Closing Out 2021

My strongest wish in bidding farewell to 2021 is that I be done with it today, on New Year’s Eve. The last two years slopped their events over into January, making the transition muddy. I want this year to stay contained within its calendar. More than that, I want 2022 to be after. All of the events of 2020 and 2021 are blended together in a shared memory mire. I’m ready for after. Even though I know that so many things are still in the middle and will be for a while. Pandemic will continue. Economic uncertainty will continue. Political wrangling will continue. Personal challenges will continue. I am going to be carrying so many unfinished projects with me into this next year. However I still believe that I can cultivate the next year to be something different than the last two years have been. It can feel like after even while being a simple continuation of all the things I began in prior years. The first part of making things feel different is to really mark this New Year’s Eve. Note its passing. Make conscious effort to contemplate the year and lay it to rest before crossing the threshold into the next one.

As part of that effort, I have made my annual compilation of blog entries, correspondence, and private journal entries. It is my One Cobble book that I print into a bound format and set on my shelf. This will be the seventeenth volume. I also printed out The Year Compass booklet and wrote my way through its exercises even though that sort of guided contemplation usually sets my teeth on edge. (Don’t try to make me pick a favorite event!) For once I didn’t let instructions like “list the most important events of the year” tangle me up into an anxiety ball over what in my life counts as “most important.” Instead I treated the whole thing like a snapshot of this moment in my brain. Instead of “most important” I wrote down whatever response jumped to the top of my mind when I read the question. This means some of my answers are tangential to the questions and occasionally I simply declare that the question is shaped wrong. (Who did I have the most influence on? I don’t get to decide that, other people get to decide if I was influential in their lives, not me. Also the attempt to exert influence is an attempt at control, which is a thing pandemic has slowly been teaching me I can’t cling to.)

I’m so earnest about trying to put my pandemic years to bed that I’m willing to come up with three words to describe my year and write them into little boxes. I grabbed the three at the top of my mind rather than searching for the perfect ones. I wrote Exhausting, Growth, and Cocoon. I was quite interested to see a news site a few hours later where a survey had people list their words for 2021 and the top of the list were Exhausting, Growth, and Relentless. There is a shared experience in the year just past which has a million different expressions, but is still somehow shared. I am grateful for all the gifts 2021 brought to me. I’m grateful for the growth I’ve had during it. It hasn’t been a bad year on the whole. So I plan to Konmari this year just past, thank it for what it gave to my life and let it go.

Only a few hours left and then I’m on to something else. I hope.

Feeling My Way Toward a New Year

In theory, Boxing Day (The day after Christmas) is a great day to spend cleaning up, sorting, giving unneeded things away, and generally settling the house after the holiday celebrations. Some years that is how I spend it. This year I aggressively did very little at all. I put together a puzzle, played a couple of games, took a nap, watched a couple of shows. I chose that path because I was listening to my mind, heart, and body, all of which were telling me that I needed rest. So I rested. It felt like yesterday still belonged to Christmas. I woke up this morning solidly in the space between Christmas and New Years. This is my week to drift a little bit and contemplate the year to come.

I’ve actually had my eye on 2022 for almost a month now. I’ve been stewing and thinking about how I want next year to be different. This year and the year prior have melded into a sort of amorphous lump in my mind. Memories are muddled, some of them pulled closer than is accurate, others pushed much further into the past than they actually belong. It doesn’t help that 2019 lapped over into half of January 2020, so that most of that month felt like it belonged to the year prior. We had my daughter’s wedding, and all of the stress of wedding planning and execution felt like it belonged in 2019 even though the wedding landed beautifully in mid-January. Then the transition from 2020 to 2021 did the same thing, with anxieties over the election, capitol hill riots, and inauguration slopping all the way through January. This year I want a clean break. I want 2021 to stay contained inside its calendar year and to start having a different year on January 1st. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make that happen.

In quest of that goal, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions. How do I make 2022 feel distinct even while it is likely to be impacted with ongoing pandemic which might want to muddle it in with the two years prior? What do I want to be different in my daily schedules? What to I want to make more time for? What do I want to spend less energy doing? How would I spend my time if I didn’t have to worry about paying bills? Since I do have to worry about paying bills, how do I still make some room in my life for the answers to the prior question? I’m still gathering answers for most of these questions. Collecting the answers into a mental basket and letting them bump into each other and change each other to see what emerges. It might result in me rearranging my weekly appointments scheduling, or in me rearranging my physical spaces. It might result in concrete, stated goals and resolutions or it might result in an intention or feeling that I hold in my mind while I move into next year. I’m still waiting to see what will emerge.

