breaking up Christmas

It was the darkest night in over 500 years, if you believe what was posted on the internet. A lunar eclipse in the season of winter solstice, during the longest nights of the year.

Christmas season always leaves me in a kind of bleakness. It’s too much, too soon, not far enough yet into winter, with too many cold nights yet to come. It’s a kind of harvest celebration, left over from an agricultural heritage. For once, there’s nothing to be harvested, it’s too early to plant, and we’ve stored everything we can store for the upcoming months. And not everything can keep for months. “Eat up, y’all – this won’t be good tomorrow.”

It’s the time of year when there’s nothing to be done agriculturally, so rest is induced, but – perhaps because we’re not an agricultural people anymore – Christmas is not restful. Christmas is a blur of motion, of travel; like blooms on paperwhites or amaryllis, it’s a season of forced celebration. The new calendar year, which doesn’t feel like a new anything starting in this random date, this early winter season, starting and the old calendar year ending.

Like other late converts to the liturgical calendar, I’m a true believer, with all the attendant fervor and awkwardness. Advent truly does feel like the start of a new year to me, and Christmas like something that takes 12 days. As has become our tradition, M. and I string up our Christmas lights on Christmas Eve, after the church services and before midnight. We light the angels on the mantle, hang ornaments in the branches of pine, cedar and spruce we’ve gathered into a vase. We bring out our gifts from where they’ve been hidden, wrapped and bowed, beneath furniture or in the trunks of our cars. When we wake up Christmas morning, it’s magical.

But by mid-morning, it’s already stale, though the lights are nice and the Christmas coffee is steaming and rich. The wrapping paper gets cleared away; boxes and ribbons to keep and reuse is stacked in a corner.

So, how to stay in celebration for nearly two weeks? To pause, in celebration?

Music-making has a way of extending celebration. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Christmas has more music associated with it than any other single time of the year. Not just music – participatory music. Amateur, sing-a-long, squawking instrumental music. It’s hard work to nurture that feeling of shared celebration. Music is temporal, time passing, something to DO that nurtures emotional response, allows a path in, carries you through festivity. Breaking up Christmas, in the old mountain tradition. 

 

My father and his two brothers were already silver-haired when they dusted off their old high school band instruments and began to play Christmas carols for our annual Christmas reunion. The tradition was started for their mother, my grandmother, and has outlasted her. Each year, they sound worse than the year before, a fact which is exclaimed annually with astonishment and delight. Each year, we, the singers, are prodded into embarrassed song. The embarassment is part of the tradition; neither the instrumentalists nor our carolings are that bad, but it’s a part of the tradition to pretend that they are, perhaps as a kind of counter-balance to the otherwise unseemly pride which filled our grandmother at the sight of her three sons, her boys, lifting their childhood instruments and leading us in the familiar carols.

The last few years, the my cousin’s children have read aloud from the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story. To give them credit, they read more enthusiastically than we sing. Their sincerity rivals that of Linus:

We drive home afterwards, as we do every year, listening to Prairie Home Companion. For nearly 40 years I have listened to Garrison Keillor on the dark ride home from Charlotte, many years in the back seat, and many more now in the driver’s seat. Garrison Keillor has become another holiday companion, together with the live audience in the theater (“Gene has a message for Betty, says that he’ll be home by tomorrow afternoon, and to save him some fruitcake…”) and with my own family in our own car. That’s another way of time passing. Sometimes we sing along with the songs on the radio. I remember driving with my family, singing Christmas carols with the radio, seeing the Christmas lights as we drove and sang. This, too, is a way of time passing.

ct21

In spite of the relentless glare of gaudy Christmas display, there’s a turning towards candlelight, the small flame of awareness, the distillation of all attention towards the flicker of light that must be tended or it will be extinguished. The pause of the agricultural year provides time to tend this flame. It will be nurtured throughout the year by other elements.

The way that this time of this particular year connects to this time of other particular years, the way that all Christmases extend themselves, the way they merge across the years of any particular person’s lifetime, that’s another pause, another celebration.

The way others share in knowing and understanding the traditions, whether they’re family traditions, faith traditions, cultural traditions – the way that these times are shared is another pause, another celebration.

