Everything Old Is New Again

I haven’t thought of that song in forever, but it came immediately to mind when I queued up WordPress to post tonight. I spent a couple of hours yesterday and many, many hours today unpacking boxes and loading up my newly-assembled bookshelves. It was nice to rediscover my things. There’s a lot more work to do, but what’s already been done has been seriously transformational.

I am, in fact, so pleased to have done such a large chunk of unpacking, I decided to write tonight’s poem about it. The source text is Lucille Clifton’s poem “grief,” even though I am feeling anything but grief about the work I’ve done these last two days.

Unboxing

My world on pause.
No email, no tasks -- then
just one task, one job of work for
my heart. I keep the
rhythm going, simple, human.
Not instinctual, not animal.
Methodical, focused in
letting each treasure tell its
own story as I wipe the dust from its coat.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve done for the last forever, 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. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

Under the Sea

Okay, one last Grand Cayman story. At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that there was a lot of snorkeling on that trip. It makes sense, of course. We were in the Caribbean, of course a lot of our activities would involve the water and seeing what was in the water with us.

I’m not a great swimmer. I can swim, and could probably swim well enough to swim out of trouble if trouble approached me slowly, but Diana Nyad, I’m not. I’m fascinated by the ocean, however, and by sea creatures.

Backstory on me and snorkeling: The first time I went to Jamaica, I was excited to go snorkeling. My friends and I got gear and marched ourselves into the water. And the ocean didn’t disappoint. I saw lots of fish — including a beautiful moment when a school of silversides swam around me. I saw sea urchins, a conch, lots of coral … After I’d been paddling around a while, I was annoyed because there was a terrible noise that was distracting me from my leisurely sea-gazing. It was a loud, rasping noise, as if Darth Vader was about to tell me he was my father. I kept looking for what could be the source of the nuisance. Finally I realized that I was the source. What I was hearing was the sound of my own panic breathing, loud and terrified, amplified by the snorkel and maybe by the water. I don’t know, but it was LOUD.

Panic breathing even though I was totally fine … and would always have been totally fine because I was snorkeling in such shallow water I could just stand up when the going got too unnerving. Seriously. The second place we snorkeled on that trip was a sand bar. I couldn’t even swim there. I just lay on the ocean floor and looked around.

Why panic breathing? Because I am fascinated by the ocean, but I’m also pretty entirely afraid of it. And when I’m fully in it, swimming around with the beings that live there, I’m out of place. I’m the alien, unable to adapt, inserting myself into someone else’s territory. The landscape is foreign, the atmosphere is inhospitable — I can’t breathe there unless I have special equipment — and no one speaks my language.

And being underwater in the ocean, I discovered, makes me feel claustrophobic. Really, really claustrophobic.

All of this adds up to panic breathing. I consciously calmed my breath and forced myself to keep going. There was so much I wanted to see. And I got to see a lot, but my snorkeling fear took hold from that first day. I snorkeled a few more times on that trip — even had a barracuda swim on his own leisurely path right in front of my nose! I kept snorkeling, but my fear didn’t abate.

So when I agreed to be a chaperone on the Grand Cayman trip, I knew there would be snorkeling on our agenda. I figured it would be like what I’d done in Jamaica, and I’d make it work. I also figured that, with two other adults sharing the chaperone duties, there would be times when I could opt out of being in the water. And then the other chaperones announced that they had no intention of swimming because they couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water. So I would have to do all the snorkeling. All. And keep a brave face on while doing it so the kids who were nervous would feel better about giving it a try.

Our first outing, we got on a boat, and motored out further from shore than I’d ever snorkeled before. Our captain and guide announced that the spot he was taking us to would be great for seeing lots of things … and would be between 75 and 80 feet deep. And, while the kids were oohing and aahing at the thought of such deep water, I was repeatedly confirming for myself that no, in fact I wouldn’t be able to just stand up if I was freaking out. I’m tall, but I am woefully human-sized, so no toes on in the sand and head above the waves options there.

We put on our gear when we reached the designated spot, and our guide and his crew began helping the kids into the water. I descended the ladder and pushed off from the boat and, before I even put my face in the water, I could feel my panic breathing start. Under the guise of monitoring the kids, I treaded water and did some deep breathing exercises to calm myself. I finally got my breath back to something that could pass for normal, and went under.

And I saw lots of fabulousness, including rainbow parrotfish, who I fell in love with instantly, and gorgeous, enormous sea fan coral (gorgonia ventalina), which is one of my favorite corals. I also saw how far the floor was below me, and I had to fight back the panic breathing again. And I saw a stingray … and I decided to swim back to the boat … which at first I couldn’t find but located before a full panic attack could erupt.

I don’t remember how many snorkeling outings we had during that week. At least five, including one day when we snorkeled at two different venues. Vidalys, one of the older girls who had held my hand across the aisle on the plane because she was terrified of flying, told me she was excited to get better at snorkeling because she could see how much I loved it. I almost laughed. Then I realized that a) my “Whistle a Happy Tune” approach to being a snorkeling chaperone had worked for both Vidalys and for me because b) I was loving the snorkeling. I was loving seeing all those rainbow parrotfish and seeing corals and seeing all the other underwater-world things there were to see. And by the last couple of excursions, I no longer had to calm myself because the panic breathing had stopped clawing at my throat.

