An integrated life: why I quit the 8-to-5

corrugated-boxesFor so long,

I’ve put the different

Bits of myself into

Separate little boxes,

Like disassembled doll parts

Played with by a

Disturbing little girl:

Arms twisted off the

Shoulder nubs,

The two stiff, plastic

Legs jerked loose,

The little fingers worked

Under the doll chin

And the head popped off

With a sound like a

Gum snap.

The torso now a

Dumb lump

Filled with a gray foam,

The skin Barbie-tan,

Crotch smooth.

All in separate boxes,

All boxes stacked,

Largest on bottom,

Smallest on top.

The little girl

Sucking her hair strands into

Knife-points on either

Side of her face.

The little fingers

Questing for

A scab to pick.

Won’t heal for weeks.

The doll part

Metaphor played out:

The mom in a box.

The professional in a box.

The writer/artist in a box.

The recovering alcoholic in a box.

The wife in a box.

The animal that needs sleep, food, etc.

In a box.

In one 24-hour period,

I would box-hop:

The animal sleeps.

The writer writes.

The mom gets kids ready for school.

The professional commutes to work.

The professional works in an office.

The professional commutes home.

The alcoholic goes to a meeting.

The mom drives kids around,

Gets kids ready for bed.

The wife

Tries and fails to

Connect to her

Similarly compartmentalized husband.

Finally, the animal sleeps

Because supposedly,

It is now time to sleep.

Out of all of the boxes,

Work is the one with the

Most artifice.

The professional

Who doesn’t talk about recovery,

Who mentions her blog and

Novel writing to select few,

Who slogs ineffectively through the

Post-lunch afternoon lag

When a little nap would

Make all the difference in

Actually getting something done.

Who clock-watches like a factory worker.

Who gives her

Brightest smile and

Lightest moods to her

Coworkers,

Leaving the offal of

Tiredness and testiness for her

Kids and husband,

Whom she loves most

In this world.

I just

Couldn’t fucking

Do it

Anymore.

As I freaked out

Leading up to my 40th birthday a few months ago,

Being so disassembled went from being

Uncomfortable to being

Painful.

So in a bid to

Gather some of my doll parts

Together,

I quit my job and

Went off on my own.

Back to school and

The freelancing life,

There to figure out how to

Put the doll pieces back together.

So far,

We have not

Starved

Or been turned out of our house.

And me,

I’m realizing what I see in people

Who have careers and

Lives I’d like to emulate

Is integration.

They’re not

One person here and

Another there.

They’re just

Themselves

All the time.

They’ve figured out

How to make a living at

Something they’d be

Doing anyway–

Not an easy task for a

Creative-type.

They sleep when they’re tired.

They don’t have a commute.

They have energy for their

Kids and spouse.

Their creativity

Flows through their

Entire lives

Evenly.

I refuse to believe

It’s not possible to

Have all these things.

Indeed, for the past four months,

I’ve managed to

Continue moving toward it

And still pay the bills.

But I still want to

Put that doll back together

Completely.

Put a top hat on her,

Spin her around and

See if some glitter and stardust

Bring her to life.

This is my 2016.

The year of blurred lines and

Open box lids,

Of hyperlinks,

Of erring on the side of

Oversharing,

Of refining this skill of

Hurling myself

Out into the world

Again and

Again and

Again.

Bright eyes and

Light moods for

Everyone,

Especially myself in the mirror.

 

 

 

After 20 years with my head in the sand, back to feminist roots

thAs a girl,

I was unapologetically

A

Feminist.

In the safe cocoon

Of my parents’

Encouragement and

Support

I could talk loud and

Indignant about the

Inequality I was learning

More about

Everyday.

And then

I went out in the world,

To college,

And quickly observed that

Most men–

And, to my dismay,

Lots of women–

Didn’t

Want to

Talk about

Feminism.

That word made people

Roll their eyes and even

Sneer.

And so,

I stopped talking about it.

I put my head down,

And I painstakingly gathered a

Life together that,

I felt,

Wasn’t affected by

The inequality.

“I don’t see it in my life,”

I’d think tremulously

When I did hear

Women talking about the

Persistent

Male-centeredness of our

Society and our

World.

