I’ve decided to practice what I teach (<–nope, not a typo).
When I teach writing, I harp endlessly on the need to write often, to keep the muscle memory of writing flexed and supple. It’s like playing an instrument, I say, or practicing a sport.
That’s why at the beginning of each class I provide my students with two quotes and ask them to write about them for a bit. Mostly they’re writing for themselves–I might read a few when I collect at the end of the semester, but it’s spotty.
They love it.
But do I do it myself? Eh, not really.
Here’s another thing I tell my students: we are always writing for an audience, even if that audience is our own self. We tend to be more precise writers, however, when that audience is another person. So it’s a great idea to get feedback on writing, to hone our skills and broaden our perspective.
Do I do that either? Nah, not enough.
That’s why I’m going to try to revive this blog. I’m tired of stowing my writing in a drawer like it’s some dirty secret, of being jittery when anyone reads it. I need to toughen the calluses of my writing muscles (<–that probably doesn’t make sense anatomically, but you get the drift).
This blog started out as a way for me to frame what I was researching in the 17th century with current trends and my own (sometimes random) pairing of historical ephemera and political and social trends. Hence the name of the blog–Out of Time.
That name has taken on a new meaning for me after being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.
I’m not out of time, not yet (did I just tempt fate or the gods or something? Yikes). My cancer was caught very early and I have an excellent prognosis. But an experience like that changes you, ya know?
So I was standing outside a groovy record shop in the college city of Eugene, OR one day last week. I was waiting for my husband, who could have happily been in the store for hours, but I was outside (because small store, Covid, etc.), scrolling through Twitter.
A youngish (teen? 20 something?) couple walked by.
The young woman looked up at where I was perched on the stairs and sneered. “Hi, Grandma.”
I froze for a second while the shock hit me.
I had chemo last year and lost all my hair. Before chemo my hair was kind of mousy brown and super straight. Now it’s a silvery grey and curly. To be honest, I kind of love it, but I know that it makes me look older.
So the encounter went like this:
Me: Why would you say that? Why?
Her: Because you look like my grandma, don’t you?
Me (in annoyingly prim and proper voice): Well, that’s so rude.
Her: *walks away*
Me: *curses at her* (probably could have handled that better)
And then I started crying. I cried because it’s been an extremely shitty year. I cried because I couldn’t help but wonder if my husband is going to be asked someday if I’m his mother. I cried because even though I mostly like my new hair, I don’t look like myself anymore.
And while I was crying, I was also mad at myself for my ageism. What the fuck do I care if I look like a grandma? Grandmas are awesome.
I’d like to think it was the sneer that set me off, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s also the idea that I now look 10 or 15 years older than I did (which is stupid and shallow and I’d really like to pin this on society’s expectations that women look eternally young).
And then I did that thing. You know the thing. The thing where for the rest of the day you come up with witty rejoinders, snappy comebacks, devastating putdowns:
Her: Well, you look like my grandma, don’t you?
Me: How dare you? I just went through CHEMO and my hair just came in like this. I’M ONLY 23 YEARS OLD. [I’m emphatically NOT 23 years old] ***
Her: Hi Grandma.
Me: I prefer “crone.”
That made me feel better, but for the rest of the day I was a bit melancholy. I got over the comment and could even forgive the young woman (just as she didn’t know what was going on in my life, I couldn’t know what was going on in hers). What’s stuck with me, though, is that this thoughtless young woman’s comments made me confront my own internalized ageism. I’m gonna have to do some thinking about that, some journaling. Because, as I told my husband after he came out and consoled me and I calmed down, “better a grandma than a cancer-riddled corpse.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about trying: trying times, trying new things, trials and tribulations. And last week, trial by fire as the devastating Almeda fire burned just 25 miles from my home.
As I went for my walk today (freshly reminded of how rare and wonderful a smoke-free sky can be), I tried to remember the etymology of the word “trying,” recalling that in Les Essais, Michel de Montaigne transformed the French verb essayer (to try) into the one of the most ubiquitous literary forms we have: the essay.
The essay is, or should be, fluid and malleable, shifting form and purpose as the writer, the reader, and society transform. Aldous Huxley called the essay “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” It can be personal and autobiographical. It can be informative or persuasive or entertaining. It can, rarely, be all of these.