I’m still not Diana Nyad, nor will I ever be. I am, however, making some undersea plans. I have a gift I want to give myself when I hit my 60s, and it involves some serious undersea activity. Just thinking about it calls up the old panic, but Grand Cayman taught me the cure for that: I just have to keep diving in.


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Continuous Passive Motion

Today, in a BIPOC antiracism group I co-facilitate, we talked about Atlanta, and one of the women in the group brought up the belief that Black people and Asian people don’t get along. She talked about some of the responses to the Atlanta attack that were coming up in her friend circles and in her family. And that conversation reminded me of this:

After my first knee surgery in 2016 (not my first knee surgery, but the first one I had that year … it’s a long and un-pretty story), I left the hospital and did the first couple of weeks of my recuperation in a really nice rehab facility in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Most of the nursing assistants in that place were Asian women. Many of the patients were Asian, too, but not all.

I had brought a lot of pass-the-time stuff with me, imagining that I’d need the distractions, that I wouldn’t just be doing physical therapy or sleeping, which is generally what one does after knee surgery. One of the things I brought with me was the baby blanket I was knitting for a friend’s newly-arrived first child.

Everyone was interested in my knitting. They would all ask what I was working on, and I’d tell them, and they’d say it was a nice gift. One morning, I’d gotten some super adorable pics of my friend and her baby, so when the first person asked me about the blanket, I decided to also show her the picture of the gift recipient. I pulled up the photo on my phone and handed it to the nursing assistant. She looked shocked, which wasn’t the response I was expecting. She turned the phone to face me.

“Your friend is Chinese!”

And that was true, but so? I acknowledged the yes, my friend was Chinese. She nodded and handed back my phone. “Wow,” she said quietly. I’m not sure she actually looked at the baby at all. I was puzzled, but let it go. I showed the picture to some of the other Asian women who took care of me and got almost the same response each time.

Months later, after my second knee surgery that year (as I said, a long and un-pretty story), I was back in the same rehab place. A friend had come to visit me, and then another friend arrived. Both are women I knew from my old job. The first woman who’d come by is white. The second woman who came by is Chinese — not the mother of the baby, whole different friend group. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call the white woman Anne and the Chinese woman Miao. While we were hanging out, one of the nursing assistants came in to check on me. She looked stunned to see Miao and immediately excused herself. Thirty seconds later, another assistant came to the room, got a look at Miao and dashed away. This continued. Maybe five or six more times.

Anne remarked on the incredible attentiveness of the CNA staff. It seemed pretty clear, however, that the staff were coming to see Miao with their own eyes, some in-the-flesh proof of my having Chinese friends. When I said this and told Miao and Anne about the baby photo, Miao nodded. “Yes,” she said. “It’s surprising that you have Asian people for friends. I was taught to think Black people don’t like us. Maybe they were, too.”

Which made me feel sad and naive at the same time. The idea that Black and Asian people don’t get along wasn’t new. I just hadn’t thought about it or seen it play out in such a glaring way in my own life.

my friends wondered if seeing Miao would mean I’d get better treatment. I waved that off as ridiculous, and am happy to say that I was proven right. I was already getting fabulous care. The only way they could have improved on their treatment of me would have been for one of them to morph into my mom and come sing me lullabies to put me to sleep each night.

The idea that Black and Asian people don’t like one another is absurd … or it should be. In the BIPOC group today, we talked about the ways anti-Black racism builds walls between groups, keeping everyone under its thumb, keeping everyone busy laying blame on one another rather than looking at White Supremacy. The careful and intricate constructions of racism keep doing their work, keep humming along under everything.

One of the tools used to support recuperation after knee surgery is a CPM machine: Continuous Passive Motion. You put your leg in this device and it moves your knee through its full range of motion until you turn it off. I both loved and hated that machine. And in our BIPOC group today, thinking about the shocked women in the rehab center, I made the connection that one of White Supremacy’s powerful tools is that it functions like the CPM machine. You don’t have to move a muscle. You are strapped into the apparatus, and it cycles you through the various ranges of hateful motion. It functions in the background with no need for your awareness and will continue to do so until you take deliberate action to shut it down.

When will we be ready to turn off that switch?


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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What I Didn’t Do

Content warning: Atlanta shootings

I had a crap day today. I’m overtired and cranky. I discovered a huge error in the big project we’re slogging through at work. There was a worsening of a pain in my right arm that feels distressingly similar to how my rotator cuff tear started four years ago. I left work too late to make it to the UPS store, which likely means it’s too late to return a nonsense purchase I made a while ago.

I had a crap day on Monday when I hurt my hip and smushed my finger in a door and had a snarky interaction with a neighbor who refuses to wear masks or respect socially-distant space.

I could have an entire blog dedicated to writing about the crap days I have. The days when I come home feeling defeated. The days when it’s hard to get out of bed because what’s the point when everything sucks. The days when I’m more sad, angry, lonely, tired, fed up than I am anything nicer. I generally have pretty good days, but I have quite a number of super-bad ones, too.

I don’t imagine I’m all that unusual. Don’t we all have crap days sometimes?

I had a lousy day. What I didn’t do was pretend that my unfortunate day was a reasonable catalyst for terrorism. What I didn’t do was go on a killing spree and explain my actions by saying I was in a bad mood. What I didn’t do was make my victims out to be villains who left me with no choice but to end their lives. Somehow I managed not to do any of that.

I had a crap day and this is what I did: some impulse grocery shopping when I was finally on my way home and got back here with watermelon, tortilla chips, and ice cream (hey, my binge doesn’t look like everybody’s binge). What I didn’t do, it bears repeating, was kill anyone and then blame them for my violence.

I’m not surprised that a police officer (one who has been revealed to be — surprise! — a racist) would talk about Robert Aaron Long’s act of domestic terrorism in a way that offered up excuses for the murder of eight innocent people. I’m not surprised that this racist police officer told the killer’s story and erased the victims from the narrative as easily as Long did with his racist, misogynistic violence. I’m not surprised. But I am, too.

I had a bad day. And it was made worse by the reverberations of this latest act of white male violence against people of color. Robert Aaron Long isn’t some lone wolf, some individual crazy guy who had a bad day, some unfathomable mad man. Long is one more in a line of violent white men we are asked to ignore over and over again. This morning I wrote on FB that he looks like all of his brothers — like Dylan Roof, like Tim McVeigh, like Biggo with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, like every murdering incel. They all look alike, because they are all alike. And we are asked to ignore everything that is plainly similar about all of them, asked to pretend that each of them is a stand-alone case of mental illness rather than force the conversation about the violence of angry white men, rather than act.

I had a bad day, but I’m still here. I wish I could say the same for the eight innocents who were gunned down yesterday.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

When life was slow and oh so mellow …

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no-one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow

Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow

I was talking with a friend this morning. She was telling me about a party she’d been to in the Before Times. We were laughing about the situation she described when she said how much she missed parties like that, how much she was looking forward to being able to go out like that again. And I agreed … but then I realized that I couldn’t actually remember what it was like, going out to parties, getting dressed up to go out, seeing my friends in small and large groups without a second thought, laughing and drinking and dancing and flirting. This afternoon, another friend texted me to ask what things I miss because of Covid. She was missing, among other things, travel. I miss travel, too. When I read her text, I thought about travel and going to the movies and not having to use hand sanitizer and … everything.

And still I am struck by how completely I can’t remember how to do any of the things I miss doing. I can’t imagine planning a trip. Can’t imagine getting on a train or plane. Can’t imagine dancing with a stranger (I mean, okay: I didn’t do a whole lot of that pre-Covid). Can’t imagine sitting in a crowded bar laughing and talking with a bunch of friends. Can’t imagine sitting in a crowded theater and leaning over to whisper snarky asides in my friend’s ear. Can’t imagine holding hands. Can’t imagine kissing.

I’m approaching the time when I’ll be able to slowly try anew some of the things I’ve had to go without for the last year. And that feels both long overdue and impossible. It’s certain that I can’t “go back” to anything. There is no “back.” We’ve left “back” so far in the past, isn’t it pretty much in another world at this point? Isn’t there only whatever’s next? Yes, I will start to find a way to do things I used to do, but will I ever do them in the same way? Will it ever be casual and easy to stand next to another person? Will I ever shake hands again?

I keep hearing “Try to Remember” from The Fantastiks. That song makes the past sound like a soft-focus, satin-smooth dream. My life pre-Covid was hardly dreamy, but the cruel space of this pandemic year makes that life feel ever out of reach. So what does that mean? We can’t go back, so what do we make of the future? How do we shape what comes next?

… it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt, the heart is hollow

No danger there, right? Plenty of hurt, so my heart is anything but hollow? Is that a lesson I’m supposed to be taking from the last year? That’s … frustrating at best. No, my heart isn’t hollow, but it wasn’t hollow before Covid, either. Is it all of our hearts, our hearts as a human race, that I should be thinking of? Has the world had to find its way through this horror show so that we can (finally) learn that every single life is “wild and precious,” that we have to fight for everyone in order to save our individual selves?

Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow
Follow

It’s all of it, of course. I (we) need to start figuring out how to live among people again. And I (we) need to find a way to stretch out into my (our) whole self again. And I (we) need to keep fighting for everyone, for every single wild and precious life. It’s the only way.

I still can’t imagine holding hands, still can’t imagine kissing. But I have to figure it out, find a way forward that includes all of that and more because our closeness, in all the ways that we should and need to be close, is what will save us.

__________

* Also, I swear I’m not always trying to put ear worms in your heads, dear reader. I can’t seem to avoid thinking of songs that fit in some way with whatever I’m posting, however. Sometimes I manage not to include the song in the post, but other times …

And more also? It’s Pi Day. Hope you had some. ❤


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot