“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)
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I promised myself I’d try to blog at least once a month this year, so here it is. I don’t really have anything in the bloggy draft that I’m ready to click publish with, and I just realized that September does not have another day. In this hellscape we call America, everyday feels like Tuesday. Let’s see. How about some quick thoughts. Fun facts.
1] I did a quick search with the phrases “faculty development,” “burnout” along with the the word “trauma” today and I thought through the essay I would write for faculty developers. Not now. Someday. I’ve been dying to use the Battlestar Gallactica saying “So Say We All” for years as a title. This might be the essay. Can’t possibly write what I’m thinking until we’re on the other side of whatever the fuck this is.
2] I am so entirely in love with curbside pick-up at my local library. Once a week I ride my bike to pick up my four or five books, and I try to smile with my eyes as I thank the lovely librarian who is giving me a bag full of books. I do, however, miss rummaging through the free magazines and old books in the basement. It’s usually me and three dudes who look Jerry Garcia and smell like they have questionable hygiene practices. One dude has been wearing the same sweater for the entire time I’ve lived in Bellingham. I moved here in 1998. I miss those guys.
3] I’ve been reading up a storm. Totally making up for those shitty years for personal reading also known as graduate school. I inhaled Can’t Even: How The Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson.How have I been on this Earth for so long without knowing the phrase “Hope Labor?” I was the Queen of Hope Labor while I was an adjunct. First but not last of her name. Storm born. Breaker of chains.
I stared into space a lot while reading the history of unions in that book, and since I live with somebody who researches about generations, we talked about it all weekend. Or I talked about what I was reading and he got riled up about Boomers and capitalism. Pure joy for me. Lots to dissect with regards to this very fucked moment we are living in, and as a latchkey Gen X’er whose life was blown apart by the disappearing industry of what we now call the Rust Belt, I have a lot of empathy for that generation. And I have to tell you, because I want to stay in a good mood, the sections on social media and being a parent (I can’t use the word “parenting;” it’s like the word “hella” or “influencer”–I just don’t get it. I am the But Why Cat when I hear those words). Okay, social media. Yes. I am so glad I experienced love in the pre-times of social media. When I finally burned all of the notes and letters from a person who broke my heart, it was so satisfying. I rose from the ashes a new woman who would never fall for that shit again. Changing your relationship status to “Single” just wouldn’t have been the same. These are the things I thought about while my brain and heart needed a break from capitalism.
3] I’m reading–very slowly–one woman at a time–Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers and Mavericks Who Shape How We See The Natural World by Kathryn Aalto, and it reads a lot like an Intro to Ecofeminism collection which I’m totally down with, by the way. I suffered through a class taught by an Eco-Critic (ah, the early aughts, so cute) and I wish this book had existed then instead of the bullshit overpriced anthology I had to buy for the class that was supposed to be on literary theory, but we just talked about his research the whole time. Anyhoo.
When I got to the chapter on Mary Oliver, I was having a particularly rough morning where it had been a week–as in seven days that feel like Tuesday–since I made it through a morning without crying. Aalto explicates the poem The Summer Day which I love love love. This quote made me laugh. Snapped me right out The Funk. The dark corners got light again when I read these words:
“At the end, she asks a question that, paired with the wild animals, prompts us to take stock: ‘What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’
To that very question, Oliver once replied in an interview, ‘I used up a lot of pencils.”
This wild wonderful life feels a bit on pause right now, but you know, So Say We All.
“But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.” ~Cheryl Strayed
Of the three things I’ve learned since I’ve started watercolor painting, what startles me the most is that I don’t care if I’m any good at it. It also forces a perspective shift that I hadn’t expected, and a patience that I didn’t know I had. Unlike writing sentences, you have to wait for the first layer to dry. There is a forced pause in the creative act. With writing, I can type type type without ever having to pause. To think. It’s very easy to keep going to the next idea and the next idea. Whereas watercolor has two speeds. Hurry up and paint the thing so that the pigment and water swirl and do wonderful things. Or hurry and wait and wait until one layer is dry and then you can work on the next thing. For instance, when you paint a landscape, you have to create the sky and horizon first, and then you have to work your way towards the foreground. I haven’t taken an art class in high school, and even then I volunteered to model more than I drew. It’s such a delightful break from things that do not involve writing poetry, nonfiction, fiction, essays, all the work things. A mixed medium to explore and think about while I try to write and rewrite this book.
Somewhere around the time we stopped making mix tapes and buying CDs and started downloading our music from slow dial-up internet, I decided it was a good career plan to get into debt and become a teacher. My grades were suffering because I couldn’t work a double as a cocktail waitress and make time to go to the computer lab to type my papers. My typing skills weren’t great: I had fucked off in typing class in high school with a friend, a cute boy who made me laugh. I saw the debt as worth it because it enabled me to cut back on working double shifts. I had somebody telling me new things to read and stories of history I had never considered. I swan dove–chin out–chest out–into being a full-time student and part-time worker. Turns out this was what I was looking for my whole life.
