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Ephemera: Meditations on life and death, presence and absence

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“May you never have to make another phone call like this again,” Diane says as we hang up. She had waved her husband Lance away twice, and I told her she should go and tell him why she’s crying behind her sunglasses.

They’re on the beach. I had left Diane a voicemail and a text message asking her to call me when she had a couple minutes. I was in the car, just arriving home, when she returned my call. The beach was windy. Diane said she could barely hear me over the noise of it. Still inside the car, I yelled, “IS THIS BETTER?!”

“Yes,” she said. “I can hear you if you talk like that.”

“OKAY!” I gathered my belongings and exited the car as I yelled to her. “I TALKED TO DAD AND HE HAD A MEETING WITH SUSAN, THE OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST, AND KATY AND JILL WERE THERE, TOO.”

I live next to a pizza place. Customers were in the parking lot. I was yelling my head off, trying to tell the story both to give Diane time to brace herself and also as a way to control my own emotions instead of just bursting into tears and alarming Diane more than necessary. Suddenly, instead of tears, I started laughing.

“DIANE, MY NEIGHBORS ARE GOING TO BE WONDERING WHY I’M OUT HERE YELLING! AND THERE ARE CUSTOMERS AT THE NEIGHBORHOOD PIZZA PLACE WHO CAN HEAR ME! WAIT JUST A SEC!” I found my key and let myself into the house before continuing with the story.

***

I don’t know when I first became interested in ephemeral writing. I think about it in all sorts of ways, from grocery lists and receipts to deleted text conversations to “to do” lists and reminders on dry erase boards. These written records are discarded as if they do not matter, but they often do matter, even if they disappear and will never be viewed again.

In my teaching I have especially appreciated the ephemera–the notes, scribbles, brainstorms, journals, false starts, marginalia, and so forth–that contribute to research, to new discoveries, to communicating ideas with purpose, ideas that others can take up and use and add to. Ephemera in such a context is not meaningless writing but rather is generative, allowing ideas to develop and be shared in ways that matter.

My interest in ephemeral writing may have first sparked when teaching an introductory linguistics class and considering speech as ephemeral. We utter words, sometimes making things happen with those utterances. We pronounce people married, we declare people to be guilty or not guilty. The speech act ends; it is temporal and temporary, heard and then gone. Of course, speech acts connected to legalities are recorded in writing, and the writing has more longevity than the speech act. But it was the utterance that led to the written record. The words no longer hang in the air, but the impact of what has been declared determines what happens next. People are married. People are imprisoned. People are set free.

Utterances do not last. But that doesn’t mean they have no impact.

***

Maybe it’s because Diane is on the beach that I think about all the words and shapes and symbols that have been etched in the sand. Maybe it’s because my friend Mindi sent me a picture last night of a labyrinth she and her family had created on the beach. Maybe it’s because life and death are on my mind, and if there’s one thing that marks time it’s the movement of the tides.

Maybe the sun is a better marker of time? Probably. But let’s stick with the tides for a moment. I’m Pisces, and both my parents grew up in beach towns on Cape Ann, and I like Blondie, so tides it is.

At low tide, when more of a sandy canvas is available to us, we are called to write our names or initials in the damp sand. We trace hearts, compose messages, create hashtags, proffer words of hope. We build sand castles. We dig pits. We don’t need to read Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to know our efforts will leave no lasting impression. Our marks are transient. Here and then gone. Smoothed over, erased, washed away as time moves forward with the rising tide.

But we make these marks for a reason. We may create as a meditative act, the pleasure not in the product but in the process. We may be writing for ourselves, as a reminder of who we are or what matters to us. We may write or create with or for others to create a bond, share a moment, solidify a relationship. The work of our hands, fingers, and toes may quickly disappear as ocean overwhelms sand, but the effects? The effects are not ultimately in the shaped sand, are they?

Sometimes we hope others on the beach see our words or structures. Sometimes we take a picture and remember. Sometimes we share the picture. As with speech utterances that are recorded in writing, moving from the medium of sand to a photograph–a visual image–is a way of magnifying the significance of a transient form of communication.

We write in the sand. Our work has an effect. The writing disappears. The effect does not. The writing is gone, absent, no longer there.

Or is it?

***

A lot of depictions of what happens in the crossing over from life to death seem ludicrous to me, involving a bodily presence that looks similar to the person’s living form. Maybe people become ghosts who hang out in some spectral form that’s really just a blurry body. Or maybe the body grows angel wings and the person hangs out on clouds watching humans on earth. I hope airplanes aren’t too disturbing if this is the case. Or then there are the visions of people being reunited with family members in some land filled with lollipop trees, again in some kind of body that seems a lot like the earthly body they inhabited. The details are hazy. None of it makes sense to me.

I also don’t like the way heaven and hell are used as carrots and sticks to motivate people to behave. I’m much more of an instant karma kind of person. When I’m behaving badly and hurting myself or others, I am not happy. When I’m making decent choices and using my gifts and appreciating stuff, I’m not always 100% happy because sometimes life is sad and painful, but I’m far more likely to be happy, or at least at peace.

The whole heaven/hell carrot/stick narrative has been used historically in some bad bad evil ways, so I’m not a fan of it for that reason, too.

Anyhow, at some point, maybe when I read the children’s books The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst or Nadia the Willful by Sue Alexander, I started thinking about death in a new way.

I obviously don’t know more about life and death than anyone else. None of us knows. But what I believe is that we do last beyond the point of death. And the way we last–at least the way that matters to me–is in the effect we’ve had while hanging out in our earthly bodies. When I die, I will leave some words behind, and my image and voice are captured in some photos and videos, sure. (Lindsey, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re laughing while thinking of our many goofy YouTube vids!) But the part that matters is in the impact I’ve had. My biggest impact has probably been on my kids. My other family members. My friends, students, colleagues. The occasional stranger. It’s not about being remembered. It’s not about all the people who knew me eventually dying and leading to me being eventually fully gone, erased.

No. It’s about the effects. The impact. To the degree that I can live in ways that are good, that contribute in positive ways, that effect is carried out in others’ lives (and maybe in other ways as well, like in our impact on the non-human parts of the natural world), and these other lives have impact, and so on. The impact doesn’t die when people die. It is just carried forward in different ways, in new forms. That’s my version of reincarnation. It’s the carrying of impact from one person to the next to the next, both horizontally (the people/world around us at any given moment who then interact with the people around them) and vertically (over time and generations and the evolving world).

***

I called my dad when driving home, about 45 minutes before my conversation with Diane. I wanted to tell him I would visit him and my mom in Maine on July 3 and stay over. If my mom wasn’t up for the 4th of July party at Diane’s camp (the Maine word for a lake house), I would stay with my mom so my dad could go to the party.

When my dad answered the phone, I asked how he was, and he answered, “Not very good today.” And he cried. He told me Susan the occupational therapist (who has been a tremendous blessing) had visited in the morning. Our family friend Katy and her friend Jill, both retired nurses, had been at the house, too. They all talked about how little my mom has been eating.

“And then I asked the question, Laur,” my dad said. I knew what he meant but he told me anyhow. He knows sometimes I’m slow. 🙂 Or maybe he just needed to say it. “I asked how long she has.”

I was crying. Not a lot, not sobbing. I both wanted and didn’t want to hear the answer.

“It could be a month.”

He went on and qualified that. No one knows. It could be two months, it could be a year. He added care details. He would be transitioning from Susan’s visits to hospice care for my mom. He would see about the agency care provider coming more days to help out. He said my brother Stephen was calling the siblings and letting us know, so I could expect that call to come.

