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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Clinkety Clank

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This funny thing keeps happening. I begin writing a post, and it veers into a new essay, or yesterday, a poem. I pluck it from the post and open a Word doc, and then never manage to return here. Most of my free time these last few weeks was consumed by planning a surprise birthday party for Chris, which entailed more than I’d anticipated, especially given my 3-year-old partner in crime who had no interest in running a million errands. But I pulled it off, surprised the heck out of him, and we all partied late into the night.

I’ve finally been released from the grip of seasonal depression. Though it still has me looking over my shoulder. We’re done here, right? Because it’s been awfully long and I’m ready to get back to the business of living and writing. I slogged through Spring trying to convince myself of potential. I know there are always new possibilities. But depression smothers the feeling, and if I can’t feel the possibilities, then I can’t access them. I tend toward what’s the point of all this? But I hang on. Wait it out. Keep going.

Chris and Isabella returned from a walk with a big bunch of white and pale pink and fuchsia peonies for me. I stripped some of the leaves and snipped the stems and put them in a tall vase next to the sink. So fragrant, such extravagant beauty keeping me company while I did the dishes. And in a flash, the phrase humming in the back of my brain, What is the point of beauty? inverts itself: Beauty is the point.

And then, like a gift from the universe, I stumbled onto The Power of Words to Save Us, an interview at On Being with the poet Marie Howe. It’s a powerful talk that includes meditations on presence, screen addiction, identity, family, everyday gestures as forms of prayer, and readings of “The Gate” and “Hurry.”

From her poem “The Meadow”

Bedeviled,

human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words

that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled

among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.

Howe talks about the assignment she gives her poetry students every year that’s both writing challenge and spiritual practice: write 10 observations of the actual world, no metaphors.

Thich Nhat Hanh says when you wash the dishes, wash it as if it were the baby Buddha or the baby Jesus. That’s what the church used to be. It used to be that we would attend these things every week that would remind us of the sacredness of the everyday. And it’s harder to find it now… It seems that everything in the Western world is trying to tell us this now, [to be present], even as we’re speeding up, and speeding up, and speeding up, and staring into our screens. It hurts to be present. I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them. Just tell me what you saw this morning in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. We want to say, “It was like this; it was like that.” We want to look away. Then they say, “Well, there’s nothing important enough.” And that’s the whole thing. It’s the point. Then they say, “Oh, I saw a lot of people who really want” — and, “No. No abstractions, no interpretations.” But then this amazing thing happens. The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff. And it’s so thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like, “Wow.” The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean, it almost comes clanking into the room. And it’s just amazing.”

I’m taking on this assignment for the next few weeks and invite you to try it too. Maybe you’ll meet me here in a couple days and dump your stuff on the table with me, clinkety clank.

New Year (Let’s Try This Again)

Here I am on my second-to-last day, about to cross the finish line. Just one more post to go!

I’m afraid I’ve made it sound like the blog itself is ending–it’s not! I’ll be posting here weekly, and I hope you’ll keeping reading. The last two weeks my posts have been thin, and it felt like I was fizzling out. Between the post-holiday blues and a long stretch of sickness, it was all I could do to come up with a few words each day. That’s just how some days go. But that biopsy I had was benign. I’m on day 3 of no sugar/no starch, my brain fog has cleared, and I have more energy. It feels like my new year is finally beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about organizing (one of my biggest challenges) and housekeeping aspects of the blog. I should probably create some sections and perhaps house this 365-project under one of those sections, as novelist Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days did with hers. For anyone who’s joined me later in this project, Catching Days is one of my favorite places on the internet, a beautifully curated literary site that offers endless inspiration to writers. I happened upon Catching Days as Cynthia was finishing her own 365 project, and it was the exact inspiration and guidance I needed at that moment. I was surprised and delighted when Cynthia followed me through those first days and months offering feedback and encouragement, a gift from a professional writer to an aspiring one.

Catching Days hosts a series called How We Spend Our Days that features a different writer each month and an essay about how they spend a typical writing day. I’ve finally had a chance to read the January’s writer, the poet Sawnie Morris. It’s a meditative start to the new year that’s returned me to a place of noticing. After having been away from my writing practice (evenings at the library, etc) for the last month or so, these words really resonated.

“The next day and the next, I force myself to get up and go directly to my studio, to the desk. I’ve been away for months now and the only way back is to ruthlessly dedicate myself. The effort is awkward, but I am starting to catch the faint scent of liberation, which is to say, I will disappear and only the writing will be left.”

I also loved Morris’s description of her husband thinking through the process of painting, assessing where the work was in that moment and the blind, gut-level path every artist has to follow toward completion.

“For several seconds, his mind is in the painting’s landscape and I can see that he is worried and alone in the snowfall of its forest, at the same time that he is fully awake and betting on his instincts to find the way out.”

 

(Post 364 of 365)

Mother-Writer

There is a thought that’s repeated in my head over the last year like a mantra: “I write because of and in spite of my daughter.”

At this time last year, her just-turned-two-year-old self was small enough to fit in the cradle of my legs folded indian-style, nursing while my hands typed. That was my method of buying time to write in the beginning. I know I felt touched-out and drained, and the recurring sentence fragment in my brain was, “To think a clear a thought.” But I can only see it now through a rose-haze, those little hands, the newness of language, the cure-all comfort of breastfeeding. In fact, at the start of this project, I had never spent an entire day away from my baby. Not until Day 32.

Shhhhh.

Do you hear that?

QUIET.

Not the temporary quiet of sleeping baby. Not the little old lady from Goodnight Moon whispering hush. I’m talking husband with toddler taking a day trip across state lines to visit grandparents quiet. Blue sky almost-spring sunshine fed cats asleep in windows quiet. Alone in the house for a good big stretch of day quiet.

Drink. That. In.

This has not happened since I’ve become a mother. A whole entire day alone. I couldn’t relinquish her to the world for the span of an entire day until today. I know how bonkers that sounds. But it’s the truth. It took so long for the miracle of her to arrive, my life’s sole mission became protectress. It was nothing I planned and everything I had to be.

I’m glad I trapped that moment on the page. That version of me, now gone. Are we like snakes molting minute-to-minute or Matryoshka dolls, former selves stacked within us to be cracked open again and again?

When I was pregnant, a friend told me, when a baby is born, a mother is born too. I heard “mother”–that part I understood–but I didn’t quite hear “born.” I couldn’t grasp the way an entirely new version of myself would be born. Or the mysterious way those former versions of me would show up. My daughter reignited my desire to write, to be true to myself. And at the same time, she made it so darn difficult for me to take up the task of writing. To think a clear thought. But for all the essays lamenting the incompatibility of motherhood and writing, I think they pair well, the push-pull, the toggle. Because of and in spite of. What better training is there for a creative pursuit than motherhood? Motherhood, that supremely creative act, that exhausting slog. What else could have taught me to dig so deep?

(Post 363 of 365)

 

One Brushstroke

Last Spring, in the early part of this project, I re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, searching for some bit of advice that would give me courage and break through my writer’s block. I scribbled down her oft-quoted line, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

After this year of writing, blogging, pitching, and publishing as well as critiquing and commenting on other writers’ work, I can’t say I entirely agree with Lamott. Heck yes, you own everything that happened to you. And yes, tell your story. But regarding those who should have behaved better, I would say, proceed with empathy and the greatest care. Let loose in the first draft, of course. Draft many drafts. Explore. Don’t rush to publish. Allow some time to pass, and then look at the work with fresh eyes. Consider the reader.

Words can wound. Words can honor. I’ve bumped up against many boundaries during this writing year. Mining your material isn’t just about discovering the things you want to write, it’s also about discovering the many things you will not write. I am more careful now about the words I use, the ones I write and the ones I speak.

I have a writer/editor-friend who gave a generous and careful critique of a recent piece. One of the most important things she noted had to do with a main character. She said, “I think you need just one more brushstroke.” That note has stayed with me. I consider it whenever I’m editing my work. After all, one brushstroke can change everything.

(Post 345 of 365)

 

A Breath

A breath. A grey morning. A toddler and her father peacefully constructing a marble run in the other room. A cup of coffee still hot. A mother-writer typing these words at the table next to the Christmas tree.

Yesterday, the mother-writer attempted this very same thing. She sat for a few early morning minutes with her coffee, desperate to type fleeting thoughts, to tie a loose knot, to knit the past to the present, to patch the precarious scaffolding she’s been building for 343 days, to locate the place inside, self, to tap the wellspring, to mine a vein and perhaps discover a glint of newness. But the family could not conspire on behalf of the mother-writer, who was on edge after giving and giving and giving. She simply could not give in to more giving, and so she hollered loudly, ferocious for the scrap of time she was not allowed. And then she got in the shower and cried. And then the busy day began.

It’s easier to write about failure in the third person.

In the evening, we had friends over for dinner. Children entertaining themselves in the den. Adults in the living room sipping wine and relaxing by the fire. I stood in the kitchen with my friend from California as she sliced a pear and assembled the salad items she’d brought. Our conversation swirled around itself, mine streaming from that place of I’m trying to get her into preschool and get my freelancing off the ground and I feel like I’m failing at mothering and failing at working and I wish I could split myself in half, and hers streaming from a place of working long days with high-risk students in Oakland and pursuing career ambitions but feeling like she needs to go part-time because she’s not with her kids enough and wishing she could split herself in half. We were coming from different places, but our feelings were so much the same. After she scattered the last of the sunflower seeds over the lettuce, she turned to me and hugged me for a long time and said, “You’re doing a really good job. We’re doing a really good job.” We were both crying, and she said, “It’s hard. It’s just really hard.” I poured olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the salad, and we drifted back into the living room with everyone. There was lots of laughter and catching-up and the kids running through, laughing through, dancing through before disappearing again. We spread out on the couches and floor and ate pizza and salad on paper plates. We talked about work, kids, politics, activism, parenting. We enjoyed that very particular contentment and ease that comes from being with old friends.

(Post 343 of 365)

A Hard Rain

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The wind is fierce tonight, but it’s cozy inside. Chris came downstairs after putting Isabella to bed and I told him, “I keep thinking about all the animals.” He said they’d been reading Owl Moon and he’d had the same thought.

Last night I received an email from an editor, a call for pitches. I skimmed it just before bed, and this morning I woke with an idea. The sentences started stacking in my brain and I hurried to get Isabella settled downstairs and then hid myself away for an hour to get a draft down in my notebook. I got almost three-quarters of the way through before the day took over, and then it was the toggle between toddler-wrangling and attempting to cohere the essay into something whole. By day’s end I’d done it. I finished the essay, wrote the email, and sent the pitch. I’m sure it could’ve used more polishing, but I stuck to “better done than perfect.”

In my post-election malaise, I lost track of my bullet journal. So I reclaimed it today and sorted out the rest of the month. There’s much to be done and I need a way to keep track of it all. It felt good get it all written out. I also went through the new wall calendar and wrote down January’s events. Here we are, on the cusp of a new year. In my bullet journal, I added “think about goals for 2017” to my task list. I realized I don’t have any writing events scheduled yet in 2017, no class or writers conference or even a lecture. I would like to have at least one thing scheduled that will keep me tethered. I also intend to make a list of publication goals and writers I’d like to work with. There is something very powerful about writing it down. The year I became pregnant with my daughter, I wrote “baby” on my New Year list for 2013. And many of the dreams and goals I’ve written here on the blog have manifested. It surprises me every time, as if maybe I’m some sort of sorceress [insert photo of Stevie Nicks]. So, I’m curious, do you make lists for the new year? Goals, dreams, wishes? Do you have any traditions or superstitions? My mother’s family tradition dictates we eat pickled herring on New Year’s day for good luck. Briny, coated in mayonnaise, and eaten straight from the jar.

Here I should come up with a better segue, but it’s 11:00 p.m. and my brain is tired. My friends, did you see Patti Smith’s performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the Nobel Prize ceremony? I watched it on Monday morning and tears poured down my cheeks. And did you read her equally beautiful piece “How Does It Feel,” describing her experience of the performance? It’s one of the most moving essays I’ve read all year. I love Patti Smith. Her poetic prose. Her honesty, the way she is so wholly herself. She is the embodiment of grace. I turned to her work before I began this project, and the name “One Blue Sail” is taken from this passage in M Train.

We seek to stay present, even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all. We imagine a house, a rectangle of hope. A room with a single bed with a pale coverlet, a few precious books, a stamp album. Walls papered in faded floral fall away and burst as a newborn meadow speckled with sun and a stream emptying into a greater stream where a small boat awaits with two glowing oars and one blue sail.

Go and click the link to her essay. The video of her performance is there, too. Watch the performance and then read the essay. It’s a healing experience. A balm born of a stumble, an overwhelm of emotion that transformed the concert hall into a sacred space.

(Post 331 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.”

(Post 327 of 365)

Truth-Bomb

We’re coming up on a month since the election. So, where are we right now, today, right this minute? PEOTUS tweeting about Saturday Night Live’s parody about PEOTUS tweeting. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson now in the running for Secretary of State. HRC now up 2.6 million votes and 2%. Everyday I ask, what is this unreality we’re living in?

I need truth-bombs like this one from the brilliant mind of Rachel Federman at Last American Childhood. It’s an essay that beats like a drum, that rises off the page like a warrior cry. It is the necessary, urgent art of our time.

(Post 319 of 365)

 

Homestretch

I’ve been feeling this feeling, an anxious what-next sort of feeling as this project nears the end. After I write this post, I only have 47 left to go. You’d think I’d feel relieved–and part of me does–but I’ve also gotten used to it. I’ve worn deep ruts in the road, and the tires roll right in. I think about the writer I was, the person I was, when this project began, and I can say unequivocally that I’ve changed. I am rooted in myself. When I’m seeking an answer, I know I have to search within. That’s something you can give lip service to, but it’s another thing to do the work, that internal search, to practice self-trust. I’ve spent so much of my life searching for answers outside myself when I had only to pick up a pen. And I did. I wrote. Again and again. But I abandoned it again and again. This time I dug in. Stubborn and unrelenting. On the days I wanted to quit, the days it felt too hard, I had to find ways to push through. Ultimately, I had to change my life in order to accommodate the writing. That was the part that never caught traction before. I dropped artistic pursuits because I couldn’t justify them and/or because they became difficult. The changing, the act of assessing my life and figuring out how to make room for my writing, is perhaps the most interesting part of the project for me. I stopped having a glass or two of wine in the evening. I reclaimed those evenings and I reclaimed scraps of morning and nap time and often said to hell with dinner and jumped in the car to head to the library the minute my husband got home. Adjusting my habits hasn’t been easy on my little family. Throughout the process I’ve been wracked with guilt for not giving my whole self over to them, for stealing so much time, and unpaid time to boot. I mean, who do I think I am? I’ve questioned whether it’s been the best thing for my daughter. It makes me a less-available mother. It also makes me a less-available spouse. Tonight there was a half-opened bottle of wine on the kitchen counter leftover from my best friend who visited on Wednesday night. I’d taken it out of the refrigerator to make room for water bottles and orange juice. My husband saw it and said, “Oh wow, you’re having wine tonight?” He sounded excited. I explained I was just making room in the fridge. He sighed. “Are you disappointed?” I asked him. “Eh, I just thought you were actually going to relax,” he said smiling. I guess I really haven’t been much fun. Maybe not since the last time I had a glass of wine, back in June at my birthday party. And before that, not since sometime in early March when I realized that even one glass of wine cut into my writing time. I’ve been operating like someone on a mission. Because I am. And it’s true, I don’t relax. I mean, today I did yoga, so that was something. And on Wednesday, when my friend visited after I got my daughter to sleep, and we chatted by the fire, that was a lovely time and a potent elixir for all my anxiety. I talk a good self-care game, but it’s often a struggle. And right now, it’s a Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. and I’m writing and my husband is upstairs snoring. He fell asleep putting our daughter to bed. There’s lullaby music playing. The last log on the fire just dropped into the embers. I should probably wake him. We should hang out. Relax. But I’m going to keep writing. Because the thing I wanted to say, the thing I’ve been thinking about as this project wraps, are the guideposts that led me to the project to begin with, among them the women I’ve come to think of as my literary godmothers. Cheryl Strayed, for one. I wrote about her in the beginning, and highlighted her in my first post, when I felt like I needed to be official about things and have a premise for the project, back when I still felt obligated to explain myself. Cheryl Strayed and her beautiful book WILD. Cheryl Strayed writing from her guts. Cheryl Strayed who hiked into the wilderness alone. Cheryl Strayed who stripped herself of her surname and claimed her own identity. Cheryl Strayed who bet on herself. Again and again and again and again. Cheryl Strayed’s melodic voice on Dear Sugar, her inhibition, her feminism, her Midwestern charm, and her advice: “to write like a motherfucker.”

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

And maybe I’m anxious about the project ending because I’m really just beginning to find my footing, my voice, my truth. I’m only now beginning to get free of the trap of what I thought this thing was supposed to be. I’m only just now digging up my courage to tell you all the things I want to say. Have I ever really explained the way my daughter cracked me open to my core and revealed my truest self, my feminism, my fearlessness? Have I yet written the words that I write because of and in spite of my daughter? I’ve had to trust that all the time I steal in order to write ultimately makes me a better person, better thinker, better writer, better mother. That this best version of myself, deeply flawed though it may be, is my greatest offering.

(Post 318 of 365)