But I fear we (society, teachers, schools) have also turned the essay into an object of dread, an academic Mad-Lib with arcane terminology. We teach that the thesis statement should go here; the topic sentence there. Sometimes we explain why, but often we don’t, and students get the impression that the essay form is immutable, a natural product of a mature, academic sensibility. That it has always been thus.
But, of course, it hasn’t. The essay form as it stands today is as contingent as any cultural artifact. Montaigne’s essays could be four paragraphs or fourteen, his paragraphs direct or meandering. Montaigne didn’t have exactly two proof points in each paragraph. He certainly didn’t worry about having an engaging-and-interesting-but-not-too-cheesy-academic-hook.
I’m not teaching right now, but when I was, I thought about this a lot. I tried to historicize for my students the form the essay takes today, the rationale behind citation styles, subtitles, etc. But I also tried to impart a sense of that original meaning of essayer: to try, to experiment, to test, to prove. To reclaim the joy and freedom of thoughts and ideas. To play.
^^^This is me playing with this essay form now. In an academic essay, I would be expected to provide a logical, seamless transition from one idea to the next, but I’m not going to. I’m going to jump to the next paragraph with all of the connections, connotations, and intuitive understanding left unwritten. (I like to think that if Montaigne had written his essays today, they would have been in a blog.)
I imagine that one reason I’m thinking so much about trying is that I’m now in a newly empty nest. My daughters have both left for college, and there is a world of ideas and opportunities out there to be tried.
But I’m scared. In the past, I’ve been pulled away from things that called to my heart, and it hurt to turn my back on them.
I’m tempted to stick with the formulaic, the security of knowing where my thesis statement should be.
I don’t have cancer. I have had cancer. I maybe will have cancer, and I maybe will have had cancer.
In the end, I may die of cancer. Even if I don’t, I’ll still be what they call a cancer survivor.
I guess when I was diagnosed about a year ago (the day before my birthday, which COME ON UNIVERSE, REALLY?), I didn’t think about how intimately cancer would be entwined with my identity.
And the thing is, my cancer (<– see how it’s “my cancer,” not “the cancer”) is one of the easily treatable ones (<– there is no such thing as an “easily treatable cancer”). I had two tumors, one on each side, both tiny, both non-aggressive, both hormone positive. And I’m BRCA negative.
At first, I was just going to have a lumpectomy, radiation, and 5-10 years of the hormone blocker tamoxifen. Then after some genetic testing, my oncologist recommended chemo as well.
“Yeah,” she said. “Basically, you have busy breasts.”
It’s okay, you can laugh at that. I did. She did. We laughed like crazy.
So I went through chemo, as well, which is a whole other set of stories.
The thing is, I’m here on the other side of it, and while I try to let my body rest and recuperate, my brain seems to be constantly working to make sense of what happened. How did I go in for a routine mammogram, with no suspicion of anything out of the ordinary, to where I am today: fatigued, scared, and to be honest the teeniest bit paranoid?
What the hell just happened?
And while my survival-centered lizard brain tries to make sense of that, the rational part of my brain scolds me, reminds me that I’m crazy lucky, that it could have been so much worse, that I’m blessed, privileged, fortunate. And I am. God, yes, I am.
I’m not complaining, really. I’m just trying to make it make sense.
I read about cancer survivors running 5ks within months of finishing chemo.
That ain’t happening.
Any cancer-related internet search is filled with medical advice to stay positive, to eat well, to exercise—I know this because I Google while lying on the couch eating an ice-cream sandwich.
The positivity message is good and wise and helpful. But I’m so damn tired. A long walk today means two days of muscle pain and fatigue tomorrow.
And I’m just so freaking sick of hearing myself whine about it. And yet I can’t stop whining about it.
And that’s it. That’s where I’m at. It is, as they say, what it is.
There you go, brain—I gave you space and time and words to think through this. Now I guess I’ll get up off my bum and go for a walk.
I want to share some memories about one of the coolest nights of my life, when I met and shared a meal with one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin.
I’m not even going to try to be clever in this post (I usually try too hard at that anyway). I’m surprised by how kind of raw I feel about her passing, and I feel like it would be good to share these stories still sharply etched in my mind and heart.
Ursula K. Le Guin came to our small, poor, rural library with her friend Roger Dorband. They had collaborated on the book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain, and they were coming to Grants Pass because it was where Roger had grown up.
I was asked to be the facilitator.
I was terrified.
How do you share a stage with a woman whose writing had consumed you, whose stories had taken up residence in your brain and soul?
