Beginning Again

                                                                         Photo Credit: Bookplates

I recently picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Flight Behavior. I’ve been a Kingsolver fan since The Bean Trees; her writing played a formative part in both my desire to become a writer and my appreciation of beautifully crafted contemporary prose. With the exception of The Lacuna, which I just couldn’t get into, I have relished all of her books. I easily fall in love with her characters, her descriptions and her plot lines, none of which feel recycled from novel to novel. Her voice is never quite the same, but still, you always know you’re reading Kingsolver.

Flight Behavior is no different. I bought it without reading any of the reviews and was astounded to find, on page one, that her writing has actually improved. She seems have fallen in love with language all over again; it is a really beautiful thing to behold. And at a time in my life when I am rediscovering my own creativity, I couldn’t be more encouraged than to read a favorite author who has somehow improved upon a writing style that needed (in my humble opinion) no improvement.

In the past year, I’ve written very little aside from harried grocery lists and little bedtime stories for my girls – three minute, on-the-fly compositions, for only their ears and the quickly darkening sky. Six months ago I started a short story I haven’t finished. I write little essays in my head as I fold laundry, envisioning the sentences in scrapbook form – words on strips of paper without the accompanying pictures. I’ve had neither time nor presence of mind to flesh out the images. But that’s changing.

Two weeks ago, Claire started kindergarten. Peter just joined Elizabeth at preschool. In January, we moved into a house where we’ll stay for a good long while. Life is full of surprises, but as long as we stay steady, I need to find some work to do.

So here I am, beginning again. I’m no Kingsolver, which is great, because that leaves room for lots of improvement. I’ll be posting here and here in the next few months, and I also have a project in the works with a couple of other writers which will be unveiled this fall. Stay tuned!

Saving Our Endangered Minds

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to peel myself away from my computer, forcing myself off email, away from the shamelessly addictive Facebook, and out of the comforting synthetic community of online print.

This painfully difficult exercise of going “unplugged” began with a creepy, guilty feeling.  I’d been wasting far too much precious time online.  I knew this without wanting to readily admit it, and while some of it could be chalked up to searching fruitlessly for good (as in, paying) writing gigs, I’d also spent my fair share of free time perusing online sales and eBay listings, nosing through long lost “friends'” pages on Facebook, and checking (and refreshing) my email as though I were expecting correspondence from Barack Obama, himself.

Like the addict I am, I lingered in denial for a while, telling myself that my computer habits weren’t that deplorable, that I still managed to get my work done on deadline, that many of the things I did online, like connecting with old friends, were life-giving, etc. etc.  But then, in an attempt to begin research for my book (which actually involved turning OFF the computer and picking up a real paperback), I began reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy.

Healy, a PhD in educational psychology, wrote Endangered Minds after noticing that her new generation of students didn’t seem to respond to teaching techniques that had worked for her for decades.  It wasn’t just their attitudes that were different; their brains seemed different, too.  Her colleagues agreed.  Healy approached several neurophsychologists and posed this question: Were modern lifestyles altering childrens’ brains in subtle, but critical ways?

Some of the scientists were hesitant to go on the record with Healy, claiming that yes – children’s brains did appear to be changing (and not necessarily for the best) – but that no one could prove it.  Others emphatically agreed with Healy’s hypothesis – pointing to the brain’s lifelong plasticity – and begged her to write a book that might lead to reform, better education, and a greater understanding of what today’s kids are up against.

Healy’s prose is smart and engaging. But what’s kept me reading Endangered Minds are her startling findings: material that was once used to teach middle school students is being used in high schools; standardized tests are easier now than they were in the sixties, but our childrens’ scores are lower; the practice of reading is nearly outmoded, which is bad enough, but students’ comprehension of read materials is also abysmal.  Teachers report that their students today exhibit more aggressive behavior, poor attention spans, and difficulty integrating what they learn in class with day-to-day experience.

TV is often blamed as kids’ greatest intellectual hazard, but the internet and video games are surely rounding the curve, as are busy parents’ lives – one can’t expect a child to know how to navigate his or her world without a parent to plot the course.  Kids’ brains, as limber and changeable as their little bodies, are being molded by electronic babysitters, things that whizz and buzz and blink.  No wonder black and white print seems so boring.

