Last week I listened to an excellent Snap Judgment episode about the Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin prison. Listening to the inmantes speak about their conditions and the impossibility of preventing the spread of C-19 in that setting was heartbreaking, and it whipped me back to a field trip I took in college as part of a sociology course on crime and punishment. The course was excellent. (I think it might have been called Deviance and Social Control or something similar?) On our reading list for the semester was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the general thrust of which haunts me to this day even if I can’t recall any of its specifics. What sticks with me was that the exploration of how we attempt to discipline the “criminal” mind through the architectural structures in which we cage the human body.
More haunting than the book, though, was our field trip to two New York State prisons. I’m not sure which prisons they were. I’ve looked on Google Maps and there are so many prisons in the state that I can’t figure it out. But one was a maximum security prison and one a medium security prison. Again, it was so long in the past that specifics of the visits have escaped me. But two images, or impressions, registered on me with such sickening clarity that I will never shake them.
The first was in the maximum security prison. We were somehow able to actually go into the prison. I don’t know if this is still possible to do, but at that time it was. The image that is seared in my mind is of coming around the corner in this gray, miserable hallway, to be shown one of the cells. The cell was on the righthand side of the hall, and it was unbelievably tiny—barely larger than the bathroom in my 80-year-old house. Two men lived in it, caged up, locked in. That was disturbing and sickening and made no sense to me, in terms of what benefit that might offer society. But what struck me profoundly was the line of young, Black men who were being walked down the hallway from one point to another. (Work to mess hall? Showers to their prison block?) These men were practically children, my age or perhaps a little older. Every single incarcerated person I saw in that prison that day was a Black or brown man. And I remember thinking, there but for the grace of God go I—and by that grace, I meant and mean, the cosmic coin flip of being born “white” in a nation that subjects the bodies and cultures of men and women of color to extremes of policing and prosecution and imprisonment and destruction.
The second searing impression was in the medium security prison, where the inmates all slept in bunkbeds in a giant room, similar to a school gym or a National Guard armory. There were probably 100 men sleeping in that space, and I remember that our professor had shared with us that the rates of HIV infection were in the double-digits in the facility. (This was the late 1990s, when HIV was still a likely death sentence.) And I remember thinking how many of these young men in that un-surveillable giant room ran an incredibly high risk of sexual assault and being infected as the punishment for their “crimes.” These were crimes, I knew, that I and my fellow students of privilege committed regularly, like buying, selling and smoking weed. HIV for smoking weed. It was unthinkable.
That class forever shaped my views on incarceration and criminality. But that day, specifically, made an overwhelmingly giant impression on me. The immorality and inhumanity of the systems of incarceration was so clear.
Listening to the San Quentin story brought me back to that day. It gave me opportunity to reflect on how much of my views on policing, the criminal “justice” system, sentencing laws, bail requirements, enfranchisement or disenfranchisement of felons, and much more, were informed by that class and that experience. That, in my view, is what an education is good for.
From the corner of my couch, the view out the picture window is a perfect artist’s study. The window gives view onto a giant mountain, two lovely trees at two different distances from my house. A beautiful full bush in the near foreground. Foxgloves and ferns rising into the view in the near foreground. There is a footpath leading from my house away to the street at one angle, a road and sidewalk that intersects it at another angle. Across the street my neighbor’s picket fence adds a slim element of structured verticality. Phone and power lines dip across the center of the view. Our arctic entry, with its wide clapboard covering fills about one-quarter of the view, with a trellis for our clematis on its side, framing a window, with crisses and crosses like a Japanese arbor. And in the upper lefthand corner, a spray of a soft-spined pine dips across the triangle of sky not blocked by the mountain.
The composition is nearly perfect.
This evening I sat looking out this window and decided I wanted to attempt to sketch it. With so many points of intersection, bounded by the panes of the window, I felt I had enough guideposts to possibly render it on a page. It was a challenge in “seeing.” Could I make note of all the places where lines crossed and give it some feeling of truth?
In my mind’s eye, I held the image of Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi from the amazing 1997 French film, standing before a framed grid beside her easel on a beach, learning to paint perspective. I tried in my imagination to impose that grid over the view I was seeing, to allow the lines to flow at the correct angles, and the point where mountain crossed roof line, and power line crossed ash tree, to fall on that grid.
Not surprisingly, it was all wrong from the very first strokes. I tried to understand the window frame first, then fill in from there. In my first attempt I drew in the lines for the panes, then the entryway with its hashed trellis, before realizing that the mountain, which takes nearly 50 percent of my view frame, had nowhere to fit. Next I tried Drawing just the vertical lines, then the points of intersection (roof crossing left hand edge of the center pane at the midpoint, mountain crossing the lefthand edge of the left pain at a similar point. But quickly I realized that the maple tree, which stands in front of nearly half of the mountain, was being squished into a tiny wedge.
