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Posts Tagged ‘questions’

speak the truth

If I hold a room the way the sparkling statue lady does tonight, book-touring her paleo-pedicure-CrossFit happy meal of neoliberal feminism, how will I use my voice?

I too could propitiate the gods of privilege. I might tug loose one rough thread of the story and call it struggle. Might forget to notice who inhabits the room. And the design of it. How thick the walls. Who cannot breach them.

Will I preen?

Or will I speak truth to power?

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ascent-of-the-spirit

We frame resilience. . . as the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.

– Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

Having hit all the deadlines for Phase 1, I steered eagerly into Phase 2.  Blocks of writing time for the season ahead peppered my calendar.  Accountability buddies jumped on board.  To celebrate the milestone as well as the momentum, My Mister dipped into the Treat Jar and agreed to host a game night.

Then on the second-to-last day of the first month, my project ran aground.

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Blink.
 
The boys gather in the lobby of the rec center, one after the other striding out of the locker room. Blood warms their cheeks. Hair crazed by pool water sticks up in the back. They are swagger and ease. A mother in her track suit has brought pastries and Sunny D. They tear huge bites from their bagels and laugh silently on the other side of the glass, collared shirts tucked into belt and trouser. The tall one with the dark hair stands and slips a royal blue tie around the back of his neck. He talks talks talks, eyes bright, slipping silk and nylon around and around, up and over and through, not even having to think anymore about the rote motion of making that mighty noose.
 
Somewhere down the road, my own son rides in the back of his daddy’s 11-year-old Subaru past the private school. He is wearing Payless sneakers already rubbing bare at the toe even though I just bought them (yesterday?) He has on last year’s jacket. He won’t need it today. He plays and plays, building one version after another of a tower topped with armaments that can rule the world. He still believes everything is possible. He doesn’t yet conceive that anything is in his way.
 
There is this glass between these boys and me. I cannot hear them. Still, I hear. Their confidence booms. Today, I will go into the city and marvel at their grown-up counterparts stepping from the backs of gleaming black cars purring at the entrance to the Westin. I will make eye contact with one of the pair laughing with precision over half empty plates at a sidewalk cafe. The flint edge of his jaw will work against the sky as he drives home his point. He will glance back at me.
 
Fleeting. Maybe never there at all.
 
Blink.
 
This summer December day. The worn out toe in my son’s shoe. The red leather handbag, butter and velvet, slung over the shoulder of the woman standing at the curb waiting for the light. The thin hips on the runner in the hot pink shorts, ponytail swinging as she turns the corner.
 
Blink.
 
The bad taste in my mouth. The winter heat. The unresolved question. The pretty, the powerful, the cash, the castles.
 
Ancient ruins, cities rubble and weeds. We are gone. Everything we’ve ever loved and hated and coveted and ignored. Every truth, every law, every laugh.
 
Blink.
 
Tiny braids spray across the girl’s narrow back, red hoops swaying from her ears. Her boredom, her long neck, her right leg crossed over the the left. Her lean, her gaze, her proximity, her anonymity.
 
We are dinosaurs. We are meteors. We are dust. We are the next big bang.
 
The wall of glass. The tight knot in royal blue. The worn out toe in my son’s shoe.
 
Nothing is in the way. Everything is possible.
 
Nothing is fixed. Everything is already gone.
 

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“Mommy, what is res-ill-ih. . .?”
 
We are taking turns sipping sparkly water from a red mug. I lean in to see the words on its side. “Oh, that’s ‘resilience.'” The mug is a forgotten souvenir from the Learning and Leading with Resilience conference earlier this year. Because the three grownups sharing this address take their careers a bit too seriously, the house is littered with such schwag.
 
Bug traces the word with his finger, sounding it out. “Res-ili-ence. What it mean?”
 
“Resilience is. . . ” I fumble. Apparently, the mug was not the only forgotten item from the conference. “It’s sort of when something gets messed up but comes back again, either into the old shape or into something new and better. Resilience is bouncing back.”
 
“Like a magnet?”
 
“Hmm.” I think about this. “Not exactly. More like a nerf ball. You know how if you mush it, twist it, anything, it still spring back into the shape it was before?”
 
“Yeah.” He is making a squeezing motion with his hand, mimicking me.
 
“It’s not just things. People can have the quality, too,” I go on. “It’s a way of living life. Just imagine some big unexpected change happens. Like. . . maybe a big glacier comes and busts up some guy’s house.”
 
“What’s a glacier?”
 
“An iceberg. You ever see any icebergs around here?”
 
He laughs. “No, they’re in the north pole!”
 
“Right. So this would never happen here, right?”
 
“I know, Mommy.” He rolls his eyes. “Just say the thing!”
 
“Okay. So, say some guy down the street is just strolling home after work, and he sees this big glacier roll through his neighborhood and right through the middle of his house. Everything he has is destroyed. He might cry and stomp like anyone would, even like you and I would, if all our stuff was gone. But then the guy spends the next 30 years still being sad and mad, and saying, ‘Bad things happen and it’s just no use trying, I’ll never have anything good ever again.’ And guess what? He ends up not living a very happy life, just because one bad thing happened one time. You know what that guy doesn’t have?”
 
“What?”
 
Resilience. He couldn’t ever get himself to see a way past the glacier and the stuff he lost, even a long time after it happened. He was stuck back in the bad thing.”
 
“Okay, okay, okay.” Bug takes another sip of seltzer and lays back on the couch.
 
“Maybe instead,” I go on, “the guy stomps and cries at first, but then decides to gather his neighbors and work together to re-build. Maybe he decides to stop being miserable after a little while, and he finds the energy to design a whole new house, and maybe he likes it as much as or even better than the old one. Maybe it takes him a few years to save up his money and do the work, but he still keeps plugging away. He and his friends and family and neighbors all end up with a community that’s not quite like the old one, but it still really nice even if it’s different. You know what that guy is?”
 
“Yes, duh. Resilient,” he says.
 
“Yeah, duh, you got it.”
 
“Legos are resilient,” he tells me.
 
“They are? I’m not sure.” I’m still thinking nerf ball, and legos seem too hard.
 
“Yeah. Even if you break them all apart, you can put them back together like they were before or even build something else.”
 
“Yes! They are resilient! You’re right.” I reach over and give him a squeeze.
 
“Mom! Get off!” He is grinning but trying not to.
 
“You know what else is resilient?” I ask.
 
“What?”
 
“We are. We had the grumpiest, growliest, no-good-very-bad-day on Saturday. And even though we were both in yucky moods, we decided to make it better. We visited friends, and played, and spoke nicely. It could have stayed an I-Hate-You day, but it didn’t. We worked together to turn the day around. It was so much fun after that.”
 
“Can we be done talking about this now?” He sets the cup on the side table and ooches down under his blanket.
 
“Only if I can have a kiss first.”
 
“No!” He squeals and throws the blanket up over his head. I smooch against his protests and then offer to carry him up the stairs to his bed.
 
“Okay,” he says. “Like a baby.” And so I slip my arms under his knees and shoulders, heft all 50 pounds of him off the sofa, and cradle him to my chest as I maneuver him up the stairs. It is getting harder to do this without banging his noggin on a door frame, but it’s okay. Sometimes feeling like a small thing is worth the risk of minor injury. I am finally coming to understand that my boy will be fine. He is resilient, after all.
 

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My son informs me that God is real.
“He lives in a house in the sky,” he tells me.
“When people die on earth, he brings them back to life up there.”
And, as an afterthought, “God also makes the storms.”

How does he know these things?
He has never been to church.
Our Sunday morning conversations are more likely to involve
atmospheric pressure
than divine intervention.
Even though my own faith lies in stars and seas
mitochondria
and ink
I do not question where my son sinks his teeth.
He is five
and is entitled to his comforts.
Who could blame him for finding solace
in a home
forever
for everyone and everything
that vanishes from his sight?

Imagine what a sprawling, jumbled neighborhood
it must be.
Not just the all the people and their pets,
their chariots and wagons and vintage cars
restored to their chrome-fendered glory,
but the fields of prairie grass and wheat
blown away in the dust bowl, now lush and pulsing
with the hoofbeats of buffalo
by the thousands.

Up there, even dead ideas have their chance at salvation.
The earth rotates around the sun.
Phrenologists find answers in the topography of skulls
and every family is still intact,
their quaint, precious routines repeated without a hiccup
for all eternity.

When you are finally ready
to admit that one notion of the way things are
is ill-suited to this life,
it is nice to picture it taking root in a corner of heaven
so at least the effort of holding it so long
was not wasted.

When my boy was small, he declared himself a girl
and lived as one for a year.
Up there, in God’s teeming quarter,
my three-year-old daughter
in a pink tutu and tiara
rides the back of a diplodocus
who dips its head
to nibble
from a pole bean stalk
flourishing a little more each day
as its twin
in our back yard
decays
in the deepening winter.

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I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.
– Aeschylus

In college, my friend Gabriel and I used to ask each other this question: “What did you learn today?” It is hard to remember the exact parameters of this exchange. Did we ask each other every day? For a few weeks, or the better part of a year? It may have been a passing fancy or a practice to which we adhered with religious intensity for as long as the passion lasted. What I do recall is how much I loved the question.

