Interdependence Day

Hi friends,

You may be surprised to learn that usually my catchy blog titles are the last thing I write before hitting ‘publish’ and sending my wisdom out to the generations. I sit here at the computer and then, as if by magic, I’m inspired by the cosmos. Take “Today is Wednesday” or “Day 15” as excellent examples of titles the universe has sent to me recently (while it feels recent, I see from a quick review that some time has passed).

Today, however, the title comes first. I don’t really have anything to say. I just wanted to write the words Interdependence Day.

(My problem here, in writing about American history, and any assessment of American government, is that my American history teacher subscribes to this blog. I’ve written about her before. High stakes.)

I think in celebrating independence we are celebrating the freedom to have self-determination. You are free to gather with whom you choose, free to live by and teach your children what you believe, free to use your voice, free to imagine new ways, free to invite others to join you. And we’re also celebrating what America represents, a bold experiment, the promise within a new form of democratic government where people, citizens and not subjects, could have a say in its decisions. And not only the few who inherited a seat at the table. Also, I feel appreciative, on this July 4th, for the checks and balances, the limits set to protect citizens and the system from too much power in any one of the governing.

We’ve built something worth protecting. Worth considering and understanding. But it won’t be protected, or strengthened, or meet its potential, with more independence.

According to Merriam-Webster independence means:

not subject to control by others

not requiring or relying on something else (not looking to others for one’s opinions or for guidance in conduct)

not requiring or relying on others (as for care or livelihood)

When I read these definitions, I think of my kids. They want to do it their way, they don’t want me always telling them what or how to do things. They love to imagine being orphans, self-reliant, longing for the day when they can eat as much ice cream as they want. And the older they get, and the more we trust them to base choices on available information, on safety, on health, with respect, the more choices they get to make. And the better the choices they make, measured by the outcome of those choices, the more the trust grows, and the more choices they get. At least I think that’s the idea.

As an adult, though, I know that saying “you’re not the boss of me” is not really effective people-skills. I also know that I do rely on and require others. I give and take, you give and take, that is how things work. And when I don’t give and take, when there’s no one to rely on for care or livelihood, when I don’t consult with others for guidance in conduct, when I’m not able to compromise for the sake of something larger than this moment of small freedom, therein lies madness.

Here’s the thing: we’re all in this together. When I use Round-up on my lawn, your children eat it in their Cheerios. Water isn’t independent. Climate isn’t independent. Viruses are not independent. Policies are not independent.

Government exists to keep us out of a free-for-all of person v person where might is right. If you think that government is broken, the only option is to fix it.

Ladies and gents, we have a lot of work to do. Part of it is a new declaration of independence, not about the personal freedom to wear offensive t-shirts, but from cultural norms that diminish health, imagination, possibility, and connection, systems that concentrate too much power in the hands of too few. Independence from being too immersed in media moving our emotions from low to low, from sorrow to anger to fear. From a fossil-fuel-based economy. From an economic system that concentrates extreme wealth for so few while leaving many lives, human and other, in desperate situations. From so many of us living our lives using so many drugs. From the crazy, crushing list of ridiculous expectations we have built around us. From charlatan priests using what should be spiritual to gain political power. Possibly from Amazon Prime.

And a declaration of interdependence. Building some trust. Sharing more in the understanding that in health lies strength, resilience. That health is about body, mind, and spirit, it is not measured only in bank notes. Maybe even shifting from filling our schedules so full with all of our accomplishments, on our and our children’s behalf, that there’s no room to take care of each other. Acknowledging that what we give our collective attention to grows.

Everyone I know is working hard and trying. Maybe we don’t need to do more. But maybe we can do different, help each other to imagine different.

We are together in this. And that can be a good thing.

Today is Wednesday

Dear friends,

Last Friday was my children’s final day of school for the year. Sam finished first grade with a class-wide game of Bingo via Zoom and Maggie with a 30-child Zoom followed by watching a movie together (on Zoom). She opted to leave before the movie so I can’t vouch for how well that went. Given that our internet connection was dropping on and off throughout the day/week/month, it was probably for the best (Comcast has sent us a new modem, we received it on Saturday, the day after school ended).

I had a few COVID stories to share, maybe I’ll start with those as a way of reminding us of a simpler time, three weeks ago, when all we were doing was trying to avoid spreading germs, wondering what we were going to do with our children all summer long, and worrying about an economic depression, with November, and Joe Biden’s health, looming like a terror in front of us. Remember the good old days?

And now we find ourselves worrying about white supremacist groups posing as ANTIFA on Twitter and instigating a move from the cities to the suburbs while we have conversations with friends and relatives about preppers and whether we were naive to never buy a gun.

I have never watched the show “Doomsday Preppers” but note that my spellcheck automatically changes ‘preppers’ to ‘peppers’ — so if you are amongst those who started watching the show because you thought it was about an end-of-days food, it would be understandable. Apparently the show, a platform for conspiracy theorists with potentially violent ideologies, was cancelled in response to a Change.org petition arguing that it was irresponsible for NatGeo to continue to air a program promoting “the extreme views of individuals on the fringes of society.” According to the petition, with 26% of American adults suffering from some form of mental illness, the risk was too great that a future episode might inspire violent action. The show was cancelled at the peak of its popularity in 2014.

As I write this, outside of my window the sun is shining. The trees are still, no breeze. The birds sound way happier than seems appropriate. The mountain laurel is blooming like nobody’s business and all that kale we planted what feels like only weeks ago is everywhere, as predicted.

So, before we move on to more distressing topics, I’d like to share a few bright spots.

First: Maggie, after reading My Side of the Mountain, has decided to move in to the large tree in our backyard. She wants to burn out the inside but we told her she has to wait until we are sure it is actually dead (this could take years, but I have not brought this to her attention). She has outfitted herself with several crackers, a pyrex container full of water (no, not a water bottle, an open pitcher that birds can share with her, yes, health issues), a bird book, a journal, a flashlight, and a few other odds and ends. She has spent the past two days outside, well past dark, when, for one reason or another we have been compelled to ask her to come in to sleep. She claims that she fell asleep in her ‘shelter’ the first night but with the possibilities of Lyme disease, West Nile, the Plague (I think that’s what fleas spread), and any other parasite-spread disease we told her she could try again but in a tent. Yesterday morning she insisted that she would collect all of her food for the day from the yard. She ate dandelion greens and mint leaves until about 2 o’clock (in addition to a few of her crackers) when she accepted a gift of hummus and chips that I left in a basket at her ‘door’.

She invited the rest of the family to a dinner party at her new home. She served us from a table she had made with a square of plywood and two pillars of bricks underneath. The meals were served on large leaves and consisted of a selection of mint leaves (this was the appetizer and dessert) and another leaf containing dandelion leaves and a few cherry tomatoes (these she had taken earlier in the day from the kitchen). Her brother raised the question of their provenance but happily ate his share. It was actually one of the nicest moments in the last three months, sitting in the backyard at the homemade table eating off of leaves. I think she is still wearing the same clothes and we probably need to do a serious tick check. But she was so happy out there, writing in her journal. She learned a lot about chipmunks and which birds we thought would actually be edible. She and Sam were hunting together with homemade spears (no animals were harmed in this adventure but had she unexpectedly caught a squirrel, we probably would have cooked it).

Second: I also wanted to tell you about Sam’s teacher visit. For context, we have been relatively isolated at our house since March 13. The kids have gone for bike rides with Dave. And we have gone hiking in quiet areas and socially distanced several times. I have not been the store once. Dave goes once a week and he also had to go the dentist when his crown fell off. Otherwise, we have not left, we have had no visitors, we have occasionally greeted neighbors as they passed our house. We have been fortunate that we can hole up here (get it, Hole up??) and contribute to decreasing the overall number of interactions in our local area.

