn a job skill while not taking a class from a person? I am an okay watercolor painter and fair-to-middling knitter thanks to YouTube, but could I take this focus and use it towards something that justifies a paycheck? Can you really change your career with these courses? These programs? Is this how competency-based education finally finds its way to remediation, developmental level, or pre-college level work?

Could the MOOC course design facilitate students through an upskilling?

I had a few other questions: Why take one of these classes and not one from a university or community college? What is happening with corporations who are paying for their employees to learn from professional development services? What is a MOOC-like learning experience for people who do not remember the first wave of MOOCs? More importantly, are these courses similar to correspondence courses in ye ol’ days o’ distance learning?

If you remove the personal learning network focus of a traditional MOOC (to me), what then is the actual “course?”

What does a badge look like, who hosts it, and who the fuck cares? What happens at the end of this experience? Do people really get jobs? And selfishly, how little time could I devote to this and still pass?

The last question is really the honest truth. Instructional design boiled down.

Let me repeat this: 

How little time could I devote to an upskilling and still learn something meaningful? 

Here’s the thing.

The way that the course is designed, and the care in the tone of the feedback–even within all of automation–I could sense real people behind the design.

There is a story in the course.

Let’s say you’re tasked as an employee with upskilling–this word also reminds me of keeping a balloon in the air as it is floating away.

attribution

With an upskilling, students have a few choices.

1] You can pay for an expensive certification from an organization that has trademarks, certifications, and acronyms galore.

2] You can sign up for a course at your local community college.

3] You can apply to your local university.

or 4] you can sign up for the 2022 mighty MOOC.

You may not really understand what you’re aiming to become because you have no idea what a project manager is, how it differs from a program manager, but you see tons of jobs asking for these skills.

You also have a fifth choice as a student. As a learner. That’s to not to go at all.

And that is deeply troubling to me; people choosing not to pursue an education. People accepting that plus ça çhange plus c’est la même chose.

There is always hope, I want to say. Just like Bansky painted. Look again at the image if you missed it.

When I considered my choices as a student, I chose the shortest path: the 2022 mighty MOOC. They promised I could move as quickly or as slowly as I wanted, and they would charge me a lot less than what I would pay at the university or community college, and much less from the ™ organization.

For the price of 10 fancy coffees, I could earn a certificate or badge to decorate my LinkedIn profile under licenses and certifications.

Here are some other things I learned in the upskilling. Sounds like something in a horror film.

I learned the jargon and vocabulary of another field. I still think that a liberal arts education gives you the knowledge, skills, and abilities to earn a paycheck, friends. And frankly none of us are safe from automation, streamlining, lean leadership, and all of the other undoings of life as we know it. I will die on this hill.

I also loved being in a class and not having to deal with other people. A memoir.

I have a PLN, and for this I am fortunate, so to be able to listen to videos while I sketched and took notes was a real luxury. I did not participate in any of the networking opportunities and I clicked past all of the discussions.

The network is there if student want it, and I loved having the choice to ignore it. To me, this is the key function of all programs that are targeted to adult learners. You have to make it very clear what is optional.

I thought some of the assignments were pretty clever. I like a good story, and they kept a constant narrative about a single company. Clever scaffolding. Kept me interested. I was able to apply what I already know from academic leadership and whatever it is I do now, and I laughed outloud every time they would cite a “business leader’s theory.” Most of the time, it was just Aristotle, Freud, and/or some early capitalist who actually wrote about these concepts first.

I took a few quizzes over again just to see how they reworded questions. And kudos to you, question writers, that shit’s an art that we like to pretend is a science. It is really hard to write a multiple choice question that actually teaches people. All data-driven revisions are a leap of faith that you are improving a course. Or you are quite possibly making the learning experience worse. This I know.

Something else interesting to note is that this is the first time I have taken a class with so many multiple-choice questions. Truly! I have spent plenty of time writing questions for assessments, and I have written them for so many classes I’ve lost count in the last decade, but it was not my first mode of assessment as a teacher.

With this certification sequence, I made a deal with myself that I would not spend more time trying to earn “an A” and I would just roll with my first attempt at any assessed work. A few times, though, I challenged the robot. I was like, “This question sucks, and the distractor is not entirely wrong.” You can loose hours of your life with these thoughts, and I don’t think the majority of students care.

