Voting 2020

  1. All week, we’d planned to vote today as both Chris and I had a vacation day scheduled for this Thursday of the school Fall Break. Up with migraine overnight, I woke up this morning with the excitement that the day had arrived. Today, we would vote. Despite my commitment since 2016 to hard work in the midst of despair, it was difficult to tamp down that familiar feeling that accompanies every election: hope.
  2. I’ve written about what it’s like to be an optimistic depressive before. I have this personal bend toward the bright side despite a brain that’s wired toward darkness. Heading out to cast a vote in 2020 feels on-brand for my brain chemistry.
  3. I remind myself that America has always been a broken experiment. We keep relighting the burner and gluing together the shattered test tubes in hopes that we will get it right — or righter — this time.
  4. It is a spectacularly gorgeous day on this day that we’ve chosen for early voting. It’s that kind of day that you would put in a comic strip to depict perfect weather, just the right amount of blue sky, the right amount of clouds, and the right amount of sun in your face. It’s warmer, but the day reminds me of September 11th, 2001. The horror of that day was juxtaposed by the perfection of the weather.
  5. I love early voting. The first time I early voted was in 2008 in Huntington, West Virginia. About a hundred of my neighbors and I snaked around the classical halls of the Huntington City Hall. It’s the kind of gorgeous building we don’t even think about building any more. Austerity has made us reject domes and gilding. The long line ended in a room filled with ledgers. It smelled like the Carnegie Library I grew up in. I cast my vote for Barack Obama, and it felt historic. Today, that kind of squash in a building, double lines in narrow hallways, all of us voters not quite pressed up against one another, is unthinkable. In Kentucky, we wouldn’t even be allowed to early vote if it weren’t for the coronavirus.
  6. As we walk to the city building today, we pass a display for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Display seems like the wrong word. Commemoration? Memorial? On the city hall lawn, someone has arranged t-shirts on stakes, with the names of Kentuckians who were murdered by their partners. When I was twenty, my summer job for Middle Way House —the domestic violence shelter in Bloomington, Indiana — was to research spousal murders in Monroe County over the preceding years. It’s hard to imagine now that this task required a research assistant. In a digital era, it’s quick work, but in those days, it was a job of sitting over ledger after ledger in the county clerk’s office. I filled notepads with handwritten notes. A few years later, it would be surreal to go back to the same office to get a marriage license. The counter was next to the table where I had sweated all summer when I was twenty. Today, as we walk past the names, I think of Normandy and the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. About the First World War dead, he wrote, “…. the crosses, row on row,/ That mark our place; and in the sky/ The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard among the guns below.” As we pass the rows of the dead on our way to vote, I feel myself overwhelmed by anger that those folks couldn’t vote today. A minor loss, compared to all the ways their loved ones miss them, but it makes me furious. I would vote in their memory, even if no one knew it. I am again angry, too, that the Violence Against Women Act is now more controversial than ever. The act lapsed a year and a half ago, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s indifference.
  7. I’m excited to cast my vote against Mitch McConnell. If there’s ever been a more hopeless vote than that, I don’t know what it would be. Maybe when I voted against Jesse Helms when we lived in North Carolina? If somehow Amy McGrath wins, I will have a bonfire in my backyard and dance around it like a witch whose spells have finally been cast. You’re invited.
  8. In the polling place, an man in his eighties wears his mask like a moustache, above the mouth and below the nose. He crowds my husband, almost pressing up against him. You would look at that man and think that he’s most at risk for coronavirus complications, and you’d be right. You’d look at my hale and healthy husband and think that he’s not. You’d be wrong. He has Type One Diabetes, and this excursion for early voting is one of the few trips he’s made to a public place since March. I assumed that the county clerk would be as on top of precautions as the local college where my spouse and I work. I was wrong. It’s not a good time to be a forty-something woman. I don’t know why the surging or ebbing hormones of peri-menopause lend themselves only to rage and weeping. I want to grab that man by his little mask and utter curses and incantations that would make you blush. I remember my raising; I remember Midwestern Nice; I remember my mother. Also, I get called forward to cast my ballot before I could start yelling. I had pictured last night, the joy I would feel in voting against Donald Trump. Now, I’m not so blind with fury that I can’t see the ballot.
  9. In the hallway next to the voting room is a set of pictures from early Berea schools: Fruit Jar High, Middletown, and the Spaceship school. While I wait for Chris and Mr. Mask Moustache to finish casting their votes, I look at the photos. As always, children are forgotten in this election. We scarcely hear anything about them. Recent data indicates that since the beginning of the pandemic, American child hunger has soared. Something like 9 percent of parents reported that their children don’t get enough to eat on a weekly basis. That’s different from the usual statistic about parents going without food so their children can eat. 1 out of every 10 children now doesn’t have enough to eat. Both parents and children are going without in this pandemic. I was gladder than ever to cast that vote against Mitch McConnell, who demonstrates every week that he doesn’t care.
  10. In 2008, when I voted in a crowded courthouse, I voted FOR. I didn’t vote AGAINST. I was excited to vote for a change in the historical tide. I voted for a belief that we could shore up American Democracy to be better. This year, there was a lot of voting AGAINST. Unlike a lot of women my age, I adore Joe Biden. Here in middle age, I think the thing I want most is a president who understands grief. I want a president who understands sorrow. After four years of despair, of being reminded that America never lives up to its promise, I want a president who can weep while we try once again.

What We’re All Navigating

“We all need to expect about 40% less productivity from each other than normal and yet someone everyone seems to expect 140% right now. — Robin Thede

“ Pandemic’s emotional hammer hits hard: Pandemic depression hits 25% of Americans, study says.” NPR news , 9/2/2020

This week, I watched as families and children started a new school year remotely. With a son in middle school, I had a personal as well as professional front row seat to the educational experiment our nation is conducting on a wing and a prayer and with a lot of advance planning and learning on the part of teachers.

I see a lot of adults worried about whether children are falling behind and whether educational losses may be irreparable. If you don’t learn algebra in the 9th grade, are you lost forever from the wonders of the quadratic equation? More worrisomely, if you can’t see other children in groups at age 10, will you ever learn to have a conversation and navigate a social life?

We’re all worried about what our children are losing, and naturally so, but the headers of this post resonate with me as I see my own child doing school from our guest bedroom. As a school year begins, we feel that we should have moved beyond the cliche of “unprecedented times” and that we should have somehow now embraced “the new normal.”

The finding that 25% of us now have significant depressive symptoms says maybe we haven’t moved beyond our fears just yet. This is significant for education and educators, because mental health mitigates our competencies. When we are struggling, we also struggle with tasks that would normally be easy.

I watched this truth in action this week as my son learned to work the online systems for his online school experience. For students who are used to going ‘to” school, going to a computer in their home is like beginning again at kindergarten. There are a thousand procedures and tasks to be learned, and that’s anxiety-making. Anxiety leads to mistakes. In online assessments designed to measure what he already knows, I watched my son’s frustration grow as he made what he called “dumb mistakes.” He knew the answers, but his fingers clicked on the wrong choice or his mouse zoomed through multiple questions at once. Looking at his results, an educator might think that he didn’t have the background knowledge they would expect from an experienced middle schooler.

It’s not knowledge that he lacks: worry and sadness depress his competence. When you’re worried about mastering a new system, when you’re depressed about a world where you can’t see your friends, when your parents can’t tell you honestly that they know how all this is going to turn out, worries take up mental space that could normally be devoted to pressing the right button on a keyboard or to retrieving knowledge about geography.

It’s not only children who struggle. We adults are in the same boat. How many of us have made dumb mistakes since March? Too many dropped glasses shattered on the kitchen floor? Hurting a friend’s feelings by blurting out something unkind? Forgetting tasks on your to-do list.

When I saw Robin Thede’s tweet about productivity, I shouted “Yes!” I screenshot it. I sent the photo to friends. I posted it on social media. While 2020 is a undoubtedly a time for heroism, for pluck, and for determination, we need to recognize that we’re going to make a lot of mistakes because we’re aiming for the heroic as our depression draws us into mistakes, errors, and lost “productivity.”

Depression is nothing new to me. I’ve struggled with it for most of my adult life. To those folks joining this club during the pandemic, I say welcome and it’s probably going to be okay. If your depression stems from this unprecedented place — yes, I’ll say “unprecedented”— you won’t feel this way forever. Some of us, though, are wired from the get-go for this illness. That’s me, and I’ve learned a lot about being depressed over the last two decades. Here are some things that have helped me all along and that still help me in 2020.

— “Worry about today’s problem today.” — That’s what Elly’s pediatrician told me in 2002 when I was spiraling from postpartum depression. I couldn’t stop thinking about how her prematurity would affect her life. His statement helped me get on the road to therapy and medication treatment so that I could feel better in the present, rather than borrowing worry for 15 years down the road. If I could have accurately foreseen all the struggles that would happen because of her prematurity, it would have floored me. Focusing on the present allowed me to get through to the time when we would face those problems.

— “Find something to laugh about every day.” — My first therapist prescribed funny TV for me. I was to watch or listen to something funny every day, whether I wanted to laugh or whether it made me laugh. I was to put funny material into my brain until eventually I felt like laughing. People are now shocked when I say that humor is part of the moral structure of my universe, when I always list humor as one of my top values during team building exercises at work. I believe that laughter has saved me. I don’t know how it works. Neurologists could probably tell us, but I know that it’s not wrong to look for ways to laugh even when the world is bleak.

— “Walk” — Put on your runners and get some miles under your feet. Our bodies are made to move, and our minds work better when we do. I can almost promise that I’m the least coordinated person you know. If you watched me attempt any sport, you’d be able to meet your daily goal of finding something to laugh about every day. And still the act of walking from one place to another and back home again lifts my spirits.

— Get help — I’ve been on medication for over 18 years. I never won’t be. Depression is part of the way my brain works and is made. Somehow, some sad cave people managed to reproduce themselves thousands of years ago, and somehow, their sad cave children survived. That wiring has persisted down through me. Medication is the reason why most of you reading this don’t know that I struggle from depression.

So all of this is just to say, let’s lend each other— and our children — kindness and grace during the pandemic and during pandemic schooling. It is a hard and sad time. It’s absolutely normal to feel scared, sad, and worried. It’s normal to make mistakes when we’re under that cloud of worry. Let’s give each other a break.

Don’t let yourself or your loved one get to the point of being in danger from how sad you’re feeling. Seek help for yourself and for those you love. The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255. Depression is a serious illness. Don’t let it take you out.

The night before the first day of school

You may not know this about teachers, but they don’t sleep the night before the first day of school. For educators, this evening is like Christmas Eve.  Teachers toss in their beds, thinking about the next morning. They get up early with nervous energy to meet their new school family. Who are the children with whom they’ll spend most of their waking hours for the next year? What is this class going to be like? Every class is almost like a creature unto itself, an organism made of many parts that act together in weird and wonderful, harmonious and discordant ways.

This year, I wonder if anyone’s getting any sleep tonight, the night before the first day of school. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last weeks of summer, it’s that everyone is worried. Teachers, parents, grandparents, children: we are all worried. 

What is school going to be like this year? We vaguely remember what last spring was like. It was heroic, and it was also not what anyone would have wanted for an education. Children away from the school building? It was a crisis.

And now most of us are heading into another time of remote learning. In districts like mine, we’ve known our start would be virtual for a while, and we’ve had time to plan. And although parents have been setting up desks and learning nooks at home, although kids have been on “meet the teacher” zooms, although teachers have spent all summer learning how to do virtual learning, although support staff have been running around with school supplies and chromebooks, although administrators have been grappling with state guidelines and schedules, we don’t know exactly what tomorrow will look like. 

We’ve never quite done school like this before. No one has ever quite done school like this before.

Here’s what I do know the night before school starts:

First, we all need to try to worry less.  Parents are worried about what  if they can’t get their child logged onto the zoom correctly on the first day. Teachers are worried about zoom or google classroom crashing on the first day. Cafeterias are worried about remote food distribution on the first day.  As a family engagement worker, inhabiting that space between school and home, I’ve noticed that a lot of worries are about getting in trouble or making someone mad. Parents are worried that their child will be in trouble if they can’t log onto zoom at the exact right time or if their child wears their Paw Patrol PJs on the first day of school.  Teachers are worried about meeting student needs when children are at daycare, taking care of siblings,  or grappling with crappy WiFi.  Here’s what I know: no one’s going to be in trouble in these first few days and weeks. 

Parents, teachers know how hard it is for your and your kiddos right now. Teachers, parents understand that you are doing the impossible right now. Let’s try to worry less about getting in trouble. Let’s think more about how to offer each other grace as we navigate a national experiment in education.

Second, the first few weeks are not going to go perfectly. Teachers are going to mess up; students are going to mess up; administrators are going to mess up; family engagement workers are going to mess up. 

But those mistakes don’t mean our experiment is over. They don’t mean that distance learning just isn’t going to work out. It means we adjust and figure things out.

Third, there are going to be miraculous moments and great gifts from this time of distance learning. Just when our mistakes threaten to overwhelm us, something incredible is going to happen. We’re going to find little touchstones of grace that remind us what education is and what humanity is. I know this because those little moments happened in the spring and they happened all summer long. We all need to savor those times when everything comes together.

Finally, we’re starting the school year, but this era doesn’t stop being a scary one. We’re living through historical times. We are all so tired of the word “unprecedented,” but there’s a reason we keep using it.  The world is scary right now for adults and for children, for schools and families. And while we are set upon the work of helping children learn to read, learn to do geometry, learn AP US history, or middle school phys ed, the times don’t get any less frightening. Even if we adults mainly are brave for our children and mainly feel brave for our children, there are moments when the fear catches all of us up. If we can remember that we’re all doing our best in a time none of us would have chosen, we’ll get through this and our children will get their education. It’s going to take all of us remembering that all of us are going through something, all of us reaching out instead of withdrawing, all of us looking for light in the dark.

But now, it is the night before the first day of school, and we’d better try to get some sleep for tomorrow.

Walking in the time of coronavirus

How many times do you think we’ve walked around the block since we’ve been home, “ Paul asked on Wednesday.

    A little math later — if we walked around the block between one and three times a day, if it has been unbearably rainy for 10 days when we couldn’t even get out for one walk — we realized that we’d walked around our block at least 100 times since March 13th. 

    In the early days of the coronavirus closure, the trails were still open. We found ourselves visiting all the local spots. But as hiking trails closed, our world narrowed to this little block, many times a day. 

    In the goals we’d set for ourselves at the beginning, we’d talked about moving our bodies every day.  Chris and I thought we’d be parent-enforcers, drawing children away from screens and notebooks and books. It has turned out that Paul has rousted out of the house and around the block more than anyone. 

    It’s been  easy for Chris or me to justify a fifteen minute movement break to go around the block, to stand up from our desks and piles of work to connect with our kids, get the dog outside to pee, and defog our brains before the next message or Zoom. 

Breakfast, lunchtime, supper, once around the block for each: this is the rhythm of our days in family isolation. 

Here are the highlights of our walks so far:

  • We’ve watched the completion of a neighbor’s stone retaining wall. Energy that might have previously been devoted to workplace gossip now focused on the day’s wall progress. Was the mason there today? Where was he, we wondered, when he wasn’t? Was that really a smiling face of stone? It had to be. We all saw it. When would we know when the wall was done? When they seeded grass on the curb? When mulch and bedding plants were laid down? That had to be it.
  • We’ve watched the flowering of all the spring trees and counted the little winters — redbud, dogwood, blackberry. There are other little winters, but not on our block. And now at the beginning of June, everything is green. The trees have all leaved out, and the humidity begins to overtake our lunchtime walk.
  • Wandering just a little way from our block, we’ve found a secret party spot for college students. They’re no longer here to party, but there’s no question from the evidence they left. We keep their secret. 
  • Two blocks from our house is the town cemetery. Paul, who has always been scared of it, is now willing to walk there. I, who grew up across the road from a cemetary, rejoice because there is no calmer, more grounding walk. Would it be creepy to live next door, Paul asks. The people there are people just like anyone else, I tell him. He suggests that the distinction between the living and the dead is an important one. 
  • Stuck at home, everyone is throwing themselves into their gardening. Every house is ready for its photo shoot with tidy vegetables beds, impulse-bought flowers from the college farm, and statuary. I myself have bought a Jizo statue, and it brings me joy every day. It reminds me that some pains no longer ache. 
  • Lunchtime walks are about the news. We talk about racism. We talk about the police. We talk about injustice. We talk about our fears of a worse world.
  • We find a patch of poison ivy that the dog — bless her — always wants to pee in. We find another path.
  • We meet neighbors from time to time. We stand far apart to talk, but talk we do. It is a relief to see faces that aren’t our own. One day, we run into Paul’s friend and her mother. It seems surreal that just a few months ago, we were carpool buddies. Once, we had school in the school building; once we had carpools. That seems long ago.
  • We watch the tree trimmers trim all the street trees out of the electric lines. We have opinions.  They left so little of that tree or this.  Another tree is clearly dying. Why don’t they just take it all the way down?
  • A rental house that’s been empty for 6 months shows signs of life. One of the street’s mystery houses suddenly has flowers on the porch. Signs for teacher appreciation and graduation appear and then disappear. A trio of young siblings boost neighborhood spirits with their sidewalk chalked messages. Stay healthy at home. Eat fruits and vegetables.  Stay sunny. 

Stay sunny. We’re trying. We’re putting miles on our feet. This is our snapshot of week 12 of social distancing and walking. 

Graduating in a pandemic — when your child is gay

Graduating during the 2020 coronavirus is as weird as you’d think. For the last month, we’ve made our way to drive-past celebrations where my husband sticks his head out of the moonroof and beats a celebratory drum while I drive ever so carefully behind  a parade of vehicles. We’ve coordinated mailing campaigns for our graduates at church. We’ve planted signs in yards and had signs planted in ours. We’ve cheered on the celebratory FB posts by parents of graduates, and we’ve posted our own pictures. We’ve offered sympathy for those moms and dads who are sad to see their child’s senior year of high school end like this. 

  For me, though, there was no sense of loss until our immediate family   gathered around the tv on Friday night to watch graduation. Until the footage started rolling of our daughter singing “My Old Kentucky Home” — in her graduation robes but also in her childhood bedroom — I hadn’t shed a tear. The dim twilight filtering through the curtains we’d drawn so we could see the screen, her sixth grade brother shirtless, I in my rocking chair with my knitting, and and the graduate and her father on the sofa: what a strange way to watch a child pass that milestone from childhood to adulthood, from school days to adult responsibility. Only the technical difficulties in the video propelled us to laughter that held an element of hysteria.

 When your child is gay, this milestone hits differently. No matter how welcoming a school, no matter how cozy a nest, an LGBTQ student’s passage through high school looks different from the warm 1950s glow of what we imagine high school filtered through Happy Days and 90210 to be.  I don’t imagine that the 21st century high school experience looks like the  football captain-Homecoming-cheerleader-parade float-prom haze for any 21st century teenager.  John Mellencamp wrote “Jack and Diane” almost 40 years ago now. 

We knew high school wasn’t a rosy dream in the 1980s, too.

But for parents of gay children, it’s another thing entirely.  You lose sleep in a different way. For my daughter, her identity was also mediated through a late teen diagnosis of ADHD, but that’s another story for a different essay, when that piece of our history — the painful struggle to find that diagnosis and the missteps, both hers and ours— is less painful.  Life lesson for parents of preemie girls: take seriously the risk of ADHD in your healthy, sparkly, spunky girls. 

