Observations from the Invisibility Cloak

When I was 28 and writing poetry, I wrote a poem lamenting the feeling that I was invisible because I was no longer the youngest, cutest thing on the block --- and I had become a mother. Now I'm in my sixties and really invisible. And I like it!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Worlds in Collision


It's December. 
It's the month my mother died, two years ago tomorrow.
It's the month after the 2016 election.

I'm having trouble sleeping except when I have trouble waking up. I spend intense, loving hours with friends and family all the while desiring nothing so much as solitude and silence.

The house is decorated for the holidays. We are re-creating the traditions of the family Christmas. The familiarity of rituals and food brings continuity and soothes my psyche.

At the same time, I feel a jarring sense of impending doom, of urgent actions I should take in order to stave off Armageddon.

Welcome to my world.


Two years ago, while Mom was lying in her hospital bed in the front room, the Christmas tree dazzled, music played, the scents of the season wafted through the house. My world had shrunk to that room, that bed, the woman who no longer ate or drank or opened her eyes. The woman who had given me birth and life and without whom I couldn't imagine being in the world. But time does go on, just as they always say, and I am still here and she is not. There continue to be good times and difficulties and so many things I want to tell her about.

Now, two years later, I open my computer or the newspaper in the morning and everything I see and read shouts of imminent destruction, chaos, and loss. It doesn't read to me as if it's something far away and not connected. It hits like action that I must take or all will be lost. The entire election season felt that way, and since the election of Donald Trump it has heightened to enormous proportions. 

I have lost my perspective. I have allowed myself to be seduced by the very fear tactics I so decried over the past year and a half, no actually, for the past 8 years. 

Fear and Loathing in America. 


Maybe what is needed most is for everyone, including me, to chill out. Take a breath and then another and another. This constant fever-pitch opposition is not only exhausting but dispiriting. I feel my life force draining with every headline, every new outrage, every single threat. And where does that lead?

Right now, it's leading me, incrementally, to abandon what was once quaintly referred to as "current events". There is only so much I can take without destroying my own spirit and affecting the people I love. I can't let it go all at once, cold turkey. But I can certainly cut down and replace it with other activities: reading books (actual, physical books), walking dogs in the woods, meeting friends, meditating. If the lure of electronics gets too strong, I can even listen to/watch TED talks.

Regardless of what is happening in the outer world, I am still responsible for my own reactions and perspective. I learned a lot about that during the years of taking care of Mom. Now I need to recalibrate and use what I learned in order to contribute something positive to the world at large, rather than continuing to raise the anxiety level.

Namaste.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Post Nov 8 World



I feel like somebody died. It's happened before. Real people who I know and love have died. I'm in a similar state, unfocused, at a loss, trying to adjust to the uncertainty of a world with an essential piece missing.

I've been on the planet long enough, and studied enough history, to know that life does go on. Still, it seems surprising to me that it all looks so normal out there. From my window. I'm not ready to actually venture out very far yet. It feels too scary.

In the aftermath of this, as with any other shock, I must shift my focus. I'm a bit of a news junkie. OK, I admit it. I usually get every question right on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." It's one of the perks of being retired. I used to drive to work listening to NPR and hear the teasers and think "Damn, I wish I could listen to that show today." Now I can.

My immediate reaction to the election news, right after spending an hour looking at the possibility of moving to the Azores, was that I could NOT stand being on social media. I would shut down my accounts. I would stay off the computer completely! That lasted about four hours. Another admission. I'm addicted. Where's that twelve-step program when you need it?

So, as I must ultimately do in regards to the election results, I will compromise. Shift my gaze. Paying close attention to the news, reading all the opinion pieces, getting jazzed on caffeine and editorials is not good for my blood pressure. Really. I've been checking, and it's true. So it's time to take a breath and practice something very foreign to me --- self-control. Restraint of tongue and pen. 

When I drive in the car, I can listen to music. We have a terrific classical music station, WCPE, practically in my back yard. I can read books, even funny books, slim volumes of fluff and whimsy. That's why God invented libraries.

I can walk the dogs. Pick flowers from the yard and bring them inside. (My mind just flipped to global warming --- we have a yard full of spring flowers in November ---- I can't think about climate change deniers, not yet.) I can sit in the sunshine on the swing and smell the breeze, listen to the birds, soak in the deep blue of the sky. 

It's true. Not one of our two dogs and two cats has even mentioned the election. They're not scared that the world is going to end in a fiery series of mushroom clouds. They just want to be petted and talked to and sung to, as always. Actually, so do I.



