I think this is the third year that I am trying to read a small bit of Rilke each night before bed. I am good at morning routines, but my days always unravel and evening routines have never been something I have managed to follow through on.

But though I am never patient, I am stubborn, and I am trying yet again. A cursory tidying of the house. A cup of tea. A half-hour on the Shakti mat.

Rilke.

These days I’m puzzling over the idea of comfort – over the fact that it is possible to find comfort in surrendering to what is unequivocally unpleasant. I don’t mean looking for silver linings. But acknowledging what is. Comfort need not be defined as providing hope, as I have always unconsciously understood it. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of synonyms this morning trying to figure out where I got this idea.

Rilke writes: “A solitary sojourn in the country is, especially at this moment, on half real, because the sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us. The influence on us of nature’s quiet, insistent presence is, from the start, overwhelmed by our knowledge of the unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds.”

I’m aware that I’m reading this out of context, as it is presented in this particular book. And I can’t help but wonder what I’m missing. The sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us.

With all due respect, and with admitted ignorance, this morning this orphaned paragraph strikes me as a kind of koan. My thoughts are not half-real when I walk gingerly on the ice-slick paths these mornings. They are surreal. My experience of nature has never left room for a sense of harmlessness. On the contrary. Perhaps for having had grown-up so disconnected from nature it has always been something I’ve feared. Deadly insects, “Jaws”, avalanches, earthquakes. When I was a child, I picked a strawberry from the runner and popped it in my mouth. It’s how I know what a worm tastes like. I didn’t get sick, but it was years before I ate something that didn’t come wrapped in plastic again.

I’ve slowly come to see the value of consciously being with nature. To see the false comfort of brick walls and plywood frames, or a porcelain bathtub against the force of tectonic plates. To understand how the belief that we are walking on top of nature, beside it, is as much of a illusion of perspective as that of the proverbial fish who looks in vain to find the ocean. And that my being in nature certainly not marked by harmlessness.

Rilke wrote about this “unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds” in the autumn of 1914. Two months after the assassinations that triggered the First World War. His perspective of human fate overwhelming nature, as though human lives are above or beside “[N]ature’s quiet, insistent presence […]”

I was thinking about a video I saw the other day. It compared the sound waves created by various birds-of-prey. The owl being nearly silent. I thought of the pellets of fur and bone owls cough up and leave behind.

I was also thinking about the ruckus the crows make each morning when E. and I run past their morning congress by the lake. Insistent. Not quiet.

I have absolutely no idea how intimate Rilke was with nature, and therefore I have absolutely no idea what this paragraph means. To him. To Lou Andreas-Salomé, to whom it was addressed in the first place. But I wonder if Rilke was seeking comfort in nature on his solitary walk? If what he saw as half-real, wasn’t real at all? If he was envisioning soldiers killing each other in the woods? On the open fields between them?

I think there is a strange comfort in accepting the reality of nature. When you’re out in the cold, it is easier to bear when you relax. Bracing yourself against it is a waste of energy. Stay loose, keep moving. I don’t have it figured out, but I believe there is a difference between acceptance and acquiescence. I believe one needs to accept the dangers of thin ice before one can begin to plan to take care crossing.

To build bridges, maybe.

Worms naturally bore into the strawberries. You learn to keep an eye out for them. Deal with it. Wrapping everything in plastic isn’t doing the trick.

The well for coffee beans was empty this morning. I love it when that happens. I get to open the new bag of whole beans, and there is very little in the world that smells better than coffee beans at 6 a.m. on a cold mid-January Thursday after walking the dog under a dark sky.

There’s a new moon somewhere out there. The universe playing peek-a-boo with us. Teaching us not to put all of our faith in our senses. Humility, limitations: always be aware of not knowing. It’s funny how we laugh at young children’s gullibility when we play peek-a-boo. We laugh, and (lovingly) condescend to their repeated experience of surprise. But have we learned that lesson yet, in all our years?

One of my students asked about conspiracy theories on Monday. Sometimes I find these kinds of discussions extremely difficult to have with a class – but then – this is how I know it is important, and that I will learn something, too.

With the current situation, the school has encouraged us to talk to students about democracy and “what is happening” in the United States. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that all of the teachers are on the same page regarding “what it happening”. About what is and is not a “conspiracy theory”. But I know for a fact, from hearing conversations in the teachers’ break room, that is not true. I worry about what other teachers have said. Maybe wonder more than worry? No. I worry.

My grandfather warned me to stay away from philosophy. I didn’t take his advice. But I also didn’t understand how much philosophy would permeate my theater studies. How difficult it would be at times to discuss the humanities and to teach critical thinking without taking on the role of a convincing Devil’s Advocate. Not literally, as my grandfather accused his atheist professors of doing, but I’m often afraid of opening the wrong door, to the wrong mind, at the wrong time. All those “wrongs” being defined by what I think would be detrimental for them within my community – and therefore detrimental for my community as a whole.