Fifty pages in to Endangered Minds, I felt as though a tiny light was being shined on my dark corner of online distraction.  If children’s brains could be remolded (read: warped) by excess media and a lack of life experience, couldn’t mine?

“Yes!” shouted a little internal voice.  “Keep reading!”

And so I did, finishing Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, picking up Atwood’s The Blind Assassin,  and plugging along through Endangered Minds (“assigned” reading, no matter how fascinating, always feels like more work than fun).

As I spent more time with books than on the internet, I began to notice a change in my own brain: my thoughts were deeper and more complex, and my ideas for essays and writing jobs felt less out of reach.  Reading more has revived my capacity for and love of language; it’s reminded me of why writing is important, and why what I want to write is important.  Reading has made me more certain of myself and my purpose.

Without my even knowing it, all that internet surfing had made me slightly cranky, unsatisfied, and uninspired, like an overtired child.  Now, after drawing some boundaries with Mac, I feel as though I’ve woken up from a much-needed nap.  I’m more alert and settled, eager to learn and to contribute.

While Dr. Healy’s book may sound like an indictment of today’s children and their families here, it’s not.  The purpose of Endangered Minds is to call attention to the shortcomings, and then to propose solutions – a vital read for anyone who has children.

But the point of this posting isn’t to get everyone on a bandwagon for the education of America’s children … it’s to encourage you readers to invest in the plasticity of your own unique and brilliant brains.  As the holidays kick off this week, find some time to turn off the television, unplug the computer and let your cell phone battery die.  Go off into some quiet corner with a steaming cup of something, a good book (that is, a book that is good by your standards, which means it holds your attention) and lose yourself in it.

It may take time to get into the habit (I haven’t quite kicked Facebook yet) – getting into any sort of daily ritual takes patience.  But once you do, you may find yourself seeing the world through a new lens, better able to sustain the blows life brings, and less obsessed with modern day immediacy.

Yellow-Bellied


The Wizard of Oz
Originally uploaded by twm1340

Because I have made all you faithful blog readers privy to my inmost thoughts – the anxiety and joy associated with having Claire, the ups and downs of the literary market (my literary market in particular) – it seemed only right that I share the following shocking news with you:

An agent is interested in taking me on as his client.

For those of you arriving late in the game, I’m not talking about a secret agent, although that would be pretty cool, too, but a literary agent – someone who will be an advocate for me and my writing with editors and publishers in NYC.

All of this happened very suddenly. A conversation with friends over dinner turned into a book idea, which turned into a one-sentence, would-you-be-interested-in email to JW, which turned into a “YES!”, which turned into a couple of phone calls, some research and more positivity. And, just like that, something clicked into gear and started rolling.

Nine months ago, I would have felt nothing but pure joy upon receiving the news that an agent liked both my writing and my idea enough to take me on as his client. Six months ago I would have happily traded my screaming (hungry? gassy? disoriented?) newborn for at least a few hours alone among the stacks with a pen in hand (or even just alone … anywhere).

But now the wailing newborn is a grinning, giggling, milk and honey scented, pink-cheeked wonder. Now, I do not mind that she wakes me up in the middle of the night, or that she dictates my schedule, or that she is more trouble than the family dog. I’ve fallen for her, and that makes the decision to take on a new project – especially a big new project with a real agent attached – somewhat complicated, somewhat hard.

I did not expect this conflict any more than I expected JW to be genuinely interested in my idea. It appears I have been selling everything short.

And then another call came today: after months of piecing together childcare that would allow me a couple of days to work (or get my hair cut), the preschool I loved at first glance notified me that Claire was off the wait list. Some yellow-bellied mom backed out of going back to work (and who could blame her? She, no doubt, has a pink-cheeked wonder too!). So now I’m the yellow-bellied one, and the onus is on me to follow through with the thing I’d set out to do all along.

The synchronicity of these two events cannot be a coincidence. I am hesitant to agree to both, hesitant to drop either, and, upon closer analysis, recognize a crippling common denominator in this conundrum: Fear.

Oh, Fear, my little friend. He begs so many murky and unanswerable questions. But I have been around long enough to know that fear is a bad reason to say no to almost anything (except eating oysters out of season and other obvious dangers). I should try to say yes to both – just try – and recognize that nothing has to be permanent.

When taking on anything new there is so much uncertainty, so many trails to blaze on which there will be the inevitable doubling-back, sure footing that leads suddenly to quicksand, straight, sunlit paths that turn precarious, circuitous, unpredictable.

But isn’t that life? If I am to teach the pink cheeked wonder boldness, I must proceed.

Poetry Reading

One of my favorite professors once compared a poem I’d written to the work of Mary Oliver; it was and continues to be the best compliment I have ever received about my writing, and I often return to it when I am feeling un-writerly.

I don’t write much poetry anymore (my intensity has waned since my college days), but I love to read it and am grateful for the light it gives to the world. I thought it might be nice to end the week with a few good poems. Enjoy!

The Hug

by Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too,
with our arms around each other. The poem
is being read and listened to out here in the open.

Behind us no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I am giving it to you,
like a variable star shooting light off to make itself comfortable,
then subsiding. I finish but keep on holding you. A man walks up
to us and we know he has not come out of nowhere, but if he could, he would have.

He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?’ he asks you, and I feel you nod.
I am surprised, surprised you don’t tell him how it is –

that I am yours, only yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to its face.

Love – that’s what we’re talking about. Love that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on so thick I can’t feel him past it.
I’m starting the hug and thinking. “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already we could be eternal,

His arms falling over my shoulders, my hands not meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in. I lean into him. I lean
my blood and my wishes into him. He stands for it. This is his and he’ starting
to give it back so well I know he’s getting it. This Hug. So truly,
so tenderly, we stop having arms and I don’t know if my lover has walked away

Or what, or if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses – what about them? – the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing. But when you hug someone
you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek when I walk away.
When I try to find some place to go back to.

An Afternoon in the Stacks

By Mary Oliver

Closing the book, I find I have left my head
inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open
their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,
words adjusting themselves to their meaning.
Long passages open at successive pages. An echo,
continuous from the title onward, hums
behind me. From in here, the world looms,
a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences
carved out when an author traveled and a reader
kept the way open. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move

Genesis

By Anthony Abbott

The swinging Lord, that master maker
of cool chords, shifted in his empty
heaven and said, “I need me some music,”

So the sky was full of music
and he declared that it was good

And then the equally androgynous Lord
said to herself, I need some light
to fill the fragrant fingers of the night

So the waters shone with light
and she declared that it was good

And when the light and the music played
together the stars wept for the beauty of it
And the swinging, singing Lord said

I need me some people to praise
this thing that I have made

The Lord thought long and long about what
sort of people might be the purest praisers,
what sort of people might truly see the light

And he made man, with his cunning brain,
and he made the zebras and the elk
and the swift running antelope for man

to wonder at. And she made woman with her
imagining mind and her long, limber dancing
legs and her eyes that saw the color in the light

And when the man and woman had been crafted
The Lord declared that it was good

Then the man heard the light in the woman’s eyes
And the woman saw the music in the man’s mind
And the music was the silky manes of violins

And the light was like the laughter of clarinets
and the glitter of guitars. And the man and the
woman moved to the measure of the music and swayed

to the gold and amber brilliance of the light.
And they knew that the sound was neither his nor hers
nor like anything that ever was before.

And the Lord saw what they had made

And behold it was very good

A Million Trees

Recently, a friend recommended that I pick up Frederick Buechner’s book of collected sermons, Secrets in the Dark. I am a fan of Buechner’s writing because of his communion with the mystery of God, the drama of that which is unknown, and for the enlivened, enlightening way he engages in the spiritual realm. His work, though never thought of as this, is creative nonfiction at its best.

In the introduction to Secrets in the Dark, Buechner expresses frustration and sadness about the general public’s boredom with the predictability of religion. He cites that it is not the work or act of faith that is boring, but, all too often, our culture – which promotes Christianity as feeble-minded and same-old-same-old. In response, Buechner’s sermons keep his readers and listeners on their toes, calling out oddities and inconsistencies in scripture commonly overlooked, rounding out flat characters, diving leagues and leagues below the surface before emerging again, out of breath, shouting joyfully about the discovery of some precious truth.

Buechner is also particularly wonderful because he honors and respects (rather than judges) disbelief, asking his non-believing brethren only to allow themselves to entertain the “if” – the possibilities inherent in any mystery.

