Passing Phrases

Passing Phrases

When we first got the news that Governor Evers had declared a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, my instinct was to react in a measured way. To press pause on any wild terror and instead to move through the planning process methodically, wisely– to prepare. My husband, Alex, had been stockpiling canned goods for a few weeks, asking me, despite my eye-rolling, to buy a couple extra hermetically sealed items every time I visited the grocery store. I tried my best not to gaslight him aloud, but I silently downplayed the possibility that we would truly need three pounds of Basmati rice. After all, this was the same man who had two vintage gas masks hanging in the garage and had been acquiring potable water jugs in the event that we needed to survive a Mad Max: Fury Road scenario.

I had heard about the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic overseas and in large cities on the coasts, but I half expected it to bypass the Midwest for larger, hipper locales, like an influencer on her way to Coachella. I joked with Alex that if the world did end, I’d rather die than eat only canned beans; he said he’d rather die than smell what beans did to our bodies.

Some friends of ours had a small Pi Day party scheduled to celebrate math and sugar (and, plausibly, inebriation), and we opted to attend given we had been feeling healthy and had not interacted with anyone known to have the virus. It was a smirk in the face of the end of the world –one last hurrah the weekend before our places of business sent us home to hunker down and ride out the storm. We didn’t know then that it would be the last time we’d see those friends in person for over a month (and possibly more).

Now some odd weeks later, I’ve gassed up the car for $0.98 a gallon, holding my breath as I imagine tiny germs crawling from the touch screen of the gas pump and onto my outstretched fingertip. After liberally applying hand sanitizer I’m now driving aimlessly through our side of town just to remember how it feels to exist outside the confines of my home.

After 45 minutes of meandering aimlessly and listening to my favorite playlist of raucous Americana and indie rock, I take a right turn and creep slowly down the main artery that runs from the neighboring town of Monona into East Madison. I spy a plethora of bright murals splashed up on the sides of store fronts –some walls tagged with the artists’ distinctive graffiti lettering, others displaying pop art and street caricatures, still others the carefully shaded faces inspired either by a loved one or a lost one or both.

On the left side of the street a colorful flash catches my eye, and I make a U-turn to double back and see it again in person. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I can’t remember if this mural has been up since before the quarantining began or not, but it’s perennially modern.

I realize I’ve heard this proverb since I was a child, and it always seemed callous, dismissive, maybe careless in its utterance. It’s a phrase devoid of emotion, and I wonder to myself, Who wrote this? Is that supposed to be helpful?

I snap a photo and return home to look up the phrase. It’s an old adage with roots in Sufi poetry — a phrase embedded among works that brought Hindus and Muslims together, reminding people for over 850 years to focus on community and Love Divine in the face of adversity. The phrase acted as a reminder of the temporary nature of humanity, grief, and glory as it was passed on from generation to generation across cultures, reaching from Persian poetry to Jewish folklore. I discover that the University of Haifa still contains multiple iterations of this proverb in its Israel Folklore Archive. The story goes that a Sultan asks King Solomon for wisdom that would remain true whether in times of prosperity or grief — Solomon says, “This too shall pass.” As the lesson has been passed down, the specifics have varied — sometimes Solomon provides the insight, and sometimes he is the one receiving it.

Poetic, then, that the cyclical nature of this phrase was to be learned and then taught again. British poet and author, Edward FitzGerald, was enamored of medieval Persian literature and did what many Western writers do — popularized the sentiment in English:

“The Sultan asked Solomon for a Signet motto, that should hold good for Adversity or Prosperity. Solomon gave him, “THIS ALSO SHALL PASS AWAY.” (The Works of Edward FitzGerald, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1887.)

This was then read and repackaged by Abraham Lincoln, and on and on. Now it has arrived, emblazoned on the cinder block wall of a Midwest store. How fittingly displayed in a time of grief and uncertainty, in its impermanence as a street art mural along a well-traveled road. The message lasts, the art will not. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this is neither the first nor the last crisis we are to survive.

I savor this fleeting moment like a paleta in the summer.

I Try My Best

I Try My Best

I’ll admit it.

I’m one of those annoying checklist people.

