July Garden

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The July garden is a joy. Bright yellow marigolds, tomato plants twice as tall as the toddler, and still growing. We wait for the green fruit to ripen. Fennel fronds sway. She names the herbs as she picks them, basil, lavender, oregano, parsley! We harvested our first eggplants and sautéed them in olive oil. Delicious! I want the season to stretch out long and lazy, to slow to child’s time. I can’t help making this wish again and again, please last.

The children held hands, leaning
to smell the roses.
They were five and seven.

Infinite, infinite—that
was her perception of time.

-Louise Glück, “A Summer Garden”

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Grace State

I can’t get enough poetry lately. The free-fall, the economy of language, and, as Jane Hirshfield says, “the clarification and magnification of being.”

Today I got to see my writer-cousin Kathy, a wonderful surprise. We talked about writing, and she said, You’re doing it. You’re practicing such mindfulness everyday on your blog. Automatically I become self-effacing, respond doubtfully. Really, though, am I? My 2-year-old was verging on a tantrum and I was distracted. But still, I kept knocking this around the rest of the day. Mindfulness. This writing practice.

Again, Hirshfield: “Here, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.”

This is the line I find most consoling when it comes to the art monster/mama-writer dilemma, when I feel like a time thief alternately staring out the window and typing typing typing. But the more I write, the more I believe in the work of writing and the importance of noticing.

“Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

-Jane Hirshfield, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”

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If the Season We Could Keep

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7:00 a.m. The yellow slicker makes its reappearance. Blowing bubbles in the summer rain. She sings, Rain, rain go away, have again another day! She asks me to come out and splash in the puddles.

I would like to live inside this summer forever. To keep the sun and warm rain, to keep her small.

She is a toddler now. Knows joy the way I know shame. Closely; as if kin. Lake water that splashes against a wall and into her face is the ultimate in the earth’s gifts. She wears no shirt and no shoes and is slathered in the white porcelain shell of sunblock. The deadly rays, the vitalizing rays; we relish in them both. At the same time. She never wants to go home. She puts an arm around me as if she is my grandmother and says “Oh, honey.” As if she is telling me: oh honey, there is so much great stuff ahead. Just you wait; I know these things.

-Jennifer Fliss,  Milwaukee. Rust. A  Baby.

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What Writing Is

As you write about the specific, paying close attention, seeking to describe one small thing and then another, you don’t notice the moment it gives way to a huge expanse. Suddenly, ideas you’ve held true are no longer. A veil lifts here, a scrim falls there. The sharp edge that jabbed you reveals itself as smooth and soft. You squint into the distance wondering how you’ll find words for it all.

Writing makes sense out of confusion. It constructs narrative from raw, muddled matter.

It is the white butterflies flitting through the yard and the time you threw a plate across the room. It is childbirth and a Manhattan skyscraper. It is your wedding vows and the gum stuck to your shoe. It’s the way summer unfurls and winter shrinks. It’s the perfume you made from wildflowers and marsh water crouched in the reeds behind your neighbor’s house. It’s your grandmother brewing coffee and vacuuming, the way she never stopped moving, a steady reassuring hum. It’s the toddler-sized Virgen de Guadalupe statue you bought in Tijuana that presided over your campsite in the Redwood Forest and the moss crown you and your best friend set atop her head. It’s the surprise of getting older, the shock of the inevitable. It’s the way you always loved water, salt water, fresh water, chlorine water, like a fish like a mermaid like a swimmer, breaststroke butterfly freestyle, backstroking until your hand hit the wall and you flipped backwards, pushed off hard with your feet and wriggled eel-like until you broke the surface. It’s the goggles suctioned to your flushed face. It’s your parents and your siblings pulsing in your cells, the way you feel the past like phantom limbs. It’s the whorls of your fingerprint. It’s thinking you’re never good enough and still hoping you’re something special. It’s the way your father looks at your daughter and says, God, you’re so beautiful. It’s your scattershot trajectory, your life like a pinball in the big noisy machine in your grandparents’ basement that flashed red and white lights as your small fingers pressed the buttons like hell, flipping the pinball back up, up, up. It’s oil paints in a dusty box and the smell of turpentine. It’s your steady hands and the slippery uncertainty of your newborn’s first bath in the kitchen sink of your second floor apartment, your husband taking video, the three of you awash in newness, baptized family by the tepid water. It’s your breasts leaking milk and the way you carry regret. It’s the sunshine of your daughter’s smile, the brightest light you’ve ever known. It’s running away and returning. It’s your mother, who can pray dreams into existence. It’s learning to believe in your own good luck. It’s the way you sometimes cut your food with the side of your fork and the way you once smoked cigarettes like you were so goddamn cool. It’s the deep and sustained anxiety of motherhood and your understanding that it will never subside, that the tune of your body is forever set to this new pitch. It’s the moments you wish you could’ve whispered in your own ear, not this way, that way. It’s letting those other versions of yourself go even as you resurrect them, now more gently, with a kindness, the way you would a dear friend.

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Outdoor Shower

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If I tell you I am sleepy, children on the beach past 6:00pm, then huddled in the outdoor shower, slick hair, pale torsos, patting at each other’s brown shoulders and arms, round bellied and round cheeked, toes curled into cracks between slate slabs. Little bodies sluiced with water.

If I tell you I am sleepy, and this image is the day’s offering.

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Poetry. Hold it close.

Don’t miss these three new poems by Nick Flynn featured on Buzzfeed. What a world, right? A well-known poet and author releasing new work on Buzzfeed. I love everything about this.

When I studied with Gustaf Sobin, he said you should feel like you’re free-falling through the poem. That’s exactly how I feel when I read Nick Flynn.

Poetry. Hold it close. Hand copy it on lined notebook paper like it’s 1988. Read it out loud to yourself in the cool evening air.

Let it chisel a crack in the dam of your writer’s block.

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To Everyone in All the World

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A few days ago my birdie girl said, “Is it an owl? Who who! Or is it a mourning dove?” Sometimes I think if I could solve these toddler riddles, we could save the world.

Today she asks, “Are you happy, mama?”

“Yes, I’m happy, bug.”

“It’s going to be alright,” she assures me anyway.

In the car, her current favorite song is Raffi’s “To Everyone in All the World.” A fun little ditty that goes, “To everyone in all the world, I reach my hand I shake their hand. To everyone in all the world, I shake my hand like this. All all together, the whole wide world around, I may not know their lingo, but I can say by jingo, no matter where you live we can shake hands.”

We sing it again and again, “all all together, the whole wide world around” as we drive through the afternoon’s thunder and pouring rain, washing me clean of the divisive language circling through cyberspace.

In the store, she says “hi!” to every single person she encounters. She extends her warmth and kindness without hesitation. And nearly every time, a smile and greeting is returned. There is more power than we realize in our everyday exchanges. No matter what is happening in the world, we can always smile and say hello, we can always choose to be kind.

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Photo credit: Dreamstime

On Raising my Voice

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“To be a writer is to claim a voice, a hard thing for anyone schooled to silence… You step into the light on your own terms now, you claim the mic, telling the story you have come here to tell.” – Joy Castro, Island of Bones

When I began this project, it didn’t immediately occur to me I would be blogging during an election season, or what that would mean for my writing. Now, more than ever, I feel the need to raise my voice.

Over the last few years, I’ve slipped into the silent space of neutrality on social media. Rarely do I post on my own page. My activity is confined to wishing friends happy birthday, “liking” family photos, and scrolling past political and controversial posts. But in the current climate, it is impossible–it is irresponsible–to remain silent, to feign indifference for the sake of being polite.

This election is unlike any other. It is no longer about left or right wing politics, but preventing an unqualified, fear-mongering man from holding the nation’s highest office. A vote for Trump is a vote for racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. It is a vote for ignorance and hatred. To remain silent is to be complicit with this dangerous and potentially deadly agenda.

I am raising my voice. And I encourage you to do the same.

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Halfway!

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Yesterday I hit the halfway mark in this project. I’ve been writing for 185 consecutive days! That exclamation point feels well-deserved.

I have written on days I haven’t wanted to, and there have been many. I have written while sick. I have written while depressed. I have written while breastfeeding. I have written amidst noise and distraction. I have written just before the clock hit midnight. I have written through writer’s block. I have written after a car accident. Every day. I show up. I search for words and construct sentences. I go digging for small truths about myself that have lead to larger truths.

Throughout this project, I’ve asked myself if all these unpaid hours away from my family are worth it. After all, during the editing process (here and in my other writing), thousands of words never even make the cut. What is the value of this daily practice? What is the value of writing at all?

There seems to be no quantifiable value beyond the word counts and number of days. Sometimes it’s hard to know if I’m really getting anywhere. But there are other ways to measure progress.

Back in April, with flushed cheeks and a hesitant voice, I read aloud a piece of my writing in front of a small group of strangers. For the first time in years, I was back in a writing workshop. I remember the anxiety I felt driving to that class. Four months later, in July, I gave a public reading of my work, stood up with a microphone and read an excerpt from one of my published essays. What sounds like a leap was achieved in small steps.

At this midway milestone, I am much more comfortable using my voice.

Motherhood caused a sea change in me. I processed the changes in a quiet, wordless space. This daily practice resurrected my voice, helped me find the words to explain this new version of myself and the new things I perceive. To quote Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This is where the value lies. This is writing’s greatest reward.

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Photo credits: Turtle Rescue League and Debbie Long