The Small Things

Trees Short

Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.

As heart-on-her-shirt hard-boiled-egg of a comic strip character Cathy would say, “Ack.”


I feel ill-equipped to have the big conversations. When it comes to politics and violence and hatred and opinions, my stomach compacts into a dark, hard knot; instinctively, my spirit folds protectively into a crouch in the corner; invariably, my brain pushes my eyebrows down and squinches my eyes.

Too often, public discourse makes me sick inside.

Part of my reaction comes from this:  I don’t feel smart enough to hold my own in the fray. Do not read me wrong: I’m very smart. My admission is not one of self-diminishment. But I’m not smart about things happening in the world. The details of the goings-on are not something I’ve internalized. I have not mastered all the angles. By and large, I avoid the news, keeping myself informed just enough to know sketchy basics. Willfully, I lack “issue smarts.”

Part of my reaction comes from this: when I do read public conversations about big events, I see how everyone has a point. I don’t agree with a good lot of ’em, but everybody has conviction and reasons. Even more, as I age, I believe more and more that all people deserve respect. The only way to get anywhere with anything is to treat all people as though they have merit. This is the attitude I take into my teaching — and, while I’m not always amazing at conveying class content, I do think the genuine regard I accord to the human beings in the room is the core of the successes. However, when I watch intransigent people debating the issues, my respect radar goes haywire, leaving me jangled.

Part of my reaction comes from this: I’m a work in progress when it comes to conflict. With each passing year, especially in my job, I have gotten better at standing firm when someone’s energy blows me back onto my heels. I’ve gotten better at rocking forward, centering on the balls of my feet, regaining my balance. I’ve gotten better at not blinking, not crumpling, not crying. Yet it’s never easy. Always, it’s exhausting. Without fail, I feel battered for days. Months. I lie. Years. In a climate where discourse and debate are more yelling and argument, this work in progress feels best with her head under the duvet, a headlamp beaming a circle of light onto a world of fiction.

Finally, part of my reaction comes from this: more often than not, the tone of public debate dances riotously across a field dense with thriving, thigh-high scorn. The crop waves brightly — condescending and self-righteous and mean, fertilized by several tons of “I’m throwing this provocative statement out there so that I can find reasons to mock you, should you dare to engage” manure. There’s something of the bully behind this tone, and I got enough of bullies when a couple of girls followed me home in fifth grade, loudly remarking “God, that ass is huge” and “Isn’t it hard to be a hog?” while the twig-like friends flanking me, having no idea attacks could happen to someone they loved, froze in horror. Already, by the age of 10, I was intimate with baleful strikes; the worst of the bullying was the futile desire, roiling around my round belly, to protect my friends’ innocence. All of which is to say: when nasty words fly around in public air, I am reminded that no matter how much I love people, I hate people.

Hating people erodes the shape of my heart, whittling it into a sharp stick good only for stabbing through soft tissues.

Thus, when the world is too much with me, and I am scared and mad and hating, I retreat into the joys of small things. The other day, when yet another headline broke, and the shouting began, and disappointment welled in me, I went for a run — the activity that reminds me many things in the world are beautiful.

  1. Living up to the name of the trail, the Lollygagger, I rolled up and down the hills, dodging the roots and rocks jutting through the clay, and my mind shifted into that sacred, peaceful space where the next footfall is all that matters.
  2. As I ran, I listened to the conversation on the WTF? podcast between host Marc Maron and guest Louis Anderson. Maron has done some great interviews, and he’s done some tense interviews, but this conversation between two comics who have reached the “Hey, man, we’re okay. We’re finally fine” stage of life delighted me. Anderson is the 10th of 11 children, the son of a “nice” mother and an alcoholic father, and how is that story not a worthy distraction?
  3. As I ran, I marveled again at the book I’d slammed through the night before, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Maybe a half hour read, this book lodged in my head. It’s short; it’s unconventional in form; it’s funny; it’s poetry; it’s prose. A mother dies. A crow — grief made manifest — shows up and hangs out with the bereaved husband and sons. When it’s time to go, the crow leaves. Desperately, I wished to have been in the room, even watching through a video feed, as Porter wrote. How did he do that? Four scrabbled words at a time? Ten hours of marathon word vomiting? Seven years of anguish to write 110 pages? How did that writing happen? I had no answers. I could only keep dodging mud puddles.
  4. As I ran, I chuckled as I remembered Paco’s predictions about the contestants on The History Channel’s blacksmithing/weaponry program called Forged in Fire. As the show began, he tipped me off with a quick, “Just so you know, Mom, they’re all going to be men, and most of them will have ponytails. But my favorite part is that at least two of them will have intriguing accents.”
  5. As I ran, my thoughts ricocheted into the idea of sleep. When Paco had his tonsils out a couple weeks ago, I figured the pain would make sleep difficult. Yet, without fail, he sacked out, totally and completely, for a solid twelve hours. Still traumatized from the kids’ early years, when our kids slept not at all — to the point that I will get petty and engage in “No, you don’t understand. We would have paid money to have them only wake up eight times a night” competitions with other parents — I couldn’t help recalling a time when Paco was six months old. Standing as spectators at a trail race, a couple of us moms watched our kids slide down a pile of gravel. Conversationally, the other mom asked me, “So his first name sure is unsual! What’s his middle name?” Blankly, I stared at her. My baby’s middle name. Hmmm. Good question. I had to wait until Byron finished the race and ask him.
  6. As I ran, I smiled at Allegra’s excitement and appreciation during her 10-day trip to Europe with a high school group. Her messages to us detailed food, sights, hotels, similarities and differences among cultures. But more than anything, she was delighted by Italian wayside stations. Such snacks! Oh, the crackers! What a unique atmosphere! The espresso bar! In a gas station!
  7. As I ran, I snorted when a mental image flitted through my head: craving tube-shaped food, I’d gone into a speciality meat shop in town to find something sausage-like for dinner. The workers at the shop, to a one, are dear as baby pigs and are in exactly the right line of work — fulfilling all their potential there behind the counter. After some discussion with the nice young man in his white jacket, I decided to try the seasonal rhubarb bratwurst. When I ordered four, Nice Young Man advised earnestly, “You’re really going to like these. They are sweet. But they are sour. You are going to come back and buy 20. Come back soon because they’ll be gone. So come back soon and get 20. You’ll for sure want 20.”

Done running, I hopped in the car and tuned the radio to music, not talk. I wanted to protect, to store those good feelings from the trail, the comics and the crows and the contestants and the fatigue and the wayside stations and the bratwursts. Happy inside the bubble of my car, I let the goodnesses float free, let them bounce off the windows in time to the beat of the song.

On the way home, I stopped at the liquor store and bought a six-pack of Lollygagger beer.

Later, even though I poured slowly, the head of the beer foamed high.

Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.

At least in that moment, my glass was full.


If you care to share, click a square:

Full Moon, Agitated Hearts

As is my way, I was racing the clock, squeaking in to the meeting two minutes late. In my defense, I was hustling because I had stopped to buy a baguette to set out during the meeting, in case anyone needed a late-afternoon snack. While at the store hunting down carbohydrates, I had also grabbed a latte. Three shots of espresso were hitting my bloodstream, working magic on my burning eyelids and oxygen-hungry brain.

It had been a tough week emotionally. My whole body felt foggy, and while the latte offered superficial comfort, what I really craved was an afternoon under a heavy duvet, thick book in hand. I was ready to pick up the reader’s passport and travel to whatever world the book created, escaping for a few hours from the hardness of fluorescent-lit reality.

Of course, being an adult often entails feigning functionality, so the book would have to wait. I had a meeting to get to.

In the hallway, I passed a student who would be attending the meeting. She was on the phone, locked in intense conversation. We waved at each other, miming greetings, before I whirred into the conference room, a space big enough to seat a dozen people around a common table. Under the bright fluorescent lights, two students sat at the table, chatting. Another one wandered in followed a few minutes later by the student from the hallway, now off the phone.

There we were: four students and one instructor, coming together for the weekly English as a Second Language conversation group. Originally, the intent behind this group was to meet once a week during fall semester in an effort to connect students born and raised in the U.S. with international students, as there is a gap between those populations on our campus. It’s only in recent years that the northern outpost that is our city has become more diverse and, by extension, that our college is seeing students from a variety of backgrounds enroll. Put another way: we now see not only more people of color, we also have women in hijab walking from classroom to classroom, for our campus’ programs, in particular nursing, are drawing immigrants from African countries, many of them Muslim. Our nursing instructors do an amazing job of pulling together students from all over the world under a common curriculum, but they have noted ongoing issues with English ability in many of their students–and, when one is a nurse, language matters. Thus, the idea for this group was hatched. I am the faculty advisor for the honor society chapter on our campus; the students in the honor society decided that starting an ESL group would be an excellent way to connect with international students while also providing language practice for those who might benefit from it.

We hung posters, filled faculty mailboxes with flyers, made announcements. The first week the group met, there were a handful of members from the honor society in the room…and one person from another country: a nursing instructor from Bulgaria. We were not surprised, as the nature of a community college campus is that students work multiple jobs outside of taking classes, and in general they commute to the campus on a need-to-get-to-class basis. After the first week, I decided to launch a campaign of personal outreach and emailed past students of mine, hoping to get more folks with international backgrounds into the room during future weeks. It worked, as we now have had interesting cultural conversations with immigrants not only from Bulgaria but also Jordan, Finland, Jamaica, East Timor, Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Philippines.

So there we were that day in the conference room: four students and one instructor. Three of the students were born and raised in Northern Minnesota, and the other lived in the Philippines until she was 25, at which point she moved to Italy and worked as a nanny for ten years before meeting her American husband, having kids, and moving here. Now, she is more stereotypically Northern Minnesotan than most: she is a hockey mom.

The feeling in the room was easy, full of chat and joking. As I set out butter and sliced the baguette, the student who had been on the phone in the hallway, Avie, started to talk. She, too, was having a stressful week. A woman in her early fifties who works full-time in health care, Avie got out of an emotionally abusive marriage a handful of years ago, at which point she realized she could do anything. She found a new love, bought a house, remodeled it, started traveling, enrolled in college to pursue a new future, and opened her house to three young people who needed a place to live: her son (in his mid-twenties), her niece (in her first years of college), and her niece’s girlfriend/partner (also in her late teens, in her first years of college). For nominal rent, Avie provides these younger students with a lovely home, free tutoring services, and endless late-night counseling. When the girls moved in a year-and-a-half ago, she laid out her household rules, most notably that they may not have sex when she is home. This matters because the girls’ bedroom is adjacent to Avie’s, and there is no door between them, only an open frame. In return, Avie promised not to have sex with her boyfriend when they were home. Fundamentally, her message to them was “Let’s all have a little decency, please, in the form of boundaries.”

By and large, they all have lived together harmoniously. However, one recent Thursday night, Avie came home, ready for an evening of studying math with a classmate before their big test. Upon seeing her, the girls greeted her with a kind of aggressive incredulity: “What are you doing here? You’re never home on Thursday nights.” As it turned out, Thursday nights are the girls’ Love Nights. Quickly, their annoyance at Avie’s presence spiraled into something like an argument. These young women–who do laundry every day, each using two new towels every time they shower, yet who don’t pitch in toward the cost of utilities; who let Avie pay for a cleaning woman to come in every two weeks; who let Avie stock the pantry with basics that they use–had complaints.

As it turns out, it’s difficult to have productive disagreement with a 19-year-old lesbian who is taking her first Women’s Studies class. Fueled by the self-righteousness of the marginalized, one of the girls (sorry: womyn) took all her textbook learning and applied it to cutting down someone who’d actually lived through various female-related hells yet still retained a soft and generous heart.

Riveted and sympathetic, we four listeners at the conference table asked questions and lobbed opinions as Avie explained that she didn’t even want to go home and was making plans to stay at her boyfriend’s house instead. Even more, she connected the dots between her childhood experiences and her current fear of conflict and reluctance to lay out consequences for the girls’ disrespectful attitudes.

At one point, I tried to convince Avie that she needed to push herself past her tendency to avoid conflict and give the girls a good dose of “This is my house, and I will not be treated this way.” But then one of the other students in the room, Adam, weighed in. Adam has a fantastic head of dreadlocks, is a self-described Daoist Rastafarian, has been a vegetarian for decades, likes to get high and do yoga every night, and is deeply into astrology. Also, and this is what makes community college students so fascinating: he was a long-haul trucker for eight years.

Adam advised, “It does seem like you need to set boundaries with them, but you should retreat for a few days first. Right now, you’re too upset, and so are they. If you try to get firm with them, things will explode, and you all could end up saying things you’ll never be able to forgive. Let it cool first.”

Considering the merits of Adam’s intuitions, I sliced a few more pieces of baguette off the loaf and pushed the bread board toward Avie. Then a third student, Jade, piped up with her own story. Jade is a single mother of three adolescents, and she owns the foibles of her Adventures in Mothering with bracing honesty, right down to the time she caught a glimpse of herself chasing her three-year-old with a wooden spoon, aiming to give him a whupping, when she caught sight of her reflection and thought, “What am I doing?”

After emphasizing the many ways her 12-year-old son is driving her crazy with his oppositional attitude, Jade offered, “We were sitting in the drive-thru at McDonald’s last night, and he was being such a butthead, all ‘Blah, blah, blah, poke, poke, poke, you’re stupid, Mom, how lame, blah, blah,‘ and so I was yelling at him about what a brat he is, and I just wanted to reach around and whack him, and then the McDonald’s worker’s voice came through the speaker, and this worker was the most perky, happy, upbeat, thrilled-about-his-job person ever. He was just so excited to take our order. He was totally, ‘What can we get you today at McDonald’s that will make your evening? What can I do for you?’ This guy kept going on all chipper, and it cracked me up. I was trying to order and sound serious, but I was laughing so hard. Then I looked at Dustin, and he couldn’t stop laughing either, so then both of us were holding our stomachs, covering our faces, completely unable to stop snorting at the happiest McDonald’s worker in the world. The entire feeling in the car had changed, all thanks to this wacky guy handing McRib sandwiches through a window.”

We were well into the meeting now, and I wanted to be sure the student from the Philippines was included, so I leaned over and stage whispered to her, “This is the week the ESL group became a therapy session.”

She was having a good time listening–what a pleasure to be treated like part of the crowd and not a specimen on display–and nodded. At the same time, wise Adam noted, “We get therapy in bits and pieces all the time, from all sorts of places and interactions.”

“Yea, like the McDonald’s drive-thru,” I agreed.

Adding more of his particular insights, Adam continued, “It’s interesting that, astrologically, this is called The Week of Depth. It’s a time of tensions rearing up, and the full moon is in opposition to the Week of the Teacher, also known as Taurus II.”

Because I know virtually nothing of astrology outside of the fortune-cookie “horoscopes” printed in the newspaper, I later looked up the Week of Depth. An astrologer at We’Moon: Starcodes (which I might one day take as my Wiccan name) explains that this is a good week to:

…honor memories of our beloved dead. The past will be with us, old feelings arise, and we need to work with the watery Moon and let the feelings flow through and flow on. We may be unusually touchy and painfully aware of our vulnerabilities, easily insulted and just a little delicate on the soul.


…opinions fly fast and furious…Let the dust settle before responding…stubborn entrenchment may polarize…Let go of comparison, as jealousy and territoriality can be a problem; don’t go there…Stay true to personal truth and goals.

Interesting. I was left agreeing with Adam that, when our hearts are searching for guidance, therapies reveal themselves everywhere, from the McDonald’s drive-thru to a spiritual counselor on a website to a conference room at a community college.

As our conversation continued in the conference room that afternoon, I turned to Beth, the student from the Philippines, and tried to direct some questions her way. In her wide-ranging responses, we heard about disciplining of children, expressions of anger, traditions of weddings, and celebration of holidays in the Philippines.

Toward the end of the hour, the remaining baguette sat, untouched, in the middle of the table as Beth remembered her youth in a village without electricity. Even after lights came to their house when she was nine, her grandmother’s rural home in the country still remained dark, relying on oil lamps during the evening hours.

As our minutes together in the brightly lit conference room ticked down, Beth’s quiet voice related a very particular memory. She and her siblings were at their grandmother’s house, and it was a holiday–a feast day in her Catholic country–and they all wanted to see the feast parade go by out on the main road that night. So they set out together, grandma and the kids, to walk the two miles to the road. Later, heading home, they lit their way with torches Grandma had made by rolling and binding leaves from coconut trees.

Swinging their torches above their heads, the kids romped in the darkness. Suddenly, though, they were surrounded.

By darting fireflies.

Phantasmal, chimeraic, the insects flickered and disappeared.

Walking in darkness, the family chattered, moving closer together, sliding further apart, ebbing and flowing with each other,

joyfully following Nature’s unexpected light as it led them from one dark place to the next.


(photo by Jason Mrachina)

If you care to share, click a square: