Category: Updates

Abracadabra

Of course there must be lots of Magic in the world,” he said wisely one day, “but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen. I am going to try and experiment.” 

I have loved The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, both by Frances Hodgson Burnett, since the third grade when my teacher, Ms. Begneaud, suggested I read them. Begneaud is a Cajun name and my teacher had sparkly eyes and very curly hair.

In A Little Princess, Sara Crewe’s father dies leaving her a penniless orphan, and the sour Ms. Minchin moves Sara into the cold attic to live in rags, underfed, and work as a servant in the school where she had been the star pupil. Fictional Sara always treats others with care, sharing when there is anything to share and using her vivid imagination to help those around her, and herself, to bear misfortune. (In rodent news, she also befriends a rat whom she names Melchisedec.)

The conditions of Sara’s life continue to decline. She grows thinner, shabbier, hungrier. Yet even on her worst day finding a coin in the gutter she shares her good fortune (and five out of six fresh buns) with a girl who is hungrier than she is.

And it happens that someone takes notice. An invalid who lives next door to the school becomes interested in this little girl and her situation. He thinks: maybe I’m in a position to do something. And secretly he hatches a plan to leave her gifts in her attic room, dropped in from the skylight — food, blankets, a warm fire in the grate — all anonymously. She goes to sleep one night and wakes up later and there it is, appearing to her as a gift from life itself. Amazed, she says: The Magic has come and done it.

But that's not magic

No, you say, (if you are my child), that’s not magic. A guy came in through the skylight with some food and put it on the table. We saw him planning it. She only thinks it’s magic. Science has a clear explanation and we can logically assign causality.

Yes it is

And to think I used to pretend and pretend and wish there were fairies! The one thing I always wanted was to see a fairy story come true. I am living in a fairy story. I feel as if I might be a fairy myself, and able to turn things into anything else.

The magic part is how it makes her feel about life. That things can come to be in unplanned, unexpected, unimagined ways.

A wood elf

Do you remember my giant tree pieces?

(As a quick recap: I had 2.5 100-yr-old oaks cut into giant rounds and left sitting in a reptile-inviting heap at the bottom of my yard, too heavy for me to budge, awaiting some uncertain destiny.)

Since January I am reminded of this physically challenging question mark each time I look out of my office window. As I sit here typing, the tree segments are arranged below my line of sight, just hidden from my view. I roll the chair towards the window, or sit up tall and lean over, to look out and see them. Most days I gaze at the mound of wood, wondering what it is there to teach me. I’ve considered mushroom farming, I’ve looked into hugelculture, I’ve taken multiple long, deep breaths. I love the wood. I just don’t know what I’m going to do with it or how I’m going to find the physical strength to move any of it anywhere.

On Monday I looked out of the window and almost rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing clearly. A small stack of neatly chopped wood sat in the middle of the yard. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t own an axe and Dave grew up in a country where all the trees were cut down hundreds of years ago so he’s not an experienced log splitter, but very manly nonetheless.

It was like Rumpelstiltskin had been here, or some shoe elves.

Two days later, I looked again and the pile had grown. I am in the house what feels like all the time but I never heard or saw anyone splitting those logs.

I’m pretty sure I know who is cutting the wood. I’m pretty sure it’s not a gnome or a genie.

I haven’t confirmed this yet, though, or even said thank you. I wanted to write this first, and even more than that to let myself live in the Magic for just a little bit longer.

It's not the wood, it's the choppedness

“When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead,” the orator proceeded. “Then something began pushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were… ‘What is it? What is it?’… I don’t know its name so I call it Magic. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden — in all the places.”

“Magic is in her just as it is in Dickon,” said Colin. “It makes her think of ways to do things — nice things. She is a Magic person.”

I don’t know what magic is, but I know what it feels like.

Magic is not the sudden materialization in space of atoms that were not there moments before. It is not the “free-thingness” of something that makes it magic.

Magic feels like a surprise, like a gift that shows up in its own way, and you didn’t figure it out yourself. One day something wasn’t there and another day, it was. You didn’t know what might happen and then something did.

Aspiring magician how-to

I don’t think my neighbor was trying to be a magician (that is, if it was not a wood elf, still unconfirmed). Maybe magic exists because we exist in relationship with others, maybe it is a feature of the uncontrollable, unpredictable, unknowable nature of life. Maybe it happens when there is a question mark and someone else takes an action to help. And you feel in yourself, with delight and surprise: The power of life can be benevolent. I am supported by unseen forces.

“Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it—an’ call it what tha’ likes.

Keeping a promise

Hi friends,

It’s Friday at 11:20 and, so far, I haven’t written anything to share with you this week. No Hearthling #003, no note. It has been a full and intense week. A tired week. A week full of learning and working. I think the best way to proceed is to write a new heading, that usually seems to help.

Think, Jennifer

When I came to my computer to stare at it blankly and wish for something hopeful that I could send to your inbox, my website was down (sort of). I couldn’t log in, it looked broken. I could see old posts but could not get in to the “back end” to write one. This reminded me of the number of times I have lost beloved work because of inadequate backups. So, while I waited on the phone for tech support, I copied every single post I have written since publishing the book and now I have everything safely stored somewhere other than online. Well, when I typed that last sentence I had actually not SAVED the file. I had just made it but it was just sitting there with no name.

NOW I have saved the file and all of the words I’ve written here since 2019.

Tech support was amazing. I love talking to computer nerds. They are beautiful, patient people who help me even though I don’t know the right words to say.

Maybe that’s enough for now

In the treehouse agreement, I promised to write to you once a week until June 21. I said Thursday, this is Friday. I am learning to trust the things I say to myself. It’s okay that this is Friday and I am happy, now, that these words are written.

If you haven’t seen it yet

The Hearthling is underway, with three issues written. I’ll post links below.

What I have in mind for Hearthling #003

“And yet,” Taran said, as he swung astride Melynlas, “alas, you never told me the secret of your luck.”

“Secret?” replied Llonio. “Have you not already guessed? Why, my luck’s no greater than yours or any man’s. You need only sharpen your eyes to see your luck when it comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your hands.”

See you next week.


Notes

The Hearthling issues 000 – 002 can be read by clicking right here

Rodentia

Hi friends,

The ratskin bracelet is resting peacefully under the fig tree in the front yard next to the blossoming lilac and in other good company, back in the flow of the life of the world.

Nothing has happened lately with the tree parts in the backyard.

A story about a squirrel

Right before the Covid lockdown began we strung two rows of peace flags (that’s what we call them) on our deck. Officially known as Tibetan prayer flags, they are the lines of colorful triangles you see bedecking the landscape in Himalayan scenes. One set I had brought home from Nepal in 2005 after I had gone there to plan a biological survey. The survey was being funded by Disney as part of their launch of a new ride — Expedition Everest — and while documenting plants and animals during the survey we were also to keep our eyes open for any possible signs of Yeti. One set I had purchased just outside of Mount Rainier several years later at the same Nepalese shop where I found my joy-sparking red snow hat.

Just before the Covid lockdown, coincidentally I think, I had asked Dave to help me figure out a way to put them outside. They are meant to be moved by the wind and, in their movement, to spread compassion to the surrounding area. They have been outside doing just that for the past two years and had started to wear thin.

Dave and I were sitting on the deck, on a Saturday, discussing what to do with the disintegrating flags. Out of respect you are not supposed to let the flags touch the ground, and certainly they should not go in the trash. When they have finished their good work they are to be either burned or buried. I declared my intention to bury the flags and we agreed we would like to replace them, but weren’t sure of an appropriate source.

Two days after this conversation I was standing in the kitchen by the window. Noticing movement, I looked towards the flags and saw the line was broken. Then I saw the squirrel. She was holding a bit of the line with about five flags trailing behind. I stood very still. She took her front paws and gathered one flag into a ball under her chin. She kept working until all five were a large ball. Leaping onto the still leafless maple tree, she kept her balance while holding tightly to the ball of flags. She ascended carefully to her hole and disappeared into what must be a spacious cavity. Moments later she reappeared, flag-free.

The next day more of the flags were missing. By the end of the week, it was as if the flags had never been there at all. A few bits of string are all that remain. 

It has been a remarkably cold spring. I love that there is one cozy squirrel living in a maple tree that, through no plan of mine, is continuing to spread compassion throughout the ravine.

In other news

Sam continues to love dancing to songs by Journey. Maggie wants a drum set.

I think soon The Hearthling will become a newsletter on Substack. I wonder what I am doing and I love writing it.

Tolkien, continued

‘Yes, I am with you, Master,’ said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. ‘And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.’

‘Maybe not, Sam,’ said Frodo; ‘but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.’

