Imaginary jobs (series intermission)

I don’t know about you, but that last post left me feeling kind of hungover and weepy (another law firm: “Hung & Weepy” – this is a fun game). I still have much more to tell you, and I will, but I need to limber up and regroup a bit first, and also probably give you some space to absorb all that I am springing on you. (You: “Welcome back, Nicole, but oh my god…”)

Walking the talk is logistically harder than it sounds. There are so many moving parts.

So let’s lighten things up a bit. (And believe it or not, this does tie in to the overall theme of reinventing myself, or becoming who I was all along, or whatever the hell this transformation is.)


For years I have kept a running list called “Imaginary Jobs.” It is pretty self-explanatory. I am fairly certain they don’t all make sense outside my own head, and I don’t expect you to think all of them are as funny as I do, but I am going to share them with you anyway.

Here they are, to date:

In-Law Buffer: Hire myself out to attend various functions and keep the obnoxious person nobody likes occupied so that everyone else can have a good time. Test audiences have loved this one.

Hospice Circus* (Home of the Crying-on-the-Outside Clown): Founded with my friend The Fairly Godmother over drinks at The Blue Monk, where we laughed so hard at our own brilliance we drew a crowd of people who wanted to know what we were talking about (including one gross rando who kept trying to convince Fairly to go to a strip club with him), and then they either didn’t get it or were appalled when we told them our emerging business plan: “Three rings of Death Affirming Acts! Never a net! We will wear top hats!” Them: “WTF?” Us: “You look confused AND mortified! Perfect!” (Also, no, Fairly did not go to a strip club that night. If only rando had invited her to go to a mortuary in a clown car… – Ed.)

(*Variation, with a nod to Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) geeks: I am also developing Circus Vagus, based on polyvagal theory, which, you guessed it, will feature Fight!, Flight!, Freeze! demonstrations (that was too easy…). Also, souvenir Window of Tolerance squeegees.)

Biddy ’round the City: Based on actual events. Provide joy rides in a convertible sports car for residents of assisted living facilities, so that next time they sit in a circle of folding chairs to play “The Reminiscing Game,” they can talk about what a great time they had yesterday instead of something that happened forty years ago. I’d keep a selection of billowy silk scarves and aviator goggles in the glove compartment. Each ride would end with a stop for an ice cream cone, and I would follow up with a picture of us from that day with the caption, “In cahoots.” (CAHOOTS would also be my personalized license plate.) I already know there would be a waiting list a mile long.

Marzipets: Hatched in 2004, when my cube-neighbor and now-best-friend and I were still getting to know each other. She invited me over to watch an AbFab marathon one night, and we ended up sitting on her apartment floor playing with modeling clay for several hours and multiple episodes. An unspoken friendly competition ensued as we both discovered that we took our frivolous sculptures very seriously. Her not-yet-husband brought us drinks and snacks (“You guys are so CUTE!”). We decided people should send us photos of their pets and we would make them out of marzipan. We laughed until our faces hurt. That was the day I knew this was someone very special in my life.

Purse Dog Liberation, Inc.: Nonprofit occupational therapy program for small dogs with legs that are atrophied from being carried around in handbags all the time. (Note the acronym is pronounced “piddly.”)

Portable Soapbox: A heavy wooden box on casters that I would wheel to unlikely locations pop-up style (i.e. “How did you get that thing to the top of this mountain?”), and, for $1 per minute, invite people to stand on it and make proclamations about What Matters. For an additional fee I’d film them for YouTube. I would keep a shepherd’s crook handy to enhance the nomad aesthetic and also to yank people off in case someone was inappropriate. There would be a leather bound guest book, with gilded pages and an ostrich quill pen and an inkwell, which I would carry in an elaborate case. Imagine the Instagram for this one, not to mention the Portable Soapbox podcast.

Baby Shower DJ: There I am with headphones around my neck, holding one side up to my ear with my shoulder, spinning a Johnny Cash/Elizabeth Mitchell mashup of You Are My Sunshine. I notice a single mom across the room mouthing the second verse. We make eye contact. I wink, flash her a sly smile…

Atheist Martyr: Throwing myself on the pyre for no reason whatsoever.

Mime Your Own Business Neighborhood Mediation Services: Silently annoy disputing neighbors into breaking down (invisible) walls through pantomime, thus, facilitating their cooperation with each other through their mutual disdain of me. “SEE? You have something in common,” I’d gesture, following them around and pretending to capture them with an invisible lasso until they retreated to their respective homes. The Nextdoor comments alone would be totally worth it. A caveat is I am not entirely sold on the boatneck full-body leotard.

(Mis)guided Imagery Facilitator: With a soothing voice and a bamboo flute, instruct participants to close their eyes and “focus on the breath” as I take them into a deeply peaceful meditative state of openness and relaxation. Then, WHAM! “Oh my god that beach you are walking on!! You just fell in a sinkhole!! The tide is coming in!!! Get out!!! Hurry!!!” This is a form of forced empathy for those who think mindfulness is risk-free that perhaps only those with us with PTSD might appreciate fully.

Bobo the Geriatric Care ChickenAll the assessments and services of a Geriatric Care Manager, except I would do it wearing a yellow feathered chicken suit. If you’re telling someone they can no longer live safely in their own home, you should look as far from The Grim Reaper as possible. And we all know that The Grim Reaper would not be named “Bobo.” It’s about building trust – the importance of the therapeutic alliance and so on.

Grave Dancing Unfunerals: Officiant for events commemorating the Nearly Beloved and the Finally Departed. We’ve already talked about this one. I think there is a real market here.

 

Suck it, Rilke – the burnout post (series part 2)

“If only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“Suck it, Rilke.” – Me

Backstory

At the end of 2016, I was laid off from my last regular job (“regular” as in – there was an office to go to with a boss and HR policies and passwords and entry badges, and leftover bagels in the break room, and folders passed around with birthday cards to sign, etc) because the program I worked for, which was housed in a local chapter of a national nonprofit, was defunded in a top-down decision.

In my job, I was responsible for a 30+ member team of National Service (AmeriCorps) members, who served in schools, government agencies, and nonprofits throughout greater-Portland each year. I led workshops. I wrote a weekly update. I conducted site visits. I created curriculum. I planned events. I understood. I advocated. I cajoled when needed. I listened. I did a LOT of paperwork. I was a warm and trustworthy mother duck with high expectations, for them and for me, and I took members’ imprinting seriously. I was good at it.

When we learned that our longstanding program was to be eliminated, at first it hurt my feelings, even though I knew it wasn’t personal. And then I realized that it hurt my feelings for the very reason that it wasn’t personal. Our program was successful. I invested. I cared. The work capital-M Mattered. The members mattered. The people they were serving mattered. It mattered to our communities, and to our country (yes, it surprised me as much as you to realize I am, deep down, patriotic). I was pissed and disappointed, but I finished out the program year as I had done in previous years, on a positive note, with an end-of-service celebration highlighting the difference members had made. There were certificates, gifts, special guests, a written reflection activity (of course), catering to accommodate every dietary restriction today’s millennial requires. I gave a speech about the importance of getting involved – about taking the hard road and having it be worth it –  that made people wipe away tears, myself included.

