Ocean to Sky

Photo courtesy of Lorenia

For the first time in about a year, I’ve had a couple of good reasons to be away from the blog:

1) I actually had some writing to do for someone other than myself (hooray!).

2) We went on a vacation … without our children (hooray, hooray!).

Last Saturday, Andrew and I traveled down to Guana Cay in the Bahamas for a week’s vacation with friends. If we’d gone to Florence or Edinburgh or even San Francisco, I might have something interesting to say about the trip, but the fact is that we did very little.

We sea kayaked and snorkeled. We slept, read and ate. We sat in the ocean drinking rum punch, and in the fistfuls of red-flecked sand we pulled up in the shallows came star fish, sand dollars and intricate pieces of coral. Beauty was everywhere, from ocean to sky, and the main thing I felt for the seven full days we were away was gratitude. It is amazing to feel so consistently grateful for such a sustained period of time.

Now that I’m back to my real life, I’m trying to remember the lessons I learned last week:

1) Reading makes me a better person.

2) Waking up to complete quiet is an unspeakable joy.

3) Immense gratitude makes me feel like I have super powers.

4) My husband is still the most thoughtful, handsome person I know.

5) When you start getting paranoid that a shark is going to appear out of nowhere while you’re inspecting the coral reef, it is time to come in.

If you’re disappointed that I didn’t write a real essay tonight, go read some other insightful, lovely, inspiring words on the Art House America blog, a diamond in the rough. I am really excited to have been included in last week’s batch of features. Enjoy!

 

 

 

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Beautiful Time

By Nic-C

While reading the New York Times the other morning, I was distraught to find not one sampling of good news. Not one. Every ugly headline I read had something to do with destruction on both a global and a personal scale. And for days afterwards, columns of bad news piled up around me, rising like cinders, threatening to distort my world’s simplest joys.

More than that, the bad news made me think about the world we are handing to our children, to my children, and how I might help them cope with the onslaught of negative information and experience (i.e. middle school) that will inevitably come their way.

When I was growing up, I read and wrote poetry to process and lend beauty to circumstances that were not always the best, and some of my favorite memories of my father, a strapping, stoic farmer, are of his recitations of poetry at the dinner table – something that shaped my love for language and the comfort I’ve taken in it. So, I decided that I would help my family (and myself) combat the stress and uncertainty of each day with a few minutes each morning dedicated to the consideration/reading/hearing/tasting/smelling/seeing of something beautiful.

We call it “Beautiful Time.”

Now, this is a lovely idea in theory. And, actually, it’s a lovely idea in practice, except that our three year old has her own conceptions of beauty, and TV happens to be one of them.  Each morning, we drag Claire away from “Jack’s Big Music Show” to share with her the things we hope will eventually sustain her when NickJr. is a thing of the past: truly great music – not just classical, but rock, folk, country and alternative – beautiful, interesting art, and kind words, spoken and written.

For now, we recognize and give in to our children’s line of vision: we allow Claire to put on her princess dress and dance to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Major, even if it’s a harried morning; on occasion, we use her art as a “Beautiful Time” focal point; we ask her what she thinks is beautiful, how she feels when she makes something beautiful (“happy”), and what makes her feel loved. In this way, her perspective (and soon, Elizabeth’s) will shape our grown up perspectives on beauty in all its forms, bringing with it a peculiar joy and curiosity.

Absorbing artful sustenance for whatever lies ahead seems a good practice for anyone unwilling to surrender completely to the world’s painful realities. It can be a reminder of how best to process bad news – a lot of incredible art has been born of hard times – and how to find a center point of beauty and strength to return to in otherwise unwieldy chaos.

On Tuesday, we looked at a wood carving of a flower Andrew’s dad made when Andrew was Elizabeth’s age. It is one of his simpler carvings, but beautiful, and both our girls loved holding it and running their fingers across its intricate detail. Claire was so enamored by the idea of “Pete” having made the carving that she lingered longer than usual at the kitchen table, and didn’t even ask for the TV to be turned back on, allowing me, even, to read her a poem far above her reach, but filled with beautiful words. I’ve posted it below to give you your own bit of sustenance for whatever your day may hold.

From Blossoms

By Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Genius

On occasion, my husband, A, and I have conversations about what we would do if we had an inexhaustible amount of money. Since I will likely never have to make good on this, sometimes I try to impress him and say I would give away half and invest the rest. But if I’m honest, I tell him I’d spend a lot of it on continuing education, enrolling myself perpetually in classes covering everything from literature and art history to astronomy and biology. I would want to be responsible for completing a lot of interesting, difficult homework for these classes and to get a real grade, even if my grade ended up not being very good (see: astronomy).

I am not owning up to this so that you will think I am smart, but because it is (somewhat embarrassingly, strangely) true. There are just few things I love more than school, and there are few ways to recreate the joys of discovery found in a university setting once your time is up. Until now.