‘Well, Master, we could at least go further from this dangerous place here, from this Crack of Doom, if that’s it’s name. Now couldn’t we? Come, Mr. Frodo, let’s go down the path at any rate!’

Notes

How I built this

Hi friends,

In case you have noticed the 300% increase in correspondence of late, I herein provide context for my recent loquaciousness.

A couple of weeks ago I held what will henceforth be known as “The Treehouse Accord” (of 2022). I sat outside in the treehouse that Dave built for the kids during Covid. I had: my notebook and my laptop, my favorite pen (a freebie from a doctor’s office), a water bottle and some watercolor paints. I lacked: a comfortable seating arrangement. The day was not warm but it was sunny and there were many ambient sounds. I managed to tune in to the birdsong amidst the clamour.

I shall post something every week, I agreed with myself, until June 21 at which point I shall allow myself to, once again, reassess the trajectory of my life. I may post WHATEVER I WANT (while out in the treehouse to make a plan of action to start The Hearthling, this “Life is Tricksy” clause was agreed in recognition of having had many good intentions and detailed plans in the past that often have not come to fruition). The rules are: start a draft on Monday, publish on Thursday. I shook hands.

Wiggle room

I have set up a ‘campaign’ on MailChimp so that when I publish a new post it is automatically sent to subscribers at the next available 1:00 PM (EST). So that means if I publish something on Thursday at 2:00 PM (EST), it is sent to readers the following day at 1:00 PM (EST).

I meant to have issue #001 of The Hearthling ready to send out today (Thursday). I’m well underway. Problem is, it’s, um, complex (see below). So here’s my plan: I’m posting this note today, Thursday, thereby fulfilling my agreement to post each week on Thursday. I will provide a link in the notes below, following my new “don’t interrupt them with a link in the middle of reading” policy. This link will take you directly to Issue #001 of The Hearthling which currently (as I type these words) DOES NOT EXIST but will exist by the time this note gets automatically sent to your inbox tomorrow (Friday) at 1:00 PM EST. (Now I’m laughing like a Sicilian engaged in a battle of wits.)

It's complex, or maybe just complicated

I’m also experimenting with new layout options. So there’s a fancy new header and potentially even some new fonts coming your way soon. But that’s not what is complex. 

Here’s the thing:

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

— John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Ratskin bracelet

Once I made a bracelet out of a rat’s skin including the entire head. This was scholastically encouraged, it was not my own idea. But I approached the project with my usual savoir-faire.

It turns out savoir-faire doesn’t mean exactly what I thought it did. Well, I did it with my usual carte blanche? (also no). Let’s just say enthusiasm. 

I have tidied my home repeatedly since first encountering KonMarie. While virtually every piece of jewelry I have ever owned or been given has found a new home (or been saved in a box for Maggie, that note is for you mom), the ratskin bracelet has survived every round. Something about this bracelet sparks joy.

I will save the rest of the story for The Hearthling. But my ratskin bracelet is where I choose to start the journey. I have a hunch we will find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

You might want to read this first

By the time this post gets emailed there will be TWO issues of The Hearthling. If you did not read it last week, may I humbly suggest that you read Issue #000 first because Issue #001 will make more sense in context. I also really like Issue #000. Enough that I feel it should probably become Issue #001. But it will not. You can find links to both issues in the notes below.

If you aren’t sure whether you’ve read Issue #000 already the answer is probably not. It is about Sam Gamgee and his box from Galadriel.

Headers are fun

I decided not to leave you with a devastating quote from Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I don’t find it devastating personally, but out of context it could be hard to take. 

Instead, let’s end with this:

I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land. Words to remember old stories, words to tell new ones, stories that bring science and spirit back together to nurture our becoming people made of corn.

— Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer 

Notes

  1. The Hearthling #000 (Read this one first)
  2. The Hearthling #001
  3. No offense meant to real-life Sicilians, this was a reference to the film The Princess Bride

Introducing… The Hearthling

(rhymes with Earthling, not Darthling)

Well friends, I know you know by the fact that I’m writing to you on two consecutive weeks (let alone months, or quarters) that SOMETHING IS UP! After my gas station revelation during the winter, I have been pondering long and hard. I have been listening inside, I have been balancing my chakras, I have been researching urls. 

And today, with excitement and trepidation, I introduce you to my new thing: The Hearthling.

What is The Hearthling you ask?? I invite you to come along on the ride, maybe helping along the way, as we figure it out.

Backstory: About fifteen years ago I met a former boss, someone I admired, for lunch. I had an idea, a tiny kernel of a glowing seed inside of me — not a quick thought I had dreamed up that morning but something deeper that had been whispering to me for a while. The purpose of our meeting was just to catch up, not to discuss my idea. But during the meal, when he asked about my plans, I mentioned it. Something like: I have this idea to write something, like a blog, called Hearth: Heart, Art and Earth. I have no clarity on any details yet, but it might have a category called Stone Soup.

My boss was a practical type. I think he nodded and made a suggestion of something more rational, more well-traversed, that I might pursue. And that was that. I didn’t have the confidence or vision or experience or whatever I needed then to take a tiny step in its direction.

Fast-forward 15 frequently satisfying if at times tumultuous and increasingly unpredictable years. In February I was asked a question: What three words best express what you value in life? Three words? But there are so many things to value, I thought. I could write a very long list. But I struggled to write a short one — to choose.

And I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but I was tidying again. Holding the things, asking if they sparked joy. Only this time it was different. This time I could tell. I knew that my red knit hat with the multicolored tassels that I got at the Nepalese restaurant near Mount Rainier felt different to hold than almost everything else I picked up in the house.

I could feel a different energy, that something was moving and something was being let go. I wanted to take the time to see a clear answer to the question. Eventually I was sure. I wrote my words:

LOVE: The spark in me reaching towards and nurturing the spark in others (and in myself). This includes Contribution, Connection, Collaboration, Care, Effort, Persistence.

CREATIVITY: Responding to life and the moment awake-ly using practices and tools for active, celebratory listening and expression. Creative practice is like a treasure hunt for understanding and a means of listening and sharing. I value learning from the creative practice of others, including creativity in ideas, solutions, systems. I like seeing the variety of possibilities and the different ways different people understand and approach questions. This includes Celebration and Playfulness.

NATURE: Being aware of myself as a small part of the beautiful, interconnected whole of the living world and feeling a part of the cycles and richness of nature. I have made many of the most significant decisions in my life to spend time with people who have a similar feeling about nature or to do work that protects or restores nature.

Later that evening I was standing at a derelict gas station on a busy road overlooking an unkempt stream. Petroleum fumes wafted while traffic lumbered past, slowed by ongoing construction. There was a soft breeze and it was not bitterly cold. I saw an unidentified group of birds lifting into the sky and flying over the stream. My eyes followed them in the sky.

Heart, art, and earth, I thought to myself.

Or rather myself said to me.

And there was a quickening. Heart, art and earth. Love, creativity and nature.

It’s time myself said to me.

And ever since then I have been determining what it is time for.

Notes:

  1. I have a whole other website, jenniferhole.com, that you might not know about.
  2. It’s not a great looking site and not the best for reading text either, which I acknowledge is not ideal for a text-heavy site.
  3. That is where The Hearthling is currently living while I figure out some other logistics.
  4. The current issue of The Hearthling is not the first issue but rather the almost first issue.
  5. If you click that link it will take you to a page with words that I like.
  6. Please know the formatting will be improved and that I do care about your reading experience.
  7. Subscribers (that’s anyone who got this post directly as an email), for now you will get notified in this manner (a link in a Jenny Goodguts post) when there are new issues at Hearthling. There is currently no way to subscribe to the newsletter.
  8. Eventually the list will be segmented and you’ll be able to choose to stay on this list and also join that one or receive one or the other or none.
  9. I wanted to write (sad face) at the end of the preceding line but decided against it, I wasn’t sure if I want cutesy to be my style. But then I added this line, for transparency.
Geometree

Geometree

Hello friends,

Rather than begin with an apology for the length of time that has passed since sending the last note, today I issue a prediction: By 2032, “lead” (rhymes with “bread”) will become an acceptable spelling for the past tense of the verb “to lead” rather than a ubiquitously misused homonym that most commonly refers to a soft metal that is undesirable in paint, gasoline or aqueducts. Look, I don’t like it anymore than you do, but we do what we must in learning to roll with life’s caprice.

What else are we adjusting to in 2022? In the paragraphs that follow I will share a developing story in the life of one suburban Virginian.