I’ve never been beaten up by

A boyfriend.

I’ve never been

Raped.

I’ve never

(To my unexamined knowledge)

Been paid less than a

Man doing the

Same work.

I wouldn’t have even

Wanted to stay home from work

More than

Twelve weeks when I had my

Son,

And

I have a job that gave me

Sick time to use and

Short-term disability

When I was on maternity leave.

I don’t live in a society that

Doesn’t let women drive,

Or slices out their clitoris,

Or makes them the

Property of their husbands.

So for 20 years,

I avoided.

Whenever there was an

Article in the news about

Women’s inequality

I skipped it,

Packing down the

Consternation in my gut that

This is

Still

An

Issue.

When I did hear women

Broach the subject

I’d nod along but

Not really

Go

There.

Too depressing.

Too big to solve.

And

Not

My

Problem.

And yet.

And yet.

My avoidance is becoming

Painful.

I’m aware of a

Throbbing

Dismay that

More

Hasn’t

Changed.

The headlines are starting to

Bellow at me:

Wage inequality;

Women’s reproductive rights in peril;

Mass rape of women and girls in war zones.

The message is

Becoming clear:

It’s time for me to

Start

Thinking and

Writing about

Feminism

Again.

Sure,

Things are

Pretty good for me.

Tolerable,

I guess.

But this is still

Very much a

Man’s

World.

And I feel called to

Hash out a

New

Feminist

Theory

For myself,

That makes sense

Now,

For this moment in history,

That’s not

Angry at men,

That sees myself in

Partnership and

Interdependent with

Men and

Women

Around my community and

Even

The

World.

My formal

Education is

Feeble.

I read some,

But not much,

Feminist theory in

College.

All I have is my

Experience.

I can’t speak for

Womankind.

Women’s lives around the

Globe are so

Vastly different.

If you make a

Generalization about

Women,

You’ll always get someone saying,

“But that’s my

My

Experience.”

And yet.

Fear of that reaction

Has kept my

Feminism dormant and

Festering for 20 years.

And so over the next year or so,

My blog is going to

Explore my

Rekindled feminism.

Some topics I’ll explore include:

“Lessons from the gay rights movement;”

“What makes women women? Biology. Solution centered in the body?”

“Women having more doesn’t mean men having less;”

“Children aren’t a women’s issue, but let’s be real: Infants are;”

“My own personal feminist manifesto;”

“I’d don’t want special rights and I’m not angry. I just want to talk;”

“Maybe my life is okay, but other women’s aren’t. I have a duty to speak up;”

“Independence is a fallacy, we have to come together;”

“Men have a big stake in this, too;”

“The tragedy of misunderstood female sexuality.”

“Do we need a new word for feminism?”

I hope you’ll read

And let me know what you think.

Surrounded by screens, I need books now more than ever

thThe other day

On the morning bus to work,

I sat amongst

Five people

Reading books.

It was lovely and cozy,

The morning sunlight

Streaking through the windows,

The heater blowing warm air

On my legs

As we wended our way

Downtown,

My bus-neighbors

Flipping pages around me.

God,

I love books.

I love reading books,

I love watching people

Read books

(I can’t help but

Glance over people’s

Shoulders to see

What they’re reading.

I try to be as

Uncreepy as possible.) th-10

I love browsing musty used

Book stores–

I have one of the best

Used book stores

Two blocks from my house on

University and Snelling,

Midway Books,

Run by a curmudgeonly old man,

His long, stringy hair flattened to his scalp

With a dirty sweatband.

He hates kids and

Bus-waiters,

But he likes people like me:

Adults who

Retreat silently for hours into his

Stacks,

Whose purchases he makes

Comraderly comments on:

“Ah, spending some time with

Sinclair Lewis

This weekend?”

(Alas, I did waste a

Month this fall studying one of our state’s

Literary luminaries to discover that,

Despite his

Nobel Prize in 1930,

He kinda sucks.)

th-11Recently

I finished a good book–

Margaret Atwood’s latest

Short story collection–

And didn’t have another book

Lined up to immediately start.

If I don’t have a book going,

Or one to look forward to,

It’s typical for me to

Feel adrift and irritable.

This time,

My reaction was stronger.

It was more like panic and fear.

What if this was the moment when I just

Stopped

Reading

Books?

What if I just

Allowed myself to get

Sucked into the

Riptide of

The

Screen

And never pick up a

Book

Again?

It would be easy enough to do. th-5

People seem to do it

All the time.

I had a deeply

Depressing

Conversation with a colleague recently.

He was talking about how,

Since he reads all day

(On screens)

The last thing he wants to do

Outside work hours is

Read

A

Book.

“Just gimme my

Remote control and a

Six pack,”

He pronounced with a

Elbow-nudge.

“You know what I mean?”

th-1I was silent.

He didn’t know that I

Write books

In my spare time,

And I didn’t want to

Make him feel like a

Jackass by

Telling him.

But I kinda got it.

Even for a bibliophile like me,

It takes something like

Discipline

To put my device down at the

End of the day

And pick up a book. th-12

Screens

Affect me like

Caffeine,

They make my brain

Quivery inside my skull,

They make this

Naturally

Focused

Worker

Into a candidate for

ADHD medication.

And the content on the screens:

I slurp up information

On the screen

Greedily,

Out of control,

Like how I used to drink.

All those Netflix series!

All those real estate listings!

All that celebrity news!

So many

Unexplored

Digital rabbit holes.

Feed my head.

Feed my head.

Feed my head.

th-14That’s why

Even though it takes

One moment of

Discipline to

Close the laptop or the

Tablet cover

At the end of the day

And pick up my

Book,

I need that book

Now

More than

Ever.

The simplicity of the

Black and white pages,

The subtle texture of the

Paper

Give my brain

Space to

Delve deeply

Into the words,

The ideas.

Books have always been

A joyful part of my life.

But these days,

They’re a critical one.

To read a book th-16

At the end of a day

And let it lull me into

Drowsiness,

And then

Sleep,

Is a deeply

Precious  and

Necessary daily retreat.

To know that

There are enough books out there

To fill my lifetime

And then some,

That I’ll never run out of

Books to read

No matter how long I live

Is one of the things

I love most about

Life.

And in this

Increasingly

Screenified world,

I’m more sure of that

Than ever.

th-7

 

 

 

 

 

Done calling myself “busy”

thIf a life is like a

Jar full of rocks,

My jar is objectively

Pretty full.

I’m married,

We have four kids

Ages two to fifteen.

My husband and I both

Work full-time.

I spend time every week with my

12-step program and my church.

I see friends frequently.

Exercise daily.

Have a blog, and am

Working on a novel.

And yet,

I made a decision at the

New year:

I’m going to stop calling myself

“Busy.”

A rich life?

Absolutely.

A busy one?

No thanks.

When people asked

How I was, I always answered,

“Good.

Busy,”

The “busy” somehow a

Qualifier to the “good.”

The busier I thought of myself

And the busier I told people I was,

The busier I felt.

Just saying the word

“Busy”

Tightens my chest like

Twisting a piece of cloth.

The panic of

Not enough time,

Feeling like I’m trying to do the

Impossible:

Fit more into this span of time

Than the limitations of our world

Allow for.

Or, to tack on to the

Rocks-in-jar metaphor,

To try to cram more rocks

Into the jar than

The jar can hold.

(Pushing down on rocks to

Compress them

Is a futile exercise,

A waste of time and energy,

And can break the fragile jar-vessel.)

There have been times when I’ve

Glimpsed the

Self-induced spin I’ve

Put myself into.

Sudden breaks in the action when,

Between this and that activity,

I have an unexpected blip of unplanned time,

And I’m at a loss.

I actually grasp for the

Next thing

(Or my

So-called

Smart

Phone)

Because I’m so

Unpracticed at just

Hanging out.

Being.

There’s also a

Self-importance to my

Busyness, and an

Implication that

I don’t really have time for

You,

So if I’m standing here

Talking to you,

You’re imposing on my

Precious

Time.

(Even if I have a smile on my face.)

In the last few months,

I started to suspect that,

Maybe I’m not as

Busy

As I think I am.

I’ve got a lot of rocks in my jar,

But there are

Spaces between the rocks.

And room at the top for

New rocks,

If I want there to be.

