Meditation for a March

This weekend, I’ll be attending the Women’s March on Washington.  Admist the preparation and the conversation and the planning that has ensued, I’ve, of course, been thinking about #whyImarch. Thinking about the number of sister marches around the country, and even the world:  616 and counting as of this writing, with over 1.3 million people planning to stand up and march. The other candidate may have won the election as far as the Electoral College is concerned, but with this “womanspirit rising” (to take the title of a now-classic by Judith Plaskow and Carol Christ), I cannot but feel hopeful.

It’s in that spirit that I offer this Meditation for a March.

Together, we march.
Women, men, children, babes-in-arms;
Those still in the womb, those still in our dreams.
Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights
And this means that
We march because underneath our differences, we are one.

One human family, together on this earth,
With more that could unite us than should divide us.
We march for the unity that connects us like a thread.
Blood, cells, sinews, bones.
Soul, spirit, hopes, dreams.

We march because the world doesn’t always remember that we are one.
I do not always remember—and I sometimes fail to see—that we are one.
I need to be reminded to see.
I march so that I can remind my children, and their children, and their children’s children.
I march so that when my spirit grows weak, I have these stories to remind myself.

I march to be uplifted by your strength.
I march because we are stronger together than we are apart.
I march because darkness will turn to light, love is stronger than hate, and courage is stronger than fear.

This is #whyImarch.

Finding Writing Time in the Margins

The past month has been a difficult one for me, as it’s been with so many people, and for different ways. But one unexpected gift I’ve received from this month is a seeming new dedication to regular writing, such that I might aspire to the supposed title of the blog part of this site, “Writing in the Margins.” I’ve always aspired to a regular writing practice, in the way that people aspire in the new year to be regular gym-goers, or something like that: honest intentions, maybe some good fits and starts, but hard to keep up in the long run. And maybe this will be like that, too, but I’m hoping not. I always hope not, and then we’ll see.

I started NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, with all good intentions. The goal was to write 50,000 words in November, and I was off to a good start. Seven days in, and I was ahead of the curve at 11,667 words. Eight days in, I spent the night on the couch, watching the election results pour in disastrously. I went to bed when I started shaking and couldn’t warm up. Tiredness, or shock, I wasn’t sure.

I spent the next few days writing about the election: here, on Facebook, for Killing the Buddha.  I got a post up about “Celebrating Holidays in a Post-Election December” for my semi-regular contributions to the InterfaithFamily Network’s parenting blog. And I have some other scribbles here and there that are searching for a home.

After Nov. 8/9, I tried to get back into the NaNoWriMo project, but couldn’t find the focus, even if the ultimate impetus behind that project connects, in a roundabout way, to being present in the current world we’re in. I dibbled and dabbled, but by 2 weeks in, I was desperately behind, to the tune of 5,000 words. I’d been at a conference, busy all day with meetings, attending sessions, networking, and generally doing anything except write. I squeezed in a few hours in the margins of the conference, but it wasn’t enough to keep up.

I returned from the conference to the week before Thanksgiving and a house with guests, and cooking replaced writing for a few days. By the time Thanksgiving wrapped up, it was almost the end of November, and my word count hadn’t changed since Nov. 22, hovering around 24,000 words, less than half of the ultimate goal.

So I just stopped, refocused. Started writing other things. And I kept finding time to write. I wrote during lunch breaks and for a half-hour or an hour or two after the kids are in bed. I can feel the difference in my mind, how thoughts shape themselves into sentences that I try to remember to scribble down with pen or keyboard.

I accepted that I don’t actually know where the NaNoWriMo project is going, and that was part of the problem. I needed to abandon any hope of a concrete narrative, and just keep pantsing through until I see what’s there.

And, since I wasn’t the only one side-tracked from NaNoWriMo by the election, some of my writing buddies are now in an accountability group, and I think that will make quite a bit of difference.

Writing in the margins always feels slightly subversive, an act of interjection and speaking out, and I’m glad to find a way to make the margins a central part of my life right now.

On Fighting Plague in America

[A revised version of this post appears on the website Killing the Buddha, as of Monday Nov. 28, 2016.]

The morning after the election, I woke to a world where the sun rose again, streaming through the east-facing window behind my bed. The brilliant November sunrise seemed in stark contrast to the news I already knew I’d find on my phone: that Donald Trump, despite most polls and predictions, had won the election, after a nail-biting evening of watching once-blue counties turn over to red.

Over the course of election night and the day that followed, liberal politicians, professional commentators, and friends on social media shifted the emotional tones of their reactions from disbelief, shock, sadness, and fear, to something more positive and productive: calls for action, for moving forward, and (most heartbreaking of all), for unity, from President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The halls of the college where I work have been filled with crying, hugging students, and with faculty and staff who strive to be there for their students while sorting through their own emotions. The mood reminds me of the immediate aftermath of 9/11: the trauma of a world turned upside down. Most of today’s college students were too young to truly feel the events of 9/11, now almost sixteen years ago. After 9/11, there were calls for hope, for activism, for light and standing as one, as there have been today. Then, the regular order of life paused for days, weeks, and in some cases, months, as the nation and the world tried to figure out what came next and lurched towards the outbreak of the war in Iraq. At my graduate program in religious studies, faculty and staff made space for mourning, writing, reflecting, praying, organizing. I wrote, reflected, joined marches and protests, but the world kept turning, and gradually, complacency crept back in.

Amid the din of competing thoughts and feelings in the wake of Trump’s stunning victory, a line from Albert Camus’ novel The Plague has echoed in my mind:

“They fancied themselves free, and no one can ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” (37*)

Once again the plague has crept out from the corners where it hides and has stunned us with its power.


*Citations are from the Vintage International edition of Albert Camus’ The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1991).

[A revised version of this post appears on the website Killing the Buddha, as of Monday Nov. 28, 2016. Please go here for full version.]

I don’t have time to join the month-long write-a-thon known fondly as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, but I’m doing so anyway. Between my full-time day job and my full-time mom-job, writing is certainly pushed to the margins. But I’ve resisted the siren call of NaNoWriMo for two years now, and this year, am jumping into the fray.

You may ask what I’m writing about: for now, let’s just say it’s in the memoir genre, and is an experience in search of a story. Yes, I’ll be writing by the seat of my pants, rather than from a carefully structured outline! I’m a full believer in revising shitty drafts, writing to find what you want to say, writing to make it real, writing to make it make sense. I’ll get there, hopefully with 50,000 words by the end of November, and eventually — long past November —  it may all make sense.

The Comeback Tango: One Step Forward

Months ago, I tried to get back into the French horn after an embouchure lip injury. It remained an open question whether or not I would, in fact, find a way to play again that didn’t leave my lips and face with pain, tingling, or numbness.

When last I wrote here  about this, it was October, and I’d  felt a sudden “pop” in the lips which encouraged me to take another break. And I did, all the way until mid-December, when I finally visited a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic who’s treated brass musicians before. I rested. I stopped doing isometric lip exercises. Stopped playing horn. Stopped buzzing.

Mostly stopped. I kept poking and prodding the lip, worrying it, tensing my face, feeling anxious.  Would I play again?  The lip felt better, but sometimes variously numb, tingly, or strange, even from smiling, eating, or talking, and especially from doing odd things like puckering or tightening into something like an embouchure.

In mid-December I drove through the afternoon and evening to get to Cleveland, and woke up early and anxious the next morning to see the specialist. “It’s not torn,” was his conclusion. “Start slowly, play a couple minutes a couple times a day, and you’ll be back in shape in about a year,” was his advice. Beyond that though, he didn’t really know what was going on.

I left the clinic confused. Even the almost-two minutes I’d spent playing in the doctors’ office had cause my lips to tingle and sting more than they had in weeks, and I felt more discouraged than happy with the diagnosis I’d received.

Over the next three weeks, I tried to play a few times a day, just a  minute or two at a time. It became clear pretty quickly that this method wasn’t working. Once again, as in the comeback tango, I took two steps back for each step forward. The lip swelled up each time I played, and no amount of ice, moist heat, or ibuprofen before or after I played seemed to make a difference.

In frustration, I called David Schulman in Baltimore, the physical therapist third of the Baltimore-based group  Lip Service: Rehabilitation for the Injured Embouchure.  He called me back, and after I described my symptoms and history, suggested the lip might have a small tear or pulled muscle and that I should take another month off to let the tissue heal.  Dr. Craig Vander Kolk, a plastic surgeon from the   same “Lip Service” group, also called me. He asked me to send him pictures of my lips resting, puckered, and buzzing. Although he couldn’t offer real medical advice based on an email and some pictures, he suggested that it may be a pulled muscle or micro-tear, but not a complete tear. If  a micro-tear, the pain I was feeling might be coming from a scar that had adhered to a nerve, with rehab needed to smooth out the scar and strengthen the embouchure and muscle.

I also called the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which claimed to have a performing arts division. They hadn’t called me back in the fall, but now I tried again, got in touch, and made an appointment to see a doctor and a physical therapist specializing in jaw issues, in mid-January.  

Until then, I rested the lip. I still didn’t believe I’d ever really play again without pain.

Thus it was with great surprise that I went to the RIC this past January and, for the first time in months, felt a small glimmer of hope.

That first appointment was four months ago now. I’ve waited to post this, but I can finally play without pain, tingling, numbness, swelling, or a whole host of other issues. I can only play for about five minutes before my lip becomes too tired, but after so many  unhappy moments, even these few minutes are more than I thought I’d get back. I’ll take it.

How I’ve gotten through these last hurdles of my second try at being a comeback player, though, will be the subject for another post. Stay tuned!

Writing in the margins: happy blogiversary!

Happy anniversary to this blog! I started creating this website and blog just over a year and a day ago, and it’s been quite a ride. Between a concussion, starting in my fantastic alternative academic position, coming back to the French horn, injuring my horn-playing lip, and trying to find time to write in the margins, it’s been a busy year.

When I started this website/blog a year ago, I tentatively named it after a phrase that kept rattling around in my mind at the time: “tell your stories of this joy.” But life, as this year has reminded me on too many occasions, is not always joyful, and having that word – joy! – emphasized so prominently rankled on my conscience. I left the title up in one form or another, until it finally dawned on me: right now, I’m writing in the margins. That’s the perfect name for this blog! 

I’ve used this phrase on Twitter and in a recent blog post about writing. I’ve always been a writer, and right now, this phrase describes well the ways I fit writing in around everything else. The act of writing in the margins (of a book, or a life) implies thinking about the bigger picture, posing questions, figuring out what’s important, all of  which is a central part of the process of being a thoughtful person.

When I  wrote the post on “writing in the margins” a month or so ago, I explained that I was seeking three things:

  1. a regular writing practice
  2. better organization for my writing endeavors
  3. community

I’m happy to report that I’ve made good progress on #3, have at least started to get ahold of #2, and well, #1 remains elusive.

#3: Community. Over the past month I started a writing group for alums of the great writing classes offered at The Thinking Writer. We decided to use the new-ish writing group platform Inked Voices. This site organizes online writing groups of varying sizes and for varying topics; including the option of a closed group for alums of the site. Unlike using Facebook, a WordPress site, or Google Docs, Inked Voices facilitates in-line commenting as well as overview commenting on drafts, as well as general forum discussions for its groups. It seems like it can work very well for online, asynchronous, distance-based writing groups.  I’m excited to be reaching out and finding others with whom to discuss writing!

#2: Organization. I’ve looked through my (electronic) files, and have a better sense of what’s in there, but am still at a loss as to how to organize the little snippets that have yet to develop into something worth pursuing, vs. the longer drafts /brain dumps that seem to have more shape and substance.

#1. Practice. So much of it has to do with inertia. When I don’t write, I don’t write. When I do write, the words tumble out much more easily. Writing this post, as well as some other writing I have been doing, has finally gotten me out of the “object at rest stays at rest” phase. I know, of course, that a moving object will eventually experience friction: I’ll slow down, there will be another pause, but for now, at least, the words are moving.

Please join me in wishing Writing in the Margins a happy one-year blogiversary!

Comeback tango and the two steps back

This past weekend, I took two steps back in my ongoing French horn “comeback” tango.  I don’t mean comeback in any kind of extravagant manner, but the simpler prospect of coming back to something after a number of years away.

When I last wrote about playing the horn, I’d bit the bullet after six weeks of semi-rest, and tried playing again, despite the odd sensations that remained in my lip, the primary playing apparatus. I tried for most of September. I started a “playing journal,” recording what I did each day, how long I played, and what the effect was on my chops. I expected a slow, but steady, sign of upward progress.

That’s not what happened.  Read more Comeback tango and the two steps back

Writing in the margins

The past few months have been off-kilter for me, in that I’ve been dealing with something personal I can’t talk about here. (Three cheers for a modicum of privacy in the internet age!) What I can talk about, though, are the challenges I’m facing as I try to write around the margins of a full-time job and parenting my two small children. Read more Writing in the margins

September 11th: a moment rooted in place and time

I remember the first time I realized September 11th had become an event that would fade out of active memory and into the pages of history books, when one day, people would no longer say, “I remember where I was when September 11th happened.” I was teaching the “contemporary” half of a United States history class, and we’d reached the end of the semester, the present day, so to speak. It was the spring of 2011, almost ten years after the memorable event.

Standing in front of my class, though, I suddenly did the math. If my mostly freshman  students were approximately eighteen years old, they would have been roughly eight years old when 9/11 took place.  Did they recall where they were when it happened? How young would a student have to be before that memory of where you were could no longer be relevant? Read more September 11th: a moment rooted in place and time

When fear gets in the way of progress

Over the past week, I’ve returned to playing the French horn, and the world hasn’t ended — or rather, my face hasn’t  collapsed in further difficulty or pain! Just over a week ago, I reached the six-week mark since the rehearsal where I screwed up my “chops,” as we brass musicians call the lips, and decided to take time off for a couple of months until those chops felt normal.

The chops did not return to normal. I kept having odd aches and tingles, so I kept wondering if something was really wrong: a pulled or torn lip muscle, nerve damage, you name it. Despite fearing such rather drastic outcomes from a single too-long rehearsal, I kept doing funny diagnostic things with my face. I puckered my lips to see if they hurt. I smiled widely in a effort to stretch them out. I slathered pain-relieving arnica gel all over the lower half of my face just to stop thinking, for a while, about what felt odd or different.

In short, I waited for a magical moment when everything would just feel normal again, as if there’d be no need for change, no new normal.

With encouragement from a GP who felt my lip and pronounced the muscle not torn, plus a few people with whom I’d been trading emails, I started thinking I needed to either do exercises to stretch my face muscles, or play again.  Not playing — and the fear of playing, and causing further damage — clearly did me no good: I spent more time thinking about the lips, the horn, the lost time, than I did actually resting and making progress. Six weeks in, and I knew I’d make life a living hell for everyone around me if I tried to take six more weeks off.

It began to sound entirely possible that the aches and pains were not actual symptoms of something wrong, but symptoms of my own anxiety about playing. Fear, in other words, had gotten good and in the way of any genuine progress.

Last Sunday, I removed my horn from its case and played a few notes. My face felt weak, particularly on the right side, where I’d felt the most strange twinges and aches over the weeks. My lips, too, felt weak and unfocused, but not damaged.  The tone sounded terrible, thin and gritty, but it was sound, coming out of the horn, and my face did not feel worse.

I couldn’t believe it. All that worrying (just ask my husband!) for weeks and weeks. All the fear that I’d never be able to play again, so soon after getting the horn back. With just a few notes, all the worst-case-scenarious that I’d built up in my mind dissipated, replaced by a now-familiar sense of elation that I’m playing this instrument at all.

Over the past week, I’ve played a few minutes every day, sometimes even up to ten. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but at least I’m both playing and not dissolving in worry and fear. I’m focusing on middle- and lower-range long tones and arpeggios, and trying to make sure I’m supporting my playing with good breathing.

The strangest thing of all is that with each passing day, it seems that the tingles, the burning sensation in my lips, the tight muscles in the right side of my face when I smile… all of these things have gotten better, not through rest, not through exercise, but simply through playing my horn even just the littlest bit.

It’s this fact that playing has helped which convinces me that my fear and anxiety, more than anything else, made me think that if I played, everything would be So. Much. Worse! I know I have a lot of emotion tangled up in learning to play again (what was effortless is now much more complicated), but I’m starting to see how too much emotion (too many expectations, or even too few) can in fact pose a serious hindrance to any progress at all.

Instead, as I now start on “take 3” (or is it “take 2”) of playing the French horn, I realize that rather than being afraid, I have to take it one day at a time. All I can do is my best for that day (and remember not to over-do it), and to be glad/grateful that I have this back in my life at all. What will be will be, as they say, and I can’t let fear get in the way.