As background, and perhaps I’ve mentioned this before, one time in the sixth grade I won an entire jar of candy for most closely estimating the number of candies the jar contained. It was during a well attended school Halloween carnival, so competition was stiff. I imagine I stood there like a real nerd counting rows, eyeballing the height of the candies and their width and then doing some kind of calculation. Obviously this victory impressed itself into the depths of my memory since otherwise I currently remember nothing — especially not a six-digit robo-code that keeps changing every time I need to access my financial information.

While my significant powers of estimation may suggest otherwise, it would not surprise my ninth grade math teacher, Ms. Balch, that I lack a certain geometrical aptitude. If I have some leftover lima beans I usually choose a jar that is too small and then am faced with deciding if those extra few beans are worth dirtying a second jar. Why don’t I start with a jar that is bigger than I think necessary? Well what if I need a bigger jar later and I already used it for not enough lima beans to fill it?? Wouldn’t I regret that choice?

But today we’re not talking about candy or lima beans (though today I have already eaten both). Heretofore I have mentioned the declining health of the trees that my family assumed financial responsibility for when we naively signed a large mortgage for what could only be referred to as “a poorly maintained house slowly crumbling into a ravine.” I don’t expect you to remember the trees, I know you have your own things going on, so no hard feelings.

While some of the trees are thankfully still perky and up to their old tricks, those of the oaken variety have not fared so well in the past few years. We’ve asked multiple arborists and foresters (three) about the probable cause of death/irreversible decline of the oaks in our vicinity to which they have each replied: not sure, could be an insect, amplifying our confidence in the formidable powers of scientific inquiry. One theory is that the fungus (amongus) are staging a revolt against humanity for our incorrect assumption (leading to flagrant insanity) that the world was created solely for our use and benefit. So far the fungus theory hasn’t caught on with many experts, but that might be because this is the first time anyone’s ever mentioned it (me, it’s my theory). (I hear you saying: that’s not a theory, most likely it is an untestable hypothesis.) Okay then.

With multiple dead trees and the slim but unacceptable prospect of crushed children (did I tell you about the time Dave stood directly underneath a tree and pulled on a rope thrown over a large dead branch in an epic feat of man against branch that resulted in a trip to the ER on Christmas Eve?), it was decided that something had to be done. So we called the tree guys for an estimate and after meeting with us and looking at the yard they never called us back.

Hmmm…I thought, maybe this is the new normal. When I called the piano tuner he told me he could be here in six months. It’s been eight months since I called our plumber (multiple times) and he still hasn’t called me back and I’m pretty sure he’s still alive. So as we awaited an estimate from the tree people, per my new normal, I wondered for weeks whether there was something wrong with us and our yard, or something wrong with them, or whether this is just how things are done now.

Eventually (this was back in January), we found an outfit willing to come to our yard and remove (some of) the dead trees. Clarification: they were willing to remove (some of) the trees for a considerable sum of money. Alternately they were also willing to cut (some of) the trees down, aka to remove the danger of being crushed, while leaving (all of) the wood in our yard. Great! (I thought.) Um?? (Dave thought.)

We can use some of the wood for hugelkultur and make buried tree wildflower gardens like our friend Clay made while locked down with and homeschooling his kids during Covid year 1!! And then we can use some more to make, like, steps or something, sort of natural-type yardscaping. And then we could always roll some of it down the hill into the ravine to be broken down by fungus and provide habitat for all the critters. And then, if there’s any left, we could put it on Craigslist — free wood! Surely lots of people would be happy to take some free wood. Right?? (I thought.)

(Um…) (Dave thought.)

(That’s a lot of wood.) (Dave thought.)

Also it would have cost two thousand extra dollars to have the men haul all of that wood from the backyard (way downhill) to a chipper in the front yard (way uphill). I didn’t want all of that beautiful wood chipped when it could be used for something that was different from being chipped but also completely undefined. Finally the cost saving argument carried the day. We would try it my way!

Here we are in April and Maggie’s interest in learning to whittle seems to be on the wane. Our neighbor has chopped one logs’ worth of intensely wet, suffocatingly smoky wood. There are about 200 circles of tree (certain overestimate) remaining exactly where three burly men, using formidable strength and also power tools, positioned them. I can’t wrap my arms around most of the pieces. We’ve already touched on my powers of estimation but, 200+ pounds a piece? My back goes out if I even imagine trying to move one of the pieces and we’ve already sent more tree down the ravine than I care to admit.

I remain determined that this wood is here to teach me something. I look out of the window as it very…slowly….ages, wondering about reptile habitat among other things. I’ve asked my neighbor if he might show us how to chop wood. (Though we don’t have an axe. Or a working fireplace.) I haven’t tried the Craigslist “free wood” idea yet. Truth is, I kind of like it there. And maybe we will bring firewood as gifts to friends who invite us for dinner for the next 30 years. (Honey, why don’t we invite the Holes, they always show up with a charming stack of reptile-laden firewood?)

In other news, Dave recently had his first long trip away from home since Covid began. While he was gone Maggie sprained her ankle and knee and I may, to some degree, be implicated, certainly not intentionally but still one never likes for these things to occur while one is solely at the helm. My wood-chopping neighbor came to her rescue. Sam has acquired a menagerie of squishmallows under which he buries himself each night while I lie awake, wondering if inhaling polyester is a significant culprit in microplastic concentration in lung tissue.

I had the opportunity to help a poet get a beautiful book into the world. We went to Asheville and had the best piece of cake of my whole life at Well Bred in Weaverville. So many other things I’ve thought to tell you about but I’ll have to leave it at this and trust life to provide more fodder as it is wont to do.

I have an idea that I’m excited about. I don’t know what it is exactly, but when something occurs to you while you are pumping gas on Glebe Road during rush hour at the end of a difficult day and watching some kind of birds that fly in a group in the winter, maybe geese or something else kind of large, could be ducks but not crows, when you are watching them as the sun is about to set and a thought suddenly flashes across your mind in answer to a question you’ve had for the past fifteen years, you can’t just walk away from that idea.

I’ll write more soon.

Love,
Jennifer


  1. Note on this new format: I have decided as a test not to put hyperlinks in the text of my notes. When my eyes pass over a hyperlink that I’m interested in I find that it divides my attention — keep reading and come back or click now? To protect your focus while providing further resources, I am going to try it this way.
  2. More about hugelculture
  3. My friend’s book of poetry is called Dwelling Place and I helped her to edit and design it. It is very beautiful.

Hi! Thanks for reading! I’ve also written a book (The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts) available on Amazon in print or as an ebook. You can subscribe here to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Melon tales / What I’ve learned during Covid / Back in School (Part 2)

Hi friends,

After sending you a rather long note back in September, and promising a part two wherein I would discuss the new traffic light, I received a note from one amongst you suggesting that I consider sending more frequent, shorter notes.

Having jotted down over the past two months a long list of items I’d like to tell you about, one item in particular came to my attention yesterday morning. I added it to the list. I knew I wouldn’t have time to cover everything on the list this week. It’s Friday after all. And then, my friend/reader’s note came back to my mind. What if you tell them this one thing? And then tell them another small thing some other time that is sooner than 2022??

Noting it is unlikely I will be able to write without mentioning at least two of the things on the list, first I wanted to share a lesson that I’ve learned during Covid.

This summer we spent some time with my parents in Alabama. That’s not really relevant to the story, but that is where it happened. I suppose you could buy a watermelon in many places in the summer months. I didn’t buy the watermelon actually which, in my mind, partly explains what happened next. Someone buys a watermelon. A huge watermelon. And someone cuts open that watermelon, sharing juicy, pink slices with the assorted family members present at the time of fruit puncture. It’s summertime. There’s lots of fruit around. Peaches, blueberries. That is to say, there’s no rush for watermelon. It’s one of the options and it requires a cutting board and a large knife. Time passes.

I didn’t buy it. I didn’t slice it. I guess I thought whoever did (p.s., I know who did) would put it away if he wasn’t planning to cut more soon. So it sat there for multiple days, maybe three. In the middle of the counter, in the middle of the kitchen. Waiting for someone to make the next move.

I’m not certain who finally got tired of looking at that giant half watermelon and cut the rest of it into slices, nobody is here to place blame (I think it was me). I do know I picked up one of the slices and took it outside to eat while talking on the phone. I took a few bites. It wasn’t delicious. It was undelicious, like fizzy. I put the rest of my piece into the compost. I mention the phone call so you will understand why I did not go back into the kitchen and discuss the fizzy nature of the watermelon with anyone else.

Later that same day, my dad and Dave took the kids swimming, or attempted to. On the way into the pool Sam vomited all over the walkway. He vomited again when he got home and again later that night. Repeatedly. It turns out that you can’t leave a melon out on the counter for days and then serve it to a child who likes melon.

I’m happy to have learned this lesson because yesterday while I was engaged in one of my least favorite weekdaily activities which is making school lunches for the kids, I saw some cantaloupe and thought: great! Someone other than me had also bought this melon and it was November. November is not melon time, everyone knows this. But the melon was bought and it was hard as a rock. It tasted like biting into celery without the strings.

Sometimes, if I cut into a hard avocado, I might leave it out on the counter for a day to soften before trying again. I guess that’s what I thought when I cut into the canteloupe. I’ll just leave it out here and it will improve, maybe. So I did. And then on Thursday, I picked it up and pressed my index finger into the orange flesh. It was softer. Great, I thought! It worked. I started to find a container to put slices of now softened canteloupe into the lunchboxes.

And then a voice from the unknown, somewhere in the soup that my mind has lately become, reminded me of another melon left on another counter. I think it wasn’t a voice, but maybe an aroma. I think what happened was that I also left some slices of cantaloupe on the counter to soften in a container and when I took the lid off I noticed a faint aroma.

The aroma was what reminded me of having poisoned my child only months prior. I took all of the slices and the remaining half of a melon and put them in the bucket for the compost. And when I carried them outside, it occurred to me that this was something I could share with the world. A pride that I can no longer be fooled by or be party to poisoning my own children with counter-sitting melons. You probably already knew this, but just in case.

The second thing I wanted to tell you about was the traffic light. There’s a new one. Every single time I pass it I think about humanity. Somebody knew there should be a light there. That sitting in a lefthand turn lane on a six-lane road that is crossing to a four-lane road with a bike path that goes across it and no left-turn arrow and no red hand for the pedestrians and bikers is a situation crying out for improvement. Somebody said something and then some other people agreed. And now there’s an arrow. I sat at that lefthand turn so many times, with no arrow, in the evening, with bikers and walkers and traffic. And now, I’m whistling a merry tune every time. Someone worked to make that safer.

Four times each week I get to celebrate that something is easier. Something is more peaceful, more thoughtfully designed. I don’t have to warn my kids each time before we get to that light that mommy needs to concentrate. I don’t have to concentrate. I just have to sit there and wait briefly for my own safe turn.

Why am I sharing this? Because it feels good to notice the work other people do to make things better.

Thank you beautiful stranger, whoever you are.

Emergence / Back to school (Pt 1)

Hi friends! I wrote this gigantic note to send you round about June 11 of this year. I thought about sending it, or something, for many, many weeks. It wasn’t ‘finished’ I told myself. I needed more time, I told myself. Well, here it is, just the same as it was, but much later. By calling it Part 1 I intend to convey that there will be a Part 2, at least, in which I plan to tell you about the new traffic light. And also some other things. But first, let’s travel in our time machines back to the end of school, just a few short months ago…

I received my second injection of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine on May 12, 2021, seated in a booth at Charlie’s, a local dining establishment that I have yet to but certainly will someday patronize. This is where Mommy got her vaccine, I will say as we look around like people arriving in a new world sitting there together inside a building that is not our house. 

May 12 + 2 weeks = May 26

May 26 = Full vaccine effectiveness (approximately)

May 26 + 2 weeks = Yesterday

As of yesterday morning, I was still firmly entrenched in my highly monotonous while also shockingly unpredictable Covid lifestyle. Dave working from an old table set up in our bedroom. The two of us here all day every day together. No one leaving to go to work. No one leaving to see a friend. Sometimes we would drink coffee (the dog knows this as “mugs time”). Sometimes we would drink whiskey (the dog knows this as “crystal time”). Sometimes we would sit on the deck and listen to birds. 450 days worth of month after Covid month. Talking about cicadas or pipelines or political shenanigans of various stripes or migrating birds.

He would do the weekly grocery shopping, initially because he was deemed the more careful half (and I deemed myself the smarter half who was willing to not have to go to the grocery store anymore). But eventually, after 450 days, after my first dose of the vaccine, and then my second, and then the passage of four more weeks, why hadn’t I been to the grocery store, my regular grocery store, in 14 months?

But before we get into what changed yesterday, let’s catch up on a few highlights in roughly chronological order:

Covid vaccination, shot #2: When I arrived at Charlie’s there was one nurse giving shots and a short line of folks waiting. It turned out he (the nurse) had been there since 7:30 that morning (it was 2:30 pm) giving shot after shot after shot because the other two nurses had not ever arrived and the line had never stopped. The only thing I knew to do was to try to help that man laugh, and I’m pleased to say that it worked. 

I came home with a rapidly sore-ing shoulder and listened to Maggie play the piano while my eyes started closing (in broad daylight, that’s when I noticed Dave googling “reaction to Moderna vaccine”). I read several chapters of Pride and Prejudice and went to bed. I couldn’t figure out where to put my shoulder. I was overwarm but couldn’t take off the covers either. After a dozy but restless night, when Maggie touched my forehead her hand felt particularly cold. Low-grade fever. Made the children’s lunches (they got hot dogs and sliced apples that day), got back in bed, and stayed there until I had finished reading all of Pride and Prejudice. Walked downstairs. Ate some rice. Kids came home. Started watching Pride and Prejudice (BBC version, 6 hours). (Only day during all of Covid that I have watched daytime tv and also probably the only time I’ve chosen the film to be watched, except that one time we all watched Willow and the children were horrified when the dog/wolves chased, caught, and presumably ate the nice old woman at the start of the film. I tried to remember a time when seeing a nice old lady chased and eaten by dogs would have been shocking to me). Finished watching all six episodes of P+P and by the time it was over I was feeling pretty much like myself again. A little woozy on occasion but mostly no big deal.

Colonial pipeline. Incidentally (is it incidental? I think it is not), the morning that I was due to get my second shot, I received a text from my friend and neighbor. She had driven to multiple gas stations that morning and had had trouble finding fuel. If I wanted to be able to bring my children to school and back, I should check to make sure I had enough gas to last for a few days. Maybe we should consider carpooling to save gas in the meantime, even though it is currently frowned upon by the school due to Covid concerns, etc. 

(Sept 21 note: Shockingly, when I have mentioned Colonial Pipeline during recent conversations with friends about The End of Days, frequently they don’t know what I’m talking about. In May, Colonial Pipeline shut down the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S. leading to shortages across the East Coast, after hackers, affiliates of a Russia-linked cybercrime group known as DarkSide, gained access to their network through a single compromised password.)

“Our goal is to make money and not creating problems for society,” (per the DarkSide website). I totally relate guys. I too would like to both have money and also not creating social problems. Thankfully, DarkSide has announced that “From today, we introduce moderation and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences in the future.”

Besides for the fact that these guys seem to think they have a legitimate business model (and maybe they do, that would be an interesting question to consider in the future. I mean, if they are going to attack companies that make money off of selling death chemicals through false marketing then, I don’t know, who being the bad guys?).

But I’m not here to question the particular business model at this moment. I’m here to talk about my carpool dilemmas at this juncture during the crisis of 2020/2021/TBD (aka what life is like now, even for people who used to think there was such thing as a bubble, which there still is but it is a less convenient and predictable bubble than it used to be but still a hell of a lot safer).

Bubblemom’s (that’s me) reaction to the pipeline thing: THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING! MY KIDS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE IN SCHOOL FOR THE NEXT X WEEKS WITH NO SNOW DAYS, NO COVID SPIKES, NO EARLY SPRING ALLERGIES, NO MORE RANDOM HOLIDAYS, NO CAPITAL RIOTS THAT LEAD TO REMOTE SCHOOL, NO RUSSIAN-SPEAKING GANGSTERS DISRUPTING THE FLOW OF A SUBSTANCE WE BURN TO HEAT THE EARTH BUT ALSO MEANS I CAN GET MY KIDS TO SCHOOL FOR JUST A FEW CONSISTENT WEEKS OF THE YEAR.

4.4 million dollars in Bitcoin later everything was okay. Though Dave did drive around looking for gas one night, using more of our carefully guarded petrol than I was comfortable with while also not locating a supplier. I know I don’t need to mention the people putting gas in garbage bags and how that made me feel. I don’t know how that made me feel. 

There is a chance that the Colonial Pipeline is going to be feature prominently in my future writing. I considered moving somewhere we could live off grid. I thought about getting on my bicycle again (do I know how to put air in the tires?).

Ladies and gents, and also not ladies and not gents, we are living in a new era. The post-Colonial Pipeline era. Have you seen DarkSide’s website?

I copied this screenshot from the BBC. I hope writing that last sentence makes it legal to do so.

This is not from a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

It seems clear to me that we can no longer go on pretending that life can ever be predictable. Well, I guess that in itself is predictable though. We can predict with confidence that completely unexpected things will always continue happening day after day, things we just can’t plan for or be prepared for.

