About gretchenwing

A high school English and History teacher for 20 years, Gretchen now lives, writes, and bakes on Lopez Island, Washington.

A Lance-Leafed Stonecrop By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet…Maybe

“What IS that flower? Is that Small-flowered Lupine or Bicolor?”

“Why do you need to know? What possible difference does it make?”

“It makes a difference to ME.”

“Why? So you can show off your rad amateur naturalist skills?”

“No! I don’t need to tell anyone else. I just want to get it RIGHT.”

“Pfff.”

I have this same conversation with myself, on nearly a daily basis, during wildflower season. Wildflower season in the San Juans lasts about 9 months, so that’s a lot of conversations.

Point is, whether it SHOULD matter or not, to me–it does. Supposedly, I go for walks as exercise. Power walks. But gods help my fitness regimen should I venture out with a camera.

It starts as appreciation. “Oh wow, look at those wild roses go.”

The rest of the year, they’re just brambles.

“Let’s just take a closer look. Mmm, sweet!”

Ready for my close-up.

“Okay, walking fast again. But–oh my, have you ever seen such a THICK clump of Hooker’s Onion?”

Seriously, Mr. Hooker? Couldn’t you have named this flower after your wife or something?

By now my “walk” is a goner. “Ooh, wonder what the world looks like from the perspective of one of those Harvest Brodaeia?”

Not a bad life down here.

“PRICKLY PEAR’S IN BLOOM! ALERT THE MEDIA!”

Or better yet–don’t. Let’s just keep this rarity to ourselves, shall we? Cactus in the Northwest!

For that matter, why should the flowers have all the attention? Aren’t the new leaves of this Salal just as eye-catching as its blooms?

Caught MY eye, anyway. Silky-soft too.

And the new fronds of the Grand Fir? Good enough to eat!

Some people–and lots of deer–actually do.

Even Madrona bark looks floral in the sun.

Photo credit: My Special Tree

But the worst are those darn ID’s. “What IS this one? Gotta remember to look it up when I get home!”

Non-native, I’m pretty sure. Do I care? Nope. Just wanna KNOW ITS NAME.

Recently, however, my annoying need to NAME plants received a vote of confidence from a well-respected source: botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer. I started reading her book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Dr. Kimmerer is a Bryologist–a moss expert–and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. And right off the bat, she has this to say about the importance of names:

…Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give it a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem. The word is immaterial. What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality. In indigenous way of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. (p. 12)

Yes! Right?! Yes. That part that I highlighted in red…THAT is what drives me to name flowers, to get their names “right.” I want to recognize them, call them out, respect them. Would it matter if I got those names “wrong”? Of course not. I might as well call them Fred or Cindy. But taking the time to look up those names, talk about them with other flower nerds, think about where those names came from and whether they fit or not…THAT matters. To me, and, I like to think, to the flowers.

Hello, Fred. Or Cindy. (Or Menzie’s Larkspur, actually. No, I am NOT showing off.)

As for mosses, and Robin Kimmerer’s book…more on that, next post.

Are you a wildflower nerd like me? Care to weigh in on what drives you to NAME?

“People Are Hard to Hate Up Close. Move In”…And Eat Lunch.

I experienced two things last month that had nothing and everything to do with each other. I listened to a podcast. And I ate a potluck lunch.

The podcast was one of my favorites, On Being with Krista Tippett. This particular episode caught my attention with its title: “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart”–an interview with Brené Brown, a research professor at University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. 

Right away I knew Prof. Brown was speaking my language when she talked about the damage being done by our increasingly polarized culture in America.

And I talk about this high lonesome culture that we’re living in right now, where we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been…we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And so I would argue that…nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. And having shared hatred of the same people or the same — I call it “common enemy intimacy” — is just an intimacy created by hating the same people, is absolutely not sustainable. It’s counterfeit connection.

And so this first practice of true belonging is, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” When you are really struggling with someone, and it’s someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief, move in. Get curious. Get closer. Ask questions. Try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?

That part I highlighted in red? That’s something I’ve been challenging myself with ever since the election of 2016 made me feel like I hated half of America. So far that challenge has taken the form of reading and listening to the words of bridge-builders and people whose life experiences are very different from mine. But because I now live in a very small community (worlds away from my previous life as a public school teacher in Tacoma), I hadn’t yet pushed myself to “move in” toward people of different political views who are my actual neighbors.

Last month, that changed. Along with about 69 other people, I sat down to an Interfaith Potluck for people of all faith-based groups on Lopez–Lutherans, Buddhists, Catholics, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, you name it–and ate lunch.

Nothing like breaking bread…or deviled eggs, or salad, or brownies…together!

Actually, the “moving in” part started for me back in January, when I pulled together, via email, a small group from various churches to help organize the event. Even though the idea originated with me and was approved through the Quaker Meeting I attend, it was important that it not be a “Quaker thing” (which most people would read, correctly, as politically left-leaning), but completely inter-faith from the get-go. And so, after sitting down several times to organize with people from some churches with very different approaches to both faith AND politics (which we did not get into), I was already feeling the benefits of that “hard-to-hate” thing by the time lunch was served in May. (Hate, are you kidding? I LOVE these people!)

I can’t show too many pictures without violating people’s privacy; just enough to give an idea. And to encourage others. Do you live somewhere that feels divided? Your town, your neighborhood, your block, maybe even your street or your building? Try this:

  1. think of a handful of folks who you KNOW are very different from each other and from yourself
  2. invite them to sit down with you somewhere neutral (like a cafe) to discuss the possible benefits of some kind of event
  3. as a group, create a rough vision of that event: lunch? tea? BBQ? Indoors? Outdoors? When?
  4. craft a statement of purpose to share with others; designate a larger group that each of you will “report back to” or “recruit”
  5. set a date for your next meeting to work out the next level of details: logistics, activities, responsibilities, etc.
  6. And you’re off!

    Look at all these folks leaning in!

At your event, you get to decide how programmed you want to be. We went with the very minimum–icebreaker questions in jars on every table–so as to keep the comfort level high. Some folks used the questions, others didn’t. But it felt good having them there.

We also had feedback forms on every table so people could let us know what was well done and what to work on next time. And should there be a next time? Our folks all said Yes!!!! …but could we find a meeting hall with better acoustics?

Oh, you mean so you can listen to each other better? Yes. Yes. I can lean in to that. 

Sisters Weekend. Not Pictured: Sisters.

You would think my two sisters and I don’t get along. Not only do we live in three of our continent’s four edges–Michigan, Washington and Texas (also equally distant from our parents in North Carolina, whom we also like a good deal, by the way)–we stay in touch only fitfully, rarely calling or emailing or, now, texting. 

Can I just say we’re not a very touchy-feely family?

But we DO get along. We like and admire and enjoy each other. And, as the youngest sister and the designated Sentimental One, I borrowed the idea from a friend of mine of the Sisters Getaway, to honor the occasion of our 60th birthdays, one at a time.

Our agreements: the getaway did not have to be on the actual birthday. Convenience was paramount. So was sun (especially for my winter-stricken Michigan sister). And we would gather in a place none of us knew well, so that no one had to play host.

Two years ago, we spent three days together in San Diego. This year, our middle sister picked Denver. Denver in May–hurray! Bring on that Rocky Mountain sunshine!

Or…not.

Oh, silly girls. Denver in May does what it likes.* Luckily for us, we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t be doing any serious hiking, since one of us is in the process of setting a date for hip replacement surgery. (Did I mention we are all getting older? Funny about that.)

*I did, however, prevail on my sisters to swing by the local REI so I could plunder their sales rack for a warm extra layer–having seriously under-packed.

So what should proceed now is a montage of of us out enjoying the sights of Denver, right? Group selfies, snapshots of delicious food and drinks. Glorious, happy vacation pics.

But my sisters are more private than I am, and that is only one of the things I love about them. So I won’t be sharing any of the pictures I took of us. I could have taken a picture of the living room of our Air B ‘n’ B house, which is where we spent most of our time. Or of a Denver bus–we rode them all over town. Or of the interior of Union Station, which, it turns out, is an extremely cozy place where you can hang out for hours for free, just gabbing and people-watching, as long as you don’t lie down on the couches.

But again…sorry. This getaway was about each other. The only real touring we did was of memory; the only real exploration of feelings; the only real adventure was peering into our mutual futures.

Still, I’m blogging about it, so SOME pictures would be useful, eh? We did wander through Denver’s not-exactly-downtown Downtown Aquarium, which was exceedingly noisy for an aquarium, but also yielded some extraordinary beauty.

Mesmerizing.

I’ve been in many aquariums. (Aquaria?) Never saw anything like this anemone before.

Another slow wander: the Botanical Gardens. (See, we do know how to tourist!)

I think these crazy giants are from South Africa…

And for good measure, one quirky photo from downtown:

I completely support this statement.

But that’s it. That’s the whole post. What I’m saying here is–love your family in your own way. Do it with, and for, the camera if you want to. Or don’t. Call or text or email, or don’t. But love ’em. Life is short. One day you’ll turn around and be 60. Or, if you’re so blessed, 80.

Me, I hope to re-post this when we’re celebrating each other’s 90th. Inshallah!

“Pen” Is a Verb Too–But “Addiction” Is Only a Noun

Back when my sons were young enough to go shopping with me, they used to work together to protect me from myself. Especially at places like Office Depot.

“Stay out of the pens section, Mom,” they would warn. “You know you don’t need more.”

Ahhhh…pens! Ink pens, in rainbow colors! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways brands.

When I was little, maybe 7-9, I loved those felt-tipped Flairs the best. I used them to draw. My drawings tended to feature the four Queens and Kings from the Narnia series–Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie–with myself drawn in for good measure. Queen Gretchen. Every one of us outfitted in rich, royal colors. Sorry, I didn’t keep any of those drawings, but here are the Flairs…

Back then I bought these pens one at a time. A pack like this would have sent me into paroxysms.

Then I started journaling. As I’ve blogged about in the past, “journal” may not be an official verb yet, but it is to me! I started in 1975, and now, 44 years later, I’m still going.

A couple years of my life in here…

Flairs, I decided, weren’t as great for writing as they were for drawing. That’s when Sheaffer cartridge pens entered my life.

Remember these beauties? (Photo courtesy of Harvey Levine, MyAntiquePens.com)

Oh, those colors! Peacock Blue, Emerald Green…that delicious, chocolately Brown. My favorite journaling moments in those days involved switching colors when one cartridge ran empty, then watching the gradation of hues cross the page with my thoughts.

But boy, did I have some inky fingers in those days. And I doubt my teachers were too thrilled with my peacock-blue blots.

Somewhere along the line, though, the Sheaffers’ negative outweighed their glorious positives. Too many leaks, ink explosions, stained fingers. I got practical.

In my post on Journaling from 2013, I sang the praises of the Uniball. I still love those, but for more uniform, blot-free, downright sexy flow across the page, I now pledge my allegiance to the Pilot P-700.

Purple, and green? Be still, my heart!

After buying myself this multicolor pack, I had to go get my latest notebook and write. Did I have anything profound to say? Nope. I just lusted after the feel of that inky page-skating. And guess what? I got to capture that moment, if for no other reason than to laugh at myself a few years hence.

Don’t we all need a little more self-mockery in our lives?

Yeah…but now I’m gonna need a bigger steamer trunk.

Do you have a favorite pen, or paper for that matter? What writing implements speed up your heart?

