I’ve given up writing fiction. Well, I’m finally admitting to myself I gave up quite a while ago.
I had a number of short stories published many years ago, most in print publications which no longer exist. And I still have two partially written novels deep in the basement of my Word docs. The characters are no longer alive for me, although once they were so present that I could see through their eyes as well as my own.
All this time I hung on to a stack of notebooks filled with dialogue, character sketches, drawn and re-drawn place maps, plot development notes, and other fiction vitals which I never even got around to typing into my works-in-progress files. Or, more accurately, works no longer in progress. I flipped through those notebooks today while reorganizing (which I was doing to avoid an actual writing deadline) and admitted to myself my half-written novels are dead. They’ve been dead for a very long time.
I expected to feel sad. After all, my characters never got to dance through the dramas I invented for them or which, more accurately, it seemed they dictated to me. I expected to feel guilty too. In my busiest years I got up early or stayed up late to write hundreds of thousands of words, yet still didn’t have sufficient attention span or vision to finish writing those novels.
Instead I am simply relieved. The silent weight of these must-get-around-to manuscripts is gone. Once, the secret worlds of these novels accompanied me so closely I felt I was living several lives simultaneously. But no more. Time to let them go.
I dumped the books in the recycling bin without a farewell wave, not even a tang of nostalgia. Turns out the freedom to give up on projects feels liberating. I like to believe I’m making space for projects closer to my heart. I’m going to let those ideas stretch out into this new space and see what happens.
“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft ,and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall—the shops—are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.” ~Caitlin Moran
It’s downright magical to start reading a new library book and realize it’s a really good one. Like the magic of running errands and every traffic light is green, only a million times better. Lately, nearly every book I’ve brought home from the library has been one of those immersive delights. Good books are downright soul-saving for me in a time when the world’s news is so dire. The last few weeks I savored (among others) Richard Power’s Bewilderment, Javier Zamora’s Solito, Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires, Anthony Almojera’s Riding The Lightning, and Sharon Blackie’s Hagitude. Compelling, immersive, and entirely free to enjoy thanks to my local library.
Libraries have been a constant in my life from the time I learned to read. I’ve written about why I’m a library addict and the concept of library angels and how libraries changed lives. Libraries are unique public spaces, existing entirely for the common good.
As many have noted, if public libraries weren’t already part of our society, the concept would be considered an outrageous and dangerously liberal idea.
History tells us the first modern public library in the U.S. opened in 1833, in Peterborough New Hampshire, based on the radical notion that books should be made available to all classes. Before that time there were plenty of libraries run by social clubs or academic organizations, but available only to fee-paying members. Historian James Truslow Adams, who popularized the term “the American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America, wrote that the public library is the “perfect concrete example” of the American Dream in action.
But of course, that’s not the whole story. During the Reconstruction Era and beyond, Black Americans established more than 50 literary and library societies in Northern cities. One example is the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, founded in 1833. Another is the Louisville Western Branch Library in Louisville, Kentucky — the first public library in the U.S. run by and serving Black patrons. At that time, and well after, nearly all public libraries excluded Black people from borrowing books, oftentimes even from entering the building. Full access to public libraries came about through brave desegregation efforts (often by students) although whites-only libraries weren’t abolished by federal law until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The U.S. also has an ugly history of book banning. The first book banned here was by Thomas Morton, who arrived in Massachusetts with the Puritans, but didn’t appreciate their strict rules. In 1637 he published a volume so critical of the Puritans that he compared them to crustaceans. They banned his book.
In the centuries since, all sorts of books have been banned, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to comic books. Pen America reports that in the eleven months between July 2021 to June 2022, there were 2,532 instances of individual books being banned in school libraries and classrooms across 32 states. This is the result of concerted effort by 50 groups pushing for book bans, the majority of these groups formed in the last year. These “parents’ rights” groups seem like grassroots efforts, but are actually instigated and funded by wealthy conservative donors.
These deeply undemocratic efforts are part of a larger effort to control what students learn as well as what teachers can discuss. There are, in many places, new “soft censorship” rules requiring young people to get parental permission to read certain books or get parental signatures for new opt-in policies. Some schools are forming committees or hiring consultants to “review” every book for “appropriateness.” In other places, books are quietly removed from shelves to avoid vehement anti-book activists.
This is a crisis. As the Prindle Post (a publication examining ethical issues) reports,
Throughout the summer, armed Idaho citizens showed up at library board meetings at a small library in Bonners Ferry to demand that a list of 400 books be taken off of the shelves. The books in question were not, in fact, books that this particular library carried. In response to the ongoing threats against the library, its insurance company declined to continue to cover them, citing increased risk of violence or harm that might take place in the building. The director of the library, Kimber Glidden, resigned her position in response to the situation, citing personal threats and angry armed protestors showing up at her private home demanding that she remove the “pornography” from the shelves of her library.
This behavior is far from limited to the state of Idaho. In Oklahoma, Summer Boismier, an English teacher at Norman High School was put on leave because she told her students about UnBanned — a program out of the Brooklyn Country Library which allows people from anywhere in the country to access e-book versions of books that have been banned. The program was designed to fight back against censorship and to advocate for the “rights of teens nationwide to read what they like, discover themselves, and form their own opinions.” Boismier was put on leave after a parent protested that she had violated state law HB1775 which, among other things, prohibits the teaching of books or other material that might make one race feel that they are worse than another race…
Many states have passed laws banning books with certain content, and that content often involves race, feminism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. And prosecutors in states like Wyoming have considered bringing criminal charges against librarians who continue to carry books that their legislatures have outlawed.
Book Riot suggests all sorts of ways to stand up to book banners. One is to form anti-censorship alliances. This can be as casual as agreeing to take regular action with friend who also cares about access to book.
Support your local libraries — patronize your library and vote to approve library levies. Consider joining a friends of the library group or putting your name in to serve on the library board.
Let your local press know this is a topic you want investigated and reported.
Post about your book access concerns on social media.
Support students’ right to read in school by making your views known to the school board and reviewing any new district policies relating to book “appropriateness.” Join the PTA or other school parent organizations and keep the book access topic open.
Access to books is already increasingly limited for today’s young people. The high school “library” serving my rural community is used as a study hall as well as to charge tablets. The shelves offer a paltry selection of books, with new volumes rarely purchased. There are 20 percent fewer school librarians compared to ten years ago with three in ten school districts lacking even a single librarian. School libraries and public libraries were a lifeline for me in my growing-up years. It’s hard to imagine that simple freedom restricted for today’s youth.
“Libraries matter for the same reason parks matter. Because to blossom, human beings need public spaces that enable play, freedom and social contact without any ties to consumption. Think about it for a moment: there aren’t that many left. All we see in the street is for sale, pushing us to measure ourselves by how much we can own instead of how much we can feel and think and imagine. A library is a contemporary haven in that sense. A place that holds a million doors into a million worlds, and they’re all at your reach. For free.” ~Laia Jufresa
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~Desmond Tutu
It’s heartening to see people pulling together, even if many recognize they have few other choices right now. Parents, students, healthcare workers, and community groups are building DIY portable air filtering units to help prevent transmission of the devastating airborne pathogen Covid-19 as well as the colds and flu that spread so easily in indoor spaces.
Plus, filtration helps to mitigate the damaging health effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in common products such as carpet/furniture/flooring, cleaners, room deodorizers, disinfectants, personal care products, solvents, paints, pesticides, dry-cleaned clothing, copiers, aerosol sprays, and other materials present in the home, school, stores, and elsewhere. VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat problems; headaches; impaired coordination; nausea; damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system; and many are suspected carcinogens.
One way of assessing indoor ventilation is by ‘air changes per hour’ (ACH) — the number of times that all the air in the room has been replaced (ideally, by outdoor air). CDC and ASHRAE guidelines note typical ACH rates.
Hospital operating rooms are expected to stay at 20 or better ACH.
Hospital airborne isolation rooms are kept at 12 ACH or greater.
Hospital patient rooms are often around 6 ACH.
Classrooms are typically well under 2 ACH.
Home ventilation is often less than 1 ACH.
A recent study found indoor space with air exchanged five times per hour can cut the risk of Covid transmission by 50 percent. Another study compared classrooms without ventilation to those with controlled mechanical ventilation. It found better ventilation could reduce the risk of Covid infection in schools by 40 percent with two to four air changes per hour, and nearly 83 percent with six air changes per hour. And this study shows that 12 air changes per hour from air filtration may approximate N95 protection.
In active response to this data, people are putting together inexpensive filters to better equip their communities to ward off infection and other effects of trapped indoor air. Many are building inexpensive Corsi-Rosenthal box fan filters (C-R Box) which arose from an online collaboration between Richard Corsi, dean of engineering at University of California, Davis and Jim Rosenthal, owner of an air filtration company in Texas.
Fortune interviewed Joseph Fox, chair of the indoor air quality advisory group with the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. Dr. Fox said, “These Corsi-Rosenthal units use MERV-13 filters, which can only remove 60% to 80% of those particles, (but) the fan on the C-R box is much bigger and can clean more air. All you care about in the end is the total rate at which the air is cleaned. So, what the C-R box lacks in efficiency, it makes up for in airflow.” A peer-reviewed study found the C-R Box performed better than standard HEPA air cleaning units.
These models are about ten times cheaper than commercial air purifiers. There are many resources online, including what air filter brands to avoid and how to use a round fan when square models aren’t an option. Here’s more science plus additional how-to’s from the collaborative Edge Collective.
Better air filtration shouldn’t be left to community members. It should be a priority in new builds and renovations, guided by more stringent building codes to protect public health. It should be part of a robustly-funded countrywide initiative for schools, daycare centers, public buildings, senior facilities, libraries, shelters for unhoused people, and other gathering places. But right now, the DIY filtration movement is led by students, teachers, parents, and other concerned community members.
A group in Philadelphia is building units for classrooms and speaking up at school board meetings to spread awareness.
Arizona State University students are building boxes to donate to area K through 12 schools. They’re also teaching younger students how to build the boxes themselves.
These box fan filters are a project elementary school-age students can do together. In Kansas, the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force offers guidance for doing this with groups of children (school classes, scout groups, 4H, and others) including how to incorporate it into STEM curricula.
Alex LeVine designs similar filtration boxes using inexpensive illuminated computer fans lively enough to feature in many businesses.
Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said in an interview with the LA Times, “When cholera ravaged Europe and North America in the 19th century, people ‘revolutionized sewage’ by creating the modern sewage system. They could have just said, ‘Boil your water.’ But they didn’t do that. They gave people clean drinking water.” He went on to say, “Ensuring clean air indoors is the 21st century equivalent.”