So that means that my seven-year-old son has not had an in-person conversation with anyone but our family since March 13. And on Saturday, the day after school ended, his teacher asked if she could stop by our front yard to say hello. On Saturday morning, before she arrived, Sam ran upstairs to prepare. He selected his favorite Lucky Dog t-shirt. It’s green, with a picture of Snoopy holding a four-leaf clover (Sam was born on St. Patrick’s Day). Wearing his shirt he came downstairs: Mom, do you know where my tie is? He has this little blue clip-on tie, a hand-me-down from our neighbor. If my heart could have melted, it would have. Sam has a Corona-hawk haircut, two huge front teeth that are descending to take over his mouth and shift his face from my little boy to my not-little boy, and there he was in his Snoopy t-shirt with a tie clipped to the front to mark how special this occasion was to him.

Third: I’ve mentioned that my family has been reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. We finished the third book on Thursday, the night before school ended. I think it took over ten minutes to make it through the last two pages. Dave would get halfway through a sentence and as understanding dawned, when it looked like what was about to happen was about to happen, they would interrupt: Wait, is Frodo…. Horrified. I thought you said…. I want Frodo to get married (etc etc). It was an emotional moment for all of us. But I was again reminded that naming my son after Samwise Gamgee was not a mistake.

Speaking of names brings up the reason for mentioning the books again. After we told Sam that we partially chose his name for Samwise in these books, he started referring to himself as Samwise Holegee. And then Maggie became Modo Baggins. In case you are not familiar with Middle Earth, Frodo is the hobbit whose task is to carry the ring of power to Mount Doom and destroy it and Samwise is his trusty sidekick in this errand. And in case you didn’t see what we did there, Samwise HOLEgee is a change from Samwise Gamgee and Modo Baggins is putting an “M” for Maggie in front of the name Frodo.

Of course at some point the question was raised over dinner, who is dad? It was pretty rapidly decided that he was “Dad-dalf the Grey.” Gandalf is the wizard, a valor, an angel-type who comes to Middle Earth to fight evil. He’s definitely the chief, all powerful good guy, wise and strong and fierce. They also occasionally considered ‘Dad-ragorn,’ this is the Viggo Mortenson character. The warrior/healer/king.

Oh, me? You may have rightly guessed that this whole reading adventure was my idea. That I’m the one who brought the books back from Alabama, who pulled them out at the beginning of the lockdown thinking this would be an enjoyable pastime while home together. What did my doting family immediately suggest in terms of a role for yours truly?

If past experience was any predictor of what was to come, I should have been prepared. But know that I was truly, and I mean this, wounded when the first suggestion, by my beloved children, was “Mollum” — that’s Gollum, a disgusting hairless large-eyed fish-man who is the story’s most pitiful and sad character. My spouse, love of my life, my darling heart, next suggested “Mauron” (pronounced Moron). He felt very proud of his cleverness. Again for those unfamiliar, Sauron is the big baddie. The supreme evil that doesn’t even have a form, he’s that bad. A giant menacing eye of doom. Of course the kids loved this. “Moron, Moron” they chanted at the table. My husband smiled and announced to all that I would probably be blogging about this later. Perhaps in recognition of this eventuality he quickly suggested that I could be Marwen. Does this guy even know me?????? ARWEN?? Sexist asshole. Arwen doesn’t do shit. What, I get to stay back in Rivendell hoping everything turns out and then give some jewelry to Frodo after he saves the world??? Thanks but no thanks. He said the name of another, more powerful, fairy woman who is at least super wise. No dice, Dippin.

I dubbed myself Mom Bombadil. Though I personally think I’m the Gandalf in this outfit. Since the initial conversations I have also been called the “Malrog” (evil fire creature), “Mimli” (at least a good guy but the only dwarf, kind of a brooding cave-dweller), and a “Mork” (the bright side of this being that “Dork” is funnier so Dave is occasionally relegated to bad guy status).

So that’s been happening around here.

And now we come to it. 

I wrote a poem on Sunday night.

protect them, I pray
from each other
or from themselves
help us to know how
to plant seeds of healing
help me find courage
if I lack the courage
not to hide in the safety
of oppression

The air is still and cool
here, quiet
I supplicate to the air
but help will not come
from breath
it is time

I read an article by Corinne Shatuck: 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. I did the first two things on the list. (Google to see if my local police department outfits on-duty police officers with body-worn cameras, it looks like the answer for Alexandria is yes. Google whether my city employs evidence-based police de-escalation trainings, it looks like the answer is yes but not for everyone, but I did not do an in-depth search).

Then I joined a book group that some folks at my children’s school are starting to read and discuss the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I don’t know enough and I have not educated myself. Last winter I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates. I highly recommend reading this, it is beautifully written and definitely shifted my way of seeing the world around me and to better understand, from a rational but also from an emotional viewpoint, the realities of life for people in America with skin that is pigmented differently from mine.

It is not acceptable that people paid to protect us all should not be held accountable, and should not know they will be held accountable. At the same time, I remember reading about the rate of Covid infection in the NYC Police Department. This sticks in my mind too.

From what I’ve been reading this week it seems that we have to fix the police accountability situation, the systemic racism situation, the police obtaining surplus battering rams from the military situation, the 50% of a municipal budget being for police situation, the whole Trump situation, the gross economic inequality situation, the white supremacy situation, the fact that people are afraid to give comment to the newspaper because of fear of reprisal situation.

With all of that said, in the wake of the past few months and all of the horrific news I’ve read and been more awash in than usual, I find America to be a beautiful place. Look at what we did. We stayed home to protect each other. We wear masks out of respect for each other. We walk next to each other to say that this cannot continue. We want a functional country, we are willing to give things up, to undergo hardship, to help each other, to take care of each other. We lack some kinds of leadership, but we have other kinds in droves. So many people thinking and working for good. Together. Trying to share strength and find solutions. We can help those people. We can be those people.

We don’t know how or when or where things will lead. So we have to find a way to live in hope, and not only in hope but in action and connection. Maybe that means that today you sit at a table in your backyard and eat dandelion greens that you are pretty sure your dog urinated on to help another human being learn the pleasure of giving and self-reliance. If you aren’t going to walk today, you can still listen and learn. You can reach out to anyone. Help anyone. In any way. It all adds up. The more we help, the more we listen, the more we share strength and compassion… Some say we are moving towards a new age of unity and these are growing pains to get there; last, groaning efforts to keep us from that future. Some say we are nearing the end-of-days. I don’t know. But you carry the ring to Mount Doom one step and one day at a time. You fight for what is good one small bit at a time, not knowing what is ahead, but knowing who you are and what you value. What has value. You work together with others to share your vision of what the world can be, and you share that through how you live, the choices you make, where you put your love and attention.

Today, I am putting my love and attention into sharing this with you.

With love,

Jennifer

May Day (may day)

I wrote some new poems about polar bears (they’re short):

The ice up here
I feel my dear
is not as near
as yesteryear

AND

My coat of white
is not so bright
after a fight
with a walrus

Maggie had a Zoom call for science class this week. Her classmates showed up for the call with clay or play-doh and the names of the planets written on cards. I had not seen the note, in one place but not three others where science assignments are posted, that mentioned needing a dough-like substance for one of the day’s activities. Had I seen it, my option would have been to make play-doh, possibly over the weekend, along with homeschooling both of my children, finishing work for a paid contract, dealing with my own grief and stress and emotions as well as that of two children separated from friends and normality (and a husband and an anxious dog).

I ask myself, is this a shortcoming? Am I using the current situation as an excuse to not do things because I’m fundamentally a lazy person? I’m taking the time to write this, shouldn’t I just buck up and make the play-doh instead? We could make some fun family memories: remember when we learned how to make play-doh that time, laughing and putting flour on each others noses in the kitchen while listening to music??

The other parents found the note, read it, and their children showed up, on time, dough and cards prepared. Dave and I are both scientists (well, I have a degree in science though now I write more about goddesses than photosynthesis, much to my partner’s approval and delight). I value science education and it was a thoughtful exercise in terms of learning outcomes. But even had I seen the note I would not have made the play-doh. Maggie signed off of the call early. There may be a hole in her understanding of the relative size of Mars to Neptune. I know that chasm still exists for me.

I’m thinking a lot these days about women and expectations. About the wine mom culture. About feminism and femininity. Who defines these and their purpose and what it all means for me, how I feel, how I behave, what I take on or don’t, how I evaluate and feel evaluated, what I allow myself to do, what I have not allowed.

I’m questioning the script that tells us that a drink is the earned reward at the end of a mind-numbing day. I don’t want a reward for getting through. I want a life that allows room for me to be. I have questions about the script and whether that kind of life is truly possible, or whether ads and self-help and some mythology about freedom are part of keeping us feeling worse because we can’t figure out how to be happy or ‘free’ when the economic realities for most people, the psychological power of marketing, and the deep need for belonging leave almost no room for anything other than what is (hello darkness my old friend).

I know many moms (and sometimes myself) who are reaching for the wine at the end of the day because it’s too much. My kid logged into a class yesterday with a bunch of kids who showed up with homemade play-doh. I am being absolutely sexist and assuming that in at least 90% of cases the mother was the one directing the play-doh to be made. Maybe she didn’t make it, but she was the one who knew it needed making and the one who printed the recipe and the one who put it on the counter and made sure it was made on time. Please forgive me if I have mischaracterized your particular situation. I speak only from my own limited experience.

Yes, there are a lot of amazing things we can do, things that are possible. But trying to do them all is not healthy. At least not for me. I feel like the crazy person in the room looking around at everyone who just made play-doh in the middle of a pandemic so our kids can sit for one hour on a Wednesday and make accurate scale models of the solar system, a rite of passage for all children since Cain and Abel. Probably for some parents the hour of childcare they get while the kid is engaged in a hands-on activity with a valuable learning outcome is worth the time to mix up a quick batch of dough (and wash the dishes). Play-doh does seem like tempting fate though in the midst of a virulent pandemic. The hands, the noses, the surfaces, the breathing… I know it’s just us here but.

I’ve seen a few articles about a new mode of feminism. Women (yes, actual women, I’ve seen pictures of them in colorful, flowing caftans and designer overalls) are foregoing their usual beautification regimens and experimenting with a rash new form of freedom. Short nails and bare lips. A revolution! The way I’ve seen it portrayed suggests that there has been a cultural norm that we have all bought into and now, oh my, how naughty or rebellious we might have roots that show. ROOTS!!!! I’m happy, or neutral, about the fact that some women are experiencing a new way of being that they find appealing or noteworthy. I have no comment on that really. What frustrates me (I guess) is the underlying signal about what normal womanhood is. Normally women care about these things because that’s what a woman is.

I guess what I’m resisting is the marketing around what is feminine. Feminine — to me — is a way of being, not a way of appearing. Feminine is more in how we approach the unknown, how we express vulnerability, our ability to be nurturing, to collaborate. And of course everyone has feminine energy, it is the balance to masculine energy (which we all have as well). I find it so constricting to think that my femininity, my womanliness, be shrunk to the shape of the ends of my fingers (which, for me, are better suited to growing plants and strumming chords than being smoothed and painted).

Apologies for jumping around here. My media feed tells me this is acceptable in a pandemic, there’s a reason it is hard to keep anything in my mind for very long. I can’t remember what it is.

A few things I’ve read lately that I’ve found very interesting:

Why Mommy Drinks (Today’s Parent) by Lauren Ferranti-Ballem

We are living in a Failed State (The Atlantic) by George Packer

Productivity is Not Working (Wired) by Laurie Penny

And in case you are wondering why you are sitting at home, disconnected from the world, the economy crashing around you while people start to talk about herd immunity and have raucous playdates all over town, I thought this was a very useful piece written by an actual epidemiologist about epidemiology.

‘I Promise. I Promise.’ You Can’t Cheat a Pandemic by Jonathan Smith

Yesterday during the time I was not making play-doh I stumbled upon a series of paintings called Hello Masterpiece. When you click the link, make sure that you look through the full group of all the paintings in the series. Mom, you have to click ‘next’ to go through the group of paintings (unless you are looking on your phone). I don’t want to ruin the surprise so I’m not giving hints. It’s worth it. A person’s creative responses to life can be so beautiful, so human.

I will be baking a carrot cake today. It is the third Hole family birthday during the lock-in, my second carrot cake. This one will have the traditional cream cheese frosting. I’ve also experimented with chocolate mousse (fail, added egg yolks too soon and used 100% cacao instead of semi-sweet). We ate it anyway, eggs are too precious these days to be wasted.

In my dream, we all work together to change the story. To celebrate the true beauty of women which is in how they contribute. To stop letting marketing define our values or choices. We connect in strength not in cynicism. We celebrate creativity. We take care of each other. We share more. We use less. We use our brains to come up with helpful rules that lead to a more virtuous loop where more people have what they need, are protected, feel safe. We make deposits into the Earth bank account instead of a steady stream of withdrawals. It’s possible. And we stop buying glow sticks.

Love to you all,

Jennifer

Peter Cottontail, et al.

My mostly abandoned bullet journal tells me that today is Corona Day 26. I think that means it is the 26th day my children have been home from school. I have remarked to several folks lately that time has changed to being marked by either awake or asleep, and coffee time, twice daily. Though the second is never as satisfying in reality as in imagination.

I felt uncomfortably aggravated today. A woman I know sent around a text message I have deleted that ran something like this: I know we are all crazy with Zoom calls and homeschool and (etc., etc.). Reading her message I thought, this sounds exactly like something she wrote a month ago (I know we are all crazy with carpool and soccer, etc., etc.). NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. I refuse. I REFUSE. I’m not gonna do it. You cannot force me to be manic during my quarantine with your stories about how hectic everything is and how manic we all are. About doing it all and having it all or whatever expectations. NO. Also, if you sent me an email about a recipe exchange or an uplifting women’s empowerment exchange or any kind of email exchange where somebody is going to send me 25 somethings, I’m not doing it. I’m sorry I didn’t respond. (Thank you, very much, for being my friend.)

I also saw this a couple of days ago:

image

Later in the day I went online, to AmazonSmile, to frantically try to purchase something to put in an Easter basket. I’ve got nothing. No eggs to dye, no candy, no cute bunny-themed trinkets, no seed packets, no spring-themed books, no bubbles, no furry-animal covered pajamas. My kids were engaged in some undetermined and unusually/suspiciously quiet activity, and I was furtively trying to find things to put in my shopping cart that would arrive no later than Friday.

And as I looked at the sweatshop-sewn pajamas, having just watched John Oliver talking about fast fashion the previous night, this aggravating rainbow meme came to my mind. I took the items out of my basket.

This is a part of normal that is not worth rushing back to. I ordered each child some ‘grown-up’ watercolors, like mine, and a new sketch book. We have some plastic eggs in the attic and I have a few bits of candy leftover from Valentine’s Day (and yes still from Halloween) that I can put into the eggs. We have not been able to obtain white eggs, we will dye the dozen brown eggs we already have. We will use them to make deviled eggs afterwards but will not be able to share them with Libby’s family this year. The children have enough. And we will take the money we would have spent for the bunny-themed trinkets and use it to feed people or ease suffering in some way in the world.

I can’t change the world. I can’t make it the way I wish it would be. But I don’t have to follow the script. I can do it differently.

I drafted a letter from the Easter Bunny to my children. I have done nothing with it but here it is.

I’ve written a bunch of poetry this week (no poems are yet titled). Here are three poems:

#1

Opening the door to the built-in dining room cabinet
the one a realtor says gives character to an old house
with cracks in the basement
and a fireplace, still full of six-year-old ash,
a feature of such potential when first we imagined
our cheerful family
a baby and toddler, then,
round the glowing hearth

I remove, one by one, the Waterford goblets
a matrimonial gift, heavy and crystal,
the candles reflect like water on a sparkling day
on the one night each year we set them on the table,
half-filled with a cabernet franc or a zinfandel.
They glimmer there next to the Wedgewood, hand painted,
from my great-grandmother’s table,
the sterling candlesticks, carefully polished once each year
by my father for just this occasion.

I think it is their weight,
and also that they were store bought,
not parricide, grandmatricide, treachery,
a regret
a reminder of naiveté
a token of guilt
or a glint of anger.
What was the script?
An old-fashioned sitcom
that never looked anything like the truth?

Love purchased the Lismore nouveau,
wrapped them in thick white paper with a silver ribbon,
sent them to my parents’ house
from which they traveled to a multitude of apartments
and finally, the seventh packing,
to these cabinets
where most days they rest, shining decor,
unobserved, perfectly safe.

But on days like today
with no quiet moment,
when there is no space
and so much undone
I imagine holding a goblet
heavy, smooth, and cold
and one by one
my arm raises and, with all my strength,
they burst upon the limelight wall
no jubilation, but subtraction
one. crash. less. crash. thing.

I sweep them up,
shards in the trash.
I wait all week for the truck to come.
The bin is empty.
The cabinet more bare.
My fury spent.
Two hundred shelves
sixty-eight drawers
thirty cabinets
and four closets.
Only hurling crystal
the large bowl on the fragile stem
will bring pleasure
like biting into flesh, hard.

Not today,
I walk to the sink instead
the lunch dishes aren’t going to wash themselves.


#2

Not yet evolved from feeling thirst, my mouth or lips seek satiety.
The origin of what I need second only to oxygen, a mystery.
I was not born here and even back home
never thought to ask, where is the source of my life
which was then the Cahaba and now the Potomac.
My lips or tongue or cheeks,
when I am aware, infrequently,
send the signal and my hand moves a lever,
a brief sound of rushing and then relief
mixed sometimes with fear
of chemicals with names I cannot pronounce
or don’t want to.
After a day at the river’s edge we tell the children:
use soap.
I didn’t know they were bathing in the same water
we were trying to rinse off
where the snow melt and the stormwater
carry all of the other molecules,
not the two Hs and one O
but the other letters,
the ones we employ to keep going on like this.


#3

Tonight, loading the plates
medium face in on the left
smallest face in on the right
large in the back face in on the left
bowls behind the medium plates
I thought about Charles Dickens, father of ten,
served breakfast each morning at his tidy desk,
Mark Twain’s wife.
I thought of Jane Austen,
childless,
relieved of household duties by mother and sister,
of Charlotte Bronte
George Eliot
who based on the arrangement of their facial features
were provided educations superior to women of their day
when their fathers assumed they would never fulfill god’s intended destiny for our sex
instead they would teach little boys who might rise in the world
who, rich or poor, would not cook a meal
would not wash the dishes
would walk out with the other men
smoking a pipe
while the women, hidden and silent
slower or faster
bled to death

They cut my first child out, upside down and maybe it would have killed me at a different time, but not now.
Not quickly.
Not slowly either.
I have a dishwasher, and I don’t have to churn my own butter.
So what?
I’ll need to be my own fairy godmother
find my pumpkin
bake it into a coach.
And then what?
Intending no harm, Nick shared
goddam Bertrand Russell
“By death, by illness, by poverty, or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is the part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.”Fate will forbid
Fate does forbid
Fate has forbidden
But not all.
So, back to the ball
I get there,
full of my own power
that grew the pumpkin and baked the coach
that sheltered the mice and the lizards and kept them from the poison in the water
my dress is gentle armor
woven from thousands of blossoms that
I’ve tended with soil I’ve nurtured
with egg shells and coffee grounds I’ve collected to nourish this dead clay back to life
At the ball so much sparkles and shines
look what we can do what we’ve done
what we make what is possible
I pick up a lyre
I’ve learned how to play and I sing a song
with my lined eyes and imperfect complexion
the bits that bulge that haven’t always
and the bits that flop that didn’t used to
In the song we see the tables so full
and the glistening candelabra
the latest coaches
the fastest horses
and we figure out
what
we figure out
how to stop
to stop
and
slowly
quietly
lovingly
care-fully
to start.

I don’t lose a slipper,
I never needed one in the first place
just to find a way
uninvited for so long
still not invited, but maybe allowed
to get to the ball
to pick up the lyre
and,
without losing my head
by blade
or by ancient script,
to sing


In other news: I cut matching mohawks for Dave and Sam over the weekend. Maggie’s hair is also now ‘boy short’ (she wanted a mohawk but Dave convinced her otherwise. I was not far from a mohawk myself, let’s see how long this thing lasts). Otis is eight months old and weighs sixty pounds. He has taken to sleeping at the foot of the stairs during the day – I think this is so he can be as close as possible to as many members of the family as possible. We are reading The Fellowship of the Ring with the kids at night. It’s the best part of the day (after coffee). Dave is teaching the kids how to bird watch. We are getting some new perennials for a few garden beds we expanded over the weekend (we won plants at our school’s auction the weekend before the quarantine began). The kale we planted is going gangbusters. Other seeds have been ruthlessly abducted or disturbed by cheeky squirrels who don’t yet know how frequently we plot to eat them.

My friends, we’re doing the best we can. Please take good care of your gentle hearts, which may be hurting a lot right now. It won’t be like this forever and someday we will hug each other again. Read something beautiful, breathe outside, chew your food, and do your best to stop reading so much news. Love to you all.

Day 15

Hello friends,

Today marks the end of two full weeks of being at home for us. Our supply of cream for the coffee is running perilously low, I have reminded myself to be brave.

It’s sunny here today. It’s been gray and wet for most of the week but today is bright and breezy, not too cold, not too hot. Walking outside, the birds and green leaves seem to think it’s time for a celebration. When I’ve felt anxious, a few minutes of wind and birdsong have helped. Oh that’s right, life is still out here, just like it’s always been.

Tomorrow, Maggie’s 9th birthday, looks to be rainy again. She requested cod, and tater tots, and brussels sprouts (three sprouts, as the obligatory vegetable) for her birthday dinner. We have no cod so we’ll be having catfish. (She also is learning to be brave.) We will bake a very chocolate cake.

Many highs and lows this week. I’m doing my best to run a very flexible homeschool and simultaneously to assign myself creative work with specific deliverables as a means of giving my mind something to focus on other than refreshing CNN. I’m also in search of paid work and think I have one contract next week for which I am thankful.

The governor of Virginia announced this week that schools will not reopen before the end of this academic year. We will be homeschooling through June. I ate a lot of cookies that day.

Artiste update: I submitted some more poetry to another literary journal, five poems this time, bringing my total number of submitted works up to 14. I also received a rejection letter this week. It was my best rejection letter ever and included these words:

I just wanted to let you know that your submission made it to the final round of decision-making and this decline letter has nothing at all to do with the quality of your writing. In fact, all of your work was fantastic. So, I urge you to please submit again during our next reading period because I would love to read more of your work.

This brings my current totals for the 100 Rejections Project to 14 submissions and 8 rejections, including one of a more encouraging nature. At this rate, I believe I will be able to reach 100 by the end of the year and I’m encouraged to think that mixed in with those 100 will be at least one or two of the other variety.

I’ve also been working more consistently at song writing over the past year. I’ve written four songs in the past few months that I think are pretty good. I’ve gotten some feedback on a few of the songs from other creative types and musicians and I think I’m going to look into working with a producer to move them from rough cut to ‘final’ cut. I’m learning about this now. I’m also trying to figure out a better way to share the rough versions with you, hopefully I will work on a soundcloud channel in the next week or so to make listening easier. I’ve also been learning to use GarageBand. I think the best of the rough cuts so far is this one, called Fortify.

Health report: Dave and I both aren’t feeling great. Sore throat, light head, feverish but no fever. Not sleeping especially well. He reminds me frequently (only because I mention it frequently) that statistically it is highly unlikely that we have Coronavirus. I think he is basing this on the fact that there are 327 million Americans and 100,000 positive cases. So, statistically, the chances of us being one of the next 100,000 is not high. His science-talk has often had a calming effect on me in the past. Now it seems that only handfuls of hickory-smoked almonds can bring momentary calm. Or time away from the devices and especially the news.

Provisioning update: I’ve been trying to buy some groceries for delivery. This has been complicated and increased my anxiety. This morning I ordered a dozen bags of dried beans directly from Camellia Beans (a New Orleans favorite, since 1923). Dried beans last for about two years, and we love red beans and rice so I got red beans, limas, black-eyed peas, lentils, and pintos.

We are trying to go to the store one time per week for things like milk (and cream) and meat and veggies. By “we” I mean Dave because we both feel it is unlikely that one of us will contract the virus without giving it to everyone in the family and we both acknowledge that his level of carefulness well exceeds mine. I am trying to feel complimented that he thinks I’m too nice to keep a safe distance from people. I’m also happy not to have to go to the store.

How to help (?): The medical community, the people at the grocery store, the farmers, the delivery people, the elected officials and the folks at FEMA and the CDC, the police, the military, the inventors, the researchers, Dr. Fauci, we are all relying on a whole heck of a lot of people who are at the front lines of all of this. Please know my mentioning the cream is ironic. I can take a few months without cream. I feel like I want to be more helpful, but I don’t know, other than staying home, other than not hoarding, other than asking older neighbors if they need anything (not that I would necessarily be able to find it for them), I don’t know what else to do to help all of these people.

One more thing / happy closing note: Last week, on Sunday, a boy on my street turned 10. They had been planning a birthday party and it was cancelled. A few neighbors were talking and we had the idea that the houses on the street could put up signs to say happy birthday in our windows and doors and write with sidewalk chalk on our sidewalks or in the street before he woke up that day. His mom told us he likes planes, so everyone went with an airplane theme. I think everyone on my street who was still in town, and everyone on the street behind us, put out homemade signs, drawings of planes, or spaceships, or hot air balloons, wrote in chalk, decorated their doors. And at 10 AM, Owen left his front door and took a tour of the neighborhood. There was no laser tag, no collective dessert buffet, no strobe lights or pulsing overloud music, no petting zoo or themed favors.

The next morning, the day after his birthday, his mom sent a note to our neighborhood text chain. Owen said it was the best birthday he’d ever had. She said he told her: I didn’t know so many people cared about me.

It said a lot to me about what we think we need and what truly feels good. Where happiness comes from. What gives us hope and fills us up.

With lots of love,
Jennifer

Home sweet home

Hi friends,

I hope you are healthy and at least in a stable holding position in the new normal. I was planning to make crawfish étouffée for last night’s dinner. We are trying to consume aged freezer contents first, and the very strong aroma upon opening the bag of crawfish suggested to me that the eight months past the sell-by date was something to take into consideration (Dave having asked me, very specifically, just yesterday afternoon, not to give him food poisoning). Our black bean étouffée was surprisingly good.

I wrote a new song a couple of days ago in response to the current world situation. As with the last song I shared, this is a rough version. Maybe I will figure out how to share more polished versions, for now I am very happy to be able to share this way : )

I’ve also put together a resource page for Life at Home. It seems useful to have various ideas in one place so, since I have a place, I’m collecting info there.

I laugh to think of myself providing any words of wisdom. I was thinking about this yesterday morning at 4:30 AM as I lay there listening to the rain, trying to let it relax me, knowing I would not fall back asleep. I woke up and came downstairs and tried to be quiet. Sam woke up early too and we made homemade apple turnovers because I found some old puff pastry in the freezer and thought the space could be better used for frozen fruit or veggies, assuming we can get some.

In case you are curious, the Jenny Goodguts/Jennifer Hole Homeschool has no curricular expectations. I’ve read and heard people worrying our children will “fall behind” scholastically. God didn’t decree a certain set of academic benchmarks from on high. We set what is “behind.” If every child in the country is home for two months, the expectations are adjustable. I think creating stress about “falling behind” is literally insane at this juncture.

Current mantra: Expectations are adjustable. They are made up. We can change them.

A few notes on cohabitation in a time of global crisis:

I wrote a bunch of other words of wisdom and just erased them. What the heck do I know? I do feel that it’s really important that we try our best to show kindness to the people we are living with right now. That might just be ourself. It might be our spouse and kids. Our parents, some other random people. I know you are stressed, maybe you felt like hysterical crying last night while watching Monsters, Inc. Your cohabitators may be annoying you. They are making bad choices. They are not helping enough. They have germs. Whatever they are doing, do your best (try, I know it can be very hard) to be kind to them. At least civil. Not nice. Not bubbly or romantic or clean. But kind. Acknowledging their humanity also. Meditate. Go for a walk. Ask for help. Call someone. Talk about it. Say what you need. Being unkind is worse for you than for them. And it is worse for all the others around you. You likely feel justified in treating them and yourself this way. But try to find a way through. Or don’t but then you and the people around you will be miserable.

I think we should stop with the child abuse jokes. I think we should have real conversation about what is hard. And what is making us laugh.

I think we need to expect more from our children. Our children, even the little ones, do not need to be entertained and distracted all day long. They need to participate and to be taught how to contribute to taking care of something. They need to understand that in order for a home to work well, or a business, or a community, or a world, that we all participate, that we participate kindly, considerately, without eye rolling, without shouting.

I think about Little House on the Prairie. They had no screens, few books, and pretty much no neighbors. For long periods of each year they sat in that house all together and made it. They had one school book and one slate each (if they were lucky). And the kids were helpful. Yes, they used corporal punishment and yes they believed in a stern, punishing God. But they had to make their own butter. They did not have electricity. No clothes washer. No convenient grocery store. I feel like with all of the conveniences we have, we should be able to figure out how to have the time and energy to raise strong, independent, considerate human beings who don’t think they are the center of the universe.

At the Jenny Goodguts homeschool, we are making sure that we know how to fold and put away our clothes, how to make our own lunch. That we understand that this is a time to be helpful, and that being helpful is caring for others. That we are staying in our own home to keep others safe. That we are thankful for the food we have to eat, whether we like it or not, because not everyone has food. And that we talk about ways we can help those without food.

The (current version of the) Jennifer Hole/Jenny Goodguts/Ingalls-Inspired Corona Parenting Plan

  1. Children are given a list of daily chores which they are expected to complete. These chores alternate between children on a weekly basis.
  2. Homeschool “requirements”: I am looking for things my kids can do that require less supervision and that are less screen intensive and don’t require me to figure out a lot of frustrating (and frequently slow) technology. Bird watching lists, book writing, journal keeping, reading good books, practicing an instrument (I’m teaching Sam to play piano). These take a lot of time (for them, and less for me) and teach some of the same things they are working on at school. I will use what the teachers are sending when it is helpful and not too technologically challenging for me and I am limiting the amount of time Maggie spends remotely learning via a computer. (So far even this approach has been a pretty full-time job.)
  3. Children are given free time to entertain themselves.
  4. Children may continue to have free time (screen-free) for as long as they are able to play quietly. Arguing with one another leads to
  5. one question: it seems like it might be time for a job? lack of acquiescence or other non-desirable behavior leads to
  6. Job time! I have a list of jobs they know how to do (different from the chores listed as their responsibility which should already be completed): dusting, washing surfaces, cleaning baseboards, washing floors, bringing down/folding laundry, sweeping patios or walkways, carrying things to the basement. I usually start by assigning one job and if someone complains it becomes 2 (and so on and so forth). Each job is relatively simple usually, 5 mins or less. Good reset, I ask if they are ready to have free time again. Yes? Back to free time.
  7. My other secret weapon is separation. Child 1 is assigned to one room, Child 2 to another. If you can play quietly, you can play. Otherwise, jobs it is.
  8. Children are served breakfast and dinner according to my schedule, I plan it, they eat it (no choice given about options but i know what they like and try to balance it so no meal is wholly abhorrent). We also have a regular and long-standing breakfast schedule because I got tired of complaints (four years ago). M-F breakfast is consistent week to week. Lunch they make themselves but they tell me a plan in advance: one fruit, one veggie, one protein, one starch and then we can be flexible but no sugar. If they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a reasonable amount of time, without complaining (I unofficially allow one small complaint and a reminder), there is dessert available, the only sweet of the day, and sometimes dessert is plain yogurt with fruit. Or fruit alone. But right now we are being a little more loose with post-dinner dessert. (We made carrot cake for Sam’s birthday.)
  9. If children make it through the day being helpful and doing what they are asked without rolling their eyes or being otherwise disrespectful, if they complete all of their Life Skills training, they receive ONE ticket for the day (again, i try to help them get the ticket every day, i give a small reminder if i anticipate they might be about to grump at me: not a threat, a reminder, “you’ve done a great job today and I really want you to get your ticket for the day so please make sure you are thinking about your answer, do you need a minute?”). Three tickets = 30 minutes of video games. We also have video games on Friday nights. And we use movies as we need or want to, but have only watched two so far.

Will my children be scarred by my system? Maybe there will be a memoir. I don’t know. Why am I sharing this? Because I think it is perfect or amazing? Not really. Am I totally consistent? No. Do the kids get excited earning that one measly ticket for a whole day of good behavior that translates into 10 minutes of game time. Yes, shockingly they really love the tickets. I have to do a lot of overseeing the chores, and the jobs, but we have to start somewhere. So this is what we are trying today. It’s evolving. They seem pretty happy and healthy so I’ll take that as a good sign.

I send thanks and prayers out for all of the folks out of their homes right now, working in the wide world to protect the rest of us and provide us with the necessities of life. I am fortunate to be sitting here comfortably able to type these words to you. Dave built me a new garden bed yesterday. Today we planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, spinach, kale, calendula, parsley, sunflowers, watermelons (Sam’s choice), beets — that’s what I can remember. They were seeds we had left over from prior years so hopefully some of them will come up. I would also like to get some thumbelina zinnias. I also love poppies but they never grow here.

Warm wishes and love to you all. Take good care, wash your hands, and I will write again soon.

Notes to myself

I am not in control. I am a part of the flow of life. I don’t know what will happen. I can do my best.

I can be brave. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid, it means that I have faith in something hidden inside and around me. I will do the things that need to be done when they need doing.

I remind myself to let go of expectations of what I can achieve, my normal obligations that usually feel non-negotiable. Today, all obligations are negotiable.

The children are confused. They feel our energy. Breathe. Slow down. Look at their faces and show them patience and care. For them, for ourselves, for others. Answer their questions.

Cry, if you can. Laugh, maybe even better. Call someone. Read poetry or prayer. Connect to someone real.

Walk outside. Look at the plants coming back to life after winter, celebrating their part in all that exists. We are a part of all that exists. This season will pass just like winter has. And like winter, it will be dark first.

There is more health than disease. More vitality than fear. The sun shines and pulls life to itself out of the crust of our Earth. We are connected to that pull, we are part of that beauty. We can nurture it and celebrate it together. We can practice now.

Protect others. Stay at home and keep the children at home, before being compelled. Offer help. Use only what you need. See if you can need less and share more.

Today this is my real life. I can choose to live this day, in its realness, the best way I can.

How?

In thankfulness for the food in my cabinets, donate to feed those who are and will be hungry (right now, and later). Shop small and support local businesses.

In preparation for days alone, teach my parents to use Skype. Organize a Zoom call with my friends, learn how to connect, together.

Stay strong. Eat healthy food, do not drown your fear in cookies and scotch.

Teach the children resilience, help them learn their strength. Treat them with compassion, but expect more. It is good for them to learn to help. You are a parent, that is part of your job.

Simplify. Do not have things around that produce anxiety. And you might as well clean the oven.

Think about this day, and the next one. What could make it beautiful?

Plant seeds, play music, teach love, donate food, share, make, nurture, nourish, love.

Our brave new world

Hi my friends,

Today was a gorgeous spring morning. The forsythia are blooming, and those purple magnolia trees, some cherry blossoms, daffodils. I’m pretty sure I saw a tufted titmouse at the bird feeder (they are my favorite) — he looked on the small side though and my resident expert was not at hand to confirm or deny the sighting. There was a bit of rain Thursday night which gave everything a bit of extra spring-i-ness.

My children are home from school starting yesterday through April 6. Sam is working on a book of mazes. Maggie is sitting at the piano trying to figure out a new song. Dave went to work yesterday but will work remotely for the rest of the month.

On Thursday I went to the grocery store around noon, after refreshing CNN compulsively for two hours. What did I buy? Four onions, a bag of carrots, two loaves of bread, a bag of frozen cherries, four frozen mac + cheeses, a bag of bagels, one piece of frozen catfish and some broccoli. Six cans of tomato sauce because they were on sale. Some pasta (two bags). A bag of flour. I had no idea what I was doing, assessing my cart it seemed these were not the foodstuffs for an emergency.

I finished some paid editing work in the afternoon. I have no more work on deck. It seems unlikely that anyone will require my services in the current climate. Which means I have more flexibility to take care of the kids. It also means I won’t be earning any money.

I have a friend who waits tables for his livelihood. There are many fewer people dining out and he is paid in tips. He mentioned that he will be able to use credit for a while to cover life expenses. As long as the restaurant reopens… As long as he doesn’t get sick…

I have been trying to figure out a way to use this situation “for good.”

I’ve been thinking about how to be most helpful, other than keeping two hygienically challenged vectors of disease 6 feet away from anyone over the age of 20 (well, really from anyone).
 
I know local businesses will struggle. I purchased two books from a local bookshop I love today. We bought bagels from a small local shop and I left an exorbitant tip (it was only two dollars but at least a 30% tip on what we had purchased). These seem like strange measures to take in the face of a global pandemic.

I’m not allowed to donate blood (I haven’t been allowed because of the places I’ve been but maybe it has been long enough). I know that blood donation is desperately needed right now (I learned this while binge-watching the CNN live updates on the web) but I’m not sure where I would go to make a donation even if my blood is now acceptable. Also, what if it turns out I’m sick?

I know the WHO is requesting donations from governments, businesses and individuals to be able to maintain their work around the world to meet the crisis. I don’t know what is going to happen in countries without good healthcare infrastructure as the virus spreads.

And I have at least three weeks of together time with my kids so I’ve been thinking about how to make the most positive use of that time.
One of the books I ordered was Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (book one in the trilogy). We read The Hobbit last fall and I figured now was a time when we could stay up a bit later to read without too much of a problem. The children practiced making their own lunch today. I’ve thought about projects we could do at home, spring cleaning, or clutter clearing. I’ve thought about yard projects: I’ve wanted to make the yard into a wildlife refuge or a bird-friendly habitat or something along those lines. Now would be a good time to do the research. I’ve thought about making things with the kids, writing a book together, teaching them how to sing harmony or ?

My neighbors have been talking about playdates and vodka. I have wondered, how much distancing does social distancing require? And the vodka thing, I don’t know. I can see the draw, but I also feel that we need to take care of ourselves, to be strong. (Today I read an article about social distancing which confirmed my suspicion. Its titled Social Distancing: This is Not a Snow Day.)

In terms of resources, my neighbor (thank you Bette!) sent a list of education companies offering free subscriptions during school closings. And something called GoNoodle which is videos about movement and mindfulness for kids (could come in handy). She also sent a ‘day at home’ schedule that was helpful (I’m not going to post it here because I don’t have the source, but if you want it, write and I’ll forward it).

Another friend sent a quote on the training and education of children in the arts, crafts and sciences:

Be ye in that land vanguards of the perfections of humankind; carry forward the various branches of knowledge, be active and progressive in the field of inventions and the arts. … Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art.

Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha’

I really liked it. The kids and I did some Headspace meditations specifically for kids yesterday. They literally begged for more at the conclusion of each one. They said it was because they like Andy’s voice but I wonder if that’s all. So we will be practicing some family meditation.

I’m trying to think of how I can use this forced slow down, this time of not knowing, to move towards good. Not to tread water, not to wait holding my breath. To use the time to consider, to grow, to heal, to help, to connect. I’m thinking about all of the tools we each have now for connecting and for creating. I’m thinking about ways I can help, today, and in what comes next. And I’m thinking about the world as it will be, as we can make it.

I’m planning to write more, to share more with you over the next while. It will give me something to put my mind towards that feels nourishing, and I hope I can share something of use. I am always nervous to write, that readers won’t like it, but I’m going to try to write more often, with more openness and even less perfectionism. It will be an experiment!

I hope you are well, please take good care of yourselves and try to find ways to interact with others (Facetime, Skype, Zoom) and keep your spirits up — I will be sharing ideas for ways to do that here. I spent a lot of time in my yard today which helped to get me away from the news and checking one thing and then another. I would also recommend reading a great book, like E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat (my constant recommendation) to remember that people have been through so much and have behaved so beautifully towards one another in very hard times.

Here’s to being a force for good : )

love,
Jennifer

March madness

Hi friends!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you about the progress of my life as an artiste. There is progress to report! Here it is:

COVID-19: I purchased a small cache of additional groceries yesterday, mostly peanut butter and black beans, just to be on the safe side (yes, I felt like a prepper at the store) and watched an interview with Anthony Fauci (Director of Infectious Disease at the NIH) that I thought was very good about the current state of the situation. Listening to Dr. Fauci, I noted that I’ve missed hearing intelligent people provide information about subjects in which they hold advanced knowledge.

What’s up with me, why so few posts lately? The good news is that I’ve had more paid writing work, a lucky coincidence since it looks like all of the trees around our house have died from insect infestation. So, more paid work = essential. The very exciting thing about this is that while my paid work used to be mostly editing, now it is mostly writing and this shift has come as a direct result of publishing my book. A clear example of some inspirational quote or other about when you take action to tell the universe what you are ready for the universe will help meet you, not halfway, but if you take a number of steps, the universe will take at least one or two.

I’ve had a few pieces of writing published recently, but not in my own name. I had one article published on a major site but as I ghostwrote the piece for a lovely young woman whose face is next to my words I’m sure there is some legal barrier to my sharing the link with you. I could probably link to an “interesting article” and (wink wink) you could make the connection, but I won’t because I would like more work from the company that hired me to write it ; )

I’ve been doing a lot of writing related to satellites orbiting the Earth, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how the intersection of these can help save the world. These are subjects that I would never in a million years have chosen to learn about on my own. In fact, they are subjects that I am quite nervous about. The work has been interesting — AND it makes for excellent research for a novel, I’m having lots of ideas. I’ve also done some writing work for a website to go along with a documentary series called Asian Americans, an opportunity that provided me with a three-week crash course in Asian American history. I was very thankful for the chance to do that work — I learned so much. I had many thoughts, especially about Cambodia, but those thoughts are for sharing on another day.

And what is happening on the artiste front? SO MUCH.

I wrote a new song last week, you can listen here:

I recorded a kitchen video of a different song, you can watch it here:

I submitted five pieces of writing to different pubs this week and I have a few more on deck. I can’t share those with you or they would count as published already but the update on my 100 Rejections Project is here. I’ve now submitted 9 pieces, had 4 rejections, it definitely isn’t going to take four years to get to 100.

The Stuffed Project is moving forward while taking a detour from the original plan. The idea is still for this to be the next book. The timeline is unclear but the work is progressing.

I’ve organized all of my writing (well, a lot of it). I’ve re-read the novel, it is not good. But it has a lot of goodness in it.

Two things I’ve tried lately that have been helpful:

A request: If you have read my book and enjoyed it, please consider leaving a short review on Amazon. Thank you ; )

A note: I received a lot of positive feedback for sugar babies and several folks wrote to ask if they could share it with others. Thank you!!! Please feel free to share anything I’ve written here with anyone you want! That’s one reason I’m writing it : )

So that’s the update for today. Currently not much is happening with the Rise and Fall book but I do still hope to record it as an audiobook — I just don’t know how or where, and of course there is the question of time and money… I have been invited to do two book readings, those were so much fun so I’m thinking about ways to do more.

I hope you are doing very well, keeping healthy, and ready for the start of spring. Thank you, as always, for your encouragement and support.

with love from Virginia,
Jennifer


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Sugar babies

Sugar babies

Dear Saint Valentine,

I’ve tried to learn about your life via a hasty scroll through Wikipedia—that’s something we humans use now (it’s 2020) to grapple with the unknown. Well, it’s something we use to review facts. It doesn’t help us know what to do, what to choose. For that, we have to look at the data and then be thoughtful about the result we want.

The facts about your life are pretty vague. Who you were, why you were killed, how that’s related to hearts and courtly love. It sounds like you had a knack for changing people’s perspectives. You healed your jailer’s daughter. You were killed for refusing to deny your beliefs, that seems clear. And there’s a creepy flower-capped skull at a church in Rome that is said to be yours. I saw a picture of your skull in a golden box. People come to see it to ask for help in love. I hope you feel okay about that.

I’m not in the habit of writing letters to people I’ve never met, or the deceased, or people who may be more than one person, but I’ve been struggling with some questions and sometimes it changes my perspective to write letters to inanimate objects. I thought it might be the same if I wrote to you (not to your skull, but to your soul). Also, I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of mail, maybe you don’t even know about all of this, maybe you’d be interested. (Hi, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.)

I wonder what you’d think, do you know, that on February 14 every year in the US (it’s on a continent you didn’t know about, south, west and across an ocean from Thule), in your name we have a tradition of exchanging $18.2 billion dollars worth of cards, candy, and flowers with friends and loved ones. It sounds like the tradition dates back to Chaucer (a poet about 700 years ago). He wrote 700 lines and referenced an imaginary day celebrating romance and the tradition we know today grew from there.

As a tiny slice of modernity, here’s an example of one Valentine’s Day, last year. My two children, my daughter and my son, had painted cards for their classmates. They had spent time thinking briefly of each friend. This one likes dolphins, this one likes blue. Based on glitter density and heart color, they had selected a card for each friend, composed a unique, if grammatically vague, sentiment for each child, and addressed envelopes to pass out during their annual classroom celebration, ostensibly of love and friendship.

I sent them off to school in the morning (girls go to school now), cards in hand. Time passed. I went to pick them up.

Saint Valentine, as I approached my children, I saw that my daughter held an envelope filled with colored sugar. To eat its contents you lick a hardened sugar wand with your spit, creating a saliva adhesive for attaching the loose sugar onto the sugar rod, thereby eating the full pouch of sugar. It’s called “Fun Dip.”

She was eating the Fun Dip quickly, as if aware she risked its imminent confiscation. Her eyes were dark pools of emptiness, she could not answer basic questions.

Each child brought home a bag of treasure collected during the day from friends and teachers. Collapsing on the floor, my daughter emptied and pawed through the contents of her bag, tossing aside the various cards in search of seatrash (we exchange miniature plastic trinkets, often themed, that break upon contact with human flesh, and are eaten by turtles or alternately formed into giant sculptures at the zoo to illustrate the plight of the oceans. I know they’re vast, we didn’t mean to). She was hunting for some undiscovered marvel in the bag, or perhaps an eraser she will never use when, in addition to a number of empty wrappers, she discovered a ziplock bag full of candy.

I asked her to eat something, to introduce a protein-based substance into her endocrine system, so that life might return to her face. She was not hungry. “Did you have something to eat at the Valentine’s Day Party?” I asked, smiling, like I was merely asking out of curiosity, feigning a casual indifference so as not to put her on guard. “Oh yes,” she replied. “I had one and a half donuts, the big kind, two cupcakes, and three iced sugar cookies. They had a cake too but I didn’t try it.” Saint Valentine, I am not exaggerating for the sake of humor. I’m talking about a 50-pound child, one-third the size of an adult woman.

In 2013, a prominent group of physicians in America (we call them the American Heart Association) recommended that grown women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar. That is the equivalent of 10 jelly beans.

And this isn’t just a one-time deal, one extreme-sugar event on the day of your decapitation. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s Halloween, Winter Holiday season which extends from late November to early January, back to school celebrations, teacher birthdays, “making it fun to count things” (a common math curriculum), what they eat in France day, celebrating sweet foods of the world day. (And birthday parties outside of school, after-soccer Oreos and Capri Sun, hey its Sunday snow cones.) Trying to find an event or venue targeted to children without freely available sugar is like searching for Atlantis.

Val, I know you never tasted sugar. It’s kind of like honey but devoid of nutrients. Two hundred years ago the average American ate 2 (TWO) pounds of sugar per year. One hundred years ago, we ate 17.5 pounds of sugar per person per year. By 2011 Americans were eating 150 pounds of sugar per person annually.

Maybe you’re thinking, well honey is delicious. Maybe people eat more now because they can, it’s cheap and available. Americans also save more lives with medicine now than we did 200 years ago and nobody is complaining about that. It’s called progress lady!

Honey IS delicious. But here’s the thing: as much as we might wish otherwise, sugar’s really not good for us. One in eight Americans is diabetic now. Diabetes is a disease you never heard of because it pretty much didn’t exist until 120 years ago. That’s a lot of people dying younger, living less healthily, being predisposed to a bunch of other health issues.

And there is mounting evidence of the harm from sugar’s ascendancy: Diets high in sugar slow down the brain and damage synaptic activity.

Consuming sugar stimulates the release of serotonin (that’s why it feels so good). Seratonin is related to our feeling of happiness. When we consistently surge our seratonin, this not only depletes our body’s supply, but it means we need more. Once a body builds up a tolerance to sugar it needs more for the same “happiness” surge.

And researchers think that teenagers might be especially vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood.

So, contrary to research funded by the sugar industry and shared with the public for many years, it looks like sugar is probably not a health food, also probably not a neutral food, at least in the quantities we are consuming now which, again, is 75 times more than our great-great-great grandmother.

But life is hard (you surely know that), and sugar is tasty, and sometimes you just need to relax, have some fun, live in the moment.

My daughter and I sat down by her treasure bag. I looked at the cards, curious. Most were the cards I remembered from childhood, a platonically encouraging phrase like “Valentine, you’re the bomb” and a picture of Spiderman jumping away from a giant explosion (I’m sure they were bad guys so it’s ok). I’d show her a card, ask who it was from. No idea. She hadn’t read any of the cards, she had separated the wheat from the chaff immediately and had no idea who had given her the Fun Dip, or that sticky plastic guy that you throw at the wall and is coated with a mystery substance that helps him to sort of hop down at least three times before becoming seatrash. She hadn’t looked at the cards, they were like the tag on a new shirt, something to cut off and dispose of, irrelevant.

I remember reading the cards as a girl, wondering when Stephen Stout gave me a card that said “Valentine, you’re outta this world” with a picture of ALF giving a thumbs-up while mysteriously floating in space. Did Stephen pick that card just for me? What could it mean?

Val, my daughter spent hours writing cards to her friends. She was so excited to share them. And she didn’t even read the cards they gave her in return. Please do not think I am painting her as callous. I am drawing a picture of the strength of this substance. And thinking about the relationship between sugar, and trinkets, and connection – maybe the heart of my question. Does the sugar, do the trinkets, support connection, the very aspect of our nature that we honor with this day?

My son, five-years-old, had not had a dessert buffet with his class. They had exchanged cards and, yes, he received a few pieces of candy and several seatrash-items. But my son, after only moderate exposure to sugar, looked at every card. Felt very excited that Thomas had given him this one and Rosie had made that one. He brought them up to his room. My friends gave these to me, these little scraps of paper with their names on them. He seemed to cherish his cards. He still has them up there and it is many months later.

***

Saint Valentine, I have wrestled with these thoughts. Wondering if I’m just trying to have control in an uncontrollable world. Wondering in the grand scheme of life on Earth and all of the struggles of all of the people, does it really matter? It’s just a few cookies, no matter that we know now that rats addicted to heroine choose sugar in preference to heroine.

I’m afraid of the sugar. And I’m afraid of the fear of the sugar. I’m afraid we’re damaging their bodies. That we are training them, physically, to need this taste at the expense of all other tastes. To dull their palettes with sweetness so that nothing else tastes good, or even edible. So many of the children around me will not eat. Food, the kind that has a nutrient, does not taste good to them. They can’t taste it. They aren’t being stubborn, their bodies are trained that way.

I’m scared for their minds. Because I know what it is like to look for the next easy surge of pleasure. We do it all the time, every day, I guess every animal does. But we are smart animals and there is so much money to be made from providing quick, cheap surges, and so many smart people figuring out ways to give them to us. Whether it is a like or a beep or a drag or a sip or a bite, it is much easier in 2020 to drift from hit to hit, from tiny buzz to tiny buzz, looking for the next one when your chemical state changes. Sugar is so powerful. It carves a deep, strong bond to the pleasure centers in your brain so that, without it, pleasure becomes harder to find. And the more you consume, the more you need to get to the same level of okay.

And I’m scared for their hearts. Surrounded by sweets and seatrash, each little object a tiny surge of chemicals, each bite another surge, the slower burn of friendship, of human warmth, has trouble competing. What does it say to them when we teach that friendship needs a dessert buffet to be pleasurable? Does it? Is that what we think?

***

I wonder what you would think. I hesitate, somewhat ashamed after what I’ve described above, to tell you that one in six children in America today, 13 million children, don’t have enough to eat. They are hungry. This is another fact. Data that we can use to guide our decisions, or not.

And then about the $18 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on love, right? In my dream of the perfect world, we show kids first that love doesn’t cost anything and that it doesn’t need to come with a trinket, it’s how you treat people, how you make them feel safe and known. How you work to take care of something. What if we spent $18 billion each year showing that love is taking care of people, of a community, of the world, together? Wouldn’t that be an amazing legacy of connection to hand down to our kids?

Val, I realize that in writing to you I have been focusing on what scares me, what I don’t want. So here’s what I do want:

I want my children to know how to feel love, to feel loved. I want them to learn to be strong, to learn to be kind, to learn to feel hope. I want that for all of the kids.

So show them love, how to love, show your strength, treat them kindly, share your hope.

Is that what you would say?

With the evidence in front of us, we make choices. As a culture, we need to eat less sugar. We need to look at our patterns. Find better ones. I think we are trying.

My earnest prayer is that in our traditions and celebrations, we show that love is not four kinds of cake or a bagful of anything. That we learn enough so there’s more to share, or less to take. But also that we don’t live in fear, that when we find ourselves in the midst of a dessert buffet, we look for the love, share our joy, our warmth, and our laughter. Breathe. Help the children find their own ways in their own world, the one we can try to influence but will never control. A beautiful world where they are free to hold different opinions, as you, Valentine, were not.

I guess that’s all for now. Thank you so much for listening, that’s something a friend does. If I ever find myself in Rome, maybe I’ll stop by and say hello to your creepy skull.

With love,
Jennifer


This piece was written as part of The Stuffed Project (One woman’s quest to re-examine our relationship to the material world). My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.