Friday, August 6, 2021

These Posts are Moving. Please Come Over!

Faithful reader, thank you for finding me here. As of August 3, 2021, these daily posts have moved to a new site. I hope that you will join me there. Thank you for your generous attention.


The new site, called "Breadcrumbs" is here: http://stacey-c-johnson.com


Comments and subscriptions should be easier to manage there, and the Wordpress platform gives me some advanced design features that I appreciate. 


I appreciate you!



Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Against Forgetting










Against forgetting, give water to the plant

and notice the light in a stranger’s eye

––and the shadows. 


Notice the work still waiting, against

what would have you close your eyes,

surrendering time, white flag waving

for a moment before it falls like a sheet

over the sleeping body, like a sheet

over the dead.


I’d lose my head, The old women would say, 

If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to

hold the tether to what was less securely 

attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life

if it isn’t attached, by the substance

of a series of tiny actions like clay around

the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise

invisible dreams.


Against forgetting, say to the child unsure

how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand

and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,

extend an invitation to the table, 

to those cast out, disposed of,

dispossessed. This includes the children

before you and the ones made invisible

and the ones you once were.

To say, I see you, Here 

we are and remember.


To notice the little bird in the low branch,

to say its name and listen for its response

to what you have not said. To walk in

the desert, in the dark, with water and

with light.


"The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it."

-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times


This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.



Image: "Moineau/ sparrow" by myriad_bonnie on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial No Derivs 2.0 Generic license


Monday, August 2, 2021

Monster Mash 3: Forget It!

I’ve got a new monster lurking around me this week. He’s given me trouble before. I haven’t named him yet. Every time it occurs to me to notice, he goes, “Forget it!”

That’s his thing, forgetting. Not the kind that makes you wonder where you left your keys, but the kind that makes it easy to forget where you were in a new, not-yet-realized project, and what the next step is supposed to be, and why it matters. I think I know why he’s showing up now. One reason is because I am now moving to focus my evening writing time on developing a new manuscript, the outlines of which are not yet fully realized. And the second is because the return to school (full, unmodified schedule of the like that we haven’t seen since early March 2020) means that the pace of expectations and outside-world responsibilities in a given day is about to increase dramatically. My work as a teacher is work that I care about deeply, and it is also true that achieving a balance between these and other responsibilities and a writing life is a constant tension. Already there are team events, extracurriculars, a great deal more meetings and noises and last-minute events and lesson planning and homework help and lots of new things to learn, make, and do–– all of which matter.


And yet, this other thing I am trying to make, which is somehow tied to the very essence of my life, matters also. But the thing about creative work like this that you are putting your energy into something that does not yet exist. It’s an act of radical hope. And this kind of hope is often under attack. 


Some of the challenges with a new project can be that no one’s asking or expecting anything, that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing. As I’ve been noticing this week and feeling a creeping low-grade anxiety about my slippery grasp on this thing I am trying to make. I use the mornings for early pages and usually these posts, and then comes the day, and all the activity that comes with it, and then, by the time afternoon writing hour strikes, I am often sitting at my desk trying to find my way back to something that seemed very urgent and clear when I was in a space of more focused attention.


That’s all I can say about this creature so far. I don’t have a face for him, or a name beyond Forget It. What I am developing now is a plan to deal with him. I am called back to one of my biggest takeaways from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: how one must treat the artist-self as a child, in a spirit of play. Sure, I think, but when I’m tired and under stress I tend to also be too tired for play. Thinking of this, I am prompted to consider how, as a teacher, I have plenty of experience working with young, usually reluctant and generally insecure writers, who also tend to be tired and under a great deal of stress. I know that while a spirit of play can be helpful, so can reasonable demands paired with consistent structures and gentle encouragement. As I remember this now, I realize that while I may not have a full grasp on this monster’s anatomy, mannerisms, and preferences, I can grasp how easily he might win if I do not employ thoughtful proactive planning into my afternoon sessions. With this in mind, I begin to develop a plan that employs the best of what I have learned from working with students, who I always expect, even if I saw them one day or a few hours beforehand, will tend to arrive with a certain glazed-over sense of overwhelm and a sense of confusion or disorientation as to what, exactly, we are doing here. Well, I think. When you put it in those terms, we actually do know what to do, when it comes to this Forget-It force.


1. Post an agenda. Anticipate that at the end of the average “crazy” day I am going to need a written reminder as to what I am doing, where I left off, and what needs to happen in the day’s session. I would never think of having students begin the day’s work without reminding them back to it, and setting a clear purpose, time and length parameters, and some scaffolding tools and/or examples. I can write this the night before, as with lesson plans, and leave on my desk or desktop to review before I begin.

2. Provide an example when possible. An insecure writer or artist needs models. I can be on the lookout for these. This is something I have not proactively done with myself before, which recently struck me as rather absurd. Only when I was recently challenged to do an imitation exercise, did it occur to me to notice how I had foolishly resisted such practice, which made me realize how often I had been giving myself a challenge that went something like this: spend a lifetime reading what has come before you, and then, in a bold act of self-affirming will (whatever that is), reject it all and reinvent the wheel. Even though I have written about the value of Learning by Imitation, I need to give myself regular reminders that I don’t have to start from scratch. This can seem difficult with some projects, but there is always something that can be used (a prompt, a passage, a model of excellent dialogue, even a mood-setting song or work of art).

3. Set clear parameters. Just as I would with a class, I can be clear with my confused, possibly recalcitrant, and possibly insecure artist-self. As in,“By the end of this period you will have . . ."  I will be specific and detailed in these instructions: how long, what’s included, how much time allowed. 

4. If time is a parameter, watch it. In the evening hours, it’s generally unreasonable for me to expect uninterrupted time. I’m a single mom and there will be practice pickups, meals to make, math homework to check, and various other welcome responsibilities that are going to need my attention. I am also going to occasionally remember that there is an urgent email or phone call I never responded to. During hectic times like this it can be useful to use a time-tracker app which I start when the work session starts and pause every time I go off-task. It was eye opening when I first started using it last year. I learned that when it came to the evening hours, three hours of scheduled writing time tended to mean more like ninety minutes on task.  So, I set a time-on-task goal and tended to be more effective.

This monster is especially pernicious, and I can already tell that I will need more than one post to make a plan for dealing with him. My gut tells me that the antidote to this “forget-it” force goes much deeper than task management. Until then, Remember. 


This is the third post in the Monster Mash series. The other two are here: #1: "It's Nothing!" and #2: "Meet Dr Blob"



Image: "Into the Black Hole" by Holger Prothemann on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Spectacle and the Living

On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games opened in Berlin. Adolf Hitler presided over the opening ceremonies. He had gone to great pains to outdo the Los Angeles stadium of 1932, building a track and field stadium to seat 100,000 spectators, among other impressive arenas. It was the first televised Olympics, the first torch relay, and the Nazi Chancellor saw the games as a tremendous opportunity to promote his nationalist agenda.


He didn’t speak of killing or deathcamps. He just made sure that Jewish athletes were barred or otherwise prevented from competing. He tied the image of the noble and beautiful athlete to state power and his voice to high-minded ideals invoking language of unity, proclaiming, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn't separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That's why the Olympic Flame should never die.”  It’s fair to assume that if he couldn’t stir millions with invocations like this, he wouldn’t have been in a position to orchestrate the terrors that followed. With this in mind, it’s worth considering and reconsidering what moves us, in order to notice who and what gets erased when the primary motivating impulse is grandiosity.


After the games, the Olympic Village was repurposed for use by Nazi armed forces, as a camp, an infantry training school, and a hospital. Because of World War two, there would not be another Olympics for twelve years.


Also on this day, in 1981, MTV began broadcasting. The first video to be aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles, featuring these famous lines:


In my mind and in my car

We can't rewind, we've gone too far

Pictures came and broke your heart

Put the blame on VCR.


The line of connection is the power of the image. It calls to mind Marshall McLuhan’s reminder that “The medium is the message,” and it’s worth noting the relevance, considering the diverse anxieties of living in an age where the speed and proliferation of messages is so omnipresent. Many a would-be dictator has benefited from the reality of censorship through noise. From the standpoint of anyone doing creative work: of art, education, growth, a movement–– sheer noise is one of the chief weapons of the anti-life force of the machine that works to prevent this growth. Soul and species survival, in this era, necessitates certain questions: what invisible truths are living behind what is projected in this moment? Who and what is not featured? Who and what is erased? 


Erasure is diffuse and happens most effectively when it can go undetected. Any ecosystem that supports the systematic erasure of certain life forms above others is by nature unstable in ways that threaten the entire ecosystem. Where certain lives are systematically erased, all lives live under constant surveillance and threat of erasure. It’s one thing to talk about fighting for life, about defending the threatened, but the problem with this rhetoric is that both invoke the same tired images of victory and conquest that support the erasure at hand. We can’t defend what we’re not noticing. To look well and deeply is an act of courage and humility. So is listening. 


Also on this day, Carlton Douglas Ridenhour was born in Queens, NY. He would later adopt the stage name Chuck D., form the group Public Enemy in 1985, and rise to international fame while delivering a call to social consciousness and resistance against the forces of state-sanctioned violence and racialized social control. In the summer of 1989, the group released “Fight the Power” with this timely message:


You say what is this?

My beloved let’s get down to business

Mental self-defensive fitness

Don't rush the show

You gotta go for what you know

Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

Lemme hear you say

Fight the power


In an age of senseless invisible killing on a global scale, with the stakes as high as they have ever been, the act of paying attention becomes a radical act. It’s tempting and gratifying to the ego to invoke the same tired images of the fight, the raised torch, the path to victory.  But the spectacle is not in service of life. The spectacle, as employed today, is generally in service of another agenda. Spectacle in and of itself is not necessarily the problem, but it’s not the solution, either. You could argue that the lyrics above, powerful as they are, are part and parcel with spectacle.  


A spectacle designed to move people to resist corrupt power systems, in a world of spectacle, is important and necessary, but the real work is deeper. Children, for example, who need lots of care, will celebrate the wild, crazy uncle that comes to visit every so often, who raises them high in the air, gives piggy-back rides, speaks in funny voices, and feeds them candy before leaving. The kids are reaffirmed with a sense of magic and possibility, but they’d likely be in danger if they were left solely in his care. The care is the slow, unglamourous, painstaking work of the sleep-deprived parent, day in and day out, one ordinary moment at a time. 


What to do with these torches, these stirrings to victory, the way they are all wrapped up in our idea of transcendence? A good symbol is better repurposed than neglected. One suggestion may be, to bring the torch lower–– maybe to the level of the campfire.  To create a space for the opposite of spectacle, where the quiet magic lives, so real we can almost miss it. A place of listening and sharing, under the common sky, unified by a sense of being small beneath it. And against all the spectacles of false strength, to recognize a common fragility, and a call to protect what needs protecting, not with the posture of a blowhard pretend strongman, but through the patient, slow-moving, and restorative acts of the nurturer.




Image: Fireworks! by Job B on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.




Saturday, July 31, 2021

What We Miss When We're Not Looking

 

This is a story about loss and healing, adapted from a story I read in the Salem News earlier this week.


God forbid, Mary would think, when the thought of cats against cars would occur. She would take off her own shirt, wrap the body, clutch it to her chest. Use her own mouth as needed. A soft toothbrush would be better, to mimic the mother’s tongue. She would rock and hold and hum, use a dropper to feed if she had to, until well.


But when Max disappeared, there was no body, only an open screen, as if to say, here is the trace of love leaving, and it reminded her back to similar spaces, too many to count. The cool side of the bed, the left-behind toys, the unnecessary landline that only solicitors called, which she kept active anyway, just in case.


Max, she called. Max! He did not come. She called every shelter, even a pet psychic. She walked the neighborhood. She drove the surrounding neighborhoods.  She looked differently at every bush, every alley and drainpipe, gulley and ditch.


Phonecall, phonecall, phonecall. Hour, hour, day. Weeks, then months. Then it was years. An ache like that will swallow a person whole unless they find something else to do with it.


She found some others with similar aches, needing someplace to put them. They went about finding the lost kittens. They brushed them with toothbrushes, wrapped them in clean towels, bottle fed them until they could eat. They paired them with the mother cats who had lost their babies. They took in dogs, too. A few birds. They took in so many that they needed a bigger space. They became an organization, a shelter, an adoption center, a rescue for animals and each other. 


Max, by the way, came back. This was six years later. He had fleas in his ear but was otherwise fine. 


I can’t help but wonder how much good would never have happened if Max hadn’t decided to go and stay missing when he did. About all the littles that would have died in the elements, undiscovered, if no one was looking with such an ache. Or about all the lonely people wandering without any place to put their dangerous aches, becoming dangers to themselves and others. All that needed saving, left untended. All the answers to other questions, left undiscovered without the first one, Where is Max?


The pleas of others that might have been missed, except that someone was listening in earnest, for answers to their own.  I’m reminded how often I’ve been moved by loss and heartbreak, into places I would otherwise never have found.  I suspect that much of the visible light in others is a function of what escapes through the breaks.


If Max had not returned, this would still be a redemption story, but I wouldn’t know it. Not because there wasn’t a shelter created after he left, but because the creation of the shelter was something long and slow, and not the sort of event that lends itself to a story in the news. A disaster works for a story, if not its aftermath. Same with a sudden victory. The essentials are there – who, what, where, and when, at least, if not why. 


Growth in numbers is a news story. But numbers are abstractions, not living things. When it comes to the healing and growth of living things and human creations, sometimes there is only a why, to begin with. Who, what, where, when – these emerge over time, and they tend to be diffuse, influenced by many people, doing many things, in numerous places and ways, over and across time, slowly, in ways that are neither sudden nor singular nor dramatic. In fact, if you show up looking for something on which to report, in any given growth area, what you find may look like nothing at all.  Loving patience is a practice, and as such it is almost never a happening. Loving patience is what allows the living to grow and heal. We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  The question is ever, What’s Happening?  and the answers we tend to find in response tend to be the ones that have us perpetually missing the greater possibilities in a given moment. 


Real growth and real change is slow work, and often looks like nothing to report. Unless you look hard and long, the way only someone with a full or aching heart will do, unable to stop.



The story that inspired this post can be found here. I’ve taken liberties with names, backgrounds, and imaginative elements, as appropriate for my wondering purposes. 

Image: "2 dias de vida" by Andressa Sipa├║ba on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.



Friday, July 30, 2021

For the Love of a Child

I’d like to celebrate the child today. Whose first impulse, when making a first card for a classmate, upon receiving a first-ever invitation to a school-friend birthday party, was to pull out all the best markers, draw the best hearts and rainbows she could think of, and write “I LOVE YOU” in her best capital letters. This for Joseph G., in kindergarten, and the party was at the McDonald’s in Yonkers, the big one with the yellow slide and the Hamburglar tower with the shiny metal ladder up the middle.


This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.


And for the stoic acceptance with which she nodded silently when informed gently that such expressions, outside of family, would not do. She did as instructed, keeping “I LOVE” and adding an “R” to “YOU” and “PARTY” to the end of the sentence, making it a very strange sentence for someone to write prior to attending the party. I love your party, it said now. That's better, she heard.


She quietly understood how it was apparently better to seem as though you were confused about delineations between past, present, and future, than prone to flourishing expressions of love. She quietly understood, in that brief edit, how much of herself would have to be muted or cause for shame. Who didn’t even know the half of it, then. Who went to the party and smiled through what could not be expressed, and somehow survived to adulthood.


This is for her, and those like her, shamed out of their best impulses at an early age: to love, to make for others lovingly, and to give these loving gifts away. To share generously from a place of abundance, not fear; play, not decorum; love, not positioning. I want to call her back. I want to relearn what she knew before she knew what was expected. 



Image: "Heart Balloon"by Alessandro Palmieri on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

What they Said While They Were Leaving

Artist Paul Klee, who died on this day in 1940, often invoked a childlike perspective when addressing matters of life and death. I’ve long loved the angels he painted, full of flaws and worries, trapped in human-like, sometimes animalistic forms. This morning I was looking at one of his last works, “Death and Fire” and the timing of this happens to coincide with my review of a book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, by Lisa Smartt. I bought it years ago. Thinking of a character was my official reason, but the interests of a character are always covers for the questions we carry. I pulled it out again today, because I have a character facing death, and I am struck by the inherent playfulness of so many of the last words recorded in Smartt’s accounts, culled from documentation of many hospice patients over time.  There’s a sense of play in the voices of many of the dying, even at the “most serious” moment in life. I am always drawn to those for whom seeming opposites can coexist in the same space: joy and pain; life and death; wonder and heartache.


The following are notes assembled partly from found phrases in the book and online, considering what people say as they are leaving.


Time to move some boxes, one said.

Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.

One claimed to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, 

then called Bullshit! and left.

One asked for chocolate shavings on her tongue. 

Another, a cigarette. Pancakes with whipped cream.


Then come the metaphors. Listen.

Get ready for the big dance!

Lots of new construction over there!

Magic time: watch me disappear!

See the little duckies now, lining up.

They are setting the table now.


The ones who saw it as a battle went hardest.

Another dreamt of being surrounded by crows. 

It’s a murder! he said, laughing.


Some heard music, exclamations of wonder.

So many people! Can you tell me where the platform is?

Can you get the door for me?

Where do you want me to put these boxes?

Next stop, real hope! Look, they left the ladder.


Some saw butterflies, the number eight, the color green.

Others said nothing, but reached with their arms, up and out,

eloquent as infants in their expressions of need.




Image: Death and Fire by Paul Klee, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.