But let’s move on to Brood X cicadas: I haven’t googled this or anything but i’m told this is a wide-reaching but also bounded phenomenon. If you are missing out, here’s a synopsis: there are dead bugs EVERYWHERE. Also living bugs. They land in your hair and hold on with their sticky little claws. If you went out at night, around 10 pm, you could literally hear them emerging from the ground. I recorded it. It sounded sort of like someone unwrapping the cellophane from a box of frozen croissants. They climb up trees and at some point decide to split their back open and then sort of lie backwards as this very juicy white caterpillar thing with wings and dark spots that look like fake eyes and then flip over to get in the right direction so their wings can dry and then go somewhere else to hang out for a couple of weeks before starting to all sing in unison but not harmony. I also recorded that. This multi-pitched sound that starts before sunrise and goes on all… day… long. It’s fine and also quite loud. Then they die. Also they die while walking to the tree, trying to get up the tree, if their wings don’t open right, if something eats them, if a child becomes interested in science, if your husband wants to cook them, if they emerge somewhere that used to be wooded but now is a road, if your tires are the tallest place they can immediately find to climb, if something like a fungus eats their butt. 

I see them frolicking outside my window right now. Soon they will mate and die and then the eggs will drop down into what is now wooded and then live underground for 17 years before the next time. Where will I be then? I was in downtown DC last time. There were a few extra bugs around but my life then was not so attuned to the natural world. (I call them bugs with a sense of irony, as we all know they are technically ‘insects.’) I was working in nature conservation, but in other places, far away places, not watching the signs of nature daily out of my window.

I had already met Dave though, last time the cicadas came. I had recently met him and thought he was just a dashing British scientist who had too many shoes for a man. And now we are walking around in the dark harvesting cicadas that we have talked about cooking but not yet cooked. They are in the freezer.

End of the school year + human emergence: So tomorrow is the last day of school for my kids. Against my better judgment I agreed again this year to be a class parent. Organizing gifts for my nearest and dearest is not a strong suit, to say the least. My parents both still have an IOU for their 70th birthdays. So organizing a class gift = trauma. (Not really, for anyone on this list who is a former teacher for whom I was class parent, you are certainly an exception.)

School is ending and I have accepted responsibility to procure a gift for my son’s teacher, who I adore. Nothing short of my appreciation for this person, plus my lifelong fear of displeasing and not living up to the expectations of others, could have motivated me to leave my home in my one pair of real pants and enter “the real world” (meaning, not my home and not Trader Joe’s). 

Friends, I could definitely write a whole other thing about the three hours of my afternoon yesterday. There’s a lot to unpack. Let me try to share the highlights:

  • There are a lot of things available to buy in the real world that, when I don’t see them, I don’t need them. When I see them, I wonder if I need them. I mostly don’t, but this uses some of my decision power and I don’t have a whole lot to spare.
  • There are a lot of pictures of people who look happy or like coolly unhappy but smug and unsatisfied in just the way they desire to be and massive pictures of these people are all over the place, telling me stories about what life is or should be that are not the stories I choose to live by when I don’t see these pictures. Such pictures are confusing, especially when your daughter is with you and trying to figure out what a person is, what we aspire to as a culture, what gives life value.
  • You might buy a pack of fancy gum at REI because the mint is grown in the pacific northwest and when you get home wonder who is even going to eat that gum. Why? Why the gum? 
  • Target is like a ghost town. You walk in and don’t know where anything is and also shelves are both full and empty and it seems there is no one working there and is your daughter a child? The clothes for children look so small. Do they have a juniors department? What is a juniors department? She wants to buy a doll with her own money. This is the first time she’s been to a store since March of 2020 so you let her. You go through the self-checkout because again, no people seem to be working there. Is this the trend of the future? Robots will stack the shelves with whatever is available given global supply shortages and you will self checkout your one box of Rice Krispies and pornographic doll (details to follow)?
  • If you have to walk any distance on the sidewalk to get where you are going, this is confusing. You know you are vaccinated so you don’t really need a mask. Especially on the sidewalk. Except you didn’t take a shower and you are liking the anonymity of a mask, definitely. But then again the humidity. So sometimes you keep the mask on, so you can hide from the men sitting at the outdoor bar and freely using profanity and sometimes you take it off and think you might want to smile a friendly smile at the other living beings passing you but that also feels like a little too much. Then you go into the store and put your mask on, to keep others comfortable I guess. Also the sidewalk is uneven and you realize you haven’t done that much walking lately. 
  • If you are a woman, maybe also if you are a man, you might recognize that you have enjoyed not having to walk down the street and want to be not seen. This is a whole can of worms but not being in this situation for many months made me realize how uncomfortable I am – and have been – as a woman being in the world, see below for details of pornographic doll.
  • It all feels so crazy: what people wear, what we’re shown, the stories we’re told, the crowding, the so-much, the need, the excess and the lack, the hyper-sexualization.
  • Also I bought my favorite kind of rice cakes. 
  • And, don’t you think it would be funny if I told all the parents in my son’s class that the only kind of gift card left was for the Cheesecake Factory? I’ve been laughing all day about the idea of a $200 gift card to the Cheesecake Factory. I don’t know why. Maybe I just need something to laugh about.

So then I came home and Maggie had this new doll. She played with the doll for a while. Eventually all of the dolls clothes were removed. So we’ve got a nude doll. Except her earrings were still on. Also her knee-high black socks and tiny pink underpants (these two features are not removable). This doll has a tiny waist and large hips and a reasonably sized chest. She has blue and pink hair in braids (four) and a sort of Scandinavian thing, or maybe Indonesian, going on with a fancy arrangement of hair knots. She looks a bit like a huge-eyed anime stripper. This is the sexiest doll I’ve ever seen (or as Dave and I both remarked, maybe we’ve just been stuck inside for too long). My ten-year-old is holding this nude doll who she purchased today in the toy section at Target. I guess I don’t know how I felt. I mean, the doll is curvy so I think we’re supposed to support that. But she looks like a tiny sex doll.

I neither binge-ate ice cream sandwiches nor did I pour the world’s large gin and tonic. I sat in Maggie’s room with her and answered a million questions about my first boyfriend. If I ever rode in a car with a boy on a date. Bowling.

Dave has his interview for US citizenship tomorrow too, so we reviewed his citizenship questions. I’m wondering if you know one thing that Benjamin Franklin is well known for? Out of about 100 questions to become an American citizen that is one. I find that interesting. Susan B. Anthony is the only woman mentioned, though answers to two questions currently happen to be the names of females at this juncture of history. 

***

Now it is today. The last day of school. Pouring rain. Also the day of Dave’s citizenship interview. He just came back. He passed. Monday he will be a citizen of the US of A. Sam went to school with exceedingly careful instructions about delivery of the teacher’s gift. We role-played it over breakfast. The gift was placed in an extra layer of plastic bag protection and I showed him the envelope that does not contain a gift card to the Cheesecake Factory and pleaded, since I am not allowed to deliver the gift in person, that he suggest his teacher put the envelope somewhere safe on this rain-filled day where all of the assorted paperstuffs of a 2nd-grade year in which the parents haven’t set foot into the classroom are to be organized and somehow conveyed home in the arms of a gorgeous and highly distractible 8-year-old.

On his way out of the door this morning I said: Imagine you are Link and you have a very special mission. And he said: to deliver a gift to Zelda. And I said, yes, nodding vigorously.

I sit here in the pouring rain awaiting some confirmation that the bag, and in particular that envelope, made it safely to its destination. I will lavish him with praise.

School lunches: I know some of you are vegetarians, so I’m sorry in advance but I wanted to tell you one of the nicest things Dave has done for me in all of Covid. Making school lunches has always been tricky for me. No nuts so there is no PB and J. My kids don’t eat sandwiches (?!) and believe me I’ve tried the thing where you just send the food and let them go hungry if they won’t eat it. They go hungry. And there is a steep price to pay, and I feel that I’m the one who pays it. My kids will eat minestrone, they’ll eat kale and chickpeas, oatmeal, eggs and whole wheat toast. They eat salmon and they’ll even eat a raw oyster or two. But school lunch is different. There’s a playground when you’re done, there is conversation to be had, and it just isn’t a time for eating something creative. We had a bagel phase where they were eating bagels but that ended. We tried beans and rice. We’ve tried pasta. 