How do you do it? Easily. Ursula K. Le Guin was kind, and generous, and warm. She was smart, and funny, and passionate. She loved libraries, and she spoke fervently about the magic and wonder of books and learning.
She made sure any children in the audience (clutching their Catwings books) had extra time with her. She asked them questions and whispered to them that Catwings had been her favorite books to write.
She agreed to go to dinner with several of us who volunteered for the library. I got to sit next to her husband, Charles. He asked me about my children and clapped when I told him my oldest daughter played the cello. So did his, he said humbly (not letting on that she is the accomplished cellist Elisabeth Le Guin, professor of musicology at UCLA and a founding member of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Artaria String Quartet). He told me the story of his daughter arranging to have her whole string quartet fly to Portland to play for them because they didn’t feel well enough to travel on airplanes anymore. I think he teared up a bit.
(He and UKLG lit up when talking about their children. It was a joy to see.)
All this, and then Ursula K. Le Guin pretended to lick my husband.
We, the group at dinner, started talking about book signings, and how in some ways it’s kind of a weird phenomenon. “I’ve just given my readers several thousand words. What’s a couple more?” she said. We all agreed a signature was like a souvenir at the atomic level—a sense that the page had touched the ink that had touched the pen that had touched the hand of the writer. It was incarnate, immediate.
Then my husband grinned and said, “Maybe next time, you should just lick the books.”
It was funny, but oh god. I held my breath. I looked at Ursula K. Le Guin–a Library of Congress “Living Legend” and a recipient of awards from PEN and the American Library Association. Winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. A National Book Award winner. A freaking Pulitzer Prize nominee.
What would she think?
She was roaring with laughter.
When dinner was done and it was time to leave, my husband went to shake her hand. She looked at him with a mischievous smile and gave a quick, lizardy lick to the air.
When I went to shake her hand, she instead wrapped me in a hug.
“OMG,” I shrieked after she left the room, “Ursula K. Le Guin hugged me!” I fangirled for days, weeks. Okay, I’m still fangirling.
And I’m not at all embarrassed by my excitement about that moment. Because I am a fan not just of her piercing, evocative, magical writing, or her ground-breaking, deeply human storytelling, but of her.
May she rest in peace.
Edited to add: I forgot about this, but about a year later, as we were gearing up to ask voters to approve a library district (we were operating just on donations and grants–long story), our library director asked her to write a letter to the editor. She did. I was stunned, and still am, that she would take the time and energy to write a letter in support of a smallish library system some 300 miles away. Here it is.
To paraphrase Borges, I hope her paradise is a kind of library.
Hi. Just checking in with you all. It’s been a while.
I wonder if you’re having a rough time, too.
Have you, like me, had a tiny little festering ball of worry in the pit of your stomach since November 8, 2016?
That’s the date we elected this man president of the United States.
. . .
Wow. I didn’t expect that. As I was typing out that last sentence, I started tearing up. It’s been a long few months.
. . .
Anyway, maybe, like me, you’ve put your life on hold a little (or a lot). Maybe you look at your retirement accounts (such as they are) and for a few seconds wonder why you bother since the stock market’s going to crash any day now, probably a few days before the nuclear bombs fall.
No? Am I the only one who thinks like that?
I wonder about a dear friend’s daughter, on the cusp of adulthood, excited to go off to college to prepare for a career as an environmental lawyer. I love her enthusiasm and positivity, even as I worry that there will be no more national parks, no old-growth forests, no coral reefs to protect.
I wonder why I write. Why bother? Why make plans for more than a few months out when a megalomaniacal toddler has access to the nuclear codes?
I used to be able to get swept away by things I thought were cool and interesting. The history of science and medicine. Renaissance literature. Libraries.
Now, in Trump’s America, the only things that help me forget that our country is being run by a cadre of kleptocrats and Putin’s “useful idiots” are cat videos and chocolate.
Here you go, reader:
But at my core, like it or not, I’m an optimist.
(I know that history is littered with optimists who said everything was just fine right before the most horrific acts of violence and hate. So please know that I am trying to talk about the good while also keeping watch for the bad.)
We have our families, those beloved souls who, whether or not they are linked to us by genetics, are connected to us at some metaphorically cellular level, the people who hurt when we hurt, laugh when we laugh, cry when we cry. The people who embrace us despite our fears and our faults (and sometimes because of them).