Before smartphones existed, with their Notes options, advanced calendaring, and a myriad of sleek task-management applications you can download from the app store, I was already addicted to the day planner. This analog habit for keeping track of items and due dates started sometime in my teenage years, where I would stand in the stationery aisle of a big box store, judging each day planner on a myriad of Goldilocks-esque criteria.

  • It must have ample space for me to write the assignment for each class period.
  • Week days should be granted the most real estate per page, but I also need to see the weekend represented (perhaps with Saturday and Sunday smashed together).
  • The size shall not exceed that of a small pamphlet — it should fit in a smaller pocket of my book bag.
  • Three-ring binders are ideal, but a spiral notebook binding is acceptable.
  • It must look cool. Not leather-bound (read: for grandma) and not Lisa Frank (read: for babies).

And so on.

This methodology was an important part of my Strategy. It was a system I’d come to rely on for keeping track of assignments, giving myself deadlines, and otherwise trying out for whatever the equivalent of Quiz Bowl is for Franklin Covey acolytes. I knew the right day planner would be my 3 wood golf club for long drives — the head start to keep my grades high.

This keen awareness of the hierarchy of life was an invisible force, underpinning everything I did. And not just from an academic standpoint — I wanted to be top tier in any of the activities I engaged in — volleyball, basketball, regional spelling competitions, finger-style guitar lessons, my Driver’s License exam. I had an insatiable hunger for success, and I gravitated away from any of the skills where I discovered I was mediocre. The joke in my family was that even my blood type was A+.

Thus, steeped in this meritocratic Earl Grey, I remember shopping for a going away present for one of my close friends the summer after we graduated from high school. I was with my best friend, Holli, and we perused the aisles of a local party store for confetti, cards, and other goofy items to include in her care package.

On the way through the checkout line, directly by the register, I saw a line up of the kitschy prizes used for award ceremonies, embossed with gold lettering, and affixed to a safety pin. The location was hilarious to me, as if it was common for people to impulse-buy accolades for $1.99 alongside party favors and helium balloons.

I couldn’t help but read through them, and amidst the standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place options, there was a lone purple ribbon that read, “I TRY MY BEST.” I doubled over in laughter, overcome with the tragicomedy of someone receiving this in lieu of an “Honorable Mention,” an alternative award which would confer at least some modicum of respect to the recipient.

The hilarity bubbled up within me that someone might receive this, the saddest little ribbon. Would they recognize it as a consolation prize? Would it make them a target for smug bullies? Was it actually better than not getting a ribbon at all?

In this unassuming shop full of crêpe paper and cardboard, I was facing a symbol of the world’s lopsidedness. I was a giggling achievement junkie faced with the reality that there might be someone who loses even though they gave it their all. This concept was inconceivable to me based on the stories after which I’d patterned my life.

As an adult, however, I’ve now seen first-hand how this competitive winnowing happens every day. People evaluate daily how to succeed when the odds are stacked against them. I’ve personally filed unemployment insurance claims via state website –noticing that the job board excludes the most lucrative opportunities and that the resume-writing tool watered down my broad experience to banal, inaccurate generalizations. I know a Dreamer who, despite having reassurance about her own legal presence in the United States has to worry day in and day out about her parents, who are still undocumented and in fear of deportation. They have lived and worked here for almost 30 years. I know a trans woman who still goes to the doctor and hears, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this,” when speaking with experts who should know how to advise her about her health.

The general manager of that card shop likely spent less than two minutes selecting the purchase of those ribbons, and yet they became a reminder for me that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length, and some have none at all. This little ribbon was a single frayed thread in a carefully crafted tapestry, one that indicated that by trying one’s best you might end up on the winner’s podium, and that we would venerate you for your heroism if you won. Everyone loves an underdog, right?

In order to craft underdog stories, however, we have to have underdogs in the first place. What is it about American culture that only celebrates the people who fight against adversity and win, rather than those who simply fight against adversity? To celebrate someone who miraculously survives systemic injustice but to ignore those that are crushed by it? I’ve seen this attitude as it relates to people deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. Grocery store workers and gas station attendants filling the very roles that parents point to when attempting to scare their children into attending college. Line cooks who couldn’t make ends meet on the hourly wage they receive even if their employer granted them a full 40 hours per week. Nurses who are trying to save lives without sufficient protective gear for themselves or their patients.

Faced with a crisis like COVID-19, we allow our government leaders to deflect protective gear from front-line staff who are witnessing full critical care units and mass death. Our solution is to stand in doorways and applaud for healthcare workers as they start the next grueling shift. Instead of providing funds to keep grocery workers housed and fed, we hang signs in the windows saying “Thank you to our essential workers,” and then allow patrons to scream and curse at them when they are requested to wear a mask.

Standing in that gift shop, holding a little purple ribbon, I had discovered a nod to those who didn’t have a Disney-worthy comeback — for those who didn’t reinforce our underdog system. We give that ribbon in form of hero worship when we are unwilling to provide actual support to the people who fight for us. We love an underdog because it reassures that the world will be alright, despite the fact that we ourselves have done nothing to make it so. And we ignore the ones that fall under the wheel — their loss doesn’t fit into the beautiful narrative of achievement. We are children telling stories in the dark –that the world is beautiful, that light will defeat darkness, and we don’t have to lift a finger to help.

Shaking the Snow Globe

Shaking the Snow Globe

New. Each one of us begins as something shiny, unadulterated ー arriving slippery and howling. Yes, the lettering of our DNA spells out predispositions ー handedness, eye color, height, even likelihood of extraversion or affability. We bring these gifts into the world, holding them aloft to see how they will be received.  My own offerings were generally accepted ーmy parents watered the seeds of musicality, storytelling, and creativity so that they might bloom.

Infused with this nurture was a promise of abundance ー of Big and Mighty forces I could entice to sway things my way, as long as I said my prayers, perfected my homework, and kept on the sunny side of life. I’d carried these expectations with me throughout my teenage years, hoarding good grades, achievement medals, and pats on the head, always looking for the next source of praise and expecting that it would come.

Along with a heaping spoonful of cheerful childhood, Mom and Dad also fed me the myths of their own journeys ー bootstrapping themselves upward in society, juggling young children and night classes, shopping at the discount bread store, and refinishing used bicycles for the kids. The underpinning for all of my opportunities, I knew, was that Dad worked long hours as a software engineer, balancing the family’s finances, and wielding the big stick of tight budgets. Meanwhile, Mom navigated the timing of when to tell him that my brother and I needed basketball shoes for the upcoming season. “Don’t lie to your father if he asks what we bought, but maybe…take the bags straight to your room when we get inside.”

Thus, when I arrived at college in August of 2004 I had the understanding that all my family’s dragons were slayed. I could enjoy the kingdom.
I was a small town Texas girl savoring every succulent detail of city living. I glamorized the mundane, trying on adulthood like I used to try on Mom’s lipstick. I journaled about cool professors who stayed up until 3 am, failed relationships, and sermonized about what it meant to live an upright life. One sentence I wrote from this time period sticks with me: Isn’t it great when God picks us up and shakes our little snow globe around? Right now I’m just waiting for the fake snow to settle.

Oh, sweet, naive soul, I think, you’re poised on the precipice of life’s craggy peak, pep-talking yourself to run down the mountainside.
I had no awareness that the demons my family allegedly thwarted ー poverty, broken childhoods, toxic relationshipsーhad not been banished. They’d only been relegated to the basement to hibernate and grow fat ー feeding on shame and guilt and growing additional heads. I was not yet prepared to discover the loose ends of trauma, addiction, and bereavement that were untied and dangling over the fence into my own adult life. The vulnerability and change I was feeling was a mere foreshadowing of the earthquakes to come.

Some years ago, during our family’s struggle with a dysfunctional dynamic and my father’s addiction, I discovered Brené Brown and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she delivered the words of a sacred vocation: “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story.” This was a rebuttal to my teenage observation that I’d need my snow globe world to settle down. I didn’t need peace — I needed truth. The change I was experiencing wasn’t a subtle jostling –it was the first cracks in the glass of family secret-keeping and forgotten lies. Over the next seventeen years, the religious icons I’d made of my expectations for a safe, happy, linear life would fall apart– the result of an iconoclast both painful and real.

Consider this writing endeavor an invitation to join me as I crack my life open, exposing the shards of family dysfunction and forgotten lies, and flip shame the double bird.