A Dream Life

The other night I had a dream: It was Christmas time, and Andrew and I were in Lowes. He was excitedly negotiating with a salesman for a high end, front-loading washer/dryer. The units were purple; this mattered to neither of us. They were on clearance. When the salesman in my dream promised to throw in a new Dyson vacuum for free, I was a goner.

Given the thrill I felt in my dream, you would have thought Andrew was buying me an entire case of jewelry at Tiffany. When I woke up, I thought, “Awesome! A new washer/dryer!” only to be sadly disappointed that our old, (mostly) faithful run-of-the-mill Whirlpools were still taking up residence in our laundry room.

I find it hard to believe that my ideas of appropriate/exciting gifts has come to this. I am a romantic at heart, and I keenly remember thinking that Andrew and I would never resort to the sort of practical gift giving I’d seen so many married couples fall victim to – giving one another a few shares of stock or a coveted kitchen appliance; paying off their cars before the dawn of the New Year; stuffing one another’s stockings with tubes of toothpaste and Costco packs of toothbrushes.

Andrew is a great gift giver – he never fails to be thoughtful, and he’s almost always on the mark in terms of my preference or style. When he proposed, he did so with a ring that he designed. The Christmas after my father died, Andrew commissioned for me a painting of the farm where I grew up. When I turned thirty, he gave me a box filled with thirty slips of paper, each telling me what he loved about me. You really can’t get much better than that.

On the rare occasion when he has gone for something less than romantic/sentimental – there was that one shoe-themed Christmas – I’ve tried to cling to the bright side (I really did need some new shoes, and Andrew noticed without my mentioning it). But practicality is just generally not my gig. I’d rather be wooed.

So to dream that my romantic companion would give me a purple washer/dryer bought on clearance for Christmas? Truly a watershed moment. I have no Freudian or Jungian analysis for this. I think it’s just a sign of the times. Better appliances mean less work for me, and, as mentioned in a previous post, I need as much help as I can get.

Therapy

I live in Nashville with my family, and here, music really is everywhere. Any night of the week, there’s a live show to see, a number one party to attend (if you’re in the business or in the know), or an open mic night to take part in. All that music, whether you’re involved with it or not, shapes a city. I think it makes a place more dynamic and certainly more creative, and I might even venture to say it makes a place more friendly. Music, like laughter, and, ok, just about any form of art unless it is really weird, is a unifying force, and I consider it a privilege to live in a place that is creative at its core. It may not be as chic or as metropolitan as my previous home, but it is as unique and inspiring as any city I’ve ever visited or lived in.

Because my husband works in the music industry, we enjoy some insider’s perks. The other weekend, we were in North Carolina for the Mountain Song festival (highly recommended) and had All Access passes thanks to an awesome little bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers. Steve Martin, who I am convinced must be one of the world’s most creatively gifted people, often tours with the SCR and plays banjo with them, and he was there, with his wife Anne and their dog Wally, for Mountain Song.

All Access basically means Andrew and I got to go back stage and hang out with the band, and that when they were performing, we could sit in folding chairs at Stage Left and watch the intimate workings of a show in progress. We didn’t spend a lot of time with the Steep Canyon Rangers because they were warming up, and we did not even meet Steve Martin for fear of making an awkward scene. (What would we have talked about? That my roommate and I watched “Father of the Bride” on an almost weekly basis my sophomore year of college? Best for some conversations not to be had.) But we did have a pleasant conversation with Anne, and we got to meet Wally, a yellow lab that can only be described as one gorgeous hunk of love.

When the music started, it didn’t really matter that we were back stage. We would have enjoyed the show if we’d been on the farthest row back, because with Steve Martin there it was kind of like a comedy set to music, and there just isn’t anything more fun than that. But having that insiders’ vantage point meant that we could see how the guys backstage handled the instruments, carrying them gingerly as they walked quickly to put them in place, setting them down gently, making sure the banjos’ shoulder straps were loose and straight with the same delicacy a maid of honor unfurls a bride’s train. We were able to see how much pure fun the Steep Canyon Rangers have with their music, how the humor that comes from the strings and their voices really is not as much an act as an acting out of joy. And it was easy to see that there, on stage and in the midst of music, Steve Martin is just one of the guys,someone who can play one heck of a banjo solo and can write one heck of a tune, but otherwise, a (very high profile) member of the band.

For me, music is therapy. It has the power to uplift, enlighten and distract. If Andrew and I have had a tough week, there is nothing better for us than a night of music. In the midst of music’s heavenly harmonies, we are somehow able to find ourselves again, to figure out what is most important and to hold onto that perspective for a good long time, sometimes a week or more.

Being able to go back stage and meet Steve Martin’s dog has its perks, but to be in the presence of music, really great music, is truly the best of all gifts, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Woody and the Steep Canyon guys for giving us the chance to get up close to their truly remarkable talent.

