My coffee machine died this morning. I suppose nearly ten years – five years beyond warranty – is a pretty good deal. So here I sit with freeze dried coffee, wet hair and the wind hitting the windowpane.

A dried leaf falls from the cut roses on my desk, like a deliberate grab for attention. They really need to be put in the compost.

And I stare at this screen.

“Nice Cinderella, Good Cinderella,” is an ear-worm that I can’t shake this morning. Since we’ve been watching Into the Woods this week in class, it isn’t surprising, but it it still feels random. Shouldn’t ear-worms have some kind of significance? Some kind of hidden message? “Nevermind Cinderella, Kind Cinderella.”

The Raggedy-Ann doll
on the book shelf was a gift –
it replaced a lost doll
I mentioned to a friend
– a comforting keepsake

– a token of care
arrived in the mailbox: this
thing at the center
between her hands and mine
amidst a history of loss

“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

A difficult night last night. Three a.m. text messages are never good news. Even when the news is edged with hope: a turn for the better, an “it could be much worse”.

It’s not the knowing that all things are impermanent that is comfort, it’s the acceptance of this. And I am forced to redefine the concept of “comfort” in my mind.

Again I read in a news article that it is foolish to say we live in uncertain times when the future is always, and has always been, uncertain. It’s a matter of how aware we are of that fact.

An alarm pulling us from sleep, even to offer hope, exposes our most vulnerable nerves. These truths that fade in sleep. Or in dreams, are popped into relief as a kind of rehearsal for the inevitable. Waking is a reprieve sometimes. Awake, asleep – both are ambivalent states of being. There is nowhere to escape from ourselves.

Is there comfort?

Soothing is not healing. But doesn’t try to be. What if the largest part of our job is a kind of palliative care? What if all that there is, is the soothing of ruffled feathers? A warm hand on a cheek? An intention to reassure one another: you are not alone.

Breathe, and be here with me. Even over a telephone connection. Like a dream. Listen to the wind against the window. Be here with the wind.

Reaction is not action.

In the theater, an actor’s every, individual action is supposed to be an assertion of the character’s will. Actors strive to inhabit the character’s lack of self-awareness. Acting is the inverse process of living Socrates’s examined life. Don’t act: react.

Art is, by most definitions, artifice. It has the intention of recreating life. But for what purpose? Many diverse cultures have had a tradition of hiring mourners for funerals. Actors, reacting in an act of compassion. We cannot bring back the dead, but we can care for the living. The theatrical is no less real for being theatrical.

And leading an examined life, acting instead of reacting, is no less real for its directorial perspective.

It’s one thing to accept the futility of one’s own will in regard to illness and accidents – the events of the greater world. It is another entirely to accept that there is no one to whom we can appeal for guarantees. No one’s will can stop the world in its tracks. It keeps turning under us, and we are forced to put one foot in front of the other. Because that is what we are here to do.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

― Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Even the most devout of us will caution that not all prayers are answered with yes… And they go on with that knowledge.

In a news report two years ago the journalists described the video that had been online: in her final moments, a young woman who was beheaded by terrorists cried out for her mother. Her mother, who was so far away. And unaware of that moment at that moment.

Somehow the mother, knowing this, goes on. She breathes still, now, beyond the unimaginable. The surreal. What can any of us offer her?

And each other, knowing that this is somehow all of us. All of it.

Of all the scenes in all the films I’ve ever seen, burned into my mind is that moment in Private Ryan where the soldier asks for a time-out. When I react in fear, that scene comes to the forefront of my memory.

If I had Socrates to dinner, I’d tell him that the unexamined life is most definitely worth living. Necessary even. We live for each other. Sometimes we act, sometimes we react. We give attention. We care. This is the nature of us.

This morning I light the candles, and the incense, and I unroll the mat. Through the window, I watch the tree across the street moving in the storm. Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. Let my shoulder girdle settle. Spine in the center of my body.

I reach upward. Inhale again.

I am tired. I’m confused. Raw. And aware of my fortunate state of being. In this moment.

Who can stay on the middle path when the storm is blowing and the road is covered with ice?

We try.

The snow is melting off the roof. I can hear it dripping outside the window. I didn’t run this morning. Instead, I took two paracetamol and emptied the dishwasher. I still feel out-of-sorts. And again this question of “normal” arises.

The more I feel things slip out of control, the more I keep rearranging the spice cupboard.

I suppose it is forcing a sense of order on the world. Filling the salt grinder with coarse seas salt. Consolidating three bottles of cumin seeds. It’s grounding.

No pun intended. Or maybe, intended. The textures, the smells are simple and comforting. After nearly a year of ad hoc meals, I’m cooking again. It feels like a good “beginning again”.

Now coffee, and a blank page.

Her voice is pebbled
I press the phone to my ear
an hour of ache
an ocean away she tugs
a thread that unravels us

I can hear you, just-
a knife slices through onion –
keep talking. Neck stretched
to my shoulder stuck mid-shrug
to bear the weight of the call

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.


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.