“Breathe deep today, and continue walking toward that which will enlighten, no matter what burdens you are carrying of shame, grief, or fear. No one can buy their way or push their way ahead of everyone else. We are all in this together.” ~Joy Harjo
I was on my way home after a medical appointment, wrapped the quiet sort of reverie that comes from driving a long-familiar route. The car ahead of me applied its brakes and went around a slow-moving obstacle just over a rise in the road. I expected a farm tractor, bicyclist, or carcass of an unfortunate deer but couldn’t confirm till I made it over that hill. When I did, I saw what I could only describe as a contraption. It looked like the square hood of an Amish buggy (common site around here) stretched over a small metal frame. Attached to the back was a hand-lettered sign with words nearly too faded to read.
Blinkers on, I passed carefully on the 55-mph road, trying to decipher the sign. It said something like “Walking To California.” And there, pulling the cart, was a man. I didn’t get a good glimpse, but enough to see he looked dusty and road-weary. He had at least another 45 minutes of walking before he’d get to a place where he might buy food or drink. If he stayed on this route he’d have many days of walking a two lane road passing little more than farms, struggling businesses, and homes built on former farmland.
“Pull over,” my heart told me.
There wasn’t any place to pull over. I drove on slowly, waiting for a turnoff where I might wait for him to catch up. But then what? I wanted to ask if he’d like a homecooked meal and a shower. Surely his cart could fit in my trunk. My husband was home, so I didn’t pause to worry about the lone woman and strange man thing, instead I thought about what I had in the refrigerator.
As I looked for a place to stop, half of me argued with the other half. My heart told me it takes rare courage to do what this man is trying to do. I wondered what fueled his quest. Maybe a pilgrimage of sorts, or an outgrowth of loss, or a creative venture, or a personal challenge. Maybe a quest to answer for himself what Einstein called the most important question facing humanity, “Is the universe a friendly place?”
“Pull over!” my heart kept saying.
But my mind’s voice reminded me this traveler might also be carrying Covid-19.
My husband and I have medical conditions that make us more vulnerable to the virus. We continue to be careful during a pandemic that has not gone away. Although media and government sources assure us it’s safe to get back to normal, stats show the last seven days there were nearly three thousand Covid deaths in the U.S., a 911-level loss of life per week. As of September 18th, there are now 464 deaths per day, which will move the weekly toll even higher. These numbers can’t possibly hint at the suffering and grief on a planet that has lost 6.53 million souls to this disease since early 2020.
In the last two and a half years, my husband and I have lost irreplaceable time with family members. We have not hosted our beloved house concerts here, or eaten once inside a restaurant together, or gone into any building without a mask. That is, until last week. All this time I’ve been completing editing jobs at home and teaching writing classes via Zoom. But my newest series of classes are, per the regulations of the institution offering them, in person. I walked in the first day wearing my KN95 mask. I set up the room and greeted the first few students. But about ten minutes before class started, two older students told me they couldn’t hear me with my mask on. I dithered for a moment (dithering is one of my most practiced abilities), then took off my mask. I reasoned I could leave the doors open for ventilation and the classroom, posted as large enough to hold 100 people while we were only 20, was roomy enough to confer extra protection. I’d also gotten the most recent bivalent booster. We’ll all be safe, I told myself. I’m still not sure about that.
Now I was considering this additional risk.
I thought of pulling over to offer this man help that didn’t involve an invitation to our home. I could offer him whatever I had in my wallet, although a quick assessment showed I had only two dollars. Okay, I could ask him if he’d share his story and a cell number so I could offer to call local media to help him get coverage. And contact area churches to see if they might want to alert congregations along the way who might host him. Heck, I could simply say hello, welcome him to this part of Ohio, and listen to what he had to say. By this time I was nearly home. I decided to brainstorm solutions with my husband, then drive back along the same route until I spotted the man.
I was convinced at this point that I had a soul-deep need to respond to this traveler. This urge, as I understand it, is deeply embedded in who we are as a species. I mean, come on, it’s there in belief systems around the world.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1
“The husband and wife of the house should not turn away any who comes at eating time and asks for food. If food is not available, a place to rest, water for refreshing one’s self, a reed mat to lay one’s self on, and pleasing words entertaining the guest–these at least never fail in the houses of the good.” Hinduism. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2
“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Judaism, Exodus 22:20
“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” Islam. Quran 4:36
“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137
“The heavenly food is needed successively; be thou a server of the food and direct thou the people of the world to present themselves at that table and guide them to partake thereof.” Baha’I (Abdu’l-Baha)
“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu.
But, despite my strong conviction, my husband informed me I was nuts. He made rather pointed arguments to support his contention that one does not stop to talk to strangers on the side of the road, let alone bring them home, pandemic or no pandemic. I briefly wondered if I’d married the wrong man, although our differences make our lasting partnership work. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was foolhardy hubris for me to think I should do anything other than let a stranger live his life while I live mine. I didn’t get in the car and head back to greet the traveler.
I believe there are essential friendships never made and significant soul promptings never answered because we don’t make time, or don’t feel ready, or harbor fear, or simply let life’s everydayness block us from what might be. We never find out how these unexplored connections might answer one another’s deepest questions. I still regret not listening to my heart.
I wake this morning to soft rain and lie there a few extra moments grateful that our flower and vegetable gardens are drinking in this blessing, until I remember horrific flooding going on right now in Pakistan with 33 million affected and over a thousand dead. In just the last few weeks torrential rains have killed people in Afghanistan, Sudan, China, Yemen, and South Korea. At the same time, others suffer mightily with drought including other areas of China, countries in the Horn of Africa, two-thirds of Europe, and nearly half of the U.S. All is this is brought on or intensified by climate change and about to get worse. A new study in Nature Climate Change says it’s now inevitable that 110 trillion tons of ice will melt in Greenland. This would cause a foot of sea-level rise. This doesn’t even include additional sea-rise from melting ice in Antarctica. Worse yet, the study doesn’t “factor in any additional greenhouse gas emissions” so it’s actually a current best-case scenario. Already we’re experiencing catastrophic storms, floods, and droughts worse than what climate models predicted. That foot high sea-rise could end up as a 20-foot rise if we don’t turn things around very, very quickly.
I get up to let out the dogs and make coffee. I quietly appreciate my dear spouse who kneels on the kitchen floor trying to entice our 16-year-old dog to eat a few morsels of meat which my husband regularly buys and cooks for him. I look out the window, delighted to spot a great blue heron in the pond.
I try to stay in the moment, just watching this creature’s prehistoric-looking countenance and admirable patience as it waits to spear a fish, but here it comes again, my awareness of what we’re doing to this beautiful planet. Nearly half the world’s bird species are in decline due to degradation of their habitats as well as to climate change. In North America alone the bird population has dropped by nearly three billion birds, a decline of 29 perfect since 1970.
Okay, I’m going to stop with the reality overflow. I simply want to acknowledge this is how the day goes for many of us. We’re fully enmeshed in our ordinary lives — getting to work on time, stopping at the grocery store, making supper, keeping up with family and friends, trying to pay bills, hoping to get a better night’s rest than the night before. At the same time we carry the weight of guilt and anxiety over the state of the planet.
E.B. White, author of much beloved books such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, as well as The Elements of Style co-author, once said, “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.” I have to disagree with the late Mr. White. I don’t think we can save it without truly, wholeheartedly savoring it.
Savoring, for me, is about awe. It’s about seeing relationships between what is and sensing the expansiveness of what’s just beyond our rational minds. It’s about connection. It’s about what my friend John C. Robinson calls partnering with Creation.
For many, many generations we humans have been told we are separate from our past, our bodies, our communities, our inner promptings. Even more unbelievably, we’re told we are separate from Earth itself. We’re told its normal on this planet to extract what we want from the labor of others, even from the natural resources essential for future generations. We’re told life is a competition, a constant struggle to ensure our needs are met. Maybe we’re also told we should advocate for others, typically those so similar to us that they share a religion or a language or zipcode. The materialistic “needs” of some impair the very essential needs of others for food, water, shelter, medical care, and justice. This spoken and unspoken worldview is pressed into our awareness from the time we are small children. It doesn’t have to be this way.
And this offering of this poem of mine about connection, recently published inAbout Place Journal.
“Language is a tailor’s shop where nothing fits.” – Rumi
I can’t fit words around a feeling I carry sweeter than sadness sliding past the shape of questions. As I snip parsley from its blue pot I consider how each injury a leaf suffers triggers an electric charge, the way an alarm flashes as a building is breached.
When very young I knew for sure everything was its own kind of awake. Honeysuckle vine and bees visiting it. Air trapped in a room, the room itself. Dark watchful eyes of animals, wild speech of water, still presence of stone. Everything, far into unseen universes, awake beyond our small knowing.
Although thank is too weak a word I want to thank this parsley plant. Is it enough to notice each leaf’s symmetry before the soft green shush under my scissors? Is it enough to taste the transfiguration we call photosynthesis? I can’t put it into words, but can almost summon lost memories of an original language we once held in common.
My last few minutes have been immersive and joyful (synonyms!). It began with this hurdy-gurdy video.
I clicked on it partly out of curiosity and partly to override the moment’s earworm. While it played I looked up how much a used hurdy-gurdy costs and where I might find hurdy-gurdy lessons. I imagined myself playing in a quiet part of a Renaissance faire in a long period dress I made myself, or maybe playing between the readings of tolerant poets. John Holt’s bookNever Too Latecame to mind. He wrote about learning to play the cello at age 40, putting it down, then taking it up again more seriously at 50. This would be good for me, I told myself, then immediately recalled other good-for-me schemes I’ve never hatched due to bare-bones frugality and my roller coaster-shaped motivation
A moment came to mind. It was in Cleveland’s downtown district and I was five years old. There on a sidewalk I saw what my grandmother told me was an organ grinder. The man played music by turning a crank on a clever device. He was wearing an old-fashioned vest and hat. Attached to him with a rope was a small monkey wearing a tiny version of the same vest, holding out a tiny hat for people’s coins. I was pretty sure I’d stepped into magic for real this time. My mother wouldn’t give me anything to put in its hat and quickly pulled us away from “that filthy animal.” I’d already watched long enough to see the man had a dour expression and the monkey’s eyes were sad. I asked a lot of questions about that monkey, until grown-ups got tired of answering. Then I thought many more questions silently.
This reminded me of a picture book I used to read to my kids, Perfect The Pig, where a darling flying pig is captured by a man who makes him perform. That book ends well, probably far better than that long-ago monkey’s fate. My mind inexorably shifted to the plight of the smart, intelligent creatures we confine in crates on massive pig farms so I did what I could for animals in my care by letting the dogs out.
I did so while singing them an impromptu version of Lennon’s Let It Be, which easily lent itself to new lines in a rendition most accurately titled, Let Us Pee. While waiting on the porch I listened to birds and wondered if we’d seen the last oriole, at least until next spring. I imagined the fortitude it takes to fly 1,000 or more miles and sighed for my lack of comparable tenacity. Still waiting for the dogs’ perambulations to end, I deadheaded some flowers wet with dew. Their dampness led me to consider how all the water on Earth has been here since the planet’s birth, meaning these drops of water have been dinosaur blood, ocean waves, rain, tears, and thunderstorms. This led me to wonder, as I occasionally do, about quantum entanglement. I’m fascinated by so much of what I don’t understand, which means just about everything seems fascinating to me. I dearly want to ask an expert if every particle isn’t already entangled with every other particle.
On the way back in with the dogs a spam call jingled my phone. I made myself a second cup of coffee, decaf thanks to cardiac issues. (Caffeinated sympathy welcome.) I told myself “This will be a day of accomplishment,” which is my usual 7 am delusion. I reviewed my wildly optimistic to-do list, fully aware I couldn’t possibly catch up with manuscripts to review, emails to answer, submissions to read, and classes to plan on top of non-work things like tending our vegetable gardens and giant hoop house verdant with plants I started under grow lights back in early April’s optimism. (I love to-do lists even if mine aren’t all that interesting compared to, say, DaVinci‘s.) I do not have time to fritter away, although I do fritter. Within a few minutes, my desktop had 11 tabs open.
This is a typical ten-minute span of my life. I was never in any danger of taking up the hurdy-gurdy.
I was told I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by the psychologist interviewing my then seven-year-old son quite some time ago. (It appears a third to a half of children with ADHD have at least one parent with it too). Although teachers and other authorities treated his diagnosis as a problem, I explained to my son his was a different way of being, explaining that humanity has always benefitted from the gifts now labeled a “deficit.”
In deep history, our species thrived, in part, because some people in their tribes were drawn to closely observing/predicting patterns– in weather and environment, plant and animal behavior, signs of conflict in the group –people uniquely attentive to detail yet attuned to the bigger picture. The “wanderlust gene” drd4/7r is associated with ADHD and, in our long human history, may have driven cultural change as this subset of people were drawn to new ideas, different solutions, and new areas to explore. This gene regulates traits such as motivation, thrill-seeking, and risky behavior. It’s also related to a longer lifespan.
22 reoccurring personality traits of creative people. This included 16 “positive” traits (e.g., independent, risk-taking, high energy, curiosity, humor, artistic, emotional) and 6 “negative” traits (e.g., impulsive, hyperactive, argumentative). In her own review of the creativity literature, Bonnie Cramond found that many of these same traits overlap to a substantial degree with behavioral descriptions of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)– including higher levels of spontaneous idea generation, mind wandering, daydreaming, sensation seeking, energy, and impulsivity.
Research since then has supported the notion that people with ADHD characteristics are more likely to reach higher levels of creative thought and achievement than people without these characteristics… Recent research by Darya Zabelina and colleagues have found that real-life creative achievement is associated with the ability to broaden attention and have a “leaky” mental filter– something in which people with ADHD excel.
Recent work in cognitive neuroscience also suggests a connection between ADHD and creativity… Both creative thinkers and people with ADHD show difficulty suppressing brain activity coming from the “Imagination Network“
Yet we’ve pathologized this way of being, largely because it doesn’t fit as well in the narrow model of school or workplace. The very things we define as problems are instead vital aspects of human diversity
I thought of my own probable diagnosis as little more than a funny way to explain my messy desk and tendency to take on too many project. The few times I read about adult ADHD or clicked online “do you have ADHD?” self-tests, I didn’t fit into many of their problem behavior lists. I’ve made the bed every morning since I was very young. Other than my desk, my home is pretty neat. I put laundry away and make regular healthy meals and water my plants on a schedule. I assumed I didn’t have it after all. Then, a few years ago, a doctor confirmed I indeed had ADHD– the inattention type. “I can recognize it,” she said, “almost immediately. There’s a different energy in the room, a brightness, not to mention how you bring in so many aspects of a topic.” I liked having this called “a brightness.” (I have never before or since been affirmed for bringing in so many aspects of a topic.)
I recently learned that ADHD is related to my laughable clumsiness. I’ve lived in the same place for 24 years yet still stub my toes on furniture, catch my sleeves on door handles, knock books on the floor. I have so many stories of my clumsiness that my memoir, if I write one, should include the word “awkward” in the title. ADHD is related to my spatial reasoning issues, which explains why I try my darnest yet still can’t reliably transfer leftovers to an appropriately sized container and has to do with why I so easily get lost.
ADHD (and introversion) likely have to do with why I’m too jazzed up to sleep after even the mildest social event. It probably explains how energized I am by conversations, brainstorming, reading, and teaching. These are flow states for me. I focus relentlessly when reading and, when I’m lucky, writing. This isn’t well-regulated attention, but differently-regulated attention. I was the kid who read so intently she often didn’t notice the class had moved from free-reading time to math. I’m the adult who missed a connecting flight because of a good book.
I don’t have the high energy characteristic of the “hyperactive” part of this diagnosis, even though my mother called me a “wigglewump” when I was a child and my kindie report card gave me all smiles except one no-smile for “sits still.” These last few years of Skype calls and Zoom meetings have truly outed me. Now I’m forced to see myself as others see me. I itch, I shift, I look away, I drink water, I make more dramatic facial expressions than those who more calmly inhabit their virtual squares. I work hard to keep myself still. What helps me do that is movement no one can see —a foot rotating in a figure eight under the desk, lifting my legs from the chair, tightening and releasing my muscles — all to keep me present. That said, I have no trouble teaching via Zoom, especially teaching memoir writing. I can focus all day without a problem because I find people and their stories endlessly fascinating.
Emotional dysregulation can be a part of ADHD. I don’t suffer from rages or meltdowns, but whew, I’ve struggled my whole life to manage how fully my body floods with emotion while those around me seem fine. Girls and women with ADHD often mask by teaching themselves to downplay their emotions as well as minimize their movements to more acceptable ones—they chew gum, fuss with their hair, twist a ring, change posture—while boys and men are less inhibited, move more openly, and express (at least negative) emotion more freely.
I’ve been trying to fix these aspects of myself for decades. I’ve had dozens of articles published about mindfulness and adopted (then dropped) all sorts of practices to help me slow down my busy mind. I do inhabit my moments, often get immersed in my moments, but it’s a comfort to know that my skittering mind isn’t something in need of repair. It is the way I’m made. Non-linear attention lets me see all sorts of interrelationships between disparate ideas. This can’t help but shows me paradoxes and patterns that help me generate new approaches. The drawback is this doesn’t lead to clear path forward and it can really antagonize those firmly in the doing-things-the-way-they’ve-always-been-done camp. It probably explains my weird sense of humor. It’s also why I have started dozens of writing projects that, with some sustained focus, could be finished – yet instead my focus drifts to ever-newer projects.
I can only speak for myself, but all the charts, apps, and other attention hacks don’t help me. Instead they handcuff me to the stress-inducing norms of a commodified culture, where productivity and not character are the measure of a life. My son’s ADHD, by the way, didn’t impair his learning in any way once we took him out of school. In fact, it likely enhanced it.
There are other issues associated with ADHD including recklessness and addiction, but I wonder how much of this is the result of schools and workplaces poorly designed for anyone but some mythical standard person. Those who fit in, who are able to mirror back preferences held by those in charge, are “normal” while those of us who are different are expected to deal with our “disorder” or “deficit” by fixing ourselves. Yet, diversity is a bedrock of compassionate, innovative communities. All living beings on this planet demonstrate that biodiversity is essential for life to survive and flourish. Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who describes herself as one of the many women in her family somewhere on the autism spectrum, was first to call this neurodivergence — a term that beautifully acknowledges there are many different, necessary, and valid ways of being.
Salif Mahamane explains it well in this 13 minute TED talk, a talk I adore but had to watch in increments because, well, attention span.
Many evenings I look up from my spot on the couch where I’m reading, comforted by the music of snoring dogs around me, only to notice my husband staring at the opposite wall. I immediately feel guilty for ignoring him. So I put my book down and ask what he’s thinking. “Nothing,” he says, “just relaxing.” I’ve learned he means this and nothing more. Being me, I’ve wondered if he’s actually upset about something I said. Or if he’s sitting there in regret, wondering where he might be now if he’d just made a different choice? Or if he’s imagining something he plans to build or fix or do? Or if he effortlessly enters the Zen state I experience in briefs chunks when I meditate? What is he actually doing? I easily travel all sorts of mental loops rather than believe he’s really not thinking? Maybe he’s…. normal. I can’t imagine.
“The children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it.” ~Frank Warren
In this heartbreakingly beautiful and suffering world, I am still full of hope. There are many reasons why. One of them is the newest generation of teens and young adults. I may be a worn out almost-activist, but I’ve put enough time in meetings, marches, petition drives, and workshops over the years to know I’ve never encountered more informed, passion-fueled people than those who are currently aged 14 to 30-something.
The pressures on young people over the last few decades have been intense and continue to worsen. Here in the U.S. they have been raised with active shooter drills and horrific mass shootings, crushing student loan debt, rapidly increasing wage disparity, ongoing prejudice, ever-escalating climate catastrophe, and the belligerent ignorance that fuels rapacious capitalism. They are furious and they are doing something about it.
The most sizeable age group in the country right now is made up of adults aged 25 to 29. Add in those 15 to 25, and 29 to late 30s, and we’re talking a substantial portion of the population. A recent Deloitte survey of those in the Gen Z and Millennial age range show the majority hold themselves and others accountable for profound change. This includes a commitment to regenerative environment/climate solutions, recognizing and addressing systemic racism in society and its institutions, dealing with income inequality, and demanding greater access to affordable housing and healthcare. They are taking action in myriad ways:
choosing experiences over products
using second-hand and recycled items
prioritizing downtime over workaholic schedules
demanding inclusive policies in academic, media, and workplace
Maybe that’s why so many who want to stay the (rapidly failing) course would rather marginalize the energy and vision of today’s youth. But if ever a country needed the courage of fresh ideas, it’s now.
We can work forward while looking back to find what history can teach us – without romanticizing mistakes of the past. This is especially true when a well-funded segment of society is dedicated to dragging us back into past mistakes.
Since these particular dinosaurs insist they know precisely what the founding fathers meant when they established a new country, lets consider a few stories of the many young people who were involved in the formation of the United States. How old were they on July 4th, 1776?
15 years old: Deborah Sampsonhad been bound as an indentured servant when she was 10 years old. By the age of 18, the self-educated young woman was free of her indenture and worked as a teacher as well as a weaver. With the Revolutionary War raging in 1782, she disguised herself as a man and joined the war effort. She took on dangerous assignments which included working as a scout to assess British buildup, leading expeditions, and taking part in raids. To keep her gender hidden, Deborah even dug a pistol ball from her thigh when she was shot. It was only when she fell ill during an epidemic that her identity was outed. She received an honorable discharge.
15 years old: Sybil Ludington was the daughter of a New York militia officer. When a messenger alerted her father that Governor William Tryon’s forces had attacked Danbury, Connecticut she leaped on a horse to ride through the night, during a thunderstorm, nearly 40 miles in all, to sound the alarm. Danbury was the location where munitions and stores for the entire region’s militia were stored. British troops destroyed tons of meat, flour, and grain as well as tents and other supplies. They set fire to homes, businesses, and a church but spared Tory homes. The brutality of their attack led thousands of men to join the Connecticut Army of Reserve. Sybil was unaccompanied on her ride, unlike the more famous Paul Reverse. She also rode twice as far, was half his age, and was not arrested as Revere had been. A grateful General George Washington came to her home to thank Sybil for her heroic ride.
16 years old: James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved teenager when he was permitted to enlist in the French Allied unit. The army sent the young man (acting as a runaway slave) to General Cornwallis’ British headquarters. James was welcomed thanks to his extensive knowledge of the terrain. He became a remarkably successful spy for America’s cause. He relayed essential information to Marquis de Lafayette (who was himself only 19 years old in 1776). His intelligence provided information critical to victory in the Battle of Yorktown. Despite his service, James was forced to return to enslavement after the war’s end. For several years he petitioned Congress for his freedom under the Act of 1783 without success. When Lafayette learned of his old comrade’s struggle, he wrote a letter to Congress on his behalf. James Armistead added “Lafayette” to his name in honor of his friendship with General Lafayette.
21 years old:Nathan Halewas a captain of the 19th Regiment of the Continental Army when General George Washington asked if anyone would volunteer to gather information from the enemy. Nathan stepped forward. He slipped behind British lines disguised as a schoolmaster and gathered information throughout the next few weeks. During this time, the British invaded the island of Manhattan. Nathan was captured carrying documents while crossing back into American-controlled territory and was executed the next morning.
21 years old: Alexander Hamilton was orphaned at age 13 and immigrated to America at age 15. He wrote a series of anonymous pamphlets about Britain’s control of the colony and in 1775 formed a volunteer militia with fellow college students. He worked on General George Washington’s staff until the two had a falling-out. Alexander is known as a framer of the U.S. Constitution, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
24 years old: Betsy Ross, aka Elizabeth Griscom Ross, was raised by a Quaker family and became a skilled seamstress. She defied her family by eloping with John Ross despite being warned her family and Quaker community would shun her for marrying a non-Quaker. She and her husband established an upholstery business. John joined the Pennsylvania militia and was killed in an explosion. A few months after being widowed, Betsy met with a secret committee from the Continental Congress who asked her to create a flag that might unite their various militias. She completed the flag shortly before the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in July 1776. Betsy’s part in the independence movement was unknown by the British, who a few months later forced her to house occupying British soldiers in her home. When they left she wove cloth pouches to hold gunpowder for Continental soldiers. After the revolution, Betsy made U.S. flags for over 50 years.
Overall, the average age for Declaration of Independence signers was 44, with more than a dozen 35 or younger.
This isn’t a time to step back, expecting teens and the youngest adults to clean up the mess we’ve made. It’s time to step up our support for their vision of a regenerative, inclusive, wildly beautiful future. Starting now.
The last few days my main earworm has been a song I used when I led nonviolence workshops. I usually played it for one of our last sessions, after we’d learned about the inner work of nonviolence, then moved onto the interpersonal, then the community level, and ending with the global — all inextricably intertwined. The song is so illuminating to me because it makes clear peaceful change can’t help but benefit more than the intended group.
“Bread & Roses” was first a poem written in 1911 by James Oppenheim, who was himself inspired by a speech by factory inspector and women’s suffrage campaigner Helen Todd. During a speech Todd called out “bread for all, and roses too!” Her 1910 speech said, in part,
“…woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.”
The phrase became a rallying cry during the 1912 women’s millworker strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Women were fighting for fair wages, child labor laws, overtime pay, and fair working conditions. Part of their strike proclamation read:
“We, the 20,000 textile workers of Lawrence, are out on strike for the right to live free from slavery and starvation; free from overwork and underpay; free from a state of affairs that had become so unbearable and beyond our control, that we were compelled to march out of the slave pens of Lawrence in united resistance against the wrongs and injustice of years and years of wage slavery.”
The 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., was one of the most significant struggles in U.S. labor history due to its level of organization and collaboration across ethnic and gender lines. Thousands of largely female workers engaged in a lengthy, well-organized, and successful walkout, standing firm against an entrenched group of mill owners and their hundreds of militia and police. Workers maintained soup kitchens and nurseries for children. Meetings were simultaneously translated into nearly 30 languages. Representatives from every nationality formed a 50-person strike leadership group.
The song “Bread & Roses” speaks of the deep human desire, not merely for the necessities of life, but for the creation of, and participation in a community cognizant of beauty.