The logistics. The making things happen. The words of care.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

Next I talked to Stephen. He was getting in touch with Janet, Carole, and Michael. I said I would call Diane.

***

When I yelled the story through the phone, Diane was crying. She couldn’t respond at first. Eventually she said she had known. Of course she had known. We’ve all known. But it’s different to hear it. To say it (or, in my case, to shout it). To acknowledge it.

The words are spoken, and then they are gone. But the effect is with us. The effect is what is present, and this presence marks the absence of the utterance.

***

One day, perhaps one day soon, my mom will be gone. Ephemeral. And we are already mourning not because she has not had a great effect on us but rather for the opposite reason. Her impact has been everything. We want her here, in her physical body–in her healthy physical body with all her faculties in place–to continue contributing to who we are and what we have to offer others.

Knowing she has already affected us, her children, and so many others…well, it’s never enough, is it? We want more. More time. More sharing of the gifts she brings to the world. More gardens filled with blueberry bushes and brown-eyed Susans and hollyhocks and foxglove and tomatoes. More stories about her grandchildren. More delight in Daniel O’Donnell concerts. More banter with waitstaff at restaurants. More times being delighted by telling people she’s afflicted with CRS (“Can’t Remember Shit”). More laughter. More hugs.

***

The tide is rising. And yet we go on, inscribing and reinscribing, doing what we can with the sand the tides allow us. Shoring up the walls of the castles. Knowing they will not hold long against the force of the white horse currents rushing further up the beach.

The salty waters flow and flow and eventually

overwhelm

until

there are no words left

from my friend Mindi

Keywords, priorities, becoming

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My plan has been to write my dad’s stories. I’ve started that project, but somehow I have been stuck. So this morning I’m writing what I feel called to write and hope I’ll get un-stuck on my dad’s stories. (Sorry for the delay, Dad!)

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Soul Matters group which I usually call a book group because the term “spiritual growth group” isn’t my vibe. But, really, it’s a spiritual growth group, or maybe a personal growth group, with a leaning toward social justice and anti-racist ways of being. Each month we have a packet of resources on a particular theme and select an activity to do or a question to answer based on that theme.

I hosted our group on zoom yesterday, and our theme was Becoming. I loved that theme because I entered a period of intense growth most clearly marked by my divorce, though my personal changes were most pronounced August through December 2020 when I started a new job and blogged about my growth. During the past month, I thought of several ways of addressing the Becoming theme, including working on an art project I’ve been thinking about for awhile or chronicling some of the experiences that have shaped who I’ve become.

Somehow, what I landed on was sharing keywords that have marked various parts of my life. “Keywords” are associated with search engine optimization, but teachers also use them to help students unlock ideas that may be new to them. Exploring a limited number of keywords in a semester-long course allows students to trace and contribute to important threads of research and conversation in a discipline. For example, keywords in a first year college writing class might include “rhetorical situation,” “genre,” “discourse community,” “code meshing,” “affordances and constraints,” and so forth.

I didn’t plan on having keywords for various parts of my life, but I guess these things sometimes just happen. I shared them yesterday during our Soul Matters discussion, and this morning I’m continuing to reflect, and that’s what’s compelling the writing.

So here ya go. Three parts of my life, three sets of keywords. And they overlap and inform each other, of course–the separation as artificial as the lines between discrete colors in the rainbow.

THE TEEN YEARS: altruism and aesthetics

I did a career inventory in high school, and my two highest values were altruism and aesthetics. I didn’t know what either word meant and had to look them up. Once I did, it made sense.

Altruism was all about helping others. I belonged to a youth group as a teen and had a strong orientation toward service. I didn’t think about future careers in terms of money but instead in terms of helping. Much later I wondered whether this orientation reflected societal gender norms and whether I would’ve had different values if I were male. No way to know, but I wondered.

Aesthetics was all about beauty–creating beauty and appreciating beauty, both in the arts and in the natural world.

The career inventory said my number one job was Art Therapist. I did study psychology as an undergrad, and I also got certified to teach elementary school. But reading and writing were always loves of mine, so my eventual turn to earning a Ph.D. and becoming an English professor fit my values of altruism and aesthetics pretty well.

These values haven’t left me. They are still part of who I am. But their centrality has shifted with ebbs and flows, highs and lows, over the years.

THE PARENTING YEARS: safety, kindness, character

Like a lot of (most? all?) parents, I didn’t know what I was doing ahead of time but rather figured it out as I went along. At some point fairly early, I realized that I had to decide which rules were non-negotiable and which rules were flexible. I don’t remember the exact point when I articulated the criteria, but I do know that safety and kindness became the first guideposts. I told the kids, if a rule was about safety or kindness, don’t bother arguing. I wasn’t going to bend.

When Callie was old enough to play softball and randomly wanted to quit, I added character. Honestly, both “safety” and “kindness” are hard to pin down and are full of gray areas that I never acknowledged to my kids, but “character” was even trickier. It was connected to following through on commitments, showing up on time, doing your part, being honest, and more. We didn’t really discuss the ins and outs. We just went along deciding as we went whether a rule was about safety, kindness, or character…or whether it wasn’t.

My kids are 21 and 18 and they will still talk about these values and priorities. I don’t know what else I taught them, though I’m sure I instilled way too many lessons I wish I didn’t just because I’m human and mess up on a regular basis. But I’m glad I gave them this. And in the process of articulating these three values to them, what mattered also became clearer to me.

THE MIDDLE-AGED YEARS: integrity, boundaries, intention

When I was young, I thought the thirties and forties were middle-aged and the fifties and older were decidedly old. But I’m not young anymore. I’m 52. I’m middle-aged! That’s what I’m calling it, anyhow, and I have experienced and have heard from others that this time of life can be full of introspection and change and renewal. So it makes sense that new keywords would develop.

I have done a lot of work to think about what has guided my life to this point, and I have been a harsh critic of my own behaviors, decisions, and lack of decision making. At moments I have felt like my whole life has been a complete and utter mess. But my healthier self is a bit more gentle, focusing less on self chastisement and more on how I want to behave now and ways I want to grow.

Recently I was describing the basis for my current decisions to a friend and I identified these keywords: integrity, boundaries, and intention.

Integrity is about honesty and wholeness. First, I am working to be honest with myself. I’ve discovered that I’m good at ignoring what is stressful, difficult, inconvenient, or painful. To counter that tendency, I now do a lot of self interrogation and journaling, and I also allow spaces of quiet in my life rather than filling my life with distractions and making myself so busy that I can easily avoid what is difficult.

Integrity is also about wholeness and authenticity–the ability to be honest with others, to not suppress who I am in order to fit in. I’ve realized that I can split myself into parts, accommodating situations like a chameleon, pleasing others and being likable. I’m still figuring this part out. I’m figuring out when I should speak and when I should remain silent. When I should listen. When I should stand up. When I should go along. I don’t want my ego to dominate, and I also don’t want to fake my way through interactions. Figuring out negotiations between self and others is an ongoing project.

Boundaries connect with integrity. I have a history of trying to earn love by pleasing and helping others. This tendency is the altruism of my teen years gone awry, because helping others to earn love is really about helping myself. My therapist sometimes quizzes me: When should you help someone? she asks. The correct answer: When they’ve asked for your help. And, we should add, when I’m able and willing to help without sacrificing my own well-being, my own wants and needs.

I also have a history of hoping to be rescued by others, and this tendency has led to times of passivity, letting others take the lead while I go along for the ride. Having healthy boundaries means I give help and receive help when the give-and-take works for both people or entities. I don’t need to sacrifice myself for others to be worthy of love, and I don’t want to give anyone else the role of saving me. Saving and being saved, rescuing and being rescued–these are unhealthy entry points into relationships, even though they are all too easy to fall into.