Writing a good wrong answer is so much harder than writing the correct answer. A Memoir.

I really liked assignments where they made me choose the best response in a conversation. As a learner, I hate simulations where people role play in person. Even with skilled actors, it always seems forced. 

Education classes, in particular, utilize simulations, role playing by acting out scenarios, with the hope that it helps in real life. It may for some, but for me as a student, I always felt like it was a shitty theatre class and a day off for the teacher. You never really know what you’ll say until there in the moment.

In the 2022 mighty MOOC, my friends, they had you drag and drop what you would say in a scenario, and they told you if you were right or wrong and why. If only life worked that way!

I often chose the wrong answer just to see why it was wrong. Nerd alert, I know. Those drags and drops were very helpful to learn processes, when to use vocabulary in different scenarios, and what the job might look like should you get hired. Quite helpful, really. Very interesting conversations where the content directly connects to what you might face in the workplace. You never know.

I also half-assed all of the peer response assignments. True confession.

I never read the assignments, I just completed the work based on the rubric.

The teacher in me dies a few deaths with this confession, but holygod did it save me time.

A few times, I got a 100% when I should have failed. The few times I did get dinged for incomplete shitty work, I felt bad for the person who graded it. The last class, the capstone, was a bit of a struggle because they had so many peer response assignments. I was ready for the upskilling to end at that point. Maybe it’s home improvement word, upskilling. We did an upskilling on the kitchen this weekend and it was more than we bargained for time-wise.

Did I leave the six class sequence with a portfolio of work?

No, but you could.

Slight missed opportunity for me, but probably not. I liked the business plan throughout the course, but it was tough to translate the work without your own imaginary business or project.

Did I leave the class understanding the major learning outcomes? Yes, and I have access to templates, vocabulary, and resources that I could use again if I needed to. Mostly it reinforced whatever I already know about this work. Not a total loss.

Would I do it again? Not sure. 

When I concluded the program they offered me a coupon to the fancy ™ program. It was like an upskilling coupon to celebrate my graduation. That could really be appealing to some people, I suppose. If the 2022 mighty MOOC leaves you at the door of a real certification at a discount, chances are you may do better.

Do I understand the “upskill” zeitgeist better now?

Dunno. 

I’m left with more questions than answers, so I’ll close by telling that I read every vocabulary list because I love words. Those were the best part of the six months I came and went with this course.

Here’s the best definition of the word “uncertainty” that I’ve seen in a business course or frankly about life as we know it. (emphasis mine).

Uncertainty: a lack of predictability or high potential for surprise.

Posted in All The Things | Leave a comment

The Place Where You Live

Tried my best to get this down to 200 words and contact my friend for a photo. Neither happened.

Orion magazine has this lovely invitation to write about where you live. If you are a writer, you should do it.

I also learned the word “Zoomtown” today by finishing Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home. It has left me thinking of where I live, how I cannot let go of words without an editor, and if I could write a love letter to capture this moment. I moved to this town from California. I am originally, as we say, from the East Coast. I fulfill all of the categories of the “Zoomtown” expansion, but truth be told, I have been trying to figure out how to retire in Bellingham since I was 27.

Here’s the thing.

Being priced out of this town is not shocking. Witnessing the changes to this tiny cove in the Pacific Northwest is something to see. When I am my most pessimistic, I think of ways to leave. As I have done many times from so many places. I can see leaving.

When I am at my most optimistic, I hope for better restaurants and bike lanes. The public library is superb. There is so much to love, and I feel lucky. I cannot see leaving.

If you can’t make the word count for Orion, by the way, you should write a love letter to where you live. Or where you are from. Write about your home.

I promise I will be a reader.

This is what I wrote.

attribution

City Subdued of Excitement: A Memoir

Below the flight path of migrating snow geese, I live near a repurposed railroad trail. In the skies above the condominium I call home, the Mallard duck, the Great Blue Heron, the Barred owl, and the common gull fly east to Lake Whatcom. Uphill from where the land meets the Salish Sea’s tides. On the ancestral and current lands of the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo people. Within rowing distance of the San Juan Islands. Within walking distance of Whatcom Falls. Within the crawling distance of old growth tree stumps. 