I’m sure this song has set up camp in my head because of my deepening despair over recent Supreme Court rulings, so many of which trample precedent while tearing down some of democracy’s foundation stones.
Only a few weeks after the tragic and preventable slaughter of schoolchildren and teachers in Uvalde, the court ruled against the long-established rights of states to place their own restrictions on guns.
In a damaging blow against the First Amendment, the court ruled the government was not required to disclose information about a Guantanamo Bay detainee’s torture.
The court overturned Roe v Wade, with serious consequences not only for health, privacy, self-determination, and equality — it also opens the way for draconian “bounty” laws setting Americans against one another for profit like those already enacted in Texas.
Just weeks after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying we’re in a state of “code red for humanity,” the court ruled against the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions across the energy sector (the sector primarily responsible for escalating climate damage).
Next week the court is set to rule on Moore v Harper, an appeal advocating for extreme interpretation of the Constitution that could make it easier for state legislatures to suppress the vote, draw unfair election districts, and enable partisan interference in ballot counting.
I tremble for our democracy. My greatest hope rests in what Helen Todd showed us. We create peace by advocating for all of us. And doing so peaceably is the most powerful way forward. History shows nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts, and can’t help to succeed once such protests have engaged 3.5% of the population.
Lets get out there and sing.
BREAD & ROSES
As we go marching, marching In the beauty of the day A million darkened kitchens A thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance That a sudden sun discloses For the people hear us singing Bread and roses, bread and roses
As we go marching, marching We battle too for men For they are women’s children And we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweated From birth until life closes Hearts starve as well as bodies Give us bread, but give us roses
As we go marching, marching Unnumbered women dead Go crying through our singing Their ancient call for bread
Small art and love and beauty Their drudging spirits knew Yes, it is bread we fight for But we fight for roses too
As we go marching, marching We bring the greater days For the rising of the women Means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler Ten toil where one reposes But the sharing of life’s glories Bread and roses, bread and roses
Our lives shall not be sweated From birth until life closes Hearts starve as well as bodies Bread and roses, bread and roses
“In the end we go to poetry…so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.” ~Christian Wiman
How are you holding up? What is bringing you hope in these chaotic times?
Poetry is one thing I rely on for a handhold. Some poems sink in so deeply I feel I’m walking with the poets. Their words accompany me, opening me to see more and feel more. Sometimes comprehend more too. When the world’s anger and despair loom over me, poetry offers solace.
Lately I’ve turned to old favorites, each one a nature-drenched poem. Sharing a few in hopes they might help hold you up too.
In “Life On Earth,” Dorianne Laux reminds us how outlandish it is to be here at all. “The odds are we never should have been born.”
Diane Ackerman’s “School Prayer,” offers a solemn pledge of a poem worthy of chanting each morning upon waking. “I swear I will not dishonor/my soul with hatred,/ but offer myself humbly…”
Another chant-worthy poem is “A Charm Against The Language Of Politics” by Veronica Patterson, who reminds us to repeat the names of things. “Dig deep, pronounce clearly, pull the words/ in over your head.”
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer describes her practice of carrying the world’s beauty with her in “Why I Smile At Strangers,” writing, “I carry these things in my heart,/ more certain than ever that one way/ to counteract evil is to ceaselessly honor what’s good…”
Poetry can offer us hope, but the poems that come alive for me aren’t a spoonful of sugar. They offer lasting nourishment.
We cannot bring about a more regenerative and compassionate future using the same language that got us here– the kind churned out by advertisers, pundits, and politicians. Poetry calls us to make big world-restoring decisions by listening to voices wilder and wiser than our own. What does sea ice say? How about honeybees, gray whales, storm clouds, bonobos, leatherback turtles? What do our ancestors, leading all the way back to the First Mother, have to tell us? What do the smallest children want us to know? The oldest people? Poetry doesn’t offer answers, it simply helps to tune our capacity to see, hear, and be. That’s a start.
I know a woman who once hated her ex with such fury that she soothed herself by imagining all the ways she might kill him. She and he did the acrimony dance through lawyers long after their finances were left in ruins. Somehow they both believed they spared their daughter, having agreed to remain cheerful in her presence. The girl surely saw the grimaces inside their smiles.
Their loathing simmered for years until their child, at nine, was diagnosed with cancer. Both parents went to her appointments and treatments. They cried and prayed and hoped together. Their daughter survived. She grew up smart and strong. She recently got engaged.
My friend is happily remarried and her ex lives with a much adored life partner. The two couples have been vacationing together for years. They laugh, they reminisce, they dance in ways that give each couple space. They talk about buying a big house or property with two homes so the four of them can move in together. They imagine a backyard roomy enough for their daughter’s wedding. Imagine it scattered with trees perfect for their someday grandchildren to climb. They message each other real estate listings all the time.
I think of countries around the world that were once at war, but are now on friendly terms. They read each other’s literature, savor each other’s cuisines, celebrate each other’s accomplishments. Tourists visit parks where war memorials stand under flowering trees. Suffering and loss can decompose over time into something nourishing, as nature so patiently shows us.
This isn’t a perfect analogy in a time of division, especially when so many refuse to look at longstanding structural inequities and ongoing injustices. And trauma needs time and acknowledgement to start healing. But there’s hope. My friend just texted me a picture of a listing the four of them are considering. “It isn’t perfect,” she writes, “but its got so many possibilities!”