Every time we do the things we do every year, the activity is blurred both with the knowledge that it won’t last forever – the fragility of life, of time passing, that it won’t come again – and also that it will come again, even if it’s not in the exact same way. The exact wrong notes will not be played in exactly the same way any other year. The little girl who plays Mary will be older next year, and still older the year after. At some point she will leave for college, and another Mary will take her place. People who are with us now will die, young or old. But the things that we do every year, they will continue to happen. Someone else will sit in Grandmother’s chair, and we will remember Grandmother’s whistling, and her pride in her family.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

where the heart is

Recently, some friends and I met to make a decision together. Our process includes providing a respectful space for each person to share thoughts, feelings, and fears about any group decision, and ultimately to go forward with a project, or to abandon it. The decision had been several months in the making, and there were several strong arguments going in both directions. It was far from certain what the final result would be.

During this discussion, a friend shared something that was later explained to me as a metaphor, but I’d rather believe it to be metonymic, a way of using language that (rather magically) substitutes a part for a whole. Anyway, my friend said that when he was a boy, he’d taken riding lessons, and in the process of learning to ride, he’d learned to teach a horse to carry him across a fence. (with apologies to this friend, whose words I’ve assumed with all kinds of narrative abandon)

“When jumping a horse,” he told us, “we were taught that the first thing over the fence should be our own heart, and that’s what the horse would follow. And if we didn’t – if our attention was off, or our hearts were afraid – that the horse would know it, balk at the fence, and send us flying.

“What I’m saying is that there’re always conditions that come along with any decision that you make, whether it’s paperwork you’d rather not do, people you’d rather not spend time with, detailed work you dislike, or just plain grunt work that feels like a waste of time. If we do this, we need to be prepared to go forward into all the work it’s going to take with our whole hearts. If we don’t – if we’re not ready for meeting with expensive lawyers, with following up on phone calls, on emails, with reading through this paperwork with a fine-tooth comb – it’s not going to be worth it.”

After the discussion ended, we took a vote. In spite of the possibility of sorely-needed financial profit that might have come from agreeing to the proposed project, we decided against it. Because, we realized, our hearts were not there; and ultimately, without a heart-felt commitment, none of us were prepared to take on the remainder of the work.

by Melissa McKee

by Melissa McKee

It’s easier to say no. To say yes is to say “Yes, I’m willing to throw my heart over this fence, right here, right now.” It involves a level of commitment and vulnerability that’s often painful to contemplate. I do say yes, of course, like most of us do. But the yes’s I say, on a regular basis, aren’t yes’s that involve heart at all. They’re agreements: yes, this is something that I’m mentally and physically able to do. Which is why, when I need to say no, I plead incapability – of time, or attention – rather than of heart.

I’m not good at making decisions. I come from a long tradition of people for whom “making do” is a virtue. As much as I love to cook, my favorite food is leftovers. I hate to plan a meal – I’d much rather start with what’s in season or on sale. I don’t shop for new clothes, but at thrift stores where my selections are limited to the few clothes that might fit. But recently I made a decision that, at least from outside appearances, seems to be a big one. I quit my job.

The professional work I’ve done within the autism community for the past fifteen years has been work that I never sought out, didn’t actively apply for, and for which I never interviewed. I didn’t throw my heart over the fence before starting the work; in fact, I approached the job with misgivings and trepidation. Yet it’s been the most rewarding work of my life, work that I believed I could happily do for the remainder of my working days. So why, then, on the first of November, did I leave?

Because at some point,  I committed my heart to this work I was doing. I committed to meeting people – adults, children, teenagers – where they were, in a way that made sense to them. I committed to a way of understanding other people that wasn’t based on tests or standardized data, but on carefully individualized observations made over time. I committed to understanding social relationship and communication as a mutual process, not an individual impairment. And, even though some of the changes that are being made in the autism field are likely to be good ones, based in scholarly research and a broader understanding of autism, my heart wasn’t in the new more standardized way of understanding. I couldn’t muster it there.

by Melissa McKee

by Melissa McKee

I can’t say I know how my heart was thrown. There have been many times when I’d rather it hadn’t been. I miss having health insurance. I miss my co-workers, my office. The thing about throwing one’s heart over the fence is that it’s not, entirely, a mental decision, but, I believe, an act of grace. I can’t decide where my heart might be thrown; I can only follow.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

the editor

(this was written some time ago…finally posting. It’s about editing, kind of, but reading it now I want to write a whole ‘nother piece, this one called: I exist, I exist. Which can’t help but link to this.)

Each year it comes as a surprise, the first morning you wake up and find the world lit bright with ice. Each blade of grass rises silver, each twig, branch, and tender leaf outlined in white. Your breath comes in soft clouds. From somewhere, you can smell wood smoke. Mornings like this will become normal; you’ll get used to scraping ice off the windshield again, accustomed to tree limbs stripped bare by the wind, the ground frozen into clay crystals that crunch underneath your boots. But this morning, like every first frost of every year, it’s a surprise that takes your breath away.

2011-12-03 00.42.51

Like a lot of you, I’m an inveterate public radio listener. There’s a regular feature that airs Friday mornings on WCQS and other public radio stations called StoryCorps, which is a project of oral documentary, an archive of conversations. Anyone can participate. Each participant receives a CD of their conversation to share with anyone they like, and each conversation is archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Documentarian Dave Isay recently told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that he got the idea for StoryCorps when he was a freelance radio producer.[1] He’d worked on a radio documentary and then, later on, a book about the Bowery section of New York City and the homeless who lived there. “I remember bringing the galley of the book up into the flophouse,” Isay said, “and I handed it to one of the guys and he opened it up to his page and he took the book out of my hand and he held it over his head and he ran down the hall and he started shouting, ‘I exist! I exist!’ And that was kind of a clarion call for StoryCorps. That’s what it’s all about.”

I was driving into work that morning, like millions of other Americans on a weekday morning, most of us in our own cars, on our way from homes in which we live lives that often feel overwhelming, and unremarkable. We’re on our way to jobs in which we feel misunderstood, numbed, conflicted. Maybe we feel ourselves come alive in moments like this one, moments of clarity and connection. NPR has even come up with a term for moments like these: “driveway moments”, when you’re listening to something on the radio that’s providing, just for a moment, that feeling of connection. A 3-minute radio story that resonates with your most private self, a story that will not let you turn away.

What I learned during the interview with Isay was that the interviews themselves are not 2-3 minutes long, which is the length of time allotted to the StoryCorps segment that airs on the radio. They’re edited down from 40 minutes to the few minutes we hear. And, hearing this, I felt foolish for thinking otherwise; I mean, of course these pieces are edited down into short segments to be shared as a radio broadcast. Of course, all 40 minutes aren’t included. An editor is the final arbiter of the story, not the individual. Individuals simply provides the raw material from which, ultimately, the story is culled. Most of what’s shared between the people in this conversation is simply archived; it isn’t, like the piece that’s aired on the radio, performed.

In my own life, I’m that editor, for there are countless hours of story I’m living out every waking moment, and countless ways to tell any story. Whatever way I chose to tell it is the way I remember it, the way it’s archived, and the way it’s shared with others. This morning I watched a cardinal flick inside the boxwood; moments later, the morning sun melted patterns onto the frost-hard yard. But my attention wasn’t there, but on an interaction with someone earlier in the week that I’ve relived a thousand times since, words unspoken at the time that have since become almost a mantra-like in their determined defense. My 40-minute window has been edited down to include almost nothing but the noise of my own internal monologue. Suffice to say, it’s not one that’s likely to be selected for national broadcast. Neither are the conversational exchanges that I have with people outside myself, most of which are limited to simple exchanges that are received as they are meant, to do nothing more than allow each of us to pass relatively unnoticed through our days.

Frost_on_an_oak_leaf,_Barry_Mill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1069425

Essentially, at its heart, Isay says, StoryCorps is “about giving two people the chance to have this conversation for 40 minutes, and it tells them their lives matter, and they won’t be forgotten.” Over the years, I’ve heard conversations about childhood neglect, about cancer, about carrying and letting go of shame, about being surprised by joy. My guess is that even those in the conversation didn’t know, when they were talking to each other, what moments of their conversation would be important. They may not even have known what the subject was. The story was found by the editor, attentive as this morning’s ice that traces even the veins of the smallest leaf. Who saw lives that matter, and within them found stories that will not be forgotten.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

some thoughts on loss

Loss is an everyday experience in my life, something that happens so frequently that it passes almost without comment. Loss of favorite pens, of earrings, of keys, cell phones, books. I’ve left my wallet on picnic tables by the interstate, and in the middle of city streets in the middle of the night, and it’s always been returned untouched. I get lost in new places, and take the wrong roads to places I’ve known forever. I forget what I was going to say, or what I came in here for. I lose people’s names, faces, conversations we’ve had. Encountering an old friend a few days ago, I forgot that he’d ever come to our home, and graciously invited him to come visit sometime. I caught the strange look I received in response, but I’ll lose it at some point. I just never know quite when.