When I walk each day along the trail, I say hello to mosses and ferns as I would a passing stranger. I worry about the waterfront and its tributaries when I read tide tables like lines of poetry with its warnings and watches. In the summer, I plan long sojourns into the forest. Gambling with days off work to not align with the smoke of forest fires. In the summers, I breathe the smokey air from provinces of our Canadian neighbors. I ride my bike close to the border of two countries.

Where a maple leaf of one national flag flies close to stripes and stars my own country’s claim.

All I see is ocean.

Where the summer heat waves now melt our glaciers. Where there are too many shades of green to count. Where we are blessed. Where we are cursed. Where we choose to ignore whether we are blessed or cursed. 

Where a tissue mill that once sent plumes of polluted steam into the air; we now have a temporary park where people ride their bikes in circles. Near where people live in tents, cars, and RVs because they cannot afford homes. 

When it snows, you can see the clear cut acreage on the nearby hills. We use phrases like “tree farm” as a friendly way to describe cutting down trees. To make ourselves feel better, we use phrases like “the mountains are out.”

The most optimistic hopeful phrase of the northwest. The mountains are out.

I like to imagine the mountain peaks choose when to let us see them. It is rare and completely delightful. On days when there is a sea of grey above our heads, you can hear the birds better. If you are still. Quiet.

In the winter, the days are short, dark. If you pay attention to the moment when the sun drops below the clouds, a change of the light turns into a celebration of colors. Brief far away light for minutes. You can miss it. Perhaps the sun is telling the global north a secret we cannot hear.

We live for the the long days of summer to give us back our lost light of winter. Hearts remain open as the in-between seasons pass quickly like windstorms.

Gale-force winds remind us that even the most experienced sailors may need the safety of a harbor. When the seas are too powerful you can find a cove in the City of Subdued Excitement and wait it out.

Posted in All The Things | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

To Scribble and Erase and Scribble Again

Watercolor painting is teaching me how to learn when it is time to stop.

Unlike writing, where you can rewrite and revise words for decades, if you rework a shape too much using watercolor, the paper starts to break down. The actual medium starts to deteriorate. If you try to fix a mistake or paint over something, the original mark is still there. The first draft is always final.

This is called “overworking the paper or the paint” as I’ve listened to teachers who share tutorial videos online. Overworking the pigment and water ruins a painting. The worn paper draws your eye to that shape; that’s all you see. Like a coffee stain on a white shirt. A dropped stitch on a knitted blanket.

Your mistake becomes the focal point.

I suppose if I was still writing by hand or with a typewriter, the same would be true. I am old enough to remember how frustrating it was to fix a typo using liquid paper or the backspace deleting of a typewriter. The curse or the blessing of the digital magic machine is that it allows you to keep drafts of drafts of drafts of drafts. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. 

With watercolor, you have to make the call that it’s done. You have to say, this is the best I can do and it’s time to move on. You can either live with the obvious degradation of the materials or you can stop and preserve what you have.

But you have to call it. 

I picked up my first set of paints the same week I learned about the virus that nobody took very seriously in my life. Almost everyone close to me discounted the severity of this virus at first. Discounted it like it would be a snow day. Like a temporary disaster similar to an avalanche sliding across a road. Seeing the doctor who scared us about AIDs and the seriousness of my state’s governor made me pay attention. Made me doubt others who were lighthearted that this was a temporary thing. I kept my opinions to myself and clung to the handful of people who make me a happier person. I started to examine the things I could change and control about my life as chaos swirled.

The pandemic was not the catalyst for my current obsession with pigment, but it definitely gave me the time and focus to learn and practice and think. A deep breath I did not know I needed.

