Thursday, December 17, 2020

Yesterday I Cancelled Thanksgiving in Passager's Pandemic Diaries

Diary, journal, morning pages - like many I write (almost) daily to record my thoughts and observations. Sometimes that writing finds its way into a book or poem or blog piece. Sometimes it remains scribbles in a notebook. This year started no differently. Then the pandemic hit in March and I started typing everything and saving it by month in a desktop file labeled COVID Diary. 

Three months later my grandson was born. I began to imagine the comments this little boy may receive throughout his life when he mentions his birthdate. When I found myself addressing my writing to him, I renamed the file - The Year You Were Born.

A friend gifted me a copy of Passager, a collection of the 2019 poetry contest winners and I learned of their call for submissions to the Passager's Pandemic Diaries. I'm pleased to share that a piece I wrote about cancelling our Thanksgiving dinner plans was included.

Please CLICK HERE to read the many wonderful journal entries included and consider submitting your own.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Scheduling for Sanity

As I embark on retirement, I am pleased to settle into a schedule that ensures my personal essentials for a rewarding life – family and friends, reading and writing, and physical activity. 

I now have a schedule that I admit is not self-imposed but structured around my daughter and son-in-law’s childcare needs. Two days each week are dedicated to my grandson. Two days of absolute joy and total exhaustion. Two days that include two or three hours of pushing a stroller up and down the West Seattle hills. I call him my personal trainer – the lull of the stroller overcoming his refusal to nap spurs me on.

So exercise overlaps with family time, as it does with friend time on other days of cycling or walking. On lousy wet Seattle days, cycling becomes a solitary indoor activity with my bike in a trainer. But still, I try to exercise daily. To keep my sanity.

Though most days writing is a solitary activity, I’m fortunate to share the writing habit with friends a couple of days each week. Hours are spent writing together in silence, sharing newly drafted work, discussing craft and more. The love of words and storytelling, of self-expression and creativity bind us together.

My life is full even during this time of COVID isolation, even as I make this shift from a lifetime of work to one of retirement, but creating a weekly schedule and a daily To Do list definitely helps. Not a rigid schedule, not a schedule with no wiggle room, but still a schedule that ensures family and friends, reading and writing, and exercise are all a part of each day.

Are you working from home? Are you retired? How does scheduling your time work best for you?

Monday, November 16, 2020

Facebook Memory

A Facebook “memory” greeted me a few weeks ago. A high school classmate had posted a photo of herself holding her new copy of my latest memoir. I clicked “share” and added a thank you. Cindy’s follow up comment read I need another book from you. For fun, I asked Fiction or memoir? Either, she said. That brief exchange got me thinking about the year that has slipped away.

Around the time of that last publication, a writer friend asked what was next. I confessed I was tired, that maybe I needed a break, maybe I’d try poetry for a while. Something different. Something I knew nothing about. But what I’ve discovered or maybe what I’ve known all along is that I’m a book person – fiction, nonfiction, memoir – but book length. Something that pulls me into a different world and holds me there. I’m currently reading a collection of wonderful short stories by Langston Hughes titled The Ways of White Folks, and I find I want each story to continue. I’m greedy for more. I can’t move from one to the next with ease. As with stories and essays, I find it hard to read a book of poems from cover to cover. So the accumulation of collections scatter throughout my small home for quick visits at random moments throughout the day when I’ve lost track of what it was I was doing.

When I read, I want to be pulled into a world of characters and events. When I write, I want the same. I want to see the story in my head, eyes closed. I want to know the bookends, beginning and end. I want to get to know the characters, watch them develop. I usually don’t know how everyone will get from beginning to end, but I know where they’re headed. It’s not unusual for surprises to arise, for the bookends to shift, for characters to take unintended paths. The planned ending and the changes that appear along the journey create a pull, a tug to the table, to the pen and paper, that keep me writing, keep me in the story for the months, the years it can take to create even the first draft of a book-length manuscript.

So where am I now? With a notebook of draft poems and the start of a novel manuscript that requires in-person research – impossible during the pandemic. This time of COVID has no bookends, and the writer in me is floundering. So my apologies, Cindy, but the next book will be slow in coming. Blame it on the pandemic.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

What Country Will My Grandson Know?

According to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, anxiety refers to “a painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usu. over an impending or anticipated ill.”

