Elk-Bee Politics

I have been alternating between reading two books this week, Robin Sloan’s Moonbound and Maggie Smith’s You Could Make This Place Beautiful.

Both, as it happens, feature bees.

From Moonbound:

The elk turned and walked into the trees. The bees swirled around his antlers, and Ariel wondered if they were shouting goodbye.

My mind reeled at the implications of elk-bee politics. There, I thought, was a template for my partnership with the boy. Ariel was not as sturdy as the elk; I was not as useful as the bees. Not yet.

(“My mind reeled at the implications of elk-bee politics.” counts as one of my highlight sentences of 2024.)

From You Could Make This Place Beautiful:

Later, the Lowe’s truck arrived, and the man climbed out with his clipboard. By that time, the bees had gathered into what looked like a boiling beach ball in one of the honey locust tree’s bad elbows. I explained to the driver: “We’ve got a bee problem in the backyard, so please just leave everything on the side of the house so you don’t get too close. I don’t want anyone to get stung.” 

And what he said next is something that, when I think of it now, makes me wonder about magic. 

I’m a beekeeper.”

Neither passage makes any sense out of context like this, but the appearance of the bees is an important inflection point in both books.

My copy of Moonbound, by the way, has come to me through some magic rip in space-time, as the book hasn’t been published yet. But my copy arrived at The Bookmark last week, and I’ve been reading it since. It feels both scandalous and appropriate to the time-gymnastics of the plot.

Why do I need a ‘story’ at all?

Yesterday I was on the phone with Clar. He was calling to update me on some developments in the Parish Hall (where my print shop sits in the basement).

At the end of the call Clar asked “How’s Olivia?”

What he was asking me was to bring him up to date, with an amount of detail that lay somewhere between “Well, this morning she got up and had breakfast…” and “She’s doing ok.”

Clar wanted me to update him on “the story of Olivia.” To distill, summarize, keep the plot going.

His question was no different than the same question asked many times a week by friends and familiars. What are you up to? How are you? What’s keeping you busy these days?

What’s your story?

I have been thinking a lot about story of late. I made this sketch yesterday, sitting in the coffee shop:

A photo of a sketch from my notebook: "The question is not so much 'What's my new story?' as 'Why do I need a story at all?' (I would simply like to be 'me').

I’ve been meeting with a coach, a practitioner of “radical aliveness,” since September. It’s been very helpful, in ways I’ve not experienced before. At the start of every session he prompts me to settle into how I’m showing up, to take a breath and connect with what I’m feeling. Last week my answer was “exhausted,” and much of what we discussed for the hour that followed was how I feel a deep need for a break.

I spent the week that followed thinking about the question “a break from what?” and where I landed yesterday was “a break from needing to have a story.”

When I think about the book I published after Catherine died, what I see it as now is a chain of attempts to present a cogent updated story. Each chapter is an email update to friends and family, and in each update I sought to distill the essence of the health and treatment and options and cataclysmic events into some variation of “it’s okay, this is how things are now.”

So, August 5, 2016:

Catherine spent most of the day waiting for a 5 minute conversation to happen.

I won’t bury the lede: the 5 minute conversation, when it happened, was a good one; the MRI she had taken this morning showed no evidence of anything interfering with her spinal cord. Which means that fears of paralysis, or other neurological side-effects, are off the table.

Or August 6, 2019, three years later:

When I last wrote, in early July, Catherine had just that morning had a cycle of chemotherapy, and things were going relatively well. The week that followed was a challenging one, as that chemo packed a particular wallop, and Catherine was exhausted, in pain, and generally feeling like she’d been poisoned. Which, of course, she had been. Over time things got a little better for her, but it’s continued to be a hard month for pain management, and the oppressive heat hasn’t helped.

Like that, over and over, for almost 6 years. Every pithy update akin to sending out grappling hooks to the walls of the caverns we happened to find ourselves in.

It helped. Both me, in the telling, and those who received the updates.

But it was exhausting. Not so much the writing, which comes naturally, but in the conjuring up the description of the cavern and the grappling hooks, the sense-making. The storytelling.

After Catherine died, the book ended (with my eulogy for Catherine, the ultimate story, “This was Catherine”).

I kept conjuring stories, kept sending out grappling hooks. Widower. Grieving. Not grieving. Powering through grief. Getting help with grief. Caregiver. Single man. Dating man. Lonely man. Author. Father. Each got attached to a story, some of which I told here. And each story had to make sense, to be explainable, every feeling justified.

In her excellent book Why Not Me?, Barbara Want writes about entering into a new relationship soon after the death of her husband:

Why did I do it? I asked myself the question many a time. And I’m sure others wondered too. Was it wise to embark on a relationship so soon after my husband had died? Was I in a fit state to know what I was doing? Was it fair on R., to allow him to engage with someone whose emotions were pulped, whose thinking was at times irrational?

What nobody other than widows and widowers can understand is the enormous all-consuming weight, from within and without, reflected in that passage.

If you are compelled to conjure stories, the journey from bereaved onward is a minefield. Who am I? Who was I? Who do others think I am? Is this ok? Am I ok? 

I’ve lived through it all. I know.

So I would like to stop.

I need a break from telling my story to myself.

I need a break from filling in the blank after “Right now I’m the kind of person who…”

I would simply like to be me.

This isn’t an easy thing to undertake: I’ve venerated the art of storytelling for so long, it’s so firmly entrenched a habit, that turning it off seems like cutting out a part of my brain.

What I’ve been gifted, through weekly sessions with my coach, however, is a taste of what it feels like to be free from it. To be present in a moment, without a need to explain it. To let feelings exist without needing to tether them to antecedents or solutions.

That feeling is delicious.

Hard to get to. Shaky-feeling.

But delicious.

Up Downs

The people who are interested in talking about my challenging workout this morning: my coach; M. and S., who did the workout beside me; Lisa (because we tell each other about our workouts).

The people who are not interested: everyone else.

Like hearing how awesome the Gate of Heaven tour at the Duomo in Siena is, there are things that fall apart in the telling, experiences that are meant to be experienced, and not retold.

So consider this, kind reader, a note to myself.

This morning’s workout at Kinetic was described like this:

MYMC 22.3 (FITNESS)”
15 ROUNDS FOR TIME
2 Jumping Chest to Bar
3 Thrusters (95/65)
6 Burpees
(Score is Time)

To translate this into human language:

  1. MYMC is “mid-year mini-comp,” described as “a 3-week mid-year challenge we run in the middle of the programming year.”
  2. We do 15 rounds of what follows. Our “score” is our time to complete all 15.
  3. Each “round” consists of:
  • 2 “jumping chest to bar,” which is kind of like a “super pull-up.”
  • 3 “thrusters,” with a barbell with a recommended weight of 95 pounds for men and 65 pounds for women.
  • 6 “burpees,” which essentially involves throwing ones body to the floor and getting back up again.

Because everyone is different, we all adapt the workout to our real (or perceived) capabilities. In this case, I did a more aspirational than real ”chest to bar,” I did my thrusters with a 55 lb. barbell, and I did “up-downs” instead of burpees (up-downs are a more sedate, measured version, with less unrestrained flopping).

But this is not what I’m here to write about.

I’m here to write about a brief moment, in the middle of an up-down (oddly, the most taxing of the three movements for me), where I realized that the only way to finish 15 rounds was going to be to treat each and every movement as an accomplishment unto itself. I wasn’t going to get to the end by focusing on what I’d done, or how much was to come; all I could do is one up-down. Or one thruster. Or one chest to bar.

One.

And only then would I even begin to conceive of my next move.

In doing so, I found an unusual sense of “presence,” for lack of a better word.

This morning, unrelated, but also rather related, I read this in Against Optimization:

Another way to look at this is that you cannot optimize for resilience. Resilience requires a kind of elasticity, an ability to stretch and reach but then to return, to spring back into a former shape—or perhaps to shapeshift into something new if the circumstances require it. Resilience is stretchy where optimization is brittle; resilience invites change where optimization demands continuity. But whether we’re talking about our public infrastructure or our workplaces, our streets or our lives, it’s change we need to be ready for. Whatever is ahead for us, it’s not more of the same.

It seems like this sense of presence I describe, of being in the moment and reacting to conditions as they are in the moment, might be this “stretchy resilience.”

Optimizing” my workout, which is how I started out this morning, was hearing my coach’s “you need to do one round every minute and ten seconds to finish with a good time” and then throwing myself into the (overwhelming, impossible, exhausting) workout all at once.

And it was exhausting: by five tick-marks on the whiteboard I was near-spent. I could no longer finish with an optimized attitude.

And so.

One.

Movement.

Just one.

And, only then, the next.

I finished.

I did the 15 rounds in 17 minutes and 30 seconds.

I am proud.

And I also feel like I’ve learned a much-more-broadly-applicable life lesson.

Offcut Notebooks

Part of our monthlong trip to Europe this spring was a five day printmaking residency at Two Cents Press in the small Tuscan village of Serrazzano.

We stayed in an apartment above the printshop, and, with the help of Two Cents’ proprietor Franco Marinai, threw ourselves into producing an edition of our This Box is for Good series, something I’ll write more about soon.

Left on the cutting room floor when we were done were pieces of beautiful Magnani Pescia paper. I couldn’t bring myself to leave them there. So, in the waning hours of our residency, I turned them into an edition of 10 small notebooks, printing the cover with offcut on the Two Cents letterpress shop using a font of wood type. Magnani Pescia paper is otherworldly: it’s made of 100% cotton, and while it’s recognizably paper, it feels and folds unlike any paper I’ve ever encountered. I love it.

Magnani paper was produced at mills in the village of Pescia, not far from Lucca, from 1404 until 2014, when circumstances, including a landslide on the road into the village, led to its untimely end. Franco purchased this paper many years ago, from original stock, and so in addition to being otherworldly, it’s also a relic of a 610 year old paper-making tradition.

Today I finished hand sewing the notebooks, and I’ve posted them in the Queen Square Press shop for sale (update: sold out!), pricing them at $14.04 because, well, of course.

As I wrote in the product description there, “they are ’perfectly imperfect,’ an improvised rush job to rescue some lovely paper.” While I love the boxes we produced in Serrazzano, I love these notebooks too; I’ve a soft spot for projects the come together in a flurry at the last minute.

A photo of one of the "Offcut" notebooks on a wooden table against a background of a blue wall and a painting.

Moonbound

Seven years ago my friend Judy pointed me to Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore: “I just read a book that made me think of you, in a bunch of ways,” she wrote.

Judy was right. I bought the book, and the next, and became, in so doing, a card-carrying Robin Sloan fan.

His newest book, Moonbound, was just released, and my copy arrived at The Bookmark as scheduled.

What did he and Brian talk about on the road to Breezy Corners?

Here’s a photo I took on this day, five years ago, May 31, 2019, at Dharma Sushi in Halifax. We’d just rendezvoused with Olle and Luisa, freshly arrived from Sweden, in advance of the Crafting {:} a Life unconference.

A photo of me, Luisa, Olle, Catherine, and Olivia in Halifax in 2019, eating supper at Dharma Sushi.

Five years is recently enough that it seems just like yesterday.

Five years is long enough that it seems like a lifetime ago.

I recognize myself in that photo: “hey, that’s me, but with different glasses.”

I don’t recognize myself at all in that photo: “oh, that’s the actor who played me in earlier seasons of the show.” 

Dick York, Dick Sargent. Did anyone notice?

I’m feeling nostalgic because it’s 25 years ago today that I made my first blog post.

By happenstance, my friend Paul wandered into the coffee shop just now, and we had an interesting chat about life and death and legacy.

As a result of the conversation, I realize that, “hold on, no,” I’m more interested in what comes next than what happened to this point.

My friend Pedro wrote this in his thesis, The Way We See:

John O’Donohue defines two different time realities: surface time–where everything runs at high speed, and where our senses and perception will capture a fraction of what happens.
And the second form of time, which he calls the deep below surface time, where stillness happens and where things move slower–”if you take time not as calendar product but as actually the parent or mother of presence, then you see that, in the world of spirit, time behaves differently.”

I told Paul about how my father kept a journal every day for 53 years; for 29 of those years it was one big Word file. Here’s Dad’s “post” from May 31, 1999, the day I started blogging:

  • skipped the Y
  • called Paul Mudroch, he has received but not yet checked the RoxAnn map
  • returned call from HP about box for printer, told them no longer an issue because to be returned
  • call from library, want 2 copies of my harbour report
  • spoke to Pat about moving the Port Dalhousie survey from June 28,29 to June 21,22, should be OK, Tod as coxswain
  • Marilyn fanfolded the Oshawa sounder records, she will discuss Michigan GIS problems with Carolyn, left her the hard copy maps, she also noted that there was an error in the UTM coords, Carolyn had used the same grid for the four areas
  • Marilyn will also check or rework Brian’s surfer files for Michigan thickness
  • Marilyn willing to work some of July/August, discussed with Liz, contract will have to be revised
  • told Marilyn to prepare for Tim and give him an intro to some of the work to be done
  • phone message from Racca, Sting not received, was to be returned collect by FedEx, sent by truck instead, left him a message about its likely arrival date, shipped by TST Transport, our bill lading number iis 8579735, tracer number is 0016497436-3
  • message from Don Woodrow, IAGLR went well, wants to speak to me about something, called and left message
  • message from Peter Forbes, house proceeds will be sent to me directly
  • Oshawa weather not promising but Dave has to go to move Puffin so we decided to go, left at 1000, arrived at 1140, somehow sprained my side loading the boat
  • on first tv site at 1310, dead calm, worked several sites by 1430 and then ran back to marina to pick up phone
  • called Maciej and left a message that I would be in tomorrow
  • Dave called the Quality Inn to cancel our reservation
  • continued tv survey, complete by 1545, wind now freshening but waves still small, back to marina to pick up shipek buckets, completed 9 shipek sites by 1700
  • GPS check at OSHA
  • at gas dock by 1725
  • packed and loaded the Puffin, picked up the GPS and left at 1815
  • found I had a bleeding cut on my head of unknown origin
  • called Maciej again at home and left a message
  • ran the Tecra on the way back to CCIW on the 12V power supply bought for the Satellites
  • arrived CCIW at 2000 and unpacked
  • drove Brian to Breezy Corners for pickup and had my dinner there
  • home by 2130
  • called Doubletree in Portland and found that we had a reservation there
  • received corrected files for Michigan from Carolyn with more errors than before, printed to check the colours and emailed her about the problem
  • running baudtest on the Toshiba 460 seems to clear up the problem with recognizing the second serial port
  • added two more sites to those to be checked by divers at Oshawa

What if I fed 29 years of Dad’s words—supper at Breezy Corners, getting gas for the lawn mower, running baudtests—into a large language model and created a Lou Reed-style chatbot: what would chatting to that Dad look like?

I suspect it would be nothing like chatting to alive-Dad at all: none of his wit, imagination, contrarianism. None of the stuff, in other words, I’d really want.

Did you love me?”

Like Dad’s journal, I realize this blog is, has been, mostly, about “surface time.” It’s been slices of my life: nerdy noticing, travelogues, documenting projects.

Not only, but mostly.

I was here.” 

Underneath all that, unseen, is the “mother of presence” time.

Like:

I wrote above that Paul and I “had an interesting chat about life and death and legacy.” I can imagine words like that as a bullet point in Dad’s journal. “I was here.”

But what’s missing from that is how it felt to sit here with Paul, to invite him to take a seat, have him settle in, to talk about something more and deeper than sowhatareyouuptothesedays. How it feels to have known Paul for as long as I have, the trust I have in him. How good it felt for him to say that, since Catherine’s been gone, I’ve grown in ways that he can see. How I appreciate his depth and creativity, his wisdom.

How did Dad feel on May 31, 1999? What did he and Brian talk about on the road to Breezy Corners? How did Dave feel when Dad sprained his side loading the boat? Why was he still working after he got home at 9:30 p.m.?

When I wrote about the 20th anniversary of this blog, or the 10th anniversary, my focus was analytical and nostalgic.

I was here then, and then, and then, and then.” 

I recognize the me who focused that way: there is comfort in remembering supper at Breezy Corners, and recollection of the workaday events of surface time can be a warm bath of the known and predictable.

What I resolve, though, on this day, 25 years in, is to spend more time dwelling in the places ”where stillness happens and where things move slower.”

Three years ago, about six months before I met Lisa, I read the book Needing to Know for Sure: A CBT-Based Guide to Overcoming Compulsive Checking and Reassurance Seeking, and took a photo of this passage, which I found helpful at the time:

Living Well Although Bad Things Happen and We All Die

It is possible to know that none of us gets to avoid eventual death, and that most of us suffer losses, mishaps, and mistakes, some severe-—and to still live with joy and meaning. We can know things, not deny them, and yet not become preoccupied with them. We want lasting health, lasting pleasure, lasting security, but the world is constantly changing and dynamic. Wasting time on preparing for unknown future catastrophes carries the illusion of being responsible and somehow more ready to endure what lies ahead.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that notion served as a pathway for me; it is, in a way, the central point around which most discussions, both inside my head and out, focus.

It’s a notion, too, that has served me well in building a life together with Lisa: she is an excellent partner in pursuit both of living well, and finding the places where stillness happens; indeed it’s the tensions between those points on the compass that make our life together interesting.

Because I know that, regardless of my intentions, the pull to nostalgia will forever be part of me, here’s a note to my future self: on this 25th blogaversary you are having a good day. The sun is shining. You had an excellent breakfast. You woke up with the woman you love. You are having lunch with your brother. You are living well. There is a taste of the stillness you seek. You are here.

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