For today, I have some pieces of regular life to pick up and get done (packages won’t ship themselves) and I’ve got bits of celebration to start cleaning up and putting away. I’m approaching it all in a leisurely way as is appropriate in this liminal space between the holiday and the new year.

Long Slow Remodel: We Have a Faucet!

We’re working on Year Three of our long slow remodel. It has been almost a year of no progress because of no available funds. But we decided to spend some of our Christmas money on installing a faucet in our pantry wall.

Antique copper faucet over a Corian countertop and sink.

It may not look like much as Christmas presents go, but installing it involved the services of a plumber and a rapid trip to the hardware store to grab a different faucet which didn’t have a separate sprayer because the plumber informed me that we couldn’t just leave the sprayer off and we didn’t have a hole for the sprayer to go through. (This one has an integrated sprayer.)

Sink and faucet with surrounding cabinets forming a pantry wall.

Whether or not it looks like much, having the sink installed is a source of joy, and that makes it a good Christmas present. Perhaps in January we’ll be able to begin our adventures in moving a doorway.

Two Days in Pictures

It started with putting up the Christmas tree. Milo “helped.”

Gray cat crouches among a pile of artificial Christmas tree branches

This led to the second phase of putting up the tree, which I call “Milo! No!”

Spray bottle full of water in the foreground, undecorated Christmas tree in the background

Fortunately the cats seem to have learned from prior Christmas/spray bottle encounters. They didn’t try to climb the tree at all this year. However I discovered that all of our tree lights had gone dead, so I had to go on a fetch quest for new lights. I succeeded.

Christmas tree with red and white lights on it.

After all that work, Kikaa reminded me to sit down and take a rest.

Elderly tortie kitty asleep leaning on an arm and hand.

But Milo lurked. He seems to regard me as a very complex food puzzle, something to manipulate with cuteness until I get up and give him treats.

An elbow on the arm of a chair, gray cat peeks over the elbow at the human.

I also had one of my kids help me take a reference photo. I’ve started a yoga practice. Right now I can’t reach that foot with my hand, but someday I will.

Person in raised pigeon pose reaching behind to grab the same-side foot.

I put our first ornament on the tree. For us 2021 was a much better year than 2020.

3D printed ornament: dumpster with flames coming out of it and the year 2020 on the front.

I finally dragged myself outside to go rake up the leaves that were threatening to kill off the lawn. I made a massive pile on a weed patch so that they can kill off the weeds instead.

Tired from raking, I sat down at our little bistro table. I’d only been there a couple of minutes when our Scrub Jay friends showed up and made clear that I should go fetch some peanuts. Which I did.

Western Scrub Jay perched on the edge of a metal table looking at a peanut sitting on the table.

We’ve named the jays Screm and Lurk. They’re the same pair which nested in our pine tree last May. For a final picture, I leave you with this hand-painted wooden egg I bought in St. Petersburg on my day trip as part of a Baltic cruise. My one regret is that I didn’t buy a dozen more of them. So Beautiful.

Wooden egg ornament painted blue with a pink flower.

Complicated Kindnesses

The first kindness arrives on my doorstep wearing a Christmas hat and smiling, standing a pandemically-correct six feet away from the door. She was my child’s primary teacher fifteen years ago and wants to reconnect with us now that she has moved back into the neighborhood. The person she remembers no longer exists. My child has changed their name to Lad and embraced a nonbinary gender identity, including the use of they/them pronouns. I want to give her the connection she needs, but I have to decide whether to disrupt her memory of my child, and possibly her binary worldview. The words “they go by Lad now” are easy to say, but saying the words opens a conversation far larger than a porch treat exchange.

I stand in the doorway between her and the inhabitants of my house, including Lad, now adult, but still living at home. I’ve held space for Lad before. Teenagers seek identity, to discover who they are. This important developmental task becomes exponentially harder when your body does not match your internal experience of yourself. It was years before any of us, including Lad, understood how gender dysphoria was complicating Lad’s ability to live, miring them in suicidal thoughts and depression. When Lad opted out of church, it was almost a relief that none of the youth leaders came to ask why. At the time I didn’t even know what the explanation was, just that my child needed space. So I defended their space. I sorted the people in Lad’s life into allies or obstacles; people who understood and adjusted to needs we couldn’t always define, or people incapable of comprehending gender or mental health issues no matter how much explanation I poured into their ears. Not knowing which the woman on my doorstep would be, I decide I am too tired to be an educator today. I thank her for the treat and remembrance. She waves a cheerful goodbye and leaves.

