Friday, February 19, 2021

COVID & Creativity

This was my day: I woke at 6 am and dozed for another hour. The first upright hour, I wasted on my cell – email, news, social media. I watched a Roy Orbison and KD Lang duet, started a load of laundry, then decided I needed to hear more KD Lang. I spent another hour or two listening to music, researching Canadian songwriters - Leonardo Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jane Siberry, Sarah McLachlan, Leon Redbone (a rabbit hole of talent) – while reading about inspiration and creativity.

The reading was inspired by this wonderful video clip my friend, Veronique Burke, shared of the work she’s created during this pandemic year. It got me wondering about how little I’ve been writing and the reasons for that change. Then I made chocolate chip banana bread, cleaned out the refrigerator and made a shopping list. If not for the falling rain, melting snow and slushy sidewalks, I might have walked to the store, or driven. Instead, I folded laundry before sitting down to finish Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns – The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Finally, after numerous additional texts with sisters and friends, I sat and scribbled a draft of this post with Veronique’s video of looping through my brain. Veronique’s creativity explodes in image, paper mache and mosaic. It’s clear that she had a blast expressing herself and decorating her world. I admire that, and I’m grateful to her for the reminder that self-expression can do wonders for the soul and that creativity doesn’t bloom on its own but grows through regular attention, a practice that’s easy to lose during these endless months of isolation.

How are you expressing your creativity these days?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Hope in Portland?

Portland, Oregon is a city of memories. A quirky, friendly, fun city. A place for back-to-school shopping trips with my daughter and romantic getaways with my husband. Built on the Willamette River, it reminds me a bit of Paris or London, with parks and paths along both banks and crossed by numerous bridges. 

Ten days after the insurrection in D.C., my husband needed to make the three-hour drive from Seattle to Portland for business. I decided to tag along, and we booked a room in one of Portland’s historic downtown hotels. We assumed the low rates were pandemic related. After checking in and parking the car in the garage – for us walking or cycling is the best way to enjoy Portland – we headed toward the river and soon discovered that Portland is no longer the City of Roses I have long loved.

Last summer’s peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations in response to the May 25th murder of George Floyd turned violent when white supremacists, anarchists, and Trump supporters converged on the city. When federal agents were called in, violence escalated. It is still smoldering.

That violence combined with the financial crisis caused by the pandemic has left a wasteland of boarded up buildings. Some stores are open for limited business with entrances through reinforced doors. A few restaurants offer outdoor dining, but most we saw offer take-out only or remain closed. Chain link fences surround official buildings, monuments, and parks. Homeless people, tents and garbage are visible at every turn.

We headed toward Portland’s famous food trucks for a late lunch. There are several areas we have enjoyed on prior visits. This time we found them amid seas of homeless encampments. After being approached a few times for handouts, we opted to move on.

Walking away, we saw police activity: police vehicles with flashing lights barricading the street, officers holding pointed guns over cruiser roofs, a pedestrian filming with her cell. But the pain is in pockets. We found another cluster of food trucks only a few blocks away and we ate.

Everywhere the buildings are boarded up. Many are framed with two-by-fours, as though for a new wall. This allows easy removal and replacement of plywood boards. A necessity in an unstable environment. I was reminded of the roll-down metal security doors I became familiar with during my years in Mexico City. According to the desk clerk at our hotel, these barriers have come down and been replaced several times in the past eight months. She said some were removed last autumn only to be replaced before the presidential election. Some were removed after the election only to be replaced in response to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Now the city seems to be waiting, holding its breath, for the inauguration.

Some of the plywood boards are painted, others are raw wood. Many have splotches of different colored paint as though nobody could settle on a color choice. Those splotches testify to a constant battle by some to stop the graffiti. The boards on other buildings display creative and artistic expression. The Apple store boasts large black panels and invitation to folks to decorate them. They remain untouched.

That evening in our comfortable hotel room with take-out  from a nearby grocery store, we watched Anand Giridharas on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. He described what we are experiencing in America today as the beginning of something new and better for our unique nation.

Anand Giridharadas, publisher of The.Ink, says that what the country experienced last week is the chaos at the end of white supremacy. “This is not a launch party, this is a funeral for something. It is a funeral for white supremacy. It is a funeral for a kind of outdated, outmoded male power. It is a mourning for a time in which certain Americans could claim to be the default of America and not have to share.” (Source)

Here's an excerpt from an essay Giridharadas published in The.Ink:

We are falling on our face because we are jumping very high right now. We are trying to do something that does not work in theory. To be a country of all the world, a country made up of all the countries, a country without a center of identity, without a default idea of what a human being is or looks like, without a shared religious belief, without a shared language that is people's first language at home. And what we're trying to do is awesome. It is literally awesome in the correct sense of that word. (Source)

While it is hard to imagine Portland’s downtown returning to peace and prosperity from such extremes of unrest and poverty, I find hope in Giridharadas’ words.

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?!