The Quantum of Worst

Last night I was part of an IRL reading for the first time since before Covid. I read with Big Words, Etc., a series that has definitely become my reading home over the last several years. It was wonderful to see Stacey and Jess, the hosts, and to see some of the Big Words regulars.

I gave a few readings on zoom during the height of the pandemic, and all of them were great. It was nice to be able to be in the space with other writers and share my work. Being in person is something else entirely, of course. Getting to interact with the audience is one of my favorite things about reading. I’m always super nervous (“terrified” is a more accurate descriptor) , and getting to laugh with the audience helps so much. And there was plenty of that last night, which made me super happy.

Add to that, a full moon, the discovery of a nice bar, hanging out with Red Emma, the sipping of a jalapeno-spiced mezcal drink, and getting to listen to stunning writing by and give farewell hugs to the wonderful Aimee Herman, and it was a pretty perfect night!

Big Words always has a theme, and last night’s theme was “The Worst Job Ever.” There was such a range of pieces to fit that subject! Here’s the piece I wrote to share:

The Quantum of Worst

I worked for small-time criminals the summer after my first year of college. Technically, they ran an import-export company, but their business was theft. They took merchandise from wholesalers, claimed never to have received it, then sold it. They took payments for merchandise and never shipped the goods. One of my jobs was to organize their file rooms … the one for lawsuits against them and the one for their counter suits.

What makes a job the worst job? I’ve been working more than 40 years. And some of those jobs have sucked dramatically. Some, in spite of their awfulness, also had aspects that were good or funny or nurturing in some way. What is the right equation of crap to equal “the worst”?

Those long-ago bosses — Jack and Charlie — weren’t just crooks. When we met, Charlie asked what college I went to … and then told me how many women from my college he’d had acrobatic, porn-star sex with, wondering if Sarah Lawrence girls had changed since his day. 

(I suspect they hadn’t changed, that no one at Sarah Lawrence or anywhere else would ever have been having any kind of sex with Charlie.)

My first morning, I got an office tour, a can of Lysol, and instructions to spray my desk, chair and phone every time I returned to my space. My coworker explained that Jack and Charlie used any unattended desk, saying: “You don’t want to touch things after Jack.” When I met Jack, I understood. He was visibly filthy, his odor preceding him into the room. I doubt Lysol fully eliminated the problem of him. And Lysol couldn’t do anything about the trail of dandruff Charlie left wherever he went. Both men were loud, sloppy eaters, coughing, laughing, and spitting into our phones as they ate. For a Virgo misophone whose primary trigger is eating noises, this was maybe enough to make this job the worst.

But it was a summer job. And I left after only a month. A few short weeks, and I walked out with a trove of crazy stories I’ve told for years. So was that really the worst? Shouldn’t the worst job be the worst for a better reason? Shouldn’t it be in my chosen field, make me question my career choice or become wary and bitter?

I’ve never worked in a more physically repugnant place, but morally repugnant? Yes. I have. That seems far worse. 

Jack and Charlie eventually went to prison. They stored volatile chemicals in a Bronx basement, creating a health hazard for the residents, and couldn’t counter-sue their way out of it. It was a fitting result for two entirely-terrible people.

Thinking about my crappy jobs and my good jobs that turned crappy … I realize I’ve been lucky. There’s been real crap — I was sexually harassed at one job, regularly discriminated against at another, ugly-fired from another — but I was able to grow and move forward. And, if not, I was able to pay my bills and sustain myself until I found something better.

 “Worst” is about pieces, moments, rather than whole situations. Yes, Jack and Charlie were a whole situation, but otherwise, I have been lucky, have found myself in safe environments, working with people who felt like family, doing work that pleased me … or all of that at once.

So I’m realizing that the critical element in the equation of “worst” … is me, that I can be the force multiplier that sends everything tumbling into the depths.

In my last job I worked with an unashamedly horrible woman. She wasn’t my boss but was central to my work. 

In a discussion about the use of new funding, she listened to the pitch for a job program for young people leaving the criminal justice system, rolled her eyes, and launched into a scathing take-down of the proposal, ending with: “We’re making jobs for little criminals now? We can’t make programs for good kids?” Even at my big age, I was naive enough to be stunned. But this is my worst-of-the-worst because of me. Force-multiplier me.

This happened after the ugly-firing. For the first time, I knew how disposable I was, how easily I could find myself in jeopardy. I had just repaid the borrowed money that floated me across the gap between severance and my new job. I knew how much I couldn’t afford to be out on my ass. That woman had that power, and that knowledge cowed me, showed me I could be made to silence myself when my voice was needed. 

Any version of me before and after that moment would have called that shit out. Wounded, vulnerable me felt fear and chose self-preservation. And while I could understand that choice, it made me sick. I’d spent years teaching the exact young people she was disparaging, championing them at every opportunity, but I didn’t stand up for them.

And there it is: not a question about my career choice, but about whether I had a right to the space I occupied. How did I merit a seat at that table if I couldn’t be who my students would have needed me to be, who I needed me to be? 