Having healthy boundaries also means that my work does not dominate my life. I do my work and do it well, but it does not define me. This attitude about work is new for me. I’ve spent far too long using work to distract me, using work to define my worth. Ugh. Integrity and boundaries. Healthy and helpful keywords. Grounding keywords.

Intention is the third point on my current keyword triad. It’s about making choices actively, reflecting on choices, revising choices. As noted, I have been passive in my own life far too often. At times I have discounted my own wants and needs, sometimes not even recognizing that they exist. For just one glaring example, when I bought a car completely on my own for the first time this past summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should get. It took me days and days to ask myself what I wanted. Does this seem messed up? Well, it is.

Intention is about owning my decisions. It’s about accountability. And it’s about attention to what I care about, where I’m going, and how small everyday moments can reflect my priorities…or not. And if they don’t, I’m not going to be happy because my days will be misaligned with my sense of my own life.

I told my book group spiritual growth group that I often wake up and spend 15 minutes mindlessly scrolling through social media, and this passive approach to my day does not reflect what I actually care about. So living with intention means that I recognize this misalignment and adjust, asking myself what I really care about and how I can reflect that in my morning routine. I don’t do it perfectly. I’m a work in progress because once I’m all done I’ll be…all done, as in, no longer living.

But centralizing intention is helping me to move towards alignment between everyday decisions and big decisions and what actually matters to me. It’s helping me pay attention. I want to be an actor in my own life.

***

That’s it. Those are three stages of my life, three sets of keywords, one way of thinking about the current Soul Matters theme of Becoming.

At the end of our Soul Matters zoom conversation yesterday, we talked about how good it was to hear from each other, and how good it was to take time for an activity that had some depth to it. Even in the course of prepping for our monthly conversations, I do work and reflection that I would be unlikely to do otherwise.

I don’t know why I wanted to write it up here. Maybe just to remind myself of at least part of what I learned. Maybe just because it felt good to spend time writing on a Sunday morning and this was something on my mind and in my heart that I could share (versus the many things I experience and think about that center on other people and thus aren’t right for public spaces). Maybe I needed to kickstart my blogging again and this was low-hanging fruit.

So I’ll end here, without any real conclusion, except to say thanks if you’re reading this. I appreciate the space I have here, on the internets, to share what’s on my mind and to hear what’s up with others. These are odd kinds of connections, these online moments. But they are, indeed, connections. And I really appreciate them.

keywords for stages of becoming blend together like colors in a rainbow

Introducing my dad in history

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When I was a little girl, my sisters Janet and Diane and I had the same bedtime for many years, and our mom would usually tuck us in. Occasionally, however, my dad would take on the task, and it always felt like a special treat. (Side note to pause and recognize how often the person doing the role of primary caretaker is taken for granted. As an adult with hopefully more awareness than I had as a kid, I’m super grateful for all the nights my mom tucked us in without any fanfare.)

Invariably on the nights when our dad tucked us in, Janet and Diane and I would beg him to tell us stories of When He Was a Bad Little Boy, and he would usually comply. I don’t remember much about these stories except they took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts, his actual boyhood home, and they regularly involved him playing tricks and telling fibs and getting into all sorts of mischief in the manner of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.

I do remember part of a story my dad told us, however. In this particular story, he was running away after doing something Very Naughty and trying not to get caught, and he ended up falling in the ocean. He was well on his way to drowning when he was rescued by a mermaid who brought him to shore. That mermaid was, of course, my mother. They fell in love and she became human.

Yes, I spent many years of my childhood wondering if my mother had actually been a mermaid at some point.

Fast forward forty-something years and I have once again asked my dad to tell me stories. Not stories of When He Was a Bad Little Boy, though such stories are not necessarily precluded. But instead stories of parts of his life that I may not know about, or may not know much about. Stories I want to hear because I’ve caught glimmers and glimpses and want to hear more.

We are in a pandemic and I last saw my parents during the summer. I miss them. My mom is not able to tell stories about her life very well anymore, and I’m sad about that missed opportunity. She’s given me lots of other gifts, though, just like she did when I was small and she regularly tucked us in at bedtime, so I’m not complaining.

But I am grateful that my dad is still willing to tell stories. The word “history” in the title of this series might seem a bit grandiose, hinting at some greatness in my dad’s story or perhaps some kind of Forrest Gump pattern of brushes with greatness. While my dad is great, I use the word “history” as a way of marking his stories as intertwined with things bigger than him. I also use it to evoke a sense of history as a series of stories, as much about the ordinary and everyday as about the grand. My dad’s life matters, and his stories do, too.

Our process as we get started? I call my dad and he talks to me about part of his past. I record what he says (well, the first time I thought I was recording, but it turned out that hour-long recording wasn’t saved…but, in general, I record what he says). I transcribe it, which takes a long time, and I send the transcription to him for any editing he would like to do.

The next step is for me to publish each story as a blog post, a process that will involve some framing on my part and perhaps some arrangement of things he’s said. My dad’s autobiographical stories are not discrete entities but instead are a series of events and sensibilities and relationships woven together in all kinds of cross-currents and themes and webs to form a kind of multidimensional tapestry.

So far I have just two recordings, but more than two stories are represented there. I will add visuals and commentary to enhance what my dad has said. My dad and I have talked about making sure these stories offered for public consumption do not hurt anyone.

That’s pretty much it. The process may shift depending on how well things work.

For now, I’m looking forward to this journey, hearing from my dad about his experiences, giving voice to his stories on the page, and sharing this journey with family, friends, and others. Thanks to all readers for your time and interest. There’s something about stories that connects us, and connections seem especially important in these times of physical distancing.

***

The following video clip is from a (silent) home movie. I think it’s 1973, and I think the baby is my cousin John (aka Pipes). And that was my dad, famous for stories of When He Was a Bad Little Boy. The hairstyle and the paneled walls alone suggest that individual stories and wider histories of people cannot really be separated….

#TheLaurieProject finale

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I started blogging because I wanted to take stock of some ways I’ve been growing and things I feel good about in my life, and I wanted to do so as a kind of public conversation to acknowledge that we’re all figuring things out, moving forward, making headway. I’m not alone. Neither are you!

When I think back on the series of posts, I see 2 consistent themes…I just wrote them out, and then I decided it’s really just 1 theme so I put them together.

Pay attention; give time and energy to what matters.

Here’s what I wrote that seems to add up to that basic edict:

And now this post, bringing some (temporary) closure to the project. Note: I will probably add to #TheLaurieProject at some point when called to do so. It’s been a wonderful thing to work on.

***

I started making lists of things—things I’ve learned or value or believe or whatever. But it was feeling so general as to be meaningless. If I had to put some of it into words, which keeps pressing at me despite my generous use of the delete key:

I guess what matters to me is allowing a wide range of emotions, making time to play and create, connecting with others, taking care of myself, getting everyday shit done, being part of the wave of people in my election night dream who are there for others in ways big and small, and continuing to pay attention and be okay with messing up and trying to do better.

***

A list of some short-term goals

  • make fitness (in addition to walking) a regular routine
  • spend time with my kids doing activities we enjoy together (cooking with Callie? watching movies with Jace? brainstorm with them)
  • try out the #DadInHistory project to see if that might be a good thing
  • get to the tasks that keep moving to the procrastination pile (with a recognition that most of it is paperwork connected to finances, like completing the Fafsa)
  • try out dating (mid-January, after the holiday season is over)

In the spirit of knowing that plans only become reality when you act on them, I’ve already taken steps on some of these. Others are on the back burner. But definitely on the stove top.

I will likely make meditation a part of my life at some point, but it’s not a priority for me today, so it’s not making the list.

***

I know 2020 has been a difficult year, and I don’t want to downplay that in these next sentences, but here’s my truth. I was a mess a year ago. I was in the middle of so many transitions that all I could do was keep moving forward, step after step after step.

I’m in a much better place now. I’m not completely together, and I don’t expect I will ever be able to make that claim, but I learned I am good at landing on my feet. I am gradually listening to myself, figuring out what I care about, and noticing my problematic habits and addressing those. I’m also beginning to move out of shame spirals and understand that we can do a lot of good even when we are still messing up and learning and messing up again.

That’s what I want to remember a year from now, when I will likely be facing new challenges. 2020 was not easy but it was an incredibly good year for me. It makes me look forward to 2021, not because I expect it to be better but because I want to see what’s next. I’m excited for my life, like a Netflix series I’ve been binging on. What will happen? How will the plot unfold? I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

Thank you for reading. Thanks especially to those of you who have responded in some way. I’m glad we’re in this thing together.

beyond “put your own oxygen mask on first”

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If I am ever on a plane during an emergency that requires oxygen, I am most certainly going to put the mask on myself first. And I understand why we often use that emergency procedure as a metaphor for other situations. I get it: If I’m falling apart or overextended or sickly and instead of taking care of myself I focus on the needs of others, I’m going to end up being no good to myself or anyone else.

image from freepik.com

I actually had a moment when this dynamic became clear to me in a sort of epiphany. I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was just about to turn 34. I had a toddler and an infant and I was in grad school with a teaching fellowship. That summer, I needed radiation treatments at the same time every weekday for…how long was it? six weeks? And I couldn’t skip those treatments. It didn’t matter what else was going on with my family. Their lives had to revolve around my treatments for that month and a half.

Early on, in the first or second week, I was driving home after my treatment and listening to the Grateful Dead and jamming out in the car the way you do. I was loving the time to myself, listening to music that my toddler didn’t appreciate. And I understood that I mattered. I needed to take care of myself. And not just for those weeks of radiation, either. I needed to take care of myself in other ways, at other times. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing my kids any favors. Being a mom didn’t mean giving up what I needed as a human being; it didn’t mean living a life of sacrifice.

When I told people about this epiphany, it sounded a little obvious. Of course a mom shouldn’t completely sacrifice herself for her children. But somehow, prior to my Grateful Dead revelatory moment, I had known this rationally but not at all on a visceral level. That day in the car, I understood it in my bones.

I carried this revelation with me from that day on, but, honestly, I haven’t always lived it. At times I’ve overextended and taken on responsibilities that aren’t mine to take on, not just with my family but also in the workplace. Some part of me wants to be the hero and save the day and be important and control situations or whatever, and when I’ve let that part dominate, it doesn’t go so well. Instead of being “heroic,” I just end up being really stressed out and making poor choices.

So, yeah. I understand how important it is to “put your own oxygen mask on first.”

image from Wikipedia.org

***

BUT. I don’t think the analogy to the airplane emergency situation works fully. Did you notice in my breast cancer epiphany I realized that my self care shouldn’t end with the radiation treatments but instead should extend into the future? Do you see how this is inherently different from putting on a mask and being done with it and then being able to move on to help another person?

Did you implicitly understand that being a mom doesn’t mean always prioritizing myself and putting the kids on the metaphorical back burner, just like it doesn’t mean always prioritizing my kids over myself? It’s more of a dance, a movement, an ongoing negotiation, a constant figuring-things-out for the time being.

In other words, the airplane mask procedure is finite and sequential. But daily life doesn’t work like that. Instead, we are constantly putting oxygen masks on ourselves and helping others with theirs.

Furthermore: Sometimes we put metaphorical oxygen masks on ourselves and on others at the same time.

***

I mentioned in another blog post that self help books have often bothered me because of the lack of attention to social justice issues:

I get irritated when the answer to everything that’s wrong is internal change. That just seems like the viewpoint of people who are comfortable enough in the world that they don’t have to worry about addressing structural oppressive practices that have (preventable) negative effects on people that no amount of self help is going to adequately address.

I was stoked about The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor because the entire book is about both individual and systemic change at the same time. It’s not a sequence: Fix yourself, then fix the world. Nuh-uh. Instead, Taylor argues for a practice of radical self love that dismantles oppressive systems based in shame, discrimination, and violence against bodies. She envisions “personal and social transformation” (my italics, quote from this webpage).

I eventually found parts of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson that get to a similar place, though overall social transformation is less integral to Manson’s message. Here’s the part I find most helpful.

In chapter five, Manson distinguishes between “fault” and “responsibility.” And, in that moment, he answers one of my longstanding burning questions. Many times when I have encountered folks suggesting that we make our own reality and are responsible for our own lives and so on, I either think or say something along the lines of:

If someone hits me right now, I’m not going to say that it’s my own fault, and I hope you wouldn’t say that, either. No matter how much inner work people do, it’s not enough to change unjust situations.

In other words, I have an ongoing frustration (and anger, honestly) with narrow attention to individual power that ignores context—that refuses to notice elements that are out of an individual’s control. This personal-empowerment tunnel vision can lead to blaming victims/survivors for the unfair situations they are in (those impoverished families? they should try meditation and breath work; their worlds would change!), and it can lead to a solipsistic taking care of myself without concern for others (I’m growing and learning so much! my life is improving because of it! What? I have privilege? but material comforts aren’t really the metric I use to judge my life, so let’s go back to thinking about emotional wellness).

My anger shows in my sarcasm, doesn’t it? Yup, I get intensely irritated when a focus is completely on individuals. And it’s largely related to my own fear that, as I focus on therapy and healing and growth, I’ll end up being a self-absorbed asshole.

image from SomeECards.com

***

So what did Manson say about “fault” and “responsibility” that helped me think in more helpful ways about connections between personal growth and social justice? He said they often “appear together in our culture. But they’re not the same thing” (97-98).

If I hit you with my car, I am both at fault and likely legally responsible to compensate you in some way. Even if hitting you with my car was an accident, I am still responsible. This is the way fault works in our society: if you fuck up, you’re on the hook for making it right. (Manson 98)

He goes on to explain that even when someone else is at fault (or “to blame” for a situation), we still end up being responsible—we are in a situation, and we have to make choices.

Manson doesn’t give this example, but in the situation above, if I’m hit by a car, even if Manson pays my hospital bills, I still am responsible for taking the steps to get examined and to follow through on medical advice and to figure out what to do if I have to miss a lot of work. Or I am still responsible for choosing what to do with the massive amounts of money Manson gives me after he hits me with his car. I’m not to blame, I’m not at fault, and Manson needs to take responsibility for what happened; but I also have responsibility because I’m in the situation.

So that’s the bit that helps me move toward a social justice framework. The idea isn’t that anyone deserves or is to blame for bad things inflicted on them but rather bad actors should be held accountable, and victims/survivors choose how to interpret and respond to the situation. I like that.

I know my understanding doesn’t magically fix anything, but it’s helping me think more about the choices each of us makes and the choices we make collectively.

***

So, here I am, writing a blog post in a series named after myself (#TheLaurieProject) on a blog site also named after myself (Laurie Mac Reads). And I dare to mention solipsism. Ha!

