Pneumonia and the Human Animal


My friend Leslie called yesterday:  “I’m worried about Hillary’s health.”  I talked over her: “Jeez, don’t worry about it. It’s walking pneumonia. The rest is just right wing blather to make her look old and doddery and frail. They gave her a big-ass dose of antibiotics. She’ll be fine.”

Leslie pressed on:  “Well I mean, last year when I had pneumonia, I had to go to bed for two weeks. I would wake up in the morning and make breakfast for the kids, and then I had to go back to bed.” I snapped back: “Well, that’s not an option.”

Then I took a breath. Oh.  When Leslie said she was worried about Clinton’s health, she didn’t mean she was politically worried.  She meant she was worried about her as a person. She was worried about the fact that Hillary Clinton must feel horrible—weak, thirsty, feverish, ready to cough up a lung—and yet she has to get up before the sun, make speeches at the top of her voice, and embrace thousands of strangers like second cousins on Thanksgiving Day. That must suck. How is it even possible?

Right. Leslie was worried about Hillary in the way that compassion dictates—concern for your fellow human.

Well, that was unimpressive. That I blew right past the suffering of this poor, overstretched woman and went right to counting votes in North Carolina. Later, after the dinner dishes were washed, I snuck a peek at the news. The CNN headline: “Hillary Clinton Stumbles–Will Her Campaign Follow?” The Washington Post led with: “Hillary Clinton’s health just became a real issue in the presidential campaign.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the crassness of overshadowing the fifteenth anniversary of the nation-stopping tragedy of 9/11 with a breathless account of a respiratory illness and consider this: Just last week, the headlines were things like:  “Clinton Campaign Wants to Humanize Hillary” and “Hillary Clinton: Campaign Attempts to Humanize Her Again.” The worst of this batch came during the Democratic Convention: “Bill Clinton Praises His Wife’s Feminine Side.” Ok, ick. And from the New York Times no less.

But here’s a news flash for all of us—members of press and members of the public alike—humans live in bodies. Humans are bodies. There is nothing more humanizing than having a head cold. No matter how hard we struggle and argue that we “don’t have time to be sick,” we don’t have a choice. We shiver and sneeze and cough until the coronaviruses run their course and decide they are done with us.

These presidential campaigns are brutal. They are inhumane. They are—indeed—unhuman in some very fundamental and creepy way. And we hate them for it. We hate the poll-tested messages, the spin rooms, the inaccessibility and craven manipulation of the electorate. We hate the size, the scale. We hate the money and the advertising. We hate the glitz and the confetti and the phony carnival of the balloon drop.

And we should. Somehow, in the deep recesses of our cynical hearts, we do know that a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires actual people. And people come with all the inconvenient frailties of the mortal, animal bodies that we’re born into. That includes head colds and menstrual cramps and poor eyesight and foggy thinking when we’re exhausted.

Of course, we can’t talk about this without taking note of the skin-crawingly gendered nature this conversation. We love to use women’s bodies—in all their glorious humanness—to question and marginalize and cast doubt on the competence of their (our) minds.(I’m thinking about Hillary Clinton’s dash to the podium after using the ladies room in an otherwise all-male debate.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched enough West Wing to know that it’s a bad idea for presidential candidates to cover up major, chronic health issues. But Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia is a chance—among many—for us to take a breath and re-set. We say we want authentic candidates—and elected officials—who represent us and who understand what we’re going through out here in the provinces as we muddle through our days sleep-deprived and rumpled and plagued by head colds. That said, though, we have to grow up. We can’t have it all. We can’t have the perfectly polished, elegantly coiffed, gaffe-less candidate who is also authentic and empathetic and real.  Real is real. And sometimes real gets a nasty case of pneumonia.


I am sure you are very nice person. But I think we must have neglected to fill you in on a little custom we practice here in Portland because you didn’t show any signs of knowing a thing about it when we met at the crosswalk this morning. The fact that our customs are unfamiliar and eccentric is as much our fault as yours as we obviously should have some kind of orientation for such things. But let me clear it up now: When we pass another human on the sidewalk here in Portland, we say “hello” or “hi” or “what’s up?” or at least give a nod of acknowledgment, one sentient being to another.


Of course all of us fall into a personal dream state now and again and fail to even see the person before us, but luckily we are snapped out of it when the other human says “hey” to us, giving us a chance to recover and offer the return greeting of our choice. There are also times where the protocol can be confusing, like when we are walking around the loop in the park and run across the same person three times. Then it’s hard to know whether to repeat the ritual each time we pass or just figure the “hi” we exchanged on the east side of the loop carries us all the way to the western edge where we meet again. And I think it’s probably fine to walk silently by somebody who is meditating on top of a picnic table or practicing qigong on the grass. I also personally avoid eye contact with couples who seem to be in a relationship-ending fight. And I get it, sometimes the pall of worry and despair can just be too great to shake off even for a moment. I also know that some personal or cultural trauma might make it just too hard to connect with a stranger in even the smallest of ways. But I will tell you this: The guys that have lived in the park for going on three seasons now, they are enthusiastic observers of this custom, offering a warm “good morning” or “God bless you” several times a day.

I don’t really say this to scold you, though your mother might be glad if I did. But I raise it because it’s become a kind of diagnostic for me to distinguish between newcomers and old timers here on the streets of Portland, and though there are Portland practices and customs that I am happy to see go, I think we should fight to keep this one alive. I’m in favor of tiny graces, of miniscule sparks of connection. Lord knows our days are hard enough, and a smile coupled with a friendly “hello” gives us a moment’s respite.

But even more than that, small greetings amongst strangers blow a little oxygen onto our civic flame. After all, sidewalks and streets and parks are quintessentially public spaces. They are not places for private envelopment or for purely individual purposes.  Sure, as we walk the sidewalks of our neighborhoods, each of us drags our personal biosphere of worry and private obsession and inner dialogue.  But meanwhile, we have a chance to encounter neighbors and fellow Portlanders and visitors and to acknowledge with a practically imperceptible nod that we are visible to one another and that we are all in this together.

These are the spaces where citizenship is practiced, with habits great and small. Of course, I don’t have any illusion that we are going to stop what we are doing and discuss the city budget or reach consensus on the presidential election, but even small gestures of hello are minute civic ceremonies that I don’t want to see go the way of daily newspapers and voting booths.

So next time you see the middle aged lady with the big white dog, let’s try it again.  Let’s look each other in the eye and say “hey.” Then we can put our headphones back in and go our separate ways.


Dearly Beloved


I just got in from driving 250 miles. I cried for about 190 of them. I woke up in Pendleton, in Northeast, Oregon, worked out, did a little writing with the plan that I would leave late morning to drive to Bend—in Central, Oregon—where I’ll be on a panel tomorrow. Before I left, I saw a Tweet that said “Prince, 57, has died.” I prayed to Good God that it was a hoax like the one I fell for when everyone was saying Jon Bon Jovi had died (not that I have any real personal investment in Jon Bon Jovi beyond the fact that he is a fellow human and seems like a perfectly lovely person and the fact that my sister has a major long-term crush on him and I would feel really sad for her). But today, I was annoyed.  What kind of craven fool spreads rumors about Prince—or anyone else—for his own pleasure? (Never mind. Don’t answer that. We are in the hot middle of a presidential campaign.)

Soon it became too widely reported to deny, and when I started to drive, I turned my internet radio to “The Current,” a station in Minneapolis I had never heard of but was playing Prince albums in chronological order interspersed with call-in remembrances. I got about halfway through Purple Rain before I was deep into Sherman County and out of cell range.  Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Oregon, I have never driven Highway 97 from Biggs Junction to Bend. It must be among the epic roads of the West. It goes from the drama of the Columbia River Gorge through the wheat fields of Sherman County—fully peppered with tremendous white windmills—to the distant views of the Cascades to the high desert of Central Oregon. As I drove, it was like the middle of that wide map of Oregon suddenly became vivid and topographical. It made me feel I am a bit of an imposter in my own state. How could it be that I smugly label myself “Oregonian” when I hadn’t even driven that highway at 70 miles an hour—let alone stopped and breathed it in—until today?

After I lost connection with my radio friends in Minneapolis, I started flipping through AM stations hoping to find someone somewhere in middle Oregon who wanted to play Prince and keep me company in my grief. Mostly I found pop country and some very friendly sounding preachers, but no Prince.

What in the world has gotten into me? Because I am a woman of a certain age, these things have happened.  Lennon, Jackson, Bowie. But this hit me right in the center of the body, and I could not stop myself from bawling—alone in a car—for about four hours.

Truth is: I am not a joyful person. From the time I was a tiny child, I spent my emotional energy worrying and fretting over whether I was doing the right thing (I recently found a note from my kindergarten teacher to my mother—Maybe if you dressed Wendy in pants more often she would be less nervous.).