2013-08-02 20.48.25

As common an occurrence as loss is for me, it’s been ramped up lately. In addition to words, faces, and names, I’ve lost:

Cell phone

Ipod

Credit card

Key

Chicken

One earring

Shorts

Hat

Dog

Favorite coffee cup

Toothbrush

Most of these have been found again, sometime in a matter of hours (chicken, coffee cup) and sometimes days (shorts) and sometimes weeks (ipod). Once I found a phone after a month, still in the yard where it had fallen. Sometimes they are never found (hat, innumerable socks, earring, key). And here it seems disingenuous to use the same verb, to lose, for inanimate objects and for creatures. The chicken, Anna, didn’t know she was lost. She knew exactly where she was. Theo, my dog, left me some miles into the national forest to return to the car, but to me, he was lost, and I walked for hours calling his name.

The verb “to lose” has over 20 definitions in almost every dictionary I’ve found. The word itself is a blur, a palimpsest of languages: Old Norse, los, looseness, breaking up; Middle English, losen, to perish, from Old English losian, destruction; Latin, luere, to release, atone for; and Greek, lyein, to loosen, dissolve, destroy. Each layer of meaning quickens the intensity of the word, which can be used so easily to convey the meaning: “To fail to inadvertently retain (something) in such a way that it cannot be immediately recovered.”

2013-08-02 20.48.03

For hours, I walked the woods calling my dog’s name. Theo, I cried, Theo. I clapped my hands together in a rhythmic pulse, called again. Theo. He often walks with me, and generally likes to keep a little ahead, just out of eyesight but well within the sound of my voice. When I call, he comes. But he didn’t come. I walked ahead, thinking he’d gotten ahead of me. I turned and walked back where we’d been. Still, he did not come. The miles of trail suddenly seemed small beside the immensity of even this little patch of forest, what remains of wilderness, as I imagined the logistics of scouring it in all directions.  The trail is a sturdy one, a path raised between acres of trees, rhododendron thickets, muddy where water seeps from mossy rocks and puddles. Fallen trees littered the ground in all directions, and where they fell over the path, small trails had been worn around them.  What I hadn’t realized before is how much smaller the path was than the mountainside through which I walked.

Being accustomed to losing things brings a form of acceptance to that experience. A nonchalant “It’ll turn up sooner or later,” is the general response, when I complain, Have you seen…? Or, Where did I put my….? And, true enough, it usually does. But when Theo was lost, I was ready to turn the mountain upside down to find him. I thought about the shepherd, who left 99 sheep to find the one who was lost, or the woman who lost a coin, lit a lamp and swept the house to find it. Then I imagined the urgency of a parent in search of a lost child.

Gandhi said, “If you can’t find God in the face of the next person you meet, stop looking.” * What I realized is that this seeking isn’t one of quick gratification or futility, but one spurred by desire to find God. If God is lost, it’s up to us, with urgent abandon, to find God, who is all around us. Sometimes it takes some effort on our part. The next person you meet appears; God is there, but…where? What would happen if I paid attention to that person with the same desperate attention with which I sought my dog? With which a parent seeks her child? What if I didn’t let that person go until I’d seen the face of God?

2013-08-02 20.48.13

*Thanks to Sierra Hollister for this quote.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Wild Goose Chase

I’ve been writing about a week on a piece that isn’t true.

No, that’s not quite right.

I’ve been writing about a week (a little more, but I took days off, and I didn’t really count until now, so, 5 days) about a festival, the Wild Goose festival. It was the kind of event that makes you (makes me) want to write about it so that I can understand what it was like to be there. I was there, in fact, and I still don’t understand what it was like to be there…until I write about it.

So I’ve been writing about it. And listening, and thinking, and sitting, and writing. And writing, and writing.

Here’s the rub: the part of it that seems to carry the magic, the part of it that seems the realest of all, the part of it that when you rub at it all the shellac just falls away and you’re left with the jeweled original of it that falls into the palm of your hand – that part, I didn’t see.
A friend saw it, and she told me about it. I didn’t see it.
And I want to write about it. In fact, I kind of have to write about it. But, I didn’t see it.
Now, I could do this: I could write it as if I was there. It’s very clear in my imagination what it would have been like. I can smell the air, feel the breeze as it moved through the little opening by the river. I wouldn’t be surprised if these details are actually more clear to me than some of the events that I did attend. But I wasn’t there.
I could say so. I could say, “…and, well, okay, I didn’t actually see this myself. But based on what I was told, I imagine it was something like this.” But I kind of can’t do that either. Because it’s the center, and there’s no room for that kind of detour when you’re that close to the center. There’s just not.
I could do this: I could write the whole thing in fiction. I could abandon the premise that I was there at all. I’m writing about it so that I understand it better, and my understanding isn’t based on reiterating literal truth (which, you know, I’m really quite likely to get wrong anyway) and more based on understanding what I experienced there. The truth can get in the way of understanding, sometimes.
I’m writing this because I almost posted it here, tonight. But I won’t. I’ll just keep writing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

silence is a verb

I’ve been thinking about silence as both noun and verb. As a noun, silence stands sheltering, strong.  As a noun, it provides a window, a shield against noise, a place to receive insight and information. But silence can also be a verb, an active, transitive verb. As a verb, it breaks apart, insinuates its way through the blood like shards of glass. As a verb, it’s deadly.