Here’s at least part of my thinking. This blog series has been for myself, and I think it’s been a healthy choice for me, not an asshole move. In the last months, I have regularly berated myself for past choices, for not being more honest with myself, for not being aware of my own needs and desires, for misunderstanding my own motivations, for being passive, for distracting myself.

Writing #TheLaurieProject has been a way to move past the self shaming by focusing on growth and giving myself credit for the shifts I’ve been making. It’s also been a way to articulate the shifts—making them identifiable so I can continue them (or continue to shift) rather than moving blindly or passively forward.

I could accomplish that by journaling privately. So why blog? Probably part of it is my desire for positive attention. Of course that’s part of it. I want positive attention.

But I also want to be honest about my struggles and my accomplishments in hopes that my ordinary days may resonate with others. Emily Styles, an educator and literacy specialist, explained that books could operate as windows (into another person’s life) or as mirrors (that help you see yourself better). I hope that’s how these blog posts may function. Other people’s writing has mattered tremendously to me, so I’m taking risks and making myself somewhat vulnerable here in hopes that I can pay it forward, if only just a little.

And there’s more about public writing and the hope of connecting with readers. Sometimes I feel embarrassed and ashamed about being divorced and mixed up. I don’t want to feel like that. Hearing from others that they have had similar journeys (at least the mixed up part, if not the divorce)…well, it helps me feel ordinary. “Ordinary” is good, even though we don’t often use it that way. It means that we’re in the same boat with lots of other human beings. Feeling mixed up is not bizarre. Neither is wanting to be admired. Or feeling embarrassed and ashamed. These are just ordinary feelings and desires.

My friend Jamie responded to my blog post on my work outfits with interest in hearing more about my shift from heels to flat shoes. I tagged her when I eventually wrote about that shoe shift. And Jamie commented:

Keep these coming Laurie! If it’s mundane and personal I want to read it!

Oh, that made me laugh! And it completely works, right? I’m not sharing what’s been up with me in this public forum because I’m “special” (at least not more special than anyone else); I’m sharing because I’m ordinary. And it’s a relief to be ordinary. It makes me less likely to shame myself or others, more likely to be compassionate with myself and others, more able to appreciate myself and others.

I’m now echoing The Body Is Not an Apology. As we experience personal transformation, we can do good work in our communities because we are more connected to others, more focused on what we value, more aware of where we are putting our time, our money, our energy.

***

And that’s where I am. Writing this series of blog posts has been putting an oxygen mask on myself, and I believe it’s been helping others with their oxygen masks, too—both because my small moments of honesty or insight may be helpful and also because my personal growth and the good work I can do in the world go together.

I, like you, am but a tiny part of this world we live in—contributing at times to the messed-up part, and trying and trying again to contribute to the healing and growth.

image from ThoughtCo.com

one day after another after another after another

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How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

The Beatles sing about getting by (and high!) with a little help from my friends, and that’s definitely true of me. (Well, I haven’t gotten high since my college days, but the night is still young.) These days, many of us are living in a socially distanced and sometimes lonely world.

It is not only the pandemic that makes my current life situation drastically different from anything I experienced prior.

For most of my adult life, time felt like a precious commodity that I just didn’t have enough of. My favorite pastime was reading and napping in the sun, a solitary activity of drowsy escapism. As my kids were growing up, if they fought or did something wrong while I was in the shower, they were in big trouble with me; I fiercely protected my 15 minutes of daily uninterrupted solitude. My favorite Mother’s Day was the year my husband took the kids out so I had a whole morning of gardening without anyone distracting me. Don’t get me wrong: I love my kids. Time to myself was just scarce. I appreciated every moment I got.

Work didn’t help. My first full-time faculty appointment began in fall 2005 when my kids were just turning 3 and 6. That first semester, I combined my professorship with administrative work, and I never stopped. I worked summers, weekends, weeknights, first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, holidays, and while on vacation. I worked on my phone and on my laptop. I never pulled all-nighters as a student, but I did as a faculty person. I had trouble shutting off. When I had a stretch of open time, I felt obligated to be productive. There was always more to do. I could never fit enough into a day.

And now everything has shifted.

***

My 18-year old son lives with his dad, and I miss him terribly. We usually have dinner at least one weeknight, and he stays with me every other weekend, but he’s 18. That means he goes to school and works and socializes and spends most of his time away from me. This would be the case even if he lived with me full-time. Next year he’ll be going away to college and I’ll see even less of him.

My 21-year old daughter is living with me right now because of the pandemic and her university going fully online, so I get to see a lot more of her than I would otherwise. We have dinner on Mondays, and sometimes we spend time together on a weekend, but she’s 21. That means she goes to school and works and socializes and spends most of her time away from me.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy my kids are becoming young adults with lives of their own. It’s just that I suddenly have extra time on my hands. I feel like I’m living that Harry Chapin “Cats in the Cradle” song! lol…except I’ve actually spent a lot of time with my kids, so not so tragic.

my phone screen announces the fleeting time and features my lovely kids

And work, happily, doesn’t fill up my open time the way it used to. I shifted from a faculty-chair position with a lot of flexibility in my schedule to a full time administrator working Monday through Friday, 8:00-4:30. My prior “flexibility” meant I felt I should always be working since there was always more to be done. My current structured work schedule means that when I’m at work, I work; when I’m not at work, I don’t work. Sure, if there’s a special event outside of the typical work hours or something pressing that needs to be done, I gladly fill my responsibilities. But, in general, I have gaps of time in the evenings and on the weekends.

Now, instead of trying to fit more into the day, I find myself wondering how to fill the time I have. Some evenings, I find myself scrolling mindlessly through social media or playing a game on my phone that leaves me numb in body and mind. Some evenings I force myself to do one activity after another–wash the dishes, paint a picture, repot a plant, fold the laundry, paint my toenails, and on and on–in hopes that I can escape an overwhelming blah feeling. On two occasions I ended up on a dating app just to distract myself. For the record, I’m not against social media or dating apps or any of the other activities I’ve used to pass time. I even believe seemingly meaningless play is a wonderful thing and I plan on never giving that up.

But I am against frittering away my life, looking for something to fill some kind of void, building a suffocating cocoon of distractions. I’m still in the process of shifting.

***

I don’t have perfect answers for adapting to a changing sense of time. It presents a sort of existential crisis for me, along the lines of what is my purpose and time is running out and that feels paralyzing. And the surplus of time has also made me—a person who grew up in a big family and who has always been surrounded by other people—lonely. That’s at least part of what I’m coping with.

But I do, of course, have a few things I’m learning.

ONE: It helps for me to recognize and name feelings such as loneliness, grief, and anger. Instead of distracting myself from feelings, I’ve been trying to experience them. I spent a lot of years using work to distract myself, so I have some catching up to do. But I’m getting there.

TWO: Instead of asking myself “How will I fill this time?” I can ask myself, “What do I want to do with this gift of time?” The former question frames time as a problem, a challenge, something to slog my way through. The latter question presents me as an actor with interests and desires.

Too often, I’ve been passive, letting life happen to me instead of shaping my days according to my priorities (“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans“). I’m trying to pay attention to what I care most about. I want to use my time to reflect those cares. Note that this point is related to Mark Manson’s book, discussed here; it’s also something my friend Kelly said on the phone to me the other day, which brings me to my next point….

THREE: In the words of the Beatles, I get by with a little help from my friends. When I find myself engaged in mindless activity waiting for the minutes to pass with a terrible sense of blah, often calling someone–a friend or relative–gives me momentum to shift my mood or my activity. This blah feeling is different from feelings such as loneliness, grief, or anger because it seems stultifying; experiencing it makes me feel more stuck, whereas experiencing other feelings makes me feel more alive and free.

Just the other evening, I was wrapping gifts and ran out of tape. I had started with 4 tape dispensers, not realizing that they were all partial rolls, so the discovery was quite a blow when I finished the last roll mid-gift, as you can imagine. It would take me about 10 minutes total to drive to a drugstore and buy more tape. But that task seemed like WAY TOO MUCH EFFORT. Until I texted my good friend Lindsey about it. And then I went and bought some goddamn tape and about 17 other items I needed. It took about 20 minutes because of the extra shopping, and both my night and my week improved immensely. Thanks, Linds!

For real, sometimes the step that will break me out of a potentially blah empty evening is reaching out, not necessarily with any emergency call for help, but just a “hey, how are ya?” kind of conversation. I need to push that technique up to the top of my list of coping strategies.

This makes me smile and inspires me to get moving!

FOUR: Sometimes it helps to focus on what I’m avoiding and why I’m avoiding it. Whole new worlds can open up. Before I started this blog series, I went over a month without blogging at all. I also had stopped watching TV. Each evening when I would consider what I wanted to do, those activities were quickly discarded. I was somehow never in the mood to do either.

Then I heard people talking about The Queen’s Gambit and I wanted to see it. As I watched the first episode, I realized that I had been avoiding blogging and TV watching because I didn’t want to sit on the couch where I usually sat for those activities. Why? Because I had lower back pain. I was avoiding enjoyable activities because they could be painful, but I was unaware of my motivation until that evening.

I found ways to sit that would be okay for my back, I began doing stretches and exercises while watching TV, and soon after I began blogging. Both activities are great for me–they help me process things and they are often just plain fun. As far as blogging: “It’s wonderful to be here. It’s certainly a thrill.”

When I talked with my therapist about this discovery, she said she was glad I had noticed sooner rather than later what I was giving up because of my instinct to avoid pain. She pointed out that sometimes I have a talent for avoiding pain, which in itself can lead to…a different kind of pain.

And that brings me back to item #1 in this list, doesn’t it?

***

That’s it. That’s what I got so far. I have time off December 25 – January 3, and I already had trouble sleeping one night, getting anxious about facing that time with options limited by the pandemic. In non-pandemic times, I think I’d travel to a beach for a few days where I’d be happy walking and reading and playing in the water.

I asked for ideas on Facebook, and I’m grateful for all who made suggestions. I will spend some time with my kids and spend outdoor time walking or hiking with friends. I have a couple social zooms planned, and I’m looking forward to taking care of some small projects. I’ll probably finish my #TheLaurieProject blog series, and I will likely get started on my next writing project. I’ll definitely read and watch some TV.

I’m not sure what else I’ll do, but I have a feeling the days will fly by. When I was in high school, I wrote this poem. I think it had a first stanza that I no long remember, but here is the middle and end.

The funny thing is clouds
which seem to keep quite still
while they easily pass over the grass
and beyond the furthest hill.

Who can count the years?
or the days or hours or minutes?
We hardly notice when they fly by
on wings of the swiftest linnets.

That’s PastLaurie teaching PresentLaurie to pay attention, to notice, to live. And when I find myself in a numb or mindless or blah state, to refocus on what and whom I care about.

writing

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Even though I have always loved to read and write, for most of my life I was the kind of person who thought I should be keeping a journal. It wasn’t until summer 2018 that I actually went from someone who wrote in a journal sometimes to a person who keeps a journal (and you can read a bit about that here).

In July 2018, my journaling was a way to help me recognize all I was doing, which was important because my days were regularly full but I easily focused on all I had not accomplished. Journaling helped me organize my thoughts, plans, ideas, and schedule. It helped me take time to process. And it helped me give myself credit for the many tasks I was completing.

My writing evolved. When I was a faculty person, my work life and personal life blended together, so I kept one journal. Eventually, after moving to full-time administration, I needed separate journals for work and my personal life. Both journals combine the kind of deep engagement associated with reflection or grappling with difficult things and more rudimentary writing—to-do lists, notes, reminders. I dog ear pages I need to return to. I use Google Keep and white boards to help me keep an eye on bigger projects so I can make progress without feeling anxious about remembering everything. I take pictures of my journal pages chronicling grocery lists or errands before I head out the door.

When I go to therapy, I bring my journal with me. I usually don’t open it, but having it with me is a reminder of the questions and concerns and issues I’ve written about, the things I know I want to talk about, the parts of my life I need help figuring out.

I usually sit in my car at the end of a therapy session and write about what I learned. I have a good therapist; she reads my life and offers insights that are worth sitting with. I don’t often reread my journals, but I hold onto things more through the simple act of writing them. They become mine. Inscribed, if ever so lightly, on who I am.

I prefer spiral bindings and lined paper, but I will write in anything. I prefer pens that roll smoothly without bleeding through pages or smearing. I want my writing to be pleasurable. It’s not a chore. It’s not something I should do. It’s something I want to do. It’s a gift.

I have become someone who journals.

***

Back in 2010, I heard Bump Halbritter (that’s a great name, isn’t it?) speak at the CWPA (Council of Writing Program Administrators) Conference in Philadelphia. He said that if we want our students to write using new media, we needed to be using it ourselves.

I left that conference and began a video blog so I could learn how to make videos and how to blog. That first video blog was recreational, but it taught me a lot and influenced my teaching, my administrative work, and my scholarship in wonderful ways. I ended up creating lots of collaborative blogs over time, and you might enjoy some of the ones from classes I taught, like this one or this one or this one.

As you can see, I’m still blogging. (I’m actually still making videos, too, but that’s just a chance thing needed in my workplace because of the pandemic. I think I will always love editing video. But that’s slightly off-topic right now.)

In a lot of my blog posts, I chew on ideas in ways that are similar to my personal journals, but I spend time editing and reviewing and revising when I blog. The writing is informal, of course, and conversational, but I still take more care than I do in my journal.

Blogging has helped me take a lot of my personal stories and internal journeys and offer them up to others. It’s a humble kind of gift, one that I offer readers and that readers give right back to me by taking the time to listen. This is what happened to me or Here’s something I’m thinking through or I’ve learned something, maybe. I often don’t know the narrative of a blog post until I write it. I often write it too long and cut out chunks. I sometimes do very little editing or revision and just let a post out into the wild, warts and all. I’m often figuring out the journey right along with my readers.

Blogging helps me feel more connected, less alone. I’m someone who journals, and I’m also someone who blogs.

***

In the last several months, I have brainstormed and written tiny pieces of a novel. It’s something I would like to read if I ever get it written. It’s on the back burner for now.

Over many years, I have worked on a semi-scholarly book that I have plotted out and which I love thinking about but towards which I haven’t made serious efforts in quite some time. Academic writing takes a certain kind of sustained energy, and I may return to it in a focused way or I may dabble; I don’t know. That’s on a back burner as well.

And I have another writing project I hope to embark on soon. I don’t know yet how it will work, but it seems worth trying. Updates will come later.

I’m not sure what my point is except that different kinds of writing may or may not energize me and become part of who I am at different points in my life. As an academic, I have spent a good bit of time over the years writing for publication, usually for an audience of other academics. I’m happy with the work I’ve published; I worked to contribute to scholarly conversations that matter. But that is not what matters to me right now.

As far as this time of growth and healing and trying to process an unbelievable amount of change in my life in a very short time: Writing has meant everything to me. Publication is not the point.

Writing keeps me focused and organized at work, and it keeps me focused and moving forward at home. It provides a kind of buffer between the life I live / the actions I take, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, my intentions and plans and hopes and feelings in relation to the plot of my life. It creates room. It allows change and growth. It helps me see more clearly and listen better. It helps keep me honest.

Of all the things in my life that have been good for me, writing is right up there with food, sleep, water, and exercise. When I don’t know what to do with myself as evening falls, writing has helped me speak into the void, has helped me reframe the world, has helped me see myself anew by expressing myself anew.

I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I’m going. But writing gives me a kind of stability, a pathway through the fallen snow that I shovel out with my pen (or with my keyboard? whatever…), one step at a time, allowing me to move forward rather than get stuck in the drifts.

I don’t know if that metaphor works, but it feels apt since I just did a lot of shoveling last week. That was some heavy lifting! And probably very good for me and my small muscles. It was hard, but it felt good when it was done and walking and driving became safer and easier. In this time of isolation compounded by a winter storm, shoveling opened up the world just a little bit; it made more things possible.

And, with that, I’m going to say it is indeed a good metaphor.

Shoes

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For most of my professional life, I wore heels: strappy sandals in the warm weather, boots in the winter, occasional pumps. I stayed away from really high heels because they felt uncomfortable and I’ve tried to make it a rule that I only wear shoes I can run in if I have to.

Side note: I used to be so overcommitted that I did find myself literally running at times to avoid being late, mostly at the end of the day when I had to get to the bus stop on time. I look back and I want to intervene in PastLaurie’s life. But at least PastLaurie wore heels she could run in. She had that going for her.

my strappy sandals are away in my storage space for the winter, but here are 3 heels I would wear with dress pants or jeans and a pump I would wear with a dress or skirt

On days when I wasn’t teaching, I often wore jeans or some casual outfit with a lower-heeled shoe, sandal, or boot.

casual shoes with a variety of heels

I’ve never spent a lot of money on shoes, but I’ve invested enough to feel generally good about my footwear, and I usually think my outfits look better when I wear a heel.

But I just can’t do it anymore.

The shift happened gradually and then all at once.

Side note: Do you recognize that phrasing from Ernest Hemingway or from John Green? They both had characters making similar observations, but neither one was talking about a change in footwear.

I used to occasionally get foot cramps in the middle of the night, especially if I wore heels several days in a row. That was the shift away from heels that happened gradually; I simply wore them less often to avoid foot cramps.

Then, with the job I started in August and my long commute, I ended up using a standing desk for most or all of the day. I love it. It helps me stretch and move and minimize the time I spend sitting at work since I’m sitting over 3 hours a day in the car as it is.

But I can’t stand for over 8 hours in heels, five days a week, without both my feet and my lower back ending up in pain.

It took me approximately a week to realize as much. I thus experienced a sudden shift. The switch away from heels was relatively easy during temperate weather. It took a few days to get used to ballet flats, but just a few days. Then I started liking the look. My feet were happy, my back was healing, and I was as fashionable as I felt compelled to be.

ballet flats for warm weather

Side note: I’ve never wanted to look like an academic. I appreciate the academic look in other people the way I appreciate a friend who has a country style going in her house; that is, it looks great, but it’s just not for me. I’ve gone more for an all-around-professional-woman-who-cares-enough-to-look-more-or-less-together-without-caring-so-much-that-she’s-over-the-top-in-any-way kind of look.

The shift to colder weather has been less gratifying. I’ve done okay. I already owned a low-heeled tall boot in brown. I have now purchased a low-heeled tall boot in black and ankle boots in black and camel. Both pairs of ankle boots have heels that are slightly high for standing all day, but they are still a gzillion times shorter than my typical ankle boots.

Side note: Or maybe the color of that second pair of ankle boots is caramel? How odd that the 2 words–camel and caramel–look and sound so similar, and they have similar colors associated with them, when otherwise they reference 2 extremely different things.

I think other low-heeled shoes might be possible, but I like to try shoes on because I can’t trust the fit will be right by size alone, so I avoid buying shoes online; my low-heeled options are thus limited to what I see on a shoe store outing. In my head, I keep imagining Oxford shoes, but I haven’t seen many, and none have made me excited yet.

I still own heels, but they’re now reserved for special occasions and social outings. They have not been used much during the pandemic!

I’ve mostly made my peace with this transition in my life. While I like the look of heels, it’s not a look I’m going to appreciate while I’m experiencing pain and hurting myself. I’m trying to listen to signals from my body and take care of it.

from high- to low-heeled ankle boot
low-heeled boots on the left, high-heeled boots on the right

To phrase it another way: When I look in the mirror and see a person taking care of herself looking back, that person is way more attractive than when I look in the mirror and see a person who is hurting herself. That latter person may be trying to please others or may be making less-than-ideal choices for a whole host of reasons, and she is certainly not ugly because she’s wearing painful shoes, but she is…well, she just looks like she’s uncomfortable and on her way to hurting. Because she is.

Side note: I’m suddenly hearing these lyrics in my head: Take a good look at my face. You’ll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer it’s easy to trace…the tracks of my tears. But most of the song doesn’t work here, just those lines.

This is one of a whole series of posts in which I’m not claiming authority or saying anyone else should make the choices I’m making. I am, however, owning where I am and what I’m doing. I’m sure I will continue to shift and evolve. Maybe FutureLaurie will view CurrentLaurie as overly extravagant and expending too much concern on appearance or morally corrupt for wearing leather, or maybe FutureLaurie will evolve in a completely different direction and become committed to high-end shoes. I dunno.

But as I walk–or run–into the future, I’m doing my best to do it with sole, to do it without being a heel, to toe the line only to the degree I want, and to appreciate what a feet it is to transition to flats after all these years. These final remarks may or may not be slightly tongue-in-cheek; I’m sure hoping they don’t fall completely flat.

AITA for finding wisdom in the comments?

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I know. I know. I know. Don’t read the comments. But that’s not really accurate in SO MANY situations, amiright? And one of those situations, I would argue, is when it comes to Am I The Asshole? comments. I access AITA through Twitter, though it’s based on a Reddit account. And the wisdom I’ve found through AITA, well, it’s been freaking awesome.

Regularly, the OP (Original Poster) asks whether they have been an asshole based on boundary issues. The OP might ask if they’re an asshole for sleeping in their roommate’s bed, for telling their mother-in-law she needs to find another place to live, for refusing to do their significant other’s laundry, or for putting a giant penis decoration in the living room and refusing to discard it even though his mom says he should.

The stories themselves are sometimes absurd. That works, because life itself is regularly absurd.

The problem, for me, was that when I first started reading the posts, I had trouble deciding whether the OP was the asshole, or if someone else was the asshole, if everyone was the asshole, or if no one was the asshole. I could see most issues from each person’s perspective, and I often would feel bad for everyone caught up in a conflict. I had trouble discerning times when a person expected too much, or when someone was gaslighting (or being gaslit), or when someone was being persecuted for refusing to play the role of victim or rescuer.

Then I would read the comments, and they would offer clarity. Sleeping (uninvited) in a roommate’s bed is always inappropriate, whether the roommate is home or not. When the mother-in-law puts her feces on your kitchen table and consistently refuses to respect your personal boundaries, it’s fine to tell her she needs to live someplace else. If you and your significant other can’t figure out guidelines for laundry that work for both of you, why are you living together? While it’s your house and your choice about owning a penis decoration, maybe you could move it to the bedroom while your mom is staying with you.

Obvious answers, right? Well, the odd thing was that the answers often were not obvious to me at first. But as I continued to read the stories and the responses, I became better at discerning where people were crossing boundaries, putting unfair expectations on others, gaslighting, and persecuting.