But, on to the whole point of this blog posting – a million trees. This morning, I read one of Buechner’s Christmas sermons named “The Birth.” In it, he gives voice and background to the holiday story’s characters: the Innkeeper, a Wise Man, and a Shepherd.

At the very beginning of the sermon, the Innkeeper says, “…to run anything in this world … is like being lost in a forest of a million trees, and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? … A million trees. A million things. Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet – just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window – just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. The whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere – only the wind, the wind …”

In the past several weeks I have found myself wandering among the many trees (some planted, some wild) that have sprouted up and vie for my attention.

My days with Claire – so much the same that I could almost take her gummy grin, her delightful baby sounds for granted – are utterly consuming, segmented and mundane, exhausting and – yes – joyful in a way I did not know was possible. How tempting for motherhood and its tasks – the bathing, the changing, the feeding – to become a “thing” that must be done. And the same goes for my writing work, something that must be done for my spirit and my brain; the joy in that so easily extinguished by its necessity and the pressure I fix upon myself. There are other trees, some large, some small, some just sprouting new growth, and at times their presence feels overwhelming, offering not shade or sustenance, but looming shadow – a disorienting maze of obligation and responsibility.

Yet, in just a matter of a few sentences, I am reminded of the depth in each daily commitment, the importance of paying attention. The trees, though there are millions, serve more purpose than to be chopped down – ticked off our lists of things to do – but to give shelter. Each grove of trees, if planted carefully, can bring new meaning and possibility; fruit for the soul. I hope the forest through which you walk each day is filled with cool, mossy rocks and sturdy nooks between roots perfect for sitting, reflection, and quiet encouragement.

A Lot of Eggs – Too Few Baskets

Today I learned I did not get the teaching job. I am thankful that the news was swift and so graciously delivered; the “deliverer,” a former pastor, could not have been more encouraging in the midst of telling me they’d chosen a more experienced candidate for the position.

Of course, I am disappointed, but when given the chance to consider my motives for wanting the job, I think it might be best that they passed me over; Someone Else may have Something Good in store that is out of my current comfort zone, and/or beyond my imagined good fortune. Already, the rejection has ignited within me a desire for Something More – and that can never be a bad thing.

Nevertheless, I do get bummed out when I think of all the eggs I’ve got – my passion for writing, my desire to continue to learn, this faint streak of excitement I feel when I think of teaching, my affection for reading and discussing great books with other interested people – and realize that there are very few baskets in this city where I could put them (one or all) given my life’s current parameters.

But since this is a Joyful blog (and because I continue to enjoy great popularity), the up side is my only option. Onward!

Her profession was words and she believed in them deeply. The articulation, interpretation, appreciation, and preservation of good words. Words could incite, soothe, destroy, exorcise, and redeem.
–from “The Odd Woman” by Gail Godwin

My Stroke of Insight – A Book Review

My family and I are learning a lot these days, and it all seems to come back to patience. Peter is back in Atlanta now, getting stronger, but still has a journey of rehabilitation ahead of him. In the midst of this new reality, a family friend recommended Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight.

Insight is a memoir of sorts, but it is also a story of encouragement and enlightenment for stroke sufferers and their families. Taylor, a Harvard brain scientist who suffered a cerebral hemmorhage (much like Peter’s) when she was just 38 years old, tells the story of her stroke and recovery with odd clarity. Her recollections are, in many ways, comforting; they serve as a guide for those of us in the midst of caring for a family member who has suddenly lost skills that once required little effort. Taylor writes with an authoritative voice, not simply because she knows from experience what it is like to lose the ability to read, speak and walk, but because she is a neuroanatomist. With affectionate voice, she explains the power, plasticity and intricacy of the brain. I have never been more in awe of gray matter.

My Stroke of Insight is a reminder to everyone who interacts with stroke patients that the person they love is still in there, but maybe a little quieter, or a little more confused than usual. Taylor tells her readers how to interact with friends and loved ones recovering from a stroke, encouraging them to be positive, speak quietly and slowly, and to remember that they are interacting with someone who has been wounded but is by no means stupid or hard of hearing. Taylor’s book reminds us that life in the “real world” – or at least the world that we with normally functioning brains perceive as real – is terribly harsh; using her own experience as a backdrop, she urges us to be gentler, kinder, more humane. I can think of no better service for a book to provide.