“What did you learn today?” Imagine ending your day with someone you love asking you this and really listening to your answer. Imagine then offering up the same curiosity, sitting back, and hearing how the other’s mind has opened up, even if only by the slightest degree, that day.

Imagine walking through your world, knowing that someone is waiting to know what you have taken in.

Gabriel was the most precious companion during those wide-open years of our early twenties. The world around us was a fecund jungle, exploding with exotic curiosities. He was always willing to peek into the guts of things to see how they worked. With Gabe, I learned how to identify jewelweed and its more menacing cousin, stinging nettle, on springtime hikes in the Green Mountains. I learned how to knead bread, dry apples, facilitate a meeting, and appreciate Jorge Borges. I learned how to look at a stone by putting all five senses to the task. Most importantly, I learned that a bottomless appetite for questions is, paradoxically, the greatest way to sate a curious mind.

Gabe has drifted off into the fogs of time. He is, I hear through the thinning grapevine, a doctor in Boston. Internal medicine. I remember the explanation he gave years ago for why this type of practice appealed. “I love the puzzle,” he told me. He was jazzed by the chance to figure out what is going on with patients before the specialists get hold of them.

I was out and about this afternoon, and Gabriel’s question bubbled up from the depths. “What did you learn today?” Here are just a few things that captured my mind on January 1, 2012:

• When making tamales, you spread the uncooked cornmeal mixture on the corn husk first, followed by the raw meat mixture and sauce. All wrapped up together, the component parts cook at once inside the pressure cooker.

• A “luthier” is the fancy name for a guitar maker.

• It is only two turns off Monument Drive to get onto the Dulles Toll Road.

• Just because there are six cookies in the Tupperware, you do not have to eat six cookies.

• That thing I sang in church (Praise God from whom all blessings flow. . .) is called a “doxology.” This is a general name for a brief song of praise for the trinity, often sung at the end of a hymn.

• Some mallards, geese, and other waterfowl do not migrate south for the winter. These oddities, called “resident geese” or “resident ducks,” are becoming less of an aberration and more of a menace in some populated areas. Biologists are not exactly sure why the migration signal does not kick on in some waterfowl as it does in others, even others of the same species in the same region. The behavior of the resident birds is not nearly as fascinating as that of their migratory kin, if you think about. For as much as it is studied, migration is a poorly understood phenomenon in the biological world. How is it that these animals have their entire life story written around an annual journey of many thousands of miles?

Not bad for a day that did not see me crawling out of bed until 12:30 in the afternoon.

Most of us ask more questions and learn more things in a day than we can list. Whether we pass the hours bent over a computer or scaling a peak in Shenandoah, we are thinking and engaging. Often, we do not even know how to frame or name the occurrences into which we have inquired, as our minds are chewing on them without our conscious attention. What if we gave voice to our insights, what if we held them up to the light? We might be brink of unearthing something remarkable, even if that something is just the next question.

In the past few months, I have returned repeatedly to the theme of being on the cusp of a significant change. With the divorce final and the true magnitude of my single-mother-ness coming into focus, what faces is me is larger than a single lifestyle makeover. Several unsettling transformations are taking place simultaneously. As I try to capture, observe, make sense, and make choices, I barely catch one re-alignment in the landscape before another tremor shakes things up.

I am not sure exactly what my job is in all this (although there are more than enough people around here who are happy to advise). I wonder daily if I am missing something big. Hell, the whole of the marriage was built on shifting sand that appeared to be solid ground. How will I know if this next step – whatever it is – lands me in a sinkhole? Will I build my next home on a fault line? Is this job a mistake? This class, this financial choice, this school for Bug, this way I am spending my time tonight? Is it right or wrong? Is it safe? What the hell am I supposed to be doing?

Trusting the quaking ground to hold me, to shake me out into something whole, is terrifying. But let’s be honest. Pecos Bill did not lasso twisters just because he was a good guy. Grabbing the ropes and hanging on for the ride? That’s one massive thrill.

You know as well as I do that certain practices can keep you upright even as the bucking earth tries to throw you. New Year’s Resolutions are a catalog of these practices. Walk daily. Speak with kindness. Make art. Plant a garden.

Learn something.

Focusing the mind on the question is one way to stay open to the minor wonders of the world. If you are lucky, it might have the effect of keeping you excited about even the most nauseating changes, and give you pause when you face the temptation of the cave’s familiar comforts. It could even quiet that panicky chatter that besets the bewildered pilgrim at every fork in the road.

Finding a suitable travel companion does not happen overnight, if it happens at all. While you seek your Gabriel, make use of your own quiet witness. Ask the question. Listen for the answer. Carry the knowledge back to the journey while you let it carry you forward. Who knows? If you keep orienting yourself toward learning, you might find you have learned your way.

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