We have our friends, our kindred spirits, the people who spark our inner joy, who embrace us in difficult times. Our tribe, our +1s, the people who open their doors and their hearts to us every day.
We have our communities. This is harder: a lot of times, our communities don’t think like us, feel like us, have the same values or opinions. But for whatever reason—geography, a shared faith, a shared interest—fate has brought us together.
And we still have, for now, the idea of America. A place of equality, of opportunity, of promise. A place where our shared humanity links us together.
Sorry, this is going to be really self-indulgent. I mean, who fills up a blog with their New Year’s resolutions as though anybody cares?
Stop apologizing for being self-indulgent. Especially about my own blog. (Actually, I should stop apologizing quite so much all around. My friend Teresa pointed it out to me once and I told her I thought I was being kind of charmingly Britishy, like occasionally saying “I reckon” or “that’s rubbish.” But I think she’s right. I reckon it’s probably a way to forestall other people finding fault with me first.)
Fight Trumpism. This is different from fighting Trump himself. The bloviating Cheeto has given birth to his hideous progeny, this loose conglomeration of ideals and values, and now it can exist independently from Trump himself. How do I see Trumpism?
Valuing personal success over the good of the community
Devaluing of constitutional rights
Normalization of vicious stereotypes based on ethnicity, religion, and country of origin
A self-serving and cynical treatment of facts and of truth-telling
Treating women as objects to be viewed, grabbed, used, and cast aside
Adulation of the strong, rich, and powerful
Disdain of the weak, poor, and disenfranchised
An unhealthy obsession with the size of one’s hands
Exorcise. My inner demons, that is, mostly the twins insecurity and perfectionism.
Write more. Because FFS, how can I call myself a writer if I don’t write? No more namby-pamby excuses. What I produce may be garbage, but it will be MY garbage.
Refuse to allow anybody else to tell me to worry about Thing A instead of Thing B. I am perfectly capable of worrying about climate change and petulant PEOTUS tweets and Hamilton and SNL and fascism and whether the cashier at the grocery store thought my jokes were weird. When it comes to worrying, I contain multitudes.
Eat more vegetables. Ancillary to this: stop counting No-High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup Strawberry-Banana V-8 (“contains one whole serving of vegetables!”) as a serving of vegetables.
Get a thicker skin.
But not so thick I become hidebound or insensitive.
Be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. (If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of these. Let me know how I can do better, ‘kay?)
Be better at asking for forgiveness when I can’t do or be any of the above (like, pretty much always). That includes forgiving myself.
Love to all of you, and I hope you have a joyful, fulfilling, peaceful, and prosperous 2017!
There are those who think it was disrespectful for the cast to call out a member of the audience. “You go to the theater to be entertained,” those folks say, “not to have politics shoved down your throat!”
If that’s your take, you might want to stop reading now. You’re not going to like what I have to say.
There are others who will argue that by focusing so much on this Hamilton controversy, I’m falling into Trump’s trap of redirecting attention from his other scandals, especially the news, announced the same day, of the $25 million fraud settlement in the Trump U case.
Those folks have a point: we need to pay attention to as many of Trump’s misdeeds as we can. But this critique implies the theater is somehow not a part of the larger political world, that it is a distraction from “the real world.” I couldn’t disagree more. Theater is a distillation, not a distraction.
I can worry about all of this and still have thoughts about what happened at Hamilton. As I tweeted on Saturday, when it comes to worrying (paraphrasing Whitman) “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Okay, now that all that is out of the way….
I have always thought that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is like a first cousin to Shakespeare’s Henriad (which comprises Richard II, Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). Like Richard II, Hamilton depicts the overthrow of a king. Like Henry IV, Part I, Hamilton addresses the aftermath of that overthrow and subsequent internecine conflicts. Like Henry IV, Part 2, Hamilton embraces the place of the tavern and the commons.
But most of all, Hamilton reminds me of Henry V with its looming questions of succession and its grappling with ideas of nationhood, national identity, and pluralism, the political role of the center and the periphery. Where Henry V expands the definition of “Englishness” with its inclusion of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish soldiers, Hamilton defends an inclusive and expansive meaning of “Americanness”–insisting on the fulfillment of the promise of equality–by casting people of color in main roles.
But with the aftermath of the performance on November 18th, these days Hamilton is reminding me most of Richard II in the way the play has adapted to and entwined with contemporary political crises.