At the end of this pursuit, at the distant horizon, I would become a teacher.
I tried to ignore my comfortably middle-class classmates who fucked around by getting drunk every night, pretending to have done the reading in the class. I learned very quickly that if I referenced a page number in the reading, the teacher would beam towards me and I’d have an upper-hand on the losers who suddenly looked down at their books nervously hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on them until they had a chance to scan the page. I’m not sure I was aware of how referencing the page was a signal of close reading, I just noted that’s how the handful of smart people in the class did it. The ones who were taking shit seriously. How the teacher did it. I saw my school loans in the distant future the same way you might accept your utility bills to keep the lights on. To keep water flowing out of your taps. To wash your clothes. To make sure a truck rolled up to your driveway and took away your trash.
I’d marvel when I was forced to go see counselors as part of some class or some degree checkpoint, and I’d try to make an appointment around my ever-changing waitress schedule. When I’d finally sit across from a counselor, they’d ask me my plans, and I’d tell them. “Do you have family members who can help you? Surely there is somebody who can help pay for your tuition so you don’t have to work.” As if it’s that easy. I never went to an advisor again. I took a zero on an assignment when I transferred to another school. Their advice wasn’t worth the gas money to get to campus.
Somewhere between the time our country elected the puppet of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Elliot Smith killed himself, I decided I could no longer spend the rest of my career planning for how I would pay for my bills when I was “off-contract.” This acceptable euphemism of the tenured to describe the time where you’re not paid but you’re not eligible for unemployment despite the small stack of degrees I had earned. The letters AA, BA, MA mean nothing when the bills are due. I sorted that I made more money an hour telling lies to lonely lawyers as I served them drinks than I did helping students learn how to read. How to write. My so-called calling didn’t pay my phone bill four months out of the year.
Somewhere around the time when I could no longer lie to students and say it was a good idea to become a teacher and I decided to go back to school, I applied for a loan to consolidate my car payment and some credit card debt. “Do you have a family member who could gift you the down-payment? Anyone in your life who can pay half of what you’ve applied for?” Would I be sitting here asking for this money if I did, I thought.
Somewhere between the time that Americans learned what a “sub-prime mortgage” means and the president sought economic recovery advice from men who worked for Goldman Sachs, I graduated with a second Masters degree paid for the tuition-waiver of Washington State and USDE. I swapped credit card debt for years of loan deferment, and I entered the job market as an instructional designer with a focus on online education. Five years later, the world is a very different place, and again, I’m lucky during unlucky times.
That’s a short-esque memoir-ish exercise where I try to be Chuck Palahniuk. Kinda sucks, right? I kinda want to go into a basement and beat the shit out of some strangers now. We can call it Class Resentment Club. Just kidding. For realz, I just read his latest book on writing, and it paralyzed me for an entire day. Check it out if you’re into les belles lettres. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different.
Like now. When I think about writing and how to communicate the passing of time.
First let me say, that I’m not a die hard fan of his work but I know plenty folks who are. When Fight Club (the book, not the movie) dropped into my circle of waiters-who-read, they loved the violence of the book. Dudes gonna Bro, what can I say. They made me laugh at their perspective on books. Personally, I loved the scene where Tyler Durden slaps some sense into the convenience store about how he was going to spend the rest of his life. It’s a beautiful twist of what you expect and what actually happens. When Tyler describes his apartment, the Ikea furniture, and the things that own you, I was close to weeping. The disgusting brilliance of how they made soap from the liposuction fat. My Bro Bookclub didn’t want to talk about that “class shit”–those scenes never left me. Sitting in the movie theatre, I watched Brad Pitt and Edward Norton capture everything I imagined. Perfectly. I had lost touch with the Bros at that point, but I’m sure they loved the Meatloaf cameo just as much as I did. “Fucking Meatloaf as Bob! Can you believe it?”
I miss movie theaters and bookstores. You?
When my library announced curb-side pick-up recently, I hopped on the chance to order books. I searched for watercolor, watercolour, and books on the craft of writing. By the time I got my chance with Palahniuk’s book, I had forgotten I ordered it.
It’s the best book on writing that I’ve ever read. “I shit you not,” I’d say to my Bro Waiter Bookclub if I remembered their names. If you were my student, I’d tell you to buy this book. (Another sentence-style I’m stealing, if you read it, you’ll see it).
Throughout the book he includes “post cards from book tours” and I loved all them. One of the last ones in the book, he uses this refrain to show the passing of time. A model of what he teaches. Perfection.
Here’s my favorite:
“Soon after the death of my father, but just before answering machines and disposable cardboard cameras began to disappear, I flew to London” (p. 223).
Also amazing, and “hella fucking brilliant” in Bro Bookclub-speak:
“In the last days of road maps and telephone book, before global positioning systems and ride-sharing apps, my French editor hosted a dinner at her apartment on the Left Bank” (p. 227).
If you weren’t alive to watch the phasing out of this technology, you could research. If you were alive, you’re instantly struck with nostalgia and you remember where you were. When you purchased your last disposable camera. Ordered your last AAA Trip-Tik and so on. The reader has to do the work.
Throughout the book he advises that you need a clock and a gun in your work.
Where has this book been my whole life?
The clock marks time, and the gun–well, I really need to go back read more of what he says about that because I got so hung up on the advice about time. How to mark time. How to describe time. How to place time.
The gun, though, he sums it up with “the moment after which everything is different” (p. 226).
Yes, somewhere between the time I read that advice and now, I’ve written pages and pages of the “Somewhere between this and that” like I’ve done above. A revelation. It’s like a ten ton bell. Holyshit. So fun to do. If you’re searching for a way to write about time, especially during a time when it’s so meaningless. We live in a sea of Wednesdays right now, so I think that’s why I’ve been struggling a bit with writing. With everything. Will I share those sentences eventually? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, this edict still rings true: “I don’t want to die without scars.” Thanks, Chuck. Me too.
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” ~Georgia O’Keefe
Teachers in online videos use phrases like perfectly imperfectly, loosely connected, ever-changing, uncontrollable pigment, multiple-perspectives, and negative space.
I click pause.
Dip the brush into the water. Swirl it around in the clear mason jar that used to hold apricot preserves made by a friend I have not seen in person in three months. I dab the brush into the primary color yellow. Watch the hairs soak up the pigment, and then I drag it on the paper in one long arc that will become a Black-eyed Susan I’m learning to paint. Finally. After all these years of waiting until I have studio space, I’ve decided to use our dining room table to paint. Who knows when/if I’ll ever have a studio.
During this time of complete change in our lives as we live through a pandemic, the idea of what it’s like to paint watercolor has chased me. When I first saw a Covid-19 cell in January, I thought it looked like a watercolor painting. On a normal day (as if we have them anymore) when people would ask me what I do as a creative person, I’d say I’m a writer.
Words, however, are not easy right now. Every time I try to write, I lose the thread. Drop the stitch. Thankfully I’ve written the daily prompts from the Isolation Journals, but I’ve taken a break from the books I’m trying to write. This particular prompt is to write about an idea that chases you. So here it is. Day 89: Watercolor painting.
Scrolling through social media one day, I watched a process video of a watercolor artist, and I thought back to all of the times I travelled to art museums. I’d pause longer on watercolor paintings. Prior to all of this, I used to travel for a living, and my last trip to New York City, I went to the MOMA alone. I got there right when it opened, and I remember speed walking to a few paintings I wanted to be with before the crowds gathered. Then I spent hours walking around being among the tourists, the students on school trips, elderly people in travel groups. I sat with strangers, walked, and bumped into people as I kept my eyes on the paintings sculptures.
When I stumbled upon Georgia O’Keefe’s Evening Star No. III, I stood and looked at the texture created by water in her painting. Where the color gathered. Where pigment bloomed into shape. When I think back to that day, alone in New York City yet surrounded by people, I remember thinking about how I would love to learn how to paint using watercolor pigment.
This is the idea that has chased me.
Here I am.
I’ve taken up the study of watercolor as a creative outlet that avoids words. I knit and cross-stitch while we watch TV and films, so I wanted to keep the textile arts to the time that I’m focused on the screen. For less than thirty dollars, I was able to get set up with a kit to watercolor.
The narrative of how to paint is very much like the teaching of writing, which I no longer do. A perfectly imperfect new practice that I didn’t know I desperately needed. Almost a month ago, I deleted my Facebook, I stopped going to Twitter during my breaks, and I’ve limited the time I’m on Instagram to fifteen minutes a day. Now that I’m not traveling for work, I thought I should lighten this digital engagement of mine (that isn’t work-related), and pause my use of these platforms that really do not spark joy in the endless horror that is America. I love Insta–I’m not going to lie–the concise captions and easy scroll of lovely photos. When I have let myself go beyond the fifteen minutes, I watch demos of people painting with watercolor. What a world I’ve discovered! Oh, so much to see that has nothing to do with the world.
I’m also home to see my little garden grow for the first time in four years since I’ve moved to this condo. I’ve been able to water, plant, propagate, and sit next to the flowers that are growing near my windows. Nearby frogs have kept me awake at night because they are so loud. I’ve seen the moon grow full from my home office window for seven months straight. Odd to be home for so many days in a row.
I haven’t purchased a plane ticket in six months, and I have no plans to go anywhere. Unlike a lot of people I know, who seem fine with going to public spaces, I’m quite horrified by the politicization of mask wearing. I prefer not to know which side my neighbors are on, and one of the main activities people share (at least in my circles) is getting together for a socially-distanced drink. Well, that’s not as thrilling to me as it used to be (a story for another day). Rather than seeing this moment as limiting what I can do, I’ve decided to take up some activities that I’ve wanted to do for some time but haven’t. Like meal planning where we cook stuff from scratch, freeze it, and think carefully about what’s in the pantry. I’ve been baking more, trying out new recipes, and using this time to be more in my head without worrying about the future. I’ve become a daily tea drinker where I sit down and read a chapter while I sip my tea collection. Over the years, I’ve collected tea bags from places I’ve traveled or I’ve purchased new teas before I finished the old boxes, and now I’m drinking the inventory down. I’ve splurged on one fancy tea because it’s been years since I’ve had it.
Drinking this new tea and watching leaves steep, a memory came to me from when I worked at a health food store as a cashier and we got to purchase damaged packages for 10 cents. A butcher and I would tell one another about new items. A flirty coworker game. I haven’t thought of him in years. His job was so gory and horrid; his apron was always bloody but he’d come through my line to buy a snack and let me know he put away a box of tea for me from the damaged pile. We made small talk on work breaks. He was a watercolor painter married to a woman I never met. I liked to listen to him describe his studio though I never saw any of his paintings.
If only I had met you five years ago, he said to me on my last day at the store, my life would be different. I smiled. Lied. Said I’m sure mine would be different too. I never saw him again, but I do remember how much we loved that expensive tea. How we couldn’t justify two hours of work for that purchase unless it was in the Damaged Ten Cent Pile. I spend so much money on watercolor brushes, I remember him saying. The Watercoloring Hot Butcher, I called him in my mind.
Memories float, run, as days bleed into one day and then to the next.
When I lived in California, there were always plein air watercolor painters on the trails in Point Reyes National Seashore where I liked to hike. I didn’t mind them taking up space on the trail when I hiked by. They were always quiet contemplative people standing next to their eiseles, and I would hike the trail to the coast alone in the fog or the sunlight. One time when I was returning, I caught a view of one painting with a hiker in the field wearing a purple backpack–the color of my daypack. The hiker’s backpack bled into a field of orange poppies, and the painter was shaping tiny lines of tall grass when I approached. Looks like your aura, he said without stopping his grass strokes, acknowledging me looking at his painting without meeting my eyes. Could just be the lighting I said, uncomfortable that he could see something I could not.
Whether I’m drawn to experience what I’ve always admired in others’ work or if I’m chased by this idea I can’t let go, I’m not sure. I’m on my 42nd day of trying to watercolor, and sometimes memories float to the surface, but most of the time I don’t think about anything. I love the color of the paint. The way the color runs. How the water leads the paint across the paper. The brush has a push and pull, the water has a surface tension.
I’m not really sure I know what I’m doing, but I love trying. Painting flowers as a way to take a break from the words feels like the right thing to do right now. I’ll come back to writing, but for now, I make lines and circles that resemble leaves and flowers. Perfectly imperfect.
The trouble with goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want. ~Sarah Manguso from 300 Arguments
I keep this notebook of the memoir I’m working on, and it has sat collecting dust for the past two months because I haven’t really felt like working on this Big Project of mine. I worry sometimes everything I’ve done in the last year will sit too long. Like a tea bag that steeps too long and makes the hot water sour. If I don’t complete this thing, all the time I’ve spent will have been useless. Pointless. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. The jobby job brings quite a bit to the daily word count practice of writing, and I’ve participated in 74 days thus far of The Isolation Journals (I’m frequently one or two days behind, but I always catch up). I also record the passing of the day’s thoughts, such as they are, in my personal journal. So, if you’re keeping count, I’m writing in three physical journals right now. But this notebook has sat on the corner of a table next to my desk collecting dust. I wiped a layer of pollen off of it this morning. Whatever goals I had of where I would be now have disappeared. What I thought I’d have done; I’ve let go. Where I thought I would be is nowhere to be found.
I have, however, kept one promise and met one deadline with others. I have also kept and met one deadline with myself. I selected “The Kind of People Who Leave Dirt on the Floor” as my chapter for the anthology with my little writing group. I promised this group I would select a piece I wanted to work on more while meeting an aggressive deadline. Funny, now that I’ve worked in Start-Up-Land, what other people see as “aggressive” or “not a lot of time” or “a quick turn around” is actually quite a luxury. I don’t say a word about that, however, nobody cares. I take the time and get on with it.
When I got the file of my chapter from the editor, she had completely changed everything but three sentences. Maybe ten words out of three thousand were still in tact. Ten years ago, I would have collapsed into a self-loathing pile of flesh on the floor crying my eyes out with a file like this. Just the optics alone of so much red would have destroyed me. I made a promise to myself this time around I would write the best thing I could with everything these people taught me over the past year. I also made a promise to go with whatever the editor saw in my writing. Whether I liked it or not. A hard commitment for me.
Before I could even process how much she changed, altered, and rearranged, I clicked “Accept Changes” on every page. Deleted one sentence. Read her thoughtful comments about why she altered what she did. After about fifteen minutes or so of accepting all the changes, I reread my story and I liked it a lot more. It’s way better now. I chose this chapter because it’s the one I want to read aloud when we’re all finally together to celebrate this anthology. It’s the chapter that helped me see how I want to write about something else once this book is complete. It was the holy-fucking-shit-THIS-is-the-thing moment if you’re a writer. The fog clears and you see the next book in the distance. It’s like a one ton bell clangs. It’s a whisper to a scream. We are we are ever helpless…wait…that’s a song.
Okay, where was I? My book chapter. Of my unpublished book. Right. Here.
I don’t know this editor that well at all, but I like what she saw and created by rearranging my work into the story she wanted to read.
Today I returned to another chapter, and this is one makes me laugh. I’m using a letter form, but it’s something else when I post it here outside of the memoir. I think it’s a lie to say memoirs are true accounts of what happened. Memory, time, and all the challenges of who we are from hour to hour make creating a true record challenging. I’m comfortable with the essay, as a form, so I’ll leave it at that. Perhaps these are a collections of essays. For now, let this one be a blog post until it bleeds into something else. Becomes something else.
This experience with this editor made me think about how watercolor paints work. If you have ever seen the paint applied to water on paper, the color spreads and swirls seeming like it has a mind of its own. I have to admit, I love that about the paint, and as I’ve started to learn more about this style of painting, it’s surprised me that it’s the one aspect people dislike. You can’t control the watercolor paint. The ratio of pigment to water along with the pressure of the brush makes it really unpredictable. Hard to control. Impossible to predict. You can push and pull the paint in the water–and this is what I find quite lovely. You can guide the paint, but it’s really hard to know what it will look like until it dries. The way the paint runs or fades becomes part of the end product. I love that the finished product often looks like it’s a draft. A sketch.
I’ve painted the editorial process, and what I’ve learned, with broad strokes (hee hee). My mistake a decade ago was I wanted my words to stay the same and I couldn’t see an editor’s criticism for what it was; a push and pull to guide the story someplace else. I was too broken of a person to see my writing as separate from who I was. Who I was becoming. I don’t know, but I wasn’t open to the process like I am now. Maybe I’m less invested in the whole of being a writer and now I just write. Liberating.
This past week, a book arrived in the mail and I completely forgot what made want this book in the first place. Apparently I ordered a book from a bookstore that had it in stock, and it took so long to arrive I forgot why I wanted it. Who suggested it to me. Where I found it. I opened up the package, and I sat down and starting reading, and I read the whole thing in one sitting. The hours of that afternoon completely shifted into something else.
Here’s the quote that kept me:
Dutch dikes (dijiks) are arranged in threes–watchers, sleepers, and dreamers, named thus by their proximity of water. (same author and title from my epigraph above).
There’s something here with the connection of water, words, and watercolor paint, but if I don’t publish this post, I’ll keep trying to control it.
A quick note: Chapter 3 was written before well before the pandemic. Before the protests. Before I deleted my Facebook account, stepped way back from Twitter, and scaled down how much I’m engaging with Instagram. Understand that I can’t write a letter to my younger self–because I’m–we’re–still living through all of this.
All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory.” ~Raymond Carver
I love Raymond Carver, and I’ve reused (plagiarized?) this title so many times because I wish I had created it. This post in my drafts for over a year, so I’m going to release it as a break from my writerly drama. I’ve taken a break from the teachings and the learnings writerly bloggy for a few reasons. Whenever I reflect on the state of adjunct labor, I always hear from somebody who wants to let me know that being adjunct isn’t all that bad because ____________. Or I get asked about why I wrote X Thing about Quit Lit.
For some reason, almost a year ago I started this post after I had a conversation with a grant leader who sparked me to write about Initiative Fatigue. I went back to my teacher journals because I’ve been on the hunt for old ideas I can reuse. And I found this post. This thread. These ideas. This was all written before the pandemic, but I think some of what I’m saying still applies. I don’t feel like revising it yet, so I’ll let these ideas land here.
If I was a real researcher, I’d write something to the tune of exploring how and why faculty feel exhausted by administrative initiatives. In the great web of higher education policy, the spider in the center is always spinning towards the election cycle. Politicians love to appeal to the electorate about education (who doesn’t want to save the children?). Policy writers get funded to create projects, local leaders are told to enact said policies, administrators get their marching orders from the executive level, department leaders are given a mission, and faculty are usually given the news at convocation speeches or Welcome Week or All Faculty Addresses.
And so it goes.
When I was adjunct, I never went to Welcome Week because I wasn’t paid to be there. I couldn’t justify putting the cost of gas on the credit card I was living on until I got paid. I did, however, always attend the departmental meetings because I was paid, and I genuinely liked a lot of my colleagues. The best ones made me feel part of the the department, and they were/are really interesting people who read great books. After we shared what we read in these meetings, we got to The News of What Was To Be The New Thing For That Year. In all of the departments where I worked, I noticed that most of the folks who took the Department Chair position did so the way you play catch the hot potato. They’d juggle the position for a few years, and then bounce that potato onto the next person. The extra stipend, I suppose, wasn’t as easy as moonlighting a few extra sections. Students are always easier to deal with than your peers.
Over the last four and half years, I have had the privilege of interacting with a lot of the same types of teacherly and administrative people. Just at scale. So, let me pause here and explain what I mean by “at scale.” What I do for a living sometimes gives me an opportunity to talk to people in four or five states, some days, before 10am. I always feel like it’s up to me to know what’s going on at their schools, their states, and their classrooms. My inner researcher–the very same one who gave up on a doctorate and has stopped caring about academic publishing–loves this work. I sometimes forget to eat (and I love food) because I’m so into reading about The Education News. Endlessly fascinating. So interesting. Sometimes so depressing. Sometimes so joyful. All in the same day.
So today I want to write a bit of advice for my Fac Dev Peeps to reflect a bit. The people who support the supporters of faculty and students. It’s such a hard job. Know this. I know this. When I’m able to do my best work these days, I’m hoping to co-create courses, assignments, and things that faculty will love. I’m hoping to improve courses where students will learn. I wrote this post back in August of 2019, and if I try to contextualize in the era we’re living now, I’ll never post it. So. Here goes.
In my old teacher journal from 2007, I wrote the following:
If I could beg one thing of everyone who is working in the space of “customizing/curating” course content for an online or hybrid course, I’d ask that you pause and ask yourself one question.
If you were a student, would you know where to get started in this course?
Here’s what I was musing about, but didn’t really know at the time. I wanted online/hybrid/blended teachers to look beyond the “Start Here” information or where to read the announcement and all the quality that matters shizz. No. Pause for a minute and really look. Would you know what you should do first?
If you snark “it’s in the syllabus” please stop reading my blog and sign up for a course on empathy. Maybe reconsider your profession. K. Thx. Bye.
Here’s another question I wrote in 2017:
If you help create “master” courses as a starting point to check all of the boxes of accreditation, what’s the worst–and I mean the worst–possible scenario where shit can go all wrong for students? In other words, what’s the worst thing that can happen when somebody “personalizes” or “customizes” a course? Where will students get lost?
Here’s a question that I wrote in the first draft of this blog post in 2019:
Do you ever offer any asynchronous professional development for faculty? Have your faculty had any experience as being online students themselves?
Okay, let me pause here and acknowledge that I was a maniac bitch during my second masters degree program where I was an online/hybrid student. I loved one of my teachers hopelessly and the other one was a pompous asshole who tried to adjunct-splain me all the time. Both teachers in that program were so incredibly disorganized. I spent a lot time helping my peers figure out what was going on. Because, you see, I knew all the tricks of half-assing an online course. If there was a way to half-ass it, I had already figured it out. Sometimes this skill of mine is praised as efficiency, innovation, or very productive. I don’t know, maybe it’s just being willing to put something out there that isn’t perfect. Like this post.
So okay. I’ve asked those questions. The same question, really, just a decade a part. Now let’s return to Initiative Fatigue.
What is it, and why should we care?
Let me start with why we should all care.
They have no idea about initiatives. They don’t care about policy. They don’t really understand how the most expensive investment of their lives really works.
Here’s another Truth we need to sit with and one that people don’t like to admit: Faculty do not like being told what to do.
By and large, the people who become educators like being in control of the situation (the class) and they like the autonomy of being their own boss (the teacher). This isn’t to say that every faculty member is like Zack de la Roca everyday telling administrators, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” It is, however, important to note that most faculty I know, and the teacher that I used to be, loves being in charge of the class. They love, and this is hard to admit but central to the core of the teacher ego–they love being the smartest person in the room who can teach people.
And most of them, do not like change. Unless they are the ones driving said change.
The real revolution in all things Open, by the way, will happen with the next generation of faculty. I hold that faith. Most of what’s being pitched right now doesn’t work. These new teachers will figure it out.
For some faculty, you’ll have to rip that Big Pub textbook from their cold dead hands. Long-time readers will not be surprised to hear me say that I’m mostly interested in online and hybrid learning spaces. As a learner, I love the verb seminar and I’ll it eat up a good lecture like chips and salsa after a hard bike ride. As a teacher, I love the potential of the digital space.
Here’s some quick backstory. History. Why I care about this space.
The day that I realized that a second-shift factory worker was able to take my class and earn college credit, my mind exploded like that emoji we all use now.
He joked in his student introduction post, “I’ve been wanting to go back to school forever, but they don’t offer English 101 at 3am when I’m done with work. I dropped out of college to work full-time when the love of my life got pregnant with our first son. I’m hoping to be done with this degree before my own kids go to college.” He posted a photo of him hugging two kids who looked like they were middle school.
I thought of my own dad, who worked “third trick” for years–that’s old union talk for the middle-of-the-night shift. He slept while I was in school, and he left for work when I was coming home. He came to my sporting events on his lunch break during the weekends in his work uniform.
I never met that online student in real life, and I don’t know if he graduated, but that discussion post changed everything for me. His kids are college-age now, that much I know. I imagine he’s able to help his kids with shitty online classes because he lived through my early online course.
So. Initiative Fatigue. That’s what I said I’d talk about, right? Right.
This is condition in higher education when things have to change and faculty are not motivated by change for change sake. They see whatever is happening as just another initiative. It’s usually something set up by an ambitious administrator who wants to move up the ladder of leadership. Here’s the fundamental flaw that most administrators don’t see in their crystal ball.
There are usually faculty are already doing The New Thing.
Let me take a stab here at the Co-Requisite model, and I’d love to hear from readers who are actually involved in this initiative. Tell me if I’m wrong. Teach me what is right. I think this is the model for all introductory courses and the Covid era has sped up that trajectory.
Let’s take English 101, for instance, since I taught a bazillion of those sections. When I got my roster each term, I got a list of the student placement scores. I could trace those numbers down a column and see who struggled on that standardized test. I could see the list of students who had to take developmental courses just to get to English 101. Their first composition course where they would earn credit.
Have you ever taken one of those tests, by the way? You should. I took one in order to take a french class at a community college because it was cheaper to take the placement test than it was to mail the thirty-inch stack of paper college transcripts that I collected during my 20s. Seriously.
When I sat down to take that test, I was so nervous. What if I didn’t place into English 101? Meanwhile, I had three piles of English 102 essays to grade in my bag on the floor next to my testing station. I had ten job applications out to be a textbook reviewer.
By taking that test, I got feel the nervousness that students experience when so much is on the line. Midway through the test, I was like, oh, my. This is horrific.
If they had forced me to take a math placement test when I entered college, for the record, I would have never graduated from college. This I know for sure. If you would have told me twenty-five years ago that I’d work along-side data scientists and some of the most innovative math programmers on the planet, I would have asked what bottle of whiskey you finished that morning. Back to placement tests. Right.
Talk to a student who has paid for two-years of college classes and has earned zero college credit in developmental courses, and you’ll have all the empathy you need for the Co-Req Model initiatives. Talk to an adult who is paying interest on loans for those two years of classes while trying to figure out how to save for their children’s education, and you’ll see why administrative and policy folks are trying to figure out something new. Again. Again. Again.
Initiative Fatigue. Maybe I could offer some advice for the Fac Dev Peeps in the middle of this work. Talk to your faculty. Shut the office door. Or have a private online meeting. You don’t have to use Zoom, there are other platforms that work great. Use your personal phone. Grab a coffee and listen to them. Chances are they are already doing something that will fulfill your requirement to prove momentum towards your initiative. Try to communicate that up the chain of command. And this I know, is so hard.
Advice for the Covid era: Talk to your teachers who went from web-enhanced to online in March. They’ve got the keys to the kingdom to teach your faculty what to do. Spotlight those faculty–they are honest about missing the classroom but they also understand how adjust from face-to-face to whatever it is we’re doing now.
I’m sometimes asked if I miss being an administrator.
Here’s the thing.
I loved writing All Faculty emails. Many people in leadership advised me to not write them because a few bad apples would Reply All to shame you with their complaints. And it’s true, there were times I couldn’t believe how mean people were (like, fuck, it wasn’t my fault that LMS shit was buggy. It was my job to tell you about that shitty platform that you agreed to use in class FFS). The real saving grace was my husband was also an adjunct in that All Faculty thread, so he’d see those emails and respond at home with “Fuck that Mother Fucker! I googled that Fucko’s dissertation topic. I wouldn’t wipe our dog’s ass with the paper it was printed on. Fuck that Bunghole…”
So, you know, that helped. If you think the language I use on this blog makes your eyelashes curl, just get my Mister in a lather. The forked tongue of a that kid from working class Boston will make you blush.
When a faculty member Replied All, it was a way of complaining publicly about technology, my inexperience with leadership, or something else entirely that they felt like they couldn’t control. The best ones came to my office or called me, but those mean emails stung.
So what did I do?
I wrote an email response that I never sent. They usually started with some salutation like, “Look. Bitch. You’ve got it all wrong.” Or “Dear Uber-Mensch, I’m sorry it’s been a long time since you’ve gotten laid.” Something along those lines. Just to make myself laugh.
Those emails made me feel better. But it is hard. Oh my god is it hard. I recently got two emails with my volunteer work that were so mean in spirit that it took me weeks to get over. People still send mean words through email. Over Twitter. Through DMs. I might even get a few because of this post.
I try to remember that people have other things going on, and you never really what’s going on with people.
You never really know why people act the way that they do. I think the Buddhists have the right advice: You can’t control what others do, you can only control your reaction.
Another memory from the teacher journal.
Related but not related.
Six or so years into my teaching career, for instance, I had a former student contact me that she liked have coffee with me. When I saw her name in my inbox, I was for sure it was another complaint or something awful. She had led a small campaign to get me fired because of my “liberal ideologies” during the Bush years. This woman seethed with hatred for me, and I could feel it radiating off of her in my class. Twice a week for four hours I had to stand in front of people who hated me for a paycheck.
I lost my cool one day on a student, her buddy, who was complaining about “dead-beat single-moms who weren’t taking care of their kids.” I interrupted him to ask if they all got pregnant by immaculate conception, and he said, “of course not! That only happened with our Lord and Savior’s mom.” He looked around the room like, “Duh. Ain’t she dumb?” Ah, the wunderkinds of Rush Limbaugh. Good times.
I paused. “So then why are the women the only ones responsible for these children? Where are the fathers?”
The students went all Jerry Springer on that guy–they laughed and ooohed and aaahhed. This student use this example of me being unfair and ridiculing her fellow student as part of her campaign about why I was a bad teacher. She was right, I did abuse my power. I played that kid right into the set up to destroy his argument.
And for the record, he earned an A in my class. I fundamentally disagreed with everything he wrote about, but he wrote well and improved as a writer. He was a mouthy asshole who I’m sure is making American great again, but he did the work. I made a lot of mistakes as a teacher, but I was fair and balanced with my assessments.
This woman who reappeared in my life asking to have coffee with me also taught me a lot. I honestly never wanted to see her again, and that quarter of teaching was one of the hardest of my life. But I was curious out what she wanted so I met with her.
When we sat down to drink our coffee, she shared that she wanted to tell me that she was sorry for being drunk in my class. I took two sips of my coffee as she spilled out a story about how she was a recovering alcoholic and I was one of the people she needed to make amends with because she was not in her right mind.
She apologized for the things she said to the classmates, the dean, and to me. She said she has no recollection of that class because she drank to black out everyday. She asked if I remembered her friend, whom I nicknamed in my mind Mini-Limbaugh. Sure. Sure. I remember him.
She shared that he told her that I reminded him of his ex-wife who left him for a Ralph Nader volunteer. You know, the seat-belts-Green-Party guy, right? He was really mean to you, and I had a crush on him so I was jealous of you. I hope you can forgive me. I hated you because so many of the students liked you. Because you looked like his ex-wife. You just seemed like everything had come so easy to you. I put the hate I had for myself onto you. I see that now. Can you forgive me for what I did? I’m so glad they didn’t fire you.
Sure. Sure, I said. I was shocked silent.
I forgive you. What you’re doing, apologizing to everyone, I imagine, isn’t easy. I don’t remember you being drunk at all, I said.
I’m losing the thread here.
I’ve gone too far into this memory of what is hard about teaching. What is harder about being an administrator. What causes me fatigue.
I’ve lost the thread.
I want to get this post out of my drafts now because I wrote it well before All Of This–what we’re living through now. These are anecdotes I hope to use some other day in another context when I write about teaching. The next book. Oy.
I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a chapter that I’m submitting to an anthology, and I’m so nervous about what the editors will say. I’m not sure if there is a story arc. I’m not sure it’s any good. I’m not sure about anything right now, but I loved editing this post this morning and thinking about these things. A start for the next book even though I haven’t finished This Book. So it goes. Here it is. The start.