O Holiday

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All this week, I have been battling a terrible cold. The cold began innocently enough – a little tickle in the back of my throat, lethargy at 10 am, that kind of thing. I don’t get sick often and I had forgotten how rotten a cold can be, how paralyzing and depressing. As I sat on the couch on Monday, unable to sleep but near tears because I felt so bad, I got angry.

This cold was screwing up my holiday season.

I put on a Harry Connick Christmas cd in an effort to lift my spirits. I positioned myself on the couch so I could see our Christmas tree. I even made myself a cup of hot chocolate and sprinkled copious amounts of mini-marshmallows on top of it, but to no avail. The cold wanted nothing to do with Christmas. In fact, putting forth the effort to be more Christmasy in the midst of my malaise only made me feel worse.

Right now, as I write this, I am in recovery (though not quite recovered) and therefore in a more genuinely festive mood. I’ve chosen to work this morning at our neighborhood Caribou, and from the window by which I am perched I can see a little girl wearing a pink jacket over a red, plaid Christmas dress (white tights, black patent leather shoes) chasing a bird. She is with her mother, and when they walk into the coffee shop – to meet the girl’s dad, who looks overjoyed when they appear – everyone smiles at them.

For some reason, seeing this happy family makes me feel more spirited than I have all week, and there is no Christmas tree in sight, nothing truly holiday-inspired here except for a fake, too-hot fire in the center of the room and the lingering sound of a muffled, poorly sung “Feliz Navidad” (mixed with the grinding, steamy latte-making sounds coming from the Barista).

This simple scene reminds me to slow down; to allow my body to mend itself; to stop trying so hard to make Christmas happen; to sit and wait for spirit-lifting scenes to appear in surprising places and forms.

I am a huge fan of the holiday season – even at its most crazy points – but, as I emerge from my cold-induced stupor, I wish for you the kind of Christmas that allows you to rest, to look out a window and watch a little girl chasing birds. I hope for you cold weather, a warm dog at the end of your bed, and good health. And while you’re celebrating, have a holiday toddy for me – Baby K’s a bit too young for bourbon-spiked eggnog.

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31

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Last week, I turned 31.  Age doesn’t bother me much, mainly because I still feel young and because I know I am loved.   I have found that this second, sappy-sounding factor goes a long way in securing youthfulness – and I’m not talking just about romantic love, but dog-love, friend-love, God-love, whatever sort of love comes around.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of a birthday gift my husband gave me.  We went to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, and when we sat down in the booth he brought out a fat stack of envelopes and put them on the table. APK is one of the funnest and/or most mischievous people I know; in the seven years we’ve been together, he’s taken me on scavenger hunts, stumped me with riddles that lead to great surprises and planned curiously creative Mega-Dates (a term he coined).

So – I was intrigued, but not surprised, to see a stack of envelopes in front of me on the dinner table.  There were thirty-one in all.  APK explained that instead of writing me a note in a birthday card, he’d decided that it would be more fun if he wrote down thirty-one things he admired about me on individual sheets of paper and sealed them in individual envelopes and let me open them one at a time.

This may be one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten, and I still haven’t even opened all the envelopes.  Some of the messages APK wrote down for me are romantic, but not all of them.  Many of them are empowering compliments, compliments that remind me to rest and be who I am, or to write what I want to write, or to remember, simply, that I am loved.  I put the notes and envelopes in a box, and it’s like the box is filled with magic.  When I am tired or grumpy, or when I stop believing in myself, or when I wish someone were around to say something nice to me, I pull out the notes and my day is at least incrementally better, if not turned around completely.  I think I’m going to decorate my office with a few of them.

I wish everyone had a box like this; in fact, I think everyone should.  People don’t offer others sincere compliments often enough.

After my graduation from college I went on a road trip out West with two good friends, ML and CF.  Somewhere between Wenatchee, Washington and Redding, California, we started playing “The Compliment Game.”  The Compliment Game’s objective was to make everyone in the car feel great, to tell each person encouraging things we’d heard other individuals say about them, but that they’d never heard directly.

One friend might have told me how great CF’s witty sense of humor is, for example, or what a calming presence ML has in times of crisis, but the compliments never quite made it to the intended recipient.  For almost an hour, we connected the dots, making quick work of a long drive and forming one of the two-week trip’s more memorable moments.  I don’t even remember now what compliments were offered to me then, but I remember feeling totally surprised by them, as if I’d just opened a little envelope made out, especially, to me.

Giving people compliments can be a difficult thing to do, especially if the recipient isn’t someone you know well.  Doing so requires humility, a willingness to be somewhat vulnerable, and an intrinsic belief in one’s self.  But it’s also life-giving and can therefore be addictive – kind of like a service project that only requires you to be sincere.

Monkeys & Such

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There is a man in our neighborhood who walks the streets with a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey is small and brownish-black and is always partially shrouded by his owner’s gray hooded sweatshirt. The man walks with a long gait. He is tall and lanky, has a coarse gray beard like his monkey’s.

Sometimes the man’s lady friend walks with him; she is petite and blonde and appears to be the monkey’s lookout. When an official-looking car drives by, the blonde keeps power walking while the man makes sure his hood is up and turns his back to the street, as if he is checking out a house for sale. Nevermind the long, black primal tail trailing from his hood, or the blank little face that sometimes peeks around to see what’s up. It is a weird arrangement, and although I’ve been observing it for almost three years, seeing the monkey peeking out from the hooded sweatshirt still catches me off guard.

When Ivy and I are on the street and we happen to pass this odd pair, the monkey bounces and chitters while the man hisses and kicks in the air to keep Ivy away. I wonder what sorts of diseases the monkey carries and I give the man annoyed, peevish looks. The man wears mirrored sunglasses, so I have no idea what sort of looks he’s giving me.

I’m not sure why I’m blogging about this except that I think it’s so interesting that we have a man who ambles through our neighborhood with a real, live chattering monkey on his shoulder; I also don’t often have the occasion to mention this odd neighbor in casual conversation. If he were friendlier, I would ask him for his story. I wonder where he works and if his co-workers know he owns a monkey; I wonder where the monkey came from and what he does when not shrouded by his owner’s sweatshirt hood.

There is also a man who runs around our neighborhood at night carrying an empty plastic grocery bag with him; he appears always to be training for a marathon, always completely exhausted. He stutters. He throws imaginary sticks for Ivy and tries to strike up conversation about the weather, or about dogs. But because he keeps running as he talks, our conversations never get far.

Another guy bikes through our residential streets wearing huge headphones, thick glasses, a black baseball cap, a t-shirt, a backpack and cargo shorts. His hair is long and curly and flows wildly out of the baseball cap, which makes him look like a boy – slightly unkempt; completely free. I always expect to see him coasting down a hill with his arms up-raised, and although he never does this, seeing him ride his bike so joyfully makes me happy.

I am glad to have these odd people in the world. Which is not to say that I want any of them to follow me home or that I have come to like the monkey-man. But I admire their weirdness, how life has not made them so tired that they can no longer be themselves, can no longer walk with monkeys on their shoulders or throw imaginary sticks. These three men are harmless, but I know people who would be afraid of them because they are different. I try not to be that way.

Lately, I’ve been trying to read a little poetry every day. These few lines are from Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes”:

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

The Writing Life

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“Freedom lies in being bold.” – Robert Frost

When I tell people I’m a writer, they get very excited. I’m not sure what they imagine when I tell them about my profession, but the reactions I’ve received imply something really dreamy – as if my days are filled with the kind of exhilaration also known by Arctic explorers and trapeze artists.

The truth is, when I am actually writing my days do sometimes feel bound only to creativity and adventure. When I am plowing fields of words or walking uncharted terrain with a new character, life really could not be better. But given the way most of my days shape up – the query letters, mostly bound for rejection, the internal and external land mines I must navigate, the “writing jobs” that pay only $10/hour – I find these strangers’ enthusiasms mystifying.

I wonder if I have somehow missed out on the hidden magic that lies within a writer’s life. I envy those who think for me a life of full-time reading, creativity, bliss. I wonder if it wouldn’t just be better to imagine myself a writer, and this edges me closer to the other side: the side that believes in practicality; the side that heralds the decision to become a bank teller, a Jeanie, or a dog walker. (I have considered, at one point or another, all three.)

Yet, if there is truth to Robert Frost’s quote, above, then I am on a path to freedom, allbeit crooked and kind of muddy. Claiming space for myself as a writer – despite what the world would like to tell me about other, more practical, “worthwhile” professions – is one of the boldest things I’ve ever done.

I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Writer’s Life and have been so encouraged to learn of the land minds she, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, navigates as she writes. She must have a room without a view; she questions the accessibility of her work. She wonders why she spends her time doing something that she dislikes so often, and why she didn’t choose to be a ferry operator or a wood splitter instead.

I haven’t made it all the way through Dillard’s book to know her answer yet, but I think it must have something to do with Robert Frost. There is freedom in being bold, in taking the risk on oneself — just as there is freedom to be found in the knowledge one pulls from themselves or from their subjects as they’re writing.

Donald Hall has said, “Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing,” and I think he could not be more right. The people who make it at this job today have a mental and emotional toughness I am only just now coming to realize. The industry demands that writers have it, demands that they be able to maintain artistic integrity AND sell out the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

While on a recent road trip, Andrew and I popped Thoreau’s Walden into the tape player and listened as his beautiful language rolled past. I began to wonder what his book proposal – had he written one – would have looked like, what sort of marketing spin he could have offered to an agent, how he would have convinced him or her that at least ten or twenty thousand people would want to buy his book, if not more. The sad truth of the matter is that beautiful writing and timeless, overarching themes (alone) don’t appear to sell books anymore, and I wonder how many Thoreaus the world is missing out on.

This, in practice, is not a very good thing to think about, and I do not encourage it. However, it’s worth mentioning in a public forum because I want to urge people – not just other writers or teachers, etc. but regular American people – to look beyond the bestseller list, to explore a book or (!) a literary journal (!) or a magazine that might be intriguing and/or delightful, but just slightly off the beaten path.

Oh, does everything come back to Robert Frost? Go take the road less traveled by …

Great With Child – A Book Review

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** I’ve decided to take my friend Richard’s advice and begin reviewing books on my blog.  I’m hoping that this will motivate me to read more voraciously.  ** 

There are a lot of books on the market about pregnancy, and even more, I’m sure, about parenting. I dislike these books. I say this a few weeks into my third trimester after receiving (from well-meaning friends and acquaintances) a stack of them almost as tall as my bedside table.

Of these many texts, the ones I’ve thumbed through have left me feeling somewhat uneasy, or alarmed, or angry.  I nearly threw one across the room.  The marketers of these books impose a sort of moral authority over pregnant women, suggesting through various means that one will be an unfit mother unless she reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting from cover to cover.  The books also appear to be written by people who might also, say, have too-strong opinions about things like the NRA, or taxes, or the space shuttle program. Like heat-seeking missiles, the writers target with remarkable focus expectant mothers’ unique vulnerabilities, sending already tweaked-out hormones into a new and utterly unpredictable frenzy.  The authors of these books take on the sort of know-it-all tone that used to make me want to hit someone hard with a kickball when I was in middle school.

My doctor’s first word of advice to me, when I was just eight weeks along, was to rely on her when I had questions or fears and to avoid all books and web sites concerning pregnancy and childbirth. She needn’t have worried.

But among the stack of pedantic, agenda-driven pregnancy books there is one shining gem: Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly. Fennelly is a poet and professor of writing at Old Miss who wrote a series of encouraging letters to her friend Kathleen during K’s pregnancy. In Great With Child – the book that resulted from these missives – Fennelly, who herself has two children, gives pregnancy and parenthood its due while celebrating (and sometimes bemoaning) its mysteries and its madness. She offers Kathleen both grace and freedom, covering topics from miscarriage to the administration of pain medication to work/life balance with a calm, supportive, reassuring voice.

Great With Child will not tell expectant mothers when their babies’ ear drums are forming, this is true, but Fennelly’s poetic sensibilities offer readers a broader, more literary and more powerfully feminist view of what it means to be “expecting.”