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.

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The In-Between

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Spring is a struggle. Every year, no matter what. The wan light strains. Pollen induces anxiety. Last year, I remember writing, “I resent the forsythia.” And I do, those poor brave blooms daring to dot the bare landscape bright yellow. There is the feeling of almost there, almost there. All the while, March drags. April chafes. May teases. At last, the light is becoming warm and round. Day stretches past evening. I can forgive the fragrant lilacs. I almost love the weeping cherry.

I hover in the in-between, and I keep meaning to write about it here. Time evaporates, but also I’ve wasted precious evening hours watching Call the Midwife and Home Fires and The Voice. It’s an escape from the discomfort of transition. I rush off to work, and later I rush home and pretend as if I was never gone, and my daughter says, “I missed you,” and in the early mornings she tries to nurse. These are not big hurts, just the little aches of motherhood. Still, they tug and nag.

I try to remember this is just a short moment on the way to somewhere else. Almost there. But where is there? In the dreamy distance, I have it so together. I finally write a whole book. I have a job I love. I’m thinner and better dressed with new, well-fitting bras and fashionable glasses. I run 6 miles every day. My hair looks good even when its messy. I haven’t aged. In fact, I radiate such contentment, I almost look younger. There are hours with my daughter, my attention undivided, my mind undistracted. Time is elastic. I forget what anxiety feels like. My shoulders relax. I stop grinding my teeth in my sleep. My husband and I go to concerts and restaurants–a weekend getaway? There’s always enough time for a family walk in the evening, cool sand and pink skies, our happy silhouettes racing toward the water.

Maybe I’m closer to some of those things than I think. A new bra seems attainable. I have a short CNF piece, If I Could Shoot the Moon, published in this month’s issue of Pithead Chapel. Tonight on the beach, my silhouette didn’t race but ambled, fussy toddler hefted onto my hip. My best friend walked beside me while her son marched ahead, dragging a piece of driftwood across the sand. There are so many versions of happy. The sun broke through the cloud cover. A pair of mallards kept company. Piping plovers flitted over the mud flats. All of us on our way to somewhere else.

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Spring

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For the first time in over three years, a single flower bloomed on our hibiscus. I do not give up on plants. The poinsettia from Christmas is still vibrant on the kitchen table. The peace lily my mom carried on the train to Manhattan over a decade ago to congratulate me on my corner office with the big window looking out on 34th Street and 5th Ave is still with me, now divided into many pots in rooms throughout my house.

I don’t give up on plants, but I wondered if the hibiscus would ever bloom again. I’ve been in my own dormant phase, my writing not exactly suspended but slowed. At first it made me nervous. Then I decided that, after a year of daily writing here and elsewhere, it was okay, necessary even, to be quiet for awhile.

There have been all sorts of hang-ups that prevented me from the page–to say nothing of the scant slivers of time–among them the fear of being redundant. Have I just been repeating myself, the needle stuck, the record skipping? During this quiet time, as I’ve continued to read work by my favorite writers, in books and on blogs, I’ve noticed their individual patterns, designs born of repetitions that expand and grow. Like the stamen of a flower, like all patterns found in nature, we speak our geometry.

Already the hibiscus has curled into itself, the spent petals wrapped snugly around the stamen. There was but a moment capture the bloom.

Space

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When the cat comes to claim it, you know you’ve created a good spot.

It’s been an unusual week around here. I started substitute teaching on Thursday, and for the first time since my daughter was born, I dashed out the door unaccompanied and drove to work in the quiet car listening to NPR morning news. The work days were great, and by each day’s end I had a feeling akin to thirst for my child. To hold her and swing her in the air and drink in her laughter. The change in routine has recalibrated my energy level and sense of gratitude, and not just in a blanket I’m-so-thankful kind of way, but in very specific ways that only actual experience can impart.

In other small but significant happenings, today I graduated from writing at the dining table to writing at an actual desk. This has been nagging at me for a while, less the desk and more the space, in particular the wall. I realized I need more than my Excel spreadsheets. I need a place to stick post-its with deadlines, ideas, and pitches. I need to hang up my Dear Sugar poster and May Sarton’s “Now I Become Myself.” I need to spread out, claim a space of my own, give the work room to grow.

Now I Become Myself

May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

In Real Life

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On Sunday a bit of magic happened. For the first time since we were introduced about a year ago, I got to meet author/writer Rachel Federman. Rachel and I met virtually via our blog spaces through our mutual writer friend, Amie. I feel so fortunate to have these two writers in my life, and it was a dream to get to spend the day together.

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that Rachel was on the train from New York and our paths would finally have a chance to cross in real life. I’d begun to think there was some glitch in the universe that would keep us in close proximity, never granting us the opportunity to actually connect. But then Amie pulled into my driveway with Rachel and her daughter, and there I was, hugging this person whose generosity and insight sustained me through 365 of days of blogging.

The five of us walked down to the beach, the little girls both in purple galoshes, taking turns on the red tricycle, stopping frequently to inspect sidewalk cracks and splash in puddles. The weather was spectacularly Spring-like, warm enough for short sleeves, the last of the snow melting into the muddy earth.

