The Book of Life

Ah June, the season for hay fever, end of school madness, and if you’re an expat, goodbyes.  Emotions are running high, low and often, amok. June is always jam-packed with all sorts of feels.

Watching friends and acquaintances prepare for their next move, helping them navigate the spectrum of emotions that are part and parcel of saying goodbye to a certain time and place, it reminds me of the blind terror I feel each time I sit down to a blank page.

For me, there’s always–always— a niggling fear my words have dried up along side my ovaries. Or that they’ll be shit. A small voice in the back of my head chants What if nothing happens? What if it sucks? What if, what if, what if? But…woven in and out of that fear is a little excitement, a thread of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can conjure up a bit of magic. An idea, a gem of a sentence, on a really good day, a thousand words that tether a few lofty ideas to reality.

Getting ready to move, even for those who are semi-pros, is like sitting down in front of a giant blank page. It doesn’t matter if it’s a flashback repatriation or if you’re setting the scene for an exciting new plot twist, moving on is the equivalent of trying to write the opening sentence of the next chapter in your book of life.

The good news? Chapters are infinitely easier to pen than a whole new book. Getting ready to move, much like getting ready to write, involves a lot of thinking, contemplating, and turning over of ideas. Some of those ideas are going to work brilliantly. Some will fall flat and explode upon impact. The even better news? You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got plenty of chapters already done and dusted and they all come with you. The back story and the settings. The seeds that will later sprout into full-blown story arcs. All the characters you’ve met. And take it from me, characters have a way of popping back up in ways you don’t expect.

When you’re moving, your life is chock full of blank pages–and anything can happen. A surprising plot twist. An epic journey. A hero, a challenge, a rite of passage. A new character from out of nowhere, one that ends up changing the whole dang story. The possibilities that come along with a blank page, a new chapter, or even a move–they’re endless.

At times it’s scary and confusing. Will it all work? How are you going to tie it all together? It’s exhausting. A blank page takes a lot of work to fill. But all that possibility! All that space and room to make great things happen, interesting things, beautiful things. There’s so much room for all of those things–and more.

And, for all those you’re leaving behind as you close out one chapter to begin another? We are all still part of your book, the one that will be carefully packed in tissue paper and transported  in sea containers and trucks and planes all over the world. We’ll pop up, in conversations or a  FaceBook On This Day post (love those), maybe even a guest appearance somewhere down the road. But even if we don’t, we’re not deleted wholesale. Despite physical distance, we’re forever part of your back story now, part of the fabric of your book.

My advice? Sharpen your pencil and dive in. The first sentence is always the hardest. (And it’s almost never the one that you end up using.) Don’t worry about mistakes, there’s plenty of time for editing down the road. But most of all? Always remember all that work you’ve already done is just a chapter behind you when you need it.

Life only hands you one book, my friends–it’s up to you what you fill it with.

 

 

At Home on the Death Star

I think I might be a wee bit broken. A life spent increasingly online has done something to me, something that no stream of Distractify quizzes or compilation of cute kittens is able to fix right now.

It’s like I got sucked up by a tractor beam into the wake of the Death Star.

I’ve never thought of myself as an optimist. But I think I was fooling myself. Sure, there were spirals into depression and Woody Allen style NYC neurosis, but underneath it all, under the goth makeup and bad poetry of my youth, the self-deprecating gallows humor of my twenties, even now, amid the swirling eddy of my forty-something rage, was a belief in the goodness of the human raceThe belief that despite a never-ending string of Vaders parading across the world’s stage, the Jedis always win. Sometimes it takes a few prequels to get the schematics and come up with a plan, but the good guys prevail.

I’m beginning to think I was wrong.

Or at least that’s what a life spent online is causing me to think. And this cycle of uncertainty and questioning has a force choke on my sense of self.

In my quest to put my voice out there–as a flare, a guidepost, a way of joining with others to increase the volume, I may have gone too far, gotten lost in too many comment threads, traveled down too many rabbit holes.

It’s pretty dank and dismal down there. If the internet has become my own personal Death Star, right now I’m stuck in the trash compactor, walls closing in, stinking of shit.

Light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. Which way do we fall on the scales? Sometimes after half a bottle of wine my husband humors me and we have a buzzy debate about the nature of man. Are we inherently bad, kept in check by some complicated contraption of rules and law held together with duct tape and a prayer? Or are we inherently good, mostly Yoda with a few Emperor Palpatines popping up along the way?

I keep insisting we are good. And besides, the nature of man is just that, I argue. Man. Everything’s been tried, my husband says, and it always devolves along the same pattern. No, no, I insist, not everything. And we pour more wine and debate some more until he tells me my allotted time for serious topics is up and there is a football match on television.

But lately my time online has made me doubt my faith in the Rebel Alliances of the world. That, in and of itself is a sad thing. And it is only made sadder because it’s something I brought upon myself.

In my own desire to be part of something, to be seen, heard, in the vain hope that a lone voice could add something to the conversation, my online life has become a pyramid–both an outsize monument and a scheme. I got invited onto the Death Star and I went. And now, after much wandering around, I’m feeling pretty comfy.

I don’t want to live my life with the bitter aftertaste I’m left with after any time spent online these days. I don’t want feel dirty, spent, laying awake at night trying to figure out if my online activities are an exercise in support or if it’s merely feeding my own ego. In reality, it’s probably a mixture of both, but the feeling of accomplishment–a reader reaching out, a civilized debate, conversing with like-minded people– is competing with darker forces.

I am living my own Empire/Rebel Alliance in my life online. The escape pod is in my line of sight: Log off, delete my accounts, go on my merry way.

Yet I don’t. That’s where the ego comes in, I guess. Building the pyramid. I mean, the Death Star was really nothing more than a galactic pyramid if you think about it.

How long can you roam around the halls of the Death Star without starting to feel like one of the troops, before a little bit of the darkness rubs off on you? What happens when the idea of blowing it up becomes hard to imagine because, hey, you’re just getting to know your way around.

I’m not sure what my role is here, or even if there is a role to fill. Life online has brought me joy, and it has connected me with amazing people I wouldn’t otherwise know. It has expanded my tribe and brought me success. It’s brought me laughter and it keeps me informed. But it has also brought me into contact with a dark side of human nature I wasn’t prepared for. Am I better for knowing it exists? Philosophically, yes. In reality? It’s like eating cotton candy and going to bed without brushing your teeth. You feel kind of gross and when you wake up in the morning, the first thing you taste is the very thing that made you feel sick.

Leia would keep looking for new ways to figure it all out. Old man Luke chucked it all in to go live on a craggy rock and do some soul-searching.

Do or do not, there is no try, right?

I’ll let you know. Unless I’m on an uninhabited rock somewhere, you know, without WiFi.

 

American Elegy

black-boxThis is not an elegy for America, the beautiful; America land of the free. It’s not an elegy for  geography, latitude and longitude, tectonic ’tis of thee.

The land, blooded and let, bartered for pretty trinkets, stolen for a woolen blanket and a few bottles of booze–she will remain. Purple mountains majesty, fruited plains. Red clay, cityscape, amber waves of grain, corn-fed, big sky. The land, she will survive. She always has.

This is not an elegy for a nation. A nation steeped in blood, built upon the yoke of broken promises and broken backs. Founded in revolution, fed by division, fueled by that trickle of hope left in Pandora’s box. The ghosts of America Past keep that nation alive. They rise, clanking their rusted chains, shimmering like so much heat above those ribbons of highway.

This is not an elegy for a president. His name will stay marked, bold and black, in the history books. No legislation, no course of action can erase his existence from the march of time. It is not an elegy for a leader, an office, or even a string of promises amplified by a Greek chorus of millions.

 

In America that rich, red clay has soaked up oceans of spilled blood–on battlefields and city streets, on living room floors and dirty make-shift beds. In America, when a child plays under a chestnut tree, above her head there are ghosts swinging from nooses tied round its limbs. In America, the skeletons of all those left behind dance along side the movers and the shakers, the farmers and the cowboys. In America, history is sodden with trails of tears.

That spilled blood runs through the veins of all of us, no matter what our vision is or was. You can’t escape history, cannot twist away from the truth no matter which way you caress it in the text of your history books. No matter how many untruths you heap upon it, no matter which new phrases you coin–it won’t take the scorpion sting out of the truth. You can’t turn your eyes away from the bloated face of a black man swinging from a tree, the bled out body of a woman in a dark back alley, the ravaged body of a teenage boy tied to a paddock fence, or the bullet holes in a seven year-old girl on a classroom floor–you can’t turn away from that simply because the alternative seems too insurmountable or unpalatable or difficult or it’s not your problem. You may think you can. But not for long. Not before it rises up to haunt you like so many clanking ghosts.

This is my American elegy–not for a country or a people or a nation, but for the gauzy future of a country I held close to my heart, even when I was not there. In that future, we acknowledged those ghosts, paid homage to the land we’ve ravaged and raped, paid tribute to the broken backs upon which we’ve all walked to get right here. In that vision, the skeletons of the past rose up to dance, leading us forward in that arc toward justice.

Today though, the skeletons are still, heads bowed. One step forward and four steps back; not so much a dance as a stumble.

Today, I wail and keen through words, in an elegy for an idea which seemed close to bursting forth through the earth and into the light. Today I recognize that idea was further away than I thought. Today I apologize to all of those who understood that before I did.

Today that much vaunted arc seems pretty damn far away.

 

 

 

 

More Than Just a Number

doctorI did something the other day we tell our kids not to do: I met a stranger I’d befriended on the internet.

The story is one of those bizarre ‘small world’ moments that happen from time to time on the internet, but over the course of the last few months, Valerie and I have been instant message pen-pal-ing, sharing stories and articles, histories and theories. When she told me she was coming to Copenhagen to visit her sister, of course I wanted to meet her in person.

On the surface, we have little in common. I’m from the Northeast, and she’s from the deep south. She’s retired, no kids, likes dogs…yet we connected through a commonality: looking for a little bit of orientation in a world that to many, seems to have turned upside down.

Sitting across from one another rather than across a computer screen, we talked about many of the same things–politics, women’s rights, travel. We talked about her work. I asked her, as a doctor who has done a lot of work with veterans, what she thought was wrong with healthcare in the US. She paused, considering before she answered.

There’s no autonomy in the way doctors are allowed to work anymore, she said. It’s all about codes and numbers, squeezing in as many patients as you can. Eventually, she said, patients stopped being patients and started being customers. They’re even referred to as such by some.

It’s the same complaint I’ve heard from teachers. Students are no longer students, they’re test-takers. Many teachers I speak to feel like they’ve lost the autonomy to actually teach to a group of individual children, but now must teach to prospective test takers, teaching to achieve test results. Students, like medical patients, are reduced to numbers and output. Customers for a huge test-taking industry in the United States and elsewhere.

A string of numbers in a column somewhere that will be tabulated and calculated and crunched.

*******

Somewhere along the way we it seems we stopped being human beings and start beingAt Cooper School Miss Thelma Dewitty teaches the second grade. Miss Dewitty is a graduate of the University of washington. She taught in Corpus Christi Tex., for seven years, coming to Seattle in 1947. ( / ) customers. In a never-ending quest for bigger profit margins, happier share-holders and bottom lines we have certainly succeeded in lining a lot of pockets. We’ve saved some big corporations some money. We’ve saved some businesses from going under.

But at what cost? I worry we are also stripping the humanity out the very things we need to keep us human: medicine, teaching, the arts.

The day after our lunch, I read that several high-profile authors have decided to quit Twitter. Another up and comer lamented she would do the same, but didn’t have the luxury, she was still building her brand. I get it, because I do it to. An author with an as yet unpublished book, a writer shilling my work for shillings, if not for free, the first piece of advice you get is not about polishing your work or honing your craft, it’s about building a brand for yourself so you have a base to market to. You need a brand.

We’ve all become brands to a degree. Individual social media logos. Profile pictures and Snapchat avatars. Billions of individual brands. We merge and acquire with other brands to form supersized corporations. The GOP is a nothing more than a massive corporate machine made up of millions of individual brands. The Democratic party the same. We may as well all be walking around with corporate logos tattooed on our forehead.

We’ve become Coke vs. Pepsi.

**********

How do you successfully treat a patient when the end result is not to treat, but to code the right diagnosis on the insurance form? How do you gain a skittish patient’s trust when you have quotas to meet? How do you teach a child when the end result is test numbers, not learning?

There is a place for business. Marketing of goods. Marketing of services. Commerce. Trade. But increasingly we are treating all of our interactions like business transactions. We shouldn’t be trading in human beings. We shouldn’t be using our own lives as currency.

Medicine, teaching, jobs that require face to face interaction in order to do successfully-those are not businesses where you can just come in, look at the numbers and say, cut this, do that, increase productivity. The results are physicians like Valerie who end up retiring out of frustration, because they can’t do their jobs the best way they know how. You can’t come in and look at the numbers and say, these students need to score higher on tests or we will cut your funding. All that’s doing is tying the hands of teachers who know how to teach those kids, who are all individuals and learn differently.

The United States is about to swear in a leader who ran on a campaign promise of running the country like a business. It makes me pause to think what that really means, in real terms, for the people who make up that country.

1950-connally-lilienthal-mcmahon-locAll those numbers and statistics who are not individual brands to buy and sell and trade, but human beings with needs and wants.

We are not customers. We’re not numbers to be crunched or cut when it is going to save a few pennies. We are citizens.

We need to keep shining a light on the human part of humanity. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s as easy as  going to meet someone you’ve never met and sharing stories over lunch.