On Writing and an Unkept House

Over the weekend, I was reading a little of Billy Collins’ poetry collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. I love Billy Collins’ work, and not just because, as a former US poet laureate, he’s a high-profile poet. I love Collins’ writing because he finds meaning and humor in every day things and communicates those lessons by composing poetry that feels tangible and well-reasoned. His lines make you think, but not too hard. That’s a feat for a poet.

At any rate, I was reading this collection of Collins poetry on the way to the mountains last weekend and came across a poem entitled “Advice to Writers.” The first two stanzas read:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
 
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

 

I had to wonder if Collins would offer writers with two children under the age of four the same advice, or if he might just say to make sure the diaper bin had been emptied, the breakfast dishes cleared, a path made free of toys, princess tiaras and the previous night’s pajamas.

Later in Collins’ “Advice to Writers,” he writes, “…you will behold in the light of dawn the immaculate alter of your desk, a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.” My only consolation upon reading this is that the man must be crazy; I have a desk, but it is far from being an immaculate altar – it’s currently covered in Claire’s (highly entertaining) artwork, four craft buckets, puppets, and the detritus of our every day lives. It seems my desk has become the sacrifice rather than the altar to which I bring my words for penance.

My house is a disaster. Since August it seems like we’ve barely been home, and when we have been here, I’ve hesitated to put away the unpacked bags, or even to completely unpack them, because another trip was on the horizon. Elizabeth is in that delightful phase where she treats emptying boxes and bags as her full time job, and Claire, my unkempt little princess, tries on several outfits each morning before settling on any one and refusing to let me brush her hair. I folded two massive loads of laundry yesterday while the girls were napping; I can’t bring myself to face the third, waiting for me in the dryer. On days when the girls are at school I often take myself off-location, but honestly, there’s no place like home for writing. I can focus here, even if it is messy, and I can write without feeling self-conscious or pressed for time.

In all seriousness, I get what Billy Collins is saying. I agree that an orderly life most often leads to orderly inspiration, that a mind clear of nagging chores does better work. But if I waited for my entire house to be clean, for my children to be perfectly presentable, dinner expertly cooked, and for all my motherly and volunteer duties to be wrapped up in a lovely little bow, I would Never. Ever. Sit down to write.

So, here I am, sitting on my rumpled couch, in front of my magazine/children’s book scattered coffee table, going after inspiration in whatever form I can find it. Sorry, Billy. I’m taking Annie Dillard’s advice, instead: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

 

 

Strong Willed

In August, Elizabeth started in the toddler room at Claire’s preschool. Her teachers were Claire’s teachers, ladies who are both loving and nurturing and have the keen expectation that the children in their class are on a journey towards self-sufficiency. The tots are encouraged but not coddled; they are taught in love. I could not be happier with our experience there.

On orientation night, Miss B asked me how Claire, now three and a half, was doing. Claire’s stubbornness had permeated that particular day, her fight to do what she wanted to do, regardless of my ideas for her, so incredibly strong that I was forced to ask myself whether or not I truly cared whether her hair was combed, her shoes matched her outfit or if she ate anything other than cheese and bread for the rest of her life. Nothing had been easy. I sighed and said, “She’s learning how to push all my buttons.” Miss B nodded and said, “I’m not surprised.” We both smiled.

Even in infancy, Claire was a force of boisterous energy, enthusiasm, and stubbornness. Her key phrase, from the time she could speak a phrase was, “I do it!” And yet, she has this contagious joy that makes her deeply strong will a little less maddening. And there are times when she is both compliant and accepting of the fact that things can’t always go her way.

But when Claire is of a mind to elbow her way through life, she does so with such insistence and determination that it takes everything I have not to find the nearest diaper and use it as my flag of surrender.

Which leaves me to wonder: How much of Claire’s will should I try to break? How much should I leave for the world to break? And how much should I celebrate?

I believe in raising strong girls. Girls who appreciate what others can do for them but believe deep in their heart of hearts that they can and will do for themselves just as well, if not better. I want them to stand up against bullies, to run hard and fast towards the things that they believe, to be individuals who live fearlessly from now through their adolescence and adulthood.

And by that, I don’t mean that I want them to be overly daring, to jump off the highest cliff because they’ll appear to be brave, but for them to be fearless when it comes to matters of the heart: to embrace themselves for who they are and what they look like, to uphold the truth, even when it’s scary, to pursue the best and highest purpose their lives hold for them.

It will take strong will for my children to live into these hopes I have for them. The world is unkind. Girls, especially, are unkind. When I talk to other young mothers of girls, I find we are all already worried about middle school and its meanness; my heart will break the day Claire combs her hair or dresses differently because she doesn’t want to be the butt of a joke, and then I’ll wish for these preschool days, when absolutely nothing mattered to her but her individuality.

I find that I am looking for light on the horizon to help me end this post, a way to conclude with certainty. But that is just not how motherhood is. I can no more assure Claire and Elizabeth that their futures will be a carbon copy of what they hope for than I can offer a blueprint, or even a cheerful metaphor, about parenting a lovably strong willed child. So I’m going to leave this one open-ended, saying only that I am grateful for the opportunity, and, as one who has lived with it, that tenacity is not the worst trait a kid could have.