Prior to purchasing my first set of paints, I had overworked the page with a written elegant appeal for why I no longer wanted to travel as part of my jobby job. Why I no longer wanted to be in a position of pretending like I love being an extrovert. Why others are better suited for the work I was doing. Why I wanted to create the materials others can use, but I did not want to spend my life in airports, hotels, strange cities, and that I can live my entire life to the end without ever returning to Texas or the southeastern states. Why I needed an extended break from academic conferences. True confession: I’d go to New York or any state north into Maine, but aside from seeing my family in the southeast, the rest of the country is not that interesting to me anymore. Turns out, all of those arguments were not needed as the virus circled the globe. My pitch was never spoken. That overworked page was never needed.

Life as we know it changed. A deep breath I knew I needed.

Instead, I did what needed to be done and I painted everyday. I had already been working remote for over a decade, so there was nothing to adjust to professionally. I disappeared into books from the library, and I wrote and revised a book. I was strangely content with being hyper-local; I only went south of Highway 20 a handful of times. I drove west because I love the Olympic peninsula. The big mountains that descend into rocky beaches has a pull on me like a magnet. In 2021, I lived within walking, running, snowshoeing, and cycling from my front door. I was treated to a whole month off from work where I painted and wrote while money magically appeared in my bank account. For a month, I got to experience what it must be like to be rich or comfortably upper-middle class. I deleted every app that connected to email, notifications, and focused on being a writer. I felt nothing but gratitude for 31 days.

I was able to take full advantage of the wise words of Mary Oliver from her Blue Pastures:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, and to scribble and erase and scribble again.

What I love most about this book is her use of the color blue in every chapter. Sometimes it’s sneaky like a reference to the “whole sky” or sometimes it is direct like fishing for bluefin tuna. But it’s there, that color blue. My favorite chapter is “Pen and Paper and Breath of Air” where she explains how she carries a small notebook to lists her thoughts as she walks. Her question below sends me staring into the sky on more days than I like to admit:

Do you think the wren ever dreams of a better house?

In 2020, I painted birds everyday for 100 days with the promise to myself that if I still felt depressed on day 100 as I did on day one, I would seek help. Those paintings got me through to the other side. Since then, I have progressed as a painter. I am still overworking the page as a writer. I am still not sure if the wren dreams of a better house.

Here are some thoughts for today as I head into the weekend with unfettered time and no commitments and no screens and birds in the sky above a trail I will walk. Pure joy.

I have been taking two classes in my free time as an online student. One I am not ready to talk about and the other brings me back to thinking about my early days of being a teacher.

The hardest thing about teaching is remembering what it is like to be a beginner. What it is like to learn something for the very first time. This is sometimes called the “expert’s blindspot” but I am not comfortable with that description. I could never point out where I was an expert and what I could not see. It’s an elitist description that only the worst people in education seem cozy with.

When I tell people who do not know me well about learning to paint, they immediately ask if I am going to sell what I am creating on an online store. Or if I am creating a “side hustle” which I cannot even say without puking in my mouth a little. Don’t get me wrong. Should somebody want to commission me to paint, I would faint, get to work, and happily accept their money. But no, that’s not the goal. I also really hate the phrase “being a Creative” because I believe every person has that potential.

The best questions are from those who are interested in the paint, the paper, and the materials. The tangible. The tools. Shades. Hues. Saturation. The scribble without the erase. The chewing of the pencil or the paint brush. They know the value of working the page. The creative work. And how it saves me. How it saves us to be creative in a time of chaos and uncertainty.

They know the value of thinking about pigment to water ratio. As Mary Oliver jotted down:

The sugar of vanity, the honey of truth.

Posted in All The Things | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

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.

Students.

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
attribution

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.”

Posted in All The Things | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

attribution

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.

Posted in All The Things, AmWriting, What The Shoulders Can Bear, Writing The Thing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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. 

Listen:

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

Aureolin

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.

Listen:

Disappearing lines

Texture

Shading

Atmospheric perspective

Gestural line

Symmetry

Vanishing point

The pigment to water ratio is meditation. 

The language of a mood. 

Hue 

Version

Warm, cool, hot

Wet, dry

attribution
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.

Listen:

Red Ochre

Minium

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.

Posted in All The Things | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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.

Heavy.

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.

attribution

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

Yes.

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)

Posted in All The Things | Leave a comment

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.

attribution

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.”

Delightful.

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

Posted in All The Things | Leave a comment

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.

attribution

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.

Posted in All The Things | Leave a comment