I stopped there, with light and hours of the day fading. But I realized that many more experiments on this image would be possible. What if I started with the points of intersection, and no window frame, and built out from there? What if I threw aside the pencil and just made dashes of color with paint that approximated the portion of the image that each element takes up? And what if I used a grid, right here in front of my eyes, to learn the language of perspective?
This entire étude was inspired by the first pages of a paper called The Art and Science of Looking Up, which was recommended by a fellow member of a learning cohort of which I’m part.
It has been a pleasure to spend the last forty-five minutes looking up in this manner. Though I’ve ultimately pulled my computer onto my lap to describe what I see, rather than render it on paper, I’ve largely done so with my eyes out my window, watching the day slip into dusk and the clouds move across the precious gift of blue sky, granted to me on this lovely evening as a brief respite in weeks upon weeks of rain. I feel a calm that has eluded me for many days, and I give thanks for that. This, then, is perspective.
About million years ago I heard about a writing challenge. The idea of it was to write 50,000 words in the month of November. This, it was figured, was roughly the length of a draft novel. Pull it off in whatever way you could, and you’d have a draft to work with when December 1st rolled around.
My signup confirmation from the organization that runs the challenge arrived in my inbox in January of 2008. I The first-ever reference to it in my email is from nine days earlier, sent from my old work email account. It just has the URL for the organization, Nanowrimo, which is shorthand for Na(tional) No(vel) Wr(iting) Mo(nth).
I don’t recall how that November’s efforts went. I know I had quit my steady job earlier that year, in order to pursue writing. I had a book burning inside of me about the “rationalization” of the crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. My book was going to be about how “crab ratz” was a local expression of a much larger and slow-rolling catastrophe playing out across the United States, pushed by federal policies that used economic justifications to privatize giant resources held in common, and grinding the working people of the land and sea under their heel in the process. My hometown was being gutted by the policy, and I was on fire with desire to share the story with the world. My plan was to do contract consulting part time, and write in the other half of my day.
But I also know that by the time November rolled around I was deep into the most significant mental and emotional crisis I had (and still have) ever experienced. I’d parted ways with my longtime boyfriend that the summer, and it had kicked off an almighty crisis of being un-homed, uncoupled, unemployed, and totally lost. I think I recall that I only consumed grapefruit and listened to Bon Iver on repeat for most of a month, and I think that month might have been November. I do not think I wrote 50,000 words of a draft novel.
But, hey! There’s always do-overs! This past November, in a manner typical of my extreme tendencies, I took a hiatus from the rest of life and diligently banged out 50,000 words. Laundry, sleep, and harmonious domesticity be damned, I was going to get my words.
Well, almost. I actually had fragments from previous writing that I called in for cut-and-paste a few times, when crazy toddler bedtimes and exhaustion were going to keep me from my 1,667-word daily quota. But at the end of it, I had…. well… 50,000 words. Unfortunately, I had no book draft whatsoever. I was about 1/4 of the way into something, and it was changing shape all the time, and I had completely lost the thread on where it was going. I was exhausted and deflated, even with the goal having been met. I never opened the document again after the evening of November 30th.
A couple of weeks ago I remembered about it, though. And I thought, “Huh, interesting.” Because the draft is about a community of people in the time after a great catastrophe. This is no surprise, because I’m a fangirl for dystopian fiction. But I wondered if there might be anything in there that felt relevant to our current moment.
I’ve skimmed the writing a bit today. And I’m pleased to observe that, while it’s still a totally tangled smash of about three plots with nothing near an end or even a clear driving narrative, some of it actually doesn’t suck all that much! This feels like an accomplishment of no small significance.
I’ve been working through a worksheet on creativity in recent days, tasked with identifying my creative “domain” and medium. I won’t bother with all the why and what of that exercise, but there’s a question in there about creativity that is “that is ‘nice to have’ versus that which is essential for your well-being.” When I re-read what I’ve written in that worksheet, I notice how much I hedged when describing the importance of writing — even though the worksheet is for me and me alone to view. I’m not certain whether that is authentic, or self-protecting. At once point in there I’ve jotted down that the “wanting comes in waves, as they say.* I’m not sure this is something I need in order to feel fulfilled in life. By the same measure, though, it’s something that never goes away and is always nagging at the edges of my desire.”
Looking back on it, I wonder where my uncertainty or ambivalence comes in. Even though I’ve never “become a writer,” I sure enjoy writing all the time. And I’ve done it for many, many years now!
And with that, another evening has been chewed up…. writing! Time to retire and hopefully do a bit of that other half of the equation. Reading!
I spent some time over breakfast cutting up a couple of Astronomy magazines. I’d found them in the Little Free Library up the street. I’m always on the hunt for magazines that can be transformed into fodder for my collage work. In the past I’ve found that (small-“a”) astronomy magazines are great for this. The colors, the *BANG,* the cosmos scale of it all. Just perfect.
Yesterday I cut up some old Dwell magazines. God I love Dwell, but also nowhere is there a more glossy temple to white privilege than exists in those pages. So, it will be good to mix them in with some universe-scale evidence of how inconsequential and banal we all are.
Astronomy is a really wonderful, oddly tactile alternative to Dwell. First, for the tactile aspect: Astronomy is printed on crappy paper that falls apart when you turn the pages; but you nevertheless know that these magazines will hold up over years in toilet-side baskets and in outhouses in some remote-ass places. Second, the low quality printing signals that this is a magazine that is absolutely imperative to the world. The publishers aren’t going to let their access to gloss and fancy advertisers hold up the import of getting this information into the hands of hungry backyard astronomers everywhere. Third, while both magazines would nominally seem to be about the search for the sublime, Dwell’s pursuit represents something extremely egocentric, exclusive, and destructive (inasmuch as all consumer fetishism is necessarily destructive on this limited planet of ours). Astronomy, on the other hand, seeks to situate us in a gigantic universe whose truth renders us utterly inconsequential. And it is that initiation that is sublime, and also so accessible to readers everywhere.
Popova’s missive also included writings on 19th century Nantucket resident Maria Mitchell and her friendship with Frederick Douglass. From there I was carried on to her Universe in Prose project (which of course has a 2020 pandemic version available to all via her Vimeo channel), and from there to a beautiful reading by Roseanne Cash of a most beautiful poem by Lisel Mueller called Drawings by Children. I watched it twice with Auggie, and I wept. I tried to hide it from him, but no go. “Are you sad, Mama?” (Dammit, this kid nails me with that question nearly daily. He’s so damn right.)
Sometimes Popova’s writing is too much for me. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to follow her star-explosion thought processes, or I feel crushed by her intellect. And then sometimes she is exactly the thing that I need. The hunger and the million-thread curiosity that her writing and curating represents humbles me. Would that I could construct a universe of understanding and tangled meaning so beautifully.
The morning was capped by coffee on the porch with a dear friend and decade-long companion in the life raft of waking up to our absurd and tragic world. In our conversation I returned again and again to the reality that we are absolutely insignificant, and that we are called daily to service. Then the podcast I listened to while making lunch as Auggie fell asleep continued that theme this way:
“The humility is that you, an individual person, aren’t going to change the world in a day or even a lifetime. This is so much bigger than you. And at the same time each person needs to show up.”
And now, in this moment, my little boy sleeps soundly and I get to write, to read, and to think in the company of this absurd cat. On this day, as the world burns down around our shoulders and the universe expands at an incomprehensible rate, I can say: life is good.
For as much gardening as I do, I’m pretty crap at it. I manage to grow lots of dark leafies every year, and typically some carrots. A few radishes in a brief window. Those are my reliables.
Then every year I’ll try something new, too. Last year we did squash, and they grew amazingly well in our climate change summer. Two years ago we had some great cabbage.
But I can never pull off all the things consistently. Meanwhile, my neighbors at the community garden have (already!) giant squash plants, giant beet plants, giant carrot fronds. Mine are all measly at best.
I could chalk it up to my distance from the garden and the work of getting out there regularly, but a woman in my neighborhood has a neighboring plot and her stuff is amazing.
I could chalk it up to the 3-year-old. That’s probably a pretty good bet for at least a portion of the failed potential. Also the summertime-absent partner.
But I know the real culprit. I am incredibly impatient! I also think I have a good dash of A.D.D. For example… this year I actually planned my beds. Planted in them. Then wrote what was planted in a book. But the book is somewhere I can’t put my finger on. And though it would likely take me all of 5 minutes to find it, instead I think I may have pulled out all my beets today thinking they were weeds.
Similarly, when it comes to watering, I can’t stomach standing around for the time it takes to give it all a good drenching. I bought a sprinkler this year, which has definitely upped my watering game. But I still get bored and can’t hang around for the time it really needs.
Yes, in fairness to myself, the toddler. That’s a real thing. He’s a champ about going to the garden. But he can’t hack it for very long. So I’m always rushing and getting pulled away.
But I think that, in the long run, learning to slow down in the garden would be a great practice for life.
In 1993, when I was 15 years old, I sat in a high school auditorium and watched a boy walk onstage with a trumpet. I was seated at least a dozen rows back from the stage, but as he and his bandmates filed onto the risers and took their places, I felt an absolute clarity. There was a beam of energy flowing straight out of my body and into his, like we were the polarized elements of an atom, straining to return after cosmic forces had wrenched us apart. I turned to my two girlfriends and said, “That one. I want to know him.”
He was part of the high school jazz band in the town we were visiting for an annual music festival. After their band finished playing my friends and I giggled our way to the front to meet that boy and his friends. What followed were three days of innocent love-creating of the kind that may only be possible when you are so fresh in life. I cemented a bond with that boy — Michael — that will last into my next lifetime, and beyond. It’s a bond I am certain originated in a life before this one.
Two days later I was curled on the floor of the ferry on my way home to Juneau, tears of despair and heartbreak flowing out of me. My best friend, Jack, picked me up at the ferry. When my mother got home from work I tried to tell her about what had happened. I tried to explain the strength of the bond and the catastrophe of our separation. She dismissed it, cool and nearly patronizing. Jack, who essentially lived at our house and viewed my mom as a second mother, stood up to her. “Cindy,” he said, “leave her alone. This is real.”
These were the days of long-distance charges and my paychecks from my coffee shop job went to my mom to pay the bill. One day in the early summer I called Michael’s house and his father answered. “He’s on the ferry on his way to Juneau,” he said. I had no idea he was coming. It was meant to be a surprise.
Six hours later he and his friend, also named Jack, stepped off the boat. My Jack and I were there to meet them. They had tents, guitars, skateboards, and a plan to stay indefinitely. They set up camp in the public campground three miles from my house. A few days later my mom and dad welcomed them into our back yard, and they became part of the extended family crew.
Many years later I discovered that Michael rarely spoke. Somehow I didn’t notice this during that season of our love. I barely had the chance to know him in our adulthood, so I’ve never been able to find out why. Was he an introvert? Strong and silent? Touched in some way? A friend of mine who grew up with him recently told me, “A lot of people believe he was truly magic.”
I know that relating to him on the three occasions I spent time with him after that summer of love was an incredible challenge. Perhaps in that magical month in 1993 we were so busy kissing and looking into one another’s eyes that the absence of words wasn’t noticeable. Perhaps the energy and chatter of our constant pack of friends left a natural space for him to hold relative silence. Perhaps we were so busy listening to the cacophony of birdsong that was perpetually outside my bedroom window that words weren’t missed. All I knew was that he was the most beautiful, talented, and trustworthy being I had ever known, and that he loved me.
It’s also possible I didn’t notice because Michael didn’t create life with words. He embodied life. Music passed through him, beating out of his palms and fingertips, ripping out of the guitar he held like it was of his own body. He could skateboard like he had wings. He could play baseball with a smooth, perfect swing. He ran up mountains, and sprang from peak to peak like an animal, wild and free. He was visceral and alive. In the years after I knew him he went on to be a surfer. I’ve never been able to surf well, but I’ve spent enough time sitting on a board out beyond the breakers to know that the Earth’s breath comes in the rise and fall of a wave. I can imagine Michael riding that breath. Perhaps he was that breath.
That same summer, just a week or two before Michael stepped off the ferry and began his month-long stay in my life, my mom had announced that we would be selling all our belongings and undertaking another one of our family’s cross-country relocations. During the weeks that Michael camped in our back yard we held yard sales and got rid of everything we owned that didn’t fit into an 18-foot shipping container. When we left to drive east we had no destination, as my parents had yet to decide where we were moving. I sat in the car on a month-long cross-country journey feeling the bond between me and Michael stretch tighter and thinner and tighter and thinner. In campgrounds in Canada and Montana I would peel pieces of birch bark from trees and cover them with words of love, which I’d send from the next town’s post office. By the time we reached the East Coast, the anxiety of uncertainty had begun to take over, and the swirl of extended family kept my attention until my parents finally chose a place (Massachusetts) to alight, just days before the start of the school year.
With the start of school I was cast to the wolves. After two weeks at the local public schools my mother transferred me and my brother to a tiny private day school full of cruel, privileged children who knew nothing of Alaska or mountains or the breath of souls. The one person who would speak to me was also a transplant, and because he was a boy he became my boyfriend. I cast Michael from my mind because I had to, to survive.
A year and a half after we had moved east, in the spring of my senior year in high school, I received a phone call from Michael. A lifetime had passed. I had shape-shifted into something entirely different from what I’d been. I was fending for myself each and every day, pulled out of the mountains that had been the backdrop to my youth, cast up on the long sandbar of Cape Cod. My family moved house with every changing season because it was the only way we could find places to live. I’d been dumped by the boyfriend, spent another year flailing in the cruel cliques of my school, and was now secretly sleeping with the same boyfriend at parties on the weekends. I wanted desperately to matter to someone. I was finishing up applications to some of the country’s top tier private colleges. I was utterly lost.
I could hear the buzz of a large public space behind his voice on the telephone line. We hadn’t spoken in more than year. He was at a Greyhound station in Chicago. “I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “Be where?” I asked. “Boston.” For a minute I had no words. That other boy, the one who I was sleeping with, the one who a clung to with a survival instinct, pounded in my head. “How long are you staying?” I asked. Michael didn’t know, but he suggested it might be forever. “I’m leaving in a week for a school trip,” I replied. “You can stay until then.”
That week was an agony. That was the week when I learned that Michael didn’t speak. We spent days together, sitting in my basement or driving around. I would ask him questions and he’d give monosyllabic answers. The silence was maddening, frightening, desperately uncomfortable. Returning home after a four-hour car trip we’d undertaken as I’d tried to make the time pass by, my mom had scolded me for being a terrible hostess. “Mom,” I’d whispered in a frantic voice, “help me. I don’t know what to do. He won’t talk.”
Except one afternoon. Sitting in our family basement, while I hammered out an essay for my final college application, I’d turned to him and tried to ask him more about himself, what was going on in his life, why, ultimately, he was there. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I asked. “No,” he replied, looking straight at me. “I haven’t been with anyone since you.” The choice of words struck me as strange, as we hadn’t actually ever made love. But it wasn’t an accusation. Just the truth. I shrunk inside my skin, ashamed of who I had become, and what I’d had to do to make my way. I turned back to the essay.
I saw Michael twice more in this life. Once in a huge house in the late ’90s that friends in common were renting in Salem, Oregon, kids piled upon each other to pay the rent. He showed up that evening, on his skateboard. I attempted small talk and he nodded his head to the beat of the music, looking at me from his perch on a staircase with eyes as soft as a doe. He was already a wandering spirit at that time, skateboarding and surfing and living closer to the veil than I’ve ever been.
I saw him again in 2008, over the course of two days during a visit with friends in Portland. He was driving truck then, and during the evening we spent catching up at a bar we talked about Alaska and whether he should move home. I told him he should. I told him I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. He was a child of the mountains. I also told him I had thought of him constantly over the years. That he visited me in my dreams all the time. That when he did, he was invariably rescuing me. Showing up like an angel sent by divine powers, to walk through flooding waters or catch me as I fell from great heights. I told him all of this earnestly, looking straight in his eyes. I did this because I believed those dream-state visits had all been real and I was seeking their confirmation.
A day later I called him in the wee hours of the morning after I’d been partying at a rave. I wanted him to come be with me. He declined, but he came later that day to play board games. The game of the evening was Cards Against Humanity, which demands a cruel cynicism and raunchy bravado of its players. He was terrible at it.
I never saw him again. When I spoke of him to people, it was dismissively. It was easier to discard him than to try to puzzle out who he was. For years I’d believed we were destined for one another, and when it became clear we weren’t I’d felt lost once more.
Michael died in an avalanche in 2011, just weeks after he had returned to his Alaskan hometown after a decade and a half away. Despite the brief encounters, we were already more than 15 years into our separation in this life. During the long spring months when his body lay buried beneath a violent pile of snow and debris, I would run on the treadmill at the gym in the dark early hours, thinking of him. I was too confused to grieve.
Twice in my life the heavens have sent a mortal into my life for a fleeting moment, to teach me, in times of great need, that I was lovable. Michael was the first of these. I do not doubt that he was entirely human, flawed and strange and confused like we all are. But for me he was a divine gift who gave me vision and a truth that stayed with me for years.
One night, in the year after the avalanche, I woke in the darkness. Michael was in the corner of my room.
“I thought you died,” I said to him, sitting up. The gray shadows were everywhere around him, in my eyes and in my mind.
“I’ll always be here,” he replied. He smiled, a beautiful, lopsided grin. I smiled, too, and went back to sleep.
I was 36 years old when my mom died. That’s twice the number of years that some people I know had with their own moms. But half that of others. It’s the kind of metric, though, that you can’t look at in that way. You can’t say, Well, I had 36 years, it’s better than 18! No matter how big-hearted and generous of spirit you are. Thirty-six years is simply not enough.
I think it is especially not enough when you have dragged your feet on childbearing. Had I had children at 24 — the age my own mother was when she had me — I would have had 12 years to rely on her guidance. More importantly, perhaps, I would have had 12 years to learn the questions I wanted to ask her about her own journey in motherhood, and in the life of being a woman with children, a partner, obligations to work, to love, and to others.
When my mom died, I felt that I knew her very well. We spent time together nearly every day. We had a free and open relationship, never shying away from stories or questions. At least, that’s how it seemed.
As I’ve aged I’ve realized that I’m plagued by questions, uncertainties, confusion, insecurities and griefs — all of which I’ve at times believed my mother held the key to unlock. I’ve come to attribute so many things to her — childhood hurts, conflicts in relationships, tendencies with my child, and old, impenetrable wounds. It’s quite likely that she merits only a fraction of the responsibility I attribute to her. But without her here to query and learn from, she becomes the easy foil for my doubts and uncertainties.
My constant seeking has, in many ways, distanced me from her. I feel farther from her now than I ever did when she was alive. I don’t think this distancing was warranted. Save for one extremely fleeting period in my life, my mother never withheld anything from me. Not love, not presence from me, not attention. We dined together, relaxed together, took solace in one another, and learned from one another. She was entirely there.
It seems unfair and unwarranted, then, that I attribute so much heartache to her. But in the simplest examination, allowing the particular complaints to fall to the side, it probably does make sense that I attribute so much heartache to her. It’s the overwhelming heartache of her absence, transmuted into the bogeyman of a score of insecurities or uncertainties or fears.
I only had to visit the emergency room twice in my life — once in my mid-twenties and once in my mid-thirties. At both times, my mom lived just one-quarter of a mile down the road from me. I was able to phone her in the middle of my crisis, and she was able to accompany me to the hospital. She was there, as nearly any mother would be, through all of it. Loving me, anchoring me, defending me, tending to me. This is just to say that I had utter, un-flapping confidence in her presence. She was there.
And then, now, she is not. And as I walk the path, seeking to understand and unravel the things in my life that have confounded me, confused me, and limited me, her absence is a giant, inescapable fact. But she doesn’t warrant the meanings I would sometimes place on her. The truth is that she was there, ever-present, ever-loving, and self-sacrificing, throughout all the years of my life. The paradoxical existence of her love and my hurt cannot diminish her.
The rain is coming down again, but this time only forecasted for a short window tonight and tomorrow morning, before we finally get an opening in this drear. Today was a lovely day, and I welcome this rain as the last kiss on the greenery before the dry. I love dry spells in the rainforest, but I am unsettled by them. Last year’s climate change SOS of a summer still looms in memory and when I see a whole extended forecast without rain I can’t help but get a little worried.
It’s strange how my gut-wrenching grief over climate change gave way, for this window of time, to the immediate fear of the pandemic and the awakening horror around the murder of George Floyd and the uncountable other Black, brown and indigenous men and women. Tonight I happened on a new paper by Jem Bendell, whose Deep Adaptation ripped off my blinders and sent me into a crushing existential crisis. I’ve yet to dip into the 10,000 words of the new paper, but I happened across it in the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook page, where I spent some time reading a very thoughtful and respectful discussion/exchange between page participants and came away reminded again of this crisis we will all live through.
It’s impossibly difficult for a mortal of human-scale intelligence (read: me) to keep their head wrapped around all of these overlapping griefs. It seems like I can really feel into one, or at best two, of these things, without the overwhelm reducing me to something less-than-useful. I’m also constantly mired in the paradoxical thinking required of any parent or would-be parent who is awakened to any of these frightful truths. I must believe in a good future for my child. I also believe I know something of what is coming. I think often of Mr. Smith in the Matrix, talking about humans as a virus. But even if I knew with certainty we’re all in the Matrix, I wouldn’t and couldn’t give up the beauty of having a child. I read this article by Meehan Crist in the last week, and found much in it that was old, but I love paragraph, and especially the quote from Erdrich.
I can understand why some people might see having a child as a turn towards death – a fatal complicity with the death spiral of global fossil capitalism. But, for me, having a child has been a commitment to life, and a commitment to the possibilities of a human future on this warming planet. It means giving up claims to moral purity, not because nothing matters, but because things do. ‘Staying open and willing is difficult,’ Louise Erdrich writes. ‘Very often in labour one must fight the instinct to resist pain and instead embrace it, move towards it, work with what hurts the most.’
This helps put language around my continuing desire to have a second child. Though it’s probably insane in many ways, I also can’t separate myself from the pure, pulsing biological desire of the thing.
Whether biology itself actually permits me a second child is another thing entirely. I’ve dithered in uncertain spaces around my own parenthood for excessive amounts of my adult life, making the question one that is now quite, quite real. But no matter how much I read, how much my imagination can conjure up the hardships and grief of +1 more human, I am unable to sever the animal wanting. Call it stupidity, or outrageous selfishness, or whatever it is. It’s entirely real.