Jack and Charlie stole everything, stole at every opportunity. They were despicable and disgusting. But working for them couldn’t be my worst job. They didn’t mean anything. I laughed at them for the caricatures they were and walked away when I’d had enough. Nothing they did could have made me change or swallow who I was. But that “little criminals” moment. My silence in that moment stole me from myself, made me a person I didn’t like. 

There are plenty of jobs where the determination of best and worst wouldn’t come down to my actions alone. But I haven’t worked those jobs. My cushy employment life puts the onus on me. Today, two years into what I think of as my dream job, all this worst-job thinking clarifies for me how much the truth or not of how dreamy this job will be for me is mine to create. I like having that power. I hope I use it well.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Making a Run for It

I am a great fan of stories in which a woman decides to run away from her life. Think Shirley Valentine. It’s one of the first versions of this genre that I recognized as a Runaway Lady movie. My all time favorite, however, is an Italian movie called Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips). In the case of this film’s heroine, she doesn’t make the decision to run away from her life until her life walks away from her, but she embraces the change in circumstances in the most beautiful and pleasing way.

So yes, it was a while before I recognized the pattern of my fascination with these stories, how drawn to them I was. I don’t have a life that is even a little bit like the lives of the women in those stories. I’m not married, have no children, don’t feel trapped and invisible in my world. And yet …

I said Pane e Tulipani was my all-time favorite of this genre. And that’s true … or, it has been true for years. Last year, in my Covid-inspired just-watch-every-streaming-thing life, I found a new movie to add to the list, and it quietly slipped right into the number one slot.

The movies that fill this category for me all have one clear thing in common: the star player is a white woman. Always and always, the sad, lonely, beleaguered, undervalued, tired, frustrated woman who chooses to walk away from her world is white. She goes somewhere, often someplace “exotic” and finds new happiness. I’m not casting aspersions on my much-loved plot line. I’m just saying that these particular plot details stand out in their sameness and in how much they aren’t like me.

Yes, there is gorgeous Angela Bassett as Stella getting back her groove, but Stella didn’t run away from her life. She went on vacation, that’s not the same at all. No.

Pane e Tulipani is still bathed in golden light and still holds a warm place in my heart, but the movie that smiled and laughed its way to the top of my list is Juanita, starring the incomparable Alfre Woodard. Juanita has so much going on, quietly and charmingly, and juggles all of its pieces skillfully and beautifully.

For me, the chance to watch this completely regular woman – not someone who can afford to buy an Italian villa (Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) – decide to just pack her bag and go is an invitation to breathe deeply, to settle in and enjoy. And yes, the fact that Juanita is a regular Black woman makes all the difference. She’s no Stella with a high-powered job as a lawyer and a big, gorgeous home. She’s a caregiver, working in a skilled nursing facility. I can look at Juanita and see myself, which I could never do with Bassett’s Stella or Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love, one movie in this genre that I really, truly don’t care for).

*

I am not dreaming of running away from my life. Not in any significant way, at least. I would happily run away from the mountain of fertility treatment debt I continue to pay off, but I rather like my life otherwise.

So, not running away, but definitely wanting more opportunities to get out of Dodge, to escape, even briefly, from the miles-long lists in my bullet journal and actually sit still and quiet and have time to breathe, to think, to write.

A few weeks ago I gave myself such a getaway. A friend and I decided to make a DIY writing retreat. We went to the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania and were surrounded by woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, and goldfinches, surrounded by trees and trees and trees … and with nothing to do by get the worlds out of our heads and onto the page.

This was my fourth DIY retreat, the third that I’ve done with friends. I had let myself forget how important this kind of time is to me. After all, I’ve been sitting alone in my apartment for 18 months, shouldn’t I have been able to use some of that time as a mandatory retreat or some such? But, of course, no. That’s not the same as taking myself away for dedicated writing time. Sitting in my home means being surrounded not by chatty birds but by all my undone chores. They mock my attempts to stay focused, reminding me of everything I have to do around the house.

I do write at home. Of course I do, right? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much to show for myself, since I spend the bulk of my time in my day-to-day life and not on vacation.

Still, respites are gold and so very necessary. They give me a kind of reset with my writing, and I need that whenever I can get it. A chance to recommit, to remember my writer self.

*

This most recent getaway was the first time I’d drawn even the faintest line of connection between my retreats and my obsession with runaway-middle-aged-lady stories. It’s not the location that’s inspiring me. If I were to flee my life, it wouldn’t very likely be an escape to the Pennsylvania woods.

My guess is that, rather than a “running away from,” what’s connecting for me is the “running toward” that is at the heart of each of these stories, that’s at the heart of my insistence on turning every vacation into a writing retreat. The women in those stories need to turn away from something in order to get closer to themselves, to their most authentic selves. I don’t need to turn away from my life, but I do need to remember to always move in the direction of my writing, always make and find space to do what I do when I go on retreat: sit still and quite. Breathe. Think. Write.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Last Gasp

Another National Poetry Month for the record books! I mean, I guess there are record books? In any case, another one done. It still amazes me that I write any poems at all, and amazes me even more that I take on this 30/30 challenge each year and have mostly been successful, that I have been doing this since 2009. That’s just nuts. And yet, here were are.

