is that there are still ideas to be had and things to be made and people with whom we can make things, and the only way that we will survive for whatever amount of time that we do survive is to keep having the ideas and finding the people and making the things. Deal? Deal.
When I stopped fighting the snakes with my freeze and my flight, they taught me. This isn’t a metaphor. I mean actual snakes.
When I didn’t prune the bushes, the birds came. Also not a metaphor.
Let what is coming come.
This thing of middle age, of being in the middle, is a prism that splits all thought and emotion into facets I couldn’t see until I shone light through it. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a metaphor because I was a poor student.
And I’m in the hamster bubble filled with the miasma of my buried middle school trauma and aging parents and puritanical shame and increasing hunger and I bounce up against you in the grocery store or in a virtual space (it’s virtually a space!) and you’re in your bubble and we’re both too polite to mention we’re floating around in our miasma and whatever assorted fluids we’ve accumulated over this life.
I would very much like to know who first called middle age a sandwich. Sandwiches are delightful. They’re straightforward: Put together a few things you like to eat, wrap some sort of edible container around them, experience satisfaction.
Middle age is no sandwich. Middle age is sedimentary rock cooked in the furnace of time and weather and motion. The fore generation is metamorphic, the core and foundation. The aft generation is igneous, lava newly birthed and hardening around my edges. And I can’t be certain — in part because I’m generally uncomfortable with certainty and in part because as noted before I was (am) a poor student and got this passing understanding of geology from a Science-for-Kids website — but it’s my understanding that each stratum evolves through the phases, propelled by other strata and (perhaps?) gravity (which, in the case of this metaphor if that’s what it is, might be time?). The metamorphic will become igneous and the igneous will shift to the sedimentary and that which was sedimentary will be compacted into the metamorphic and I believe that compacting begins with cleaning and sorting your parents’ belongings, sitting in a water-damaged basement deciding which of your grandmother’s typing certificates and grandfather’s letters to his postal workers’ union rep and mother’s letters home from college and father’s resumes from the ‘70s and your own flaking and musty preschool art and clear-eyed high school papers on world peace you will keep for your child to eventually weed through and which will be tossed into a landfill where they will enter another unending cycle of evolution.
Let what is coming come. Meet it when it arrives. Wave as it pulls away. And repeat.
That the mass was circumscribed was a tentative positive. That the sun was circumscribed was a looming negative. A day in the balance between cancer and wildfires.
“Tongue-tied and twisted just an Earth-bound misfit, I.”
And I’m meditating and yoging and walking all the steps and using too much plastic no matter how I try and mindlessly tearing leaves from stems as we hike the preserves. And, even in unemployment, there is not enough time to meditate and yoga and walk the steps and cook healthy food from scratch and arrange my life to be free of plastics and be mindful enough to never tear leaves from stems and keep the house clean and play the instruments and do the writing and read books and sleep and be profoundly present to every person (human or otherwise) I encounter. Or maybe there is enough time but there is a leak in the time container and it steals away in drips and trickles (and episodes of Antiques Roadshow).
That I’m feeling more divorced from reality initially alarmed me but now seems like the only reasonable path. We can’t alter a context we can’t see outside of. Anything other than the present is pain. And sometimes the present is pain. Everything passes through the present and changes, even pain. Change comes in drips and trickles and oxygen molecules and oceans, and pain doesn’t stand a chance against oceans.
Sometimes anxiety dreams come in the form of your partner of 25 years leaving you for no other articulated reason than “It’s time” as you sob “I’m not ready” while your boss from 20 years ago looks on from the hearth of a glowing fireplace in benign curiosity and sometimes anxiety dreams come in the form of you wearing a floaty ball gown (with pockets!) that does the spin lift better than any dress you’ve ever worn and has a jeweled broach in the design of a fried egg while you run all over a warehouse with your old friend so she can help you find a dozen eggs so you can be Egg Queen for the costume parade and sometimes both of those dreams come in the same night while an electrical storm is happening so you get to wake up and read about the crumbling of the empire intermittently while light bursts and crackles outside and your immobile partner snores and your dogs tremble and burrow deeper into your limbs over and over and over and over and over again.
It is the time of the goldenrod and soon will come the pokeweed. I feed the last caterpillar of our season as the rest are in chrysalides or have launched. We go to the woods to offset fear and dread, to take into our eyes and noses and ears as much life as we can before the light wanes. We have had to grow through these six months, but that was made easier by the world greening and blooming around us. Now we begin to smell the sweet rot of decay on the trails and life yellows to brown out. We will need to make our own light, increasingly, in coming months, to burn the brush.
And then these thistles in transition remind me of cotton and I’m a goner.
Because every time I think of the fact that there’s a Senator whose name is actually Cotton who is working to be sure that The 1619 Project — US history that centers the legacy of the enslaved and their descendants — is not taught in schools that leads me down the path to the fact that the POTUS is a guy whose name is actually Trump whose entire platform is winning and domination and that lends a hair too much credence to the theory that we’re truly just living in a simulation and I can’t believe a simulation this advanced couldn’t hire better writers. Cotton? Trump? Hack shit.
I have started listening to 1619. I put it off for a year because
I know White supremacy is real.
I know White supremacy was and remains brutal.
I know it pervades every part of our society.
I know individuals participate passively by claiming innocence.
I know I participate both passively and actively. (Let me count the ways.)
I know there are parts that are mine to fix and parts that are not mine.
I know, I know, I know.
Knowing is its own goal, the trap. When we think we know something, we feel we can set it aside. Whatever is set aside we have neither impetus nor duty to dismantle. And that’s when stopping at knowing creates an unbearable stasis of complicity.
When I try to think I know White supremacy, when I try to think I can draw its reach and its edges, when I try to define my part in it, it becomes an ever shrinking web around me. The more I struggle to understand, to learn, to grow, the more enmeshed I feel. And then on a walk I’m stopped by the radiance of the goldenrod in the golden hour and I notice the thistles are turning and I think of cotton and Cotton and thistles are brambly and the intractable grip is like being caught in the brambles and the fight to get out pulls us deeper and what does that remind me of? What analogy from my childhood perfectly describes that feeling? And it comes back to me that it’s the tar baby in the briar patch and BOOM: The hand of the programmer. We don’t know anything. We were made this way, and the only way to unmake is to not know.
I need to not know so that I will be open to learning. I need to not know so that I can build my awareness and compassion. I need to let not knowing radicalize me and break me of the hand of the programmer, break me of supremacy. I need to not know so that there is somewhere to grow.
We have lost
countless hugs from our parents and kid and friends
in-person music shows
some not-insignificant amount of youthful vitality in our bodies
even a fleeting adherence to the idea of permanence
We have kept
laughing every day
art on the reg
walks in woods
We have gained
appreciation for birds
aspiring snake companions
invitation to change our brains
a vegetable garden
21 years wed.
22 years parenting.
26 years weird team.
This summer we are learning that rest is productive.
I play this game with myself. I’ve been playing it since at least 1994. I call it “Words, with Friends” and it’s addictive. Here’s how it’s played:
- My friends say words in compelling combinations.
- I write down what they say.
- Slips of paper with words from my friends accumulate on every table top, in every drawer, on every shelf, in every purse and tote and messenger bag and notebook and then they stay there for years.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. And I always win, because in this game everybody wins.
A few days ago I was out pilfering common milkweed from around the neighborhood for my rapacious caterpillar charges. As I ascended the front steps to the house, leaves in fist, Chafe was descending to water the garden, and he said, “What’s up, worm food?”
We kept on in different directions to our respective chores and I couldn’t stop smiling at the thought that he was referring to me as worm food. Of course he was talking about the leaves? Of course. It only took a few minutes before he started laughing.
“I hear it now. Two meanings. But that’s kinda your jam.”
Because he knows I’m something of a joyful bio-fatalist. Because he knows little soothes me like remembering the thing we have in common, the one thing we’re all here for, is death.
So I have taped to the wall of my study a sweet remembrance of my dearest friend warmly and good-naturedly (kinda but not really) calling me “worm food.” Because, as another kind friend said earlier this summer:
20/20 vision is clarity on balance at a distance. In this year of clear vision I happen to find I need bifocals so that I can appropriately adjust my perspective to scale. I have put off making an appointment with the optometrist because of plague fear compounded by lack of independent transportation and conserving funds for whatever is in the distance that I can’t yet clearly make out.
When I was laid off I discovered four decades of burbling coding — initiated, as best as I can tell, when I received my first paper-route tip and compared it to the tips my older brother was hauling in — that conditioned me to attach my worth to my market value. Suddenly having no market value causes a scurrying to map one’s worth. A perspective shift, a reorienting around where my sun rises and sets, was in order. So I rearranged my bedroom. My map is now one of a person whose bed faces south. From where I regularly stand on this planet, I’m of the understanding this invites more light.
A massage therapist once told me that the benefits of chiropractic adjustment are amplified and longer lasting when coupled with massage. Our muscle memory is profound and unwavering and even after enormous disruption our muscles will pull the body back into shapes cultivated, for better or worse, by habits. Sudden realignment doesn’t change habits. Why this information discounted chiropractic procedure whole-cloth in my mind I’m not sure, but I have an occasional twitchy thumb from poor posture while playing my bass, and during This Time of Our Desperate Need for Comfort, bass playing is non-negotiable and an adjustment might be in order. So nothing is all-or-nothing after all.
I raise monarch caterpillars and nurture their habitat. The monarch population is dying off and human intervention may or may not increase the chance of their survival. Easily an hour or more of each of my days is spent harvesting common milkweed, separating out eggs versus caterpillars, feeding, cleaning frass, and releasing butterflies. I raise food, too. This year it’s a few varieties of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, jalapeños, poblanos, red bell peppers, mesclun, herbs, two types of radishes, and kale. The kale plants are infested with cabbage worms — velvet, glowing, caterpillars the same jade of monarch chrysalides — that decimate leafy greens. Easily an hour or more of each of my days is spent on hands and knees scrutinizing every part of every kale plant, discovering the larvae, tearing them from leaves and stems, and flicking them far across the lawn.
It wouldn’t take long to drum up more metaphors. It would provide a welcome distraction. I’m activated and metaphors are bedtime stories for my fears. Metaphors package, explain, soothe. A friend said the other day that “life as we know it is over,” and all that bubbled up in me was “I wasn’t all that attached to life as we know it.” It’s important to state it plain: It was not good.
It was not good: Many were working full time and more without a living wage. “Living wage” is a buzzy way of saying “Enough to survive.”
It was not good: Tying health insurance to work means we are beholden to our employers if we don’t want to go bankrupt over illness, and in the face of massive unemployment it means less access to healthcare, affordable or otherwise.
It was not good: Many employers are not accountable, much less beholden, to the safety and well being of those whom they employ.
It was not good: Our addiction to work and in many cases the necessity of working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet has eroded civic engagement and our connection to community.
It was not good: Our schools are vastly under-resourced and the disparities break pretty clearly along both socio-economic and racial lines.
It was not good: Higher education is inaccessible for many.
It was not good: Health outcomes for White Americans are far better than for Black Americans.
It was not good: Wealth outcomes for White Americans are far better than for Black Americans.
It was not good: More than 40% of children in Michigan live in poverty.
It wasn’t working. It wasn’t good. And because it wasn’t good many people are exhausted, in chronic physical and emotional pain, afraid, ill, untrusting, isolated, and angry. It wasn’t good and we didn’t think we could change it. We were disempowered.
Making space for those who feel it may have actually been good or at least good enough: The degree to which you believe it was good may correlate with the degree to which you are/were not seeing how not good it is/was and are/were therefore not invested in making it good.
Since the early days of the Great Reckoning of Things I Took for Granted, I have been giddily awaiting The Change and The Ways That Come After. I’ve been mooning over the inevitable UBI, the cotton candy cloud of Medicare for All, the massive Banding Together to Overcome Shared Adversity that Americans have boasted for at least 70 years now. I’ve been staring out the window in breathless anticipation. But I bear news from the far horizon: The Change is not coming. The Ways That Come After are not destined to be an improvement.
Our current incarnation of capitalism (and its confederates in the unholy trinity: patriarchy and White supremacy) ultimately forces us to compete with one another for basic resources. We are now watching individuals, families, organizations, and communities fracture at all the points where capitalism has degraded their bond, the cracks in pavement where volunteer flora propel themselves toward the sun they can’t see but can feel.
This system that does not serve all is trying to hold fast.
Disempowerment is reaction. Overstimulation is reaction. Overwork is reaction. Martyrdom is reaction. Fracturing is reaction.
The Change is not coming. In order for The Ways That Come After to be an improvement over Life As We Know It, we will need push through and respond rather than react. We will have to actively assess every relationship, organization, business, and community we’re involved in for ways that we’re serving regression to a state of existence that was unsustainable and already in decay. We will have to push against our comfortable (enough) cultural muscle memory to ensure a lasting realignment. Building new muscles can feel like a thousand daggers. That’s where the massage comes in. Our resistance to regression is the chiropractic adjustment, our building new models is massage. We have to discern which caterpillars need feeding and which need flinging across the lawn. We have to reorient ourselves, with increased clarity, toward the light.
I don’t know what this is. Not a blog post not yet an essay. I’m intentionally avoiding shoehorning it into meaning, avoiding the urge to reactively package and brand and make tidy stories of our fears and our arcs. Somewhere between screed and glib is true consideration. I’m going to keep wandering around in that middle distance. I hope to see you there.
What are we doing? What are we doing? Oh, my god, what are we doing?
Getting our minds blown. Getting our understanding torn asunder. Getting our suppositions demolished. Getting our constitutions rearranged. Doing dishes.
When it rains we don’t walk. When we don’t walk, fears pool in our joints, collect in our mouths. We spit them out as frustrations. Early afternoon sky clears and we finally walk, flush out the system. Walking is precious. Faces of weary friends, viewed at safe distance, are precious. Dogs screaming at each other are precious. Electric green new grasses are precious. It may be rabbit scat or it may be deer scat and we debate it but regardless it’s precious. Tomorrow we will walk earlier to avoid the poison.
Some days playing music feels like getting a root canal with no drugs, brutally scraping us out, but we know the pain’s not gonna leave on its own. Awareness of abundance. Relief of old frustrations showing themselves out, slipping away humiliated.
On March 25, 12 days into quarantine, I said to Chafe, “If we both live through the next month the spring’s gonna be glorious.” Red winged black birds and chorus frogs.
A dear friend and respected creator of thoughts and things gave us this calendar just before the new year. When we received it I thought a lot about calendars with days with no room to write things on, never thinking about not having things to write on the days.
Nothing on the calendar but art.
Nothing on the calendar but creating the future.