{these things I do}

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Years ago, when a friend of mine was in the first throes of a difficult divorce, I saw a list on her wall which read “Things I Can Do And Not Panic” or something like that, and the list was filled with simple things she was good at, which she had control over, that had nothing to do with the betrayal and drama currently going on in her life.

That …sliced me to the bone. While we both put on a brave face, I shed more private tears over that list than she ever knew. It hurt me to think that so talented and loving and competent a person was having to resort to lists to remind them of who they were. And yet. Depression – that liar – constantly tells us who we are not, and anxiety leaves us dashing about trying to prove we are better than that liar says.

So. Here I am with my lists.

This will be this administration’s legacy: lists. Lists to remind me of what I can control (nothing) and what I can do (not much, but something). Lists to act as bandages and gauze, staunching the stab wounds to my sanity Every. Single. Day. Lists. To remind me that I have to get up and keep going. Lists that remind me that there are still some thing which are…safely predictable.

I’m so impressed with what so many friends and acquaintances are doing – speaking up, speaking out, organizing efforts to raise funds and collect necessary items. I can throw money at things, when I have any (and LOL that with the writing life), but “silence, like a cancer, grows.” Anxiety and depression are some of the great stranglers, I find, and as events unfold and the national discourse goes from vicious to violent disintegration, some of us can barely think or speak. Every task takes enormous concentration to complete. We are overshadowed by a desire for unconsciousness during the day, and twitch restively with thwarted energy in the dark hours.

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And so we pull out our lists… packed with metaphors, we make our lists force sense into the world.

On my list right now are plums. There are plums on our teensy, tiny Charlie Brown tree in the backyard, and that plum tree is doing its UTMOST right now. Every day I get a couple of pounds of plums from that thing, and when all is said and done, I’m going to have forty pounds of plums or something. I go out and take pictures of my plum tree pretty much every day. The life cycle of a plum is …pretty straightforward, actually. It’s yellow-green. Then it’s green and pink. Then it’s red. Then it’s plum-purple and then it’s ready.

(As anyone with a fruit tree, I also spend a lot of time side-eying birds. There are a LOT of birds in my life right now. I name them and count them and …basically argue with them.

Hey. It’s a thing. It’s something I can do that I’m good at now: random tiny bird identification and illogical discussions with said birds re: staying out of my plums.)

Oddly, the second thing on my list is my piano. To be clear: I am a terrible pianist. Just really bad. Mainly because I was an anxious child who didn’t ever have a professional teacher, and so had to learn from an older lady who meant well, but who basically terrified me with her quavery voice and tremoring hands. Those “lessons” lasted for about six weeks before we all gave it up as a bad idea. I could play anything the lady asked me… but I never read a note. No, learning to read music was something I taught – and still teach – myself, and my playing shows it. Badly. But, right now, an anxious aadult hacking away at the mountain of Really Craptastic Playing gives me a kind of peace. Plus, when I’m not butchering Bach, I play hymns – that’s a twofer right there.

The third thing on my list is… creating. Art. Crafting. Food. Did you know Bon Appétit has videos? (Soon I’ll be fermenting kombucha in self defense. At least now I know new things to do with alllll those plums…) I may not be good at creating, but I can be relentless. That’s basically how I have to approach everything – keep trying. Which leads to …

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…the fourth thing on my list, which is, predictably, Dutch. The language is by turns impossible and then deceptively easy – and, like with piano, I am dreadful at it — but I keep hacking at it — oh, so badly, with the throat-palate-hiss sounds of g and h – and I can only hope that someday, someday I can solidly converse with a six-year-old. Someday.

Fifth is reading. Specifically, reading fairytale retellings and romances. A happily-ever-after is a requirement, a plot that isn’t too full of drama and chaos; the sure knowledge that, as in the thirty-minute sitcom, all’s well that ends. I am throwing a way a great many things which don’t fit my narrow parameters, but am happily finding a great many that do. It’s time to reread books that made me happy, where great justice prevailed over impossible odds. These are the times I reread the Discworld books, so I can listen a while to Sam Vimes.

Yes, Robin Reader. I am writing. That’s never not on my list. I am writing even though it feels like my fingers are chisels and the plot is granite. I write even though occasionally my chisel turns into a penknife and the plot is impenetrable. I hack out a few millimeters as I can. Sometimes, it’s like sand, and it all fills in the shape by the time I get back the next day. And then this beast becomes archaeology, and I take out my brushes and go dirt-diving. I find where the plot disintegrated. I carefully piece together the story’s history. And then I dig again.

These things I can do – simple, fixed things, while we do what we can. Meanwhile, the swords we beat into trowels to transplant the flowers of justice need sharpening. If you’ve turned your spear into a pruning hook, don’t forget that agricultural implements are still offensive weapons, according to Sam Vimes… what we sow, we’re going to reap, so keep planting.

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{blessed are they that sit}

One of the first poems I memorized on my own was Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays. I first read that poem during a literature test, and it stopped me so long that I feared I would not finish in the allotted time.

The words of the poem resonated like a struck bell, speaking directly to me as I struggled with my relationship with my father, whose love, much like the love described in Hayden’s poem, was threaded through with those “chronic angers” in our house… and yet, he did for us those backbreaking tasks that too often are taken for granted as “stuff that my Dad does.”

You have to sit with poems like that, poems which challenge your perception, gently chastise, and remind you — the world is bigger and more complex than you imagined it to be. Nothing is straightforward. Black and white is in variegated shades of gray.

This past week, we’ve had to sit with things that are discomfiting – personally, perhaps, nationally, surely. Many of us are still sitting with the reminder that depression is a liar — surely a lie cut full cloth from the father of lies himself. And that lie – and these losses of good people – reminded me of another Hayden poem, which is so fitting today.

Meanwhile, Poetry Friday is hosted over at Karen Edmisten’s brilliantly named blog.


Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday

Lord’s lost Him His mockingbird,   
       His fancy warbler;
       Satan sweet-talked her,
       four bullets hushed her.
       Who would have thought
       she’d end that way?

Four bullets hushed her. And the world a-clang with evil.   
Who’s going to make old hardened sinner men tremble now   
and the righteous rock?         
Oh who and oh who will sing Jesus down
to help with struggling and doing without and being colored   
all through blue Monday?
Till way next Sunday?

       All those angels
       in their cretonne clouds and finery   
       the true believer saw
       when she rared back her head and sang,   
       all those angels are surely weeping.   
       Who would have thought
       she’d end that way?

Four holes in her heart. The gold works wrecked.   
But she looks so natural in her big bronze coffin   
among the Broken Hearts and Gates-Ajar,   
it’s as if any moment she’d lift her head
from its pillow of chill gardenias
and turn this quiet into shouting Sunday
and make folks forget what she did on Monday.

       Oh, Satan sweet-talked her,   
       and four bullets hushed her.   
       Lord’s lost Him His diva,   
       His fancy warbler’s gone.   
       Who would have thought,
       who would have thought she’d end that way?