YES, it is a planning deficiency on my part. If I made a plan for the week and bought a variety of fresh fruits and made a fancy wrap in a tortilla, maybe. I don’t know. But Tuesday morning would come and I would see the lunch bags and want them to eat something but I couldn’t just send a bag of cookies. Enter the hot dog. A hot dog is a never fail lunch option. At first it was a one-time-a-week deal. The day that it was easy to make lunch. And then, about a month ago, Dave came back from the store with two sleeves of hot dogs. Unpacking the bags I saw them there and I think tears came to my eyes. I think I even hugged him at that point.

You think it is okay if I send them with hot dogs, more than once a week? 
Fill your boots, he might have said. That’s when I knew he really loved me.

(Note to feminists, et al.: Dave makes dinner at least half of the time and does all the grocery shopping, so I find this lunch-making arrangement is a pretty fair deal, in case you’re wondering why the burden falls on my shoulders).

This week the children have had three hot dogs. Well, for lunch that is. Hot dogs today, hot dogs yesterday. They are the fancy kind, grass fed, maybe even supporting regenerative agriculture. I don’t know. Whatever the associated ethical or health questions associated with this practice, I forgive myself. It’s okay Jennifer. You are doing your best.

We are doing our best. Heck, probably the DarkSide guys are doing their best.

Borrowing. Maggie had a trip for school, an overnight campout that is usually three nights but this time would be one, masked, with each child bringing a parent along. I signed Dave up knowing it would involve sleeping on the ground under a tarp in a heavily ticked area. Also he really likes birds. 

They had to drive out there and we own one car. Sam had to get to school and back while they were gone and as mentioned earlier we aren’t supposed to be carpooling. The obvious answer was to rent a car for two days, right? My hesitation upon checking out the rental option resulted from the exorbitant cost combined with the inconvenience of having to pick a car up and return it somewhere and also a tiny whisper of either ethics or inadequacy.

You… must… reach… out… to… a… human.

So I asked my neighbor. She could get him there, but not home. Okay, think girl, think. I think I checked rental car options again.

I texted a friend I haven’t seen or spoken to since the fall. I was horrified to do it. Both because I had been so out of touch and because I didn’t want to impose my possibly germ-ridden child or make her uncomfortable if she wanted to decline. Certain my request was both humiliating and unreasonable, I sent a similar message to a second friend. And then, at the moment of my greatest desperation, I sent a text to another neighbor who has always been friendly and I (gulp) asked her if she might have a car I could borrow for one hour one afternoon to pick my child up from school. It felt like a bold move, but my child isn’t supposed to be in cars with other children per school policy. I was confused but also desperate to have two days of eight hours each with no one else in my house. The first eight hours I would have had in 450 days.

These three messages out in the world, I sat in my chair rocking. How dare I impose on these people? Now they are super uncomfortable because they have to respond and deny my ridiculous requests. We should own two cars. I should have kept in touch with more people. I should have been different, better, something so that I could be a one-woman island. So that I don’t need anything from anybody!!!!

Text notification: We’d be happy to drive Sam home on Thursday
Second text notification: We’d love to bring Sam home Friday.
Third text notification: We have an old Camry that we aren’t using, want to borrow it for the whole time Dave is gone?
Knock on the door: Since we can’t bring Sam home, do you want to borrow our other car for the two days (second offer of borrowed car).
Another knock on the door: Here are the keys to the Camry.
Follow-up text: If the weather is bad on Friday and you don’t want to drive our car, let us know and we can pick Sam up.

I’ve written about this before. It was so hard to ask for help. It felt so… vulnerable. And it felt

SO

GOOD

to be supported. To feel support. All felt right with the world. I have people and people have me.

We had friends over for dinner last weekend for the first time since February of 2020. We grilled and sat outside.

We had forgotten how you do things. Dinner, which included tater tots, was not ready until about 8 pm. And it was one of the best nights ever. I said it then and I’ll say it now. Maybe the pipeline will stop working again. Maybe there will be a new variant. Maybe we’ll be inside for another 18 months. I don’t know. But last Saturday night we were sitting outside, it was not raining, we were eating and laughing with friends. I appreciated that night so much because I’m not sure, I’m not taking for granted, that it will always be possible. My enjoying it isn’t dependent on it happening again. Just that it is happening now.

Oh, one more thing that I also haven’t mentioned during the Covid Chronicles, but that, before whatever comes next, whatever phase we enter now where things are going to be changing in some unknown and unpredictable way, I would like to document. I haven’t told you about the man in the van: During much the Covid era, there is a man who has been living in a van next door to me. I can see the van right now, maybe 30 feet from my desk I would estimate. It’s a blue van and the top can open and there’s a bed up there. He can cook in the van too, I wasn’t sure but he can.

The van comes and goes. I don’t know where he goes. Something about Colorado. Vanman is about my age, a bit younger. He is a friend of the family who own the house next door and his van is in their driveway. I think he uses their wi-fi to work from the van. I’m so full of questions. Does his living in the van have anything to do with Covid, I’ve wondered. I’ve thought about living in my own van multiple times during the past 16 months. He’s been there all of this time, and I haven’t asked. 

I know his name, I say hi sometimes but we’ve never had a conversation. When he goes away, there’s an empty space in the driveway and, maybe because I don’t know where he’s gone or when he’ll come back, I feel like there is something missing.

Yesterday when the kids came home from school Sam ran upstairs to check the weather app on the iPad. He ran down excitedly asking me if I would come outside because there was a major thunderstorm on the way and he wanted to see if we could see the clouds. We could, a little. But the house was a mess, there were gifts to organize, dishes to put in the dishwasher, stuff to get ready for the last day of school. Sam stayed outside to watch the storm come in.

I loaded the dishwasher and wiped off the counters. I unpacked the backpacks. I thought about Sam. I thought about how hungry he is for interaction. How much time he spends at home drawing and reading and imagining. He hasn’t been able to play with friends after school. We are busy around here with Maggie’s homework or cooking or working or, I don’t know what.

I looked outside in the usual places. No Sam. I went back to the front yard and there he was, standing by the van. He was asking the vanman questions — where do you sleep? where do you cook? I heard the vanman answering him: well, one good thing about the van is that it encourages me to spend more time outside. It started to rain. Sam remained outside talking to the vanman. Sam, curious. Vanman, patient. Both of them seeming at peace with the water falling from the sky.

I felt happy. Held by the world.

I don’t have to be everything for Sam. I don’t have to engineer everything for Sam. Look, outside, there is the world. He is loving the world, and it is loving him back.

2021, so far

Hello lovely friends,

After a nonchalant reference to my absence from your inbox, today’s note begins with a list of topics I have imagined writing about over the past three months:

  • Completed list from December’s calendar/thankfulness project
  • 2020 review, 2021 intentions or something of that nature
  • Political hijinx, insurgencies, inaugurations, etc.
  • Breaking through my bathroom door with a sledgehammer
  • How the kids learned that sex is a real thing
  • What I’ve been doing lately, artiste updates
  • Covid one-year review
  • Legally driving
  • Black holes
  • Tidying, again
  • My 45th birthday
  • What am I doing here?

We’ll move through these one at a time.

Advent calendar. Graphic representation of completed project (top of each cell = what we were thankful for, bottom = what we gave):

I’ll be sharing more about this project in the late summer so anyone wanting to play along can do so for 2021. It was a beautiful way to conclude a difficult year and I hope to make it part of how I think about and share light in the world for the rest of my life. If you want to see and read the full list of what we were thankful for and what we shared with others, you can find it here. If you missed (or forgot) what this project was all about, that’s here.

2020 review. It was a sad year and a lonely year. It was a hard year and a scary year. Also I was very fortunate in 2020. I came out of the year knowing myself better than I did when it began.

2021 intentions. Keep going.
 
Political hijinx. I live 7 miles from the US Capitol (the building) and 3 miles from the Pentagon. There was a lot of helicopter traffic in January. Now there is less.

Hammer time. It was the weekend before the Inauguration, with all of Washington D.C. and its environs holding our breath for a potential second insurrection. The streets were eerily quiet, the news feeds were awash with speculation. The children were nestled all snug in their beds while helicopter rotors spun over their heads. Otis the dog ate a fungus or drank some giardia or swallowed a massive pine cone. This resulted in everyone in the house being certain that he was on the verge of death. He just stood there, facing the wall, moaning, or lying down after we had lowered him, moaning, with his bulging eyes staring at me like he expected me to know what to do. Then behaving like nothing was wrong when we took him to the vet for several x-rays and some pricey injections. (He once vomited an intact half of a grapefruit-sized spiked silicone chew toy. And then, about two months later, vomited the other half. So what I’m saying is that I shouldn’t have been surprised. But we really did think he probably wasn’t going to make it.)

That Sunday I “woke” (suggests sleep happened, but really morning came and I was) on the couch (for the second night) next to the still crying dog who couldn’t quite get up on his own. Drank some coffee. Followed the dog in the yard hoping he would poop so I could search for clues (he did, I did). It being a holiday weekend, what festive delight might we cook for breakfast? I mixed some biscuit dough, Sam cut out the rounds, Dave cooked the bacon. Breakfast almost ready, Dave announced he would “pop into the lou.” I scrambled the eggs, poured them into the pan with butter and some bacon fat when Maggie entered the kitchen, mildly flustered, to tell me that Dave was locked in the bathroom, could I please go upstairs. 

About an hour later, I’m holding something akin to a sledgehammer and breaking down the bathroom door while my son holds up the phone so that my brother and his wife can offer encouragement (e.g., “hit that door like someone’s coming for your kids!”) and advise on the best way to strike a 90-year-old solid wood door so that somehow the lock gives (yes, we tried other options first). Arm shaking (and still sore), feeling quite pleased with myself, we went downstairs and had our breakfast of cold eggs and cold biscuits and cold bacon. And then the kids flipped through the newspaper looking at photos of the events of January 6th, laughing at the bust of George Washington in the MAGA hat. Later that evening they pretended to be rioters dodging tear gas.

The Talk. I went to retrieve the children from school last week. Hopping into the car, my child asked if I knew of a video game called “The Sins.” No, I answered, feigning only casual curiosity, what is it like? 

Well, in the game you get a girlfriend or a boyfriend and you both take off your clothes and you lie down on a bed and rub your privates together.

In an incredulous tone, like I can’t believe what I’m hearing, I respond: So you are telling me there is a video game where you take your clothes off and lie down on a bed with someone and rub your privates together? (We are all laughing as I say this, but I’m kind of hoping this response will evade any further direct questioning at this somewhat inconvenient time.) We drive past a house that is being torn down. We pause for a moment to watch one wall crumble to the ground. The child continues: And kiss at the same time and kind of wriggle all around. Mom, what is sexing? Is it a real thing?

I’m not prepared, I never bought that book my friend recommended. I tried to open another book to a page I thought would elicit curiosity but that didn’t work. Now I’m stuck.

It’s a real thing, I say whereupon both children erupt in laughter.

Are you saying that people actually lie down without their clothes on and rub their privates together? Yes, I say from the front seat, merging into traffic.

Yes, people really do that.

I steered the conversation to dogs and birds and biology, mechanics, those topics seeming easier to cover while changing lanes and given the difficulty of eye contact. They pulled it back to specifics, my specifics, there were many questions, there was horror, there was laughing. I tried to navigate their understanding of ‘inappropriate’ and its relationship to ‘not good.’ I tried to balance “people do it because it is nice” with the idea that “it’s nice… but…” But what? It’s complicated? It was a tricky line to walk from the front seat of a Jetta Sportwagen. There’s more to share, I’ve written it down, but I’ll need to wait several years and get their permission first.

Artiste updates. In my 100 Rejections Project I’m up to 19 submissions and 18 rejections. I think the one submission that hasn’t been rejected is because the publication went under during Covid. 

I’ve mentioned in the past that I work as a freelance editor, but I haven’t shared the kinds of things I working on. Some of what I edit is this and in 2020 I started editing projects for other artistes including two books. I’ve also been doing more copywriting and ghostwriting and I had three pieces published in Forbes (But since it’s ghostwriting, I’ll have to keep those to myself, I think that’s the rule).

I am gaining fame across the internet on sites such as the gorgeous 118els.com and my friend Nick’s blog, Intrinsic:

Jennifer is a fellow Magpie (that’s my weekly creative’s group), but I would have loved this book even if I didn’t know her personally.  She is a fascinating human being: she has lunched with the Queen of Bhutan and had a rare katydid named after her, but her book, which is basically her blog from 2016-2018, is filled with the down-to-earth struggles of a mother of two young children, though that’s not what it’s primarily about.  I found myself nodding along and laughing out loud, sharing passages out loud with Lindsey (who also laughed out loud), and recognizing my own struggles.  Struggles like “How do I, as a thinking person, reconcile the need for festivity, fun, and fitting in, with the obvious waste of one-time-use glow sticks and halloween-themed tablecloths?” and  “Am I an egomaniac for wanting to share my thoughts with the world?”  I loved it, and I’m certain that you will, too.

I have posted my first ‘public’ song on Soundcloud. It’s not a new song but I have made some real progress in terms of accompanying myself on the piano and figuring out how to record a song from home.

One of the best parts of my 2020 was that I somewhat inadvertently met/joined/built a group of folks who also make a lot of different kinds of things (like me!) and that community of creative souls has been a gift. I helped to build an online gallery where we could see our work sitting together. Here’s a little bit about the group and the gallery. In addition to the song above, I have a poem and a short story in the current show. It feels amazing to have my work out in the world alongside this group of fellow artistes.

Covid 1-year review. My kids are in school today and they have been there, in person, for almost 50 days of the past year. My husband is upstairs in our bedroom where he has worked every weekday since one year ago. He used to travel for work sometimes. His ‘office’ is the only room in the house with both heat and a functionally closing door. My office is downstairs where the kids have been for the other 315+ days of the year. When a plumber came to our house, Otis the dog was blown away: people other than us can be in here? Maggie has remote piano lessons, remote dance. Sam hasn’t played soccer in a year. He just draws hundreds of pictures like this:

On Monday, the kids had in-person school and Dave had a random day off of work. We spent the first half of the day delivering broken appliances to the electronic waste recycling center, eating at a restaurant for the first time in a year (we were outside, they did not have heaters, and it was prohibitively cold), and ordering a new puzzle. It is not hyperbole to say that the day had the distinct feel of a vacation. Both of my parents have now had their first vaccine dose. One of my cousins tested positive this week. Several close friends have lost family members. I will never take hugging for granted again.

Legally driving. I have a legal drivers license again after 17 months of driving without one. I was told (source undisclosed) that you had a year after expiration to get a new license. There was sort of a grace period is what I thought. That was before Covid and the DMV closed and I did try, on occasion, to call or get an appointment, but it was tricky and I was not persistent. So I was pulled over for an expired emissions inspection sticker (I guess I thought we were still in the phase of letting those things slide) and luckily was not given a Class 2 misdemeanor or 6 months of jail time. And now I have both a legal license (7 years to go!) and all other necessary/relevant stickers/paperwork.

Black holes. Did you read about the galaxy that is missing it’s black hole? They aren’t sure where it is and also they think it might be hungry? I just don’t want you to be caught unawares, but hopefully nothing will happen with that until April or later.

Tidying again. Didn’t I do this already? Yes, but I never finished. Stuffed (one woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world, my next book) is still underway and I’m really loving how it is shaping up, what I’m learning. I think it is possible that it will be finished by the end of the year. If I publish it myself, like I did with the last book, it may even be available in book form by December.

My 45th birthday. In October, my kids having been home from school since March, the election days away and Covid numbers climbing again, I was eating cookies as a coping mechanism. Thus, on the day of my 45th birthday I was constipated and had painful hemorrhoids. Just days before my birthday I had pulled my hair into a ponytail, picked up a pair of scissors, and – clip – instant haircut. That morning I found the largest, stiffest, most wire-like chin hair I have ever seen on my person. I received a rejection letter for some poetry I had submitted and then I found the chin hair. And then I found a gray hair on my head, very long and markedly curly (quite distinct from the hair of my youth which is/was straight and fine) so I had visions of myself as an aged person with gray, curly nether hair all over my head. With the precision of a drunk surgeon I plucked both hairs from my head/face. I bought myself a new toothbrush (online, of course). Dave and the kids gave me a hoodie sweatshirt (the one I’m wearing now). In the evening, Dave prepared my favorite cocktail for me (bourbon plus a hint of amaretto with frozen strawberries instead of ice) and I sat outside and ate cheese and crackers. I made myself a chocolate soufflé. What made it a great birthday? I don’t know. But I know that it was.

Conclusion/summary. So there you have it. Many but not all of the things that I’ve had in my mind to write to you about over the past few months. I’m sorry to send so many words all at once rather than a more brief note monthly. Reading all of these words I wonder, why do you do this? Does it have value? Why are you putting these thoughts and details of your life on the internet? Who cares? How does it help?

Beats me. I know that I’m wanting and willing to help and I have a feeling that being real and talking about the quotidian, and not only the Big and Important questions, has value. We live our lives in these small matters, if they are small matters, and sometimes we live in a story that they should be a certain way that they aren’t and won’t be.

I know I’ve shared this quote before, but it seems as good a way to sign off as any other that I can think of:

May the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality beyond his or her solitary powers.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

With love to you all,

Jennifer


Hi! Thanks for reading! I’ve also written a book! (The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts). 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.

Twelfth month

It’s been a while since I last wrote to you. Some worldly events have taken place in the meantime. Elections, shenanigans, recounts, upticks, cancelled plans, people behaving badly, people behaving goodly, etc, and so on. I’m sure I’m missing things, to be honest I haven’t felt at the top of my game this month.

I started to write to you around the time of the election. I started to write to you before Thanksgiving. I started to write to you on Quantum Friday. Now it is December 5th. Only a few weeks left according to the cultural story of a ‘calendar’ that puts numbers on days and organizes them into blocks so that we can have a shared reference. We call this large block of smaller blocks 2020. And we have a few of the smaller blocks left until we say we are in a different larger block called 2021.

It was supposed to be an important year for the global commons. Big meetings were to take place all year to set ambitions for international climate policy, for protection of biodiversity. A culminating year and a year for new commitments. When the Convention on Biodiversity, for example, says: By 2020 we will… They then meet in 2020 and say, well did we? And what next?

I remember in January driving back to Alexandria from Alabama and thinking about this 2020 year which there were such high hopes set upon from the perspective of a global agenda (E.g., We’ll end deforestation by 2020!) And I thought: Lady, it’s 2020. It’s time. I don’t know what I meant, but I felt that there wasn’t time anymore to dilly dally. For me, for us. I wanted to channel some of the energy of the hope or the intention and use it to move me to something. To my small part in something.

I obviously don’t need to tell you what happened in the meantime to my hazy, yet well-intentioned visions of 2020.

I’m not going to expound too much on this, and I know 2020 has not been anything like anyone expected and there has been a lot of difficulty for all of us, much more for some than others, and absolutely no one is untouched. I feel a lot of frustration, though, with the ads or the memes or the storyline about how much 2020 has sucked. To me, those stories carry a message of how things are ‘supposed’ to be. But there is no supposed to be. This is what is, just like every day we are alive, and it might get better and it might get worse and we keep doing our best. There is no promise it will get better or that we are owed something different in life. That this is some aberration from clean and neat and controllable. Clean, predictable, controllable, in many ways, are an illusion we were sold.

What I am writing for, today, is to share something that is bringing me some joy and peace and showing me something that feels like possibility and hope here in the final weeks of what we call 2020.

On December 1st, I sat down with a large piece of paper. I did not purchase a special piece of paper that was just the right size, I found the largest piece of paper I had at home. I could have taped some paper together. That would have been good enough. I got out a pencil and a ruler. I sat down with Maggie and Sam. I showed them how I could measure the paper and use division to figure out how to divide it evenly to make 25 rectangles organized in rows of 7. A calendar. I wrote the numbers 1 to 25 in the boxes. An Advent calendar minus the chocolate or doors to open. No doors to open. We will make our own doors.

I had asked them, after Thanksgiving and on a day when they were talking about things they didn’t have, to make a list of things they were thankful to have. I asked for 5. Later that day, the focus on not having continuing, I asked them to make it 10. They wrote their lists.

With our grid in front of us, we looked at the lists. I explained my idea: We will choose one thing we are thankful for. And then we will find a way to share that thing with others who might not have it. We have a budget of $10 each day for 25 days to share something. What should we share first?

Of course the first big question was what about the chocolate? Won’t we get our chocolate. Yes, I said. We can still have chocolate. But in what form? What will the chocolate look like? When will we eat it? Fears were put to rest and it was emphasized: we have so much. We have so much. Let us use this month to think about sharing light. Spreading light. And I promise we will also eat some chocolate.

On the first day, it was a roundabout process and no one including me quite understood what we were doing. We had been for a walk in the woods the day before, Maggie had climbed a tree, she had a lot of insect bites. They were itchy. Somehow we started to talk about malaria. On our first day, the children decided they wanted to give malaria nets to protect children. Google time. We found an organization called Nothing But Nets. We read some of the stories of refugee families, families where the father had had malaria 300 times in his life, where children missed significant time in school because of malaria. The kids saw that $10 provided nets for 2 children. I said: our budget each day is $10, but if you want to do a job, like sweeping the deck, that can be a $10 job. We could give 4 nets. They swept the deck. That was also a learning experience about teamwork and project management. Sam especially wanted to read the stories and see the pictures of the people who now had nets. We decided, after the fact, that that day we were giving thanks for our health by sharing health with others.

On the second day, the kids chose to be thankful for our dog, Otis. We decided to support the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and looked at their wishlist on Amazon. The kids wanted to send a dog bed and some baby food (they use it to feed the dogs medicine) but the total for these items was way higher than our daily budget. They mopped the kitchen and the dining room, they cleaned the kitchen cabinets, the bathroom vanity, the stairs. We read about raccoon rescue, hungry squirrels, we saw the photos of dogs and cats for adoption. We all agreed we’d like to find a way to volunteer there once it was possible again.

Here’s a thing. I always want to help. But I don’t know what to do. What is the BEST thing to do? What organization is working to solve the REAL problem. Teach a man to fish. Etc. That baby food I bought was made from chicken that was definitely not free-range.

I don’t have the answer. I don’t know the best, absolute most useful, perfect solution to whatever. Okay. But four kids who are alive on the Earth right now are going to sleep beneath a net and not get sick. One living creature who has probably not had a super amazing time in life so far will have a more comfortable night of sleep and take his medicine. I can share imperfectly. And as I do, I will learn more. I’m already learning more.

On the third day, the kids both came up with being thankful for trees. All on their own. We thought we would plant some trees. We found One Tree Planted where they say $1 given = 1 tree planted. We read all about what trees do for the atmosphere, for providing water, for livelihoods, for erosion, for habitat. We read about restoration in Haiti (where I told the kids my brother had spent some time helping people) (when the kids asked why the people in the photos in Haiti were frequently not smiling, this led to a very interesting conversation), we looked at how restoration in the Pacific Northwest is helping protect Orca whales, we looked at California because the kids knew about the wildfires, we looked at Appalachia because that’s closest to where we live, we looked at the Andes because Dave spent some time doing fieldwork there. The kids wanted to plant a tree in all of these places, and on the website you can choose to plant 2 trees here and 2 trees there.

As usual, we talked about what we could do with our $10. Two trees in five places. The kids washed all the sinks in the house, emptied the compost (a job they are not fond of) and we planted four trees in all five places.

This was an exciting day for me. It’s not hard! (I thought.) I want to plant trees for everyone! (I thought.) This is the best project I’ve ever done! (I thought.) We are learning so much!

Day 4 started off tricky. The kids could not agree about something to be thankful for. Eventually they chose Food. Let’s give to a food pantry they said. So we talked for a bit. What is it about food that you are thankful for, what do we want to share? Healthy food. We are thankful that we have healthy food that is grown in a healthy way that is good for us and also for the farmers and the Earth (we have recently watched both Kiss the Ground and The Biggest little Farm so this is on their minds). So we went to The Farmlink Project where they say $1 donated equals 10 pounds of food that, in part because of Covid, would not get to market otherwise, would have to be thrown out (and food waste is also a significant contributor to climate change, excellent comic about this link here) and here there are so many more people in our country without enough to eat right now. So $1 = 10 pounds of food = 8 meals. We did the math. The kids are a bit tired from all of the chores lately. With our $10 budget we can give 100 pounds of food (!) and 80 meals (!!). Okay, they said, let’s stick with $10 today. Well, I suggested, what about one small job. If you earn $2 extra that is 20 more pounds of food, 16 more meals for people who need food. They chose to do $8 worth of jobs and then when we sat down to make the donation they decided to give $1 of their own money each to round it up to 200 pounds of food and 160 meals.

I just found out in finding the links for this note, that today is World Soil Day, so clearly I will make a suggestion to the kids based on that fact. Otherwise, they have talked about giving thanks for toys next.

This project has been so interesting and has helped to put me into a very different frame of mind. I’m excited every day to see where the conversation will go, what we will learn together, what questions they will ask, what will spark their interest, what is being done in the world, how we can help, in a tiny way, but a way that feels concrete. I like that we can say: 4 nets, 20 trees, 160 meals, one dog bed. I know some of this is a bit of a fundraising gimmick. But I am not going to let the cynic in me win today. I am not going to not give because I don’t know the best place or because I am not sure which option is the most efficacious.

What if we all planted trees for each other in December? What would that be like? What would the world be like?

What if we all supported farmers and found ways for excess produce to get to the people who are hungry in November?

One dollar equals one tree. One dollar equals 8 meals.

Sam said to me after one conversation: If many people do one small thing, it becomes a big thing.

In hopefulness,

Jennifer


Hi! Thanks for reading! I’ve also written a book! (The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts). 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.