Maybe Poetry Can Save Us

Today was a good day. Donald Trump is no longer my president. The inauguration went off without violence. Kamala Harris was sworn in as my country’s first female Vice-President and Joe Biden as President. Biden delivered the kind of aspirational, affirming speech that leaders should deliver in times of crises.

There is no shortage of crises. 400,000 Americans have died from COVID, a number certain to climb as winter deepens. An economic recession has tossed millions out of work and out of their homes. Our democracy survived a stupid but blatant insurrection that killed five people with the intent of killing many more. White supremacists have openly committed themselves to ongoing campaigns of violence against local, state and federal government. And cries for racial justice, some 400 years unheeded, have still not been adequately addressed.

And yet, there is hope. There is hope that a change in rhetoric can inspire more of us to heal than to hurt. There is hope that the unfinished project of American democracy can continue and has not been forgotten or abandoned.

So many moments today in which to take hope. For me, none was greater than when 22 year old Amanda Gorman delivered her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, a call to action to continue building our unfinished country. Well-written. Incredibly well-delivered. Poets often can’t properly read their own poems. Amanda Gorman delivered hers, and the nation picked it up. So many people today, like me, inspired and struck by a poem heard. My own daughter, 13 years old, heard those words and marveled. She didn’t know poetry could do that. I knew but had forgotten.

Today a poem held our attention and brought us back to ourselves. Today I was reminded: poetry is a tool which which we can remake our lives.

This is Us

This is us (don’t look away) an amnesiac nation
sleepwalking through history, self-anesthetized,
deeply addicted to the binge/purge circus of attention.

CTRL + ALT + Refresh.

Doubleplus addled in dopamine rush administered
by algorithm perfectly tuned to our up/down thumbs.
Happens so fast it feels like our own thoughts.

Behold, anti-social media!
We Huxleyed ourselves into the full Orwell.

Here is the Memory Hole,
the Doublespeak,
the Two Minute Hate.
All of it.
Right on time.
Even the Enemy’s name changes halfway through the outrage and 
no one bothers to notice.

Catering our own self-destruction. Hillarious.
Snapping selfies and live streaming
all
the
way
down.

Relentless Optimist. Relentlessly Hopeful.

I used to describe myself as a “relentless optimist”. A person who always manages to see the good and the possible inside every situation. “Relentless optimist” was my tagline, my cocktail napkin self-introduction and my Twitter bio. I’m done with that now.

Relentless optimism is a pathology, a psychological disorder, a dangerous delusion. The willful insistence that hiding inside every awful thing is something good just waiting to be noticed. Relentless optimism let me off the hook. It was a belief that good is the innate nature of all things and the work of life is just to walk around noticing the good, to somehow call it forth.

Magical thinking of a privileged life. I’m done with that now.

Let me now become known as relentlessly hopeful, a person who pays attention to things as they actually are, sees the brokenness of all things and finds places where, with sustained care and effort, good things can be helped to happen.

Tiny Free Libraries are Cabinets of Wonder

I love libraries. I love the side-by-sideness of the books. I love the shelves lined in obedient rows, ordered by deceptively simple yet gloriously arcane rules of Dewey and LC. The mystical arts of description and classification for which there are endless logic trees branching out in every direction, a craft worthy of master wizards and other magical types. I love, too, the absolute heaping bounties of books arranged on carts and end-caps by the pixie whim of whoever happens to be building the day’s thematic display. Placed, with great care, to appear haphazard. Nothing is haphazard in a library. Everything has a logic. The game is finding that logic out.

This goes with that. And, no matter what they try to tell you, so much judgment of books by their covers. Every book deserves to shelved face out so it can present the face of its beautiful self, the dust jacket.

Libraries have been my world since I was 15 years old. Twenty years as an academic librarian with another ten years working in a public library before that. You might even consider the 6 weeks I worked as a retail bookstore manager, but I don’t like to think about that. Those six weeks were the Dark Times. I’m not a book seller. I’m a book lender. Which is to say, I’m a book giver because we all know that one must always lend books with the expectation of never getting them back again.

It is a strange feeling to no longer be working in libraries, after so much time. I was welll-prepared for the change, wondering what it might feel like to no longer think of myself as a librarian and yet, still to be a library person. Unfortunately, pandemic timing has kept me out of libraries since I left my office in mid-March 2020, almost 10 months ago. I haven’t stepped foot inside a library for 10 months. No longer being a librarian was my plan. No longer spending time in libraries was never supposed to happen.

So, it was my great surprise and relief to discover a tiny, free library in my neighborhood. A well-made, glass-fronted cabinet mounted roadside and full of free books. It sits curbside three or four blocks from my house. I’d seen it in passing several times but had never taken time to consider its wonders until during a run two week ago. I’ve been reading my way through Margaret Atwood and was getting ready to order a copy of The Blind Assassin online. Having books delivered by mail is a nice service but it seems a sad way to receive books. I prefer to find them on their selves, free them from their rest and bring them home into fellowship with my life and my books.

Jogging past the entrance to the road where the tiny, free library sat, I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if I found the Margaret Atwood books I need right there?” I jogged on for a bit but couldn’t shake the idea and circled back to peer inside. Waiting, of course, on the middle shelf at face level was a perfectly nice paperback copy of The Blind Assassin. Exactly the book I needed. It was magical. I had discovered a cabinet of wonders.

I thought about taking the book and continuing my run but that didn’t seem sporting. The principle of the free library is give one, take one. So, I asked fate to hold tight just a little longer, long enough for me to finish my run, grab a few books from my own read pile, get into the car with my wife and make the drive back. Fate held. The Blind Assassin was waiting for me along with two books by two other authors I enjoy: Bill Bryson and Celeste Ng.

And so, an obsession was born. My wife and I drove around town, noting all the other tiny, free libraries scattered about like spiritual life lines, emergency phone booths, totems to shared culture in a time when we cannot share space.

There are quite a few of these in town, maybe a dozen. I’ve already learned which few are my favorite. I will be making a map so I can make a regular route, checkin in on what my neighbors have been reading and share some books from my own collection. It is a kind of conversation, a communion of sorts, this impromptu, anonymous book-taking and book-leaving.

It has been a little bit of magic in a very unmagical year. I am most grateful and most happy to join the community. These friends I do not know have given me something rather special. They have given me back my library.

January 1: A List Makers Holiday

Happy New Year. Today is a high holy day for list makers everywhere. Having spent yesterday in real or virtual company of family and friends, I hope today finds you joyously ensconced in the work of updating your lists. Books read. Books to be read. Update the workout/health targets spreadsheet. Set up the new month/year in the daily journal. Look back over the daily activities tracker spreadsheet entries for the last 5 years. Add columns for the new year to the daily activities tracker spreadsheet. Dump unneeded files from Evernote and Google Docs. Refresh To-Doist with more realistic due dates and tune the recurrence modes.

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

Make lists. Make lots of lists. Make lists of lists. Don’t mark anything off. There are no due dates before tomorrow. Today is about cleaning the slate, recalibrating those glorious spreadsheets you use to keep track of your daily life, and just generally taking stock.

Why are you looking at me like that? I can feel your look. It can’t be just me that celebrates the first day of the new year with an orgy of lists. Doesn’t everyone?

Turn the Page

Thursday, December 31, 2020. I am imagining so many of us all around the world just sitting in our favorite chairs today, contemplating the year that has almost passed, ready to turn the page on 2020. Always satisfying to turn a calendar page. This year we can tear all the pages out. Release all of our aggressions toward a confounding, dangerous, stressful year. Shred the hateful year. Burn it. Bury it. Don’t look back.

Adapted from “20120605_IMG_38316” by Joshua & Amber is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tempting to believe things will be magically different effective 00:00:01 Friday, January 1, 2021. Satisfying to see the odometer roll to zero. It seems, however briefly, a fresh start. A clear demarcation line between old and new, the life we have and the life we want.

And so, New Year’s Resolutions are made with varying degrees of planning and reasoned approach. Better health, better attitude, better relationships, better you, better me, better us. Some of us will keep some of those resolutions, make them into habits that become our daily lives. Good for us. Some will break those resolutions before the sun sets on 2021 Day One. No worries. Try again on Day Two, Day Three… Day 354.

The point is the effort. The point is putting our hopes into action. Doing things that carry us toward our hopeful selves rather than away.

I don’t often make New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve got all the usual hangups that need attention. I need loose the 30 pounds. I need to drink more water, eat less sugar, exercise more. I should meditate daily and keep my public blog and private journal. I need to read and write as much as possible. All of that is with me everyday. I need that today. I need that tomorrow. I need that four months from now and forever. So, I start today with a down payment of attention. I don’t wait for the odometer to roll. I give myself a head start.

What if I fail, you ask? Oh, I will fail. That is guaranteed. And so, January 1 is not about fresh start. January 1 is about picking it back up after I fail. The failure is certain. The picking it back up after I fail depends on me.

A mind trick, perhaps, but it helps take the magical thinking out of the calendar and the turning of the page.

We wake up tomorrow with new calendars, new digits to write in our daily life tracking chores.

New calendar. Same lives. Brimming with possibility.

Wishing you a happy, safe 2021. Be well, friends.

Lost For Words

This year I’ve been lost for words. Quite literally. Which is peculiar timing. At the beginning of pandemic pandemonium, I imagined myself chronicling the day to day experience of our lives pushed suddenly into upheaval, a kind of contemporary Samuel Pepys, but with Twitter and WordPress. It hasn’t worked out that way.

I’ve spent most of this year feeling mentally paralyzed, my mind reving like a car engine stuck in neutral. Ready to go somewhere, anywhere, but never quite grabbing the gear. There’s been too much to say and, I should admit, better people to say it.

When my year began, I was deep in job search, seeking professional change from my twenty year career that no longer fit me. I had changed. My work had changed. I no longer fit. Being a piece that no longer fits becomes incredibly uncomfortable, lonely. So, I set myself the challenge of finding somewhere else to fit.

In good times, economically healthy times, the job search process can be a trial of absurdities. The work of distilling a successful 20 year career down into two pages (one’s better) so that someone, or some machine, might actually read it and give you a call. No one called for months. And then the few times they did, it was an awkward, embarrassing affair. You can’t blog about a job search while you are in the midst of a job search. The doesn’t go well. You are meant to keep these things private until you are ready to make the jump. At the time, I imagined myself blogging about it all afterward in a kind of congratulatory hindsight. I would write about the time a colleague I had mentored landed an interview for a job for which I thought I might be asked to interview. The time I called an HR recruiter at the appointed hour only to sit on hold for 15 minutes while the robot receptionist told me over and over, “You have successfully joined the call, but you are the only one here.” So much sadness and regret in that automated voice loop.

Happily, months of casting letters and resumes into the void paid off. I found and accepted my new work in March. I started in May. By then I was, like so many others, working entirely from home, trying to figure out how to perform my core responsibilities online and guide my team through a series of disorienting transitions. We did it. We built a model for providing quality library service to our students and college staff during a pandemic. And then, I told this team for which I cared so much that I was leaving. I told them on a Zoom call and then set myself to the work of gathering and organizing 20 years of experience and lessons learned to keep them on a productive path. When the time came we said goodbye on another Zoom call.

I joined my new team in remote status. Seven months later, we have yet to meet in person. I am enjoying the work very much and my colleagues are terrific — smart, committed, and passionate about supporting scientific discovery. Like so many others around the world, I made my office in my living room and have no idea when/if I can expect to work onsite. I had thought I might write about the challenges of midlife career change and joining a remote work team, but the idea of writing about my own successful, intentional transition at a time when so many others had suddenly lost their work to the pandemic seemed somehow wrong. Bragging about it seemed an uncomfortable blast of middle-class, knowledge worker privilege.

And then, George Floyd. We were already locked into a summer of death from the pandemic, when the violence known by Black Americans as daily life washed across all my screens. Twitter, Facebook, the news. The violence of anti-Black America showed up everywhere, seemingly all at once. It showed up in police forces. It showed up in so-called leaders across the state and country. It showed up in conversation with people I had considered friends. And I felt powerless, which is a feeling, I see now, that people like me rarely feel.

And so, I became truly at a loss for words. I began to notice how all the basic underpinnings of my life — my safety, my finance, my work opportunities, my leisure — were all shaped by privilege. It is privilege I did not ask for and, I think, it is privilege I cannot escape. And so, faced with the sudden vision of how grossly lucky I have been and how grossly unlucky others have been, I felt I had nothing useful in the moment to say. So, I tried to be quiet and listen to other voices, voices I might normally not hear.

All of this is to say that I have been profoundly disoriented and am trying to find new ways to reorient myself. This blog has long been a space where I can work out my own thoughts with myself. I have appreciated the kindness, affirmation and occasional challenge of those who have taken time to read this mess as I sort my way through. It has been a strange, challenging year. My family and I remain healthy and safe. I have work that I enjoy that is connected to meaningful purpose. My daughter is growing into her own person, a person I like very much. I enjoy being stuck in my house with my wife and daughter.

This is all to say, things are going well for me. Despite the pandemic scourge. Despite the brokenness of American mythology. Despite all the uncertainties.

I want to be useful. It isn’t enough to sit and weather the storm. I need to make something useful from all of this. It is time I start finding my words. I seem to have found a few here. I expect to keep searching until I find more.

40 Years | A Poem by Em

Today would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. As a gift to John (and you), here’s the poem my 13 year old daughter wrote this week in memory of John.

“40 Years” by Em

On this day the world sings Happy Birthday to a dead man.
40 years dull and deprived of his genius
40 years dull and deprived of his voice
14,610 days of tears over a man we never knew and fearing for others we still don’t.
40 years of fantasies made and then crushed at the mouth of a gun
40 years of hoping and waiting and wondering
40 years of writing and working
40 years of mourning and yearning
40 years of quoting and ranting and singing and chanting.
On this day we sing Happy Birthday to a dead man because it’s been 40 years and we still miss you.

Interesting Times

Here we are together, you and I, alive in interesting times. We’ve seen the first parts of this movie. Long lines at grocery stores. Empty shelves. Bewildering press conferences. The steep slope of economic charts mapping the wild gyrations of our invested futures, our 401Ks.

Familiar routines are being scrambled as normal activities get deferred, postponed or canceled. Simple things get complicated.

We return ourselves to our houses and hunker down, keeping watchful eyes on the news which seems to come at us from every direction.

We look for leaders to help us discern what’s happening and offer some small sense of what’s likely to happen next. We’ve seen the movie this far. It’s scary. We want to know what’s next.

Here’s the thing: we can’t know what’s next.

There’s no predetermined plot line with neatly designed characters to take us together through this from crisis to climax to denouement in the space of two and a half hours. This is going to take weeks, maybe months, to get the sense of things and figure out a new normal.

We should expect leaders to help us through this. But we can’t just sit around and watch for those leaders to appear. Most of what happens next is up to us, how we manage ourselves and our relationships with each other.

We are already doing some of the right things. Low risk, healthy people are staying home from an abundance of care and caution for others. People are mindfully washing their hands. Companies are swallowing the sunk costs of lucrative events early on to keep more people safer longer.

We find ourselves together at the beginning of weird, interesting times. No one exactly knows what happens next.

Keep being kind and careful as we pass each other (from an appropriate distance) in hallways. Check your supplies to be sure your family has what they need and be mindful that what you have in abundance someone else may need in a week or two. Check in on each other to see how we are doing and what may be needed. Wash your hands.

Be kind to yourself. Remember that self-isolation doesn’t mean you have to make a cave of your home. It is still okay to go outside, take a walk, and breathe fresh air. Turn off your TV. You don’t need a constant feed of uncertainty. Be informed but trust that the important information will find you.