Also real: the real laughter that Auggie conjures up in me when he sits on the potty for the umpteenth consecutive night, after bedtime and reading and tuck-ins and kisses, manifesting (how!?!) yet another last-ditch sleep-postponing poop. How is it possible that the pooping of a three-year-old can make me love him so much. Is it his up-and-down eyebrow wiggling, the pure satisfaction he feels as he demonstrates for me that, in fact, he is right, and there is a poo-poo coming? I can’t help but laugh out loud, dropping my head into my hands as I sit on the edge of the bathtub across from him. Then he reaches out and rubs my newly cropped hair and says, “There Mama, when I rub your hair, does that make you happy?” “Yes,” I tell him. “And you make me happy.” He does. So much. And also, how does he know so well that his mama is oftentimes sad? I don’t want him to feel that he must perform miracles (ha!) to erase my sadness. I don’t want him to feel that my happiness is contingent on him. I don’t want him to feel that… But also, to no small extent, it turns out to be true.
In any case, this hour of dusk and soft rain, with all the myriad trees in our old neighborhood shaking and dancing in this small weather system — this is a gift for me, tonight. I am so grateful to this life-giving rain. I do not take it for granted. I see it, feel it, and am humbled by it every time the sky opens up and lets it come down upon us. May it remain relentless for many, many years into our future.
It’s 9:32 pm. And though it’s not still entirely light out, darkness is still a long way off this evening. It would be even brighter out, but thick clouds hang on the mountain behind our house. The swallow chicks peep in an unused venting duct on my neighbors’ house. Each year the parents or their progeny make a nest and breed in there. A tiny hummingbird was perched on our feeder as I walked by with my warm cup of nighttime tea in hand.
I had a twinge of guilt seeing him there, remembering that I’ve not changed his water in nearly two weeks. I hope he doesn’t get drunk off the fermented concoction and fail to make it home to his tiny nest tonight. Everything around me is like that. Two dinosaurs rest on the same tabletop where they’ve been since five days ago. The blanket on the couch is unfolded and lumped where Auggie left it on his way to the bath. A receipt sits on the countertop, and will likely stay there for days. So too the cat’s collar, the unwashed dining room table, the backing for the empty notepad.
When Chris is home our house returns, at least once a day, to a nearly immaculate sense of order. He is maniacally tidy, save for the corner of our dining room table where he heaps all his things for weeks on end until I give up waiting and haul them unceremoniously to the basement bedroom. Dirt may accumulate on the rug, or soap scum in the bathtub, but surfaces are clean, things are put away, toys are returned to their storage bins.
I’m not given to this inclination, though I’m enough the child of my mother to feel guilt at the piles of things. Living with Chris has only strengthened this sense of anxiety at domestic disorder. His annual departure gives me an opportunity to practice letting go of that anxiety, by allowing things to come apart a bit at the edges and living with it. But I can’t entirely let go of the distress. Messy bed, messy head.
I remind myself that reading a book for thirty minutes while Auggie sleeps will do better things for the both of us than me washing those dishes and that counter. The dishes will always get washed.
I am so hungry for reading and learning, all the time. I am finding an inverse relationship between everything I absorb and my sense of myself as good at anything at all. When I was younger I had confidence in my work and my direction in life. And I was achieving really material things, like helping to build the new Kodiak library. Now I know more, but I am confident of far less. But I happily accept this uncertainty for the joy of taking on more and more and more ideas.
Books mound up around me. On my bedside table. In the basement bookshelf. On the shelves in the living room. They are oppressive at times, but mostly they tantalize me. They hum to me while I move around in my day.
When I was in my youth, living seasonally on the 56-foot wooden boat that was my family’s livelihood and my platform for coming-of-age, our moorage slip was on the farthest finger of the local harbor. This same finger served as the “transient” float for those vessels just passing through town or staying for a season. Each summer the transient fleet included a good number of sailboats and their crew making passage to North America from Asian waters. Ours was typically the first port of call in North America along the great circle route that came over from the Far East.
These “cruisers” who docked on our finger were among the most elite of blue water travelers. Many sailboats never make it out of the Caribbean. But anyone returning from Asia was a de facto dedicated sailor. Arriving in our town was, in itself, evidence of years’ investment in the sailing life. The winds that push a person to the Eastern hemisphere and back again are seasonal and only circulate in specific directions at certain times of year. Our occasional neighbors had necessarily spent time in Southeastern and East Asia, likely in the South Pacific, sometimes in Russia. Some of them would have made a westward crossing a year or years earlier, perhaps from South America. Some others would have come around Africa from Europe or the East Coast of North America, and through the waters of the Indian Ocean. All had opted out, at least for a time, of the “land based” life.
These people were heroes to my father, and to us, his children. He had pined for the sailing life for most of my own life. As a fisherman who cut his teeth on the old fishing grounds of New England and lived near and worked out of the whaling ports of these Yankee places, he was surrounded by tales of maritime adventure and multi-year voyages around the globe. He identified with it completely. I remember the first time he talked to me about sailing — after he and a fishing friend had somehow secured a contract to deliver a sailboat from New England to the Caribbean, despite having no actual sailing experience. He told me a sailboat was all of the good things about a boat, but without the roar of the engines constantly with you. He said you could hear the water passing by beneath the hull. I was captivated.
My father would immediately befriend any arriving sailors who tied up on our finger in the harbor. We would have dinners with them, tour their boats, give them rides around town in our beaten up truck, hook them up with the right service people, loan them anything they needed to make their stay comfortable. We spent countless evenings absorbing the stories of their journeys. I was certain that all I wanted when I grew up was to cut the ties to land and move out onto the sea, to begin to see the world and to let go of the false narratives of middle class aspiration. My dad said being in a sailboat was like being a turtle. You took your home with you wherever you went, but you never had to wake up to the same thing any two days in a row.
My parents were wanderers. They had uprooted our family from our New England home when my brother and I were tiny children, putting a continent between themselves and our extended family, bringing us to Alaska. This wasn’t a move to get away from them. We always remained close and devoted to our kin. But my parents sought some kind of adventure; something different from what they knew.
We moved constantly throughout my childhood, mostly from home to home, but also from town to town and back and forth across the country several times. Dad was often away at sea. Mom was raising us kids. We were decidedly poor. My parents also rejected many social conventions. My mom scoffed at “Hallmark holidays.” My dad never wore a wedding ring. My parents never bought a house in all of my childhood.
They also didn’t buy other things, including the boat that my father fished for most of my life. This decision proved economically catastrophic when the federal IFQ program was implemented for halibut and sablefish, which my dad had harvested everywhere from the Aleutian Islands to Southeast Alaska for years. The astronomical wealth created through that federal program was “given” to boat owners. In other words, not my parents.
Not having a home of our own conferred certain benefits. Because we had no assets, and therefore no wealth, my brother and I were able to attend an elite private school for our latter school years, for which my parents paid a tiny portion of the tuition while the rest was written off or granted to us as “aid.” Likewise our private college educations were largely gifted to us through aid packages. (Though I have no doubt that the small portion we were expected to pay as a family was a significant lift for my parents.)
Meantime, my parents continued to sing the praises of a life untethered. My mom insisted, repeatedly, that home ownership simply tied you down. It took away your options. We were free! Able to do something new at a moment’s notice.
For all my adulthood, I have felt the pull of the kind of freedom that those cruisers had chosen. I have valued approaches to housing and living that have been low on square footage, high on quality of life. I’ve coveted and planned for housing that defied conventions. I have overflowing Pinterest boards devoted to tiny houses. I spent a decade subscribing to Mother Earth News, learning all I’d need to know for my self-sufficient homestead. I’ve gone through convulsions of desire and have more than once considered derailing my life, if I could only have a sailboat and cut free from it all.
But the seeds of another great need had also been planted in my childhood, and they have created great unsettled conflict within my spirit that has torn at me for all this time. For while my parents coveted the life of freedom, I experienced it as a life without stability or certainty about “home.” By the time I was 20 years old I had lived in 20 different houses. As a 42-year-old woman, I have lived in close to 35 homes. And that reality set up a different set of bone-deep needs within me. Needs for a deeply rooted place. The need to call a home my own. The need for ownership. The need for stability and, yes, for the accumulation of wealth.
But my commitment to the ideals of the free life upon the sea lives equally strongly within me. And the two poles of need set up a terrible push and pull that creates a certain discontent no matter where I am, or how I am living. The result is that I’ve never committed to either — neither the kind of grounded ownership that would soothe the anxieties of an unrooted child, nor the sailboat and the life of unconventional freedom. To do honor to the needs of my child self, who craves stability and certainty, is to disavow the equally beautiful and compelling possibilities of the nomadic life on the sea, or the financially poor but spiritually wealthy life of a self-sufficient piece of land. This tension has sent me ricocheting from one extreme to the other for many long decades.
It’s only now, as I enter my middle age, that I can even describe this polarizing conflict with the clarity it merits. This is no “little thing.” But the understanding is instructive, and I hope to see it play itself out on my life in coming years.