15 Easy Minutes by Miriam Sagan

Time—friend or foe? I’ve always engaged with it. In the 5th grade, I suffered horribly from boredom and the snail-like pace of time passing, particularly the last quarter hour of the day. The big clock would click and move forward every minute. Every 60 seconds.

School let out at 3 pm. At 2:45 I’d start to watch the clock. I’d try to do 15 tiny things to amuse myself as time passed. John Cage would have loved me.

1. Hold my breath. See how long I could do that. Practice in case I fell into the water from a boat. (Not very likely, but better safe than sorry).

2. Twist the button on my shirt until it fell off. Count how many times I had to twist this. (My mother hated this, but I never told her how it kept happening).

3. See how many times I could kick my friend Mary Ann’s foot until one of her tennis-shoe shod feet would kick me back. (She was good-natured and didn’t seem to mind).

4. Stare at the back of the boy I had a mild crush on and will him to turn around. A smile was a bonus. (I loved him because he was sarcastic—unwittingly the start of a trend in my romantic life).

5. Count to a hundred fast in under a minute. (I still do this).

6. Do #5 but backwards. (100, 99, 98, etc.).

7. Scribble a line and then work it with a pencil over and over until the paper shredded and I was writing directly on the desk. (I’m sure you’ll enjoy this too).

There were more, but this is most of what I can remember. I did have a winter scarf with fringe that could be braided different ways. I don’t know if this was the start of my time-killing technique called “think about something for a minute”—what I’d like to eat, how to spend a million dollars, who I’d put a hit on, and more.

I have spent my life since 5th grade playing creative tricks with my mind. And it seems time has passed. I’ll be turning 68 this spring. Click. Click.

Dear One by Jessie Parker

Editor’s note: Jessie Parker is a New Mexican, public school teacher, and a great writer! I’m grateful she let me re-post this from Facebook for the readers here at Miriam’s Well.

The Trevor Project invited me to write a letter to a young queer person who may be struggling this holiday season. This is what came out. Sharing here, feel free to share with a young person in your life.


Dear one,
The holidays can be difficult for everyone, especially you as a young queer person. Please hang in there. The world needs you and the beauty you bring to it! You are going through probably the hardest part of your life. Mental health is so important – do you have a therapist? Trusted friends or adults you can talk to? I am a bi/pan, cis white woman, who experienced deep depression in high school. I didn’t know what my future would look like. Today I am in my 6th year as a teacher, I started a GSA (Genders and Sexualities Alliance) at my school, I’m in a fulfilling relationship, and I have cute dogs! Over the years I built up my chosen family, and leaned on close friends for intimacy and kinship.
I know many people have difficult and different experiences treating mental illness, but perhaps I can share my story with you? I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis at 14, an autoimmune disorder. This was paired with an inescapable, self-loathing depression. My friends imbued me with a strong stigma against anti-depressants, so I didn’t try any. Three years later, a teacher who I admired told me anti-depressants helped her and I decided to give them a try. It was the best decision I ever made. Things still weren’t easy, but my baseline came up to a manageable place. I fell in love with my best friend, who later came out as a trans man. I feel I needlessly lost years of my life to depression due to stigma. #endrant
We as queer people are a natural, necessary part of humanity. We deserve love, equity, and respect. Please know that you are so loved. Listen to the voice inside yourself that knows you are worthy of deep love and care. If your family can’t see that, it’s truly their loss.
You are valid. You are loved. You are so beautiful / handsome. I am so glad you exist. Please ask for the help you need. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Move your body. Trust the voice in your heart. May your 2022 be filled with blessings.

Who Am I?

Inspired by Yoko One. One of her pieces in ACORN. I wrote this in a group–revised later. You can follow Ono’s grid to create your own piece.

Name: (Including all the names you are called by)
Miriam Anna Sagan
Mir

Past Address: 153 Dwight Pl. Englewood, NJ 07631
Present: 626 Kathryn St. Santa Fe, NM 87505
Future: One and a half grave plots. Jewish section. Memorial Gardens. Rodeo Road.

I am at the age where…
I hang suspended between vitality and death. A long pleasant autumn day but getting colder.

What you like:
Place: the desert
Time: dawn
Weather: rain
Colour: dark blue
Sound: the mallet hitting the solid heavy wooden han at the entrance to the zendo
Smell: low tide
Taste: coffee, anything bitter

Describe your world as you see it.
Inner: Chaos, dreams, pale roots shooting down into the earth, a web of…the unknown, the imagined. The presence of death, dried dusty butterfly wings. Once I couldn’t fly and I still can’t. Grudge. Hope. Compost pile.

Outer: The westside, yellow leaves and late apples in the street, graffiti and tag lines, the invisible but real networks across the city—arroyos, acequias, boundary lines, surveys, the old abandoned tunnels the kids call “Heaven” and Hell.”

Regret: that I never liked how I looked when I was young.

Pride: that I never let down a child who depended on me (knock wood).

My attachments:
a. animate: husband, daughter, grand-daughter, son-in-law, Texas red oak, two apricot trees, friends, siblings, nieces and nephews, road runner in my yard
b. inanimate: house, memory, money, dead husband, dead friends, costume jewelry earrings, Navajo rugs, Persian rugs, Pueblo pottery, justice

(Perplexed, I notice that art, poetry, and music do not appear here. Or religion. Are they perhaps not “attachments?” Also, I can’t decide if animate or inanimate!)

My wish:
1. to not be confined
2. to get my own way
3. to love

Forest Fire Spotter, Lighthouse Keeper, Hotdog Stand Owner, Writer by Mark Pumphrey

A lone forest fire spotter sits Zen-like in a tower at the top of a slope in the Gila National Forest as he has done day in and day out for the past twelve years. He cannot read—distracting. He cannot watch television—eyes on the forest. He cannot talk on his phone—bad signal and too much dividing of his attention in case of a fire. He can only sit zazen, staring into the green and blue as they meet just above the tree line on the other shore above the lake below him. He had a canary once, but the canary died. And the forestry department did not approve of the canary.

The fire spotter chose his job and it chose him. He was one of those individuals, along with lighthouse keepers, hotdog stand owners and writers, who must have freedom before they can breathe. Who must be alone before they can ever be with other people. Who must have silence and inertness before any action can arise in them.

When the fire comes, he is then ready, and bolts into action, in the zone required for a sensible and efficient resolution of a dangerous situation.

The lonely lighthouse keeper, wife long dead, groping in the dark on a wind-swept, stormy shore, being overcome with an internal darkness except when in the tower watching out for the boats in distress in the night, is a stereotype that may be closer to the reality than we think. Am I the only person who has ever longed for such an existence?

The independence of the hot dog stand owner-master of his own destiny, answering to no one but himself, is probably a myth. Those buns and condiments have to come from somewhere. But how many of us as working stiffs whose creativity has been stamped out by the gods of bureaucracy have not longed to be our own boss, doing our own thing and doing it in the way we believe to be the most meaningful?

As a writer, I too, must have quiet. I must be alone. No café writing for me. No putting pen to paper before first sitting and emptying my mind of all thought. Only then can the real writing of consequence occur. Only then can meaning come into the writing, for my self and for others who choose to read what I have written.

***

This piece was written earlier this month in a Tumblewords workshop on zoom from El Paso. The prompt was a painting by Margarete Bagshaw that references forest fire, “The Day The Sun Turned Red”  36″ X 48″
In honor of Indian Market, 2011

Changes

There seems to be a cultural consensus that “change is good.” It helps us move “forward.” That is how we meet our “goals.” And yet, as any housecat will tell you—change is also bad. For example, running the vacuum. A bad change. Ditto for redecorating. So, which is it?

I like having a vision, an action item, a focus. Yet I won’t put a positive moral judgement on my goal-oriented personality. Sure, I’m trying to maximize. I have also mislaid my car keys, said something insensitive, and spent money frivolously.

And my forward motion isn’t exactly change. Writing a book, imagining a new project, getting a group to work creatively—that isn’t change. It is more like an expression of the essential part of myself. But that isn’t new.

I’ve lived in the same house for half my life. I’m married to my high school boyfriend. However, this house is thousands of miles from where I was raised. The boyfriend is a second husband. So—change or stability? Obviously both.

I love it when I or a friend can experience a fresh start. There is nothing like a sense of rebirth to keep us going. That isn’t change in the consumer sense—not a new car, or a new to do list. It is change in the more profound sense, as in everything changes no matter how we respond.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. True or false? In some ways yes. Fashion for example looks different but feels identical—a cultural ready made that demands conformity—no matter the time or place. The housecat says—false. A vacuum will never be a comfy nap. If you throw out someone else’s beloved ratty T-shirt (or, God forbid, try and wash the toddler’s blanket) it will be obvious that things have not stayed the same. Things are worse, much worse.

I’ve tried to change my basic character, and totally failed. I’ve tried to change my most neurotic self-destructive traits and had unexpectedly good success. I painted the bedroom apricot and liked it. Years later, I painted the faded walls the same hue and liked it again.

I think I’m not so much a fan of change per se as I am a fan of the ability to develop and grow. To emerge, to stretch, to begin anew. A caterpillar can’t turn into a butterfly more than once, but a butterfly can flutter off in a new wind.

M is for Medusa by Miriam Sagan

In our girls’ school uniforms we watch “Un Chien Andalou” in the auditorium. I’d rather be in the bathroom, hanging out and smoking Balkan Sobranies with my friend Juliet. She favors the black ones with the gold filters. They taste of elsewhere. A hole opens in the man’s palm and ants crawl in and out. I’m unimpressed. We have plenty of ants, in every sandy crack in the sidewalk. My father is at war with all nature, setting mouse and ant traps all over the house. And yelling at us if we leave the sugar bowl uncovered. But he is losing the battle. An old mop abandoned on the back porch is colonized by yellow jackets who build a nest in its snaky Medusa head. My father’s three daughters swell from flat-chested childhood into the busty rebellion of womanhood. We roll up our uniform skirts and show our legs, a shadow between the thighs. We believe, for the first time, that we are real, and begin to act accordingly. 

http://lostpaper.blogspot.com/

Hijacked

When I was a young teenager, airplane hijackings came into vogue. Perhaps there were more then than now. Added precautions probably cut down on them. But in the 1960’s, they filled the news.

My overactive imagination easily created a scenario in which I was trapped with my family in a downed plane among sand dunes.”If we get hijacked, what will we do?” I asked my mom.

To her credit she didn’t point out any of the unlikelihoods. She just retorted: ‘We’ll teach Danny to read.”

My brother was about three years old at that time, so it would have been quite an undertaking. But I felt instantly unworried and happy. And that was because I had an activity.

This approach continues to help me. After all, much of life is about being hijacked–by history, health, finances, fate. Even by our own characters, and obligations. Free will, as a Jesuitical friend once explained me, is not an absolute, but on a scale. And that scale slides.

It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve taught literacy my entire adult life–from ESL to composition to poetry, fiction, and memoir. When my plans are hijacked, even by a pandemic, I still have something to do.

Commercial jet flying above clouds.

Risk

I like to think about it, read about it, and talk about it. I like to take a risk. I like to win, too, but the taking is my main motivation.

Covid has radically changed the conversation about risk, but not in a way I find productive. And that is because the cultural conversation seems to set up some assumptions: there was no risk before the pandemic, and current risk is all about the virus.

Being born into a human body subjects us to risk. In the poem “White Shroud” Allen Ginsberg is sick in bed in China. He writes: “I made a mistake a long time ago.” I take this to mean having been born at all, and not deciding to go on a trip.

Stay home, or go to China. Either way, we all grow old and die.

Some risk isn’t really risk at all, but self-destruction. Drunk driving, for example. I don’t count it as risk because there is no potential gain, and it is a doomed enterprise. Not getting a vaccine is similar. It might carry a very small risk–and so does driving to the pharmacy for it. I don’t focus on miniscule risk because I find that more a product of my anxiety than my critical thinking. And there is nothing much to gain.

Risk involves the possibility of great success, and real failure. Artists and writers tend to live in this realm. But so do parents, even if without seeing it. Midwives I know socially told me in all honesty: childbirth is chancey. Babies die. No one wants to admit it, but having children is risky.

And that doesn’t even include raising children. And here is an arena where, in my opinion, taking many small chances is important. Letting children have freedom–physical, mental, and emotional. Not being too controlling. Letting them make their own mistakes.

Let me say right now, I’m not a very groovy or relaxed person. Anxiety is a big problem for me. But I know my fear isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. When my daughter Isabel was about eleven, she wanted to walk a few blocks alone to the bookstore. I was nervous, and asked her step-dad Rich to decide because I trusted his calmer judgement. He said: life is full of risk, and if she figures that out in this neighborhood, that is fine with me.

So off she went. Into competent adulthood.

Of course…anything can happen. I don’t quarrel when people tell me that, because it is true. However, alien abductors or Nazis in the neighborhood just aren’t very likely. Nor is getting Covid from a library book.

And, as anything can happen, perhaps that anything might be beautiful, like falling in love, expressing your full heart, or a good deed.

Pandemic Wisdom by Devon Miller-Duggan. TRIGGER WARNING! This is hilarious, and very very scary. You may never see cucumbers in the ordinary way again.

Pandemic Wisdom:

I don’t know that living through a pandemic has taught me a single thing other than the pretty obvious fact that whatever else is wrong in my world and the larger world is worse in the midst of a pandemic. That’s kind of a “duh, bunny-brain” epiphany.

Instacart is my friend. Even the not-so-great shoppers are my friends. I tip well on the basis that folks doing that job are probably not doing it as a first-choice career, not that it’s not perfectly good, useful work, which is more than I can say for…let’s just say “some people” and leave it at that. I have also been told that there are people who don’t tip. I will spare you my opinion of those schmucks. So I can’t say that I have acquired any wisdom, and I’m sure that my character has not improved. This is not, therefore, a post answering the questions Miriam asked. I have learned how to make 3 different kinds of masks, but I don’t think that counts. So here’s my Other Kind of Covid Story:

The only reason I go to the grocery store is that it’s also my pharmacy. I have relationships with the pharmacists. They ask about my family and commiserate with me about the ridiculous co-pay for my anti-depressant and the aches and pains associated with the aromatase inhibitor I take on the 10% chance that it’ll help me not get more breast cancer. And when I do go, I typically pick up a medium-sized pile of groceries—some from a list and some “oooh, I forgot we need that” items. I hate it. People wear flimsy masks, about half the folks seem clueless about how far 6 ft. is, in spite of helpful markings on the floor, and most folks ignore the one-direction-per aisle signs. So I usually come home hating humanity and sure that I have contracted Covid-19. Good thing I don’t need to pick up ‘scripts too often.

I will now just go in, pick up my prescriptions and leave. I’m done. In the course of my most recent trip, not only did I rip the same nail twice (happily not below the quick, but still…), I had my usual fights with the self-checkout machine (I know these are not good for humans who need jobs, but right now I prefer to avoid the cashiers, who can be a bit casual about the mask thing), and, having checked out and paid, I noticed that I had forgotten to get the envelope for one of my grand-daughters’ Valentine’s Day cards and had to park my cart next to the beautifully patient young human who was staffing the self-checkout area and go back across the store to get it. None of this made the trip more than annoying.

What did was the loudly unmasked woman who was probably drunk off her ass–and that on top of being kind of a jerk by nature—who picked up my nice English cucumber, waved it around, planted it in her crotch, and began to fake-masturbate it. Part of me wanted to beat her with the cucumber, but that would not have been fair to an innocent vegetable, and would (like any other form of confrontation) have resulted in her yelling in my double-masked face, up close and too personal. It also would have added considerably to the embarrassment of her (masked and civil) husband and son (brother and nephew…), which was palpable. Along with the twice-ripped nail, the fractious checkout machine, and the forgotten envelope, this was just too bloody much. How messed up do you have to be to do that sort of thing? Pretty seriously, I’m guessing, at a near-cellular level of assholicity. So I’m done with grocery shopping.

Oh, there is one wisdomish-thing. I was seriously torqued for a bit about getting the vaccine. Friends kept posting on FB that they’d gotten theirs, and I got frantic, even staying up one night to try for a timeslot at any of the 39 Walgreen’s stores in my county as if I were trying to buy opening-day tix for the latest Star Trek movie. Then I figured out that all my friends who had their shots had probably registered ahead of me because I was kind of paying attention to another situation that needed lots of energy and focus. And a retired nurse friend who has been volunteering at the State’s big vaccine-events told me a bunch of stories about how they were still working on the 80+ crowd, and the State itself (probably in an attempt to save the sanity of the folks working the Department of Health phone lines) sent out a letter saying, in several ways, “the reason you haven’t gotten your vaccine yet is MATH,” which I found oddly calming. I am not, by nature, a patient person (though I can be passive—but that’s a different thing altogether, appearances to the contrary). But I have developed a sort of calm about when I’ll get my “Fauci Ouchie.” It’ll happen. I’m registered with 4 different agencies. One of them will come through, and, though my semester starts in two weeks, I am not teaching in person, so my exposure is not going to be any greater than it is right now. I guess I’ve learned some limited patience. And not to walk away from my grocery cart and leave cylindrical vegetables where serious eejits can get to them.

My husband-the-historian, who is a medievalist, started teaching a course a couple of years ago called “Plagues & Peoples” that covers more than the Black Death. His father lost a sister to meningitis and survived, but lost his hearing. His mother lost hers to scarlet fever. Or the other way ‘round—I’d check, but he’s snoring away contentedly in the next room. The point is that for most of human history there’s been a barrage of bugs trying to get us. Covid-19 is particularly nasty in many worrying ways (okay, terrifying), and it will mark a generation or three.

But I’m more afraid of the Cucumber Beast than of the disease itself. Humans are wonderful. Humans are gawdawful crudbuckets. Being patient as my state’s medical system turns itself inside out to get us vaccinated feels reasonable and sort of peaceful (or maybe Miriam’s fatalism is rubbing off on me after 40+ years of friendship) The Cucumber Beast (I ended up walking back to the entrance of the store where they keep the sanitizing wipes and wiping its plastic-sealed surface down), well, I’ve written her into my permanent narrative of the pandemic, which is as much revenge as I can safely and decently exact.

Ana Consuelo Matiella and Miriam Sagan on Becoming Grandmothers

Editor’s Note: I asked Ana if she’d like to dialogue with me on this topic. She is “ahead”–in that her grandchild is a year older than mine, and I benefit from her insight as well as hand-me-downs. These pieces were written separately, then we read the whole. Hoping there is more to come–and that you, the reader, enjoy.

Right Here. Right Now by Ana Consuelo Matiella

When I think about what I expected being a grandmother would be like, it makes me ponder still, right now, about what I expect even today.  My frame of reference is not that illuminating.  My mother was Sara’s grandmother for one-year-and-a-half. Then my mom died and that was that. 

What kind of grandmother was she?  She was loving and affectionate and opinionated.  I check all those boxes.  But there is incomplete information. She was gone too soon.

I remember she believed in letting babies cry and I don’t. I don’t let Lala cry and I never expected that I would be “one-of-those” grandmothers.  The way I see it, when babies cry, they’re trying to tell you they need something, and it’s my job to find out what it is.  Luckily, Lala now has an extensive vocabulary and if she needs something, she just tells me what it is and I give it to her.
You hear the word “doting” a lot when it comes to grandmothers.  I dote and I expected to dote.  Doting was something I expected to be doing and doting is what I do but I dote in my own way.  To me, “doting” has come to mean, “ being present.”

Prior to meeting Lala, I had the expectation that doting would be something like buying her lots of clothes and giving her lots of kisses.  Now they have this thing called “consent” for babies and it’s not okay to kiss a baby without her permission.  So we have both perfected the art of the “Mwa.”  She is particularly good at kissing her hand and waving it at me while she says “Mwa,” at the window.

Sometimes, I must admit that I am overcome with joy and have to give her very smoochie and loud kisses on the cheek, Spanish style, and without warning.
And then I say, “You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.” But it is rare that I do that now, on account of the new consent protocol. Plus, she knows how to say, “I need space.”

I expected that I would be a dedicated and loving grandmother, a little on the overbearing side, and I am that.  But I did not expect to be blown away by a two-year-old. I thought she would be cute, and charming and fun to dress, and she is that. But  I did not expect her to knock my socks off. 

But here’s the real deal and how being a grandmother impacts my existence as a human:  When I am with Lala, I am completely present.  I have zero Attention Deficit Disorder.  I don’t think about anything else but what I’m doing right here, right now.

I was a pretty attentive mother; some would say an over-attentive mother.  The Runaway Bunny Mother had nothing on me, but as a youngish mom, I remember being distracted.  I had all those balls in the air.  I had a husband to manage, and two dogs.  A house and a business to run.  There were many other things that I had to pay attention to.  And now, sure, I still have a full life, a partner, a business, a house. But only one dog.  (Surely, that can’t be it.)

 For me, there’s something about being a grandmother that grounds me in the present. Everything else just falls away. 

And that, was unexpected.

***

Am I Bubbe? by Miriam Sagan

“Here’s Bubbe,” my daughter tells my grand-daughter. The pandemic has shut down daycare, and so I’m babysitting most afternoon. Sixteen month old tow-head Grainne Rose sees happy to see me. She does her little dance and asks to be picked up. Her birth made me a grandmother, but I’m not exactly “bubbe,” the quintessential Jewish one. I can’t cook and my Yiddish is limited to curses

My mother, a devoted grandmother of seven was no “bubbe” either. She didn’t cook, but instead played the piano and read aloud to her grandchildren. Her mother, my grandma Sadie, was a terrible cook. Her brownies were barely edible when hot from the oven—stone like when cold. She was a fine seamstress—and had been blacklisted as a union organizer. She did give us unconditional bubbe love—scratching our backs for hours, crocheting for our dolls. But even as a child I sensed she was a woman caught in too small a sphere.

My father’s mother was bosomy but emotionally vague. We inherited a love of lavish clothing, massage, and exercising naked from her—she had the Russian Jewish affinity for “calisthenics.” She set a delicious table—but just because she employed an excellent cook.

However, I can’t deny I’m now a matriarch—the oldest woman in my family. No one else seems to care but I feel some responsibility—to what? Representing the ancestors? Transmitting values? When Grainne was tiny I held her in my arms and danced to Laura Nero, singing along: ”Little girl of all the daughters you were born a woman not a slave.” Something I sincerely hope is true.

When my daughter Isabel was pregnant—and frighteningly in labor with pre-eclampsia—I didn’t really love that unborn child. She was threatening this child I held most dear, my daughter. Once Grainne was born of course I took to her immediately but in a slightly impersonal way—I like babies and she was a cute one. It took longer for me to start to get to know her—really for us to start to get to know each other.

I find it annoying that people gush about grand-motherhood, giving me credit for something I didn’t actually “do.” I’m uneasy in societally determined feminine roles. I do feel unconditional love for G., in part because I’m really not responsible for her. What I decide to give her can be personal, optional.

And I do enjoy reading “Yiddish for Babies” with her. She can find her pupik. I’ve always thought babies were particularly drawn to bellybuttons because of an atavistic memory of the womb and mom’s sources of nourishment.

“Bubbe is FUN,” says my daughter. That is a mission statement I can get behind.