We marveled at the weather–it was impossible not to–and Rachel observed the eeriness of it too. The thin winter light of February and the warm, windless air of early summer just didn’t match up. Our daughters built sandcastles while the three of us talked about the beach and writing and politics and life.

Later in the evening, Amie hosted dinner and, as we stood in the kitchen talking about writing retreats, Rachel insisted on chopping the vegetables for the salad noting this was her favorite time of the evening, that first glass of wine while chopping carrots and chatting, before anyone has eaten and the energy is still high. She was so perfectly right, and her words preserved the highlight of the evening in my memory.

The night melted away faster than the last of the snow in the too-warm February sun, and I found myself saying a rushed goodbye when I realized it was so far past my bleary-eyed toddler’s bedtime. I left behind loose threads of conversation, ones I hope to pick up again soon.

The Heart of Winter

 

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It snowed! Gone, the soggy days and confused tulips. The sun was bright and the trees cast long blue shadows against the drifts. Clumps of snow clung to the bare branches. The bitter cold meant even the streets were white like the streets of my youth, winters long past. Finally, snow that sticks.

Earlier in the week we’d gone to the craft store, one of those chains full of fake flowers and holiday knick-knacks. Red hearts and doilies and paper valentines gave way to St. Patrick’s Day displays with shamrocks and glittery green top hats and signs shaped like bottle tops that read “Kiss Me I’m Irish.” A thought bloomed like a tiny crocus: winter isn’t interminable. The grey will give way to green. In a month, we’ll gather for corned beef and cabbage. The kids will circle the house screaming and laughing and we’ll walk uptown to the parade.

Every year I’m tricked into believing winter is a static state. Lulled into a myopic daze, I’m unable to see the inevitable spring.

My daughter disrupts my train of thought, darting around the living room announcing “Happy Valentine’s Day” as she places paper hearts in front of the cats and pastes a few to the window. My husband is locked in his office busy with work. I re-pot the purple cyclamen, and already six new blooms shoot up and promise to unfurl.  Winnie the Pooh sings exuberantly in the next room. As I write that sentence, I think, adverb, indulgent like a piece of chocolate I shouldn’t eat. I think of other writing advice: to use specific detail and avoid writing “dramatically” or about “feelings.” Still, I want to confide. In this static winter state I flit from guilt to ambition, malaise to joy, surrender to perseverance, despair to hope like a bee trapped in a cup softly banging against its enclosure not realizing it can fly straight up and into the open air.

We sledded down the high school hill at sunset, screaming as the snow hit our boots and sprayed into our faces. Later, my best friend treated us to dinner. The kids ate the basket of tortilla chips while we sipped margaritas from salty rims. We had one of those disjointed conversations made of snippets strung amidst toddler chatter, where every sentence begins with, “What was I just saying?” Eventually we gave up and discussed dinosaurs and played I-Spy and laughed with the kind folks at the next table who retrieved my daughter’s balloon again and again as she let it float up to the ceiling.

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.

Crossing the Finish Line

I’d intended to get fresh thoughts down this morning for my final post in this 365-consecutive-day series, but I dodged it. I dragged my feet. Procrastination, I’ve learned, is part of the process. The whole time you’re writing in your head–that’s part of the work too.

A few things I can say with certainty on the last day: I have found my way back to me. I pushed aside that paralyzing and imaginary concept of perfection. I walked through my fear back to myself.

I learned, or rather I taught myself, that the main thing is showing up. The action is everything.

I found my voice again. And my strength.

In light of all that lies ahead, for us and for our country, I can think of no better way to leave off. Strong in my sense of self. Strong voice. Ready to show up and do the work.

On Saturday, I’ll take an early train into NYC for the Women’s March.

And in a week, I’ll be back with a new post. Imagine, a whole week between posts?

(Post 365 of 365 ~ I did it!!!)

Wrapping Up

Before we left for Bass Pro Shop this morning, the toddler asked, “Are we all going? Together as a family?”

“Yes, we’re all going together!” I told her. And her face lit up.

This is usually an excursion she goes on with her dad while I write. We played a lot of pass-of-the-toddler this year. With just three posts left, I realize I’m feeling ready to wrap it up, make space, see what comes next.

(Post 362 of 365)

Party Day

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My little three-year-old had the most wonderful time at her party today, and it made my heart so happy.

Over the last year, she’s gone from shy toddler to party lover. So I planned ahead and booked it at our local gymnastics place, where I knew the kids would be free to run and play. Two gymnastics teachers led them in a few games, and Isabella ran around the room like a little sprite before joining the group. She went back and forth, partaking in games and running wild, and I just loved watching her enjoy herself. It was one of those parties that couldn’t have gone better. Fun, relaxed, and perfectly timed. Everyone seemed so happy.

Afterward, my sister sent me this incredible photo. My tiny, sweet just-turned-three-year-old gazing up at all those candles. Every once in a great while, there’s that shot that captures it all perfectly.

(Post 361 of 365)