And someday, when I've regained my equilibrium and expanded my perspective, I'll be ready to do what I've done before. Show up. Speak out. Raise my voice for justice as I have been doing for fifty years. The work is not over yet.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

News in Slow Time



This past summer I spent quite a bit of time recovering from a hip replacement that had a little extra glitch. In anticipation of the first surgery my wife, who knows me so well, subscribed to the newspaper. She remembered my wistful reminiscences about the real, tangible, printed paper and a cup of coffee, even though I had quit subscribing before we ever got together. This would be my treat during recovery.

Now I've been reading a daily paper for four months and I've noticed a few things. First of all, the newspaper with a cup (or two) of coffee has not lost its charm for me. Each morning I head for the stove where she leaves it, right beside the coffee pot. This woman is definitely a keeper.

I've been trying to remember when I stopped reading paper news, and I believe it was when I got a "real" job. As long as I was working for myself, I had enough mornings with extra time to make it worthwhile. Once I started teaching, I found that not only did they expect me to be there on time every single day, but I had to be prepared, as well. Teaching ate my life and spit out such trivialities as reading the newspaper, watching tv, reading for pleasure, and meeting friends for coffee. 

Without time to eat breakfast and read the paper, I started snatching news from NPR on the car radio and occasional clips on news sites when I should have been doing something else. By the time I reached retirement I had become accustomed to relying on the computer for instant news gratification. In fact, I preferred it because I could pick and choose what to read more precisely. 

And that is what I have been thinking about since I resumed the leisurely perusal of a morning paper. I read it differently. 

When I have an actual newspaper, I open it and take a look at the entire page --- or two pages, if it's spread all the way --- and move across the page from one article or picture to another. Headlines are important, but not as likely to dissuade me as are the headlines in a list on the computer. 

Confronted with a list on a news site, I'm dead certain I'm not going to read all of them. I'll run down the roster and pick one or two. When I open the newspaper, I'm willing to read at least the first paragraph of almost anything, just to see if it grabs me. Often, articles that I would have summarily dismissed on the computer wind up enticing me in. It's how I learn things I would never have chosen to look at.

It strikes me as similar to the difference between looking at a paper map and using the GPS on my phone. The GPS gives me a narrow, specific route with verbal directions so I can get where I'm going with the least amount of uncertainty. A map provides context, a more global view of where I am and where I want to go, along with everything in between, including places I never knew about. Both maps and GPS are useful but engage different parts of my brain. 

I've been in love with the printed word since kindergarten when I discovered that I could read on my own. I spend a lot of time reading and writing on the computer and thank goodness for the keyboard and screen. But I still love actual books and usually have both tangible and electronic books going at the same time. Now I have regained my affinity for unwieldy, smudgy, scattershot newspapers, and it adds to my enjoyment of life. There's nothing like sitting on the deck, the dogs playing in the yard, the cat trying to curl up on the pages before me, and a mug of hot coffee at the ready. 

Thank you, Jill, for reigniting my mornings. 


Monday, September 12, 2016

Down in the Valley



It has been months since I wrote a blog post and nearly as long since I made any progress on the nearly-finished novel that's underway. What started as a needed break seems to be turning into something akin to sloth.

What actually drove me to the keyboard today was yesterday, the anniversary of 9/11. I avoided it almost completely. I always do.

When that attack happened 15 years ago, it became an instant touchstone for the country. Where were you when you heard about it? It joined so many others --- Pearl Harbor, Kennedy Assassination, King Assassination, Challenger Explosion. Where were you? What were you doing?

But you see, it was followed so quickly with the national meme that "Everything changed on 9/11" that the layers piled up quickly. What changed for the country? What changed for me and mine?

Is there a before and after for an occurrence that was not only predictable but probably overdue? Did Americans think that we were immune? What kind of arrogant, self-satisfied certainty could give rise to the presumption that it could never happen here? The USA is the greatest country on earth, the biggest, baddest, country ever. American Exceptionalism. 

We're not exempt from the world, and maybe that's what became clear the day the towers fell. Maybe that's also what fuels some of the anger that underlies politics and dissension in the public square now, fifteen years later.

My father fought in WWII in the Pacific. By the time I knew him, he was a well-educated, artistic, reasonable man. He was not intentionally unkind to people and had broadened his horizons from the small town start he got in 1920-30s Iowa. But I still remember him referring to people of Asian descent as "Japs" when I was growing up ---- and there was a tone of voice that went with it.

The slurs and hatred I hear in public discourse now, especially during the campaign, remind me of that level of unexamined, habitual bigotry. 