 For the last two months, I’ve watched and listened as other parents lament the loss of prom, awards nights, spring musicals and sports, and graduation. If I’m honest, all that I could think is that we had a few more months of keeping our daughter safe at home.

 My daughter went to good school, with a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, with truly progressive teachers, and with many tolerant classmates. I never feared for her safety too much on the basis of her sexuality. Something that I’ve learned is that statistics are only so helpful in letting a parent sleep at night. 

Whenever a woman is assaulted, we rightly call out politicians who rush to assure us that they are appalled because he is the father of a daughter, a husband to a wife, a son of a mother.  We don’t need those family relationships to know right from wrong.

And yet, since I’ve learned that my daughter is a lesbian, I find that my response to stories in the news about violence against LGBTQ folks has taken a turn toward atavism. My response — my rage and my fear — comes from the gut now and not the mind.  The statistic that LGBTQ youth consider suicide at three times the rate of their straight peers stops my heart. I may be stirring soup on the stove, scouring out a bathtub, or making a bed, but when that news story comes on, I am frozen and cannot move.

It’s all to say that as much as I know I should, it’s been hard to lament her senior year ending this way.  Two months free from knowing that your daughter is being told she’s going to hell? We’ll take it. Of course, the homophobia is ever present in social media and media. But two months away from being personally told that she’s personally going to hell? It’s hard for a parent not to see the upside.

A pandemic is not a good solution for keeping a child safe. As much as we rejoice that she made it through high school, safe and whole, adulthood beckons. In a few months, she’ll likely be off to college. We live in a better world than the one I grew up in. The closeted kids I knew in high school are shocked that it’s nothing to be “out” even in our rural school in the 21st century.  Until we live in an entirely different world, I will always be a little scared for her. My heart will always be stopping when I read that news story.  But as safe as we’ve felt in our socially distant home in spring of 2020, we don’t want the pandemic to last forever. We don’t want her in her graduation gown in that lilac room forever. It’s time for her go out into the world. It’s time for me to worry about her as all parents keep carrying their adult adult children in our hearts do. It’s time for her to make the world her own.

I’m still glad that high school is over.

The State Of Our Quarantimes

Ten weeks into our stay-at-home experience, I cleaned out the refrigerator and found the list of rules our family had made at the beginning of our time at home. Almost a quarter of a year into these quarantimes, it seemed a good time to review how well our expectations have matched our reality. Despite the fact that my fridge expedition was based on a mysterious odor that we’d been hunting for the last two days, I’m pleased by how we’ve done and how realistic we were at the beginning.

In March, we sat Paul and the girls down at the table and came up with the following list:

Goals

  • Everyone has space and sanity
  • Everyone gets their work done
  • Everyone learns something new
  • Everyone keeps shared space clean

How We’ll Get There

  • Everyone gets dressed every day
  • Quiet Hours are 10:30 PM – 6:30 AM
  • Everyone attends to hygiene daily
  • Everyone needs to spend time alone and time together every day
  • Everyone needs to move their bodies every day and when possible go outside
  • Everyone needs to clean up after themselves and help with chores

Thinking back to the elaborate charts, schedules, and resource lists that were circulating on social media in March, our commitments seemed underwhelming. We set the bar low. We were thinking about how to thrive together as a tween boy, two (and often three) high school seniors, and two middle-aged parents who’d always declared that we could never work in the same office. Our romance is strong, and our work styles are profoundly different. Now we were all sharing the same work and living space around the clock, and we had a cranky senior dog, three cats, and a chicken to contend with. The chicken almost immediately got herself killed, as chickens do. One of the cats got tired of us after a week of quarantine, snuck out of the house, and took off for a month, only to return when food seemed more desirable than humans seemed disdainable.

With two adults who had worked at home in the past — one of us as research assistant and one of us a PhD student — we knew that we couldn’t exactly predict how the goal of “get our work done” would happen. It turns out that although we had three times more children than the last time we’d worked at home, three near-adults and one near-teen are more forgiving on the work front than 1 baby or toddler. I joke that I’ve become much more productive at home than at school because it’s easier to be get work done while being distracted by four children than by 450 children. Packed in that joke is grief, which will have to be wrangled once we are done putting one foot in front of another.

What we did not predict when we made our list ten weeks ago was how important time outside and time together would be. You see hints in the list, but we made those strictures just knowing that people in the tween and teen years can take to their rooms. We didn’t know that time outside would set all of our moods for the day or that the middle schooler would become the most enthusiastic walker of all of us. We didn’t know that board games and hysterical laughter — emphasis on the hysteria — around the supper table would come to seem necessary to the day.

We don’t yet know how many more weeks of time at home we’ll have. We don’t know when we’ll need to come back to it in the next year or two. I’m glad to have had a moment on this Memorial Day weekend to take a pulse on the state of our Quarantimes. I’m also glad that I found the source of the smell in the fridge, some recently purchased chicken that had now better never see our bellies.

Driving is not my jam — my blues song of the widening of Rte. 25

Driving has never been my thing. I like to think that, after 30 years of driving, I’m a competent driver, maybe even at the peak of my driving performance. Thirty years is a long time since I drove around Ohio County, Indiana, in the dual-braked driver’s ed car with 3 other girls while we listened to Mr. John Roeder’s favorite, John Cougar Mellencamp. He was John “Cougar” in those days. That’s how long I’ve been driving.

After thirty years, I don’t think my friends and acquaintances talk about my driving behind my back. I’m just a cautious driver.

But I’ve never liked it. The long lost tradition of a Sunday afternoon drive has always been lost on me. I was a  carsick toddler. I have memories of puking alongside every Alberta highway and forestry road. When people ask what I remember about being a preschooler in Northern Canada, they’re disappointed to learn that the answers are (a) being potty-trained; (b) drawing on my friend Ricky with a pen and getting in trouble; (c) falling down on the ice rink, and (d) lots and lots of puking next to a car.

Undoubtedly, my Grandpa Carnahan’s habit of piling me and my grandma along with his friends Kingie and Frances into the car of a summer evening and driving around to look at fields didn’t add to my love of cars. Kingie smoked unfiltered cigarettes the whole time while Grandma, Frances, and I suffocated in the back seat where the AC didn’t reach. Thank god for flat southwestern Indiana roads, or I would have revived my preschool habit of puking.

Being a person of great imagination and also the best friend of creativity, high anxiety, I didn’t love driving any more after I made the move to the driver’s seat. Do  kids today still watch terrible videos about car crashes in health class? I know that the state of Indiana only required me to take a two semesters of Health Class, but in my memories, every day of high school brought a fresh or repeated movie about the dangers of driving. I was the ideal audience for these movies. Nobody needed to scare me straight. Just scare me, and I was ready for a lifetime of law-abiding driving, not to mention imagined terrors every time I got behind the wheel between the ages of 16 and 18.

So I don’t like driving although I’m now the primary driver in our family. Chris walks to work, so I’m the caretender of the car and its needs. I have a few rules that make me a successful, if disgruntled, driver.  They are:

  1. Never be more than 1000 miles late for an oil change.
  2. Never pass on a two lane country road unless you can see for a good half-mile
  3. Pay attention to what people are doing in front of you.
  4. Five mph above the speed limit is fine, but no more.
  5. You are, under no circumstances, more important than anyone on the road. In other words, be careful.

This summer, the main road between our house and the county seat is being dug up for road work. It’s not repaving. It’s not a slight widening. No, about ½ a mile from our home, there are wide man-tall ditches where the workers are replacing underground pipes before they do the road work itself. What used to be a straight road now veers all over the place through these giant holes in the ground. New ditches appear weekly and lanes move around as if the road were a living serpent in a decaying landscape. I’m sure to the workers who have to dig these pits, asphalt new lanes, and then paint new lines on what seems like a daily basis, well, I’m sure this process doesn’t seem as fast and otherworldly.

Last week, I was driving home from a trip to the grocery store in Richmond. From a ways off, I could see that the traffic pattern coming into town had changed again. Not only that, it looked like the state road workers — God bless them and give them a raise — were setting up the new pattern right then. I knew that this was not good news for me. I knew I was going to have a hard time figuring out where I was supposed to drive.

But I was happy to see there was another car in front of me. I would not need to figure out where the new lanes were and where the old road disappeared. I would just play follow the leader.

Except… the driver of the vehicle in front of me couldn’t figure the road out any better than I could. First, they stopped to ask the worker where they were supposed to go. Smart move, I thought. Then they pulled forward for about 10 feet before stopping again. A worker ran up to the car and pointed out the next bit of lane.

If I were a person who liked to drive, I imagine that I might have been impatient or dismissive with this driver ahead of me. Instead, I was happy to know that there was someone else to whom these meandering maze of ditches was also a impermeable experience. The driver finally slowly led me forward, with many more stops to figure out which part of the road to drive on. She — I’m calling the driver a “she” — probably thought she about to get honked at, but I couldn’t have been happier to follow her until we made it to the next light and a familiar traffic pattern.

I suppose there might be a metaphor here. Cynically, someone else might invoke the cliche of the “blind leading the blind.”  Not me. If there’s any parable here, it’s that the ground is ever slipping beneath our feet. Maybe each birthday takes us further into a world that seems less familiar than than the one of our childhood. Maybe it’s that the unprecedented chaos in our politics and our governance makes it seem as though man-high ditches are springing  up around us. Aa Yeats tell us, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Everything feels novel and awful, every day, and yet somehow I made it home to put away the ice cream before it melted, thanks to the driver in front of me.

Me, I’m just glad that someone else is just as baffled as I am by the summer road work in Berea, and I find comfort in the truth that if we drive slow enough and ask for enough help, we’re maybe going to make it through the widening of US-25.

Chickens and Current Events

img_1583Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. I can’t stress enough the importance of this fact in my life right now: chickens do not know about Donald Trump.

A flock of chickens came to live with us this spring. Paul has wanted chickens since he was 4 years old. Being parents and naturally resistant to bringing more creatures into our lives, we put him off for six years.

First, we told him that we had to get our own house in Berea. That goal achieved, we told him that we had to get settled into our new home. We may even have told him that Daddy had to get tenure before we could get chickens. Finally, we said that he could possibly get chickens in the fourth grade. If his school was still hatching chickens through the 4-H program when he was in the fourth grade, he could bring one of the classroom chickens home.

This year, that distant date in the far future — 4th grade! — arrived. It was time to get serious about chickens. In the months leading up to their arrival, Chris and Paul read books about chickens and their care, and Chris worried about whether we would be up to the task. I researched chicken permits in the town of Berea and drew a little map of our coop for City Hall. I found a low-cost coop kit that looked like we could reasonably assemble it. I began accumulating supplies for keeping baby chicks in the basement, and Chris and Paul built a brooder out of a plastic bin and some bird netting. We talked to friends who had chickens. We joined the Tractor Supply rewards program.

After an eventful two weeks of classroom life with 22 lively fourth graders, two chickens came home in late March, and they were soon joined by four friends from Tractor Supply. One of the classroom chickens died quickly, but the other five of the flock stayed in the basement under the light long enough for us to be very tired of having chickens in the house. The cold spring delayed their move to the coop outside. At Mother’s Day, they finally moved into their own home outside our back door.

And that’s when Chris and I discovered the pure joy of having backyard chickens. Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. Chickens don’t know about anything except being chickens. They are not weighed down by a knowledge of English and a subscription to three different newspapers.

Although the chicken’s are Paul’s, we adults  find ourselves drifting outside of an evening to watch them. Sure, that’s when they need their food and water changed, but we also let them out of their chicken run for an hour. We watch them wander around the yard, peck their way into some kind of order, and experiment with eating weeds and rocks.

Casey is the smallest chicken and believes that she should lead a life of free and wild adventure. It takes sneaking, herding, and sometimes the sight of the Terrifying Green Leaf Rake get her back into the coop at night. She is half the size of the household cat, but the cat is afraid of her. Big Amber and Pluff are the advanced chickens with impressive combs and are suspected of being possible roosters. The twins — Zelda and Big Ears — started life as “The Twins”  because we only recently started to be able to tell them apart. They are ciphers.

They all look like dinosaurs at times, especially when they stretch their necks. They fly for a few feet around the yard when they want to show each other who’s boss. Casey’s the boss, but Big Amber and Pluff don’t recognize her leadership. She has a tiny, rubbery comb, so her rule must be challenged daily.

What you discover, if you’re an adult with a beer sitting around in a chicken yard at around 7 PM, is that your stress and worries retreat like the cat from a marauding Casey the Chicken. The chickens do not know about work; they don’t know about parenting teenagers; they don’t know about college politics; they don’t know about illness and aging; and they especially don’t know about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump tries to suck up all the attention in the nation. He’s successful at it, but he doesn’t command attention with the kindness, gentleness, and goodness of a Mr. Rogers or a Koko the Gorilla (RIP).  What he’s done to immigrant children this month is so terrible and terrifying that a person feels like she ought to be paying attention every second of every day, like she should check twitter in the middle of the night, like she should never stop ceasing to write and march.

And so there’s nothing better than a few minutes of an evening to spend watching the chickens. They don’t know about the President. They can’t know about the President. For a short time each day, there’s nothing more refreshing

Chickens and Current Events

Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. I can’t stress enough the importance of this fact in my life right now: chickens do not know about Donald Trump.

A flock of chickens came to live with us this spring. Paul has wanted chickens since he was 4 years old. Being parents and naturally resistant to bringing more creatures into our lives, we put him off for six years.

First, we told him that we had to get our own house in Berea. That goal achieved, we told him that we had to get settled into our new home. We may even have told him that Daddy had to get tenure before we could get chickens. Finally, we said that he could possibly get chickens in the fourth grade. If his school was still hatching chickens through the 4-H program when he was in the fourth grade, he could bring one of the classroom chickens home.

This year, that distant date in the far future — 4th grade! — arrived. It was time to get serious about chickens. In the months leading up to their arrival, Chris and Paul read books about chickens and their care, and Chris worried about whether we would be up to the task. I researched chicken permits in the town of Berea and drew a little map of our coop for City Hall. I found a low-cost coop kit that looked like we could reasonably assemble it. I began accumulating supplies for keeping baby chicks in the basement, and Chris and Paul built a brooder out of a plastic bin and some bird netting. We talked to friends who had chickens. We joined the Tractor Supply rewards program.

After an eventful two weeks of classroom life with 22 lively fourth graders, two chickens came home in late March, and they were soon joined by four friends from Tractor Supply. One of the classroom chickens died quickly, but the other five of the flock stayed in the basement under the light long enough for us to be very tired of having chickens in the house. The cold spring delayed their move to the coop outside. At Mother’s Day, they finally moved into their own home outside our back door.

And that’s when Chris and I discovered the pure joy of having backyard chickens. Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. Chickens don’t know about anything except being chickens. They are not weighed down by a knowledge of English and a subscription to three different newspapers.

Although the chicken’s are Paul’s, we adults  find ourselves drifting outside of an evening to watch them. Sure, that’s when they need their food and water changed, but we also let them out of their chicken run for an hour. We watch them wander around the yard, peck their way into some kind of order, and experiment with eating weeds and rocks.

Casey is the smallest chicken and believes that she should lead a life of free and wild adventure. It takes sneaking, herding, and sometimes the sight of the Terrifying Green Leaf Rake get her back into the coop at night. She is half the size of the household cat, but the cat is afraid of her. Big Amber and Pluff are the advanced chickens with impressive combs and are suspected of being possible roosters. The twins — Zelda and Big Ears — started life as “The Twins”  because we only recently started to be able to tell them apart. They are ciphers.

They all look like dinosaurs at times, especially when they stretch their necks. They fly for a few feet around the yard when they want to show each other who’s boss. Casey’s the boss, but Big Amber and Pluff don’t recognize her leadership. She has a tiny, rubbery comb, so her rule must be challenged daily.

What you discover, if you’re an adult with a beer sitting around in a chicken yard at around 7 PM, is that your stress and worries retreat like the cat from a marauding Casey the Chicken. The chickens do not know about work; they don’t know about parenting teenagers; they don’t know about college politics; they don’t know about illness and aging; and they especially don’t know about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump tries to suck up all the attention in the nation. He’s successful at it, but he doesn’t command attention with the kindness, gentleness, and goodness of a Mr. Rogers or a Koko the Gorilla (RIP).  What he’s done to immigrant children this month is so terrible and terrifying that a person feels like she ought to be paying attention every second of every day, like she should check twitter in the middle of the night, like she should never stop ceasing to write and march.

And so there’s nothing better than a few minutes of an evening to spend watching the chickens. They don’t know about the President. They can’t know about the President. For a short time each day, there’s nothing more refreshing

Fee Glade: Why I Pray

Among the gifts of summer is my daily morning walk with Chris. In the slower summer season, we walk for 30 minutes before he has to open the Center, and then I continue my walk to Fee Glade where I pray before the rest of the day.

If I were a better person or a more spiritual person, I’d make that meditative visit all year long. Instead, I’m a person who’s doing her best to have herself at work before 7 AM during the school year. So this practice of prayer at Fee Glade remains a summer gift in my life.

Why do I visit Fee Glade?  Because it represents the heart of truth and wildness at the center of our lives. In the very center of a landscaped, planned campus where history uplifts and weighs down, behind a black metal fence lies chaos and utter wildness. No cultivation, no plan, but trees and vines curling among each other in an impenetrable mass.  Wild morning glories twine their way through the fence to catch the line of daylilies cultivated on the side of civilization.

I’m fortunate to inhabit the wild place where it all comes together in Berea, our divided space.  Married to the college but living and working in town, I get to see the best and worst of both. It’s a rare position, and I’m thankful for it but it takes prayer to make sense of this place so informed by an American history of conflict and resistance.

As I look into the glade each morning, I try to hold in my heart all of Berea. A spider casts a 20 foot line of web from tree to tree, and I imagine that web holding us all together. I imagine each of dozens of little churches, each of our neighborhoods, each of our hidden trails as part of one whole, “brothers and sisters in Christ” as our Sunday morning prayer at church reminds us.

I imagine all the factions, all the departments, and all the squabbles at the college and at my school, and I remember that at the heart of our disagreements are our wild hearts. We can try to manicure ourselves into civilisation. We can attend trainings to be better colleagues, and we can work hard to be better together. It’s best not to forget our wild human hearts at our core that bring out emotions and fears we don’t understand. If we can remember that no matter our professional faces, that we each inhabit a different entwined overgrowth of millenia of humanity, then I think we can forgive each other and keep working together for good. Maybe we can learn to love each other’s wildness.

Last week, Chris and I visited the reading room at the Library of Congress. It’s a remarkable monument to learning. It’s gorgeous mosaics and classical statuary surrounding bookshelves and desks with little lamps. The room reminded me that scholarship and learning are glorious pursuits. Besides standards and outcomes, there is value just in finding out something, learning it, and committing it to our shared knowledge.

What moves us to study, though, are our wild hearts, our passion for this life and world. Behind the reading room lies chaos and humanity. Our minds drive us to find a path through the mystifying and dense layers of the vines of history. Just like Fee Glade, that preserved spot of wilderness that reminds us what we are about.

That’s why my feet draw me there daily in June and July.

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