Thursday, December 10, 2020

A new home for Surely Joy

 Surely Joy has moved to a bright new home. You'll find it here. 

This site will remain online as an archive. Click here to find all the pandemic postcards for March through November 2020, listed in reverse order. The series continues on the new site.

Thank you so much for reading Surely Joy. See you at the new place.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Pandemic postcard #37: 'We are still here'

Eight miles west of Highway 101, I had a decision to make: Continue straight to La Push on Washington 110 or turn right to Mora. I had a reservation at the Mora Campground near Rialto Beach, but check-in was many hours off, so I thought I'd spend the morning at Second Beach near La Push. As I neared the intersection, I saw the choice had been made for me: The temporary road sign flashed "QUILEUTE RESERVATION CLOSED."

Good for them, I thought.

As the pandemic took hold last spring, tribal governments up and down Washington's coast closed their lands to visitors. When summer came and the spread of the virus slowed, many adjacent areas in Olympic National Park opened to stir-crazy Americans seeking outdoor relief from isolation. I saw license plates from all over at Rialto Beach and cars parked a half-mile down Mora Road. But just across the Quileute River, its eponymous tribal nation remained off-limits to outsiders, as did the Makah reservation at the northwestern tip of the contiguous United States and the Quinault Indian Nation in southwestern Washington.

I applaud tribal nations for doing whatever they can to keep the coronavirus at bay, especially given the long history of indigenous people dying from diseases brought by outsiders and the high COVID-19 toll some Indian nations are facing in 2020. The closures are a reminder that the 574 tribal nations in the United States are sovereign and have the right to self-determination as well as the right to receive benefits from the federal government.

At least most of them do. Here in Seattle, we live on the unceded land of the Duwamish people. Our city was named for Duwamish Chief Si'ahl, who famously said, "The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know: all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected." 

The Duwamish are a federally recognized tribe under the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, but they are not currently on the list of federally acknowledged tribes. According to the Duwamish website, in 1978, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs basically amended the treaty by adding seven new rules with which the Duwamish must comply to receive land, benefits, and services. The case has been under review by the Interior Department's Board of Indian Appeals for more than five years. 

Meanwhile, despite being in the heart of one of the wealthiest areas in the United States, many Duwamish people cannot access health services, nor can the tribe profit from tourism and gaming, as so many others do. (Seattle is surrounded by high-end resorts run by the Snoqualmie, Puyallup, Suquamish, and other neighboring tribes.) Even if the Duwamish prevail, I'm not sure how likely I'd be to hit a future casino. But along with more than 10,500 other people--half of whom have signed up in 2020--I've decided it's time to pay a small, symbolic amount of rent to the Duwamish people in recognition of the centuries they've spent caring for the land where I live today.

In last Sunday's online service, my minister Rev. Beth Chronister advocated for Real Rent Duwamish, and she also acknowledged that our physical building is on Duwamish land. I am part of a faith tradition that is grappling like never before with our nation's history of settler colonialism and enslavement. But Rev. Beth cautioned us against absolving ourselves with what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." We can pay token rent and say a land acknowledgment and call it good, or we can go deeper, into real relationship and covenant with each other. 

I can think of two ways beyond church that I will try to do this. Early in my freelance writing career, I authored two guidebooks that explored the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Trail. I know I tried my best--given my body of knowledge in the 1990s--to offer a nuanced view of how the United States expanded westward, yet I am sure I fell fall short. As I get future opportunities to write about history, I will do better.

Second, I recommit to living as lightly as I can. I retain a small footprint by American standards, dwelling in 400 square feet, yet like Henry David Thoreau, I need to leave my cabin now and then. I usually go on foot, but I have a car, and I occasionally use it to visit nature that's not within walking distance. A paradox, I know. So when I go into the woods and walk beside the waters, I want to be as mindful as I can of what I find there. "We rarely care for that we cannot name," says British writer Robert Macfarlane, who has worked with artist Jackie Morris and musicians to re-animate lost words from the natural world, just as many Americans seek to authentically connect with indigenous wisdom.  

This is not wisdom from the past. Its practitioners are here now, seeking the right to harvest salmon and protect their water from oil spills. As best I can as a 21st century urban creature of comfort, I want to know plants by their names and birds by their songs. I want to invoke spirits and spells and "sing the things I see," perhaps gaining a tiny fraction of the knowledge possessed by the people who have lived here for millennia and who still live here today. I honor their wisdom and would be grateful for a small measure of it, if I am worthy. Spirit of life, let me be worthy of these gifts, and let us share them widely.


Thank you for reading Surely Joy. You can find the new version of the blog here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Pandemic postcard #36: Thanks for the memories

This week's post comes a little early as we usher in this strange holiday season. I wish you all as happy a Thanksgiving as your current circumstances allow.

In 2010, I reflected on the most memorable Thanksgivings I'd had so far and was surprised to realize they'd all been in my 20s. What a difference 10 years makes. Today, I can easily remember how I spent  every single Thanksgiving from the past decade. This feels good at a time of life when my memory is supposed to be fading. 

It's 2011, the first of several in a string of Thanksgivings spent in San Francisco with my brother Jeff and his partner Kevin, both skilled and loving cooks. Such good food, such good company. On Friday, Jeff and Kevin treat Bruce and Natalie and me to a visit to the California Academy of Sciences. A butterfly briefly rests on Kevin's hand. He is the butterfly whisperer.

2012. I have lived in the Bay Area for seven months, decamping there from Idaho just after Dad died. The job I've moved here for is a disappointment, but I absolutely love California: the light, the people, the diversity. I am living a long-held dream of not needing to own a car, but I rent one to fetch Natalie at Humboldt State for her Thanksgiving break. We join Jeff and Kevin and Bruce for another memorable meal. 

Thanksgiving morning 2013. I am at the Oakland airport, nearly giddy with anticipation at seeing Tom for the first time in a few weeks. We share Thanksgiving with Jeff and Kevin and sleep at their place, since my Oakland apartment is packed up. The next morning, Tom and I pick up a small rental truck, meet a packing crew, and get on the road to Seattle, where I've rented an apartment to be closer to my love.

2014. It's just Tom and me this year. We take a morning train to Centralia, WA, and enjoy a leisurely midday dinner at McMenamins' Olympic Club, where the buffet is spread out over several pool tables. We retire to our room upstairs and take a long nap. It is a perfect day. 

Tom and I get two Thanksgivings in 2015. The first is in the Denver suburbs on Sunday, with Tom's brother Marty and his family and a bunch of people from the bar Marty owns. Tom plays his dad's old banjo. On Tuesday, Tom and I board Amtrak's California Zephyr at Denver's Union Station and ride over the Rockies for Thanksgiving #2, with Jeff and Kevin plus Natalie, who has flown down from Boise. 

Thanksgiving 2016 comes a few weeks after Tom's stem cell transplant, and it's just the two of us celebrating at Swedish Hospital. Considering that he had almost died from engraftment syndrome four days before the holiday, Tom is doing much better. I dial up Paul Simon ("These are the days of miracles and wonders ...") and Arlo Guthrie on Spotify, we eat the not-too-bad-for-hospital-food Thanksgiving dinner, and we are grateful. 

2017. I don't have specific memories of this holiday--my most recent one in San Francisco--apart from the warm embrace of family, of building a collaborative playlist, and of gathering around the table for another amazing meal. Of course, we watch Love Actually afterward. This will be Tom's last Thanksgiving. We don't know that yet, but after the wild ride of Thanksgiving Week 2016, I don't take anything for granted.  

2018. It's a weird year. Tom has been gone four four months. Kevin and Natalie both work in the plant-care field and Thanksgiving season means poinsettia distribution. We decide to make it easy on Natalie this year and meet at a rented Airbnb near Boise to mark an early Thanksgiving. I spend the actual holiday handing out food and socks at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle. 

2019. I have plans to see Natalie in Boise just before Christmas, my extended family in Chicago on December 24 and 25 (for the first time in decades), and Jeff and Kevin in San Francisco for New Year's, so I'm at loose ends on Thanksgiving Day. I consider a solo trip somewhere, but I stay home and make myself a simple dinner. I'm OK company, but I'm grateful that I'll be with family for Thanksgiving 2020. 

2020. Except I won't. And neither will most of you.  

Sigh. And yet, and yet. This past decade has shown me that a rich storehouse of memories and an attitude of gratitude can serve us well in times of loss. Meister Eckhart said, "If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice." And a day before he died, Tom mused to me, "Maybe just being grateful and happy is enough. So thank you." 

I'll leave it at that for now. I am grateful for shared Thanksgivings past, I look forward to making more memories in person with my beloveds in the 2020s, and I wish the same for us all. 

P.S. If you are new to Surely Joy, or even if you're not, you may want to revisit my post from this week in 2018, when I wrote, "This is a season of living while we wait to resume life." Those words, true for me in 2018, are true for us all this year. There will be better days--and yet these are the days we'll remember. 


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Friday, November 20, 2020

Pandemic postcard #35: Hindsight and foresight

You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been, 
A place that has to be believed to be seen ... Walk On, U2 

"Understanding the pandemic this week requires grasping two thoughts at once," Robinson Meyer wrote yesterday at The Atlantic. "First, the United States has never been closer to defeating the pandemic. Second, some of the country's most agonizing days still lie ahead."

We do seem to be at a pivot point. Clearly, we have several very dark months ahead, especially if the outgoing administration continues to impede an orderly transition of power, and if people gather over the holidays with the virus surging. At the same time, the good vaccine news of the past two weeks signals that by next spring, our long-sought "new normal" should finally arrive.  

How will we be different, as people and as a society? I revisited my first pandemic journal the other day--I'm now on volume three--and found what I'd written at the end of it, in mid-May, in the form of a letter to myself next May. 

Of "the things I'd love to see made manifest," one will happen for sure: We will "have a new president and leaders who are actively planning to manage future crises in a more proactive way." But I thought a vaccine wouldn't be "nearing production for widespread availability" until next summer, and we seem likely to beat that timetable now. The results of the upcoming Georgia special election will likely determine whether my prediction of health care for all--maybe via an Affordable Care Act expansion-- will happen in 2021. But thank goodness that the Supreme Court, even with its two-thirds conservative majority, doesn't seem inclined to overturn the ACA as we emerge from the greatest public health crisis in a century. 

Alas, as I write this, schools that had reopened are shutting again, and it seems unlikely that many will remain open this winter. But there's certainly hope that by spring, in-person learning may be happening anew. I'm not sure what to make of my prediction that kids might only go to class every other day; I guess that is for social distancing, and it may be happening in some places. Ever-shifting schedules seem like a hardship on families. Then again, many parents may be splitting their work time between home and office, so maybe it could work. And let's all have more art and music supplies!

Some more mixed news: Greenhouse gas emissions are down largely due to COVID, though this year's bad wildfires mean emissions aren't down as far as they could have been. And with car sales on the rise and people shunning transit, long-term progress could be marginal. We must find the will to make progress toward a healthier planet without the devastation of a pandemic. 

As for my vision of a life where "rest, creativity, community, and connection are paramount" and where work is less central to our lives, that still seems like a dream worth hanging onto, and one that we might be a little closer to than I'd imagined in May, before the murder of George Floyd. That horrific event and its cataclysmic aftermath launched a reckoning that continues to reverberate as we ponder our individual lives and our collective destinies. Why are we here if not to love life and love one another?   

This Thanksgiving season, I am thankful that we may soon be emerging from one of the darkest chapters of history. I love this quote from Pema Chodron: "Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know." In hindsight, we've all learned a lot this year, and with foresight, we may put some of it to good use.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Pandemic postcard #34: Life as one big art project

 I did not see this coming. My daughter Natalie announces on social media that she has recorded an album, and I spend my next-to-next-to-last night in Guadalajara marveling at her nine-track Something to Harvest release on BandCamp. Performing as "Fine Hands," Natalie wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, overdubbed her vocals, even painted the cover art. One of my favorite lyrics becomes all too poignant within a few weeks: "I know you said handshakes give you anxiety. So give me your hand, I'll hold it still as can be."

March: It's a few weeks into the pandemic. "Give me something small to paint," Natalie writes on her Instagram story. "Self portrait but as a snail," writes one friend. "A lone backroad under the stars at night," suggests one, and another wants to see a cat playing drums. My request is for "the tiny sea creature of  your choice." Natalie paints and posts a series of watercolors, and they're all gone within 24 hours. At least I get some screenshots.

April: Natalie does her hair and applies theatrical makeup, dons a velveteen green pantsuit, becomes "Boo Boo the Fool," and posts photos on social media, all in the name of amusing herself and her friends as the weeks of social isolation turn into months.  

May: It's Mother's Day and I'm opening my gifts on a Zoom call with Natalie. One of them is the original watercolor from her Instagram session, the little horseshoe crab she painted for me. It's one of the best gifts I've ever received.

July: It's Natalie's COVID birthday, and she makes the best of it, baking herself a beautiful cheesecake garnished with berries and mint and candles. Her creativity extends to the domestic life, from artful cookery to inspired thrift-shopping.

September: In another Instagram story, Natalie posts pix of her latest "Sunday Craft Day," little heart-shaped earrings that read "Love They Neighbor" and "Abolish ICE." (In addition to her artistic ventures and holding a full-time job, Natalie has dedicated hundreds of hours this year to speaking out for racial justice. I have learned much from her--and from other young adults in my life--on that front, too.)

November: A week ago Tuesday, I get a text from Nat. "Putting up holiday decor while watching election coverage to try and balance the vibes," she writes. Natalie has always loved Christmas, and by last weekend, her apartment was a wonderland of lights and music and good cheer, and why not? We all need all of the above this year more than most. 


I'll accept a tiny bit of credit for Natalie's creativity. I played in a band and we recorded a single when I was her age, I introduced her to The Beatles when she was little, and I dragged her to art museums even when she really didn't want to go. Her dad is musical, too, and he brought home big rolls of newsprint for her to spend hours coloring and drawing freehand on the living room floor. She has had many other mentors along the way, including Karen, who ran a storefront art studio for kids in Twin Falls, Idaho; the music department at Boise High School; and the creative community she has claimed as her own as a young adult, in Boise and beyond. No one creates in a vacuum, and we all have abundant inspirations and influences. 

But what thrills me about Natalie's creativity is that so much of it is self-directed and self-generative--she never spends much money in pursuit of her muse--and she follows through. Plenty of us dabble in creativity. Natalie, more than most people, embodies it. If I have one resolution for the rest of this pandemic period, it's to be more like my daughter. I want to spend fewer hours worrying about the future and more hours producing joy through music and art and random reveries of fancy. 

None of this is frivolous. All of it is life-affirming and counter-cultural, signaling to society that happiness can be made, not bought, and that each of us has the ability to live life like it is one big art project. Short of a residency on Kauai (unfortunately not in the cards), I can't imagine a better way to spend the long pandemic winter ahead.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Pandemic postcard #33: Loving the half-full of it

My sweetheart spent most of his adult life as a proud teetotaler. When asked about his aversion to booze, Tom would describe how he'd had too much to drink one night as a young man, and while it wasn't the first time, he decided it would be the last. Yet sometime in his last few years, he bought a bunch of drinkware and stashed it in the back of our bedroom closet.

Months after he died in 2018, I was still deep into the long work of sifting through Tom's stuff: dozens upon dozens of boxes of old receipts and legal papers, shelves full of compact discs (he'd made a living first in radio, then in choosing music for businesses), and bags stuffed full of promotional items, trinkets, and tchotchkes. When Tom discovered something he liked--be it a Justin Trudeau bobblehead, home plate-shaped doormat, "Enjoying My Coffee" bumper sticker, or a movie about the criminally forgotten songwriter Doc Pomus--he'd order it in bulk, keep one for himself, and give the extras as gifts, except sometimes he’d forget about them. 

That’s how I came to find the six “half-full" glasses. Designed for the eternal optimist, only the top half of the glass could be filled--the bottom half was sealed off--so it would automatically be at least half full. I wrapped up the glasses as Tom’s last gifts to us, and when Tom's children and their mother and her husband and my daughter and I gathered on Christmas morning, we drank a toast in Tom's memory.

It's been a half-full week for America. After two years and $14 billion spent, the 2020 U.S. presidential elections has essentially ended in a draw, and there's a 50 percent chance you are disappointed by the results. We've now been more or less evenly divided for decades and there's little indication how--or when--we'll break the deadlock in Washington, D.C., never mind between the blue metros and the red retros.   

For many of us, our thirst remains unslaked. We'd dreamed so long of a resounding rebuke to the mean, fear-mongering, self-centered bully who has held the presidency these past four years. Amid this year's reckoning over racism, we were sure tens of millions of Americans would turn out as never before to vote for love and justice, and we did. But anxiety and dread were on the ballot, too, and their appeal was just as powerful to folks who may be feeling more half-empty right now.

And so here we are, pretty much where we started, except the kinder candidate has apparently prevailed in the presidential contest. Given all that Joe Biden has endured in his life, it's little surprise that he's bearing this time of uncertainty with patience and calm, and that is what our battered country needs now and over the next four years. While we will not fully realize the changes many of us would like in these divided times, at least our nation can rejoin the world community and make progress on the margins at home, especially for the most marginalized.

At a post-election vespers service the other night, my minister told the story of a couple in the church he served early in his career. Long unable to have children of their own, they finally became parents, but their daughter was born with developmental disabilities. They chose to love her and raise her as if she were perfectly and fully human, and so she surpassed the life expectancy and limits she'd been dealt. Likewise, my husband spent his last decade living with multiple myeloma, yet Tom's glass was always at least half full, and often spilling over the brim as he threw himself into passion projects like launching a community radio station in the last years of his life and embracing a new romance despite previous disappointments.  

Half of America feels wounded over the election results, while the other half are saying "meh," but it doesn’t have to be that way. In this time of mingled disappointments, as we continue to deal with COVID-19 and a faltering economy, may we choose to see possibility over peril, lift repair over despair, and--knowing the infinite promise of this country--declare an end to our hostilities. Together, let's raise a glass to freedom and love the half-full out of this broken, beloved nation.  


Friday, October 30, 2020

Pandemic postcard #32: In search of a clean slate

Last week, I promised a story about what I was doing on November 9, 2016. I'm pretty sure that whatever happens next week, it won't be any weirder than what I lived through four years ago, both because this year's election may take a long time beyond Tuesday night to resolve and because Tom had his stem cell transplant the morning after the last election.
The 2012 election was one of only a few in my adult life that I wasn't working in either a newsroom or for a campaign on election night. I felt at loose ends and nervous about the results, so I went to a movie. I was one of a handful of people who attended a showing of Argo at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. I stopped in the restroom afterward and heard two women sharing the news that President Obama had won re-election.  
When someone gets a stem cell transplant, their immune system is wiped clean and they are home-bound for many months afterward, so Tom and I thought a movie date night sounded like the best way to spend election night 2016, too. We were staying at a hotel near the hospital, and we walked a few blocks to see Moonlight. The night held lots of promise: We’d had a Black president for eight years and we’d soon have a woman in that role. Love and demographic destiny seemed ascendant in America, and Tom would have a new lease on life the next morning.   
I knew something was amiss when we left the theater and walked toward a bar on the next corner. Several people were crying on the sidewalk outside, big-screen TVs flickering in the windows behind them, swaths of red slashing across the maps. Despite being far behind in the polls, Donald Trump had won several key states where balloting had already closed. Yet the night was still relatively young for those of us on the West Coast. Things could change. 
When we got back to the hotel, I tucked Tom into bed so he could get a good night’s sleep. I stayed awake a few more hours and saw more states—and ultimately the election—called for Trump. Dazed, I climbed into bed and slept badly before waking Tom for our pre-dawn appointment with the transplantation team.  It was a strange morning for everyone, but it was also a relief to have something to take our minds off the news, at least for a few hours. And for Tom, this was the first day of the rest of his life, however long that might be. We still had that fact to celebrate.
Six months post transplant
Tom's stem cells gave him about 15 months of remission before the cancer came back in early 2018. Running out of options, we began a clinical drug trial that didn’t go well, one that saw Tom in and out of the hospital for blood transfusions and other interventions. In June of that year, we got married on Tom’s 62nd birthday, our family crowding into the hospital room to wish us well. It was another day of possibility and within days, Tom’s doctor sent us home for a brief honeymoon.
It was a risky gift, with Tom’s white blood cell counts still low, yet it was one we embraced. On the fourth night at home, after Tom collapsed twice while trying to get to the bathroom, I knew the honeymoon was over. He died in the hospital two days later, but not before his children and their mother had a chance to visit with him on what would be his last night on Earth. We'd hoped to go home with hospice care the next day, but that was not to be.  

I miss Tom every day.  I have no idea what he would have made of what we’ve endured as a nation in 2020, and I am especially grateful that his final months did not come amid COVID-19. But I understand that his brother, who lives in a swing state and usually votes Republican, will vote for the Democrat this time. “This one is for Tom,” he has been saying, and this gives me hope. All of us alive in 2020 have seen our ability to bear the unthinkable bend to the breaking point—and when it comes to discarding old opinions and habits that no longer serve us, breaking free is an act of courage. 
There will be no election night movie for me this year; I'll be working for my county elections office as a drop-box attendant. Your vote is your voice, so if you haven't yet made your voice heard, please do that by Tuesday. 
Visualize what it will be like to have a clean slate for our nation. I'll see you on the other side.