Athletes and Other Workers During Ramadan: This Non-Muslim Woman Takes Her Hat Off To You

“Come in here and take a look at this,” The Mate called from the living room where he was watching the NBA finals from the seat of his exercise bike.

“That guy,” he indicated one of the Toronto Raptors jockeying for a shot, “is Muslim. He’s doing all this while fasting. He’s not even drinking water!”

“That guy” is Enes Kanter, a Turkish player born in Switzerland, who’s been playing in the NBA since 2011. Kanter is a devout Muslim. This time of year, that fact carries extra meaning.

The holy month of Ramadan began on May 5. During Ramadan, devout Muslims refrain from eating or drinking anything, even water, from before dawn to after sunset. Since Ramadan is a celestially-based holiday, its dates rotate around the calendar. Sometimes Ramadan falls in the winter, and the fasting period is relatively short. But sometimes–like now–it falls in spring or summer, when daylight can last up to 18 hours.

Eat up! This has to last you 18 hours.

I watched, fascinated. All the athletes were sweating profusely, as athletes do. During breaks, they sat on the bench sucking from their Gatorade bottles. All but one. 

I’ve often wondered about people who work in the hot sun at jobs like construction, landscaping, or road work. How do they get through their challenging work days, day after day, for a month?

I haven’t yet taken the time to pursue the question as it relates to workers per se. But since I started with professional athletes, this article by Shireen Ahmed for Buzzfeednews.com, “Here’s How 15 Hardcore Athletes Train During Ramadan,” provided some answers. 

All the athletes focused on preparing their bodies carefully during suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, and iftar, the post-sunset meal. Protein and potassium were the main components, along with necessary sugar. Hydration was, as you might imagine, absolutely essential.

Get in there, vitamins! I need you!

Take a moment and think about that: not only are you going about your day of hot, sweaty, exhausting work with zero drinking, you are also getting up at four a.m. in order to prepare your body.

Besides the actual diet, however, the most striking theme from the 15 interviewed athletes was the power of their faith to get them through each work day.

Ahmed’s article features Indira Kaljo, a former Division 1 NCAA basketball player, describing the difficulty of playing while fasting:

“The biggest challenge was waiting through the water breaks. Those minutes were very difficult. The second [most difficult] thing was the late nights and then having to practice daily feeling exhausted.” The most powerful thing that helped her get through the month? “Prayer. I used prayer.”

Nadia Nadim,  a professional soccer player in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with the  Portland Thorns FC, who also plays for Denmark’s national women’s team, :fasts on training days but not on match days. ‘I know my body can’t handle it,’ she says, because hydration and nutrition dictate her performance.”

I KNOW, right??!!

And yet: athletes do fast on game days. Workers do fast on work days. Instead of nutrition and hydration each day, they take prayer, and faith. And they give faith back to the rest of us who watch in awe.

Manal Rostom, a professional mountaineer from Egypt,

“sees Ramadan as a month to push through with a positive mental attitude. She says that colleagues praise her efforts to teach and work out during Ramadan, but she remains grounded. ‘[They] don’t get how easy it becomes once you reset your mind to literally just do it. You will survive. Fasting trains you to become a better human being.'”

You guys are my heroes. Need some pie for iftar?

I’m not Muslim. But I recognize strength and goodness when I see it. And I mean this with all intended ironic humor when I say, “My hat is off.” Thanks for the example.

On Hugs: Embracing Ambivalence

I live in a very huggy place. S.O.P. for greeting folks you know is a good, solid hug, and even if a first-time intro miiiiight include only a handshake, by the time you’re saying goodbye to your new acquaintance, welcome back to Hugsville.

This happens to be fine with me. But I can’t help but wonder, what about people for whom hugging is NOT fine? I know a few who, in a group, go along with the hugs, but I can feel that their body isn’t into it.

Why, I ask myself, should it have to be?

Hugs are supposed to be a physical demonstration of mutual affection.

Like this. [Photo by Edward Eyer, courtesy Pexels.]

But if someone’s preference for affection-demonstrating takes other forms than physical;

if, gods forbid, they might not be feeling all that affectionate;

or if they have ANY other reason that’s nobody else’s business why they don’t want someone’s arms wrapped around them in that moment–

shouldn’t they have a right to excuse themselves without being uncomfortable?

I don’t have a specific solution to this situation, except perhaps this: When thinking of hugging someone you’re not sure wants to be hugged…

…use the ancient, tried-and-true handclasp as default.

While clasping, make eye contact.

Use those ol’ windows-to-the-soul to look for clues: encouragement to move into full hug-mode? Or keep it right there?

“Oof…I wish she’d stuck with the handshake!” [Photo by Amanda44, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

What do you guys think?

“Sleeping Cuties:” When Your Scientist Father’s Life Work Makes You Go “Wow!” But Also, “Awww…”

I’ve written before about my father’s work at the Duke Lemur Center. But never before has the mainstream media captured that work so clearly for us laypeople. And I have to say, I’m feeling a little conflicted.

On the one hand, my dad is a Serious Scientist who’s spent his life doing Serious Science. His past subjects have ranged from elephant seals to domestic and feral goats to reef fish to, yes, lemurs. (Which is why he is a co-founder of the Duke Lemur Center in my hometown, Durham, North Carolina.) His work has taken him all over the world, most notably to Madagascar, where lemurs live. This particular study has to do with understanding primate brains, with an eye to everything from surgery to long-range space travel. SERIOUS STUFF.

But on the other hand…these animals are really stinkin’ CUTE!

Now, thanks to this episode of Science Friday, created by Luke Groskin and Johanna Mayer, his research is easy to explain…and it’s also ridiculously adorable. I don’t really know what to do with that. But I guess if Dr. Serious Scientist Peter Klopfer can handle his subjects’ cuteness, so can I. Enjoy!

National Poetry Month And Morning Meditations: A Happy Confluence

I agree with my friend, author Iris Graville: “EVERY month is poetry month.” But I especially appreciate her post, “30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month,” for its reminder of a convention I’ve been trying to lure myself back into: memorizing a poem. (That’s #4 on Iris’s list.)

When I was a kid, my dad would pay me and my sisters a dollar for each poem memorized. Go ahead, ask me to recite “I’m Nobody” or “Jabberwocky”! I still got ’em.

No one’s offering cash right now, but the rewards of having poetry in your head are undeniable. It’s SUCH a better response to the daily noise of ugly news than going, “la la la, can’t hear you!”  And, as I wrote in my last post, I’ve been starting my day with a poem since the election of 2016. If reading poetry works, how much more so memorizing? What a glorious way to start your day, with words of beauty coming out of your own mouth!

How my brain feels when NOT insulated and reinforced by poetry.

Incidentally, my other response to the “daily noise” and its lure toward tribalism has been to immerse myself in the words of bridge-builders. Relying heavily on Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” I spend at least an hour a week listening to people talk about how they’ve bridged terrible divides in their lives, or healed themselves or others, or found practices that lead toward the community they envision.

So I love the serendipity of finding this poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama in last week’s “On Being.” It offers me all three prizes at once: a beautiful, heart-opening meditation with which to start the day; a way to turn my sights toward hope and away from cynicism; and a path toward the kind of bridge-building thinking I want in my own head.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a good guy to listen to, regardless of any hoped-for outcome. According to his “On Being” bio, he’s “a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.”

He’s also extremely Christian, which I am not. But I’ve long since found a way to put my own meanings on the names “Jesus” and “God,” so they don’t stop me. If you find that they do, in this poem, I encourage you to substitute other words that work better. I’m sure Pádraig wouldn’t mind.

Here, then, is his poem.

“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder. I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege, I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognize and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body. I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day, and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.

Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of North Belfast.

Hello.”

I don’t have a photo of the sun rising above the chimneys of North Belfast. But here’s a photo of the view from my own rooftop, which is a bit more apropos, isn’t it?

Hello.

I’ll be working on memorizing these lines for probably the rest of the month, maybe beyond. But who cares? Isn’t every month Poetry Month?

A Writer’s Greatest Gifts: Time and Critique. So Why Not Writeaway?

Taking the ferry home from the Orcas Island LitFest last weekend, I could not get to my notebook fast enough. Twenty hours of writer-panels (I wasn’t able to attend the full weekend) had left my brain so full of ideas and challenges for my own writing that I could hardly speak to anyone. Now, a week’s worth of hard writing work later (journaling, deep character background, pitch practice, scene revision, and everything in between), I am so grateful for the chance to have attended.

And I want to remind my fellow writers of what a self-gift it is to stop, drop and enroll in SOMETHING every now and then, just to realign the wheels (and unmix the metaphors). Literary festivals are great for this. Writing conferences, even better.

But best of all…if you can afford it…is a Writeaway. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you why you can afford it.

First of all, what is a Writeaway? It’s a Writing Getaway–the brainchild of my friends and fellow writers, Mimi Herman and John Yewell. In the words of their website, “We provide writing instruction, fabulous food and company in beautiful places, and a safe place for you to take a writing vacation with your muse, and maybe a good friend.”

Yes, you read that right: Writing instruction. Fabulous food. Beautiful location. Support, personalized critique, a new writing community. Time to work…and do all those things my own brain needed to do after only 20 hours at a LitFest.

In case you need some creds: Mimi & John are better than good writers; they are passionate teachers of writing. (Big difference, right?) Mimi is the 2017 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. Since 1990, she has engaged over 25,000 students with her warm and insightful teaching. A Warren Wilson MFA alum, her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic and other journals.John is a writer and editor with an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University and twenty years of experience in journalism.

John & Mimi: ready to read, write & listen (and drink wine)

The shiniest, most awe-inspiring Writeaways of Mimi and John are held in castles in France and Italy, like these:

OK, you can close your mouth and get back to writing now. Dinner’s at six.

But they also offer domestic Writeaways in North Carolina, where they live.

Carolina-ish enough for ya?

Don’t live in North Carolina or feel like flying there? Mimi & John also offer the best choice of all (in my opinion): a Build-your-own Writeaway. 

“Have you ever dreamed of getting away to your favorite place to write – with friends and family, your writing group, your book club, high school pals, or colleagues from your creative writing program? Choose your own adventure and we’ll arrange housing, workshops, conferences, and fabulous food and drink for you and four or more of your favorite people. Let us know a little about yourself, and we’ll start planning.”

I can kind of, SORT of, imagine what it might be like to read the above and NOT think: HEAVEN! Yeah, I suppose some writers are the solitary type–and bless them. 

But if your Muse comes alive with a little stimulation BEFORE the necessary writerly solitude…oh, my. Why wouldn’t you consider a Build-your-own Writeaway?

Because of the cost, you say. Of COURSE there’s a cost. But Mimi & John are so passionate about what they do, they’re willing to work with writers to keep the budget as modest as possible. No castles. No fancy digs. Homemade meals. Whatever it takes to get you there. The time, expertise and inspiration is what you’d be paying for. If you’ve ever gone to a writing conference and come away thinking, “Well, about half of the workshops were worthwhile,” the Writeaway is the perfect answer, because it’s all tailored to YOU.

So I encourage you to check out this Writeaway Link for yourself. (And just in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being paid to advertise. I’m just a big Mimi & John fan.)

If you do end up doing yourself the favor of signing up, though–please drop my name! We’ll all be thrilled. 

When Routine Is Anything But: Finding A Daily Path That Requires Open Eyes

Hey, welcome back to Wing’s World in its non-travel-blog iteration. If you’re hoping to read about travel adventures, sorry–you’ll have to wait till my next trip. THIS entry is about the art of staying home, one day after the next.

Home, for me, begins with a ferry ride.

If I were still teaching school, finding a daily routine would be no struggle; the struggle, as all teachers (and students, and parents) know, is keeping your head above water enough to teach/learn/communicate/eat/sleep/repeat with some minimal effectiveness. In my 20 years of teaching, I got all the news I needed during my commute.

As a former teacher, however, employed in one part-time, manual-labor job and one completely non-paying, artistic one, the idea of routine is usually just that: an idea. I gave up commuting, but I was fine with creating my own balance of baking and writing and keeping vague touch with the rest of the country for the first several years of my post-teaching life. Then came the election of 2016, and the real illusion was revealed: that America was on the right path, that Dr. King’s good ol’ Arc of Justice was bending appropriately.

Since that time I, like a lot of my White friends, have been working hard to re-educate myself in American reality, recognizing my own unwitting but comfortable complicity in helping make Trumpmerica possible. Routine is long gone as I cast about for the best way to make of myself a better instrument, a better citizen.

Going back to teaching is a decision I have moved beyond. I’m too deeply immersed in my writing career to be willing to sacrifice it, and too respectful of both jobs to be able to do justice to both at once. So I work at the bakery I continue to love, and fill my non-baking, non-writing time with a slew of different types of volunteer activity. This makes for a ragged schedule. I rather like the variety of my days…after breakfast. It’s that first hour that, since 2016, has really gotten to me.

See, my Mate is an early riser, and starts his day with a workout. Which he does in front of the TV, watching the news. He keeps the volume low, but our living room lies between our bedroom and kitchen. So by the time I’ve prepared my tea and sat down with my cereal, I’ve had, willy-nilly, an injection of CNN that makes my stomach hurt.

How I don’t want to start my day: angry, defeated, cynical, self-berating.

How I do want to start my day: hopeful, inspired, open-eyed, empathetic, challenged.

I’m lucky to live in a place where the scenery itself can inspire. But this view is NOT available to me first thing in the morning; it takes a 25-minute drive to the ferry dock. Not to mention clear skies.

Here are some steps I’ve taken to try to shape that first hour:*

  1. Hum to myself to drown out any CNN until my tea kettle does it for me.
  2. Before turning on my computer, re-read the poem I read yesterday from the collection of poetry I keep on the kitchen table. (Currently: Seamus Heaney.) Then read a new poem. (By this time CNN is a mumble in the background, nothing my brain cares about.)
  3. Turn on my computer, but before going to email, read some news stories. Lately, after finding myself turning to BBC, NPR and the Christian Science Monitor to escape CNN’s Trump focus, I decided to subscribe to the good old “failing” New York Times. The story that really got me today was about the escalation of violence against women in Honduras.
  4. Again, before email, I look at the weather forecasts, not just for Lopez Island, but for the whole country. I try to imagine how different people are being affected in different states and regions. (Road trips help with this–we know a lot of folks in a lot of different states and regions!)
  5. OK, now it’s time for email, Facebook, all that delicious focus on ME and my near-and-dear, or far-and-dear. But because I started with the bigger picture, it stays with me in perimeter even as my focus narrows. And because of the poetry, my brain feels brighter, my noticing muscles primed to do their job.

*on baking mornings, which start around 3 a.m., this routine is foreshortened, of course. I don’t need to worry about the Mate’s news habits; I’m actually up before him. But I spend the first ten minutes of my ride (if biking) or my drive, saying the names of people in need of special attention and love–anyone from an ill neighbor to, for example, the people of Puerto Rico.

I have tried, by the way, to internalize this kind of empathic meditation and make it part of my day when I’m not leaving for the bakery. But I haven’t yet found a place and time that feels natural. Still a work in progress.

“No man is an island, let that be my prayer/ no matter how alluring be the shore…”

Because of that, I would love to hear of other people’s routines. What special things do you do to start your day off on the right foot, for both brain and soul?