Cluttered Week/Cozy Words

It’s something I never thought about before: the co-occurrence of violence in the home with substance use and dependency. But it makes an appalling, tragic kind of sense, and I note the statistic that my good friend sends me, and I add it to the problem statement part of a grant I am writing. Then I scroll through the data, absorbed, saddened, and a little more enlightened than I was when this project started.

In the grant-writing course I took, one of the first bits of shared wisdom was this: only write grants for projects you care about. And now I see why: preparing a grant is not just writing. It’s reading, too; it’s talking to experts and searching the ‘Net and hitting the literature. It’s watching video and TEDTalks and finding the best sources. It’s taking the information and synthesizing it, until I have a clearer, more lucid understanding of the issues and the data and the details of the thing that I’m writing about.

Then, and only then, can I represent the information fairly and fluently and in a way that honors the organization and the people I am writing this grant with and for.

I love this part of grant writing, the opening of doorways, the deeper and deeper understanding of issues that I am drawn to, that I care about, that I want to see funders supporting. It’s a chance to join my passion with something I’m good at: putting words in documents. I come out of the process knowing more.

It’s a detailed, time-sensitive process, but there’s great satisfaction when the news comes down that a grant has been accepted.

This knowledge hums through my under-consciousness whenever I write a grant. But sometimes, other things are humming there, too.

This week, the grant was due one day and the grades were due the next. And right smack in the middle, I was pledged to teach an eight-hour workshop.

“Do you have your tree up?” a friend asked on Monday, and I sneered at him and said something impolite.

Some weeks are just real busy.


I have met an amazing crowd of students this semester.

The students in my face-to-face class, 21 of 23 of them, are high school students taking college courses. That means 21 of these guys have never written a five-to-seven page MLA style paper, that in-text citing is an unexplored territory, that the independence expected in college work is new and fresh and a kind of learning they need to assimilate.

The other two students are not that much older, although one has a toddler at home, which weaves depth into life for someone pushing through college courses. They are both bright and thoughtful and very, very patient.

One of the high school students tells me she is glad we have two ‘real’ students in the class.

“It makes it seem,” she says,“more like a college class than a high school class that just meets someplace else. It makes it more official.

The 21 high school students jump up to meet the challenge of college learning. All semester long, I shake my head: how is it possible to award so many high grades for one assignment? And, given the chance to revise, several of the students take their graded work and polish it, sand away the mechanical imperfections, struggle with mastering sentence structure, grapple with wording, striving to be clear and concise—to choose the one best word to say what they mean. They submit their revisions within the designated time frame and they raise B-minuses to B-pluses; they polish an A-minus and make it a solid, as-high-as-you can-get, A.

I have two on-line courses, as well, and those students are deep into their majors, studying things like nursing and firefighting and social work. They are driven, many of them, and bent on success. They exist, to start, as words in emails, and then slowly, as I read their papers and learn their working styles, they become living, breathing persons—albeit persons I have never seen. I know that one has a son who was hospitalized for a big chunk of the first part of the term. Another has a farm in addition to her job and being a full-time student. There are first responders and there are nursing students working in health care already. Many of these students are parents; most have jobs. Some work the graveyard shift and take on-line courses to accommodate their schedules.

There are a few students who need encouragement; there is one who writes to let me know that things have happened and she can’t complete the course. I respond, urging her not to give up, to try again when the time is right. But for the most part, the students write thoughtfully and intelligently and well, and they thank me for guidance about comma splices and subject-verb agreement and how to cite a source in MLA or create an APA-style title page for an academic paper.

This week, as I work through the separate sections of the grant, I am also reading final essays and reviewing submissions and making sure all the revisions have been tabulated and added to the final grades.

Grades are due on Thursday at 7:00

The grant is due on Wednesday at 5:00.

Also on Wednesday, I am co-teaching a day long workshop on mental health first aid. So the grant needs to be wrapped Tuesday night, and I need to spend serious time with the course curriculum; I need to review video and make copies and check in with  my teaching partner who has some great ideas about how to organize the day.

As I work, emails pop up from students.

“Have you graded my final yet?” they ask.

“When will final grades be posted?” they ask.

“If a student gets an 89.5 average, do you automatically raise it to an A, especially if the student has perfect attendance and participated all the time?” they ask.

I set one thing aside to do the other, and then I feel guilty. The other two obligations sit on my shoulders, icy cold; they cramp my shoulders up. When I lift one off and tend to it, the newly neglected obligation crawls back into its place. It sends frosty shoots down into my shoulder muscles. It freezes up my neck.

Sometimes I stand up. I take all three of those frosty little obligations and I throw them high up into the air, one after another, and then I dance and juggle, dance and juggle, until the phone rings, and the woman who was going to let me in to check out the technology I need for the course tells me they’re having interviews in the conference room and we won’t be able to get in there after all, and the doctor’s office calls to remind me of an appointment I had, indeed, forgotten, and Jim asks if we can go to the post office to mail off his package, which needs to be postmarked before the 17th—well, actually, he admits, it should GET there before the 17th,—and the check engine light pops on in the car, and Mark wonders if we have any plans for Saturday.

Then those chilly little obligations plummet down from the sky; one after another, they smack me in the head. Boof! Boof! Boof! And I stagger around complaining and squawking and people I love go running wildly in a far-off direction, and I know there’s only one answer.

It is time to light the fire and brew some Tension Tamer tea, time to pull on soft, elastic-waisted pants and my ratty old comfortable navy-blue sweater and grab my book and read.


There’s a special kind of book for a day like this—probably a special kind for each person, but mine are usually set in one of the British Isles. The houses are old and thick-walled, and they don’t always have every modern convenience, but they look out on scenes of gentle beauty. Their kitchens produce the most amazing things—scones and lemon curd, pastries and meat pies, iced cakes that would comfort the bleakest soul.

And the people in these novels—well, they are the people I want to move in right next door. They are quirky, these folks. The women are stalwart and honest, with a brave sense of derring-do; they may give up everything for love, but they discover too, that they can darned well live without it. They can light their own fires and arrange for their cars to be fixed and they always have some kind of interesting work—as travel agents or the owners of charming, funky shops, as night school teachers or the writers of lovely books.

And, oh, the men! They are ruggedly handsome, if a little grizzled, and their faces are saved from the boredom of perfection by a bunged-up nose or a strategic childhood scar.  They LISTEN, these men, and they reflect back thoughtfully. They never turn rugby on and say, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” They are fully present, fully engaged, fully mature, and fully hunky.

All of the men in these books can cook a tasty shepherd’s pie.

And so I warm my frazzled soul by these books, and those pesky obligations, cold-blooded creatures that they are, look in horror at the flames flickering in the fireplace and they crawl away, huffing.

I know they are not really gone, but the cozy book sends them packing, just for a little space of time.

The fire snaps. My shoulders relax. I have opened a door into a whole different world. This is a world where everything, every thing, is going to, somehow, turn out all right.


The next morning, I walk downstairs and see three eager little obligations waiting to jump up onto my shoulders. I bend over to let them hop on.


The grant gets written, and I think, despite some email issues and a very strict character count, that we have collaborated to do a really strong job.

The technology at the mental health course works just fine, and the sound booms through on the video, and all the disasters I imagined vaporize like fog on a sunny summer’s morning.

I check averages twice and then I post grades—and yes, an 89.5 plus extra credit DOES add up to an A-…

Sometimes, there is good news to share.


The frosty little obligations hop off my shoulders, one by one, and disappear; the week wanes, and I finish the cozy book and set it aside. Now I’ll look around and realize how badly the carpets need to feel a vacuum cleaner’s suction, and I will cook a meal that involves more than opening a box, and I’ll start a book that makes me think about the post-Emily Dickinson world and why a nation full of supposed fuddy-duddies would warm so to her unconventional words.

Later, obligations will slip back in…packages to wrap and mail, and cards yet to be addressed, cleaning and cooking and baking and shopping…and I may feel that chill, that tightness, creep back in to my neck and shoulders.

But that’s okay. Hidden in my TBR stack, there are two more cozy novels, two more bulwarks against the cluttered days.


Chay-Chay-Chain: Chain of Yules

‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I was so happy to see Maggie, my former student, on a trip back home. In class, way back in the day, Maggie was a bright and funny over-achiever, a perfectionist, and a wonderful writer. I lost track of her after we moved. Then, when I finally figured out FaceBook, twelve years after everyone else had embraced it, Maggie found me and sent a friend request.

It’s been a delight to watch her soar, career-wise, and to see her find a mate and establish a family of her own, too. Now here she was, looking a little tired and a little frazzled.

This is what she told me:

I have to make twenty four cupcakes, from scratch, for my daughter Annie’s first grade class tomorrow. Jillie’s dance recital is Thursday night, and I still have to sew fifty-seven sequins onto her leotard. I’m in charge of the Christmas party at work, and I’m organizing a collection for some students who are dead broke this Christmas season. They’re debating whether they should stay in college or give their kids a real Christmas; we decided to take care of the Christmas part for them.  There are kids’ concerts  coming up and we’re both singing in the cantata at church and I made my own Christmas cards this year and Joe’s parents and sister are coming to stay with us. I have to plan the dinner and shop for the groceries and clean the house and hand craft gifts for forty seven of my closest friends…

What I did was hug her and wish her a wonderful, wonderful holiday season.

What I wanted to do was shake her and say, NO, you DON’T ‘have to’!

But, having once been a victim of “The World’s Most Essential Mommy” syndrome myself, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Maggie, right now, wouldn’t hear me.

As I said, Maggie is smart. She’ll figure it out; she’ll come to see that running herself ragged from September until January 2nd is not the best way to celebrate the holidays. It’s not even a route to making sweet children magically happy.

Until then, though, Maggie will wear the chains she’s forged herself–chains of super-mom selflessness and exhaustion. She’ll throw herself into bed on Christmas morning at 4 AM, having filled the stockings and etched an authentic looking note from Santa, thanking Jillie and Annie for the milk and cookies, having arranged the presents in person-centered piles and insured that everyone’s goodies were equal in cost and intent, having whipped up the breakfast casserole and wrestled the 16-pound roast, somehow, into her over-stuffed refrigerator. She’ll look at her blissfully snoring husband Joe, and she’ll feel a rising tide of resentment.

“Merry freakin’ Christmas,” she’ll think bitterly. “And once again, I did most of it myself.”

And, with a self-righteous little ping of satisfaction, she’ll drag those onerous chains up from the floor, wrap them around her tired self, and sleep until 5:15, when Jillie and Annie erupt to drag her and Joe out of bed.

Oh, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

I know a wonderful wife and mom who stops at her favorite pizzeria every Christmas Eve and buys two enormous unbaked pies. On Christmas evening, after the visiting is done and the explosion of wrapping paper has settled, she cranks the oven up high and throws the pizzas in.  That’s their Christmas dinner; the kids look forward to it every year, and if she whipped up a full meal of roast and mashed potatoes and gravy, with cheesecake and handcrafted chocolates, they would groan and ask where the pizza was.

What a smart mama. She says she wants to be awake and rested at the end of Christmas day, so they can clear the table and get the board games out and enjoy each other’s company.

Never once have the Essential Mommy police shown up to ding her for offering pizza instead of a seven course meal on Christmas night.

We chain ourselves with imagined obligations.


There are other holiday ways we chain ourselves, too—like Scrooge and Marley, we might have wrapped ourselves relentlessly in coils of nastiness, hoping the worst for our enemies, withholding love and joy from those we feel have wronged us. Maybe we are stingy with the tip for the paper carrier or the hair dresser; maybe we cut someone off our Christmas card list because we didn’t like an offhand remark they made last year. Fifteen years of friendship fries in the fires of resentment, and out pops a heavy metal link. It attaches itself to the growing chain we’re  wearing around our waists.

When others party merrily, we watch bitterly. “Sure. Easy for you,” we think.

Easy for US, too–if only our chains weren’t quite so heavy.

Chains of worry and resentment and frustration. We wait for a shining savior-person to come and, wielding gleaming metal cutters, cut away those heavy coils from our weary persons.

But, really, all we have to do is let them go ourselves.

Thank goodness Christmas brings other chains, too.

There are the paper chains crafted by childish hands, clumsily stapled or glued together, dangling, maybe, from one end of the curtain rod in the living room. Each day, the kids take turns ripping off a link. Soon, the littlest one has to stand on a chair to reach the bottom-most link.

When the links are gone, Christmas will be here.

For each link they tear away, those children do a secret nice thing for someone–clean up a mess, or bite off a nasty retort. Or say a little prayer in the silence.

They tear away the paper chain, but they’re creating another, more wonderful kind of linkage.

There are chains of connection–the long-awaited Christmas letter, the every Christmas evening phone call, the reunion that always happens on New Year’s Eve.  We forge these chains, too–the joyful maintenance of communication, of friendship, of caring.

We join hands with those odd people sitting next to us at church, and we are surprised by the warmth of their grasps.  We dish up the meal at the food kitchen and recognize ourselves in those we serve.

We launder the still-snuggly winter coat, mend its tears, replace its buttons, take it down to the homeless shelter, and hand it over to a retired teacher who volunteers there. She will get it to a person who needs it, a person who doesn’t need to see me or know where that coat originated. But, strangers to each other, we will still be part of a chain.

Those chains, too, are chains we forge in life.

Oh, Maggie. I want to send her a gift card for a massage, bidding her to take the afternoon off. I want to call her husband Joe and tell him to make the girl slow down. I want to sit her down and spill all the wonderful wisdom I’ve gathered, over a somewhat self-satisfied life, into her already full lap.

But she’s no fool, our Maggie, and she will come to a day when she realizes that being fully present is the very best present, that having a perfectly peaked meringue never made the difference in a holiday celebration, that treating herself with all the kindness and energy she treats others is a gift to everyone, not just to herself.

She wears the chains of obligation, Maggie does, but she also wears the chains of joy.  And deep down, under the thrum and bustle of deep-felt oh-I-have-to’s, she knows (we ALL know) which chains are made to last.