Sure, we’re doing great

Daughter had a decent role in her school play. After the show, parents stopped me and gave me a very sincere look to indicate how marvelous and beautiful and lovely and amazing she was. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m her mom. Really, she was something special.) She gave her character a British accent, which she learned from Netflix binges of Dr. Who. On the day that I joined the other volunteer moms to clean up the costumes, a mom I don’t really know confessed that she was confused, she thought my daughter really was British, but she’d talked to me and I seemed quite American.

What’s funny about this is that I thought we were freaks because of my husband’s death, and we must be such a mystery to this small town. Now, my daughter has left everyone guessing, instead, about our Anglo origins. Let the latter be the odd thing people remember us for, and not the former.

What’s not funny is that after the final performance, and after leaving the building buoyed on a wave of accolades, she burst into tears. She cried in the car. She cried in the shower, while she tried to wash the layers and layers of hairspray out of her hair. I offered her ice cream and she cried before and after eating it. She cried while I tried to detangle her teased hair. As she turned into bed (my bed, natch), she said, “You have your sad days. Today is mine.”

And that’s pretty much how we roll here. People must assume that we’re doing great. Indeed, my son and my daughter and even I are accomplishing things. On paper, we’re fine, thriving, even. But few people know how hard this is for us–to roll out of bed, to win the math contest or the science olympiad event, or steal the show, or finish an article. No matter what we achieve, it doesn’t sit right. It’s as if, when we try and when we succeed, we’ve opened our hearts, and in that moment of openness, we’ve opened ourselves to pain, or to grief. It’s hard to do it, and once we do it, we find that deep well of sadness.

It’s hard to share this with relatives, who just want to be reassured that we’re doing great. It’s hard to explain these moments of fragility that only reveal themselves in our moments of strength. This may be why I’m so isolated. I don’t want to be a downer and always be grieving, but on the other hand, I don’t want people to rush to judgment that these accomplishments are indications that we’re past our grief. For the kids, the accomplishments spur the grief on. How do I explain that, when grandmothers just want to ooh and ah over the pictures I dutifully send on occasion?

A few weeks ago, my son won an event at the science olympiad. He donned his medal right away, and he kept it in on the car. On the way home, he was uncharacteristically chatty. It was charming, really. He was so darn proud. And then he saw daughter’s stash of herbal lozenges that she takes for car sickness, and he said, “You and Daddy always used to eat cough drops like they were candy.”

The car went silent.

Why did he say that?

She trusted her dad. If he offered her cough drops, she took the cough drop. Or maybe she was upset about something else. All I know is that she curled up in a ball in the back seat and was unresponsive. It was heartbreaking. He hit upon deep, deep pain in her little body.

What was I to do? My daughter was suffering. On the other hand, my son was uncharacteristically talking about his dad. Which child’s need should I choose?

Here’s how I responded–I pretty much did nothing. I murmured to son, “She is hurting,” to indicate that she was tender without silencing him. And then I drove the winding, hilly roads. I occasionally called back to her to let her know she was loved, but I didn’t intervene. This is what meditation has taught me. Don’t panic. Be present, but don’t try to solve every problem, especially such heavy problems as the one in front of me.

Eventually, something shifted. Son offered to share questions from the test he’d won at the science olympiad. One of the questions was about factorials–If there are 8 horses in a race, how many possible outcomes are there? He thought he’d reach out by using horses that she knew as examples. And here’s how it went:

Him: There was that horse from that Velvet movie…

Her: Pie. And it’s National Velvet

Him: And that racehorse. Aunt Margaret has a book about it.

Her: Seabiscuit?

HIm: And your horse, too! Daisy.

Her: His name is Eskimo

As he went on, mustering the names of horses, I peeked in the rearview mirror and saw a gleam in her eye. Her brother may be insensitive, he may win science olympiads, but he knows so little about the real world. She assumed her rank as the most well adjusted person in the household. And, also, the girl grasped factorials. She’s no dummy, that one.

Somehow the sadness faded and we all laugh good-naturedly at his social awkwardness and discussed factorials as we crossed county lines. We made it home and he hung his medal in the kitchen. He really was proud.


There is a Crack in Everything, That’s How the Light Gets In

What the dog did wrong–He ate a hole in my mattress.