As I feared, last night I fell asleep (again!) before posting the poem I was working on for day 29. So I’ll post both my 29th and 30th Golden Shovels here tonight. The source text for the first poem is, you guessed it, Lucille Clifton’s poem “1994.”

Imagining Good

Everything I have,
tied to this moment, the idea of a "we,"
looking past anything we're not
past everything we've been.
Imagining all the ways we can create good,
embracing with the trust of children.

Somehow, it seems fitting that I would end this month of Golden Shovels with a poem that is awkward and doesn’t come together in the end. I’ve struggled to work with this form pretty much the whole month. Ending in this prickly way isn’t surprising.

The source text for this month’s final poem is the untitled poem on page 86 of Lucille Clifton’s How to Carry Water.

Your hand rests, it
looks as old as you feel, is
drawn and grey, a 
tired thing, no longer able to cast a spell.
You massage it slowly, no
need to rush. Magic
can always wait. You've no
other task, no obligations, no anything.

And so, farewell NaPoWriMo2021!


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!

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream …

… make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen. You know, or something.

So again, sleep claimed me before I could post last night. I didn’t even get to type up my poem before I conked out.

Yesterday, I had my annual physical. I appreciated my doctor’s clever set up to keep everyone distanced and safe. What I didn’t love was that I had three vaccines! Pneumonia, Shingles, and a Tetanus booster! Today, I feel achy all over, lethargic, and incapable of sustained focus. I know it will pass, but I feel beaten up, and I’m not happy about it. So I’m going to post last night’s poem now, in case I can’t stay awake long enough to write one tonight.

Today is poem-in-your-pocket day. And I spent the day in my apartment, of course, so I didn’t get to have my usual fun of roaming the halls at work giving out poems to all and sundry. This is the second year in a row of not getting to play the poetry fairy. It’s a small and entirely insignificant thing to lose to Covid, but it pains me all the same.

The source text yesterday was still Lucille Clifton’s “1994.” I’m telling you, that poem really speaks to me.

Blind Relentless Faith

The thing I know is, there are
no cobbler's elves, the 
secret helpers, the ones
whose mission is to set your life right. We
laugh at fairytales, tell
others, tell ourselves
that we know they are stories. But you,
and I, and all of us also know
we are undercover believers, dreamers. How
else to explain our faith -- blind, relentless, dangerous --
in miracles, in magic, in whatever it
takes to lay glitter over what just is,
to shade the evidence of
reality, the drumbeat, the lure of a
brighter something, warmth instead of cold,
possibility as a shield against dread, and
the simple, mortal
truth of the body.

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!

What the Universe said …

Yesterday, the Universe decided that what I most needed to do was fall asleep, not press “publish” on the poem I wrote late last night. And I think that was a good decision. I wasn’t loving the poem I wrote yesterday. So tonight I scrapped a chunk of it and wrote something else. And it’s early enough that I should be able to stay awake long enough to publish both this rewrite of yesterday’s Golden Shovel and tonight’s brand new one.

Hard to believe this month of poetry is almost over. It seems have gone by really quickly. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, right? So much of quarantine feels as if it’s been on some kind of cosmic bullet train, whizzing past before I can catch hold of anything. Why should this second pandemic April be any different?

The source text for last night’s poem is actually two texts: “leda 1” and “leda 2 a note on visitations” by Lucille Clifton. The three “leda” poems are so painful and sad and powerful. I really wanted to use lines from them, but so many of the lines lend themselves to writing painful, sad things, and I was trying to lean away from that. So I messed with the Golden Shovel form a little, expanded it a little, taking a line from “leda 1” and a line from “leda 2.”

Will

Out of my window ... there --
slowly drifting across my vision is
a half-deflated mylar balloon, freed, full of nothing,
flitting up, down, side to side. Luminous
in the sun, trying to be about
its business but instead left to this.

Which is the way life goes sometimes.
I strive, make my plans and then another
path unfolds I find myself following a different star,
find that I am not the one who chooses.

The source text for tonight’s poem is Clifton’s “1994,” a piece that keeps calling to me, here in the second half of my 58th year. This Golden Shovel has nothing to do with that, of course, but every time I read through the poem as I look for the lines I want to use for one of GShovels I am wowed all over again, struck by the serendipity of discovering this poem only now when I am at the exact age she was when she wrote it.

The Ugliest Bits

I know, of course, that you
write your lines, that you have
ideas about what comes next, what your
moves will be, that they will be your own.
I know. Of course. But I still try to craft the story,
try in spite of you
and because of you, because I know
that you always insist on telling the
bloodiest bits, the ugliest, the saddest,
and I am cunning at adept with pretty lies.

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!