Can We Survive on One Car? By Miriam Sagan

What’s this episode of our life going to be called, I asked my husband Rich. Survivor Island? Lord of the Flies?

We weren’t trying to survive in the wilderness. No, we were trying to live with one instead of two cars.

I’ve always felt it was important for me to have at least some barriers between myself and consumer culture. Not even so much to help the earth as to save my sanity. I hate being overstimulated, and in clutter. I don’t have a strict policy about what I won’t participate in. For example, years of no television gave way to the demon spawn of Netflix (which I love). But if something is added, something needs to go. Right now I have only a vaguely functional cellphone. But the household is considering a shared smart phone for traveling.

So, time for an offset. And the beloved aged Toyota Corolla was costing a lot in repairs. And didn’t feel trustworthy for a trip. And a friend of a friend loved it and wanted to buy it.

So we are down to one car. Sharing a vehicle in New Mexico can be seen as just one more chapter in the rope course or trust game called matrimony.

But Rich doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as a return to roots. Born and bred in Chicago, his family depended on public transportation and only got a car as he approached middle school. It’s also a return to another set of roots—Twin Oaks commune where Rich worked a stint as the vehicle scheduler. (Which was not a job without stress and conflict).

Hence, large sign up sheets have appeared by the calendar. I get to sign out the car as needed. Right now, it is easy as Rich is walking to work and doesn’t need the car most week days. But the part of the year when he isn’t working full time may present more of a challenge.

However, the advantages are obvious. Our lifestyle is less wasteful, and less expensive (although we’ve factored in the occasional inevitable need to rent a car). Less maintenance. The increased simplicity makes me happy. And I get to park in the driveway!

When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side by Miriam Sagan

When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side

Organized religion has always exerted a push/pull on me. My father was a rabid and bossy atheist who forbid his children any religious or spiritual experience or expression. When I ran off to San Francisco I soon found myself at SF Zen Center, and then married to a Soto lineage monk. In my thirties I studied Judaism with a Hassidic woman teacher, learned a bit of Hebrew, and immersed in a mikvah. Then back to Buddhism—koans with the remarkable Joan Sutherland-roshi. And now, voila, an interfaith Beit Midrash torah study group led by a thoughtful rabbi.
I’m a lightweight ping-ponger by most standards…at best a seeker …at worst shallow. I even like my friends’ religions and find myself from time to time at the Christian Science Mother Church, singing along at Christ in the Desert, or deep in a discussion about Ramazan.
But I also can’t deny that certain experiences have been central, and compelling. I took Boddhisatva vows daily at SF Zen Center, at my first wedding ceremony (the second time I got married it was by ketuba!), and I still chant them as needed, even when I’m driving.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them
The dharma gate is boundless, I vow to enter it
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it

…or, variations…I vow to let them save me, The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable/I vow to become it…

In any case, those vows cannot be undone, nor would I wish to. I cannot be a person who never took these vows, in the same way I cannot be an “ex” Jew. Of course, I—or you—could spend a lifetime working with these vows. How does each bit function? What does that mean about today’s mundane tasks? Does this mean I shouldn’t be a drug pusher, or arms manufacturer (traditional Buddhist bans). Can a classroom teacher save all beings? And so on.

Here’s the thing, though. These vows are a promise to live consciously in ambiguity. To get a hold of my reactions, to not overstate the positive or the negative. It even has a name—The Middle Way. And the moderate ancient Greek philosophers would approve.

Which leads me to social media (#drinkthe hemlock?). Sometimes when I blog or post something that has some vulnerability for me, I wish I hadn’t. Because I need encouragement to stay in the middle. Whatever our current problem is, I don’t want to eat lotuses and say life is so delightful I can just ignore it, nor do I want to flip out and declare it the worst thing ever.

And, despite my vows, I’m just not that good at this. But since I knew the vows were impossible, I continue to take them.

Las Vegas and Me by Devon Miller-Duggan

Las Vegas & Me

I think of myself as a relative badass. For a 63-year-old white bourgeois church-going grandmother with artificial knees, and a bunch of conditions that need medicating, anyway.

This week damn-near did me in. This kind of thing tends to. For a (relative) badass, I’ll admit freely that I have pretty thin skin. I’m okay with that. We (Americans/humans) like to act sometimes as though we’re supposed to not be battered by what goes on—the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing. It’s useful to remember that that poster (now endlessly played-with meme) was never actually used in Britain during WWII. I don’t know why, but I’d like to think that someone in the propaganda office noticed that it was bloody callous.

Here’s what I did. It’s not the more general sort of Really Wise and Useful list Miriam published earlier in the week. It’s mine:

I teach two Intro to Poetry Writing classes and one Advanced this semester. I spent half of each class reading them poems about 9/11, gun violence (I found out that the website of the Academy of American poets, which lets you search by theme has a listing for “gun violence), and grief. Then I had them write for the rest of the period, using the line from Donne “Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” as the starter/prompt. I wrote with them. I don’t know whether those 4 pages will ever get shared—I haven’t been able to look at them yet. I didn’t ask my students to share what they wrote.
One student put her hand up and said she thought I should be reading poems about change instead of poems about grief. I will admit that I said I didn’t think there would be meaningful change until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, and that I thought we might want to give the dead and the grieving at least 24 hours of grief before we moved on. God only knows what she’ll write on my evaluation at the end of the semester (she’s already, 1/3 into the semester made it clear that I irritate her). Several emailed to thank me. Other professors canceled classes (the minority) or carried on without acknowledging what had happened (the overwhelming majority, which is fine—other courses don’t have the flexibility that mine have). One student came to class not knowing what had happened, so I ended up telling her. She offered me a hug after class (yeah, I know I’m not supposed to hug them, or them me, but human…). I took it. I hugged her back.

I made 8 purple crocheted infant hats for a project to cut back on shaken baby syndrome in Oklahoma and packed them up to send, along with the 4 I already had.

I wrote a poem. Not about Las Vegas, but about the violent world.

I worried about the First Responders in Las Vegas, who are, inevitably, also wounded.

I bought The Rough Guide to Austria and a new packable coat because the husband and I are meeting my thesis director there in January.

I spent time with my grandchildren. I bought some Christmas presents for them, and made plans for a couple of things I’ll make for their stockings.

I gave more $ to Episcopal Relief & Development. They have a very high rating on Charity Navigator and are on the ground in disaster areas pretty fast. Also, I’m an Episcopalian and I like the fact that we don’t use disaster relief as a chance to evangelize.

I declined to give any $ to the Red Cross when I picked up a prescription for my mother at Walgreens. The pharmacy assistant and I agreed that the Red Cross is not very efficient or effective.

I made a cross out of computer components. I make crosses out of all sorts of weird stuff—mostly discarded jewelry—and they’re sold at a variety of venues where the profits go to support things I believe in—the Arts or helping other humans.

I made sure that my students knew that this was not the worst mass shooting in American history. It was just the worst mass shooting of white people. This does not lessen the horror, or the ferocity of my beliefs about the 2nd Amendment, but truth and context are the very least we owe the students who pass through our classes.

I finished Ta Nehisi Coates’s brilliant article in the last issue Atlantic.

I cried through Lin Manuel Miranda’s new song about Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Prayer.” Then I watched it again.

I took really good chocolate to my department meeting and handed it out to my colleagues, then I crocheted a purple baby hat during the meeting, as is my wont. I worried for a moment about becoming the dept. granny and not being taken seriously, then decided that I’m too old to give a fat fart and that I will take chocolate to all department meetings from now on, because life in public universities is a little weird these days, even if Delaware isn’t anywhere near as mucked up as Wisconsin. And my chair is a peach whose strategic genius is being pushed to the limits these days.

I guess I prayed a lot, if you count yelling at God as praying.

I spent much of Saturday submitting poems to journals. I also let my 4-year-old grand-daughter help me change the batteries in a musical toy for the baby. Somehow, this was one of the best spots of the week.

For various reasons, I have a mildly irritating week coming up. I am solidly grumpy about this, especially since it will require that I behave well and represent my department and my brain well with a visiting big-gun. Who knows, he may turn out to be a lovely human, but at the moment, I’m just fretting about not making an ass of myself. #introvertproblems

I had several nightmares, but not about Las Vegas.

I got through the week. I’m still crying. I’ll get through next week, too. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? I won’t keep calm. I will carry on. I will love the world in spite of its brokennesses.

In Splendid Retirement by Miriam Sagan

“Retirement”—The First 9 Months

When I retired from my creative writing job at Santa Fe Community College last December, I made some firm statements about my plans. Those who know me well, however, will attest that I always sound definite even as I’m changing my mind. I said I would not:

1. Do home repair
2. Improve my fitness
3. Concentrate more on writing

That is, I wash’t retiring to focus on improving myself or anything else. I said I wanted

1. Adventure
2. To learn something
3. To understand death more

And, privately, I told myself to

1. Keep everything that was working
2. Add to that

I also wanted something contemplative, but I couldn’t explain what. I had started to think of myself as needing to be more of a “forest dweller.” In the Hindu approach, there are four life stages:
1. Student (check)
2. Householder (check)
3. Forest Dweller
4. Renunciate.
But what IS forest dweller? Me in my garden? Me and husband Rich in an RV? It needed exploring.

Some unexpected things happened. I’d decided to retire in August, 2016. By the following January, when the time came—

1. Donald Trump was president
2. My mother had died (so no more care taking or commuting)
3. Rich started to work “seasonally”—about half the year, with lots of overtime during that period.

So—what happened?

Well, I did do some home repair. I now have a pretty red concrete pathway and some hardscaping in my front yard. However, no new kitchen cabinets or much of anything else. I have been to one stretch class and 1/2 a zumba class—so I really haven’t improved my fitness. I’m writing per usual—emphasis on usual.
So I count this as—negative—goals met.

As to adventure…I’ve seen the total eclipse of the sun, the love fest of Twin Oaks commune’s fiftieth anniversary, the solitude of two weeks in a campground in Hot Springs, Arkansas National Park, and eaten the Chinese food of Vancouver.
I marched on Washington. I took a non-violence class. I had a rifle lesson. I lobbied at the Roundhouse.
I’m still learning to use a “real” camera, do suminagashi, monoprint, geocache, and install poetry text. And I’ve learned to knit a hat.
I’ve been working in hospice and teaching writing in that context.
And, I’ll be going to Japan.

However, I don’t really feel satisfied. That’s probably just because I never am. Should I be studying more in a formal context? Should some challenges be more physical (old and crippled as I am)? Or maybe I should learn ancient Greek. Should could would maybe…

I took poster board and mapped out everything I was doing. And perhaps more important—everything that feeds me. It says: solitude, community, love, literature, nature and more. It says “Investigation.”

I joined a Torah study group. The combination of prayer, study, and community has been challenging…yet elevating. It’s the Days of Awe. I could meditate more. I could write in my journal more. I could…

Go with the flow and see what happens. Ask each day what it wants from me. A few years ago I had an enjoyable practice: I gave each day a theme. It might be teaching or beauty or fiscal responsibility or fun or friendship.

I love my To Do lists. I found one from my teenage years that listed “tampax” and “Pablo Neruda.” That pretty much summarizes my approach to life. My current list has some mystery items on it. It says Detroit? and Start “Mosaic.” It says Chrysanthemums and Go to Ohio.

I’m on my way…to something or other…

Reading My Old Letters

My sister Susannah moved from her house to a condo in Ohio. And sent me a packet of letters I wrote her, mostly from the 1980’s. It’s quite poignant to look at—and I can hardly stand to read it all. I go from being a run about with numerous lovers in San Francisco to meeting and falling in love with my first husband Robert. And then I complain about his lack of ambition. And worry about his hypoglycemia. On to Santa Fe, where I don’t expect to stay, and soon enough I’m pregnant. Robert reports that all over town people ask him “Has the poet had her baby?”
That baby is now a grown married woman, the never ambitious and eventually very ill Robert is long dead, I am long married to Richard and old enough for social security. A cliche like “where does the time go” is hardly ample for my feelings.
In the letters, I recount a meeting with an old sweetie, the one who got away, who broke my heart. I write: “He is out here on business and we spent the day talking. He actually cried about the past—but perhaps more about the dog than me…. Of all things, X. also called to apologize for his behavior. Old lovers never die, they just get schmaltzy when you’re about to get married…”

On the literary front, I’m embarrassed to report that in 1983 I was trying to write a second feminist utopian novella. The first was “Journey to the Commune of the Golden Sun” which was published in “Maenad” but is too embarrassing to re-read today. There NEVER was a second such novella—I refer to a few attempts to write one as VERY DIFFICULT. Well, now there is. I’m about to start the third major revision of “Future Tense of River” which I started in 2015…more than thirty years past my projected date.

These letters are so obviously me. I give romantic and sexual advice, I speculate on every bit of gossip, I read Tarot cards, and review novels, mention when it rains, and give updates on everyone I care about. There are rather elaborate descriptions of cats—my cat trapped on the roof, our old orange family cat and more. I have gigs, or I need more gigs. Then I have too many. I buy red Capezio shoes. I report blowing my budget on plastic jewelry. I can’t really remember the shoes, but I still have some of those funky earrings.
There is introspection, too. I say: “I know exactly what you mean about showing your real self to only a few people…this makes it difficult to ask for help.” A problem I note to this day.
A postcard for 1989 shows snow geese at the bosque and notes that “Isabel eats applesauce and can (sort of) drink from a cup.” And yes, it’s raining.

The Visible Woman by Miriam Sagan

It is not the world’s job to see us. It is our job to see the world.
On a pleasantly rainy day this July I had two disparate experiences. I read about how older women don’t feel seen and I got “hey babied” in my neighborhood.
Not feeling seen is of course a sad state. It can derive from—and lead to—depression. So what do we mean when we say we don’t feel seen?
On the most superficial level, it might mean that for women being young and conventionally attractive was once a source of esteem that has now faded. You can deconstruct this however you want, but for me the bottom line is I’ve never felt safe entrusting my sense of self to the passing glances of strangers. I was amused to get “hey babied” although let me confess—the dudes in question were pretty antique. However, if this never happens again, I’m not going to care.
And that’s because being old is not making me more insecure. And also, although many men are very important to me as spouse, family members, and friends—I don’t care about what “men” in general think of me.
OK, I’ll admit it. I don’t hate being old. And don’t tell me—you’re not old. Because I patently am. I’m old enough for social security. I’m only seven years younger than my maternal grandmother was when she died at what was then considered a ripe old age. I’ve been widowed. I can remember dial telephones. Trust me on this, when I feel the amazingly rich weight of my own life experience I do not feel young.
Probably in part I feel seen because I’m loud and noisy, I wear bright patterns and colors, and I often laugh hysterically in public…I’m sure people look at me and think “I wish that woman in polka dots would keep it down!”
On a deeper note, I think one reason I feel seen is that I’m connected to my community. I run into people I know all day in my smallish city. Does this mean everyone know me for who I really am? No, that is reserved for an intimate few. And that’s what I prefer.
Another thing—maybe the most important—I see myself. I take off all my clothes and dance around to loud music. (Anyone watching might think—I wish that naked woman would keep it DOWN). I drape myself with scarves and look deeply into my own eyes. I try on different outfits and shake (aspiring to be like Tina Turner in her sixties) in the mirror. I do not ask myself to enumerate my physical flaws, my many ailments. Instead, I say—looking good, Mir. I’m not in denial. I don’t think I’m young. I’m just happy to be alive and able to dance and I want to share that with someone special. Myself.

I Hated School by Devon Miller-Duggan

Good lord, I hated school. This thought came to me courtesy of a younger friend posting about how irritated she is about her kid’s summer “homework.” I know there are solid arguments out there for a year-round school year (maybe especially in areas where kids need school to, you know, eat), but we don’t have that, and there are even more arguments about the importance of kids having down time. Big chunks of it. Of course, so much of education in this country is based, relentlessly, on bad info, increasing corporatization, criminal underfunding, and uncountable practices that have no basis in the actual needs of actual human children. Some of that long list is why I hated school. I also hated it because no one knew I had ADD, so every teacher and both my parents just thought my inability to remember that I had homework, let alone focus on it or remember to hand it in—it was just some sort of un-nameable character flaw on my part. Also, homework was BORING.

Practically every teacher I ever had shook his/her head sadly and said some version of “You’re so bright…if you’d only apply yourself…” Aside from this phrase (still in heavy use, I suspect) turning my “gifts” into a club to beat me senseless with, it also taught me a very valuable lesson: Adults LIE. I used to feel very sad and angry about the extent to which I loathed school—kind of pathetically so–until recently.

My earliest memory of school is of the taste of Ritz crackers and tomato soup. My second earliest is of sitting in the back of the classroom (where I could sit because I was such a “good” girl—something I’m hoping to fully get over before I shuffle off this mortal coil…) so BORED I cried. Specifically bored into anguish by “Dick & Jane” readers. I do not understand the weird nostalgia for those torture devices. My third memory is of getting fewer Valentines than other kids—not sure what that was about—I hadn’t gotten weird or fat yet in first grade. I don’t remember feeling especially bad about it, just befuddled.

Even in the years when I had good/great teachers, I loathed school. It was, for me, a criminal distraction from reading and drawing and making things, and looking at fashion magazines. It was where I failed, every day, in some significant respect. I was too something—too slow with Math, too fast with words, too big, too loud, too arty, too bad at gym, too quiet, and way too mouthy for a girl, even as I was awfully busy being a good girl. Sometimes I’m amazed that I didn’t simply explode from my own paradoxes.

So now I have a Ph. D. and am a teacher. I tell my students that college is the first place I ever felt normal, so I arranged to stay. I’m not joking about that. I also try very hard not to lie to them.

All of which is to say that I think it’s probably criminal to give kids homework for the summer (except for reading lists, which I know can be troublesome, but which have some actual purpose). And it’s another example of how adults mess with kids—you have the summer off, oh, wait, except you don’t. Pick one, people. Don’t write “Excellence is our expectation.” over the door of your high school and then change principals yearly and run an inhumane swamp. Don’t tell kids that what’s in their text books is the last word, or even the most accurate word. Don’t bloody tell kids that they’ll regret never taking trigonometry (not for a nanosecond, though I am sad about not getting to take more algebra).

Don’t tell them they have to graduate from high school to go to college—there are options. Don’t tell them college will fix EVERYTHING. Don’t tell them they have to graduate from college to go to grad school. I know that last one is fact because I ignored requirements at two colleges (Why I loved college: I took stuff I cared about, from professors who cared about teaching and ignored course I knew would torture me.), never graduated and went off to graduate school without even really figuring it out. And don’t tell them that folks who haven’t earned authority deserve respect. That one can cause real problems—it’s tough enough being 14 without having to live with the fact that a third of the teachers and more than half the administrators in your school are, at best, incompetent. But I remain convinced that it’s better to grow up questioning authority than blindly respecting (isn’t that an oxymoron?) it.

Hated/feared/despised school. But I learned early what mattered to me and what didn’t. I learned not to trust adults. I learned to tell which adults were actually paying attention to me and which weren’t. I learned that the world is too often made of lies. Along the way, Ms. Galloway taught me to read T. S. Eliot and Mrs. Harker taught me to read Faulkner and Shakespeare, and Mr. Prillman taught me to stop claiming to be “lazy” in order to excuse my lack of focus, and even though I nearly flunked the science exam, he read it to the class because the answers were so off-beat—and that kind of made getting things wrong feel right.

College (especially, bless its beating heart, Mount Holyoke) taught me a zillion things, among them that it was just damn fine for a woman to use big words, and that there were people who could actually develop romantic feelings for non-traditionally brainy humans—that me being me was sufficiently functional, perfectly do-able.

Not sure exactly how summer homework connects to all that, but I have faith that it does. Because along the way, I have learned to trust that connections will emerge.