Back in the before-times, I made some goals for the first six months of 2020.
It had been my intention all along to come back here and check in on those goals at the end of June. But as you may have noticed, the world has been doing something that looks a lot like falling apart, or (more hopefully) metamorphosing, between then and now.
I had no idea in early January that in the next six months I’d be up against a long bout with pneumonia, a global pandemic, a big transition in my family, major social upheaval, and getting ready to move apartments.
But here we are!
These are over-the-top, bang-you-over-the-head type reminders that we are not in control of circumstances. We are not in control of the future. But making goals is an act of putting trust in the future.
That’s a tension I struggle with. I often look into the future with a jaundiced eye, unable to believe that anything good will come of it unless I wring it out with sheer effort. I’m consistently wrong about this. Time demands that I understand it will always surprise me.
Despite all this, I’m going to do a little reflection over the next few days to figure out what I want to put my attention and energy to in the second half of 2020. I’m going to set goals exactly as I did in January. I do not know what the world or my own circumstances will look like in late December. I’m going to try to live in that place between trust in the future and humility in my own ability to control it.
All that said, how did I do on 2020 goals part 1?
Querying Book One: ✔️
Semi-detailed outline for Book Three and reading at least one research book: ✔️
Therapy at least once a month: ✔️
Comfortably running ~5 miles regularly: Absolutely not in this climate. Migraine city. Could reassess once the swamp cools down this fall. Could not.
Honestly, I’ve never felt more grateful that I happen to be an introvert.
Today is the summer solstice: the first day of summer, and also the day the light starts falling back again, little by little.
Isn’t that interesting, that the beginning of something can be also when it starts to end? Ooh, aah, a metaphor.
My fear of scarcity manifests as this desperate white-knuckle desire to do it all, fill the day, squeeze every last bit out of the time, check the boxes. And then that task-masker self spurs rebellion from the other self, who refuses to comply, who manages to be late to work even when the commute is about thirty feet and doesn’t even require clothing, because she would rather lie in bed reading, or who passive-aggressively zones out during meetings playing Vertex (highly recommended).
It’s a weird mix, living with both of us at once.
But it’s actually fine. Both of us, together, we do manage to pursue our goals, and also to rest and connect. And, with some help, we’re learning to follow our joy first and foremost. Listen to that little spark that is delight, and watch it ignite. Follow that.
So that’s what I’m choosing to take from this solstice, the sun’s pause, the top of her magnificent annual stretch. Don’t give into the temptation to listen to the scarcity, which might say “There it goes. The nights will get longer from here on out. You haven’t made the most of the summer,” or the day, or the weekend, or the vacation*, or whatever it is. “You haven’t accomplished enough. There won’t be time to do it all.”
Instead, try the enoughness. Let the long light today be enough. That’s where life is located, I think.
First, a story. Last week, I unwatched some internet drama unfold. I won’t name names, but here’s a brief recap: a white woman wrote some journaling prompts for confronting one’s relationship to racism. A black woman accused her of plagiarizing some of these prompts from her viral blog post from a few years back. The black woman asked for an apology in a specific form. The white woman complied.
Here’s what happened to me: when I looked at the black woman’s comparisons of the two posts, I didn’t see the plagiarism. I saw two sets of writings on the same topic, yes, but where the wording overlapped, I saw fairly general statements. I saw coincidence in syntax, in other words, not plagiarism. I was looking at it like a copyright lawyer.
But I kept paying attention, and finally I did see it. I finally heard and understood what the black woman was saying: the white woman took it upon herself to write journaling prompts about antiracism, and she did not credit the many black people who have articulated these concepts before her, even the ones who taught her these concepts.
It is irrelevant whether she wrote the sentences based on the black woman’s particular post or not. The white woman’s post itself is a problem: it arises from white people’s tendency to charge in and reinvent a wheel that black people have already been making.
My computer is getting older, so it can’t handle running too many processes at once. But I still force it to hold fifteen tabs across two browsers that I really do intend to read soon, and some sheet music, and various Google Docs for writing projects, plus two different word processors for two different writing projects I’m simultaneously working on (with the help, obviously, of the Google Docs).
I was trying to also live-stream my church service, while flipping back and forth between all of this information (because the church service wouldn’t stream properly, so I kept getting bored, and that means more tabs need to be open to assuage my boredom, which further prevented the church stream from working.)
All at once it occurred to me: of course the live stream can’t load with all that demand on this old laptop. This is the exact same reason my brain often doesn’t seem to work anymore, and it shorts out when one more process is added (typically a noise is what takes me over the edge into cannot-function: this added stimulation completely fries me).
I’m always pulling myself in twenty directions, always dipping my toes in many little streams of information at once, asking my poor cognition to handle reading five books at a time and listening to podcasts and working and writing lots of unrelated things.
It makes sense that nothing makes sense, in conditions like that.
In March, I started walking almost daily in it. There was no sign of spring yet, just brown and gray hillocks clustered with bare trees.
It took weeks for the small weeds clustering the floor to leaf out. This made me ecstatic. Tiny signals of spring. Little neon fingers of yellowest green began peeking out at the tops of the trees, in time, but I could still see straight through the forest to the sky, through the park to the houses.
I don’t know when it happened but the forest changed.
Maybe I walked in it less frequently for a few weeks in April, or maybe April zipped by me while I napped. But this week, I got lost several times on paths I came to know well in their brown phase.
Curious signposts were all I had to anchor me in the riotous expanse of green that was just yesterday an austere expanse of brown. A tree cut off about ten feet high, its stump shredded like a Troll doll’s hair, was my surprising signpost yesterday. I’m here? And there I was. Without that tree I would have thought I were a mile away from where I actually was, because all the other trees are masquerading as strangers. Or maybe their masks are off, now. I’m not sure which.
I’m not a parent but this must be what it’s like to watch your child grow up. Day by day, minute by minute, change is imperceptible. Then all of a sudden, the infant is running and speaking in full sentences.
Change is like that.
Today I walked six miles in sandals, which I don’t recommend, but in fairness I didn’t plan it. Once I got to the trees I turned the wrong direction on purpose and kept going. I needed it.
The wind was sowing pollen everywhere like snow, and it was gusting every which way, a mercy in the sudden summer heat today brought. Whenever I am in the trees and I feel the wind, I think of Elijah:
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13
The problem is, I stubbornly remember this passage wrong. The Lord was not in the wind, it says, but I think he often is. He’s in the silence too, and sometimes the earthquake and the fire. Wind, definitely. The Lord is in the wind. So are allergens. It’s all part of it. Having a humble, sneezy, blister-footed body is part of it.
The creek was calling to me, and I’m usually in too much of a hurry (officially running, officially walking, must get back, no time to spare!) but today, not so much. I bushwhacked a few yards and sat on a rock to soak my feet in it.
God’s in the creek, too.
The last several miles were through neighborhoods, where kids biked around in swimsuits and neighbors sat on many stoops drinking and talking at a distance. Men armed with spatulas and spray cans of OFF faced their barbecues. Groups of friends sat in large circles on lawns.
It’s coming to seem as though socializing outdoors is a lot safer than we’d thought, and indoors is more dangerous than we’d thought. The rule of six-feet doesn’t apply evenly because of airflow. Indoors, you might have the same sickly air passing you by for hours. Outdoors, it all circulates globally and winds carry it in all directions, and it’s hard to get to a dangerous concentration.
There’s something poetic about this, although I’m wary of ending with a trite, privileged optimism. But I can’t help it: I love the idea that we can all, maybe, sit outside together, even this summer, under the trees. Golden summer can still happen.
WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
I used to be a yoga person. I’d go to several classes a week, generally whatever fit in best to my schedule. There was the severe Ashtanga class in the old Hearst Gym, taught by a gentle, reserved elderly man named Carl. There were the incredibly nurturing classes down at the studio in Emeryville, the kind of class that ends with the teacher pressing lavender oil into your neck. (Is there a better feeling in the world? There is not.) There were various studios in various other cities: some hot and crowded, some awkward, some emotional and some intimidating.
There were hard lessons about migraine triggers. (Hot yoga: not even once.)
For the last few years, I haven’t done much yoga, mainly because it seems literally impossible these days to actually make the effort to go to a class before, during, or after work. But at some point during my adventure with pneumonia, I decided to start doing some classes online. And then, like seemingly every person in the world, I became a big fan of Yoga with Adriene, who has taught me to forget everything I knew about asanas.
Here’s the thing: I’m not exactly a high-energy person. I can barely stay upright in a chair for more than ten minutes before I begin the slow slide down into some kind of quasi-horizontal position. I’ve often found that I need to lie down upon reentering the house after any kind of errand, as though I have a case of the vapors.
And yet, to my chagrin, I live in a culture that prizes macho energy: we give big props to people who don’t take their leave from work, and we applaud those who get up at the crack of dawn after a partial night of sleep to go “no pain, no gain” it out in the gym. We robotically chase productivity without being certain what we’re producing or why.
(I wonder: is producing the masculine cousin of creating?)
For me, both personally and politically, this kind of macho go-get-’em-tiger thing does not spark joy.
When I am already grumpy is when my clothes don’t fit right, when my shirt gets stuck around my ears somehow. My pockets hook around door handles, yanking me backward when I’m already rushing around. The neighbors shout and turn their TVs up and my brain can’t tune out the wah-wah-wah noises. The tea is too hot. I spill boiling water everywhere. The weather goes bad—sticky and hot when I want to run, giving me a headache, but turning chilly and clouding over when I try to sit outside with a book. Every car lays on its horn. My stomach hurts. My headphones glitch. My hair falls across my face and into my ears, feeling exactly like ants. I can’t get comfortable because the bench is too straight-backed. Even the goddamn bird song is loud and piercing.
Then I let the tea cool a bit, and I drink it down (Earl Grey with honey and milk, perhaps the best beverage). I read a paragraph over and over again, unable to absorb it because that woman in that one apartment keeps laughing, and someone else appears to be learning how to play the drums.
More tea. I finally make it through the paragraph and something in it inspires a fun detail for Book Three. I write it down. The breeze is starting to feel very nice. Birds are zooming and cooing. I think about how some people are very energized by living in a city, precisely because of these things that so often set my teeth on edge: the unpredictable, chaotic, joyful, tense, terribly human sights and sounds.
In spite of myself, I relax and I decide I’m going to make it through the afternoon.
On an unrelated note: how can we city-dwellers let out some good bloodcurdling-scream energy without having the authorities called on us?
But I can be so grateful for the trilling birds, for the bee upsetting my earbud in a mad dash for my brain.
For the flowering trees pink and white and raspberry-yogurt color against the bluest sky.
The clean breezes.
The quiet smiles of people reading a newspaper on the porch swing. Delivery workers gently maneuvering hand trucks laden with what we need to keep us all afloat.
For shy buds spreading their fingers in greybrown woods to stretch their green skin out against the sun for the first time.
For drops of rain on tulip heads. For babies screeching in sheer joy.
For the sweet salad smell of wild onions rioting through the forest.
For the cool, mournful smell of city gardens after a thunderstorm.
For a birthday party taking place on a stoop and spreading out into the street so that clusters of guests can give each other a six-foot berth. Balloons spelling out a golden HAPPY BIRTHDAY across the awning. It’s almost normal and it’s happening right here.
For birdsong at the open window and the four or so walls that keep us safe and together.
We sleep in a windowless room. The light comes in through large gaps at the ceiling that open the bedroom up to the main room, with its huge east-facing window.
At night it is dark. He turns the clock face off. When I wake up in the night, my only clue to what time it is comes from the far wall opposite the ceiling gap.
If I wake up and it’s full dark, I know it’s too soon to get up. I try to go back to sleep. (Whether I succeed is a story for another day.)
If I wake up and there’s a band of pale light glowing through the ceiling gap, I know it’s growing light out.
If I wake up and there are bright medallions arrayed across the wall, I know the sun is fully up and splaying its light everywhere, flooding as much of itself as it can through the curtain rod holes.
This morning, Good Friday, I saw a light show I’ve never seen before. The pale band was out when I woke up, so I knew it was dawn. But then a little faint orange glimmer popped up in the corner, flickering exactly like a flame. Then four more. Five little candles dancing on the far wall. I lay in bed watching them as they grew in number until they shimmied across the whole wall. They changed with every moment, growing larger until they were full circles of orange flickering light, carved in lines by the horizontal blinds, and dancing with shadows of the leaves of the courtyard bushes they shone between.
Sooty black imprints undulating on dark-orange light prints.
Soon they began to descend, twenty sunsets, as the sun rose and the light cast lower and lower, until the ceiling gap no longer let them in.
That’s when I got up.
Christ’s life, a brief candle. Today we rehearse his death in a ritual of sadness. It’s a day for loss, scheduled on the calendar. We pretend to forget that he will rise on Sunday. That’s how rituals work. For today, we look no further than the grief we bear right now. We sit in it, something I do not know how to do. We sit in it and don’t try to fix it. We let it in and we let it be and we let it pass.