To pause before, between … a musical interlude is needed

There’s a beautiful, melancholy Johnny Mercer song about the end of October and the memories that time of year calls up. “When October Goes” is one of my favorite sad-and-lovely songs. I kind of want one for the end of November, too. This moment just before December catapults us into the big year-ending flourish of Christmas and the new year, this limbo when I’m in the emotional sugar crash of coming home from a holiday with my family … it needs some kind of wistful, musical pause. I need some hand-holding into the wild ride that’s about to start.

Years ago during a family vacation to Dublin, my mother, sister, and I took a day trip a couple hours out of the city. The tour company we chose had drivers who were known for singing on the trips. We didn’t know that until it happened, and I’m glad we didn’t. If I’d heard anything about singing drivers, I’d for-sure have chosen another tour company … and I’d have missed one of my favorite experiences from that excellent trip.

On our ride back into the city, our lovely driver, Jimmy Doyle (yes, really), began to sing “Dublin in the Rare Oul Times.” His voice was low and mournful, and it so fit both the song and our moods as we watched the countryside go past after a long touring day. We weren’t melancholy exactly, but we were, too. Our trip was almost over, everything was beautiful and would soon be left behind and so yes, a pretty, melancholy serenade from a gruff bus driver with a gorgeous voice was beyond perfect.

That’s what I want to draw things to a close before I start playing all my Christmas music. Because yes, I have lots of holiday songs I can’t wait to start singing. I have an advent calendar from Diamine Ink that I can’t wait to start opening (can’t wait!). I have Christmas cookies to bake and swap. I have presents to wrap. I’m not trying to sink into any kind of melancholia, but I want to honor this, this little moment in between. I want Jimmy Doyle singing me from one space into the next.

Ring a ring a rosie as the light declines / I remember Dublin city in the rare oul times.

Standard Operating Procedure

I had shoulder surgery two weeks ago. Today I went to get my stitches out. It’s a simple thing, really, but important. The PA who took them out was a nice young man who was chatty and had a good bedside manner. He did a great job: careful, caring, gentle. All of that should go without saying, right? Except that it doesn’t. I’ve had PAs rip out my stitches as if they were tearing threads from an old sofa, not dealing with a sentient being. It takes so little — so very little — to treat others with care. And yet it seems to get harder every day.

I told Nick — the PA — what a great job he was doing, and he seemed genuinely surprised that I would have had any experience different from the one I was having with him. And that’s as it should be. If your SOP is to treat others kindly and compassionately, you can’t imagine any other way of treating people.

I’ve had some decidedly unpleasant written communications with people lately. Okay, with one person in particular. This person started our friction with an insulting email chock full of misogynoir. At the time, I decided not to stoop to their level in my response, and it seems that decision has invited them to continue to write to me from a place of disrespect and pettiness. Swell.

Unlike PA Nick, this colleague doesn’t have a baseline behavior of treating other people with kindness and compassion. They use all the right words, the words we expect to hear in “brave space,” “safe space,” “inclusive” spaces. Meanwhile, their default response mode is to lash out first and then slip back into friendly SJW language, attempting to gaslight others into thinking they’ve imagined the rudeness. Except the rudeness is in print. It takes but a moment to go back and check, to confirm that the obnoxious comments you thought you’d read were truly the obnoxious comments you’d read.

I am slowly regaining the use of my arm, and Nick’s gentle stitch removal is a nice part of my move forward. I don’t feel as though I’m regaining my ability to be in cordial conversation with this email-writing colleague, however. I thought I was, thought I’d made clear that rudeness and disrespect weren’t acceptable. The message didn’t land. Now all I want is to slap this person upside the head, something I know I can’t do (and know that I wouldn’t do, even it were an acceptable response and they were standing in front of me right this minute).

What I need to do is remember. I need to remember how long it took to come back from this surgery when I had it done on my left shoulder … and that wasn’t even my dominant arm and hand!

I need to remember how to move slowly and carefully. And that’s what I need to do with this colleague, too. Slow and careful feels frustrating when I want to be quick, venomous, razor sharp. But patience is what wins here. I had to start working my arm with no weight, and then with the one-pound weight, and then with two pounds. It was painstakingly slow, just like Nick’s painstaking care removing my stitches this morning. Fast and sharp would not have been my friends then, and they won’t be my friends as I draft my response. I need just as much care in my writing as Nick used on my shoulder. So much care that, when he ran into some trouble and said, “I need to get a scalpel,” I didn’t freak out because I knew he would continue to work slowly, carefully, and gently.

I don’t feel a pressing need to be gentle with this colleague. The slow and careful is for me, not for them. Slow and careful means I can get through to the other side knowing I did my absolute best and put thought into my words, not disgust and anger. It’s all for me, for taking care of myself.

We’ll see how I do.


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Isolated Impact

I’m thinking about ways isolation has chipped away at my social graces. Last week, I stepped into the elevator and met an adorable dog. I’ve never seen him before, and I was instantly charmed. He was kind of a beagle/Jack Russell/something, with the prettiest eyes! I immediately began talking to him through his people, two men I’ve never seen before, so I think they must be new/sort-of-new to the building. We parted as we came off the elevator, and only a couple of blocks later did I realize that I never actually spoke to the men, only to the dog. I didn’t introduce myself or try to interact with them in any way. I was just so focused on that sweet dog.

Today, I left for work and met the dog and his people again. I reintroduced myself to the dog and petted him for a minute or so, telling him how cute he is and how happy I was to see him again.

At least this time, I wished the men a nice day as I walked off.

I understand my focus on the dog — I love dogs — but usually I talk to the people, too. At least a little, even if it’s just to ask the dog’s name or breed. But I was so focused on that cute little guy that his people almost disappeared. I was happy to use them in my conversation with the dog, but talk? To them? Clearly not.

As I said above, I blame this on Covid, on the isolation of the last 2+ years. I haven’t had to maintain a regular practice in the social graces, haven’t had to remember how to behave with strangers. I’ve just puttered around tending to my own needs and maintaining a safe distance from everyone else.

This isn’t my behavior in every interaction with strangers these days. I still have some of my old niceties left, but my easier default definitely seems to be keeping interactions to a minimum. In my defense, I’ll add that neither of the dog’s people were wearing masks. I was wearing a mask. So maybe part of my behavior can be chalked up to not wanting their uncovered faces any closer to mine than they had to be? I’d lean into that as an excuse, but I know that’s not it, not the primary reason for my behavior. It’s really about me not being inclined to make nice with people.

I’m choosing to believe (hope against hope?) that all is not lost, that I’ll be able to relearn how to be “normal” with folks again, but it’s distressing to see how completely uninterested in connecting I am, how quickly I turn away from new people. One of my favorite things about living in this city has always been the random-and-fabulous encounters to be had with strangers. I don’t want that to be one more thing Covid has taken from me.


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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Curses and Blessings, reprise

What can happen when you’re given time and space alone with your ideas? When you’re sent off to a little cabin and someone else is cooking your food and tending to the day-to-day management of your comfort and well-being? When you’re told that the only thing you have to do is whatever you want to do?

Well, any number of things can happen, I suppose. I’ve had very different experiences with writing residencies and retreats. The similarity across all of them — the DIY and the formal ones — is that I’ve come back to my “real life” changed in some way, come back with some new understanding of the writing I went away to work on, which is precisely what I go away for. So … excellent!

How that realization or understanding happens isn’t at all similar. My first DIY retreat, I spent all day every day writing out one character (I was mostly a fiction writer then). I wasn’t working on the story that character was part of. I was digging into his history, trying to understand how he became the man who showed up in the story I wanted so badly to finish but which I couldn’t finish if I didn’t understand that man.