I spent middle school and high school and most of college making myself half-sick over all manner of things, some important, some just insecure and self-indulgent. What if Russia launches the bomb first? Was I rude to Mr. McMahon when he said he lost my social studies paper? Did my friends decide they hated me while I was home sick with mono? Is it wrong to drop Calc III because it makes me feel like I am about to have a seizure? What is my responsibility for American imperialism in Central America? Why was I so weak as to eat that muffin?

I was never one of those girls who commanded a room with wittiness or rippled confidence in my body. I was too tall too soon and fussy and introverted and easily annoyed. I was—and am—serious and apocalyptic. But I am also warm blooded. I want to be near my fellow mammals and to take part in celebration and debauchery and unhinged joy. And that’s what Prince offered me.

I will never forget days and nights of those fraught middle years when—for a moment, or a few hours, or the length of an album—I could set down my backpack of rocks and dance and laugh and rattle my hips to suggest more than I was willing to follow through on. And Prince—more than any other artist—offered that up to me and I suspect millions of other awkward, serious girls of my generation. There was just something about the bikini underwear and thigh high boots combined with relentless percussion and morbid shyness that said: you are welcome here.

So today, as I drove relentless miles across the state I love, I fell fully into grief. I grieved for a singular artist who is gone too soon.  In ways it never has before, 57 seems like the prime of life. But I also grieved for the loss of those few years—those few hours all told—when Prince invited me to the party, and I accepted the invitation.

The Imperative of Gratitude

full moon

What a tangled up snarl of a November it has been.  On one hand, it is November! The trees shot forth their last bright flames before settling into winter bones. And I love Thanksgiving above all other holidays. Of course, there’s the food—daydreaming over recipes, returning to old favorites, jostling for the oven. But there is also the gathering together with no purpose other than conviviality and gratitude.  A call to gratitude is about as close as we get to holiness in the secular waters where I and most of my friends swim.

And yet, there is a long shadow cast over this November. Since the brutal Daesh (let’s call them that, shall we?) rampage of November 12 and 13, the media has blanketed us with terrorism reporting. Every day is filled with news of another attack, another lockdown, another shootout. This alongside the news that an Oregon college student was assaulted in a racially motivated attack over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists were shot in Minneapolis by white supremacists, and Western Washington University is closed after students of color were threatened online.  Oh and yes, our last hope for any kind of half-feasible climate agreement that might at least slow the earth’s incineration is dependent on the erstwhile leaders of the world pulling up their socks and getting down to business in Paris next week, a city that is more than a little distracted.

I’ve heard it argued that we have no business counting our bougie blessings while the world is consumed with injustice and oppression and violence. And under the circumstances, that’s a pretty compelling argument. The call to outrage and fear and retribution seems a lot more appropriate under the circumstances, and it offers our amped up limbic systems something to do. And plus, I’m kind of in love with my outrage. It makes me feel less powerless, and it obliterates all those pain-soaked emotions like confusion and heartbreak and grief. By staying high on outrage, I can keep moving at 70 miles-an-hour and not stop to feel what’s really happening.

I know that gratitude for my clannish family and home-grown squash and working hot-water heater and relative health and silly joyous pets and meaningful work and whip-smart colleagues and dry socks and a decent haircut and ridiculously thorough education and big street trees and beautifully maintained parks and clean water and fierce sparkly friends and dry firewood and books of heart-stopping poems (some written by those sparkly friends) and a watchful mountain and a curvy river and a brilliant husband and stunning daughters contrasts my abundance from the want and suffering of many of the world’s citizens.

Sometimes it’s just easier to be outraged than really feel how unjust it is that I have so much when others have so little. Yes, it’s definitely better to be infuriated than guilty and confused.

But it is a dangerous business to plunge fully into the pool of outrage. It is blinding and deafening and disconnecting. It feeds on self-righteousness and certainty and locating and demonizing the other. It whips up hysteria and loves a good mob.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a call to close looking and affection. Yes, it can tip into sentimentality and self-congratulation (which don’t look that bad in contrast with mass brutality), but gratitude also ties us to the world, even in all its brokenness. Since the Paris attacks, I have seen several people return to Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which was published in The New Yorker right after 9/11. Here it is:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(translated by Clare Cavanaugh)

Yes, there it is. Wine and strawberries and the thrush’s gray feather in the face of suffering and brutality and capriciousness. And it is not just comfort that Zagajewski offers us, it is an imperative.  We must praise the mutilated world because the future depends on the actions we take out of gratitude and connection—and, yes, love—in addition to the actions we take out of outrage and holy indignation.  I am reminded of a stunning insight by the painter and mythologist Martin Shaw: “I have not a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years.  We can’t be sure.  What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the earth itself.  If, through our own mess, that relationship is about to end, then we need to scatter as much beauty around us as we possibly can, to send a voice, to attempt some kind of repair.  I think of it as a kind of courting – a very old idea.”

So this Thanksgiving, I am challenging myself to keep the fire of righteous indignation burning while I kneel at the hearth of gratitude. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll slice the pie.


The Trouble with Tomatoes

garden 2015

I have been gardening for enough years now to make a proclamation: I have a harvesting problem. I love to be in the garden. It brings me tremendous, uncomplicated joy. I start looking at seed catalogues when it’s still dark 16 hours a day.

I love planting peas by St. Patrick’s Day and tomatoes by 4th of July. I love watching our seedlings grow and puttering around with my coffee cup and hose to make sure everything is good and damp before the sun gets too hot. I even get a jolt of destructive pleasure from ripping weeds out of the ground.

But every year, the same thing happens. I watch the cucumbers flower and the peppers sprout and the tiny tomatoes start to turn pink. And then, I lose interest. This year, we had unpicked strawberries and withering blueberries and summer squash that were left to grow to the size of school buses. The basil bolted, and there are still figs on the tree. That’s not to say that we didn’t harvest anything. We did. We ate a lot of Greek salads and Caprese sandwiches, and there were nights we relied on the garden for entire meals. I made a few blueberry pies and garnished breakfast plates with handfuls of perfect Hood strawberries. But for whatever reason—like other years—I just wandered off and don’t finish the job with the same gusto I started it with.

This, of course, is a trait I–ahem–recognize. I have drawers full of mostly done but not complete knitting projects and files of photographs sorted but not glued down in their albums and a wispy contrail of ideas in various stages of half-assed-startedness.

And truth be told, for the past few months, I have been heavily dithering over revisions to a manuscript. Dithering doesn’t even quite cover it. Opening it. closing it. Sleeping over it. Tearing it apart. Putting it back together. Crying. Complaining to anyone who will listen. But not bloody finishing it.

Last Saturday, I spent the whole day at a conference. When I came home, I was shocked to find that David had ripped out the garden. He—as he put it—was prepping it for the fall planting of kale and fava beans. He left the three winter squash plants, but it was Goodnight, Irene to the rest of it. In the process, he picked every last tomato, red and green; all the cucumbers that weren’t the size of the children, and about 1,000 chiles and other peppers.

Needless to say, I am deep into the days of blanching and freezing tomatoes, canning green tomato salsa, and lining up hot sauce jars on every flat surface. My life is like Pablo Neruda’s great Ode to the Tomato, which begins:

The street
filled with tomatoes,
the light
in two
of tomato,
the juice
through the streets.
In June
The tomato
cuts loose,
invades the kitchens,
takes over lunches,
sits down
on sideboards,
among the glasses,
the butter dishes,
the blue saltshakers.
It has
Its own light,
A benign majesty.

So, as Neruda says at near the end of the poem: “it’s time!/let’s go!” I guess I’d better take his celebration of the harvest to my stovetop and my desk and get busy, despite my leanings to the contrary.

p.s. – Here’s an easy satisfying hot sauce recipe just in case you’re in the same boat!

Master Hot Sauce Recipe
From the Bon Apetít Test Kitchen


1 pound stemmed fresh chiles (such as jalapeño, serrano, Fresno, or habanero; use one variety or mix and match)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar


Pulse chiles and kosher salt in a food processor until a coarse purée forms. Transfer to a 1-qt. glass jar, loosely screw on lid, and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours to ferment slightly.

Stir in vinegar and loosely screw on lid. Let chile mixture stand at room temperature for at least 1 day and up to 7 days. (Taste it daily; the longer it sits, the deeper the flavor becomes.)

Purée mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth, about 1 minute. Place a fine-mesh sieve inside a funnel. Strain mixture through sieve into a clean glass bottle. (Hot sauce will become thinner and may separate after you strain it; shake vigorously before each use.)

On Praying for Kim Davis

Kim Davis

I spent the last few weeks (mostly) detached from Facebook and Twitter.  I’m not taking a moral stand here. I just needed a little time to hear my own mind. The snowballing outrage that plows through social media can’t be good for the imagination. Or the limbic system.

Last night, I came back. I was glad to witness the hijinks of the hive mind. And I missed the peephole into my friends’ and colleagues’ lives even if I don’t get to see them in the flesh very often. Not surprisingly, the outrage machine was still running at full tilt, this time over Pope Francis’ private meeting with Kim Davis—the Rowan County clerk who made herself famous by refusing to issue marriage licenses in protest over same-sex marriage—and over a picture that Cheryl Strayed posted of herself with Hillary Clinton saying “IStandWithPP”(as in Planned Parenthood) and using the hashtag #pinkout.

Poor Cheryl was not only called a baby-killer, but the Bernistas also came out in force, chastising her for supporting Hillary and accusing the former Secretary of State of all kinds of nefariousness. The hissy over the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis was much bigger. My Facebook feed was filled with crestfallenness on one side and I-told-you-soishness on the other.

Pope Francis Arrives From Cuba For Visit To D.C., New York, And Philadelphia         My first thought was “Cheryl Strayed is a grown woman and a fully enfranchised citizen of this country. She gets to stand with, take photographs with, support, celebrate, drink with, or vote for anyone she pleases. So back off.”  But my feelings about the Pope and Kim Davis were more complex. I have to admit, I was disappointed. I have a well documented #popecrush. I enjoyed every second of his tour of the East Coast—riding around in a stylish black fiat, talking about economic and environmental justice, kissing babies and stopping the car to bless the suffering. For g-d’s sake, John Boehner resigned during Pope Francis’s visit. I didn’t want that magic nimbus to be punctured with an image of the people’s hero meeting and embracing that sadsack hater, Kim Davis.

But after I wrestled my limbic system out of the grips of outrage, I had to admit a few things. The first is this – Pope Francis has every bit as much agency as Cheryl does.  In the same way that she gets to put her arm around whatever damned candidate she pleases, Francis also gets to give out his special pope rosaries to whomever he wants.

But it goes deeper than that, too.  While he was here, Pope Francis also visited with prisoners in an overcrowded Philadelphia jail. In his address, he said: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.” hands

I know. It can hardly be argued that Kim Davis, though she did spend 5 days in jail for contempt of court, was swept up by the prison-industrial complex that incarcerates thousands of men of color and decimates communities. Like most of my friends in cyberspace and life, I’d rather see the Pope comforting those men than some backwater county clerk that refuses to issue marriage licenses to people who love each other. But poor ol’ Kim Davis must be suffering in her own way, too. This is not the world she signed up for. Last month, she turned 50 years old. How was she to know that the black and white world that she was born into where boys married girls and everything else was off-screen would go the way of the rabbit ears and in its place there would emerge a 3-D technicolor world where love means love and the greatest athlete on earth rocks a cocktail dress and boys paint their nails and girls go to Army Ranger school? Some people are slower to adapt than others. We know this.

I’m not suggesting that Kim Davis should not have to issue marriage licenses or that she shouldn’t be held in contempt or even that she shouldn’t have to withstand a little ridicule. But I am saying that she’s a sad, confused, failing human just like the rest of us. And just like the ones that Pope Francis has promised to minister to.

One of the things that moved me the most about the Pope’s visit was that he kept asking people to pray for him. That gesture was both humble (as John Boehner said: “Who am I to pray for the Pope?”) and entitled in the best sense of the word (It is our birthright to reach out to one another for love and succor.). As Pope Francis himself said: “To pray for a person with whom I am irritated is a beautiful step forward in love.”  I guess I’ll do just that today. For Pope Francis and for Kim Davis.

On Tempting the Fates

lightning strike

I am a great lover of beginnings. I love both New Year’s Day and my birthday (which are conveniently spaced about six months apart, giving me two opportunities a year to vow to be better, kinder, skinnier, smarter). I love mornings and even Mondays. But of all the beginnings, I think I love the first day of school most. I love the tidy backpack and the sharp pencils, the teachers who are clear-eyed and excited, the low buzz in the back of the skull that says anything is possible.

This year, I’m just not feeling it. Of course, I personally haven’t gone back to school in about two decades. Blessedly though, for more than half that time, I’ve relished the pleasures of school shopping and backpack packing and first-day jitters with my daughters. But today as we zipped out the door, I didn’t even stop to take a first-day-of-school picture.  We weren’t really in that big of a rush.  I just didn’t think about it.  They looked well-scrubbed and darling, but I didn’t remember. Because it didn’t feel like the first day of school.

Look: August 27 is no day to start a school year.  It is a Thursday. It is before Labor Day. It is in August, for god’s sake.  I know that people all over the country start school at all sorts of odd times.  But we start school in September.  That’s when civilized people go to school. They don’t go to school in August.

By submitting ourselves to this abomination, we’re once again turning our back on the fates. Labor Day means something around here. Yes yes, we celebrate the workers of the world. But it is also something else. The girls and I usually go away for a night or two. We eat junk food, vowing to eat nothing but salad until June. We set our goals and intentions for the year. We make lists. We dream about the possibilities. We come home, barbecue in the back yard, then go to bed tingling with readiness to step over the threshold.

But Americans, man. We do not respect the power of ritual. The pragmatic, the industrial, the mechanized comes first. The needs of the spirit get left in the dust. And—this year at least—I contributed to it. Around here, we also prioritized the practical—new jeans, notebooks, text books, scheduling—over any sense of occasion. I couldn’t even be bothered to pull my phone out of my purse and snap a picture.

That is bad practice. The fates need their due. So today—on this profanely early first day of school, before it gets too late in the day—here is an offering from the great Joseph Brodsky (and translated by the also great Richard Wilbur and run in the New Yorker at the turn of the millennium) for all those children who trudged off to school without the proper blessing.

XII. 1993

For a miracle, take one shepherd’s sheepskin, throw

In a pinch of now, a grain of long ago

And a handful of tomorrow. Add by eye

A little chunk of space, a piece of sky,


And it will happen. For miracles, gravitating

To earth, know just where people will be waiting,

And eagerly will find the right address

And tenant, even in a wilderness.


Or if you’re leaving home, switch on a new

Four-pointed star, then, as you say adieu,

To light a vacant world with a steady blaze.

And follow you forever with its gaze.

There. Have a great school year. Don’t get struck by lightning.


From time to time one of my friends announces she is going on a media fast. She (or sometimes he) cuts herself off from the barrage of outside stimulus in order to reconnect to her own mind or body or spirit.  While I admire the discipline, my reflexive reaction is always: I could never do that.

I wake up reading the news and often go to sleep reading it. I try to finish off the day with a novel or a poem, but I am not always that disciplined. And I won’t even tell you how many times a day I look at Twitter. It would be undignified.

Some of it is my intrinsic fear of missing something.  I worry that if I am away from my devices for more than a few hours at a time, some piece of world-changing news will have happened, and I will not have been there in the know and alert to its significance.

But some of it is something else. I feel some sort of deep obligation to bear witness to what is happening out there in the world. I feel as if—from my position of comfort and safety—the least I can do is face up to what is happening to others who live intimately with violence and repression and environmental degradation. I feel like it is my responsibility to do my very best not to bury my head in the sand.

But my resolve is weakening. There have been months of what we call “bad news”—terrorist attacks and natural disasters and police shootings and political scandals. The weight of human suffering is almost unbearable. I am willing to tolerate that though–painful as it is–in order to keep my eyes open and my heart awake.

But there is also an undercurrent of breathlessness that reeks of glee and cynicism. And that is what I find to be untenable. We don’t have a television at home, but whenever I go to a hotel room and turn on the TV, the scrolling red banner that runs under the newscaster makes my heart jump. It makes me think: Something horrible has happened. And my whole body goes on high alert. Then I remember that the red banner is always running. That the TV news gets what it needs—us—not by reporting but by creating fear and drama.  It taps right into our reptile brain, bypassing the genteel frontal cortex.

My own dear state of Oregon has been gripped by a political drama of unprecedented proportions this week. Everyone I know was glued to their phones and radios and Twitter feeds. Each hour offered a new hit of salacious gossip and blanket outrage. Every day was more surreal than the next. I found myself battered from one moment to the next and have landed—hard—in a pile of uncertainty and sadness. I have found myself unclear about how to even analyze what happened or what should have happened. I will say this:  A media driven by the need to stimulate our worst, most primal instincts at an ever-increasing speed will never serve the needs of a pluralistic, deliberative nation. It will never serve a society made up of human beings with their frailties and idiosyncracies. If everything is fair game, there will always be more to attack, to tear down.

This is not to say that I entirely blame the media. I blame the ravenous market that can never have enough – enough money, enough power, enough attention. But I also blame myself. I blame myself for my own addictions to speed, to gossip, to the adrenaline of crisis.

So maybe my friends are right.  Maybe a news fast is the right thing to do. I sure feel as if my own mind and imagination could use a break. But I also wonder if—in the marketplace of ideas—I need to make a purchasing decision. I need to take my one and only bargaining chip—my attention—out of the mix.

So while I still wholeheartedly believe that it is my—our—obligation not to turn away, I am not sure the news media is the must trustworthy intermediary between us and those who we want to honor.  I don’t trust the intentions of the news media at the moment, and I am not even sure I trust my own.

So I think I’ll join the ranks of those who take breaks from the fray. I’ll give my adrenal system and my overtaxed mind a break. And when I come back—which inevitably I will—maybe I will come back with more imagination about how we my genuinely connect, about how we might more humbly and rationally bear witness.


It was a bumpy start to the day around here. I hauled upstairs four separate times to drag the girls out of bed. Their breakfast got cold on the counter, and when they finally did come down, they picked at it, one resting her head in her hand, the other closing her eyes while she chewed. The moved through the morning routine at a snail’s pace. Between them, they must have whined I’m tired, 25 times. Finally I snapped back: We’re all tired.

And then I thought, that’s the truth, isn’t it? We’re all tired. These days, it seems as if the answer to the obligatory how are you?  is one of two things – busy or tired. I’ve written here about busy before. But why in the world are we so tired?

Of course, some of us suffer from illness or loss or are struggling to keep a family afloat on low wages with no support. But even for those of us with no excuse, there are some well-documented reasons. Recent research is making it increasingly obvious that schools start classes way too early and that teenagers would both learn more and be less likely to crack up their cars if we started school just a little later. Study after study also shows that Americans—and many others, particularly the Japanese—don’t get enough sleep.

I know I don’t get enough sleep. I willingly trade an extra hour under the duvet for the quiet dark of the house where I can think my own thoughts and brew a cup of tea before the rush of gathering lunch and homework begins, before the email starts flowing in earnest.

But all that said, I can’t help but think that part of our tiredness—the exhaustion we feel all the way to our bones—is more than just lack of sleep.  I can’t help but think that the human organism is overwhelmed by the whole too muchness of things. Too much work, too much stuff, too much email, too many demands, too many bills, too many must-read articles, too many school forms, too many life-changing books, too many songs to download, too many helpful hints, too many choices of barbecue sauce. Too many, too much.

I have taken Gallup’s StrengthsFinder test a couple of different times, and both times I have scored off the charts on “Input.” This is how they describe it: “People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” You can imagine what this looks like in the information age. I could spend 24-hours a day scratching the input itch. Thankfully my children need to be driven to school

A psychiatrist who studies information overload, E.M. Hallowell, has identified what he calls Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT:

It isn’t an illness; it’s purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live….When a manager is desperately trying to deal with more input than he possibly can, the brain and body get locked into a reverberating circuit while the brain’s frontal lobes lose their sophistication, as if vinegar were added to wine. The result is black-and-white thinking; perspective and shades of gray disappear. People with ADT have difficulty staying organised, setting priorities, and managing time, and they feel a constant low level of panic and guilt.’

Difficulty staying organized? Check.  Setting priorities? Check.  Constant low level of panic and guilt? Check and check. But I don’t think it’s just me. Everyone I know seems to be fighting this battle in form or another. Everyone—as I rudely snapped at my daughters—is tired.

In those precious hours when I am awake and alone with my tea, I seek solace both in the silence of the dark and in the slow reading of poems. There are so many talented poets who have nailed the pacing and freneticism of contemporary life. They are masterful at the jump cut, the darting mind, the threat of the isolation and fragmentation. And I admire them and am grateful for their commentary. But I don’t seek solace with them. No. I am looking for the singular voice, speaking from her–or his–dark kitchen straight into mine. I am searching for a mind still intact. I am straining for a human voice—fleshy and tremorous and undigitized.

Blessedly, there is always warm comfort in Neruda’s Odes, like the “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground”:

Out of the bristling foliage

You fell


polished wood,

glistening mahogany,


as a violin that has just

been born in the treetops

and falls

And Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “A Gilded Lapse of Time”:

I lower my foot

As if a holy stream were running past,

As if the puddle held a rain-bright cross,

Then reach down to touch

This fragment of the northern hemisphere,

To riffle and disturb

An empty place the rain is rending,

A hole spreading above the world,

A drift of dark reflected—

And Derek Walcott’s “Bleecker Street, Summer”:

Summer for prose and lemons, for nakedness and languor,

for the eternal idleness of the imagined return,

for rare flutes and bare feet, and the August bedroom

of tangled sheets and the Sunday salt, ah violin!

When I press summer dusks together, it is

a month of street accordions and sprinklers

laying the dust, small shadows running from me.

Because I am all about input, now I have to ask: What are the poems that bring you comfort? That slow your breathing? That make you feel just a little less tired?

Shaimaa el Sabbagh In Memory of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh

1984 – January 24, 2015

Who will honor the city without a name
If so many are dead and others pan gold
Or sell arms in faraway countries?
-Czesław Miłosz

Like millions of Americans, I woke up on Wednesday to a front-page photo of a man carrying a mortally wounded young woman across a Cairo street. Oddly, I hadn’t heard a thing about the story despite the fact that the photograph—and the others that accompanied it—had already captured the attention of much of the rest of the world. The young woman was Egyptian mother, poet and folklorist, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. The young man was her friend, Sayyed Abu el-Ela, a lawyer and activist. On the afternoon of January 24, Shaimaa and Sayyed and their friends were part of a small demonstration intent on delivering flowers to Tahrir Square in remembrance of the fourth anniversary of Arab Spring. The police fired on the group, Shaimaa was hit, and she ultimately died on the street in Cairo.

Shaimaa 2

Shaimaa is one of thousands of Egyptians who have been killed by police since the 2011 uprising, including 17-year old Sondos Reda, who was killed the same day as Shaimaa at a demonstration in Alexandria. As we mourn the deaths of Sondos and Shaimaa, we can’t help but also recall the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, also at the hands of the police.

Since I first saw the images and started reading about Shaimaa, I cannot get her out of my mind. I can’t stop thinking about her five-year-old son, Bilal, and about her friends who held her as she died. Shaimaa was doing what poets do—using the power of metaphor to re-assert individual memory and spirit  into what seems a chaotic and inhuman system. She was carrying flowers into the public square to honor the dead. She was speaking the symbolic language of remembrance and hope and rebirth. And she was shot down in broad daylight in the process.

In the cascade of daily tragedy, it is tempting to succumb to the series of “yes buts.” Yes but Shaimaa’s death was not as brutal or violent or horrific as this other act of brutality or violence or horror. Yes but this killing was not as ruthless as the one that happened two weeks ago or yesterday or this morning. Yes but Shaimaa was not tortured quite as torturously, so we dismiss her death as not quite as senseless and not quite as deserving of our attention and move on to the next horrific tragedy.

I am stepping out of the yes but stream. I am declaring my refusal to participate in the ranking of brutality. Not only is it soul-crushing, but it incentivizes those who trade in shock and terror to become ever more imaginative and callous in their campaign of broadcast thuggery.

Rather, I am going to look to Shaimaa’s life—and her sacrifice in death—as a window into the wondrousness that is the human spirit. One of the things I most want to remember about Shaimaa is that she once spent months touring the Nile Delta studying and writing about traditions and practices for making flatbread. And that in November, she supervised students who studied and performed the traditional Alexandrian dances that surround a birth. And that she wrote an ode to her lost handbag:

What might she be feeling right now
Maybe scared?
Or disgusted from the sweat of someone she doesn’t know
Annoyed by the new streets?
If she stopped by one of the stores we visited together
Would she like the same items?
Anyway, she has the house keys
And I am waiting for her

I am going to remember that she chose to celebrate the small rituals that give humans meaning in the face of turmoil and murder.shaimaa 3 I am going to remember that she was courageous not just on the day that she carried flowers through the streets of Cairo but on all the days before when she stood for what is life-giving in the face of what is brutal and destructive.
Last year, Tilda Swinton gave a talk at the Rothko chapel where she said: I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to ourselves. Shaimaa el-Sabbagh spent her all-too-short life on the side of dissolving injustice and mending hope, and that is how I am going to remember her.

There are no platitudes to offer a five year old whose mother was murdered as she laid down flowers of remembrance. To quote Pope Francis on his recent trip to vissilenceit victims of the hurricane in the Philippines: “All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.”

But for poets—in the United States and abroad—silence is exactly what we cannot keep. We cannot keep silence while journalists are being beheaded and arrested, while cartoonists are being executed in their offices, while poets are being shot down in the street. We must keep making and writing and painting. We must keep protesting and laying flowers down as offerings. We must stand for that which creates in the face of so much that destroys. We must stand on the side of mending what is broken. We must stand with Shaimaa.