I know I often overthink things. And I very often overestimate my influence.

Thank goodness.

At any rate: I talked about the moon landing. When I was in high school, I was working at a Dairy Queen and we had a regular customer who’d come in every week for a soft serve. An old man, with a snaggy voice. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but I remember, “You don’t believe that bullshit, do you? A man walking on the moon!”

It was the first time I’d met an adult who questioned “common knowledge”. The first person who wasn’t a pot-smoking, play-satanist teenager pushing the buttons on the chest of authority. At first I thought he was pulling my leg, but this man really didn’t believe.

His explanation of a movie lights and actors is a “conspiracy theory”. An explanation for something observed indirectly or directly that goes against the “common knowledge”*. This old man had to answer, not for the man on the moon, but for the film footage of the man on the moon. Deep fakes were a thing before deep fakes are a thing.

*I am pretty sure this is not the dictionary definition of conspiracy theory. And I really don’t care. I’m not always in agreement with Wikipedia, or even the Oxford English Dictionary (connotation is everything, always).

There is a book on my reading list titled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. I feel like I know about everything in the book already though. (Wink.)

Why do I believe a man walked on the moon? Cue REM. I told my student that we know very little based on our own experience. We trust our communities. We have to. And though we need to be compassionate and understanding when other communities – subcultures – political fractions – make different choices, have different beliefs, it’s often very dangerous to shrug off those differences as “something other”.

What we believe matters in the real world. Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. We need to ask ourselves if what we choose to believe makes the world the kind of place we want it to be. Is just. Is good.

I let it go at that. But left so much unsaid. So much examined.

 Where exactly does good stop being good? 

It was a junior high art teacher who told me there are no lines in nature.

And the truth can also be dangerous. I don’t believe good is a relative term, but is certainly at odds with itself a good deal of the time.

I think it’s interesting that the Buddha talked about suffering, when my primary experience of the world would be better described as fear. It may be a very personal understanding of the concept of suffering, but it seems to me to imply a kind of surrender, a resignation to the pain of living. Whereas fear…


I find it fascinating how belief can make things so. Not in the manifest-your-destiny/ capitalism-as-religion sense, but in the way it shapes our behavior, which shapes our relationships, which in turn shape our societies, which figuratively and literally heal or wound the biosphere.

What I wanted to tell my student was that we don’t even know there is a reason to brush our teeth every day, because we usually rely on someone telling us we have bad breath. By the time me may experience a correlation between brushing and rotting teeth, it would be too late for us.

We trust. We choose who we trust. We have to. Even not choosing is a choice that will situate us in, and within, a community. We are a hive. Sometimes I think: a uselessly self-aware hive.

This morning, looking for the Knowledge Illusion video, I stumbled on a “self-aware, autistic savant”*’s TED talk in which he goes about explaining why a poet chooses to use the word “hare” instead of “rabbit”. He had a lovely, reasoned explanation regarding the association between hare and hair, and the association between hair and fragility**.

*His label, not mine.
**His association, not mine.

Dude: Sometimes a hare is just a hare because the poet saw a hare and not a rabbit.

We can be seduced by our own knowledge, our own self-wareness.

All of us.

The one thing I know today is that when I inhale the smell of the coffee beans, I feel my shoulders relax, and I become aware of my body as a relatively simple thing in this complex world.

I haven’t been sleeping well. Though I suspect few of us are these days. This weekend several of the local lakes were declared to be “safe”, then on Sunday two men fell through the ice of two different lakes. On the other side of the country, an environmental activist fell through and died.

I know that “liminal” has become one of those overused words, but the truth is these liminal spaces are dangerous. The in-betweens and the uncertainties and this continual sense of being on the edge.

Flight, freeze, fight, faint or f#%&. But before that, the suspense, the suspension of our own unconscious flow. Heightened awareness is exhausting.

Even with the yaktrax this morning, the asphalt is dangerous. There’s a light dusting of snow over the ice. The small plow pushes snow into the street and spreads sand on the sidewalk. Leonard and I walk on the other opposite sidewalk as we all go about our business. I want to run this morning, but don’t dare. I’m too unstable, too tired. I won’t be able to catch myself and find my balance if I slip.

A time-out would be nice. Is nice, when I allow myself this. Last week my youngest son visited and told me there is another possibility to the “Flight, freeze…” scenario: submit. Startled and frightened dogs sometimes do it. It’s not the same as playing dead. There’s no deception involved. It’s a matter of softening.

We are so sure that surrender is a bad thing. I’ve been thinking that there is a reason so many religions demand it. We need a time-out from our own will. A reality-check in the midst of all the prophets. Surrender to, acknowledge this moment and its omnipotence. And the next.

I move carefully from Warrior 1 to Warrior 2 and anticipate the pain in my left shoulder. I move consciously into Humble Warrior.

For no apparent reason my practice has taken several steps back. I’m trying to concentrate on ease of motion, rather than range of motion. To return to the beginning and find first a small space of release and flow, before trying to widen the arcs of my reach. It seems like an appropriate metaphor right now for everything in my life, perhaps.

After the flow sequence, I settle on the cushion and breathe. I visualize rough seas calming into a mirror-like surface.

There was a time I loved the teacups at amusement parks. Swing-sets and carousels. But just after my first son was born, I found I’d changed. Something in my body had changed and a spin in a teacup left me feeling hungover the rest of the day. Anxious, nauseated.

There’s something to be said for the carefree way children move through the world, thrilling at shadows, dwelling on twisted dreams. Playacting the bright ones. Through the magic of performance, they have real emotional experiences that are safely controlled, and parallel to what they know and accept as the real world that is outside of their control. Most children are fully aware of the difference.

I think we grow into our delusions unnaturally: Fake it ’til you make it.

I think we have a tendency to cultivate an unconscious faith in the world’s appearance. We move away from wisdom. We cling to our concepts of what we want the world to be. We tear ourselves apart trying to hold onto what we perceive to be the center while everything moves in the directions they move – as it all does – as it all will.

There’s something to be said for submitting while the world moves around us.

To choose to be care-free again? Playful instead of willful?

Humble Warriors, all.

It is rare that I drive. Technically I haven’t had a car in nearly 8 years. Part financial choice, part environmental effort. I have the privilege of living and working along a rail track, in a country that has good mass transportation.

And I have access to borrow or rent cars when I “need” them.

But I have been driving quite a bit since the pandemic began and the government asked us not to use public transportation.

I can’t say I’ve missed driving. But I have missed being alone in a car. Having lived either in apartments or with other people all my life, it has been the only place I could belt out a “good” rendition of Cabaret in my fantasy production. Or have a really, really good cry.

I don’t cry enough anymore. But yesterday, on the way to work, I did. It took me by surprise. It usually does. It’s like an unpredictable spring well that needs emptying now and then, and you never know what’s going to tip it over the top.

Before Christmas, I did a bit of screaming. But that’s not the same thing at all.

Yesterday the principal asked all of the teachers to discuss the events in the United States with the students. I didn’t teach until after lunch, and I was still puffy-eyed when I got to class, so I was happy when they said they’d already talked about it in their morning classes.

But then one student asked me if it was emotionally difficult for me — since I no longer live there. I said it was emotionally difficult for me because I no longer live there.

I tried not to talk too much about my experience as an immigrant, but I did tell them about listening to the New Year’s speech last week. The king’s — my king’s — annual speech always begins with the choir singing God Save the King. Which, in my mind, has been hardwired from childhood as My Country, ’Tis of Thee. It is always extremely uncomfortable to hear. It’s like an accusation of treason. My grandfather fought in WWII and was involved in the Korean War. He served 25 years, then worked as a postman for another 25 years. He was angry when I said I was moving to Norway. On weekly phone calls, he did his share to keep me up to date on politics. Kept me informed on his senator’s dealings. Made sure I voted and would eventually “come home” to the “greatest country in the world”.

I have never regretted giving up my citizenship. I have seen enough of America to know that if I were to lose my job and Norway send me back (as they have some people) I would be without resources of any sort. A Ph.D. in a bloated field that, if I were lucky, would land me some adjunct positions that might pay the gas to get me back and forth and between gigs every day. But at my age — and with each year that passes, even that is not something I could count on.

I worked at shelters while I was an undergraduate in Texas. I’d lived brief periods of my childhood 4 adults and 3 children in a single-wide trailer. Slept on army cots in walk-in closets. At the age of 23, having no family, a professor kept me off the streets for six months while I found a new job and saved up a deposit for an apartment. I know what my situation would be as an older woman with no resources. I know the catch 22s of the system there. Once you fall out, it is nearly impossible to get back in without significant help.

I made a practical choice. I work my 9 to 5, pay 44% taxes, and have necessary health care and a secure-as-it-gets pension. I won’t risk that in the name of patriotism. No matter how guilty I feel.

When 9/11 happened, I didn’t feel guilty about being here. I was still a citizen, but I felt displaced. My friends still in the States, from California to Kentucky to Michigan all wrote to tell me about how “we” were feeling — assuming I was outside of the “we” affected. When Norwegians consoled me, it was difficult to shake the feeling of being some kind of fraud. I didn’t know how to feel. Which feelings were “legitimate” for me to have, and which I was appropriating. I kept hearing my grandmother calling me a drama queen.

When the children were murdered here on July 22nd, 2011 a lot of my students told me how “we” felt about it — sometimes describing the cultural framework of Utøya, not considering that I’ve lived longer in this country than they’ve been alive. Or that my own children were in that age group that was most intimately affected.

Recent years have been even more difficult. No longer holding legal citizenship, and no longer recognizing the culture I knew, it’s almost like having an out-of-body experience sometimes. Hovering over an old life. Like a character in Sartre’s No Exit. Or like watching loved ones heading for a car wreck, helpless to intercede.

Distance helps you find different perspectives. While different doesn’t mean more correct, but I do think it means more complex. It’s why there are grants for emerging American writers to live abroad a while before returning to write about their home country. I thought that having grown up in a white-trash dysfunctional family, I was savvy to the “real” America. But being here, I’ve learned things about the hidden realities of the culture I thought I knew.

But lately, I think I am having the same kind of epiphanies that so many Americans are: every myth I was taught in school — from the Cherry Tree to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — has been turned on end, toppled like theater scenography. Part of it is just a matter of maturing, I guess — a matter of crossing demographics and cultural boundaries. The fact that social media has made diversity more visible to many of us.

A huge part of it is the BLM movement.

I don’t think I am finished crying about Wednesday’s seizure of the Capitol Building. I don’t think the chapter has closed. The hand-wringing and helplessness seem both familiar and not. This out-of-body experience seems like something many of us are sharing right now.

There’s the scene in the Wizard of Oz: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I feel like the curtain has been drawn back and I still am waiting for whatever is there to step out of the darkness.

And yet — here I am — at a safe distance. There’ll be shock waves, for certain, even so many miles away, with so many borders between. But still — too often it feels like self-conscious rubber-necking.

Is it my family? My friend? My colleague there? Is this my pain?

I was beginning to fall asleep just after dinner last night, but forced myself awake hoping for a good night’s sleep instead. And right before bed I checked my phone to see if any of my students had received positive Covid results. And, yes, to see how many of the Republicans in the United States would be objecting to the election results. And, yes, I wan’t alone in anticipating an actual coup attempt. Or an actual coup.

There are very few moments in my life where I felt or was aware of a kind of quantum leap in my own maturity. But I do remember when I realized I no longer romanticized drama.

Surely I am not the only person who as a kid half-wished to experience an earthquake, a plane crash, or (from my position of privilege) a riot. I remember feeling deprived for not having a Vietnam war to protest. A cause to wear – like a costume. A purpose that would brand me – years before branding was a thing. An experience that would give me and my life a kind of legitimacy.

I suppose having kids helped me understand mortality – and that imagined experience is not experience. And that, despite my fondness for stoicism and Buddhist detachment, life shouldn’t be like watching a movie. You can’t choose to leave the theater, and you can’t forfeit your responsibility.

You are in the room.

I’ve never talked to anyone about this. But I figure we all have been brought up with the same Aristotelian narratives: adversity gives our lives meaning. It makes us significant. It makes us protagonists.

We long for our lives to have an arc, don’t we? Think of every “grown-up” who ever told a young person: you have no idea what real life is. As though we require a satisfying story to justify our existence. As though our experiences aren’t real until they are set in a set narrative framework and everyone applauds. Or gasps.

I know there are people who haven’t felt this. And because of them, I’m convinced that being seen is synonymous with being loved. It’s why unloved children are attention-seeking.

I’m fully aware this isn’t an original thought. But I believe it’s in the moments when we’ve circled around by way of our own reasoning/experience to reformulate cultural cliches, aphorisms, or proverbs on our own, that we are able to see each other as fellow humans. These are the moments when knowledge might become wisdom – and when it should become clear that wisdom isn’t a matter of originality.

I see the paradox in my own thinking: defining wisdom as a matter of realizing that other people think the same way that you do is very nearly defining wisdom as a kind of total immersion into one’s own ego.

But from another perspective, it’s a genuine relinquishing of the ego: understanding that you see things the same way that others have before you. It seems to naturally lead to humility – being late to the party on this one concept probably implies you don’t actually know it all yet. And you may not have really arrived where you think you have.

Can we be loved without being significant? Maybe the greater question is can we love while still believing in the legitimacy of significance.

I went to bed a bit past midnight last night. And have to admit (or choose to admit) to ambivalence: relief and hope on the one hand, a sense of anti-climax on the other.

Trump is no tragic hero. He’s not about to have his moment of anagnorisis, gouge his own eyes out, and wander off to an abandoned Soviet golf course in Kirghistan.

Maybe we make up our stories because it makes it so much easier to love the world. I think that’s what Aristotle as trying to say in Poetics.

“No one ever said life was going to be easy,” said everyone, everywhere.

Love is not a feeling. Love is an action, an activity.

M. Scott Peck