As we wrapped up our program, people kept asking me what was next. (Why the hell do people always expect you to know “what’s next” when you’ve had the rug yanked out from under you??)  My answer was always an upbeat, “Well, I am sure I will find something!” Chirp fucking chirp, but the fact was I didn’t know where I was going to land. I seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood – preoccupied and scared.

The more I thought about it (it wasn’t like I HADN’T considered the “what’s next” question on my own, basically all day every day), the more it struck me that I was done, not just done with that job, but with social services in general.  I had always relied on my empathetic, high-achieving, creative, quick, funny, sensitive, focus-on-the-positive, detail-oriented, deadline-loving, bureaucracy-is-my-wheelhouse, leave-no-person-behind self to get me through. But when I went to dig deep to replenish my resolve, it was gone.

I realized I was not “just” burned out, but empty – that my entire resume – the WHOLE THING – represented a way of life I did not want anymore.

I wish I could say I felt immediately free and liberated. “I have paid my dues, and then some. Peace out! Let someone else save the world. I am going to enjoy my life.” If I were a Hero’s Journey subscriber, or if this story was fiction or myth and not what actually happened, this would be the place where I could tell you that I made the decision to “follow my bliss.” But here I will step back and remind both of us that “bliss” was a foreign concept to me by then, and that I didn’t have enough trust in things working out to “follow” anything…

I felt like I was in quicksand.


Trajectory of nope

From the time I graduated from college, when an internship at a domestic violence shelter turned into a paid staff position, and including two terms of service as an AmeriCorps member myself, I held a succession of ten positions (yes, exactly ten, I have counted them on my resume) with increasing levels of responsibility at nine different social service agencies over the course of 16 years. All of my positions up until 2016 involved helping vulnerable and marginalized individuals, populations, and communities. The span of my career was an immersion into suffering, poverty, need, victimization, neglect, struggle, and trying to pull together resources that too often either weren’t enough or didn’t exist at all. 

To note, I was laid off not just this last time in 2016, but two previous times, too, in part due to the economic downturn that hit Oregon so hard, and in part because I was drawn towards working with the people and organizations that have the fewest resources to begin with, which for whatever reasons seems to make them invisible (the clients and the programs) to the uninformed eye, thus making them even more vulnerable when belts tighten. Each time I scrambled back into the trenches, my heart firmly affixed to my sleeve, because if people needed help, I believed it was my responsibility to help them. How could I possibly look away? 

“Nicole, are you sure you’re not Catholic?” you ask.

Yes, I am sure. As my friend Carol, who is Jewish and has worked in nonprofits herself, said to me one day when I was talking with her about how having a belief in God may have made aspects of working with various populations easier sometimes because there would be someone to hand things over to at the end of the day, “You’re an atheist. Well, shit. This means you have to put all of your faith in people.” We had a good laugh over that.

(Joke break: Being an atheist martyr is about as rewarding as it sounds.)

I should take a moment, too, to say that because there are so many non-profit-y types in Portland (educated, liberal, progressive, idealists keep wanting to move here, hooray/alas), there is a certain level of poverty-elitism almost about who can subsist on the least amount of income while doing the most difficult work: “I’ll see your ‘I have seven housemates and an overnight shift at a shelter for homeless youth, and I will raise you an ‘I drink my leftover pasta water and distribute clean needles by bicycle.'”  The short of it is that people like me are a dime a dozen (almost literally) in this town, and competition is fierce even for jobs that don’t pay more than $15/hr. (If only intrinsic rewards could be used to pay ever-increasing rent…) What I am getting at is that you don’t earn enough working in a lot of these jobs to, say, buy a house, or plan a trip to England to see your friend’s new baby, and there is always someone to replace you.

But back to the faith part. The truth is, though, I really do put my faith in people, and I have been rewarded (humbled, gratified…) in so many ways in all of my jobs, even the ones I hated (I won’t name names here). Of course there were triumphs, which I was/am always on the lookout for, and undoubtedly why I lasted in social services as long as I did, but at a point it began to register with me that I did not want every day at work to be about bearing witness to inequities and disparities, and fighting for someone’s basic human needs to be met. I saw more and more how, without having adequate systemic supports in place, attaching a label like “resilient” to a human being can be a convenient way to blame the victim if they aren’t successful make it more possible for overworked staff to avoid drinking themselves to sleep every night minimize the impact of trauma.

DSCF1268_2

I was beyond tired. I realized I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t rally. I couldn’t go back, which meant I needed to figure out something else, but I was suffering from so much compassion fatigue I was in no shape to use my imagination constructively.


The parallel demise of my mother

Keep in mind, too, that as I took on all of these jobs in social services, I was also experiencing the gradual-at-first-but-then-rapidly-snowballing mental and physical decline, then disintegration, then death of my mother. When I review my resume, I remember things like, “This is where I worked when she could no longer drive.” “That is the office I left to go get her at her apartment the day she attempted suicide for the first time and I couldn’t remember how to get us to the hospital.” “This is where I used FMLA to take her to appointments at the County Mental Health Department, where she had five different practitioners over the course of two years, who, after 15-minute consultations with her about her symptoms, prescribed her medications that made her too shaky to sew anymore, made her drool, made her lose her balance and start falling down, and falling down…” “This is where I worked when she called me and said, ‘Nicki, my legs aren’t working right.'” “Here is where I went out to the covered bus shelter for privacy on my break and raised hell with the State Ombudsman when a caregiver forcibly bathed her.” “Here is where I worked when my sister and I toured a combined total of 19 assisted living facilities, none of which would accept people with our moms’ diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder” (also, if only she had been ‘lucky’ enough to have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s instead of from being punched in the head too many times  – Ed.), “I was driving to this job when that man named Kevin called to tell me my mom might have to go before a judge for a sanity hearing only because they could not find housing for her, with the possibility of being committed to the Oregon State Hospital.” “This is when I worked in North Portland and had to get to the care home in Outer Southeast during rush hour the day the police were called, and the care home owners kept speaking to each other in Russian, and the husband smelled like alcohol.” “This is where I worked when I brought my mom a pie for her birthday in the psychiatric ward.” “It was on the sidewalk outside that agency, next door to a marijuana dispensary and with a view of a strip club, where my sister told me over the phone that our mom was enrolled in hospice care.” “This is the agency that never gave me a straight answer on their bereavement leave policies.” “This is where I took off my coat and sat in my low cubicle and burst into tears the day I returned to work.”

My resume represents a chronology of circumstances and events I am finally ready to say I don’t want to think about anymore, not as the backdrop for job interviews, anyway. I need to put them in my book where they belong. Had my mother’s health improved, and if she were alive and safe today, perhaps I would feel differently. But when she died, it seems a significant portion of my hope for humanity died with her. I did not stop to truly grieve until my job died, too, I guess. And when I finally did, I knew I could never go back. My old life was really over.


So what happened?

I ended up having the most amazing year. I will tell you about it in the next post.

Entrepreneurship, and where the hell have I been since May (series part 1)

Prologue

entrepreneur: one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise

The summer before fifth grade, I started a small business picking blackberries and selling them to the neighbors on our cul-de-sac for $0.25/pint. The berries grew wild (I did not know the word “invasive” yet) on the undeveloped property adjacent to the brand-new subdivision my dad was building, where we lived in an enormous house with a swimming pool. I had no clue what a bargain the neighbors were getting. Word spread quickly, and business boomed.

My mom would let me go pick alone as long as I would take our dog, Heidi, a Belgian Tervuren (bred for protecting sheep) with me. Heidi came to us as a former stray, already named, found by some customers of my mom’s dollhouse store, after my mom told them how our house had been broken into. Heidi was huge – she looked like a cross between a wolf and a bear, but was, as many large dogs are, completely tolerant and docile with her people. Along with chaperoning my blackberry picking expeditions, Heidi also let my sister and I dress her up in hats, tube socks, and moon boots (remember those?), and pulled us on our roller skates on the Promenade at Seaside. Once Heidi caught on that blackberries were our commodity – and delicious – she learned to pull her lips back carefully in order to not get poked, and would eat the low ones directly off the vine. My mom believed, probably correctly so, that nobody would bother me as long as Heidi was close. I remember her telling me, though, “If anyone comes after you, run into the blackberry bushes. You are smaller and they won’t follow you in there. Don’t worry about Heidi. She can take care of herself.” Nobody ever bothered us, thankfully. 

As business increased, I developed a system for picking efficiently. I would drag a sheet of plywood into the brambles to make an even surface for the 6-foot stepladder I would carry in, as well as a level place to keep the flats of berries from spilling. I wore old tennis shoes, jeans, and long-sleeved woven shirts to avoid being scratched, and tied buckets to my belt loops with rope so that I could pick with both hands. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes so that when I went home (which was usually only after it got too dark to pick), I could strip down and hop into the pool. The chlorine bleached away the stains on my fingers, and swimming around usually got rid of all of the little stickers in my skin, the kind you can feel but not see.

Despite the trauma, my childhood was, in so many ways, perfect. 

I loved picking blackberries. Yes, I did it obsessively, because, well, that is how I go about things. There were always more than I could pick, and the best ones seemed to always be dangling in whole clusters just out of reach. I loved how they smelled, earthy, warm, and sweet.  I loved how my fingers recognized the “give” of the most perfectly ripe ones as they would release into my hand. I got used to the spiders and bees that also love blackberries. I loved filling the pint containers from my belt loop buckets. At home, my mom always gave me free reign of the kitchen whenever I wanted, and I loved making tiny pies in those little aluminum pie pans. My mom used to hang loads of berries in cheesecloth, which she would suspend between two lawn chairs with a large bowl underneath, outside on our pool deck, in order to collect the juice to make blackberry jelly especially for me, because I did not like jam with seeds. 

When I’d close my eyes at night, I would see berries.

When I smell them now, I remember all of this.

Well, that summer when I was ten, I picked so many blackberries that I developed tendonitis in my wrists. My mom took me to the Urgent Care clinic that was close to our house, where I was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory of some kind and told not to pick for two weeks. By the time I left the office, I had orders from the nurse and the receptionist for a full-flat each, which I picked and delivered as soon as the two weeks were over.


I’ve missed you. I’ve been missing me, too.

I am aware I haven’t published a new post since the end of May, and no, this does not mean I ran away with the homeless guy who made me laugh on my walk to the courthouse, although wouldn’t THAT be a great story? “You didn’t kill me, so I should probably elope with you” is **old** Nicole thinking. (See?? The affirmations are starting to kick in.)

The bad news is I have been in a funk. Or maybe more of a dither. And by “funk” and “dither” (btw “Funk & Dither” would be an excellent name for a law firm), I mean I have been in a cycle of extraordinary worry and despair that has made it difficult to concentrate on many things, especially writing.

I am rebounding, though, or at least finally coming up for air.

I have so much to tell you.

Over the next several posts, let me give you a bit of context about the buildup to this emotional crash that happened to me recently (and fine we can call it “crippling depression and anxiety” instead of “funk and dither” if you want to get technical – I say “tomato,” you say “mental illness”), and then I will be able to share some of the the weird and funny parts of what has been happening lately, too.

There are many.

It is lovely to see you again.


 

Jury duty

juror summonsI was called for jury duty last week.

In order to save money on parking, and because riding my bike downtown scares me, and because public transit is so … public, I decided to walk. This meant that in order to get to the courthouse by 7:45am, I had to leave by 7:00am, which in OCD language meant out the door by 6:54am, which meant setting my alarm for 5:23am. (Someday I will show you the algorithm.)

Factor in that I was worried I would oversleep my alarm, which meant I didn’t let myself go all the way to sleep the night before, and basically spent most of the night considering the phrase “jury of their peers,” and got very hung up on the word “peer.” I was also extremely anxious (the “you know, if I were to get hit by a car, I won’t have to do this” kind of anxious) about being stuck in a room full of strangers and their contaminants for eight hours, the prospect of small talk (after spending so much time alone I sometimes worry about my ability to modulate my own voice), answering questions about myself (what if I AM a felon, and somehow did not know it?), and an overarching philosophical angst about what would happen if I made a mistake that ruined someone else’s life.

Awesome.

What I am getting at is that I was not exactly in the best mood when I left that morning.

no tresspassingWalking the 2.6 miles (yes, I google mapped it) from my house to downtown meant that I would be passing several homeless camps. I am not sure if “homeless camp” is a respectful term, and if I am using the wrong language, I apologize. We have a homeless crisis here in Portland, a “progressive” city where affordable housing is nearly non-existent (people are being displaced with virtually no options, and one of my 3:00am (the time of day when no problem is solvable) worries is that I may succumb imminently, as my own rent has increased 46% in the span of two years – a topic for another day); we don’t have enough resources for people with mental illness (I have plenty to say about that, too); Portland seems to be too busy telling the world how wonderful it is to notice the enormous cracks people are falling through; et-fucking-cetera.

(Joke break: “My what a delightful handbasket, Portland. Did you make it yourself? Also, can you tell me where we are headed?” -Ed.)

I have been admonished in the past that I should not call someone “homeless,” but “houseless” (to use people first language, wouldn’t that be “person experiencing houselessness” then?), and that I should refer to a person living on the street as someone “living outside.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I am not sure I support the terminology, and I also know that I, someone who has a home/is housed (knock on wood), am not the one who should be deciding on the labels. I am eager to learn, I just don’t always know who to listen to.

Whatever the vernacular, as I approached a particularly elaborate “camp” that took up an entire streetcorner (a tent, multiple tarps, bicycle parts, a small Weber grill, an Igloo cooler – I don’t recall all of the items, but I do remember that there were a lot of them, also no comment on brand recognition…), a man emerged and started rummaging and gesturing and talking loudly. He seemed agitated. It struck me that we were both starting our mornings with resistance, only he was being much more vocal about it.

When I realized he was talking to me, at first I was frightened (reasonably so? I am not sure, as I am not always a good judge of that, in either direction) of this disheveled, wild-haired man and his gesticulations. I was very aware that I was invading his turf, ironically (or not), on my way to perform my mandated civic duty. I also knew that I was allegedly the person of “privilege” in the scenario, which adds a top-down element to compassion (the one who disperses it, the one it is bestowed upon) that I do not like.

To note, having compassion for someone and being in ardent opposition of the social structures that arguably put them in a perilous situation do not guarantee they are not going to hurt you, or ask you for money, or call you a bitch if you don’t give it to them.

I often wonder what I would be if I wasn’t afraid.

(Joke break: It was so much easier to be a liberal when I lived in Lake Oswego.)

I take responsibility that the fears I directed at him were my own defensiveness and biased projections, based on my own complicated, internalized perceptions and responses to potentially “dangerous” situations. (A long way of saying I have PTSD that spills into just about everything, for sure, and also a long way of saying I am a woman and he was a man and this is the world we are living in.)

This was me, a person who hates conflict, on guard, preparing to run if I had to. This was me, a single woman with a trauma history, out in the world, exposed, who might not have anyone notice other than my cat if I didn’t return home on time. This was me being forced to leave my apartment to perform a role that made me nervous, to be outside when my agoraphobic tendencies have been so escalated, invading someone’s claimed space because it was along my shortest route from here (a place I am not sure I can stay) to there (a place I didn’t want to go). I told myself I was not trespassing, even though it felt like it.

All of these feelings in the span of less than a block, first thing in the morning. I thought about crossing the street, but made the decision that I was going to face whatever was going to happen. I put my shoulders back, tried to look friendly, purposeful, and taller, and hoped he would not harass me.

“Good morning,” I said as I approached. I smiled what I hoped was a convincing (to him or to me) smile.

“Sorry things are such a mess,” he said, and began collecting items that were in my direct path, piling them against the wall of the building. He was apologetic. Considerate. Fretful, yes, but non-threatening. I found myself feeling embarrassed for my initial reaction to him. I said I was sorry for walking through his stuff.

He did not pause for my apology, but kept talking. “Every time I have an idea, I get started on it, and then I get another idea, and I start that one. I just can’t seem to follow through with any of them,” he told me. He looked pained, bewildered.

“I know just what you mean,” I said.

I stopped and stood there on the sidewalk, softening as I registered how earnest he was.

I listened as he described what he had in mind for the various objects he had collected, how he was going to assemble them “into one big piece of art.” I nodded as he was talking, making ambiguously supportive replies along the lines of, “Cool,” and, “Hey neat!” and, “That would be rad.” (Yes, I think I actually said “rad.”) I am sure I sounded like a complete ass. He didn’t seem to mind, and that softened me further.

As he talked, I realized that I liked this guy. I realized I was no longer afraid of him, and what a difference that made inside me as I was standing there. It occurred to me that I was not there to be attacked by him, or to rescue him, but to share a moment of connection with a fellow human being, which we were doing.

Remarkable, that shift.

I became utterly present.

Unsure of the penalty for being late to jury duty, I told him I’d better get going, and started to walk away.

He called after me, “For twenty bucks you can give me the address of someone you want to get back at, and I will set all this up in front of their house.”

I turned around and he made a sweeping motion with his arms, indicating “all this in front of that person’s house.” He was grinning.

My mind instantly went to several people who would seriously lose their shit if this dude showed up on their sidewalk. I burst out laughing.

“Oh man, that is tempting!” I called back to him.”You just made my day.” I meant it.

I laughed to myself for the whole rest of my walk, writing this story in my head so that I could share it with you.

Judgement. Peers. Revenge fantasies. I felt better.

I made it to the courthouse exactly on time.


p.s. I found an exceptionally shiny penny in the jury room as I waited in line to turn in my paperwork:jury penny


 

Taraxacum officinale

My moms’ trick:

Picks a dandelion gone to seed – one with a long stem.

“Hold it in your teeth, like this.”

(Demonstrates, hands it to you.)

You hold it in your teeth.

“Make a wish!” they say as they YANK IT from the non-flowering end, leaving the ENTIRE PUFF in your mouth.

They laugh and laugh.

You sputter.

You are so mad.

You start looking around for someone to try it on…

Later: “You only fall for it once.”

True.

Now you will appreciate the “NICOLE MARIE!” that reverberated throughout the entire house when they discovered that I had stitched their paperback books shut. The pride in their tone was unmistakable.

I sure miss them.

 

“This revolution is for display purposes only.” – Banksy

The project

In January I started an ongoing art project, a series of installations where I have been leaving books in those little library kiosks that people have in front of their houses, along with photos taken with an instant camera, primarily of not-very-good art I have made from a collection I have been calling, “Postcards for Therapists,” which are propped on tiny wire chairs made out of the cages that fit over the corks from champagne (or in my case I should say sparkling wine and sometimes beer) bottles.

Why on earth….?  I’ll get to that.

I’ll show you the installations in a minute, too, but first, here are some of the little chairs. They are so simple and imperfect, I just love them. The secret to bending them into shape is you have to do it with confidence – really get in there with those pliers. When I made one as a Happy New Year gift for a friend who appreciates precise language, I looked it up and learned that the wire cages are called “muselets,” from the French word for “muzzle.” I had been making these since before I knew the name for them, but once I had this information, I began to see this “unmuzzling” as more subversive than I realized, and it made me giddy. To me, each one now represents a celebration (the effervescent beverage) of speaking (removing the muzzle) and listening (pulling up a chair). Aren’t they cute?

six tiny wire chairs
Liberté! Ancillarité! Démuselé!

Next, below are some of the Postcards for Therapists. Like I told you, I am aware that the art is not good, but there is something I like about how they are so rudimentary in execution and yet rather sophisticated in concept. The purpose in doing them is to make myself laugh, and they succeed. Calling attention to absurdity is wonderfully sanity-affirming, and humor is a fantastic mechanism through which to recalibrate perspective. I’m finding that they make other people laugh, too. That they seem to be relatable is an added bonus.

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Uhm, cool… but why the installations?

To be sure, I am doing this project because it is fun and a little bit weird. I’ve been trying to figure out how to “put myself out there,” and this is a way to experiment with that. This project is low-stakes and self-imposed, yet still challenges me creatively while requiring me to plot a route and physically leave my house.

Setting up the installations is a little bit scary. So far nobody has questioned me (Banksy works in a ski mask under the cover of night, I work in a magenta windbreaker under the cover of being a middle aged woman), but as I do them I summon courage by reminding myself that I am participating in my community, not harming anyone, and in fact maybe contributing something of value (imagine that). It is thrilling to leave a mark on the world, even a very small, temporary one.

In a deeper personal sense, I think I am a friendly, sensitive, and observant person by nature, but I am concerned that those qualities are being eclipsed by anger, fear, and disillusionment, and I don’t want to be like this. I care and invest with my whole heart; I live life up close – and I like this about myself – but a consequence is that this also leaves me susceptible to bewilderment, disappointment, anxiety, depression, and so on, which can make life very un-fun and dark. This project is about deliberately and intentionally “making fun,” and “making light.”

There is a lot of push-pull in the statements I need to make, as happens when a gentle person has been pushed (pulled?) to her limit (i.e. “the pleaser is not pleased” – or – “the cooperator cannot compromise anymore”) which is actually part of why I think people identify with my work. I have things to say, and instead of waiting to be asked (which I have spent a lot of time doing), I am going to start saying them.

What is going to happen, at least temporarily, is occasionally I am going to allow myself to get really loud about the things that bother me. And by “loud,” I mean I am typing very aggressively right now as I prepare to make some bold assertions, right here on my personal blog…out there for all nine of you to read…

Go big or go home? Nope. Go big FROM home. Boo-yah.