The next kindness comes in small packages left on our doorstep, holiday gifts from church leadership. I stand there looking at a card with the wrong name on it, printed from a database by a person who does not know our story. This gift is meant to make us feel part of the community. For me, that community is a refuge. For Lad… it is an alienation rather than a connection. Alienation was not always Lad’s experience with church. There were loving adults and friends, moments of joy. But once a person turns twelve, church participation becomes binary gendered. Lad traveled the expected track with an increasing sense that this was not their place, that the binary did not fit. Their choice was to press themselves into a false shape in order to stay, or to leave.  Even after leaving, it took Lad years to find their name, their voice, themself and to be ready for that name to be known. When they finally were ready to tell people, we were in the middle of the first year of pandemic. Opportunities for sharing the name change were few. It is not the fault of church leaders that they do not know about Lad’s name switch. I quietly re-gift the offering, waiting for a less mass-produced opportunity to let people know Lad as they are.

The third kindness is my friend who texts me a passage in the updated handbook saying transgender members can update their membership record to their preferred name. This friend knows about Lad’s name switch and since her husband is ward clerk, he can update the record. In moments Lad’s name is in LDS Tools. The gender options are still binary, and we have to squeeze “they them pronouns” into a suffix field, but it is a start. With this small change my ward and neighborhood can begin to engage with the person Lad is now. The old name served well, but it is done. Becoming who we’re meant to be by acquiring a new name should be understandable for church members, a pathway to comprehension. Most of my neighbors only need an instructive map for how to welcome people who don’t fit their expectations. The updated handbook begins to teach how to be more welcoming, how to change expectations to have room for more people. Listing Lad’s name lets people come to me and ask for information when they are ready to know. At the very least it means the next automatically generated label for a gift will have the right name on it.

Lad is not likely to come back to church. Not unless church culture and doctrine changes more dramatically than is usual for a single person’s lifetime. I sometimes grieve that my cultural home was not a place my child could stay, but I must find peace with things as they are rather than holding happiness in wait for changes that may never come. God has told me that He loves Lad exactly as they are, because of who they are, and they will be welcomed in eternity. I don’t try to match the edges of this knowledge to doctrinal structures, instead I exercise faith in the goodness and fairness of God. Lad has other paths to connect with the divine and I am to stay with my people and my church. This is where I serve. This space in between. Sometimes that service is standing in the doorway to protect Lad from people who will judge and not understand. Other times I am a bridge, extending love and explanation to beloved community members who want to connect but don’t have the information to do so.

 Kindness is sometimes packaged clumsily, but the intent is love, and love is the construction material of connection. With that love I work teach my people how to make room, so that some future child has a space where they can both be themselves and stay.  This is the kindness I can offer in return for all the kindnesses that have been extended to me.

Note: The first reader for this essay was Lad, they gave edit notes and had veto power over the entire essay.

Holidays and the Contraction of Time

Despite its problematic historical roots (I live on lands that were taken from the Goshute, Paiute, and Ute peoples), Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love that people gather around shared food and a deliberate intention to be grateful. I love that the holiday invites people into the idea of practicing gratitude. I even love the fact that its problematic roots gives people the opportunity to contend with a deep and complicated history, to salvage the good from the harm. To recognize that those of us who have benefited from past harm have a responsibility to try to move through the world in ways that repair harm. It is on all of us to help create a world that is better and kinder than the one we were born into.

This year I get to have all of my children gathered into my house rather than dropping a box of food on my daughter’s porch and waving to her on Zoom. I am grateful for the vaccinations which make my small gathering possible again. I am VERY grateful to not be in 2020 anymore with it’s perfect storm of November stresses. I just re-read this post where I named each of the contributing factors. As I read through, I was completely shocked to realize that the US presidential election was only a year ago. Time has gone so wobbly, that feels like several years ago at least. It feels as if the things which happened before the pandemic belong to a different lifetime, things which happened during the pandemic are a pocket universe that is both one long yesterday and a long time ago, and then there is now, where pandemic is sort-of done, but not really. Today is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, but somehow feels like the Saturday after.

Last night on the drive home from work, my son said “Oh. We’re going to have to put up the Christmas tree.” with an air of deep resignation. I teased him lightly about his tone of voice while also checking in to see if he really experiences the Christmas tree as an unwelcome burden in his life. He doesn’t. I likes having the tree up, but putting it up is a several-hours-long project where we haul branches and poles from the basement and assemble nine feet of tree. This lead to a discussion of how Holidays celebrations are consciously constructed, often with a lot of extra work. We create them for each other when we do things like put up the Christmas tree. The grumbling about effort becomes part of the tradition.

But before we can start making Christmas, there is a lot of food preparation to do. And that starts with grocery shopping that I need to go do right now.

A Post in Three Quick Topics

I spent a portion of today writing letters. Sending written messages is a regular part of my life as I sent emails, texts, and DMs in the course of getting work done, scheduling appointments, or catching up with friends. But there is something special about handwriting a letter on paper. As I’m putting the words down I feel how I will cast this message out into the vagaries of the US postal service. It will physically transit over the course of a week or two. Then on the other end I can only hope that the words I picked conveyed the emotion and stories I wanted to share with the person on the other end. In a way this is true of every message I send in any format, but it feels more real and more precarious with a written letter. I like the magic of that. The weight of my words being counted in ounces of paper.

….

I took myself to a fitness class. It was the first since pandemic times began, but really it is the first since a long time before that as well. I picked one at the city fitness center with a focus on families. I figured it would have a wider variety of body types and capabilities, I might blend a bit better as I displayed all my awkwardness while learning how to move in the modes the class taught. Comparison is the thief of joy. I know this. It is one of the tasks of attending class, to learn how to see myself in the mirror without being embarrassed, to feel the joy of movement without concern for how my movements compare. To focus on myself and my body without concern for how my body and movements might be seen by others. I haven’t succeeded in this practice yet, because I couldn’t help but notice that while I was the fattest and probably the oldest person in the room, I was not always the most awkward in motion. So I kept moving and existing and tried to turn my mind away from considering the opinions and bodies of the other people in the room. After class, as I walked to my car, I could feel my body being glad that we did something active. So I’ll go again.

….

It will be Thanksgiving in a week. The thing I am most grateful for this year is how this November I can make choices from a place of joy rather than as a reaction to anxiety. Last November was one long low-level panic attack as I tried to figure out how to navigate a pandemic holiday with one of my kids married and living in a different household. The pressure to do our part against the spread of Covid 19 warred with the heart-longing to gather with my child I hadn’t seen or hugged in months. In fact, just go read my Weirdsgiving post from last year. I read it and I am SO GLAD that I don’t have any of that to deal with this year. This year we’re all vaccinated. This year I can have my daughter and son-in-law in my house. This year I have a road map for how to manage the holidays. This year I can be glad for other people when they gather. This year is already so much better than last year and I haven’t even pinged the kids to say “what food shall we have for Thanksgiving.”

Thinking About the US Worker Shortage

In the past decade I’ve occasionally employed my children to work for my business. I got assistant work done, they got some job experience and spending money. Everybody won. My pay rate was $10 per hour because I’ve felt strongly that the minimum wage was ridiculously low. But sometimes I worried that I was spoiling my kids for real entry level jobs. I couldn’t have anticipated the current job market. My son has a fast food job and is currently earning almost $16 per hour. That is entry level right now. Because my brain wants to understand these sorts of shifts, I’ve done a bunch of digging into what is causing everyone to be short staffed. Note: this includes package delivery services who have been accustomed to hiring seasonal staff. Place your online holiday orders early!

Obviously the shift is caused in large part by the pandemic. As of today the US has lost 750,000 people to Covid-19. That is 3/4 of a million people dead. (Source) All of those people who died had roles they filled in life and the workforce. That is 750,000 holes that other people have to cover. It is 750,000ish families who are now grieving and thus not working as efficiently as they did before. It is children who need new caretakers. Jobs that are seeking new employees. The impact of this alone is significant.

But on top of that, 3 million US women left the workforce in 2020. (Source) Each of these women did a cost-benefit analysis based on their situation and decided that their situation was better off if they stopped working. Many of them shifted to unpaid work in childcare.

Then there are the 2 million people who decided to retire early. (Source) Again, people are deciding that their lives are better if they just bow out of the workforce. In an interesting trend, many of them have stopped working but have not yet started taking their social security benefits. Much analysis is trying to figure out what is going on there.

Harder to calculate are the effects of long covid on employment. Studies have shown that anywhere from 25% to 75% of people who get Covid-19 have symptoms that last six months or more. (Source)(Source) Some long haulers have been struggling for a year or more and may be permanently disabled. This has long term implications for the US disability system. (Source) Long Covid is already recognized as a valid disability under ADA guidelines. (Source) If 1% of covid cases result in permanent disability, that’s half a million people no longer able to work. If 5% then that is 2 million people. And we’re still collecting them because the disease is still actively making new people sick. Though vaccination does seem to reduce the incidence of long covid by a lot. (Source) However for every household dealing with long covid, you have workers who are distracted by care of a loved one and, depending on how bad the disability is, might need to leave the workforce to concentrate on care.

EDIT: New article landed today that estimates between 1.3million and 6million people out of work because of Long Covid. (Source)

All of this leads to today where we have 2.1 million people collecting unemployment (Source) and around 10.4 million job openings. (Source) This ratio is not what we usually see. (Source) Over the summer some employers thought it was the result of increased unemployment benefits, but the benefits ended and the job market stayed skewed. (Source) (Source)

The result for my family is that my 18yo lucked into a very good time to join the workforce. He is stashing money away for college at a much higher rate than he ever expected. My other two young adults will also be able to enter the workforce in ways that are advantageous for them when they’re ready to do so. It also means that every where I go the quality of service is down because all of the stores and restaurants are under staffed. I worry about the compounding effects of all these small delays. I watch store shelves have empty sections because of shortages caused by production or transportation. Most products return the next week or two, but then something else is missing. All of it makes the world feel unstable to me. Like I should be cautious with my resources and careful in my purchasing.

Ultimately this shortage of workers isn’t likely to last more than a couple of years, however I fear that the rebalancing will happen, not by an increase of available workers, but by a decrease in ongoing businesses. Sort staffing will cause some businesses to fail, releasing their workers to go take jobs with their competitors. I don’t know how it will shake out. And that is the part that scares me.

Focusing on Picture Books

My final event at SIWC was a panel discussing picture books. I loved having the chance to talk about the business of picture books with other people who had published them as well. In preparation for the panel, I brought out some of my favorites and put them up as a display in my zoom corner. We didn’t end up discussing any of them, but I liked having them there.

Two photo shelves with an assortment of picture books arrayed on them. The picture books overlap each other.

The day after SIWC was over, I sat on my bed and looked over at my Zoom corner. I realized that seeing the picture books makes me happy, and it reminds me that writing picture books is a thing I want to be doing. I like having that sort of a reminder so I’ll be keeping the picture books in place for November while I focus some of my writing time on completing picture books drafts. I’m also reading Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul

Cover of Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. On the cover a young girl rides a black fox through a forest with manuscript pages flying out of her backpack and scattering behind her.

I started reading this book over the summer, but the effort was disrupted when I had to do fulfillment for one Kickstarter and then prep and launch another one. I’m going to play with picture books this month, both writing them and reading them. We’ll see how much I can delve into that. Then I’ll probably shift gears again in December.

Listening to Trees

Most years in my neighborhood, fall is something of an anticlimax, trees go from green to yellow to bare. This year has been a spectacular display of reds and oranges slowly overtaking tree after tree. One of the benefits of carpooling again is that I drive past the same trees on a near daily basis. I’ve watched the trees transform day to day. None of the trees in my own garden are the type to go fire red, but they are blushing this year in a way I’ve not seen for a while.

Apricot tree with leaves fading from pale green to yellow to a pale blushing orange-red

All this beauty on display because the trees are drawing energy to their core, dropping the leaves which would be too burdensome to sustain over the cold months to come. The trees are wise and know when to pull back and rest, when to hibernate until conditions change again. This is a lesson I could learn if I listened to trees. I could learn that I don’t always need to be pushing and growing, that there is beauty to be found in pulling back and letting some things fall away.

It is nice to be reveling in fall, in the leaves and their colors, instead of merely mourning the inevitable onset of winter darkness and cold. Perhaps this year I can find beauty in the cold as well.

A close up of apricot leaves that fade from pale green through yellow to an orange red. One of the leaves has holes where an insect has nibbled on it.