A couple of years ago, I discovered TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.   Each week, experts in their fields speak for twenty minutes on their newest discoveries, creations or innovations, and TED, God bless ’em, puts these talks on the world wide web for free. Like that favorite college professor, the presenters are all, almost without fail, charismatic, convincing and convicting. They cover fascinating topics you wouldn’t otherwise know or care anything about, and, before you know it, their passion for natural light or leadership or the printing of organs has hopped from their minds and hearts to yours in a matter of seconds.

The constant presence of the Web is, in my house, anyway, not always the best thing.  Like the Pied Piper, the charming, insidious chimes of our cell phones and the ever-presence of the internet and its relentless deluge of (often useless/empty) information,  leads my family away from one another, because family – even at the very happy, early stage we are in – takes emotional work and active investment, while our electronic “communications” allow us to function at B-level all the time.

But the makers of TED have somehow redeemed the internet for me, making it, in my mind, what it should be – a vehicle not only for spreading ideas, but inspiration, artfulness, intrigue, beauty and light in a world that shifts all too naturally into corners of desolation, defeat, cynicism and darkness. And although it doesn’t assign homework (am I the only person who’s disappointed about this?), TED does allow for the kind of interesting follow-up conversations that I crave, especially after a day of saying “no-no, no-no” to an eleven month old and “yes, of course I want to see how (big you are/well you can crunch your pretzel/beautifully you twirl)” to a three year old. Watching TED reminds me that there are still amazing and incredible things happening in the outside world, and it allows me to be a part of them – if only vicariously, for now.

To watch: http://www.TED.com

FirstWord/LastWord

Christmas Clairewww.keriecleveland.com

On Saturday morning, Claire awoke in a happy mood, babbling in her crib for a good long while before demanding to be taken out and given milk.  When she finally did “call” for us, Andrew and I were still feeling lazy, so we pulled her into bed  for what we hoped would be some nice baby snuggle time.

But our unmade bed is to Claire a fascinating obstacle course.  She crawls over stray pillows and random coverlet lumps as though she is an all-terrain vehicle, plowing through the rumpled sheets while making sounds akin to a sputtering engine.  In dim light, she finds our faces with her little hands and grabs hard at our noses, or slaps our cheeks.  Occasionally, Claire will face plant into a pillow and suck her fingers for a hopeful moment, but this is just a way to buy some time while hatching a plan for her next adventure. Always, she heads towards the nearest edge of the bed, which is 32 inches high – a number we know because we had to measure it after Claire, at six months, rolled off.

All of this makes for a less than restful snuggle. But it’s fun, and it delays the beginning of our inevitable morning routine.

At some point during Claire’s Saturday morning theatrics, Ivy sensed a good time and bounded onto the bed with us.  The baby, who was delighted, and completely unphased by Ivy’s tail,  giggled and squealed “EyeBee!” All other babbling we have been able to write off as just that, but the “EyeBee” we heard from Claire on Saturday was an intentional first.  She’d put two and two together.  Today, she did it again.  At lunch, I caught her passing  pieces of chicken and cheese to her new best friend, the vehicle for her first intellectual milestone: EyeBee.

Just as Claire ends 2008 with her first word, I end this year closing out “Joyful Things”.  Certainly, as I’ve continued to grow as a writer, this site has become a surprising tool in helping me suss out fake narrative voice – too many of my friends read this for me to go around putting on airs – and, it’s served as a constant reminder that writers are never truly out of ideas.

In closing, I hope this little blog has captured the wonder of the every day, that it has rung true, and that it has pointed to the power of paying attention.  In writing, I think that’s what we’re all after – or at least I am.  I’ll keep doing it, in a somewhat more structured way of Wandering at www.proximitymag.org, beginning January 1.

Proximity is a collaborative project with two of my writer friends, Carrie Kilman and Maggie Messitt, narrative journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and rural South Africa, respectively.  Each week, we plan to spend an hour at a chosen location in each of our cities (coffee shop, bus stop, restaurant, etc.) and write around that theme.  Later, we’ll ask readers to contribute their own posts in what we hope will become a global portrait of common ground.

I hope I’ll see you there.  In the mean time, Happy Holidays!

(Un)Cluttered

De-Clutter Mind Map

Originally uploaded by creativeinspiration

A month or two before Claire was born, Andrew and I accepted an invitation to travel to the Turks & Caicos islands with some friends who had won a vacation there at a silent auction. The trip was set for October of this year, and surmising that we would be way ready to have a vacation away from the baby by then, we booked our flights (with travel insurance), crossed our fingers that my mother would not chicken out of keeping an infant for an entire week, and patted each other on the back (prematurely) for claiming some time in paradise for ourselves.

Then, Claire was born. Swaddle blankets, diapers, pajamas, and plush toys stuffed with rattles mounted and overflowed in our small house. We made peace with bulky plastic contraptions that only Claire loved, and we surrendered to the realities of excess tupperware, bottle parts, and tiny socks.

Months passed.

In September, two weeks before our planned trip, I realized that I could not find my passport. Anywhere. At first, I thought there was no cause for alarm: it would turn up. But after casually looking through the drawers of our coffee table, a couple of rarely-used jewelry boxes, and my make-shift office, I could feel the tension creeping in, my old grad-school theme song, “Under Pressure,” throbbing through my brain.