Thinking of myself as

Busy,

I cut myself off from the

Serendipitous.

I’m so focused on

The next thing to do that

I don’t even see all these

Cool things and

Cool people

Happening around me.

I catch myself now.

When people ask me how I am,

I don’t tack on the

“Busy”

Qualifier.

I’m trying to focus more on the

Spaces between the rocks,

The air in there,

The nothingness.

Those spaces,

That’s my paradise.

That’s my wandering without aim,

My earplug-quiet and darkness

Just before sleep,

My Sunday mornings when we

Skip church,

My clocklessness,

My finding myself with

Nothing to do,

And

Not reaching for my

Smart phone.

Paradise amongst the

Rocks.

 

 

 

 

New year’s train ride: a changing world, a changing self in the window

IMG_0093It’s new year’s day

2015

(the year I turn

40.

Good

God).

I’m on the train–

One of my

Favorite places to be.

The City of New Orleans,

20 hours between

New Orleans and

Chicago.

Gazing out this train window is

My kind of entertainment:

Scenery flowing steadily by,

The deep, damp greens and

Browns of

The south in winter.

The gray-day

Forests and fields and

Poor, small, rickety towns.

Looking out the train window

In the daylight,

It’s expansive thinking,

Thinking that quests over the

Landscapes and

Around these small-town buildings and

Between the scrub brushes like

Rippling water.

Who are the people

In those houses?

What are the stories of those

Old buildings?

Who’s poled along these bayous and

Tramped in these forests?

And I love the

Rock of the train.

To just lay on this

Sleeper car bed and

Let this almost-40-year-old body

Be rolled

Back and

Forth,

To settle and

Settle

Deeper into my oldening skin and bones

With every gentle

Tug of the tracks,

This Buddha-grinning head

Lolling on the pillow,

These yoga feet

Flexing in the luxury of having

The whole bottom double berth

To myself.

To think that

Americans disdain

Riding the train!

We,

Who think of ourselves as

Expanders and

Ramblers!

There’s nothing more

Large and

Outward-glowing than a

Day-lit view out a

Train window.

IMG_0106And then,

The transition to night:

It’s that dark, snowless,

Southern winter kind of night

When you blink at your phone,

Amazed it’s only

8:15.

Now the window is a

Black

Mirror

Flecked by passing lights outside.

Now it’s you and

Your reflection in the glass,

Your almost-40-year-old

Arms

Moving your stuff around the

Blue-lit cabin.

You and the reflection of the

Top of your head

Lit by the reading lamp,

Doming like a perfect

Half-moon,

Like it holds a

Momentary miracle.

I’ve ridden trains for years.

How many times have I

Encountered the

Black train-window mirror,

Reflections of the back-lit

Shadowy hints of

Myself at

14 years old,

21 years old,

23,

27,

European trains in my

Twenties and thirties.

A lot of

Confusion and grasping,

Tears and

Unsteady cockiness in those

Old black-glass mirrors.

Today in the black-glass mirror,

I feel like a

Stretching cat,

Self-satisfied to

Loll here on vacation after

Working

So

Hard,

To have a strong-jawed husband in the

Berth above me,

A cantaloupe-bellied toddler

Sleeping in the pack-n-play,

Three other children

Growing in their sleep in the

Cabin next door.

(These children don’t

Save you from yourself but

Slowly,

If you keep enough of

Yourself to

Yourself,

They teach you

Many lessons.

And they are so funny.

We

Laugh and laugh.)

Today the

Black-glass mirror isn’t about

Angst and

Confusion.

Today it’s about a

Wink into the

Black night

And a curiosity for

What will be revealed

When the

Morning light turns this

Glass from a

Mirror back into a

Window on this

Mad, lovely

World.

IMG_0123

 

 

Recommitting to my gritty, authentic neighborhood: Hamline-Midway

P1050282Last weekend

Rocky, Victor and I

Walked around our neighborhood,

Hamline-Midway,

Me with my camera

Around my neck,

Bouncing on my chest

As I walked,

Pushing Rocky’s stroller,

Victor walking next to us in his

Swishy snow pants,

His begloved hand

Resting on the stroller handle.

