June 6, 2019

What we have to Hold Onto when we’re facing some Not-So-Pretty Truths.


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“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” ~ E. B. White


I am sitting in our brightly lit kitchen island, a few breakfast dishes still scattered about.

It is not yet time to plan the day, so I have a few minutes to consider that E. B. White quote and noodle in my journal.

“I really admire,” a friend once said to me, “how you can leave dishes in the sink to get your writing time in.” I looked at her blankly. It had not yet occurred to me anyone could choose otherwise.

To one side of my notebook, a single red petal is all that remains of the rose that was given to my oldest, along with all the seniors performing at their last high school orchestra concert. The petal has started to curl slightly. I love how it holds onto its own shadow, a small boat on time’s tide. I want to press it between the pages of a thick book. To save.

It’s not exactly what White was talking about in the quote above, but that urge to hold on, to preserve, to hold back what we can from the maw of time…everyone with a child graduating feels that way, I presume. Maybe you don’t need a major life transition in the family to know what I’m talking about.

These days, the world feels like it is spinning ever faster and tilting a bit—or maybe more than a bit. It hardly matters what day you read this—there will have been another shooting somewhere in the United States. People will have died and survivors will have trauma that lasts perhaps for the rest of their lives. Somewhere in the world is war, and we are involved and complicit. Somewhere a little closer, families are being forcibly separated by people who are paid to do that terrible work…and my tax dollars are supporting it.

As my pen keeps writing, I feel compelled to go deeper, beyond even the blare of the present moment, to acknowledge a vaster history.

This house, this yard, this city I have lived in for 13 years now are built on land stolen from the Ho-Chunk people. I have to face the fact that my city of Madison hasn’t yet figured out how to fix its public school achievement gap. And Wisconsin is taking too few steps to address its long history of racism and discrimination. My state has the highest incarceration rate of Black men in the nation and I repeat that to myself every day, so I remember to keep trying to do something about it.

This is the context I locate myself in. I can’t bring myself each morning to the page without also bringing that context, the fuller story, these not-so-pretty truths.

To press these facts into this essay like rose petals in a book is a form of witness, necessary context, and admission. If I’m going to continue writing, these facts and others provide the background to my words.

Once upon a time, I sat in an audience listening to a panel of authors discuss how to write violence. The advice that resonated with me the most was: focus on a detail. Want to describe a car crash? Instead of writing paragraphs of blood and gore, focus on one shattered headlight and let the reader’s imagination extrapolate. That’s what we have to work with, is the details.

Somehow, I must learn to balance that I live in a nation, a state, a city that has a blood-soaked past and present and hasn’t yet learned to face that, much less how to begin to atone for it or do the work of repair. And at the same time, my candle flickers in a spring breeze. My healthy, quirky kids head off to school well-loved and well-fed; the coffee is hot, and sweet, and good. And there’s that rose petal.

A peaceful morning is in the details just like a violent one, I guess.

Writing is a necessary witnessing. It’s also my way of saving what I love in the world, one flower petal at a time. I write “save,” but I realize I also mean “savor.”

I’m convinced we will never learn how to save a world we do not savor.

What is it we love? What is it we would save? Can we allow ourselves to savor it first?

It’s so tempting to run around in a frantic panic. Gloom and doom and urgency spill out of the radios, the screens, bleed up in the headlines. In the midst of all this, can we find time to cherish?

What I have to hold on to this morning—literally—is a mug that’s midnight blue, mottled and smooth as a turtle shell. It’s half full of lukewarm coffee with just a hint of sugar. The mug is capacious. My hands have to stretch to hold it, and I find that comforting.

Even this morning, there is enough to be glad of, and it reassures me. The world knows abundance. Stay present. Drink, before it goes cold. Write this down and hold on. Save it. Savor it.

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