The online Oxford Languages Dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

Anxiety affects each of us in unique ways. For me, it feels like someone has slugged me in the stomach, knocking the air out of me and leaving lingering pain for days. It is physical, but also “of mind.” Take last night. I was awake for hours, my thoughts churning.

2020 has provided plenty of “uncertain outcome(s)” from the pandemic to politics. Anxiety slithers through our terrors and pain with absolute abandon. The “impending or anticipated ill” of our shared future feeding the hungry snake.

The pandemic began with my first experience in online teaching in March and unexpected retirement in September. It began with intense concern for my pregnant daughter’s well-being and the premature birth of my grandson in June as social justice activists marched below their hospital window. Now retirement allows me to provide childcare for this grandson as my daughter returns to work at Harborview ER on the eve of another projected spike in COVID infections.

As I scribble these thoughts, people across this vast country are standing in long lines for the opportunity to practice their constitutional right to cast their vote. The outcome is still uncertain, and anxiety remains unabated. The result of this election will determine the direction of our country. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Retirement? Now?

I had not planned on retiring yet. Not this year. Not next. I taught at an urban college for 33 years. 35 seemed like a good number. Two more years to take that serious look at our "financial future" and "potential healthcare costs." Something my husband and I have never given much attention.

Besides, who in their right mind retires during an international pandemic? Who walks away from a secure tenured professorship in the midst of the worst national unrest since the mid-1800s? Who abandons financial security on the cusp of an election that will shape the future of our world as we know it?

Apparently, I do.

The District, consisting of three colleges including the one where I spent half my life, is in serious financial crisis. Rather than downsizing the top-heavy administration or reducing the inflated salaries of the chancellor, his ten vice chancellors and three presidents, they opted to reduce the tenured teaching staff. Inflated you ask? The chancellor makes $303K, thirty percent more than our state governor. Besides, reducing tenured faculty allows greater flexibility for future adjunct faculty layoffs.

But don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t forced to retire. None of us were (on my campus alone, nine tenured faculty have opted to leave). We were offered a tenure buyout (50% of 2020-2021 salary) with five weeks to make the decision and complete the retirement process. I cannot speak for the other eight, but I couldn’t teach for a year knowing that if I stayed home, I’d still receive half my salary. 

I will miss my students and all they taught me. I will miss having the opportunity to develop my online teaching skills this academic year with an eye toward building a hybrid English language program for immigrants and refugees when the campus eventually reopens. And I will miss participating in campus-wide efforts to create a truly antiracist environment.

But I am now retired. My head is spinning, and I am still trying to figure out how to structure my days. I have cycling and hiking, reading and writing, despite COVID. And best of all, by some inexplicable gift of synchronicity, my unexpected retirement coincides with the end of my daughter’s family leave and an offer she received to work dayshift. So, as she returns to Harborview ER, the joy of spending time with this little guy a few days each week will be all mine. How wonderful is that?!

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

When Empathy is Not Enough

At least once a week, maybe twice I cycle or walk Beach Drive in West Seattle. Every time I pass this memorial at Seacrest Park it gives me pause, brings tears to my eyes. I am often pulled to a stop by an invisible thread, to see, to read, to honor the dead. 

I do not know who created this memorial or even when. I do not know who periodically adds photos or changes the flowers. It does not matter. What I do know is that I photographed it on July 20. A month ago I took dozens of photos I never posted. So why now?

I was inspired by Michelle Obama’s words last night at the Democratic National Convention, by her challenge to move our empathy to action, action that will move our country toward a racially just home for all:

... it is up to us to add our voices and our votes to the course of history, echoing heroes like John Lewis who said, “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.” That is the truest form of empathy: not just feeling, but doing; not just for ourselves or our kids, but for everyone, for all our kids.

These photos in my phone have been a painful personal reminder of injustice, of violence, of hatred. But I have used my empathy for nothing. I have done nothing. Now, I share a few of them with a plea to vote, to request your ballot now and to vote early. 

I do not know if a new president can alone change the direction our country has taken for the past four years, but I do know that we cannot survive another four years on the same crash course we are on now. A course of racist and sexist violence and a denial of science that has led to over a 160,000 COVID deaths, a number that continues to grow.

As I stare into the eyes of my tiny White grandson, I want a better country, a more just world for him and for all the babies – Brown, Black and White – born during this time of COVID-19, of economic insecurity, of racial injustice.

These 186 people, young and old, were murdered. Some for their political voice. Most for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All for the color of their skin. 

This is not the country I want my grandson to inherit, a country with a long history of systematic racism. We must do better, be better. We must elect representatives who will listen, who will acknowledge and change the racist policies continuing to shape our country. Four hundred years of racist policies.

I believe my vote matters. I believe your vote matters.

I believe we can change if we listen beyond the headlines, if we read our history from all voices, if we question the beliefs held by the dominate White culture.

I believe we must change, if not for ourselves, for our children. For our grandchildren.

Friday, July 31, 2020

So Very Much to Learn

The Pacific Northwest summer soothes with days of rain and sun, of gray and brilliance. Yet this summer is unlike any other of my long teaching career. I am not basking in a period of rejuvenation, of cycling, of writing. Of simply enjoying my first grandchild. Instead it is a summer of COVID isolation and social unrest. 

It is a summer of change, and for me a time of intense study. I cannot totally disconnect from work because there is too much happening. So, I attend a few remote meetings each week, and I struggle to educate myself in order to understand the violence that fills our streets and the discord that questions the lack of social justice in the lives of my students, in the workings of my college, and in the structure my country.

I continue to work through my summer reading list, adding more titles as I go along. Earlier this spring, during my months of vision problems, I learned the joy of listening to audio books. Even though I can read again, I have continued the practice of listening, so I’m working through that list more quickly than I expected. So far, I’ve read: 

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery  
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad
Disgruntled, Asali Solomon
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin

Currently I’m reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Race, Empire,and English Language Teaching by Suhanthie Motha while listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (despite, or perhaps because of, John McWhorter’s critic “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility” in The Atlantic, July 15, 2020).
What have I garnered from all this reading? I’ll own that my understanding of the racial justice movement in America faded after Civil Rights. More recent events have made me aware of my ignorance of systematic racism. I decided to try to understand what has gone wrong, or rather what has always been wrong, for so many people in this country. I have found all of these books interesting in one way or another, but the most helpful of those I have dipped into so far is probably Michelle Alexander’s 2010 study of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in America since the early 1970s. 

Digging a bit deeper online, I learned that during a 1994 interview, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman was quoted as saying “the Nixon campaign had two enemies: ‘the antiwar left and black people.’” He then went on to explain “We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’” 

A few days ago, I came across the same quote on page 25 of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. It warrants repetition: “President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs in 1971 to devastate his harshest critics--Black and anti-war activists. ‘We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,’ Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told a Harper’s reporter years later. ‘Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”

So began the war on drugs, the results of which are still being felt almost fifty years later. According to the Pew Research Center, while overall imprisonment rates have declined since 2007, “In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites (272 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (823 per 100,000).

According to Prison Legal News, “In 2010, the percentage of all Americans with a felony record was 8.11 percent (including three percent who have served time in prison), but for black males the rate was 33 percent (including 15 percent who have been to prison). Additionally, while the absolute number of people with felony convictions increased threefold between 1980 and 2010, it increased fivefold for blacks during that time.

On June 11, 2020 ABC News posted an article titled “ABC News analysis of police arrests nationwide reveals stark racial disparity” stating “In an analysis of arrest data thousands of police departments voluntarily reported to the FBI, in 800 jurisdictions, black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than white people in 2018.

Mass incarceration – America’s latest form of legal segregation – is the new Jim Crow of Michelle Alexander’s book title, but how can this be legal? What about Constitutional rights? 

A few days ago, when my husband shared a HuffPost article titled “The Supreme Court Built America’s Broken Policing System And It’s Working Just As Intended,” more pieces of the confusing puzzle of systematic racism began to fall into place for me. It is a long, detailed article, by Paul Blumenthal which begins:

“Police and the politicians who protect them get most of the attention in the movement to defund or reform law enforcement. But there’s another, more powerful force that’s allowed law enforcement to use force on citizens, stop them without a warrant, lock them up for minor crimes and even raid their homes without a knock.

The Supreme Court has spent the last 50 years affirming the power of police to legally take such actions. The system built by officials and sanctioned by the court isn’t broken; it’s working just as intended.”

I feel my rosy colored glasses shattering. I have lived a life of guilt and empathy, aware that my white skin gives me privilege and security others do not have. Still, I have been blind to the depth of systematic racism, inequity, and violence surrounding me every day. The fact that I got through eighteen years of American education having never been introduced to James Baldwin speaks volumes. I still have so very much to learn.