I was talking to a friend recently about how much we take for granted the changing seasons. Autumn is alive in all its damp chill and brilliance, and everyone is talking about how astonishing the colors are, how delightful the leaves are underfoot. Of course, we know that winter is next, and a warmer, greener spring will come when the time is just right, so we see beauty in the withering, the breaking, the cold misty mornings. We take a walk and enjoy the season before another begins.
When it comes to the changing seasons in my own life, however, I rarely express the same sentiments. Instead I’m the one running around with scotch tape trying to stick the leaves back on the trees, devastated that they’re turning colors and falling everywhere, making such a mess. Moves in particular are hard. I remember the first night I spent in my home in downtown Seattle. I had moved in the middle of a snowstorm, but thanks to some heroics from my movers, the boxes and tables and chairs and piano were finally through the door and shoved in various corners. A local painter had whitewashed everything, and I’d managed to drag a mattress up the staircase to the open sleeping loft with the help of a friend. Later, lying there under piles of quilts, I panicked. This place would never feel like home. How could I even sleep here? It was too stark, too open, too exposed to the street, and far too bright, the way the streetlights lit the alley. I calculated curtain measurements. My eyes traced patterns on the wooden closet doors, and I listened to the city sounds for hours.
Sometime in that early early morning with the snow, sleep came. And of course, other seasons came too. Years later, I’m still living in downtown Seattle very much at home in my loft, and I’m a bit mystified at how that change happens. Is it the unpacking, the stuff in a space that makes a place feel like home? Is it the experiences, the making of memories? Is home where you spend your time and your imagination and your resources? Is it where your habits are? Your heart? I’ve fought for my place, built it up, then torn everything down from the walls to start over. Lovers have come and gone, and guests have laughed through dinner parties. The ceilings here are high, but nooks and crannies and odd hidden spaces give way to curiosities. There are stories in the walls. And I can always see the sky.
They say the only thing constant is change. That may be true. So is the change that comes with perspective. Maybe home is less somewhere we dwell and more something we carry with us, a little bit like hope, and the simple contentment that new seasons will come when the time is just right.
More from Molly’s photo shoot can be found here.
A few autumns ago, my friend Annie asked me to write a little piece for I Live Here Seattle, her lovely photography project on people and places. So much has changed — in my life and my decor — since this shoot was done. But I still think a lot about the concept of home. And I still carry mine with me.
You’ve seen a herd of goats
going down to the water
The lame and dreamy goat
brings up the rear.
There are worried faces about that one,
but now they are laughing,
Because look, as they return,
that goat is leading!
There are many different kinds of knowing,
the lame goat’s kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.
Learn from the lame goat,”
and lead the herd home.
going down to the water
brings up the rear.
but now they are laughing,
that goat is leading!
the lame goat’s kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.
and lead the herd home.
The Chateau Hardware
It was always November there. The farms
Were a kind of precinct; a certain control
Had been exercised. The little birds
Used to collect along the fence.
It was the great “as though,” the how they day went,
The excursions of the police
As I pursued my bodily functions, wanting
Neither fire nor water,
Vibrating to the distance pinch
And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.
I was walking through the Brooklyn Book Festival with some friends last weekend and stopped to chat for a minute with the publishers at A Public Space. I grabbed an issue from the stack on the table, flipped through, and paused at one article, “Eva Zeisel’s Prison Memoir.”
Eva Zeisel was a Hungarian American industrial designer renown for her work in ceramics. Her pieces bear a warm sensuality and very human roundness of form, and she is considered one of the most important designers of the twentieth century. The article chronicles part of her life that she had relayed to family and friends, but not published broadly: early in her years as an artist and craftsman, she visited Russia and was caught up in the first Stalinist purges, falsely accused of plotting to kill Stalin. She was imprisoned for 16 months and spent much of that time in solitary confinement. The stories of her imprisonment are riveting. She recalls the details of her daily life, the mind-games of her interrogators, and the oddly charming packages sent by her mother (“A tiny, complete cauliflower, wool underpants, lemon crystals to make lemonade, crabmeat”). Darker passages recount disappearing cellmates and a suicide attempt.
Retold to her friend Arthur Koestler after her release, Zeisel’s experiences actually inspired his famous novel Darkness at Noon.
Finding this work felt like a bit of synchronicity. Two years ago, a friend and I attended a formal champagne tasting one evening in Manhattan. After several flights of bubbles, we were all a bit chatty, and the young woman next to us introduced herself as Tailsman Brolin, a photographer who lived in the village. We talked more about design, art, and entrepreneurship, and she told us that her grandmother was Eva Zeisel. Tailsman was extremely gracious and not only invited us to a party at her home, but encouraged us to come meet Zeisel. “You should see her soon,” she pressed. “Eva is not well, but she loves visitors. Come in the next few weeks.” We were saddened to receive a note from Tailsman not long after that her grandmother had died.
Well-loved by her family and well-respected for her craft, Zeisel lived a rich life. These stories are another window into it, and testament to an uncommon strength of character she forged along the way, not only in enduring imprisonment for something she did not do, but also in transcending the experience to share it. She begins wryly, half-daring us to believe what she will tell:
"Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself — slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise in reporting my memories."
“Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”
I’ve been working on a collection of short stories, telling how 20 youth from the streets of Seattle’s University District have left homelessness behind them. It’s for the 20th anniversary of a nonprofit I work with called Street Youth Ministries.
Seattle has a huge homeless youth problem. You don’t have to live here very long to see it. Estimates vary, but between 700 and 1500 youth are on the streets of King County every single night. SYM runs a drop-in center that provides the basics like food, hygiene items, showers, clothing, and laundry facilities. Usually this is where SYM staff and volunteers first meet homeless and at-risk youth, learn their stories, and build relationships with them. The youth can also become more involved in other programs we offer, such as individual case management, life skills classes, and outdoor activities. No one agency can meet all the needs of these youth, so SYM works with a range of local agencies and nonprofits to ensure they get the right kind of support.
We get questions sometimes about our name, specifically the ministries part. Do we preach at the youth? No, absolutely not. Our name comes from our history, actually. In the early 1990s, people at University Presbyterian Church noticed that the area’s street youth were gathering under a covered stairway on the property for shelter. Seeing the need, the church opened their basement to the youth, had an overwhelming response, and the program was born. We’ve since moved to a separate location and refined our offerings through the years, but many of our supporters still come from the church. We think the heart of Christianity is love and community for all people, and that belief fuels what we do.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how kids end up on the streets, why they act the way they do out there, and what it takes to help them transition into stable living situations. That’s a big part of why I’m doing this writing project. The root of most youth homelessness is actually family dysfunction. What is missing for many of these youths is a safe place to come home to when they make mistakes, and a safe person to help them navigate normal adulthood rites of passage such as finding work, navigating relationships, and living independently. They’re not dumb kids or lazy kids. They are young people without the kind of supports young people need. Many of them have paid a terrible price, and that can’t be undone quickly. Fifteen years of dysfunction doesn’t change with a fifteen minute discussion, or fifteen discussions, or fifteen weeks of regular discussions. It takes a lot of personal time and genuine personal investment. But we have seen that healing starts when we strongly demonstrate to youth that they are loved and valued, and that they have a safe place to come to. No matter what.
Last week one of our staff members, Brynn, sent me the following note. It speaks to the power of addiction, and how much love, week after week, it takes to match that. She is our activities coordinator and she manages 30 volunteers. She is a warrior of love.
Many nonprofits have a tirelessly sacrificial attitude toward their work. Employees are expected to make these sacrifices for the greater cause rather than compensation. It is not easy. It is why most non-profit employees last only one to three years.
This week I am glad Street Youth Ministries is different. They gave me time and space to grieve when I found out that Lisa, my favorite client, had died. My heart is torn up. I saw her last Tuesday. We were supposed to meet again this Tuesday.
My dad died when I was nine years old, so I always thought I knew what it meant to deal with grief. Lisa’s death is teaching me many things, one of which is that no one has a corner on the grief market. When you love somebody you will grieve when you lose them. You will be in denial. You will be angry. You will bargain, and play out every what-if situation you can in your head and then play it out fifteen more times. One minute I am completely fine and the next I am feeling all five stages of grief at the same time.
I went to Target with my roommate on Tuesday and got very emotional just looking at the tea. Last week when I last saw Lisa I brought her some sleep aid tea because she had been struggling to fall asleep at night. Yesterday at the SYM volunteer picnic I was also having a hard time. I had suggested to Lisa that she go out for coffee with some of my younger college-age volunteers, because she had been struggling to make new friends who would love and respect her.
One of my favorite parts of my work was Green Lake time with Lisa. We would get coffee at a small coffee shop just north of the lake, then cross the street and sit by the water while we talked. Sometimes our conversations would be all business. We would talk about her housing situation, her addiction, the things she was doing next, and what help she might need from local agencies. These were great conversations, but I really loved the conversations we had about life.
When I met Lisa she was a meek young woman with a terrible addiction and a trashed self-confidence. She had moved off the streets into more stable housing, but the transition was tough. She didn’t like herself, so she compensated by being overly caring to people who didn’t deserve it and so meek that the word no was not a part of her vocabulary.
As Lisa and I continued our Green Lake conversations, she would talk about inviting a friend over to her apartment only to be yelled at, disrespected, or used in some way. The stories were heartbreaking, but a transformation was beginning. “Why do you think you deserve that?” I would pose. When challenged to say it out loud, none of her answers seemed very persuasive.
Pretty soon she told me these stories out of anger instead of depression. She was indignant that people would treat her this way. She could say quite clearly that she did not deserve this kind of treatment from friends. Later she explained that she didn’t want to hang out with people like that anymore, and she decided not to let them up to her apartment to begin with.
About three weeks ago she told me she had spent the weekend in Portland. She had met a guy who was the complete opposite of the guy she was dating back home. Portland Guy considered himself a feminist, Lisa told me, eyes wide in awe. She had never heard of such a thing. At some point he told her that when she comes back to Portland they should get a drink, or have some sober fun. She was blown away. Who is so inclusive they leave options open for addicts? Portland Guy was a realization to Lisa that respect should be the norm and not the exception. After months of service providers telling her exactly that, she had the embodiment of it right in front of her.
Lisa’s addiction was profound, and it took her life. She was two weeks away from getting a bed in a public treatment center. This is one of many situations when we find the system failing: Lisa was eager to go to treatment and would have gone two weeks ago if she had the option. The growth in her life was incredible. I have great joy in my memories of Lisa and also great sorrow knowing there won’t be any more.
I want to leave you with this poem.
The point is the demon.
It slowly gains control.
You may not see it coming.
But it’s there.
You may not want to do it,
But it’s there.
You may not want to do it,
But it lures you there.
Everything is an excuse to
Do it over and over again.
The demon has control.
No matter how much you beg and plead,
It will always be in the shadows
Waiting for you to slip up, and
When it enters, it kidnaps your soul and
You are no longer you.
It was introduced to me by my father.
I promised myself I would never become that way,
Yet, when the needle has control,
Promises will be broken and it will devour all,
For the demon has control.
Because I Didn’t Know the True Meaning of Love
A teen in King County Juvenile Detention
"I listened to "First Things First". Then I listened to it again, and again. This song speaks of many things I have experienced lately: the mystery of love, the ache when it leaves with questions unanswered, and the wisdom that feels worthless in times of grief.
It also speaks of the humbling truth that when everything falls apart and I’m down on my face begging for promise, for protection, for provision, often what God offers is his presence.”
Molly McCue, Seattle, WA
At the beginning of 2013, songwriter Sandra McCracken asked friends and fans to preview her forthcoming album, Desire Like Dynamite, and send her thoughts on the songs. She was kind enough to publish mine for a beautiful little piece called “First Things First.” I had picked up on the themes of betrayal and hope that run through it, and it turns out she wrote the song about addiction, a form of betrayal that starts with the self.
That song has been running through my head lately as I’ve begun a new writing project that portrays these themes very vividly. More on that soon.
A friend of mine recently confided her alarm at being asked to write a blog post for her company, a small startup. She’s an articulate writer and a terrifically creative woman, so I asked her why she was concerned. “Well, it came out of the blue — they asked me to do it over the weekend.” I knew the company engaged in a lot of social media and content curation. Didn’t they have a calendar for this sort of thing? She smiled. “A lot of excitement. Not a lot of planning.”
I have had this conversation so many times, mostly with frustrated marketing managers. And a few overwhelmed interns.
There is a lot of information out there on how to more effectively use social media, but I find that some startups and nonprofits simply struggle with scaling: they want to be on several platforms driving meaningful conversations, but it gets overwhelming fast.
Here’s how to scale for a brand.
First and foremost, create a calendar and use it. This is the primary way agencies are able to run social media for several brands simultaneously. Calendars do not have to be complicated. Commonly they are made in Excel, with individual days listed down the left and social media platforms across the top. You can work your way down the days, filling in posts, and work your way across, tweaking each day’s message for the different social platforms you are using. For example, Facebook and Twitter cultures are very different, but it only takes a moment to customize the same message for each platform. If, like my friends’s company, you have a blog, it’s great to list that as well to make sure all of the content is cross-promoted correctly.
The hardest part is staying ahead of the game. You need to keep the calendar filled out at least a month in advance, and coming up with all those posts can be challenging for even the most creative people. But it’s possible. What about when things change? Yep, they do. It’s good to review the calendar weekly and move usable content around if it gets bumped by something urgent.
Using a calendar makes daily posting very quick: you’ve already done the thinking and editing and reviewing separately, so you can post to several platforms in minutes. There’s less need for third-party tools or automatic cross-posting that can truncate messages. It also makes switching roles a snap. If someone is gone for a week, you have an entire calendar of posts ready for a backup.
A few more basics:
Run campaigns. When you are managing social media for a brand, every single thing you do needs to tie back to your organization’s purpose and strategies. If you’re not sure what those are, it’s a good time to talk about them — you are not just “managing a community” or “having a conversation.” There is always a point. Posting thematically in campaigns is a fresh way to bring those strategies to life and the best way to build your audience.
Rethink live. Live-tweeting, live-blogging, and hosting video chats are great ways to engage audiences. But for brands, many of these events are carefully crafted ahead of time and run by teams in tandem: some people at the event, some people remotely at their computers. Again, the key is getting ahead of the game: create a timeline and script as much as you can in advance, then punctuate these ready posts with what’s happening live.
Report your results. Nearly every social media platform provides analytics free to brands — a major difference from personal accounts. Facebook alone slices data in way more detail than companies typically need for insights, so it’s easy to grab clean numbers that show growth month-over-month. It’s also important to take a step back and summarize those campaigns: here’s what we did, here’s how people responded, here’s why that’s important, here’s what’s next.
I was sitting at a local spot having brunch last weekend when my server stopped at my table.
"Hey — are those postcards you’re writing?"
"Can’t remember the last time I saw someone writing a letter," she said, smiling. "There’s nothing like getting one in the mail."
I agree. I am an avid letter-writer. I am not sure how this came to be, except that I was raised in an extended family of letter-writers so it is not entirely unexpected. In addition to the usual phonecalls, messages, and emails, we write each other letters all the time. Some silly, some serious. In particular, I have enjoyed correspondances with my grandmothers for many years. Growing up, my mother kept a hall closet stocked with all kinds of cards, pretty stationery, and small gifts that could be used on short notice, and I’ve learned to keep my own trunk full of those things for when inspiration strikes. I also carry stamps in my wallet. You know, for letter-writing emergencies.
I like writing letters because it is crafting a sensory experience for another person: they open the envelope with their fingers, read the words with their eyes, and even smell the paper where the words are written. It’s a physical endeavor in that it requires you to affix a stamp and find a mailbox. It’s also openly improvisational, unlike digital forms of communication where the process of the writing is hidden somewhat. When writing a letter, you can’t erase a sentence and start over, and if you stop and start again, the pacing is wrong. There is a rhythm to it. You have to think of a theme, go with it, and see where you end up. A good letter, like a good conversation, requires some creativity and some focus.
LIke any art form, letters are a slice in time. Yet letters also have surprising longevity — they bear a personal mark, and people hold on to them.
The thing I hear most is that letters are daunting because it’s difficult to know what to write. A few tips. First, you don’t have to write much. As anyone on vacation knows, postcards are a great cheat because you have to keep the message short. Second, stop and think about why you want to connect with the person you are writing to. Were they on your mind this week? Is there an idea you’ve got to share? What did you just read? Tell them about it. Third, end with a punch. Include a recipe, a poem, or a quote that captures how you’re feeling. Draw a little sketch. Compose a bad haiku. My aunts are practical jokers and used to send candy-wrappers or toenail clippings back and forth. Please do not send me toenails.
And of course, letters don’t have to be mailed. They can be laid on a pillow, tucked in a suitcase, pinned to a bulletin board, delivered by concierge, taped to a steering wheel, or slipped under a door.
It takes some thoughtfulness to write a letter by hand, but a delightful thing happens when you do: you often get one back.