GIFTING UNDER PRESSURE by Terry Wilson

I heard Terry read this truly hilarious piece at SFCC on Thursday and am really happy to present it here now! Enjoy!

 

GIFTING UNDER PRESSURE

All year long, but especially at Christmas time, I receive in the mail often ten catalogues per day. Victoria Secret used to be one of my favorites with its tight, low necked sweaters and hip-riding jeans. But once I turned 50, the names of the catalogues changed. And I admit, those low-slung Victoria Secret jeans make my kidneys cold. Also, the deep V-necked sweaters cause repeated sneezing. But still, all of a sudden, now I’m getting “Soft Surroundings” (as though I can only handle surroundings that are cushiony now) and “As We Change” which may as well be “As We Crumble into Dust” because the outfits are not very hip OR cute. Don’t get me started on “Arthritis Today” and “Plantar Fasciitis Quarterly.”

But enough of my trials over catalogue shopping—and yes, I know this is a First World problem. The real agony of December comes in trying to buy gifts for my husband, Mark. I realize there is too much pressure around the holidays for gift giving, though I love offering someone I cherish an amazing present that maybe he has been dreaming about. Still, Mark’s birthday is three days before Christmas, so that’s two occasions in one week that I need to shop for. I used to get him books and music, but he now purchases books and music on his ipad, and i- phone. It’s not like he’s a fussy guy, but he‘s 6 foot two and has long arms, so I can’t get him shirts from any other catalogue but Territory Ahead which provides clothing for the long, tall guys in our lives.

“What do you want for your birthday?” I ask him.

“I don’t need anything,” he says.

“How about a couple shirts?” I ask him.

“I have enough shirts,” he says.

“But some of your shirts have holes in them,” I say.

“I like the holes,” he tells me. He is no help whatsoever.

I mean, I’m no fashion plate, given that I have curly hair and wear orthotics but when Mark goes on an airplane (which is often since he travels for work) in order to keep warm but also have that layered look, he wears three shirts on top of each other. If Tim Gunn from Project Runway saw him, he’d kill himself.

“Honey, why don’t I buy you a sweater?” I ask him.

“I don’t like sweaters,” he says. “Too itchy.”

Last year Territory Ahead ran out of most of the shirts he agreed he might want, so I was forced to get Mark something I thought might be good for him—a small battery operated device that helps him keep a straight posture. Or would, if he used it. He’s supposed to glue it to his collarbone and every time he slouches, it gives him a small electric shock. It was not a big hit.

And I have tried more creative approaches—I have taken him to concerts for his birthday but those choices are not without risk. A few years ago I treated him to Carmina Burana at the Lensic in December, just before Christmas, and the weather that day was in the 20’s, with snow blowing, etc. We settled into our seats at the Lensic but either I had not dressed warmly enough or the Lensic had not paid their heat bill—it was about 50 degrees in there. Thus, for the whole performance, Mark and I huddled together and held hands tightly. The musicians were passionate and magnificent, but afterwards we both had sore hands, fingers, and wrists. Mark said it was a hand holding related injury.

It seemed safer to buy his gifts from a catalogue.

I have tried Hammecher-Schlemmer, (heated gloves cost $200 though, too expensive.) I tried Orvis (“the sleeves are way too short!”) and I’ve even resorted to What on Earth’s catalogue which was a win one year with a sweatshirt that said, “National Sarcasm Society. Like we need your support.”

A definite low point was last Christmas when I bought Mark a box of bacon flavored toothpicks and a yodeling pickle. Though I have to admit I bought myself a yodeling pickle also. I carry it around in my gym bag—it used to be in my purse until the thing started yodeling in my Voice class and sounded better than I did.

Our cats are somewhat easier to please than my husband. I bought him a Trump voodoo doll last Christmas, but our two cats decided it was their toy and ripped it apart, fake blonde hair and all. They’re very political.

To summarize, over the years, I have given Mark massages, dinners out, dinners in, cooked by me—though I am not a great cook, unfortunately. I purchase raspberries, oranges, spinach for Mark each time I go grocery shopping to make sure he eats healthy, especially after his recent heart surgery.

“There’s a wall of spinach in here!” he says when he opens the fridge some days.

Let’s face it—there are no perfect gifts. I would like to create or buy or even put on lay away some incredible substance or product that would fight death, that would guarantee that my sweetheart and I would both live long and prosper. A gift that could guarantee that every moment together is filled with love and understanding, with no difficulties, no disappointment, no grief. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?

But hey! I did find the most amazing gift for Mark this year! Moisturizing gel socks that help repair cracked heels! They don’t exactly stop time, but they do hydrate the feet with an aromatherapy blend of lavender and jojoba oil! His feet will be pampered daily, and they come in pastel colors! I think I can get them on Amazon Prime.

As I Live and Breathe by Miriam Sagan

As I Live and Breathe

I spent much of my twenties scorning the mundane. I’d had a near death experience and after that, people seemed so…superficial. I reserved special scorn for those who wasted precious moments blow drying their hair. I was not exactly the poster child for living in the moment, though. I moped, napped, lay around, and had boyfriends. A Buddhist teacher might have diagnosed that I was “stuck in the unconditioned.” Or existential despair.

This morning I brushed my hair (having warmed it by the wall heater) in the mirror and realized: people blow dry their hair because it makes them feel like themselves. It makes them feel like humans. I felt flush with love & acceptance. Maybe it was the Chaka Khan blaring: will you love me, will you comfort me, will you come to my rescue.

I can’t believe it took me until I was 60 to truly discover her. And I’ve loved Soul Music most of my life—more than my own mother and father, probably more than God.

But I have not lived in vain. Yesterday I was in a FB group on fiber arts where the chat had turned to bra underwire. I posted about how to pull that wire out. I wrote that I was 63 1/2 and hadn’t worn underwire since I was in high school. Someone else wrote that she was 63 3/4 years old and had just pulled out the underwire. Underwire is bad. I once read it gave you lumps (untrue) but it sure is uncomfy.

Will you love me, will you comfort me, will you come to my rescue? I sing as I make oatmeal. Sure, says my husband Rich, as he heads out the door on this overcast November day.

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.