I don’t read every AITA post, but I still read many, and each one is like a mini-quiz for me. Will I get the answer right? And then I read the comments to see whether my perceptions are sharp.

Shall we try one right now? Yes! We definitely should.

This experience was great–my 21-year old daughter is home, and the AITA story I found was about a 51-year old mom (my age!) forwarding a dick pic from an ex-boyfriend to her 22-year old daughter. The daughter got mad that her mom would send her such a thing, and the mom then got angry with the daughter and said the daughter was shaming her when she intended the pic to be something funny for them to laugh about together.

Who’s the asshole?

My daughter and I agreed: that mom is the asshole for disrespecting her daughter’s boundaries (and the boundaries of the guy who sent her the dick pic). And then the mom persecuted and gaslit the daughter when the daughter pointed out how problematic the mom’s behavior was. The daughter was not shaming the mom for being sexual or having human desires; she was shaming her for disrespecting the boundaries of their mother-daughter relationship.

And once I go to the comments, I see that internet wisdom has kicked in as it tends to do on this particular Twitter account.

Was that one too easy? Shall we try one more? Are you wondering how I could ever not know the answers? Yeah, I kinda am, too. But, as I told you, I’ve struggled with boundaries.

Anyhow. Here we go:

Some of the details are that the parent said they could put the plush lizard in the son’s room or in the car while the housekeeper was there. The housekeeper was okay with it being in the car, so that’s how the conflict was resolved. But the OP is still wondering if they’re being assholes because the housekeeper said that lizards are bad luck in her culture, so refusing to get rid of it (even when she offered more money than the toy cost) seemed racist and disrespectful of her culture.

My take on it before I read the comments is that the homeowners bought their kid who was into reptiles an appropriate gift, and they seem very willing to compromise when the housekeeper is around, so that seems like a solution that respects the differing cultures. Everyone’s needs are met. Everyone expressed their needs and desires to resolve the conflict. No one is the asshole.

Well, to some degree I can’t help but wonder if there’s some asshole behavior going on, but it’s hard to tell. The housekeeper told the parent that the child needs to learn that the child can’t always get what they want. That kind of remark seems odd in this situation: The child was receiving a gift and simply didn’t want to give up that gift. It’s not like the child was making a ridiculous demand. As a matter of fact, the housekeeper’s insistence that the plush lizard not be in the house when she is there is closer to an outrageous demand than a kid refusing to sacrifice a new toy.

So I’m going to say the housekeeper showed some assholery in her approach to the situation.

Now I’ll see what commenters have to say.

Commenters were less tolerant of the housekeeper than I was at first, though once I thought it through, I did come to the conclusion that the housekeeper showed some assholery. Some commenters were suspicious of the claim that lizards were such a big deal in the housekeeper’s culture, especially with this being a stuffed animal rather than an actual lizard. In additional conversations on Reddit, the OP was not excited about putting the toy in their car every time the housekeeper was there, so someone suggested putting it in the home office (the OP works from home). Many commenters thought the housekeeper was far out of line and thought it was time for a new housekeeper.

There you have it. Entertainment, online conversation, and good healthy boundary setting. AITA? Maybe I am, some days. But probably not from my habit of appreciating and learning from AITA Twitter thread comments.

from in-tension to intention: part 2 with Manson and Taylor

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I recently wrote about reading two self-help books that speak to one another in rather cool ways:

Although I’ve only read a couple chapters in each, the first gem was a reminder to jump out of any shame spiral we find ourselves stuck in. I’m now continuing the conversation with a second gem.

Figure out what matters to you

I think all of our lives have felt less stable than usual in the midst of the pandemic. Mine was already in that state when the pandemic started. In addition to divorcing just over a year ago, I moved a few times in the past year and changed jobs twice. A year ago at this time, I was moving through tasks as well as I could, but I felt like I was falling apart. I could barely tell anyone how I was feeling because to speak of it at all was to break into outright sobbing, something I did several times in November and December of 2019. Since then, I’ve slowed everything down in my life because the changes were overwhelming and I needed to regain some footing. Now I’m at a point of slowly figuring out the shapes of my days. That’s why I’m blogging, really, to process the small structures of my days that prop up the big picture. I’m taking stock.

To be clear, in terms of the big picture, I’m still at an in-between stage of my life. I have settled into where I live and work, but I don’t necessarily know where I’ll be living or working in five years. And I also don’t know where my kids will be living and working in five years. I don’t know if I’ll be in a romantic relationship that will matter to me in five years. Of course, the future is never certain, so no one ever really knows where they’ll be in five years. Still, my future is far more open than I expected it to be at this stage.

That openness (instability?) in my life is one reason why I need to focus on what matters to me.

The other reason? Because I sometimes fritter away time, scrolling through social media or playing a game on my phone mindlessly. Sometimes I get lost on Zillow, imagining places I might eventually live. And at other times I waste time worrying about the future or imagining romance with Mr. Right (not his real name) or replaying and analyzing the past day or the past years or the past decades, wondering what other paths I could’ve taken. 

Repeatedly, when I find myself a bit lost in such distractions, I’ve reminded myself of what matters to me so I can refocus my energy. This refocusing has been inspired and reinforced through the books of Manson and Taylor.

***

Despite his title, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Manson’s book is not actually about not giving a fuck but rather it’s about choosing what’s important enough to care about:

You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. (13)

It is thus “the most worthy struggle one can undertake in one’s life”: “to pick and choose what matters to you and what does not matter to you based on finely honed personal values” (Manson 13).

Taylor says something similar as she discusses bodies. One of the ways Taylor helps readers focus on what matters most is to delve into buying habits and distinguish consumerism that is based on fear and a sense of unworthiness from consumerism that is thoughtful:

When given the opportunity to think about how we would spend our money if we thought of it as a powerful and abundant resource…we choose things that bring us closest to the epicenter of our joy and remind us of what is central about being alive. (134)

Thus, “reflecting on our purchases gives us an opportunity to investigate whether we are in alignment with our own unapologetic truth” (Taylor 135).

How we spend our resources–our time and our money–can be random, unplanned, left to someone else to decide. Or we can be intentional in what we do with this “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver).

***

I’m not going to say that I paid no attention to how I used my energy, my time, and my money before reading Manson and Taylor. But I will say that I didn’t give it enough thought. It’s only been recently, as I have put work into its place and as I have lived independently, that I have been called to articulate my priorities to myself. I’ve needed to.

Here’s one of my lists. You can see it’s all about self care and the people who matter most to me. (Hey, nephews and nieces and colleagues and former students and others who aren’t named here: You matter to me, too! I just ran out of paper. But don’t worry–my heart has plenty of room.)

This list is not my only list of priorities because I’m in the process of figuring things out. I care about the work I do, I care about helping others, and I hope to always make time in my life for play. The other day I felt crummy, and I didn’t devote time to what matters to me in any obvious way, but I did allow myself to feel crummy and to hunker down instead of forcing myself to move through my to-do list. “Feel crummy, lie around, and read until you fall asleep” is not on any of my lists, but I am committed to making room in my life for uncomfortable feelings, and I’m also committed to giving myself a goddamn break. (Did you notice? That was me avoiding the shame spiral. Woot!)

Being intentional isn’t about restricting myself. Instead, it’s freeing myself from the things I really don’t care about but somehow can get lost in. Being intentional gives me time and energy and money to spend in ways that I feel good about.

***

That’s it for today. What matters? And what choices are we making to reflect that? Those are the questions Manson and Taylor ask. Those are the questions I’m learning to ask and to answer, not only in the lists I make but also in the small and big decisions that give shape to my days and, over time, give shape to my life.