In the end, I wrote so much about him that I realized he was the main character, that the story he’d stepped out of wasn’t the central story at all, as much as I love my original protagonist. That was definitely not the place I’d imagined finding myself at the end of the retreat. Not even close. But I learned a lot about how I feel my way into a story and how to work with story elements and more formal tools to shape a successful arc and land sure-footedly at a conclusion.

At my first formal residency, I’d planned to write scripts for my comics project. I started a script, and it was a solid start. But, but the end of the two weeks, what I’d done most was learn more about how comics work, how sequential art moves with and without words and that some of my ideas were feeling awkward and clunky because I was writing scripts that were at odds with the medium I’d chosen. I did a lot of drawing, which I hadn’t expected, and learned some things about my drawing and what I want from my artwork.

And now …

I came to Alaska with a plan. I decided a while ago that I want to turn my “Fat Talk” essays into a collection. I had an outline of what pieces were needed to complete the arc I’d imagined for the collection. All I needed was time to really sit and focus, time to start building those missing pieces.

Except that’s not what my time has been here at all. I’ve been writing, yes. I wrote a whole new essay that is at least a strong skeleton for what I want the finished version to be. I’ve done some bits of other, not-part-of-the-collection writing. I’ve read through all of the existing essays and made notes for things that need revision, places where I need to go deeper or where I need to steer back on course.

So … productive. But also … not. Everything has felt a little off, a little not quite what I needed to do.

And then Sunday happened. Sunday, I ran up hard against the wall of: what even is this project? what’s the point? what am I trying to say, anyway?

It’s not an unfamiliar wall, but slamming into it is never welcome. And, to be clear, this isn’t La Impostora creeping up on me. She’s always lurking, but this question, this wall, is different. It’s more the realization that I don’t have the clarity about the project that I thought I had. Similar to the realization during that first DIY retreat that I’d been focused on the wrong character, that I was supposed to be writing a very different story.

What do I do when I run into the wall? Well, this time I did some good and some annoying things. I slept. A lot. I hung out on social media. A lot. And then — finally — I started journaling, writing out the conversation I needed to have to get answers to the questions the wall was asking. I made notes. I made lists. I asked and answered the same questions a few times. I just kept writing.

Slowly, and then more quickly, an answer — the answer — began to come clear. I fought it a little, falling immediately into the control freak role that sometimes creeps into my writing, trying to force things to go the way I want them to rather than the way they actually need to. Because, if the answer that was taking shape was really the answer, most of the writing I’ve done has to be undone and then rebuilt in profound ways … if it’s usable at all.

So here I am, halfway through my residency, with a project that’s totally in shambles.

And this, this is what can happen when you strip away the distractions of work and daily life and spend oceans of time with your ideas. This right here. The curse and the blessing.

Time to pick up my pen and get the fuck to work.


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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Upended

You may know that I live in Brooklyn, that I live in south Brooklyn. My neighborhood has probably been in your news today because I live in Sunset Park, the neighborhood that was the site of the subway shooting during this morning’s rush hour.

I wasn’t there, and I’m totally fine. My train stop is one away from the stop that is captured in all the videos and photos. I am in that station all the time, of course, because it’s on my way to work, on my way home. Sometimes I transfer trains there.

This morning I went to work late. I often try to avoid the height of rush hour if I can. Too many people, and too many of them without masks these days. So I was behind the violence this morning, got stuck not being able to move forward and no idea why. Transit staff told us there was a “smoke condition” at 36th Street, which was true as far as it went. When I got back to the street, I contemplated the bus, but a brief chat with a woman at the bus stop told me that no trains were running at 36th Street, and the only buses in the opposite direction were out of service.

I stood in the rain a while, then decided my best option was to declare today a work-from-home day. And I fully acknowledged and appreciated that I have the privilege to do that when many many people do not.

So I walked home, and that’s when I found out what had caused the “smoke condition” that frustrated my commute.

*

I’m devastated by the shooting on the subway. How could I not be? Violence like this is always horrifying and devastating. And being trapped in a subway car with someone bent on killing you … I mean, it’s the worst iteration of a fish-in-a-barrel scenario.

I am heartened by the news that none of the injuries are life-threatening. I’m also heartened by the news that there is at least a “person of interest” in the case. But that comes along with the awful awareness that the shooter is still at large.

When I was washing dishes tonight, I realized something that this incident has to mean for me. I’ve written about disturbing and frightening encounters I’ve had with strangers. And each time I’ve thought not only about my own feelings, my own safety. I’ve tried to have empathy for the other person in the story.

So isn’t today the real test? Can I have empathy for the man who attacked the people on the N train today? I think I’m failing here … and I’m not feeling inclined to try not to fail. I can have empathy for people with untreated mental illness, but I’m not ready to paint today’s shooter with that brush. We don’t know anything about him. Yes, I can decide that anyone who would commit such a heinous act must be mentally ill … but I don’t actually believe that. I think mental illness gets a bad rap, gets blamed for all sorts of things for which it’s not responsible.

But this is still the test, isn’t it? Tonight, I re-watched the “Empathic Civilization” video that I first saw 10 years ago that got me thinking in a very intentional way about empathy. I can acknowledge that man’s humanity. I can acknowledge his anger, his pain. But empathize with him? Why would I want to?

The purpose of empathy is to help us understand how other people feel. Having that ability to understand others’ feelings is supposed to trigger generous or helping behavior in us … “generous” in the sense that we want to give of ourselves to other people. Empathy helps us build social connections.

So why have been telling myself all evening that I need to empathize with the man who carried out that attack? I’m not interested in working toward a world where we welcome in the people who want to kill indiscriminately, people who are comfortable striking at the peace of mind of millions of people, destabilizing a city’s equilibrium.

Maybe what I want is something else. It probably is good if people can understand the feelings of someone who would carry out an attack like the one in the subway (or any other mass shooting). If we understood the feelings of those people (I am struggling not to say “those killers,” but really, that’s what they are), maybe we could figure out how to help them so that they never reach the point of terrorism. So someone needs to be striving for empathy, but I’m not sure it’s me.

So where am I left? I don’t only want to have anger and horror as my responses to this man. My compassion is for his victims, and for everyone who has been traumatized (and re-traumatized) by his actions. I have anger. I have horror. I have disgust. I’m trying to find some room for something more, something more overtly constructive, something that lets me feel hopeful for change, let’s me feel hopeful, leaves me with hope.

Upended

Chilled, rainy morning. Nature fussing, showing now.
She twists your plans, could have it be snowing now.

But this isn’t about nature, it’s about anger,
about violence and the wind that’s blowing now.

When did we get here, this disregard for others?
But it’s not new. Our disdain is flowing now.

On days like today, that flow breaches the levees,
knocks us back from the line we should be toeing now.

I, Stacie, watch my neighbors wander – cold, confused.
what we thought we knew, understood, all going now.

National Poetry Month 2022: the Ghazal

As I’ve done for more than ten years (what?!), I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April … and I’m saying that boldly, knowing that I’ve already failed. I couldn’t find my way through to a poem on Day One, but I’m determined to continue.

The “Ghazal” is the form I’ve chosen for this year. Here is the structure and a little backstory (thank you Poetry Foundation):

“Originally an Arabic verse form dealing with loss and romantic love, medieval Persian poets embraced the ghazal, eventually making it their own. Consisting of syntactically and grammatically complete couplets, the form also has an intricate rhyme scheme. Each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (the radif), and is preceded by the couplet’s rhyming word (the qafia, which appears twice in the first couplet). The last couplet includes a proper name, often of the poet’s. In the Persian tradition, each couplet was of the same meter and length, and the subject matter included both erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism.”

Should be interesting!