IMG_2019

I’ve not experienced silence as a verb very often. I’m privileged, by nationality, race, education, neurology, physical ability, verbal agility, and probably even more qualities I tend to take unquestioningly for granted. Privilege is associated with permissions; yet all permissions are temporary. They can be taken away.

I’m a fairly low-level employee of a university I’m not permitted to name in social media. That privilege, of claiming affiliation for statements, beliefs, interests or ideas that may be unapproved by the legal entity that is the University, is restricted. A place in which I spend most of my waking life, has become a place which I can not name.

Let me state for the record: I didn’t often share this information on social media prior to this decree. I could say that it simply didn’t occur to me to do so, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate. More specifically, perhaps, it didn’t seem relevant. Social media is what I do and say here, as well as on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr.  For an introvert like me, social media is a way to share and receive information with others without actually having to expend the energy required to see anyone. For those of us who traffic primarily in ideas and images, that opportunity can be delightful, overwhelming, distracting. It offers a uniquely social context unavailable in any other formats.

As an employee of a university I’m not permitted to name, I have become aware that my words, my ideas and images shared via social media (including this one) may be interrogated for content that may then be deemed inappropriate. I’ve never been prone to overly assiduous examination of the possible repercussions for my words and actions in the world: I’m not paranoid. In fact, I would imagine that it’s quite unlikely that these words, these images will be examined for content of any sort. However, in learning that such interrogation is possible – the knowledge of which now seems so apparent and obvious that I’m left a little shaken by my former ignorance – I’ve been stunned by the interior silence with which I meet that attention.

The university which I’m not permitted to name has little to do with this internal silence, other than my own interpretation of permission. Prior to these new guidelines regarding social media, my understanding of my words and actions as an employee were separate and distinct from my words and actions as a private citizen. As an employee, I’ve carefully cultivated a respectful, professional manner. I minimize aspects of my life which may not be well-received by colleagues; I avoid conflict. As with any relationship, certain parts of my life are silenced. Let me be clear: I silence myself, in order to maintain relationship.

I’ve always been able to find a path inside the work I do that matches my own sense of integrity, and through this work, I’ve learned more about how to live deeply, fully, and compassionately. I’ve learned the power of communication, of finding words that draw the internal experience out into the exterior world. To a certain extent, the work I’ve done for many years has made this writing possible; I wouldn’t be who I am, wouldn’t have the thoughts, ideas, experiences I’ve had, without first requiring within myself a strong and powerful silence that’s required in order to practice careful listening to others.

But that attentiveness to the experience of others brings with it a need to match its force with expression of my own voice. At the end of the day, I haven’t got any more words left for other people…but I’m able to write. I need to write.

Here’s the thing about silence as a verb: it’s subtle. It’s like the bullying that girls do to each other, less about the physical pummeling of fists than about soft snickering, ridicule, exclusion. In thinking about silence, I’ve felt ridiculous, embarrassed, ashamed. Wrong, on so many fronts. My words don’t stand up to scrutiny, are not pressed and neat like soldiers in a row. They sidle, furtively, into position, and, with a glance, slide away again. Does this mean that they aren’t valid? If I can’t defend them, are they indefensible?

532001_10151294242508839_1308053968_n

My experience of silence, as a person of so many privileges, is minute; almost like the skipping of a record over a speck of dust. I’m not threatened with legal fines or physical imprisonment, as the more totalitarian definition of silence is understood. As far as I know, I’m not risking overt social censure, no matter what I might find within myself to say. And yet, I find myself examining every word I write for its public defense, and, until this essay, almost every one of them was deleted.

And yet – I’m grateful for this experience. Because I’ve seen, time and time again, people who don’t share the same privileges I inherited, choose to not be silenced. I’ve stood in the background, filled with admiration for their courage and integrity. I’ve seen them risk public embarrassment, financial censure, damage to existing relationships, as well as the intense scrutiny that comes with any revelation. This is not to say that all information should be revealed, or that individual privacy should not be deeply respected. There are aspects of my life which I choose to reveal only selectively, not a result of shame, but because they may be distracting, irrelevant to the circumstances in which I speak. However, to be silenced regarding identity or experience is a new experience, for me, one that affords me a deeper appreciation and gratitude for the role models I’ve had, those who have chosen to speak their truths, even when, or especially when, those truths have not been convenient for others to hear. Even when, or especially when, those truths have not been comfortable to accept within themselves.

It’s the experience of other people, jettisoning the seeming safety of silence, that strengthens me now. It’s the experience of seeing a new postulate to the priesthood bravely carrying a dark hoodie “for those who can not be with us today” to his first-ever sermon, the morning after the Zimmerman verdict. It’s witnessing the weekly arrests of those who can not remain silent in the face of North Carolina’s recent legislative decisions. It’s knowing the many survivors of violence and discrimination who choose to speak their truths; who are not believed, and yet speak anyway.

These words, my words, are for you.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

summertime

Lightning bugs fill the sky like Chinese fireworks. We stay up late to watch and when, finally, we sleep, we keep our windows open to the trill of crickets and frogs. Laying on damp sheets, our shoulders ache with sunburn, the pain so familiar it would seem inevitable, but for the shame of knowing its damage. Our arms and legs, the soft parts of our bellies, are swollen from mosquitoes, chiggers, poison ivy. The day reeks of sunscreen and bug spray, a neighbor’s charcoal grills smoky with grease, two-cylinder engines fired up at dusk, and the spit of garden sprinklers.

 

low tide

Seasons aren’t just the weather, but everything that comes with it. One becomes accustomed to the swelter of the humid afternoons, the early morning cacophony of nesting birds. The tedious hours of tending to yards and gardens, never enough. Gnats swarm around our faces – cloud bugs, we call them, because that’s how they seem to us, a directionless, meaningless cloud – and we swat them away, uselessly. In South Carolina, they’re called “flying teeth” and in New England, “no-see-um’s” but here they’re just bugs, for the most part, and nothing but irritants of the air.

You might can tell from the way I’m writing that we don’t live in an air conditioned home, and you’d be right. They say that air conditioning changed the economy here in the South forever, because before that time, all work pretty much stopped for the summer. By work, they mean the work that wasn’t done by field hands or domestic help, but the kind of work that comes with salaries and benefits, the kind for which one isn’t expected to sweat. In fact, to appear sweaty is now considered rude, breaking an unwritten social contract. If we sweat, we’re prepared to apologetically explain it. It’s not normal. But normal is perpetually changing, shifting, reconstructing.

Not long ago I was swimming laps at the YMCA, when I saw a woman swim behind a brightly-colored ball. With each stroke, she reached for the ball, and it bobbed gaily away, just far enough that she could almost touch it again. Each stroke took her closer to the ball, and with each stroke, she pushed it away again. I wanted to ask her if she’d ever heard of Sisyphus, but she was still swimming when I left.

Normal feels like that bright ball to me, both definable and impossible to grasp. Normal is illusionary, but considered standard. Like non-sweaty bodies in the summer are normal, so too are perfect-seeming teeth, hair and skin, parameters of physical ability, constraints of weight and height. Cognitive norms also dodge and weave, ducking capture but considered attainable. In fact, following the tidy bell curve of normative IQs, they’re assumed. But understanding of this sort only follows what can be measured; it ignores all that doesn’t fit the algorithm.

What’s normal for summertime is everything I’ve gotten used to; but my experience isn’t a large enough sample size to be significant. I’m a sample size of 1: an n = 1, an insignificant sample. Sometimes my experience matches yours; other times, it doesn’t. What’s normal? I make assumptions based on my own experience; but my experience is not yours. What’s become normal, however, is to assume that it is.

What’s normal is everything I’ve gotten used to; but my experience paired with what I’ve read about climate collapse leads me to believe that I’d best prepare for learning a whole new normal. My experience paired with what I’ve seen and read about aging teaches me that my new normal might be very different from what it is now; the physical and cognitive attributes that make up the way I think of myself, normal, will change, become the new normal, and change again. What’s normal is what I cling to, again and again, as if the effort to hold it tight would keep me safe. Yet again I see the swimmer, reaching for that bright ball, every stroke pushing it further away. What’s normal falls away, gently as a spring blossom in the summer heat. What can I do but let it go?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments