A Bear, Tomatoes, and an Exercise in Resisting in Metaphor

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A black bear is wandering our small city. Braving the busy main roads, trotting down quiet side streets and into little backyards, finding temporary refuge in the marshes and sparse woods. Two days ago, he was across from my mother’s house, moving so stealthily through the neighbor’s yard, he didn’t even disturb the laundry on the line. He took the beach route to our side of town, must’ve walked right past our house to get to the tennis courts by my dad’s where he was last photographed. He’s a young male black bear, alone, and most certainly lost. I wish he’d stop by our backyard and rest awhile in an Adirondack chair. I’d bring him a stack of toast with butter and jam and a drink of cool water, walk him over to a good fishing spot where the woods meet the marsh, and invite him back when the tomatoes are ripe.

Days of rain kept me from the garden. When the sun finally returned, I went out to weed and see if it was too late to plant cucumbers only to discover there wasn’t an inch of space. The garden is wild with tomato plants, volunteers from last summer. I have only a little tending to do: some transplanting to reduce crowding, a bit of weeding and watering. Sometimes the things we create take on a life of their own. Some growth comes not with labor but with ease.

Before I get metaphorical and compare gardening to writing, I want to pour my Marie Howe collection of observations on the table. If you decided to play along, I hope you’ll leave me a few (or a whole bunch) of yours.

A man, large and bald with thick glasses, sweeps the cafeteria floor near the table where I sit writing, looks at me and asks, “How do you like world war three?”

The boy with the missing front tooth and greasy hair always wears the same grey-brown clothes and sits alone, but at least he has a phone, and today talks briefly–so briefly–to a girl sitting nearby.

The copy machine in the teacher’s room whirs and chugs and spits so loudly, I can practice my poem in full voice without anyone hearing.

My daughter runs across the wet, green grass through the sprinkler and shouts, “Drink, mommy, drink!” I bend down and lower my face to the spray, catching the cold metallic-tasting water that feels somewhere between a tickle and a sting. I shriek with laughter.

Thin clouds gauze over the blue sky. We count two lobster boats, one barge, four sea gulls. Charles Island in the distance.

Tiny 3-year-old feet with chipped red nail polish run through the sand.

I press my nose to the back of my daughter’s head and breathe deep the scent of salt air, sunscreen, and a sweetness that belongs only to her.

The tides comes in and we watch the seaweed–green, brown, red–dance around our ankles.

Evening on the front porch. The swish-swash of the swamp maples waving in the wind. The tink-tonk of the bamboo chime.

The full moon casts a glow over the rippling water. I sit in the wet sand and watch.

 

 

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Reclamation

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This morning as I was slicing an apple for my 3-year-old, she marched around the kitchen chanting, “You’re the best mama!” It’s the first time she’s said that, and I don’t know where the heck it came from, but it sure felt good.

This first week off from daily writing was filled with excitement and events, and then when it got quiet, I crammed the silent spaces with volunteer work and course work and mini social media binges. I became distracted, my brain ballooning with noise, lifting me off the ground. Untethered.

I knew it was time to sit down and write.

Before and after the inauguration, I channeled my energy into volunteer work, uploading submissions to the Disability March, a project spearheaded by author, activist, and Fairfield University professor Sonya Huber. It’s been an honor and a gift to work on this project, to be able to take a positive action, to help give voice and visibility to those who were unable to march, and to spend time with individual photos and stories. These marchers carried me through the inauguration and reminded me of the way our stories keep us connected.

On Saturday, I marched. My 8:30 a.m. train to Manhattan was packed. A group of seniors moved slowly down the aisle in pink hand-knit pussy hats, holding cardboard signs that read, “RESIST.” The train was filled with a contagious positive vibe, and at every stop, the conductor reminded passengers, “Make room! Today is the Women’s March.” Grand Central was humming with electric energy.

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I met my friends by the clock and we hugged and talked national news and personal news, and my friend Kelly brought me an extra pair of sunglasses, and we walked city-quick, into the cool, damp air and headed east toward Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. The streets were already filled with marchers and signs and sporadic low-level chanting. We slipped into the rally just before the blockade closed and listened to speeches by Cynthia Nixon, Helen Mirren, and Whoopi Goldberg. There was music and dancing, and then the entire crowd sang “The Star Spangled Banner” with solemn gusto. In that surge of unity, I felt a reclamation of the hope I’d lost after Election Day.

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Later in the afternoon, as I wove through crowds on my way back to Grand Central, I felt light and joyful, buzzed on solidarity and goodwill. On the train, scrolling through my phone, I was awestruck by the photos and videos pouring in from sister marches across the country and around the world.

Over the last few days, my joy has fizzled amidst the signing of executive orders, the suppression of factual tweets by the National Park Service, the inevitable in-fighting among groups within the Women’s March movement, the inane memes circulating, the inflammatory, clickbait articles. It’s easy to forget I have the option to quiet the cacophony.

Last night I opted out of all that noise and focused on uploading the last submissions to the Disability March. Today I promised myself I would not engage with news or social media. Today I’m retreating to my small patch of earth, my own story, my own work, my own day. It’s going to be a long haul, this process of reclaiming our collective hope and continuing to march forward, and tending to ourselves is an essential part of the work.

Today I duck the swell and catch a small wave of joy, that tiny voice declaring I’m the best mama.

Slow Down

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Photo credit: Famlii

Today was a juggling running around catching up with course work almost forgetting to order cupcakes for the birthday party kind of day. Wondering if/when I’ll catch up, find my equilibrium. I do much better with a routine, and I’ve been knocked off mine for so long now, I feel like I can’t quite get traction.

When I become impatient and an edge creeps into my voice, my daughter says, “Okay, mama, just slow down.” I have no idea where she got it from. But it works so much better than “relax” or “calm down” or “take a deep breath” or “count to ten.” Just slow down, mama. Okay zen toddler, lead the way.

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Intentions

A big thank-you to the writers who got me through this foggy first week of 2017 with their inspiring new year’s posts. Kathy’s newest essay Voided Checks reflects on practice, gratitude, patience, and how we respond to life’s challenges. Tara Borin chose “practice” as her word of the year for 2017 and had me thinking about a word (or three) I might choose to shape this new year. Sarah at Mourning Dove Motherhood coasted me through the holidays with her infectious optimism and humor. I especially loved her post Winds Are Slowly Filling Our Sails, a meditation on the way shifting our lives in a new direction often feels slow, uncertain, and zig-zaggy, like changing direction while sailing. Rachel’s latest post at Last American Childhood swept me away with its beauty and brought me back to that place of life-as-narrative. I’m so grateful for these strong voices and the art they create and put out into the world. Whether you’re seeking inspiration in the new year or just looking for a good read, go check them out!

I’ve finally managed to organize some intentions for the new year. (Note: you’ll never catch me announcing a resolution. Too inflexible!) Which brings me to my first word.

Flexible. This year I want to be more flexible. Go with the flow. Accept the unexpected with grace. I don’t like surprises or sudden changes in plans. It takes me time to adjust. But life is full of surprises. Already, the new year has hurled curveballs at me. A few things that have helped me become more flexible: pausing, taking a breath, writing, sleeping on it (if possible). To be flexible is to be open to change. To bend rather than break. To continually meet life in the present moment.

Gentle. This year I want to be more gentle. With my child. With my partner. With my family and friends. With myself. My writing practice has made me less judgmental and more empathetic. I want to keep cultivating that. Gentle isn’t rushed or hurried or distracted. Gentle isn’t harsh or demanding. It’s not impatient or unkind. To be gentle is to take care. To seek to understand. To be compassionate.

Celebrate! This year I want to celebrate moments big and small. From newly fallen snow to milestone birthdays. I want to relax into events and holidays without getting worked up or overwhelmed or rushing around like a maniac. I want to enjoy things as they happen. Loosen up and have fun. I want to hang the sign and blow up the balloons and remember to send the card on time. I can’t wait to put this one into practice next week when we celebrate Isabella’s third birthday!

Those are my zen intentions. To counterbalance, I have a long list of ass-kicking goals for 2017 written in my notebook, because how could I not?

(Post 354 of 365)

No Need

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According to Anne Lamott, “December is traditionally a bad month for writing.” And I’m inclined to agree. I’ve had to surrender to life lately because it is so very full. The Christmas countdown is on, and I’m doing my annual scramble, though with less anxiety than usual. I’ve let the Christmas cards fall to the wayside this year because something’s got to give. I’m working on some special gifts for my parents, and that’s where my energy is going, to these quieter, more important projects. Writing–even these mundane, surface-y posts–helps me focus, identify priorities amidst the competing swirl. My output here is not so grand or deep. It’s more about the practice of staring at the blank page and getting the words down, constructing sentences, following a thought, discovering what comes next. It’s an inward looking. This morning I scribbled this Virginia Woolf quote into my notebook, a mantra for the hectic month: “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.”

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If the Season We Could Keep

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement during this wacky week of Intro to Potty Training. I swear I’m going to stop writing about it. Today is a better day for no particular reason other than it just is. These last few days I’ve wanted to hit fast-forward, but last month I wrote this essay about the moments I wish I could keep, and it’s on the Brain, Child blog today. A good reminder that there are so many little joys and that things are changing all the time.

(Post 324 of 365)

 

 

 

Recovering Hope

My dear writer-readers, I know so many of us have been struggling to write through the election fallout as we continue to witness the incomprehensible at our nation’s highest level. We’re coping with fears for the future. Real fears. The loss of civil liberties, healthcare, and medicare, a rise in hate crimes, the possible dismantling of public education, total disregard for the environment and the health of the planet, and on and on. How do we recover our voices? How do we continue to hold hope? Ultimately the answer is to show up to the page, that transformative, thoughtful place that allows us to access the deepest parts of ourselves. One of the most inspiring reads I’ve come across recently is NTOZAKE SHANGE: ON A BRILLIANT BALANCE OF ANGER AND POETRY, which also speaks to sharing, community, and collaboration.

Zaki always knew who she was talking to and who she was singing for: her peers, her sisters, her community. She always understood that creative writing is enmeshed in a community. Her mind was not focused on literary critics or the commercial publishing establishment. To say that she did not see writing as a professional career is not quite right; rather she always thought poetry was like making music, something you did with your friends to celebrate being alive.

So from the beginning Zaki’s efforts were almost always in collaboration—with other writers, with musicians, with artists, with dancers, with actors. Her body of work is more collaborative than any other writer I know. It’s the community again, a community of artists and friends that grounds and surrounds her work and locates it in its historical specificity. And that specificity in Zaki’s case meant being a woman and being Black in the America of the 1960s, a situation that demanded political involvement. The women’s movement had already taught us that the personal is political—and if you happened to be a woman, if you happened to be black in this society at this time, the personal was intensely political and politics, the politics of oppression and resistance was inescapable. And oppression generates anger, or more precisely outrage, which is anger at injustice, which can be a great danger to the poet or artist. For, while outrage can be an enormously powerful motivator of political action, it holds the danger of corroding the creative spirit.

But anger was required if you were a black woman poet who found herself in a deeply racist and misogynist society, and in the 1950s and 60s that was pretty much the case with America. And anger is hard for the poet who, as Auden says, sings songs of praise of what is. It’s hard to sing if you’re angry.

What always impressed me about Zaki’s work was that she was able to keep that just anger hot and alive, but she also knew how to keep it properly focused, to keep it in check and not to let it consume her entire being. “Combat breath” she calls it in one of her essays. Mastering the anger rather than being mastered by it, she could go on being essentially—even quintessentially—a poet, one who celebrates the impact of the live moment as it bursts into language and song.

(Post 317 of 365)

 

 

Changes and Traditions

These last couple of months leading up to age three are all rapid change and growth. Increased vocabulary and refined pronunciation. Heightened awareness and comprehension. Assertiveness, a strong will. There’s a lot more resistance, a lot more “no!” She will hold up her hand and say, “No, mommy, leave me be!”

She still has an ethereal essence, a sweet and gentle soul. It shines through her big brown eyes even during crabby moments. But a fierce will is emerging, and though it sometimes wears me out, I’m glad for it. I want her to claim her space, raise her voice, stand her ground. She is an incredible combination of peace and strength and silliness, teaching me all the time.

If you ask her what she wants for Christmas, she will answer, “A present!” There is no material good she longs for, except perhaps another book to add to her collection. She is still blissfully unaware of our consumer-driven culture. I know it won’t be long before this changes, and I’ve been thinking of little traditions that focus on what truly matters. I love the tradition of decorating a tree in the yard with edible ornaments for the animals, detailed over at Wilder Child. It’s a simple craft project, an experience, and an act of giving. It turns our attention to the creatures we share space with and instills a sense of responsibility to wildlife. And it looks so lovely, the cranberry strands and orange cups of birdseed hanging from the tree. We’ve been reading Jan Brett’s The Mitten every night and thinking about all the creatures in our backyard.

If I had any talent for sewing, I’d quilt an Advent calendar. My favorites are the fabric ones with pockets for little felted ornaments and candy canes. This year we have a beautiful paper one from my sister. Perhaps next year I’ll craft one from fabric…

How are your little ones changing? How do you celebrate the season?

(Post 316 of 365)

Revising Christmas

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“When we pay attention to who we believe we are and we surround ourselves with the things that reflect that story, with all its urges, aspirations, and processes, we develop a perspective that’s uniquely ours to share. In turn, we can share that unique perspective and, acting from a place of greater wholeness and awareness, thus become better and more useful members of our community.” In Honor of Saint Sunrise Day by Khristopher Flack (illustration by Katie Hickey) is an essay in Issue 20::SHARE, reminding us of the calendar and the pace at which we live, especially during the holidays. @katiehickeyillustration #taprootmagazine

Photo Credit: Katie Hickey

This lovely artwork and quote popped up in my Instagram feed tonight and reminded me I need to order a subscription to Taproot Magazine. “When we pay attention to who we believe we really are…” That’s what this project has been, an act of paying attention to who I believe myself to be, inside this moment in time, this specific era of my life. I like Flack’s conclusion, that this practice allows us to share our “unique perspective and, acting from a place of greater wholeness and awareness, thus become better and more useful members of our community.” I’d like to read the entire essay, especially because it speaks to the pace of our lives around the holidays. The holiday dread is already creeping in. Don’t get me wrong–I’m no bah humbug. The Christmas tree lights are twinkling, the stockings are hung, and tonight I fashioned a boxwood wreath in front of the mirror with a beautiful scrap of red and white fabric. It feels peaceful and bright. We sing carols at night before bed. And I can’t wait to see my daughter’s smile when she unwraps her dollhouse this year. It’s the racing around, the shopping overload, the many many many events. I’m trying to think of ways to make this year feel less hectic and more relaxing. Perhaps, instead of stretching ourselves thin, we need to stretch the holiday out.

(Post 315 of 365)

Thanksgiving

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Today I give thanks. For able hands to create with. Hands that can braid dough, hold a pencil, type these words, lift my child, change a diaper, shovel earth, wipe tears, wave hello, grip a steering wheel, strum a ukulele, cup water, peel a clementine, fold laundry, pet the cat, build sandcastles.

There’s so much I’m thankful for. A strong and loving partner. Our daughter, who will never cease to feel like a miracle. The precious and valuable gift of good health. Parents and stepparents, who are alive and well and vibrant. A big family I can always rely on. Sisters who I can turn to for anything. Friends who are like family. Two sweet kitties. Our house with its cozy front porch and old stone fireplace. First world luxuries so easily taken for granted like a dishwasher and washing machine and health insurance and a car. The beach. Salt air. Seasons. The freedom to express my thoughts, speak my mind.

And I’m so thankful for everyone I connect with in this space, the readers and writers and thinkers and creators. Thank you for taking the time to read and for sharing your thoughts with me–it truly means so much. I hope you all had a blessed day!