The sky was utterly blue,

Cloudless,

And the winter sun was

Small and hard,

Throwing symmetrical noon shadows from the

Southern sky.

I was out looking for

Cool stuff to

Photograph

In my

Neighborhood.

In Hamline-Midway, this

Gritty,

Authentic,

Sketchy,

Dynamic neighborhood where

I’ve lived for

Six years.

Growing up in the suburbs of St. Paul,

I was restless for a more

Complicated ambiance than the

1980s housing tract

Surrounded by marshland

My parents lovingly provided,

And I rushed into the city

As soon as I started college.

But it’s taken me a

Long,

Long time to

Get a grip on the trade-offs of

City living.

When we first started looking for

Houses in 2008,

I’d listed to our realtor

All the neighborhoods I wanted to

Look in,

And seeing my price range,

He’d mentioned the

Midway.

“No way,” I’d said.

“Really? Midway?

Isn’t that kind of

Ghetto?”

“There are some nice

Neighborhoods back there,”

He’d said.

“Affordable.”

And so we’d bought our

Salmon-colored

1920’s bungalow,

Six of us in this

Little house,

Winter boots shoved in corners

Because there are no coat closets,

Refrigerator in the back hallway,

Visitors wedged

Hip-to-hip on the

Couches in the

Small living room.

And the neighborhood:

The empty shopping carts

Tipped over on snowbanks,

The pained stories on the neighborhood

Facebook page of

Home break-ins and

Cars rifled through,

The homeless folks with their

Cardboard signs

At the main intersections.

For the past couple years,

I’ve been

Planning my escape,

Emailing regularly with my

Mortgage banker and

Meeting with our realtor about

Plans and

Plans:

A bigger, nicer house in a

“Better” neighborhood.

But deep down,

I knew I hadn’t really given

This house and

This neighborhood

A chance.

And I suspected that if I

Moved to a

Beautiful house in a

Whiter,

Richer

Neighborhood,

I would realize too late how

Valuable to my

Life experience

This house and this neighborhood has been.

How the century-old buildings

Fascinate

For all the

Life that’s been

Lived in them.

How living as neighbors with

People who’ve had

Very few breaks in life

Has helped me find my

Voice as a writer who

Writes about

People of privilege encountering

Marginalized people

And having their worldview challenged.

I’ve always suspected that

This is a precious place in the world.

That there’s real life going on here,

Life that’s not always easy,

Life where things don’t

Fall into place,

Complicated life.

Rich life.

In a two-block radius from our house,

There’s a

Russian tea house with

Line-around-the-block pierogies,

A men’s drug and alcohol treatment center,

A pawn shop,

A porn shop,

The best Thai restaurant

In the Cities,

A surplus store displaying a

Real iron lung (not for sale),

An Ethiopian restaurant,

A drum shop,

A used book store with

Surly signs in the windows about

No bus waiting and

No kids without parents,

A 1940s-era nightclub with a

Mosaic scene of

Cowboys artifying an

Exterior wall.

Recently, we’ve decided to stay.

To add on to this house we might be able to

Actually pay off some day,

To recommit to this neighborhood.

And as soon as we’d made that decision,

My eyes started seeing it:

All the art that’s here.

The architectural details,

The mosaic designs.

And the funny,

Humble people who believe enough in

This place

To make this art.

I needed to act on my re-commitment,

And so the picture day.

The day I started seeing how

Rich this

Hamline-Midway is:

P1050206

 

 

 

P1050207

 

 

 

P1050217

 

 

 

 

P1050215

 

 

 

 

P1050219

 

 

 

P1050228

 

 

 

P1050222

 

 

 

 

P1050221

 

 

 

P1050230

 

 

 

P1050237

 

 

 

 

P1050248

 

 

 

P1050249

 

 

 

P1050295

 

 

 

P1050253

 

 

 

P1050254

 

 

 

P1050265

 

 

P1050269

 

 

 

P1050268

 

 

 

 

P1050303

 

 

 

 

P1050266

 

 

 

P1050278

 

 

 

 

P1050275

 

 

P1050288

 

 

 

P1050283

 

 

My little white boy in an all-black program

Pixelation14There’s almost nothing

I’d rather

Not write about

Than this:

Race,

And the honest truth about how I

Respond to racial difference.

But here goes.

After searching online,

I found a new after-school program

For my 9-year-old:

One that’s affordable and

Convenient,

That his school will bus him to,

And that had an opening.

I went over to

Sign him up and

As I was standing there

Waiting for the director to

Get some paperwork,

I read a brochure about the program

That I hadn’t seen online.

I learned that this program is

Intended to demonstrate and teach

African-American heritage to its students

Through different art forms.

And then I looked around and realized that

All the staff and kids

Were black.

I had two nearly simultaneous reactions:

Wariness–

Actually,

Let’s just call it what it is:

Fear–

Of putting my little white

Finnish boy in an all-black environment.

And then,

Immediately,

Shame for feeling that way.

For the next couple days before

He started there,

I thought about my son.

At nine, he was too old now to

Not notice race,

But not old enough to have

Too many culturally prescribed

Notions about it.

It was going to be something

New for him,

Something I’ve never experienced

In my life

Ever.

For the first few weeks

Everything went great.

Everyone was friendly and welcoming,

The kids calling out,

“Bye Victor!” when I’d come to pick him up,

The staff giving me an

Indulgent play-by-play of his activities.

In the car,

I’d ask him how it went,

And he said his usual:

“Fine.”

And then one day,

When I came to pick him up,

He was sitting on a bench

In the playground

Instead of playing with the

Other kids.

In the car

When I asked how things had gone that day,

He said,

“I dunno.”

I tried to probe a little, and he finally said,

“I don’t wanna go back there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I feel embarrassed.”

“Why do you feel embarrassed?”

“Because I’m the only white.”

So.

Here we go.

At that moment,

There was a part of me that wanted to

Yank him out of that program

To protect him from ever having to feel

Unsure of himself,

Or wary,

Or out of place.

But I knew that wasn’t

The answer.

He was going to stay in that program.

And we were going to talk about this.

“You know, buddy,” I heard myself say.

“A lot of black kids in Minnesota

Experience it all the time,

Being the only black kid in the room.”

I named a boy in his class at school

Who is one of a couple black kids

In his class.

And I told him about the

Handful of black kids at my

White suburban high school.

And I told him about how

I wish I’d had an experience

Like his

When I was his age.

What became clear as I

Stumbled my way through this

Conversation,

Watching him through the rear view mirror

As he gazed out the car window,

Screwing up his nose to push his glasses up

The way he does,

Was that I had

No

Answers

For him.

Just a handful of experiences

And a freaked out

Willingness to

Discuss

If he wanted to discuss.

Now when I come to pick him up

I find him out of the playground with the

Other kids,

And he went back to saying,

“Fine,”

When I ask him in the car

How it went.

It’s no big deal to him again.

Me?

I feel unsure even writing about this.

I brought up Victor’s situation

To a black girlfriend of mine,

Seeking some input on how to talk about

Race

With kids

Respectfully

And honestly.

She was utterly gracious.

We laughed about how Victor used to call

Black people

Brown people,

Because,

Well,

Their skin is brown,

Not black.

And I confessed that once,

At the height of Victor’s struggles in school

When the district changed its busing policy

So that he might have to go to

Our neighborhood school,

I vowed not to send him there.

“He’ll be the only white kid in his class.

I won’t put him in that situation,”

I’d said then.

“I just won’t.

I’ll take him on the city bus myself

To a different school

If I have to.”

This is my liberalism:

Words, ideas, good intentions.

But when it comes to my family,

I stay where I’m comfortable.

I’m dismayed to think that

I don’t even know how to

Talk about this,

Or write about it,

That it feels like there’s no language

That strikes just the right tone.

I want to

Bear witness to the

Differences between

My experience and

Yours.

To acknowledge past and present

Pain

And beauty,

And the commonality of daily living we all share:

The sleeping,

The eating,

The breathing,

The raising kids.

To just see you

And acknowledge you

And say,

“Yes, I see you.

I see you.

I don’t know what to say

And I don’t know what to do,

But I see you.

We see you.

My boy and I,

We see you.”

It seems like a start to

Me, who has

Lived long in

Shame and

Obliviousness,

Who doesn’t want the same

For her boy.