What I did wrong–maxi-pad failure, too busy to clean it up on a busy morning, and this wouldn’t have happened if I walked him more. (Despite our abilities to shower and show up, there is so much slippage in our efforts to live normal lives. The dog found the opportunity between the cracks.)

What I didn’t do wrong–This mattress wasn’t cheap. It was a carefully-thought out purchase that was delivered the week my husband died. He slept on it two nights. This mattress has always been fraught, and the hole invited me to see it as a symbol of how crappy my life is, and how futile my efforts at improvement have been, but I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t freak out. It is a very good mattress, and the hole isn’t really that big. When I have the wherewithal, I’ll fill it with foam and patch it up. In the meantime, I flipped the mattress over.

What surprised me–After I flipped the mattress, it fit nice and snug with the headboard. There’s been a gap between the mattress and headboard recently, and that’s bothered me. It’s much better now for sitting up.

What was apt–In the process of flipping the mattress, I spied a book under my bed–Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart by the Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein. (It must have fallen into said gap.) I knew I had two books by him! Luckily, I’ve been reading the other one, so I already knew that I was doing well with the hole in the mattress by not being “reactive.”

But finding a book by a Harvard-educated Buddhist psychotherapist while accepting that your dog bit a hole in your Room and Board mattress? Priceless.

(The title of this post comes from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. I wasn’t sure whether to title this one about cracks or about the middle-class journey to acceptance.)


Have I mentioned my most peaceful time of day? It’s the eight minutes I spend walking from the campus parking lot to class. Parking the car is new for me. We’ve only ever had one car. Once the kids started school, husband would drop off the kids then drop me off, right in front of the office. I rarely took the car to campus. Now, I have to. Because I can’t get to the office until daughter gets dropped off, I can’t even snag a decent close-in spot, so I park in a far-off lot. When that’s full, I’ve found even farther-off lots that I never knew existed.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t bother me. It is what it is. I’ve budgeted the walk time into the morning. No worries. I collect my bags, stick some earphones into my phone, and listen to Pandora (often the Vashti Bunyan station, which is some sort of mixture of faerie and folk and nostalgia for a magickal world). As I walk, I don’t think about what I’ve already done that day. (And, likely, I’ve already been up, working and caretaking, for up to 4 hours before I even start my formal workday.)  I don’t think about where I’m going and what I have to do.  I just walk, and absorb the atmospheric music.

I have found this walk to be quietly liberating. It frees me from my situation. It could be five years ago, it could be five years from now. It’s like I’ve snapped out of my real life. I’m just walking. Some days I might be wearing a coat I’ve had for years, and that throws me off. I don’t know who I am anymore, and I kind of like it during that walk. Any possibility ahead of me. For some brief moments I imagine that I’ll go home to my husband. This is the space in between, the interstitial space. It is a small, 8-minute (unless I had to park in the farther off lot, then it’s more) space of freedom, and possibility, and relief.

When the meditation session asks us to think of joy, or the heart’s deepest desire, I’ve got nothin’. The closest I’ve been able to approximate is a feeling of ease. I picture myself walking down the street beneath the yoga studio, my legs moving in a healthy flow, the strong, slimmer legs of my youth. I greet people on the street with utter ease. This feeling that I conjure is a feeling of imagined equanimity, and it’s the closest I can get to the deeper feelings. I remember my body feeling this way. I recall it in meditation. I dutifully imagine that that is what I feel, right at that moment. It has become the “safe space” that I can retreat to when meditation gets tough.

In today’s session, I dwelt on a horrible night my husband had in December 2011. It was the beginning of the end. That night, by the way, is yellow. (Don’t ask. I don’t fully grasp it, I just know this. The day I found him, incidentally, is grey.) I briefly pursued the thinking-through of this horrible night, and then I moved away, as we are taught to do in meditation.

But today, I did something different. Instead of pulling away from my husband, I grabbed him, and I brought him with my thoughts.

There, in my thoughts, was a memory of us walking in our old neighborhood in Austin. It was such a happy time in our lives. Newly married, pre-kids, but with an adopted stray dog we adored, we were broke, and we couldn’t afford much, but we could walk dear, loyal Otis through the lovely neighborhood we lived in. We’d run into people we knew, dogs we knew, we’d ogle the lovely, well-appointed Craftsman bungalows. We were so happy, and we were healthy, and now I realize what a handsome couple we were. In my meditation, I felt what it was like to walk together.

I didn’t even allow myself to consider the awful possibility that I could have taken my husband’s hand after that horrible yellow night and made him feel happiness again. I didn’t, because that is a possibility that is closed off, and this is now. I can’t change the past. But what I can do is not abandon his memory. He is there, in this space of consciousness, in the state of awareness that we are called to in these yoga nidra sessions. Somewhere, his happiness exists. It still does.

I felt all this, and then I let that go, too, as we are instructed to do. But not before I shed a tear. It trickled down into my ear. 


Spring Break seemed like a time to do a few projects around the house. It went okay. I cleaned off a few shelves, gave the tea kettle and water pitcher a vinegar soak, scrubbed baseboards, did tasks like that, but I couldn’t seem to pull off a project. I lacked vision. I looked at the cleared off shelves in the corner of the kitchen, and they looked like no one really lived there.

Then I got the pressure cooker. It’s too heavy to pull out of the big corner cabinet. And, now that I thought about it, those food processor attachments are hard to get to in that big cabinet, too. This isn’t trivial, I really use that stuff, almost daily, and cooking needs to be as stress-free as possible. There was a drawer for ready access, but the towels and cookie sheets are there. I’ve never liked that arangement. So, out with the towels and the cookie sheets. In with the food processor blades and the pressure cooker, oh! and that Le Creuset pan is so heavy, that should go in there, too. Thus began the Great Migration of kitchen appliances.

That big cutting board that’s always a pain to slide out from underneath the pile of trays? Liberate it! and use it. Conceding that I’m not going to have a dinner party anytime soon, I cleared out the serving platters–many of them wedding gifts–to make room for stuff I use every day. I think that one cabinet used to be our “dinner party” cabinet. Now it’s for my daily food storage containers. Where to put the platters? Oh! Those empty shelves I cleared off over Spring Break. The platters will gather dust there, but now it looks like someone lives here.

There’s a cabinet that would be perfect for the cookie sheets and trays, but the kids have been using it for their glasses. They don’t need that cabinet, now that they’re bigger. But I don’t want them to feel like their childhood is over or anything. So I won’t claim that cabinet, yet. I’ve got my eye on it, though.

Today, I eyed a bag full of bags that has been lingering around since my spring break tasks. It needed a home. It occurred to me that the pantry has always been poorly used space. That tall cabinet? Get the other bags out of there and just use it as a broom closet. That meant I had to make room for the bags that had been awkwardly stored in the tall cabinet. How about that other set of shelves, also poorly used? I cleared a load of Mason jars off those shelves, more than I need. Some I’ll keep, others I’ll give away or recycle. Time to take some shelves out to make room for the bags. I squeezed the pins on one side of a shelf. I’d turn to the other side and the first set of pins would pop back into place. I did this over and over and over. I felt frustration rise in my chest. I took a minute. I’m frustrated because this shelf-on-a-pin system is ridiculous, I thought. Who would design a system this ridiculous? Wait, maybe this is not how the system is designed. I considered that I was doing it wrong. I fetched my mallet (not to smash the shelf to bits–I wasn’t frustrated anymore). Once I got one side of the shelf off the pins, I banged the shelf up with the mallet so that it couldn’t pop into place. Once I did that–POP!–the shelf came loose on the other side. Right on. That’s how to do it.

Golly, this all sounds so mundane. But this is the stuff of remaking our lives, isn’t it? When you’ve been so broken down, you don’t know what to do. When your world has been shattered, you don’t want to do anything. But one day you know you have to. So you do one thing, and that leads to another thing. Some of the old gets disposed of, some of the old stays. New things make their way in. One step at a time, there’s clearing, layering, shifting, and–then you see it–settling. It still doesn’t feel right, but it doesn’t feel as wrong anymore, either. It’s all about starting that one thing.

It’s big, but I do wonder if these discrete tasks are significant in themselves, because they involve choice. Widows are wont to say, “I didn’t choose this life.” No doubt I uttered that once or twice in the past week. When everything we worked for has slipped away, when our hopes and dreams have sailed off into the mist, we’re left with nothing, and we just go through the motions. But then we realize, the cookie sheets don’t have to go in that drawer, I would prefer they go over there. Simply having a mundane desire about the cookie sheets is notable because of wanting anything at all or, at least, not liking things as they are, and this is one undesirable thing that we can change.

Saturday Yin and Yang

I’m watching a series on Hulu that purports to be an Irish version of The Wire. I can’t understand everything they’re saying, the Irish guys all look alike, and I fall asleep a few times an episode. Good show, though. I woke up at 2am, and I was glad to have this show; I could count on a half episode of continuous sleep until I’d wake up again and try to figure out which one is Tommy and why he’s in trouble.

I participated in a “yoga detox” workshop, then I went to straight to the bakery to buy wine. (It was for a friend!) On line, I ran into a woman who was also at the yoga detox workshop. She was buying a sandwich. I sheepishly held up my wine. She ran off to buy the same wine. That was a relief. Good workshop, though. Lots of breathing, lots of sweating.

We share our driveway with someone with a lot of problems. We were driving up while she was driving down, and she practically barreled us down the driveway while we backed out into the street. Daughter and I were laughing/screaming and maybe she wasn’t really barreling us down, but it was kind of scary. While in a mid-practice Savasana at the “yoga detox” workshop I had the space to reflect, and if this was the thing that bothered me the most about the day, this wasn’t so bad, in the scheme of things. Unstable neighbor is unstable. I let it go and left my anxiety about her swirling around with our collective exhales and perspiration.

I had a nice time at the friend’s house, just a few women, sampling various wines (all from said bakery) and snacks, someone read poetry, I walked home in the chilly night, appreciating the quiet and the cold. The kids were still up and son complained that I never made him nachos. I’d told him that if they got hungry, they could make nachos. Instead, they must have sat staring at the fixins, filled with hunger and learned helplessness, while I was out. I sent them downstairs to make the nachos. Fight ensued. (11pm + hungry children, I know, I know.) I swooped down and unloaded the dishwasher while they aired their grievances. I madethedamnnachosalready and took a few for myself. Then I watched 10 minutes of the Irish show until it inevitably knocked me out. Good show.

Contraction and Extension

I taught Elaine Scarry’s book, Body in Pain, and thought a lot about her chapter on–bear with me, here–torture.

Suppose the tortured prisoner seeks solace in the familiar–the cell in his bed, e.g. The torturer beats him with the bed. Now the prisoner can not reach out for solace. Furthermore, in turning domestic comforts into a weapon, the torturer has alienated the prisoner from civilization, in turning the room (the smallest unit of civilization) into a weapon. The process continues, until the torturer makes the prisoner’s body turn against him. The torturer denies the prisoner voice. By cutting off all connections, the torturer has contracted the prisoner’s world. By forbidding all methods of external and internal relief, by denying recognition of the prisoner’s screams, the torturer unmakes the prisoner’s self.

In contrast, Scarry says, the struggle to stay alive is about extending oneself. We make connections with loved ones, with our community. We carry a “handbag of familiar objects,” bringing ourselves out with us into the world. (I figure this is why people get tattoos, or why my son brought his toy bus, which fit firmly into this little hand, when he’d go to daycare when he was two.) When people are old, Scarry says, their bodies debilitate, and their space might be contracted into a two-foot radius. So they use voice. It may come across as endless storytelling, but this is the effort to extend oneself in the struggle to be alive.

This, to me, is what freedom is.

This makes a lot of sense when applied to grief.

Last summer I contracted, because I was afraid. I held myself in so tightly that my back and arms were chronically sore. I wore long-sleeved shirts in public so as not to extend myself. My college roommate visited from lovely San Francisco and wondered why I wouldn’t leave our grungy little town or this house where my husband killed himself. “I feel safe here,” I told her.* Extension was so dangerous. Being closed in was safe.

Such contraction, over time, was untenable. I knew that I needed a healthy back to shovel the driveway and to lug the garbage and recycling bins up and down that driveway, and walk those two, giant dogs of mine. I needed to unclench so I could be calmer with my kids. I remember one of my first yoga classes, the teacher had us bend each finger, one at a time. “I have a finger!” I thought, with surprise. (That’s how closed in and closed off I was, even from my own body. In Scarry’s terms, that how far my world had contracted.) Yoga has taught me that extension could be under my control, it didn’t have to be so scary.**

Extending ourselves can, nevertheless, be scary (driving down the driveway in the snow), or painful (any number of home improvement projects), or just plain sad (Christmas).

Every once in a while extension is sort of fun (fixing the broken porch stair with our new power screwdriver, or bribing the kids with butterscotch and not giving a damn).

But, don’t get me wrong,  I won’t be skydiving anytime soon. There is no bucket list, no aspiration, no display of my good fortune for all to see on Facebook. This is a struggle to be alive, and it’s primarily defined by struggle. Any efforts are sincere efforts to inculcate good habits. These efforts lack vitality. Really, I don’t give a damn about the healthy things we do. The kayaking picture I added to my header was taken after my daughter and I nearly melted down in the middle of the lake. Even the beautiful stuff and our wacky little adventures are fraught with our pain and anxiety and other crap. And everything is just so hard. Still, I’ll just keep doing the healthy stuff until I feel something someday, I guess.***

And now that I look at that kayaking picture, it is a beautiful lake, so close to us, and aren’t we fortunate to have it, and isn’t my daughter an awesome human being. I can resist the beauty, but it’s there, whether I want it to be or not.

And you know, I’d pulled daughter out of school that day of this kayaking picture.  Maybe I did sign daughter out of school in Fall 2012 when half the rest of the town did. I don’t think she’ll get rejected from MIT because of it at the end of this decade, do you? I’ve gained the courage to say, Screw it, and I get away with it. Not-giving-a-damn is also liberating.

I also don’t care about including some people or things or norms or social pressures into my life as I rebuild. In struggling to be alive/make connections/”extend”,  I’m only making the connections I choose to make.

To wit: I haven’t gone to the parent-teacher conferences this school year. They send home the sign-up forms, I don’t sign up, and no teacher scolds me for not attending.

When I need to talk about my children, I email the teacher. The teacher responds. Done.

Screw those conferences. To tell you the truth, I never saw the point of those inane conferences  I dutifully attended in the past, because I felt obligated to Be a Good Parent.  Now, I’ve blown off the conferences, and no one has declared me a Negligent Parent or my child a Delinquent.

To wit: One day, in the retro grocery store where I shop so I can avoid most everybody in this small town, I ran into the Popular Mom. Seriously, the moms adore her. She is some sort of minor celebrity. And let me note for the record: her hair looked great. I smiled. I said hello. As I drifted past her, I heard her issue some small talk about this lovely store. I KEPT WALKING, smiling politely.

I’m freeing myself from the petty pressures that  normal folks give into. Here, in the marginal space I occupy, where I’m hardly invited anywhere anymore, and feel like both the Recipient of Community Charity and social outcast, I’m weirdly free. I’m kind, I’m grateful, but I’m not overly connected.

Back to Elaine Scarry. This is what extension looks like–everything has been stripped away, and I extend, on my own terms.

At this stage in the grief game, contraction continues to be a safety mechanism in my feeble efforts to extend. I was at a meeting this week, feeling decent energy, and I smiled and chatted when I sat down. See? I extended myself. Then, in the thick of the meeting, someone tossed out a funny one-liner, and someone else topped it. People broke out into ready laughter. They threw their heads back, or leaned over toward one another. That’s good camaraderie, but being swept away in this jocularity was scary to me. While the enthusiasm swarmed around me, I wouldn’t enter it, and I didn’t let it enter my space, either. I sat upright, smiling softly so as not to be a weirdo, and just waited for the laughter to subside.


*She received that with her kindly eyes, but her grimace betrayed her befuddlement. That’s when I saw my own pathos reflected back at me.

**Also, I couldn’t stand to be near babies.

***I still can’t bear to be near babies, by the way. The therapist nailed that one. “Were you a happy mother of babies?” she asked. Oh, I was, we were so, so happy and full of hope. Well, that explains that. Keep babies away from me, folks, until further notice. Your pink-cheeked baby is shattering my heart into a million pieces.

Taking Stock

I made some vegetable stock today, my first stock as a widow.

Don’t think that you’re now reading a blog in which I tell you what I ate for lunch. This stock was some kind of milestone, small but significant, nonetheless.

I bought a pressure cooker, at the gentle recommendation of a friend who has been Keeping an Eye on Us. She has been so good to us and keeps abreast of my progress. I think she was worried about my Google Calender of daily meals. She wants me to spend less time in the kitchen, less time planning, more time living, or just resting. She showed me her pressure cooker when she had us over for dinner. She just threw together that absolutely delicious stew she served us. I’ve always been afraid of pressure cookers, but they’re perfectly safe now. I’d heard that, and it was confirmed when I saw it in operation at her house. So I bought a pressure cooker. I made the most delicious chick peas this weekend. I planned another recipe for tonight. There was nothing for me to prep, because I could throw it all together in the late afternoon. So in the morning, with no prepping to do, I decided to make stock out of the veggies in the bottom of the refrigerator. I pulled out celery for which I once had such hope, softening carrots purchased from the Beet Lady, some onions that were languishing. In the time it took me to tidy up the kitchen, stock happened in the pressure cooker. I poured it into two mason jars and stood back and took a look. It’s been so long since I’ve made stock.

This was vindicating, because I’ve stopped composting. When my mom stayed with us during that horrible time last year, she recommended that I take a break from composting. That was good advice. It’s simplifying. And, after the visits from Geoffrey and Thom, I shouldn’t have food scraps in my yard these days. I know that it was the right thing to do, for now, but I’ve felt guilty about throwing away scraps, and about chucking the never-used celery and carrots and mushrooms and greens that wilted away on those weeks when I haven’t been able to get my act together.

And while I’m confessing, there was also a pineapple, purchased on a Friday when I was struck by a fleeting optimism. A few weeks later, the whole thing was sent to the landfill. I’m ashamed to write that.

This morning, I took said sad veggies out of the fridge. They were still destined for the garbage can, but at least I extracted some nutrients and flavor out of them first.

Baby steps.

The dinner wasn’t so bad–a knock-off of Boston Baked Beans pressure cooked in said stock, from a recipe that came with the pressure cooker, alongside some millet (cooked (in minutes!) in the pressure cooker before I did the beans) mixed with Swiss Chard. Because I want to make life worth living for these kids, I sauteed the millet and chard with a dose of local butter. It was pretty tasty. The beans cooked unevenly because they were so old–I found them in the back of the pantry and they probably date back to when my husband was still with us, heck, he probably bought them–but the kids ate the meal gamely, delivered some compliments and, given a restocking of the pantry, suggested it was a worthwhile recipe to revisit.

Encouraged by the kids’ decent reaction, I ordered a couple of pressure cooker cookbooks from Amazon. See, my son visits that nice friend who is Keeping an Eye on Us quite a bit. He stayed with them when daughter and I took the ashes to East Hampton, they include him in strategy game nights, and I think he has a crush on my friend, or admires her, or he just really, really prefers her cooking. So I got a Madhur Jaffrey pressure cooker cookbook, so I can serve some reliable some Indian dishes. I don’t mind if he likes our friend’s cooking more. We’re lucky to have her. He’s lucky to have her in his life. And no wonder he seeks out her cooking. For months, I have been cooking like a sad person. Even when I thought I felt okay, my meals–overcooked or undercooked or underseasoned or oddly textured–have betrayed deep sadness. If I can’t rely on my own spirit to infuse my cooking, at least I can follow a recipe and serve that kid some decent food in his own home.

So that’s all to say, that this stock wasn’t the same old stock.  It’s the kind of stock I make now, the product of our new appliances, deepened friendships, compromises, and trying all over again. And, apparently, I make stock now. Takes, like, 6 minutes.

Beyond Despair

…Such a new narrative, and the people who make it — among whom are included those who pursue equality through legal means — must find inspiration not in the sacrosanct, but utterly defunct, glory of ideals that for centuries have proven both unattainable and poisonous. Rather, they must find it in the lives of our “oppressed people who defied social death as slaves and freedmen, insisting on their humanity despite a social consensus that they were ‘a brutish sort of people.’ ” From that reality, Huggins takes — as do you and I, Geneva — hope rather than despair. Knowing there was no escape, no way out, the slaves, nonetheless continued to engage themselves. To carve out a humanity. To defy the murder of selfhood. Their lives were brutally shackled, certainly — but not without meaning despite being imprisoned.

We are proud of our heroes, but we must not forget those whose lives were not marked by extraordinary acts of defiance. Though they lived and died as captives within a system of slave labor, “they produced worlds of music, poetry, and art. They reshaped a Christian cosmology to fit their spirits and their needs, transforming Protestantism along the way. They produced a single people out of what had been many. . . . Their ordeal, and their dignity throughout it, speaks to the world of the indomitable human spirit.”

–Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well

I taught a few chapters of Derrick Bell’s book this semester. Bell is a critical race theorist. As such, he doubts the efforts of the civil rights project because it relies on a legal system that is predicated on oppression. Any gains in civil rights are illusory and, worse, impede equality, because Americans assume that rights are protected when they are, in fact, woefully denied, while the project of equality is abandoned.

Critical theorists expose power in the system. They do it so well that they reveal a system that is utterly broken, that is built on and sustains oppression. Students who are poised to Change the World are frustrated by this cynicism and impatient with the lack of constructive advice from critical theorists who criticize and reveal power, but don’t offer constructive alternatives.

I regretted that I did not assign the Epilogue, where he addresses such friendly (and frustrated) critics of his work. Bell titles the epilogue, “Beyond Despair.” He explains that if the legal system is not going to achieve equality, then stop waiting for that day. Live now. Live in the struggle. Carve out a humanity. Create. I summarized the epilogue for the students, including the passages above. I told the students that Bell is urging subjugated people to find their freedom within struggle, rather than waiting until it’s over. After all, life is struggle, isn’t it?

I continued on that track, then I noticed that the energy in the room had changed. The students were listening to a professor that they never see. I was talking about much more than racial subordination and the legal system. This was about life. Bell was connecting to the human spirit, I was speaking as a human being.

I paused. “Really,” I concluded, “this is a valuable life lesson.”

DISCLAIMER: I am self-conscious that I, a white woman, redirected Bell’s discussion of slavery to draw life lessons that we can all appreciate. This is such a white thing to do. But I’m okay with it. What came through in the epilogue was Bell’s humanity, and I really needed to hear it and connect with it, and I let my own humanity slip in while teaching the students. While my burden is far, far different, the legacy of my pain will never be over, and why fight it? Live now. Find the beauty now, within the struggle, despite it, because of it.


Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–from Naomi  Shihab Nye, Kindness

I ran into one of the local moms at the bakery. I hardly ever see her these days, but since my husband died, she leaves tokens on our front porch, often on holidays. She’ll leave three muffins, or half a box of blueberries.

She’s the one who showed up when I moved the panes of glass out of the basement last summer. My husband had 8 or 10 thick panes of glass that I had to dispose of. I was terrified that they would break and one of us would get hurt. I was filled with anger and fear and the panes were so heavy and how was I going to move them without shattering them? I was on the edge of despair. I looked up and there she was, with half a box of blueberries to deliver. I threw myself, sobbing, into her arms. She bent down and helped me load the panes into the car.

She just keeps giving, and sometimes, I receive.

I asked her if she was the kind person who left the strawberries and cream on Valentine’s Day.

She was.

I would have written a thank-you note, I babbled, but I didn’t know if they’d moved.

They did move and it’s okay, she said with a smile. It was clear she wasn’t waiting for thanks. She wants to let me know that I’m not forgotten.

And, I added, I’m sorry that I never join you when you invite me places. (She invites me for same-day events. I just can’t scramble to join her.)

It’s okay, she said. Sometime, you will.

Soon, she added, it will be spring.

I stared at her. It’s like talking to Buddha. These words have meaning, I know.

There will be so many days for hiking, she said, as she gave me a hug, then scooped up her toddler and somebody else’s toddler and cleaned up their crumbs and left the table for me.

Off the Couch

I confronted some difficult memories last week, I kept a journal, and I brought this info to the therapist. She immediately asked about my childhood. What the heck, I thought, that’s why I pay an expert. (She doesn’t often do this, but when she pulls out her probing Freudian questions, I gamely play along, because it’s like being in a Woody Allen movie, and my husband and I would have gotten a kick out of it.) We got to childhood experiences that explained why I approached my husband’s illness as I did.

As I prepared to leave, with this nugget of Freudian insight in my lap, I asked, “Now what?”

“You keep moving forward,” she responded.

Arrrgh! That’s all I ever do, is move forward!

I figured, after all this childhood probing, she would open up Door #3 and reveal a gleaming meadow, and I’d walk through it with a certificate from the American Council of Psychologists, or something. But, no, there’s no prize for probing. There’s just get out of her cozy chair, e-mail the co-author, prep for class, pick up the kids, make the dinner, mop the pawprints from the floor, chop wood, carry water. Ah, we’re back to that again, are we? Aren’t we always.