Friday, May 01, 2020

labor day

The kids are slipping
and sliding on an inflatable rainbow
our lawn turning to mud.
We have a lawn
and there must always be a pause
for that: our good fortune.

My boss has ideas,
and these too are luxuries
born in her former hunting lodge
in the folds of Laurel Canyon.
She watches mountain lions
on webcams stalk their prey.
She outlines her vision
and speaks of strategy.
I say I'll try.
Our most famous local lion
crossed two freeways
to get to Griffith Park
and so maybe she believes
in exceptionalism
as much as conservation.

The kids chant their demands
like labor activists
and I suppose that makes me management
delivering Jell-O in plastic bowls
shaky and blood red.

I was pregnant once
but never went into labor.
The years between that unbeating
ultrasound and eventual adoption
created a wild beast in me.
It crossed freeways. It looked back
at the rushing cars and saw
what might have happened.

Our son has formed a union
with the neighbor kids
whose parents are out of work.
The crunch of big-wheel tires
on concrete is the sound of summer.
My boss wants to know
why I am not on top of things.
But it is April, the weather
falsely warm, school falsely canceled.

Our tortoiseshell cat brings roaches
through the dog door at night
watches their antennae twitch
bats them with a curled paw.

Each day I make a list with two sections:
work and life. The kids rule the driveway
between our homes, the border
unenforceable but fraught.
The school opens
only to give out the free lunches
now stacked in orange plastic boxes
on the neighbors' kitchen table.

Pfizer donated medication
when our famous mountain lion turned
up pocked with mange. McDonald's
is donating $250 million
to Black communities
and health care workers.
What is a donation?
What is labor?

My son says, "Mommy, there's a cockroach"
and I tell him his other mom will get it.
Last night she cut his hair in the kitchen
and nicked his ear. She applied a band-aid
before he saw the blood.
If there had been a mirror
he would have screamed.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

what our days are like now

The first week or so of the quarantine was strange for a dozen reasons, which I wrote about for MUTHA, but because we're living (knockonwood) through one of the most momentous non-moments of the past century, I thought it might be good to jot down some notes on this part of it too: the new-normal aftermath, the long days that are mostly okay but missing something.

I have nothing special to add to the already overwhelming amount of content about the challenges of working from home with no childcare, or the dueling manifestos of "Now is the time to write that novel/build that treehouse" and "It's okay to just survive, we're in a fucking pandemic." But this is my blog, and maybe someday I'll want to look back at how we stitched together time during this time.

I wouldn't say we have a schedule, but we have a rhythm. We're not really homeschooling Dash, but he's learning. We've never been especially strict about screen time, but we've kept it to a minimum mostly by doing other things: seeing family and friends, going to parks and museums, going to Target. We still go to Target, but now we is just me. The other day our friend Amy said "My kids have watched all of YouTube" and I was like, yep, accurate.

Dash loves this one extended family of horrible actors with kids named Jannie, Wendy, Emma, Lyndon, and Liam. I think they're Filipino-American. They seem to genuinely like each other, and they live in big homes with very little furniture. The girls all wear tulle dresses and headbands. The aunts and uncles pretend to be shop owners and customers and teachers in little plays with vague moral lessons about being nice and eating healthy food. Recently we watched a video in which a couple of the kids are eating candy, and an uncle comes along to lecture them. He gives them bottled water instead. I kept thinking, Water is not food.

A whole lotta this.
Whenever they're mad or scoldy, they shake an index finger like "no, no, no." Dash does this to me now. Yesterday, AK told him Jannie videos don't come on on weekends.

Dash has also gotten into a couple of educational (or, you know, "educational") game apps. You could argue that one of them has "math" in the title (Moose Math) and that at least they're interactive. But I'm semi-addicted to the two games I play on my phone, and I know how twitchy they make me, how they've shaped my plastic brain, even though I didn't touch a computer until I was eight years old.

The only people we're seeing IRL at a distance of closer than six feet are our next-door neighbors, Jasmine and Juanita, and thank fucking god for them, but also I'm so sick of them. I love them, they're basically my nieces now, but because I'm basically their aunt now, they are comfortable incessantly demanding cheese sticks and playing annoying pranks and hiding in my closet and telling me the beans I just cooked smell like poop. Don't get me wrong: I'm sick of Dash too. I'm sick of myself (that's pretty much always a given).

Yesterday we went on a nature walk/scavenger hunt in our neighborhood because for about an hour a day, I am one of those good moms who comes up with activities. The three kids fought about who got to hold the box or markers, who got to push the toy stroller. Dash complained his legs were too tired to walk. Jasmine is seven, the older sister, and a relentless score keeper about who hogged the swing in our driveway last time they played, etc. She is karma for my own childhood as the petty, perpetually frustrated older sister who forced my mom to police a universe whose laws she did not give a shit about.

Highland Park nature walk, where you can also find a pile of spray paint cans in an alley.

On our walk we met a Siamese cat named Blue, who had giant furry brown balls ("It looks like she's starting to have a baby," Jasmine said) and was in the process of torturing a lizard whose tail he had already amputated.

Fucking nature, man.

Some things are nice: Seeing more of AK. Zoom cocktails with our sisters and Kendra and Rob and Amy and Maria and Holly and Joel. Why were Zoom cocktails not a thing before? You get to drink in bed while talking to your friends. I hope this is one change that stays.

I try to find time to myself when I can. That's the irony of this time: Introverts who live with people are smothered, extroverts are lonely. If you know me, you know that of course I have a list of twenty little household projects and four or five writing projects I'm trying to do between post-play-date cleaning sessions. I finished a comic I'd been working on for Dash, about his birth and adoption story. He's been anti-book lately, but I've managed story time with him the past two nights, so I'm hopeful it was just a tunnel and that there are specks of literate light at the end. I wrote that thing for MUTHA. I don't know what's next.

Whenever we talk about the Time Before Him, Dash says "You were a yiddle bit lonely?"

On solo walks, I feel how much I miss the baby who was almost ours.

We're following the ever-shifting guidelines of social isolation, but we're not bleaching our vegetables and I haven't yet worn a mask outside (I probably will on my next Target trip; don't @ me). I've had my moments of Taking It All In, of fear--especially when my dad's health seemed edgier, especially when we had a one-month-old in our house--but I've also spent nine years living with health- and medical-related anxiety.

I mean, I don't want to brag and jinx myself. And worrying about infectious disease is certainly a new and unwelcome subtype of my hypochondria. (Theory: I worry more about chronic illnesses not just because they've killed my family members and tried to kill me, but also because "There's something inherently wrong with you and only you and it's in your cells" is a narrative that plays to my insecurities more than "There's something wrong externally and it could come for everyone.") But on some level, dividing death rate by incidence rate and calculating my chances--and then, most importantly, trying to get on with my life in spite of it--is a daily practice for me. So yeah, I'm saying I was into this band way before you were.

I miss my family. I miss driving (I know! LA hell has frozen over!) and podcast-listening time. I miss chatting with my coworkers instead of a thousand formal video meeting check-ins in which I hear how they're working twelve-hour days and doing yoga (while I dodge shouting children and feel guilty for trying to compress my workdays). I miss movie theaters. I miss feeling the ineptitude of our administration as an abstract threat rather than a personal one (#privilege, I know). I miss thinking I might get a haircut any minute now. Several months after this is all over, I will probably maybe get a haircut.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

lucky seven and the screaming woman, or: who knows for sure

This is Venice Boulevard at 8AM on a Friday morning: bright sun, a bite in the air, Alana's Coffee Roasters spilling patrons onto sidewalk picnic tables, tent cities hugging the corners of everything. In front of an event space called (really) Neyborly, a middle-aged white woman wearing suede ankle boots screams.

She's yelling at someone not visible to the rest of us. In addition to the distressed yelling, her skin gives her away as a likely resident of one of the tents, though who knows for sure. Her cheeks are that red-brown of too much time outdoors.

Neyborly types
I've arrived early for a work meeting. I am waiting for lab work to confirm that I still don't have cancer. It's been seven years, but who knows for sure. My physical exam on Thursday went fine. My initial labs, including my liver numbers, were fine. Those are promising data points, but the tumor markers--the ones I'm waiting for--are the biggies.

During the wait, I imagine over and over again how I would tell Dash I wouldn't live to see him graduate high school. I mean, there are breakthroughs on the horizon, but seven years ago I was told we were five years out from a breast cancer vaccine that has yet to materialize, so who knows for sure. I stumble across a Twitter account of a woman who's had metastatic breast cancer for ten years, and I do the math. I figure it would be best for me to die when Dash is still in elementary school or after he's firmly ensconced in high school. I've heard that twelve is a magical year for kids' brain development, so that would be a bad year to die.

During the wait I think about other parents who've failed to control the world for their children, to the point where they don't even get to give their children the gift of themselves. I think about border separations, especially. The long sprint from Honduran frying pan to American fire.

During the wait I am full of anger and empathy. I want to care about things like AK's battle with Verizon and who I'm supposed to be mad at on Twitter. I manage to put on a jacket in the morning, and it seems like an act of deep kindness to myself and also stupidly frivolous.

Between my last check-up and this one, we lost Elizabeth Wurtzel, who wrote biting, badass things about cancer, and Shannen Doherty announced her stage 4 status because she was suing an insurance company and the news it was going to come out anyway.

Elizabeth Wurtzel
When I walk past the screaming woman, I look at her an murmur, "I'm sorry, honey," the way my mom talked to me when I was in the midst of something she couldn't fix.

I make eye contact with a woman sitting at one of the picnic tables, who is also watching the screaming woman. I know our faces are mirrors of each other: knit eyebrows, useless sadness. Except, I like to think it is not totally useless? In the Great Connectedness, to love another person, even for a minute, is to see the face of God. (Thank you, Victor Hugo/Les Mis.)

One table further down the sidewalk, I watch two men watch the screaming woman. They are laughing like, "Oh Venice, you're still nutty." Or, being as generous as possible, they are laughing nervously. Maybe they were having some kind of initial professional meeting and are measuring how to react. But they give me a focal point for my hatred, which has been looking for a place to land.

And then, two hours later in the middle of a staff meeting, I get word. Dr. Kwan's email confirms I am cancer-free. Seven years and counting. The odds, my friend Kim reminded me during my semiannual panic, were in my favor. Like Hunger Games. And cancer is a game that is exactly as fair as Hunger Games. I'm rooting for myself, but I feel like I'm killing Shannen Doherty in the process.

Last time, when my liver numbers were suspiciously high, I figured out it was probably from eating so much junk food--embarrassing but true--and although binge eating has always been in my toolbox of troublesome coping mechanisms (along with obsessive ruminating and sending emails that should stay in my drafts box), I think there might be a reason it peaked in the summer of 2019.

Molly was as fierce as Elizabeth Wurtzel, and every bit the writer, but she didn't get the chance to get famous because the world is ridiculous. Even when systemic oppression isn't at play, even when you're talking about two pretty white ladies, the world is ridiculous.
Molly died in March of that year. I can't pretend we were closer than we were, but her death shook me hard. I think a small part of me was like "Oh, so this is how fair the world is? This is how fucked-up and arbitrary? There's no good reason I should be alive," and while 97 percent of me wanted to be a good mom and spouse and sister and daughter and writer and citizen, 3 percent of me wanted to hurl myself into the sun to see what would happen. Fucking with my body in the most basic-bitch way was a small act of self-sabotage (and/or an outlet for my considerable work stress, who knows for sure). It took a couple of visits with clean tumor markers and wonky liver levels for me to stop.

I've eaten reasonably and exercised a little these past five months. I'll try to do even better these next six. Living in the world and knowing that what you do doesn't and does matter is really fucking hard. It's hard to know you're 99.99 percent powerless over the world and 86 percent powerless over your life, but to put every ounce of energy and your whole living-for-now body into the .01 and 13 percent respectively. Here goes nothing. Here it continues.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

can you hear the drums ferdinando?

I met Ferdinand on my third or fourth date with AK. The plan was to meet at her house and in a move that was retroactively predictable, she was running late. A thin-hipped black cat soft-pawed toward me on the fence.

"You must be Ferdinand," I said, and we hung out there, outside the bungalow she shared with Alberto, and for the next fourteen years.

Yesterday we said goodbye to him. For months, he'd been doing that ailing-cat move where he drank water from any vessel he could find: glasses, the pots in Dash's play kitchen, a plastic souvenir Dodgers cap. But both OC and T-Mec had long, slow declines during which they mostly lived their lives, and even when he went from his usual slender build to truly bony, I thought we'd have a while.

Then all of a sudden we didn't.

Big eyes, big heart

Long ago, AK and I picked out careers for our cats, and Ferdinand's was DJ. He was always the coolest guy in the room. He came and went as he pleased; we assumed he was off to a gig. He was the reason I slowly and cautiously transitioned OC and T-Mec into becoming part-time outdoor cats. I knew the risks, but none of them was ever eaten by a coyote, and they killed more rats than songbirds. Back in his bungalow days, Ferd would escape the house mysteriously and meow to get back in. Finally we caught him on top a book shelf, nudging open a swinging window with his nose, and leaping to the ground.

When AK and I had problems, Ferdinand seemed even cooler and occasionally became my rival: the cat who could do no wrong when I could only do wrong. But meandering conversations on our cats' probable careers (OC: town crier; T-Mec: PhD student in neuroscience, doing her dissertation on Why Do Some Cats Talk So Much; Ollie is an adverb salesman) brought us together when adult life was too much.

Ferd was a nine-pound alpha, never hesitating to sink his teeth into OC's neck when he felt like it. But when it came to food, he was a delicate flower. "Oh, did you want that?" he'd say, quickly ceding the food area.

He won the hearts of human visitors. "I don't like cats, but I love Ferdinand" was a thing we heard a lot. He'd let you sling him over your shoulder. As a kitten, his hunting specialty was Palm Frond a la Nand, but he graduated to rats and once manhandled a squirrel.

The girls next door loved him and Ollie, though Ollie--ever the self-protective middle child--kept a low profile. Ferd would hang around a little longer when all three kids screeched "Gato!" and charged.

As he grew skinnier, Dash grew both gentler and bolder, frequently picking Ferd up by the middle and carrying him around. I should have stopped it more often, despite its sweetness. Ferd's skinny middle was full of cancer, and he had to have been in pain. He rarely protested.

I told Dash the news yesterday after school. I'm afraid he thinks cats just go to the vet to die. He's a privileged kid in plenty of ways, but I didn't lose a cat until college, and he's lost two. He said, "Now we have two cats in our hearts." He said, "What will Jasmine and Juanita say?" He said, "Is he in the fire?" because cremation is a fascinating and terrible concept to him, as it should be.

Ferdinand. Ferd. Mr. Nand. You're DJing the best party now, and we're missing you at this one.


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

tops of 2019

Hello from the tail end of what I think was a good year? I’m too superstitious to make proclamations, and hindsight usually doesn’t kick in till a few years out anyway. I’m not so into the personal decade-in-review blurbs people are offering up on Twitter. The same people who call out privilege all day long seem awfully quick to boast about their triumphs as if they’re not the result of good luck and not dying.  

Anyway.

AK, Dash, and I just got back from a three-day trip, two of which were spent in Cambria at my brother-in-law’s family vacation house, and those days were excellent ones to end on. My sister is the only person who can take care of me in the exact way I need without eliciting a parallel guilt reaction. She mimics my mom in all the right ways. And her husband, David, is a natural caretaker too, eager to share his ancestral home with newcomers, to feed them fancy cheese and cook hash browns and tell the story of the time he scratched up his grandparents’ banister by sliding down it in zippered pants. I felt myself decompress in a way I hadn’t all year, my soul unfurling from its tidy carrying case and rising like heat in their high-ceilinged living room. 

We watched the new What We Do in the Shadows and walked down to the rocky beachfront and took our traditional booze cruise around Morro Bay. We ate really good seafood at an old family-owned spot called Dockside, and I laughed more than I have in a long time.  

Today I’m back home, polishing the rough edges off my memoir while AK and Dash ring in the noon New Year at Kidspace, and hoping there aren’t major structural issues with the book. Time is a construct, and also the only thing that’s real, and I want to declare Draft 1.5 DONE today. I’m taking this interlude to bring you my annual roundup of cultural recommendations, things I took in this year that may or may not have been produced this year. Keep in mind that I didn’t see most movies or read the Hot New Books, but books, movies, TV, and podcasts still kept me going. Here goes. 

Oak Flat by Lauren Redniss: With gorgeous red-purple Southwestern skies and near-ghost towns drawn in colored pencil, this book--about Apache efforts to protect sacred land from copper mining companies in Arizona--is utterly original in form and urgent in content.



Roma: I know it came out last year, but I didn’t see it until March. (And the book above doesn’t come out until spring of 2020, but I got my hands on an ARC. CALENDARS ARE A CONSTRUCT.) This movie is sweeping and epic and personal. It centers an indigenous housekeeper and nanny, and depicts washing dishes and hugging children as the quietly heroic acts they are.

Us: I definitely don’t want to see this movie again, but I’m so glad I saw it once. It’s riveting and terrifying, a perfect allegory for the randomness of injustice and the efforts people make to deny the legacies to which we’re all still tethered.

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: This book shares some traits with Us, actually, in that it’s weird and scary and reveals how slavery is still with us. Narrated by crack (yes, the drug), Delicious Foods is the story of how a big agricultural company leverages addiction and creates a maze of subcontractors to get away with enslaving workers. It seems too bizarre to be true, but this shit happens.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Another 2018 movie, but I can’t not mention how brilliantly this movie wed comic book illustrations with 3D animation, and what a beautiful tribute it is to the powers of both mentoring and self-actualization. I say this as someone who cannot even tell you who belongs to the Marvel Universe and who is a DC Comics character.

Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenshwiler: Maclear is a master of picture-book poetry, and here she brings her talents to a middle grade graphic novel about marginalized kids finding themselves in music. Byron Eggenshwiler’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment, equal parts high drama and subtle detail.

House of Anansi Press
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: Jacob’s funny, touching memoir about talking to her kid and her Trump-supporting in-laws in the wake of the 2016 election is one of those books that had me nodding along, feeling like I was part of the conversation. It’s the rare book that suggests we can find common ground as a country without just splitting the difference and throwing marginalized populations under the bus.

Fleabag: I’m still not sure I liked this series quite as much as everyone else did, but I liked it very, very much. Sometimes I think I struggled to watch it because it hit too close to home. Sisters struggling to get on with life after their mom dies of cancer? Check. One is very successful but high strung, one is bad with money and always says the thing she’s not supposed to? Check. For Christmas, AK gave me a key chain with one of the show’s concluding statements: Love is not something weak people do. No, it’s not.

Unbelievable: Toni Collette and Merritt Wever would be reason enough to watch just about anything, but this series also has true crime, feminism, and a satisfying ending following an expose of the “justice” system’s most infuriating elements.

Rocketman: A few scenes in, my face lit up. No one told me it was a musical musical! But it is. So well done. So moving. So singable. So, so gay. Taron Egerton as circa 1970 Elton John is precisely my type.



Getting On: If Fleabag is about someone fucking up her life in the sexiest way possible, the American version of this British show about a long-term care unit makes a tragicomic unsexy counterpart. Every character fancies themself a good person, but is horribly petty and selfish in the execution. I relate.

White Lies: A true crime podcast that is about so much more than whodunit. The Alabama-native investigative journalists at the helm examine the culture of silence that kept the 1965 murder of white civil rights activist Rev. James Reeb from being solved. I was particularly fascinated by how medical misunderstanding (namely that hematomas get worse over time) dovetailed with racism to create a conspiracy theory. And the final episode, in which the descendants of Reeb and the murderer meet, is a beautiful and hopeful example of intergenerational healing.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: I read this early in the year, and it stayed with me. A novel about a mistress’ daughter that reads like a memoir. Jones is razor-sharp in her dissection of domestic power dynamics.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

the hardest privileges

1. hibernate

This time of year, my body wants to hibernate. Even in LA, when we're never more than a week on either side of a heat wave, the warm air filters through extra layers of atmosphere, giving everything a surreal glow. Today it's chilly but bright. There are holiday playlists and discounted pajamas for grownups. It's so tempting to curl up on the old crib mattress in Dash's old room, which recently became our office/eventually-maybe-a-baby-room. Dash has moved into the front room, which he loves, and which also prompted a week or so of extra meltdowns because change.

I want to read all the books and watch all the seasons of Madam Secretary and drink hot spiked beverages. To fall into a mood the same way I'd fall asleep, a dreamy surrender.

But those hygge vibes are hard-won. Maybe not actual Scandinavian hygge, which Wikipedia tells me translates to "everyday togetherness," implying that you don't have to do much more than stay in to achieve it. In America we'd rather make it a market and an occasion, which translates to a lot of work, perhaps especially for women and moms. The gifts and the decorating and the making of hot spiked beverages. I'm doing my best to simplify the holidays, but even the act of simplifying takes some work. In America we like to work.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash
I love curling up with an old map and a string of Christmas lights in the same color palette as my old map.

2. create

Last week, I finally finished a full draft of the memoir I've been working on since 2013, in fits and starts and so many stops. So many times, I thought I was pivoting briefly to write a column or a blog post, and then another three months would go by. The memoir covers 2010-2015, the marriage-miscarriage-cancer-adoption years. The years when I was a really good time for everyone who knew me. I'm proud of it. It's not finished, but it's closer to something resembling a book than it's ever been.

I'm proud of myself for not (knockonwood) giving up on a story I needed to tell, a story that is not just about "some hard stuff that happened," but which is about storytelling itself as both superpower and kryptonite.

It's the most marketable thing I've written, but when I think about sending it out, I feel exhausted and glum. A wonderful agent tried to sell the last two books I wrote, with no luck. I hope she'll take a chance on me again.

Once upon a time I was a promising young writer with two books published by cool indie presses, and then I blinked (and wrote three unpublished novels) and became a middle-aged writer who hasn't published a book in a decade.

Aging is so fucking humbling. Aging is the hardest privilege.

Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash
Sneak preview of my memoir.

3. recreate

AK and I approached our holiday calendar like something between a jigsaw puzzle and a hostage negotiation. I want to write an essay--maybe after I hibernate--about how transactional behavior can actually be good for relationships. For years, I thought if I just explained to AK how very tired I was, she would be like, "Oh, you poor thing! Would you like to spend tomorrow resting and writing while I watch Dash? You deserve it."

Turns out what I was actually doing was whining, and while I have no intention of stopping my emotional weather reports entirely, it works a lot better to say, "I'll go camping for a night if you'll give me a half-day to write later in the week."

And so we are seeing family and camping and driving up to Cambria, and it will be genuinely fun. More so because I already took care of some household stuff (the room switch) and some writing stuff (the memoir) and slotted in time for a little more household stuff (putting away the Christmas presents I will be overwhelmed very grateful to receive) and a little more writing stuff (getting the memoir in shape to send to the agent who may or may not remember my name).

4. wait

The last time I blogged, almost two whole months ago, I said that we were live and waiting to adopt. This is still true--if you're reading this and have a baby you'd like us to raise, hit me up. But it's taken a frustratingly long time to get moving with our facilitator, for a handful of small, no-one's-fault reasons, and we are juuuust getting off the ground.

Our facilitator said the average wait time with their agency is about a year. Still shorter than the national average, still shorter than the time we waited for Dash, and probably NBD in the grand scheme of things, except that we just fucked around for two months following a nine-month home study, and nothing is going to happen over the holidays, and fuuuuuck where does time go?

I am reminding myself that we're already parents. I have a wonderful and preoccupying life right here in front of me. But I still feel all those old feelings bubbling up, that little Simpsons bully on my shoulder saying "Ha-ha, you don't have a baby." I keep thinking about being in my mid-forties with an infant, about getting clocked as their grandma. There are worse things in this world. Because I also think about cancer, of course. Still on brand after all these years!

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash
I feel like this judgy sand castle has never adopted a child.

Last night I dreamed I was at some kind of indoor gym/play space, doing cartwheels and shaking my ass, when I looked around and realized everyone else there was a teenager or younger. One of the coach-type people told me I looked great for 44 (I'm 42).

When AK and I were waiting to adopt the first time, I charged up my defenses. Maybe I wasn't a parent, but I was skinny and fashionable and literary, so there! In the past few months, I've climbed out of a kid-/job-/occasional-PTSD-related self-care hole, but at best I can report that I'm schlubby and I read semi-regularly. How am I supposed to be cloak myself in glamorous defenses when I can't be bothered to floss?

And that's my update. I am motivated and gunning my engines. I am world-weary and fine. Fuck, where does time go.

Monday, October 28, 2019

smithing words, making space

Homeboy Industries had a beautiful culture of storytelling, but not of reading or writing per se. People would send long emails about the staff barbecue with detailed information about the type of meat the cafe crew would be grilling, and forget to include the date. Someone would inevitably reply-all: What about veggie burgers? And someone else would reply-all: This is so important to our model of kinship and I just want to really thank Rulies for organizing this!!! It takes a village!!! And someone else would say: When is it??? And eventually we'd find out.

I wrote grants, but I also helped a former trainee rewrite a policies-and-procedures manual, and I wrote descriptions for a bunch of salsas I'd never tasted. Word got out that I could write a variety of things, and people started bringing me their stuff, saying, "I was hoping you could wordsmith this for me."

At first, I was flattered but also annoyed, because "wordsmith" sounded like a word that people who don't value or understand writing would use. Like it was some kind of glitter I just sprinkled over things. It seemed to describe a craft, not art.

Then I started working at a writing organization where people Got It, but I still got requests to "wordsmith" various chunks of text. I've been thinking a lot about that word, and I'm coming around to it.

First, because being a craftsperson is great. When I think about the art I like, it's always a combination of concept and craft. Like Ray Eames' smooth birds and planetary hang-it-all. Or my friend Rebecca Niederlander's intricate wooden sculptures. I like skill and versatility. I like imagining myself as a weaver or blacksmith in a bygone time, someone people would come to with their need for a blanket or a soup ladle. I would return something pleasing and practical.


Second--and slightly in contradiction to Point A--writing is thinking, i.e. concept. I had my annual performance review recently, and came away with shoulders slumped because it was clear I'm not much of a manager. Or, in the language of performance reviews, it's a "growth area" for me. I felt small and dumb. And it's true, I have plenty to learn in the realm of management. But if I'm wordsmithing things for my organization, I'm also thinking through our mission and programs and strategies, and that is a kind of leadership.

I had a very satisfying text exchange with my IKEA Writers Collective friends about how frustrating it is to be a person who leads behind the scenes but doesn't command a room or give shiny presentations. There are some ways in which I'm a straight-up slacker, for sure, but I'm also a critical thinker who understands how people work, and those are useful ingredients in the leadership recipe.

When I was processing my performance review angst with my therapist, he made me pause after saying "Everyone thinks I'm a nice enough person and a good writer, but--" because, he said, "people gloss over the things that are easy for them, but they're not easy for everyone. And even being a good writer doesn't mean you can write in every context." He described a student of his who's a wonderful storyteller but struggles with academic writing (I would too). And it's true that I pride myself on being a little bit of a chameleon.


To that point (this is a transition), AK and I just wrote--drum roll--the profile for our second adoption. That strange and hopeful self-marketing letter to a stranger. It's been a long time coming. First we weren't sure we wanted more than one kid. Then we decided we probably did, but definitely couldn't afford to double our daycare bill, so it made sense to wait until Dash started public school. We took our sweet time completing our home study, which is to say I didn't become a megalomaniac this time around. I can't do that to Dash. It was bad enough when I did it to AK and myself back in 2011-2014. I have to remember that whatever happens, or doesn't, we're already a family. We're not incomplete; we're creating space.

Of course when you create space for possibility, you also create space for disappointment. I worry about our health and our energy levels and our finances and my writing. Sometimes it feels like we're trying to create space where there isn't any. But scarcity thinking has never served me well. So here's to abundance and openness and woven blankets and the baby names I whisper out loud in the shower.