Everything changed when the US took a hit. But did it really? By now, we have the reflexive reverence that is trotted out every September, with especially fervent expressions reserved for years that mark the fives. That will no doubt continue, though as more people die who remember the original day, and more are born in its wake, it will become less evocative and more like the other "where were you?" days.

This country has been at war for nearly an entire generation. It is a war that shows no sign of coming to a close, and may continue to burn like those underground peat bogs that smolder for decades. It has never caught on among the American public. There are no incentives for the population as a whole to get behind it; no liberty bonds, no victory gardens, not even an attempt to pay for the damn thing. It provokes far more criticism than support among the general population, when it's talked about at all. 

The only thing the citizens get behind is "supporting the troops" and I put that in quotes because I doubt that actual support, any substantial financial or societal support, will ever be whole-heartedly embraced by either the lawmakers or the populace. You know who supports the troops? Their families. Individuals. Veterans. The country may be fighting a war, but the country is not feeling the pain.

I'm exhausted. I thought the 2012 presidential campaign was a never-ending nightmare, but it was nothing compared to this one. It feels as though the entire country needs an extended vacation, a month at the beach, time to chill. This is like the time all your kids get sick one after another, your boss cuts your hours, the car breaks down and needs $1500 repairs and your spouse is spending ever more time away from home. (Well, it's only like that if you're in the 98%.) We all need some time away.

Instead, we get bombarded every day with louder voices, wilder rhetoric, more devastating stories of suffering, pictures of tormented children and animals. The louder the shouts, the redder the faces, the deeper the pain, the more I want to crawl under the covers and cuddle with my dogs.

Welcome to my valley. If you want to stay you'll have to use your indoor voice. No smoking, please.





Thursday, June 23, 2016

Walking off the job

Two months ago, my hard-working, highly principled wife was fired from her job of fifteen years for insubordination. The month before, she had been "Employee of the Month" --- well deserved, I might add. Insubordination? Sticking up for a team member who had been treated shabbily. That's my girl. They told her she was terminated immediately and sent someone with her to her locker and out to the parking lot. Fifteen years. No recourse. There are few employee protections in the "Right to Work" state of North Carolina.

All that is water under the bridge now. After six weeks of nail biting, she got a better job. But today, as I listen to the news, I wonder again about our folks up in Washington, D.C. and the kind of jobs they have.

The House Democrats are sitting-in. It's a last ditch effort to be heard and to bring legislation to a vote which so many of their constituents are asking for. House leadership decided, after decrying this tactic as a publicity stunt, to pack it in and leave more than a week early for the July 4th holiday. It's the congressional equivalent of taking your bat and ball and going home.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a job where you can not only call all the shots, not entertain opposing ideas, and get paid whether you're there or not? They simply walked out during the work week and did NOT GET FIRED.

Oh, you say, they can get fired at the next election. Hmmmm. It sure would have helped when Jill got fired if she'd had several months to line up another job before the paychecks came to an end. 

This is simply another indication of why they are so far removed from the lives that most of us live. In real life, you don't get to do things like this. You don't get to have tantrums and plug up your ears and say "La La La, I can't hear you" or go on vacation when you're uncomfortable with the task ahead.

Should the Dems be sitting-in on the House floor? Should they have to, in order to get their jobs done? We all know that gun legislation won't fly. But not even bringing it to the floor for a vote is a slap in the face to all the voters who go to the polls hoping that the person they elect to represent them will actually be allowed to do so.

No wonder voter turnout is low. It's hard not to think it doesn't matter.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

I believe I'm haunted



I'm haunted by the past and its linear opposite, the future.

It's not just that I'm writing a book now that has ghostly encounters. That's fun, and I delight in those spectral characters, but they have another message for me. And isn't that why those of us who are afflicted with the writing bug do it? Writing stories gives me a chance to sneak up on myself and eavesdrop on what I'm thinking.

When I was much younger and life stretched before me almost into infinity, I filled steno notebooks with angst and questionable poetry. The past was whatever someone had said about me at school the day before. The future harkened freedom from the bondage of obligation to parents and lessons. The present inched by with the creeping pace of an ant's attempt to cross our enormous stone patio. I didn't have the patience to watch it to completion and had to dance off to find other amusement.

Now I find myself in this day being showered by whispers from the past --- not my past, but further back, often beyond living memory. Every room in our house contains books, words written mainly by people who no longer walk the earth. Every time I have a new realization or insight, it seems, I find that a long-dead author brought it to life decades or centuries before I was born. 

That doesn't diminish my own revelation. After all, no matter how many youtube videos I watch, I'm not going to learn how to fix the kitchen sink until I get down there with a wrench and do it. I bring my unique life experiences to each day, each thought. We all do. Right now I just have more time to indulge them.

Next month I have the opportunity to resolve a hip problem I've dealt with all my life. It never got bad enough for intervention before, but I've accommodated it since I was in short dresses and patent leather shoes. After 65 years I've worn it plumb out! Now I get a new one.

As I anticipate this event, it makes me think about all the women in my family who went before me. I do that frequently anyway, but this is especially poignant because I feel like I'm joining their ranks. Replacing a hip makes me feel old in a whole new way. I envision them, mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, and great-aunts. I've known most of them personally and have very clear memories and impressions of them. I can hear their voices and I listen to the admonishments and encouragements they whisper.

It's strange to me that what might seem a calamity to one person makes me feel like I'm part of the ebb and flow of life. I belong. I'm in the current, holding my place, fulfilling my position in the order of things. I'll get through this with its attendant pain and subsequent renewal, and it will amount to one more badge on my Girl Scout sash, one more milestone completed. 

Permanence. Transience. What feels durable and constant today inevitably becomes mutable later. The tension between those states of being, finely balanced, is what keeps me set in the moment. 

Thank you, Ava, Ida, Anna, Blanch, Mabel, Nancy, Margaret, Marjorie, Harriet, Phyllis. I love your company along the path.





Monday, March 21, 2016

A welfare tale



In 1974, I was married and pregnant. I was a college student going into my senior year and student teaching. My life seemed pretty well ordered. We all have our ups and downs, and uncertainty prevails throughout our lives, but still, we try to move in promising directions.

In 1975, I had an infant and a demolished marriage. These things can happen, and happen unexpectedly. When they do, you deal with the reality that presents itself.

I could have dropped out of school and gone to work, but being so close to the end, that seemed a bad idea. Plus, I was on scholarship. Back in those lost, golden days, in the state of Illinois, if you were at a state university and kept up a good grade average, tuition was waived. I was an excellent student.

So I went on welfare. I had never done so before, unless you want to count taking advantage of the tuition waiver. Some people might count that, these days. I qualified for a small check (which included the child support collected by the state from my ex-husband) and food coupons (yes, actual coupons which you had to tear out at the cash register) and WIC. I breastfed my baby --- no formula to buy, and it was what I wanted to do. I used cloth diapers and washed them myself at the laundromat. I drove a $300 car as little as possible. It was no picnic, but without welfare, I would not have been able to finish school.

I graduated into a glut of new teachers and couldn't find a job. I worked in a restaurant/bar and in a factory. Throughout that time, I had a childcare subsidy so I could hold a job. After two years of assistance, I finally got a teaching job. I have been a productive citizen and educator ever since. I went on later to get a graduate degree. That child, nurtured on food stamps, WIC, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grew up to become an emergency room doctor.

Was I a "Welfare Queen?" Nope. Did I need help through a difficult transition? YES! 

The social services have been devastated by decades of villification and budget slashing. Programs that are lifesavers for people have been cut to the bone and beyond. Citizens who might, with enough assistance at the crucial time, become stable, productive, engaged members of society are ignored, punished, stigmatized, and ostracized. Children without enough to eat or proper healthcare, develop poorly. Parents driven to despair turn to drugs, crime, hopelessness, suicide. 

The attitude that "I did it, so can you" has an implied undercurrent of ("you lazy bum, freeloader"). Those words are most likely to come from the mouth of someone who is afraid and resentful, or simply blind about their own place in life. It dehumanizes the "Other" and reinforces "Me and Mine". We hear it a lot in the public square right now.

Thankfully, I learned in my early twenties that making a plan doesn't mean I know the outcome. Every one of us is subject to the vagaries of life, and to think "it can't happen to me" is pure denial. 

I was reflecting this morning, after teaching a class of people in their 80s, that I take for granted they will be there each Monday. I show up. They show up. We do our class and it's lovely. But given the circumstances, there is a good chance that somebody could be gone before next week, including me. How do we, at every stage of life, find the balance between planning and uncertainty? 

We can't live tentatively, always wondering and cringing about the unexpected. That would be exhausting and crush the spirit. But we can't go about demanding a certainty that doesn't exist for ourselves or anyone else. There is a balance that the well-developed human has to live with. 

I'll go back next Monday, God willing and the creeks don't rise, as they say. Hopefully my students will still be hale and hearty. But I know, just as I learned 41 years ago when my marriage blew up and I had to alter my course and ask for help, nothing is certain.

All I can do is be grateful for this moment. And that's enough for me.