The staging of Richard II has a history of being famously controversial. By depicting the deposing of a king (in very immediate and symbolic ways), the play skates perilously close to treason. Elizabeth I has long (if erroneously) been reported to have said, “I am Richard II know you not that?” And supporters of the Earl of Essex paid the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II on the eve of the Essex rebellion.
Richard II may or may not have been written with these intentions in mind. Art is funny like that—it morphs and mutates, takes on a life of its own.
Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was written before Trump’s election, but the social and political ideas running through it have unintended connotations and consequences.
The first occurred in this famous exchange between Lafayette and Hamilton in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”:
The battle of Yorktown. 1781
In command where you belong
How you say, no sweat
We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run
We get the job done
That line (“Immigrants/We get the job done”) caused the audience to erupt in cheers. Small wonder when Trump has been declaring that he will deport immigrants, build walls, and deny Muslims entry into the country based on an unconstitutional religious test.
The other big moment of the night, though, shows how Hamilton has adapted to current political crisis: King George singing “What Comes Next.” According to this account of the performance in Fortune,
“The audience members weren’t the only ones reacting to Pence’s presence. King George III, played by Rory O’Malley, reportedly sang portions of “What Comes Next?” directly at Pence and had to pause the song for a standing ovation after he sang the words, “When your people say they hate you.”
My view: Trump’s response had little to do with any concern for Pence. Rather, Trump took the audience’s reaction as a personal insult. I don’t know whether Trump has seen Hamilton or read the lyrics or heard the music. But I can imagine Trump seeing himself in the portrayal of King George: rich beyond the imagination of the people he represents; unwilling to listen to criticism; petulant, childish, and out of his depth.
So far Trump has only claimed to be King of Debt, but he is not far from some Trumpish version of “I am King George III know you not that?”
The AP just announced that Donald Trump will be President of the United States.
The man who has declared that America’s top priority will be walling ourselves off from our neighbors and who thinks climate change is a hoax. The man who wants religion to be a litmus test for citizenship. The man who helps himself to women’s bodies even when they object.
The man who has done nothing for America will now be its leader.
And that fact is making me feel small and sad and helpless.
I don’t know what to say to my teenage daughters to make them feel better. “Work hard and you’ll succeed”? “This is the land of opportunity”? This election has shown those to be feel-good lies. Hillary Clinton worked hard and was one of the most qualified candidates in American history. And yet her 30 years of public service meant nothing when faced with a man with no political experience, no policy expertise, and no concern for America’s position in the world.
I keep wondering what tomorrow will look like. For me, on the surface, it will be much the same. I am a privileged, white, heterosexual woman: sadly, these things make me safer than other Americans. My fears are not immediate like those of my loved ones, my dear friends and family, who must worry about their fellow citizens, emboldened by a Trump victory to act on their racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
What can I do? What can any of us do?
I have no idea. I don’t know what it will look like to push back against xenophobia and fear and small-mindedness.
For now, this is what feels radical and revolutionary: to be good, kind, and loving. To be logical and reasonable. To open my home and my heart with courage and love. To talk and, more importantly, to listen.
And to do this, I’ll need your help, friends. We’ll need to protect each other from harm and love each other through times of misery and pain. We’ll need to celebrate our joys and laugh with each other.
We’ll need a radical and transformative love that will save us from ourselves.
Depression is a big, skittery spider that you tried to smash with a book or some other heavy object but it got away and now it’s hiding in a dark corner of your bedroom so you stay awake all night because you know it will be back.
Depression is a big wave in the ocean that pushes you over and pulls you out into dangerous surf and then gets in your eyes so that everything looks wrong and blurry, and it makes you cry (so much water, so much salt) and you can’t tell if your loved ones are reaching out their hands to pull you up to safety or to point and laugh.
Depression is that long, decaying wooden bridge in all those Indiana Jones movies, and you’ve got to run across it carrying your shining golden treasure (so beautiful, so fragile) and you don’t know which of the wooden boards is going to splinter under the weight of you, making you watch in horror as your rare treasure plummets through the air and shatters on the ground in a million shards.
Depression is the mean girl in middle school with the silken hair and the serpent’s tongue who tells you you’re too fat, too dumb, too ugly to be loved.
Depression is the sweet girl in middle school with the shy smile and kind eyes who tells you you’re too mean, too selfish, too cruel to be loved.
Depression is a fiend. Depression is a bitch. Depression is a thief and a liar.