Speaking of unmuzzled (and why I started this project)

This project, which brings me such joy (for real), was inspired by my hatred of a book with the hilariously appropriate title, Clearing Emotional Clutter. To be fair, I can’t say I hated the entire book, because I only got as far as page three of the introduction before it made me so furious that I quit reading.

I’m not going to do a very good job of explaining, but basically what flipped me out was how the author, a therapist, used an example of a female client and her childhood abuse to elevate himself as a hero and to hook readers. He writes:

She kept repeating a refrain that had almost become like a spiritual mantra. “My father, he abused me,” she said, almost robotically…

FIRST OF ALL, what kind of dick would refer to a therapy client’s disclosure of abuse during their initial appointment as a “spiritual mantra”? Oh right, a “former Buddhist monk” a.k.a. (according to himself) “America’s Mindfulness Coach” (put a bookmark there, because I am coming back to these).

NEXT, regarding his “almost robotically” comment. What is the best tone to use when making the statement, “My father, he abused me”? Pig latin? Ubby-dubby? Sung like a show tune? Fake Australian accent, mate?  And let me get this straight – so first she has a spiritual mantra and then in the very next sentence she is a robot? Which is it?

Here’s the part that made me lose my shit:

…After empathizing with [her] I tried to redirect her, but she was so fixed on the old story she couldn’t get free of it…

Do you REALLY think, Mr. Altman, that “empathizing” is a skill that you turn on and off as a fucking technique?  What is WRONG with you?

BUT the BIGGER POINT is that you, Donald, a man, are as capable of having true empathy for a woman abused in childhood by her father as I, a woman, am capable of having empathy for you when someone has kicked you in the nuts.

He goes on to describe how he saved the day by pointing out the obvious to this client (that she thinks about her abuse a lot and gets stuck there), which woke her from her “trance” and basically she lived happily ever after, all because of him, and you can, too!

Basically I paid $16 to watch him congratulate himself.

And really, the one-in-five-ish girls and one-in-seven-ish boys who have experienced abuse should just learn how to see it differently. Problem solved. Where do I get my yard sign that says, “It doesn’t matter”?  Asking for a friend…

I wonder if Altman wears a pink pussy hat in an ironic way.

As you may have surmised, this guy really bugged me, and after trying to walk away from it and not succeeding, I decided to try to pinpoint why exactly he bothered me so much. I listened to five different YouTube interviews, which only made me dislike him more, including one where he mentions “trophy wives” (not cool), and another where, when pressed about his “former monk” status, he states that he was at a monastery for “a few months” – a few MONTHS is all? – which he justified by referring to himself as “ripe fruit,” which somehow was supposed to mean he was already almost a monk, or perhaps he was a monk savant? Whatever. I am sure it sells books.

Also, as far as I can tell the only places he is referred to as “America’s Mindfulness Coach” are on his own website and in bios he has supplied to other entities himself. Maybe he got his blurb file mixed up with his affirmation journal?

I tell you what, based on his standards, I am taking my 2007 online ordination from the Universal Life Church much more seriously. I will put my self-study and religiosity up against his anytime.

The clincher, though, was when I heard him in an interview repeat the story of the woman abused by her father from his book introduction, which he told almost verbatim (which in itself is totally fine), except this time when he told it, the client had been abused by her MOTHER and not her father. If you’re going to make stuff up, you should be more “mindful” about the details, liar.

“Put some clothes on, and btw you aren’t even an emperor.”

It’s really too bad for him that he has never been an abused six-year-old girl. Until he becomes one, he should stay in his own lane.

To Donald Altman, I say, “Nah-maste.”

Thus, my project was born

It came to me that I despised this book on so many levels that I should surrender it with some fanfare, and I did, and it felt GREAT.

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By now you know me well enough to have anticipated that of course I went back the next day to see what became of my artistic statement on clutter liberation.

Behold!

assumption of emotional clutter

What a rush. Altman became frivolous and irrelevant, and someone else’s problem (or solution) as my attention shifted into a single thought: “I want to do it again.”

And I did do it again, another eight times so far. None of the subsequent installations have been as dramatic (insert “chasing the dragon” reference here: ____), but this project has really gotten me thinking about the messages I am willing to receive, and the messages I wish to express.

Here are the installations to date, with notes

I take full responsibility for not giving Knausgaard enough of a chance. Book 1 of a six volume series, and I bailed within the first chapter. Perhaps I will attempt again someday, in summer, should I ever go back on antidepressants.


Here I present a 624 page guide to overcoming depression. This seems like a lot to expect of a depressed person. Not only reading a book with so many pages, I mean, but lifting it. Maybe they’ll make it into a movie, which everyone will say isn’t nearly as good as the book because it leaves out important scenes and relies too heavily on dream sequences, but I bet it will have an excellent soundtrack. I did not pair a jaunty postcard with this one because as much as I screw around, I also understand that depression is serious and terrible, and I did not want an unsuspecting depressed person to feel like I was making fun of them. The picture I chose was taken of the tree right outside my front door on one of our recent snow days as I fought against my own despair and forced myself into the monumental tasks of crossing a threshold and looking up.


This book nagged at me for something like three years before I realized that maybe my brain was fine the way it was and it was my life that needed to change. Please note that I debated donating it with all of my post-its and bookmarks intact, opted not to, and am regretting it.


Have you ever looked at some stranger’s Instagram and thought to yourself that you would never be friends with that person? This book was like that for me, only minus the pictures. Those of you who know Portland will appreciate that this was in Ladd’s Addition, where after inadvertently giving completely wrong directions to a woman pushing a stroller who was looking for SE Madison St, I overshot my route home by eight blocks.


I decided I needed to get rid of this book in order to avoid putting mixed messages into the universe about my financial goals. Also, this dude gets by on freeloading (he blogs from the public library while paying no taxes: discuss), so it isn’t like he’s giving up money, really, just using other people’s. If he can make it work, good for him, I suppose, but I don’t need him squatting on my bookshelf.


I stood there on the sidewalk laughing so hard to myself with this one that I had a difficult time getting a steady shot. “My totem animal is a fainting goat” + Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close = Nothing funnier than tonic immobility with a Jungian twist. No? Well, I guess you had to be there…


GODDAMMIT, Sherman Alexie.  #givemebackthetimeandmoneyispentonyoubeforeifoundoutyoureaprick


I am pleased to announce that the donation of this book was no big deal. Healing is a funny thing – subtle, dispassionate, and steadier than I’ve given it credit for. Oh how I hated the signs of spring that first year after my mom died. All of that insistent life bursting into color all over the place. Pure hell. And now this year, not only did I notice the rogue periwinkle blooming out of a dark and rocky spot, and that it just happened to be the exact color as the book cover, but I decided to document it. What has become of me? I better read a tragic memoir soon or I may end up writing sonnets or some shit like that. Next thing you know I will walk around humming, or, worse, whistling…


Conundrum

Postcard ideas? Check.

Muselets? Please keep me in mind when you have mimosas at upcoming brunches.

Little libraries? Here are all of them that have been registered within a five mile radius of my house:

little free libraries five mile

So what’s the problem? I am running low on books I don’t want.

 

Love is love and what a difference it makes when we know that is what matters

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sweethearts

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The kindergartener in my life has announced that when she grows up she is going to marry either her friend Oliver or her friend Margot. This same kindergartner has also announced that her career ambition is to be shot from a cannon, and that she wants a prairie dog.

While her parents have made it clear that no one is allowed to mention cannons around the kindergartener because they don’t want her launching herself from her upper bunk (again), and I tease them out of earshot that I am going to have a prairie dog town installed in their front yard when they are away on vacation, nobody misses a beat when it comes to whether she is going to grow up to marry a boy or a girl.

The kindergartener gets to take for granted that she can love whoever she loves. She is part of a generation whose parents won’t have to explain that it is illegal (at least for the time being) for girls to marry girls and for boys to marry boys. She has a mom and a dad who don’t see homosexuality as immoral, or controversial, so don’t feel obligated to intervene to “correct” her in exploring her imaginary future.

Do you know what this means? To the kindergartener it doesn’t mean nearly as much as it would to be shot from a cannon with your prairie dog while wearing matching jumpsuits. To me, though, it means this kindergartner is being raised in a family where I am included, too, with no beats missed when it comes to my +1s, and that I can be in the kindergartener’s life as myself. It also means I am not special to them in this regard, because her parents aren’t making accommodations for me specifically, but are fundamentally supportive of gay rights, which, to them, include their daughter’s right to imagine marrying a girl if she wants.

I knew I liked girls by the time I was ten, and believed it was wrong to have these feelings. What happened is that I kept having the feelings and kept believing I was wrong for having them, so my feelings became shame, and I kept them hidden, and, of course, hid with them when it came not just to sexuality and dating, but when it came to feeling like a “normal” person in general. I lived that way until I was in my 20s and fell in love with my first girlfriend, a Christian Education major who had been raised to believe in damnation for gay people.

We had both always been “good kids,” so our attraction to each other came with an enormous price tag of not just guilt, but nonconformity that didn’t suit either of us. My girlfriend and I lived in secret –  in plain sight, but as “roommates” and “friends” and “no, we aren’t sisters, we just have the similar haircuts” – for four of our eight years together, because we were ashamed of being gay, afraid for our safety, and so worried about what “people would think” (and some people apparently think a LOT about the bedroom habits of gay people, which is kind of weird if you ask me). How different my life, and my first girlfriend’s life, might have been if being gay was no big deal to us in the same way it is for the kindergartener, starting as early as that.

As Ursula wrote,

The children of the revolution are always ungrateful, and the revolution must be grateful that it is so.

The “revolution” that is me is grateful that my favorite kindergartener never will have to wonder about whether being gay is acceptable, whether she is or isn’t. I am happy thinking about her at school right now exchanging Valentines and loving whoever she decides to love unabashedly, which is how this kindergartner approaches life in general.

I hope she gets fancy Valentines from both Oliver and Margot, and doesn’t get married until she is 30, no matter who she loves.

—-

And now, in honor of Valentine’s Day, and because I have watched this video ten times already this morning, I think you should watch it, too. The kitten alone is worth it. DeAnne Smith is so brilliant I am not even jealous. You should google her. Here is her Nerdy Love Song:

Stand up straight, it is Charles Darwin’s birthday

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin! I made him this card.

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Why yes, those are finches wearing party hats. Thank you for noticing.

From the outtakes reel:

“You look like a Homo Sapien… And you smell like one, too!”

“I’d have to be a dodo to forget your birthday!”

I should have included the cha-cha-chas on it. Next year.

Speaking of evolutionary biology and crafts, I’ve been reading E.O. Wilson’s newest book, The Origins of Creativity, about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. It is exactly the Venn diagram I need right now. I wish I could tuck myself into the overlap of those two circles and just sleep there, but I realize those overlaps are called “intersections,” which aren’t probably the best places to rest. My better option is to try to work there as much as possible, play there at the minimum, and in the meantime I need to remember to buy cat food and toothpaste.

I like E.O. Wilson in the same way I liked Mr. Rogers, in that I find him trustworthy and his delivery soothing. I’m not always as interested in his subjects as he is (ants, anyone?), but I appreciate very much how interested he is, and I usually come away having learned something I think is relevant and important, and also wanting to put on a cardigan. In this book, Wilson cites both Charles Darwin and Stephen Sondheim, so you know it is up my alley. You also know this means it is going to be hard for me to determine where to shelve it when I am finished.

He writes:

Drawing on the combined consciousness of our species, each one of us can go anywhere in the universe, seize any power, achieve any goal, search for infinity in space and time. Of course, it is also true that when ruled by wild surmise and the animal passions we all share, our unbounded fantasy can disintegrate into madness.

“Nicoooooole, you said he was soothing.” I know, I know.

It’s a good book.

Anyway. What better way to celebrate evolution and survival of the fittest than with a clip of opposable thumbs opposing each other? (No, that adult thumb isn’t my thumb, and that woman’s voice is not my voice, but it is my bad camera work.)

Here’s to combined consciousness.

(p.s. For those of you playing at home, my Orgone album just arrived. It even came with a sticker. Happy Darwin Day to me.)

On shattering and being swept up

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When I found out that Ursula died, I texted five of my people. “Ursula died,” I typed five times in a row. Five different messages. Type, send, type, send, like I was practicing the sentence to get the right inflection. It looked wrong. Funny how “true” and “wrong” can coincide.

One of my people called within maybe a minute, or it could have been five minutes, or twenty. Time gets weird when you put “died” after the name of someone you care about. This person who had dropped whatever she was doing to attend to my two-word sentence said, “Nicole, I am so sorry.” I don’t remember exactly what she said after that, or what I said, but I remember distinctly that I could feel that she was there and I could feel that she was helping. I could feel myself feeling that I didn’t have this when my mother died, because in the situation I was in, I was not able to reach out, which meant my people were not able to reach back towards me, either.

Soon my phone and email were flooded with people reaching towards me. Not just the five, but so many others, too. So much genuine concern for me. It made me lightheaded.

I already had plans to spend the evening with my best friend. She said, “I totally understand if you want to stay home under a blanket.” I told her no, Ursula lived too much of a life for that. I told her I needed to be with my family. My friend, her husband, and their two beautiful kids are my closest chosen relatives. I have known her fifteen years. She reminds me of my childhood best friend, and of my mom in her prime. (She also, mainly, reminds me of herself.) She has seen a lot of my crazy and still lists me as the emergency contact for her children. They speak Spanish and English in their house and call me Tia Nicole.

I brought along the new album that I’ve been so excited about. I bought a turntable last month and suddenly there is a whole world opening up in “vinilos.” I’d purchased the album in a record store just down the street from my apartment, after not having purchased an LP since probably 1991. Somehow the record store clerk/magician discerned from my series of “I don’t know” and “I really am not sure” and “I honestly have no idea” replies to his questions about what I was looking for to suggest ESG, a “No Wave, Avant-Funk, Dance Punk” band founded in 1978 in the Bronx. Genre nonconformity is the shit. This could turn into an expensive hobby. My friend’s husband is taking me under his wing:

music request text to frankfrank helps with vinilos

ursulas-bag-e1518140528501.jpgI carried my record to their house in the canvas bag Ursula gave me when my paper grocery bag had ripped the day she signed all the books for my friends. It was the day she’d told me, “Write while you have the energy to do it.” When my grocery bag ripped in front of Ursula in her entryway, I’d felt embarrassed and fumbling, yet now I am glad to have something that once belonged to her. As with other of my secularly-sacred artifacts, I only use Ursula’s tote bag occasionally. It hangs in my kitchen next to the apron my mom made for me out of a vintage U & I sugar sack, which I wear only when I bake, which is seldom. 

My friend’s husband greeted me with the usual big hug and kiss
dance party figsto my cheek that took some getting used to when I was new at it, but now I can return them, and he played my record with his DJ headphones on. We danced in our socks in the living room until it was time for the kids to go to bed, and my friend and I headed out to get a beer. As we were leaving, he gave me one of his records, a Monophonics album, a gift of friendship and an initiation into the world of vinilos, which I put into Ursula’s bag with my record. My friend and I had a nice visit, like we always do, holding four conversations at once, and I only cried a little, and when I did, it didn’t even seem to be directly connected to Ursula.

For the next several days I felt like I was doing pretty well, considering. “Considering what?” I asked myself.  I was sad, of course, but also very aware that Ursula had far, far more people far, far closer to her than I had been. This isn’t really my loss, I kept thinking. I wrote my post for Ursula. I got together with two friends from my book group, a couple in their 70s, to talk about Ursula. (It is handy to have access to the perspectives and opinions of people from a generation ahead of one’s own, and yes, I realize some people call these “parents,” but mine get to be hand selected at this point. I highly recommend adding non-related older/younger people to your repertoire.) Ursula was an enormous energy; it is hard to separate the idea of her from the person of her (and maybe we don’t have to?). In an e-mail to me, the female half of this couple noted about Ursula’s death, “It feels a little like being orphaned, something I supposed every woman and most men knew her feel.” I knew exactly what she meant, and felt, it, too, while also being fully aware that I am already an orphan. I wondered what it would have been like had Ursula mothered my mother. I suspected it would have been a good match. It made my throat tighten thinking about it, the way it does where I can’t talk and I can’t swallow.

two tiny ursulasI’d read that Ursula was given that name because she was born on Saint Ursula’s Day. The word “ursula” means “little bear.” After some searching, I found two carved bear pocket totems and gave one to this couple, so that we could each have a tiny ursula to remind us of our shared Ursula, and of us remembering her together. I went home and put my tiny ursula on my bookshelf.

At the end of the week I received an e-mail from my dear friend in England, the one who was the motivation for me to get my passport in order to participate in her exhibition on bereavement and loss, where, with my dear friend’s hand lightly on my back, I put a small piece of writing about my mom on display for the very first time, whose own mother had died ten months after mine did, to whom I had recently mailed a package that included, among the various tokens and oddities that I had been collecting over a period of months, the book that Ursula signed for her. My dear friend wrote to me that the package had arrived on the Monday that Ursula died, which happened to be her mother’s birthday. She said, “If we ever wondered about connection to a bigger story, then that should silence any doubt.” Indeed! I laughed out loud.

I found two pennies that week.

My best friend’s grandpa died nine days after Ursula. She texted me that her mom had been one of the people by his side, and I was glad for that. By all accounts he was a wonderful man, including by my best friend’s account, which is the only one that matters to me. I ached that my friend had lost one of her giants, and I felt deep sorrow for my friend’s mom. I remembered (I say “remembered” here, but this does not mean that I ever don’t remember) what it was like witnessing my mom’s life leave her body, and how that was the single most amazing experience of presence I have ever felt, which transformed into the most terrible feeling of absence I have ever felt, could ever possibly feel. I was not conflicted in my love and care for my friend, or without a sense that I shared a similar awe to what her mom had just experienced, but I also realized I don’t have the foggiest idea what it is like to lose a grandpa who was a good guy.

I finally listened to the Monophonics album, the gift from my friend’s husband, and sadness and sorrowtexted him how much I liked it, and as happens with my friend and her husband, my comment turned into plans. Another band he knew I would like, Orgone, was coming to town, and so it was decided that my friend and I would be honoring Ursula and her grandpa at a funk show. As my friend often says, “Perfect!”

But then I had the days before the concert to get through. I was already overstimulated, with too much thinking, remembering, missing, and keeping track for my brain to take in, which was careening towards overload. All of the connections I was making, and connecting I was doing, were outpacing my ability to manage it all.

I thought about how we send sympathy cards, not empathy cards, because it is impossible to be in someone’s shoes when they are experiencing personal loss, and it would be inappropriate to take their shoes during this difficult time, now wouldn’t it? Later is the time to find common ground, when there is ground again.

At 88, Ursula was 21 years older than my mom was when she died.

I felt robbed (which of course is not a new feeling).

I hate knowing that the only people who could possibly understand where I am coming from with certain aspects of my life, and my mother’s life, are people who have endured similar hardships. I wish my mother had learned stamina through other means. I wish this for myself, too, and have grown to despise the word “resilient.” I hate the isolation, hence, loneliness, that comes from my particular set of knowledge. This does not mean I wish more people had more hardships, although I do wish there was a rule that people were not allowed to say, “I understand,” unless, like on a math quiz, they show their work.

I know all of us have parts of ourselves that others cannot possibly understand, and that having others who are willing to try to understand makes a universe of difference.

What hit me hardest was that, through no fault of her own, my mom did not get the luxury of standard, crushing grief when either of her parents died. They didn’t just not love her. They hated her so much that she broke into pieces. They hated her so much she became other people. She loved them, though, because they were her parents. She had to learn, over time, to unlove them. Her mother died at age 56, when my mother was just 29, and I was three. By the time we learned that her father the devil himself had died at 91, she was too sick to even dance on his grave.

Sometimes I think I should start a Grave Dancing Unfuneral company.

I could feel myself shattering, and was feeling bad because this was not my “turn.” Ursula was not close to me like my friend’s grandpa was to her. My mother has been dead for five years. I was mad that I never got a turn to watch my mother live to 88, or better yet, 92, and that the word “grandpa” makes my shoulders twitch.

As happens to me when I am more emotionally overloaded than I realize, I got physically lost. In this case, after purchasing a sympathy card for my friend’s mom, I could not remember where I’d parked my car, even though it was in my own neighborhood, near a bookstore I go to at least once a week.
lost car katie textIt felt good to do a couple of normal things for normal grief: I mailed the card to my friend’s mom. I made lasagna to bring to their house.

We made Valentines with the kids while her husband spun records, on this day that also valentine heartshappened to be the birthday of my childhood best friend. We talked a little bit about my mom, who loved Valentine’s Day (Susan, an insider, age 6, in particular), and of course this was heavy in my heart. We talked about how my friend’s mom and grandma were doing, how her grandma and grandpa met, who would be flying in from which parts of the country for the memorial, where everyone would be staying, what the kids were going to think about all of it, including the Catholic Mass and military Veteran’s funeral, about how the boy of the kids was going to need a new tie, and if they needed a ride to the airport.

I keep my mom’s ashes with her cookbooks, on a high shelf that I can see from almost everywhere in my apartment. There was no funeral. I didn’t think I could do it adequately, and doing smaller acts over time in different places for them, individually and collectively, makes more sense to me, anyway. I don’t want closure. I did take the box of her ashes in my backpack on a hike at Eagle Creek on the first of my birthdays after she died. In August, I go to a favorite spot on Mt. Hood. I make jam when strawberries are in season. I do other things, too. I don’t think I will ever scatter the ashes; the insiders were so organized, until they were unable to be, that this would feel like an insult to them. Plus, I want her remains to remain with me.

I heard Ursula’s daughter interviewed on the radio a few days after Ursula died and thought that her voice sounded a lot like Ursula’s. I thought, “She is one of this club now, of people whose mothers have died.” I listened to an interview Ursula gave in early January, where I was reassured when she talked about how reading the author José Saramago was difficult for her at first (Blindness was the third book I read for my book group, and all I can say is thank goodness I started this group with Sherman Alexie), but that once she learned how to read him, she felt like he was writing to her. Complicated stories can seem impossible, but if you keep going back to them, they belong to you more indelibly, if incrementally. It is up you to decide if the story continues to seem worth it to keep trying. I remembered that I don’t remember much about the week after my mom died.

The evening we ate the lasagna and made Valentines and listened to records was not the time to put all of the stories together, but to let the fragments emerge however they came. I sat in my usual spot next to “my” beautiful kids who know they are safe in their own home.

My friend and I went to our concert that night. We were both exhausted and “off,” and laughed when we decided maybe we could just nap in the warm car for a few hours, then tell her husband what a fantastic time we had. But of course we didn’t.

We made our way into the theater, where for the next three and a half hours all we had to do was be there and let someone else do all of the work of performing, and engaging, and connecting. We didn’t have to think about anything other than what was going on around us. I felt a little guilty. I had to remind myself that this was why we were there – to watch and absorb.

Maybe it had to take a nine member funk band I’d never heard of, with a horn section, two percussionists, and a female lead singer with enormous hair and an even bigger voice, a little black dress, and complete command of the stage, up there giving it all they had to reach every single person in that room, singing about being happy to be alive, singing we are so glad that you’re here with us tonight, singing you can do it, to interrupt my relentless brain, but holy fuck it worked. For those three and a half hours, it fucking worked.OrgoneI had been worried that I would be too tired, or that I would feel like crying, or that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the crowd, or that I would be counting down the time until I got to go home. What happened, though, is I was taken aback by my own sense of relief. (How long had it been since I had felt like that?) I could feel myself letting my guard down, and I couldn’t believe how good it felt. (Is this how some people live all the time?) Awareness crept over me: There I was next to my best friend at the end of a big, hard, maxed out week, being washed in sound, and light, and vibration, and, yes, surrounded by people of all kinds, enthralled. All of us were there taking it in, together. They were doing this for us.

Postscript:

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My LP should be arriving on Monday.

 

Ursula parts 1 – 4

The spectacular and inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday.

I’ve decided the best way to post about Ursula is to do it in installments. Here are Parts 1 – 4.

Part 1

Ursula died text from StephIt seems impossible that this person who was so noticeably and vividly alive can be so startlingly and incomprehensibly deceased.

I’ve been writing this post since Tuesday.  I haven’t known where to begin, because Ursula was a giant, because who am I to say anything about this icon, this legend, this Ursula, who was already so many people’s favorite before she entered my life and became my favorite, too. She had that effect on people.

I was not one of her closest friends. I have not read her major novels. I only knew her briefly. We met in September of 2015 when I joined the book group to which she and her husband, Charles, already belonged. The group is as well-read, well-traveled, well-informed, and intimidating as one might imagine a Le Guin-calibre book group to be. I do not pretend not to be out of my league with them. At my first meeting, I knew Ursula’s name but had not read any of her writing. I respected her from a distance because I associated her with Sci-Fi (which I avoid because all the metaphors stress me out) and fantasy (which I have never been good at in any form). I knew that she’d won a lot of awards. I knew Portland was very proud to claim her. Little did I know when I sat with her in a circle of chairs to discuss a book by Sherman Alexie what a profound influence she would have on my life, how she, and her writing, would reach me, would change me so much for the better.

Our book group is, of course, feeling very much like we lost “one of our own,” because we have.  I honestly think, because this was Ursula, the planet itself shares in this consensus. I know our group is not the only Ursula-affiliated entity with long e-mail chains of memories, articles, interviews, and, sadly, obituaries right now.


Part 2

Things I want you to know about me and Ursula: She had me over to her house. She signed books for my friends. She sent me postcards. She touched my wrist and I can still feel it. I loved her very much.

What you should know about Ursula: Everything you’ve ever heard about how cool Ursula was is absolutely true, only she was even cooler than that.


Part 3

I wrote an earnest and inadequate card to Ursula’s husband, Charles, and mailed it, noting as I surrendered it that the “forever” stamp I used had the shape of a heart with the word “love” on it. It was not a special stamp, it was the one I found in my desk when I went looking. I’m glad it wasn’t a forever Christmas stamp, or a forever American flag. That shouldn’t make any difference, but it did. I had a hard time writing the card. I was worried about what to say. I was worried my hand would shake. I didn’t want anything crossed out, so I had to get it right in a single take. A single take with several practice drafts on scratch paper.

I told him that Ursula had been one of my most important Unteachers, and that she had made an enormous impact on my life, and that I am so sorry for his loss. I told him I was thinking of their cat, Pard, too. I signed it, “Sincerely,” which I meant wholeheartedly and also felt was too weak, or overused in times of less intense sincerity, but I could not think of a stronger one, so that is the word I used.

My signature looked strange to me, like perhaps I was imagining this person who had written a letter of condolence to Ursula K. Le Guin’s husband. I had to remind myself that I had not imagined Ursula, or Charles, or Pard, so chances were I wasn’t imagining myself, either. The evidence I used was that I had their address because I had been to their house, and I had Ursula’s postcards right there on my bulletin board. I was worried that my letter seemed mechanical, because I felt mechanical, as happens to me when something is a big deal. Ursula was a Big Deal. I did not need to tell this to Charles.

Charles is one of the kindest people I have ever encountered, with a gentleness that makes my heart break as I think about him in this week that Ursula died, this week with so much rain. For a minute as I reviewed my letter, which I could not change because it was already in ink, I thought about how this is why some people say, “I’m keeping you in my prayers” at times like these, when there is such a strong inclination to provide comfort when comfort is impossible, or minuscule, or, shall I say, when the comfort we are wishing to convey needs to be so much bigger than what we have to offer.

As I heard the card drop into the mailbox (mailboxes don’t let you reach back into them if you change your mind), I felt a pang of distress, like I had forgotten something, like maybe I’d sent him an empty envelope. I knew that I hadn’t. I check for these sorts of things. Forgetting wasn’t the problem. What I was worried about was that I had done it wrong. Not the mailing, but the writing.


Part 4

This is the first postcard Ursula sent me:

ursula's postcard

The entire earth is reverberating with this very sad news:

This, yesterday:

ursula powells bestsellers (1)

The world’s largest independent bookseller, today:

powells ursula marquee

Thank you, Ursula:

thank you, ursula