Soon, my passport-finding efforts intensified. Drawers were emptied, closets undone. I scoured Claire’s room, thumbing through stacks of onesies and a crop of board books. I cleaned out and reorganized our (overflowing) linen closet, finding a set of sheets I’d been missing for years. I sifted through almost every book I own. Meanwhile, I reorganized our kitchen shelves, tossed outdated salad dressing from the refrigerator and donated a large bag of canned goods to our local food pantry. Still, no passport. I began to wonder if, in the throes of new motherhood, I’d tossed it, or slipped it inbetween a stack of diapers, or stuck it in some book on pregnancy that I’d returned or given away.

In the midst of this crisis, a new, utterly undeniable crisis emerged, a crisis of Too Much Stuff. Suddenly, our little house felt chock-full of unnecessary items, overflowing with things that might be obvious re-gifts had we the pluck to carefully wrap and gift them; things that look dated (and not in the newly-popular retro way); things for which we have no more use, or that we have loved and used sufficiently enough to sell for $1 or less; new things, even, that take up our limited closet, under-the-bed and in between space; baby things of every imagined material, color and function; and, of course, books, loads and loads of books, read, digested and pining for new homes.

As I wracked my brain for the potential hiding place of my desperately needed passport, I also began hatching plans for a yard sale. Like someone half-mad, I wandered aimlessly around our house, sighing, opening drawers I’d already sifted through more than once, and, with a scowl and a disgruntled air, slammed it shut … but not before dropping a never-used leatherette photo album or outmoded Christmas candy dish into a paper bag – the beginning of my yard sale stash.

I realized that my entire life had begun to feel this way: that the stuff I really cared about and needed to find had become tangled up in a coffee table drawer stuffed with last year’s Christmas cards, several cords to unknown electrical devices, pens, a couple of odd napkin rings, random photos, a barely-used Martha Stewart envelope making template, blank paper, playing cards and a quarter. And if found, the lost part(s) of me was in serious danger of being lost again upon being found – in the bedroom underneath a stack of overflowing (but folded!) laundry, in my office within the stacks of reading material meant for research on my pending book project, in Claire’s toy bin, or even in the grocery store.

It was clear: no vacation was ever more needed than this one – the one I would not be going on unless I found my Passport.

At the last possible moment, just before calling in my Passport to paradise as lost or stolen, it appeared – squashed in a jewelry box I’d looked in first, and at least five times more during my search, just where I thought it “should” have been all along.

The lessons in this for me were many: the first, of course, was that I would no longer trust myself with my Passport – I’ve now entrusted it to Andrew, who is much more organized than I, and never loses anything. Secondly, I pulled out the calendar and made a date for a yard sale extravaganza this spring (it’ll take me that long to sift through all the stuff we need to sell). Third – and perhaps most important – I took heed of the symbolism in this: that the thing we most need to find is often right in front of us, straight ahead, just where it should be. Within all the tangled up junk in my brain, my misplaced motivations, my scattered priorities and shaky misgivings lies that which I’ve been looking for all along: to write, and be happy, and to live a life full of family and purpose.

So now I’m back from vacation, slowly untangling myself from the stacks of laundry and the cluttered drawers. Stay tuned. Let’s hope it will last.

For the Love of Blog

After a few days (or weeks) away from the blog, returning to it always feels intimidating.  I worry that I have nothing of interest to write about, or that there are so many interesting things to write about that the simplicity of the blog will be overcome.  I begin posts and then, having been distracted by infant or restless pup, do away with them.

But then I start formulating blog postings in my brain while in the shower or cooking dinner.  An idea for a little essay will cruise through my mind at light speed, high-fiving my firing synapses as it goes; a word sparks the formation of a sentence that is lost before I can find a suitable piece of paper on which to write it.  I dismiss these ideas.  Or, I make them empty promises.

But then, before settling in to an hour’s worth of worry about Claire’s bottle strike (now somewhat resolved), or Ivy’s liver levels (getting better), or how I will ever begin to wrap my mind around this massive book idea in the midst of everything else that’s going on, I hear a little voice that tells me to return to the blog – as if the blog is my muse, or a counselor.  To return to the blog as if the blog has ideas for me that I cannot see or hear unless I am writing for it.

Perhaps Joyful Things is to me as the Island is to Lost: administrator of magic powers, mysterious healer, maker of bizarre connections. Or maybe it’s just here to remind me that the practice of writing, in whatever form, takes practice and requires the sort of attention I give it here as a means of exercising my brain – sort of like what running suicides does for soccer players.

Either way, whenever I’ve finished a post, I know by how my brain feels settled and a little more alive that it has been worth the time.  I would probably feel this way if I diagrammed a few sentences, too, so I’m not talking about artfulness – just that the practice and ritual of this thing is productive.  (Don’t worry – I’m not foolish enough to think that anyone else finds diagramming sentences as interesting as I do.  I would like you to keep reading Joyful Things.  Therefore, you’ll find no grammar lessons here.)

So, for the love of the blog and the love of the craft, I’m back, just in time for fall.  Enjoy!

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