A Break from the Bad News

trees

 

There’s a lot of bad news going around these days, so much, in fact, that it seems to be drowning out the usual, frantic hum of the holiday season. Today, I listened to experts on NPR’s “On Point” debate gun control in light of the Sandy Hook anniversary, closely followed by another news program during which I learned that 78% (wait, let me spell that number out – seventy-eight percent) of Syrians do not have access to clean drinking water. Seventy-eight percent! And then someone said the words “President Trump” and I almost threw up in my car.

This is the kind of bad news that makes me feel so powerless I just want to curl up in a ball and look at old copies of House Beautiful and reruns of “Fixer Upper” all day. It’s the kind of news that makes me want to gather up my children, lock my doors, and bake cookies and paint paintings and lovingly read books with them until we’ve all had our fill of magic and simple joy. It’s the kind of news that makes me wish narratives, once established, can be erased. Clean slate! Let’s start over! But, of course, they can’t.

I don’t want to be someone who hides from the world’s realities. I have friends who don’t watch the news as a measure of self-protection, and that’s something I completely understand but can’t quite bring myself to do. But I do need a break from the bad news sometimes, and I think everyone else does, too.

So, I’m starting a little initiative of my own. In the past couple of weeks, my social media postings have been a little, shall we say, intense. I’ve been sharing articles that highlight a few things I feel really passionate about – protecting our nation’s children from AK-47s, for example, and trumpeting love and compassion rather than fear and desperation.

And while I am still super passionate about these things, I realize that my sharing about them contributes to the strident dialogue and disparate national conversation, so I’m going to take a little Christmas break and post, daily, something uplifting, something beautiful, something that reminds us that the majority of the world is made up of humans rather than monsters – artists, thinkers, dreamers, people, young and old who are courageous and wild and creative in the best and most extraordinary ways. I’m counting this as a Christmas gift I’m giving to myself, and I hope that others might join me.

Several years ago, my husband and I started this thing called “Beautiful Time,” in which we’d sit down for breakfast and share a thing of beauty with our little girls. They were tiny then, and while we all loved the idea, with the arrival of our third child and the overall chaos of our household, we couldn’t keep it in our routine. This initiative of mine may just bring it back, though. We all need a little beauty to warm us up from time to time.

A friend of mine unearthed this Wendell Berry poem the other day and posted it on Facebook, and I’m sharing it here again. May you find a place to absorb the peace of wild things today.

The Peace of Wild Things

BY WENDELL BERRY

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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.”

 

 

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!

 

 

 

The Hawk

On Andrew’s birthday, August 9th, he took Ivy on a walk. Down at the end of our street, smack dab in the middle of the city, he saw a curious sight: a hawk – imposing, regal, haunting – circling above. As Andrew came closer, the hawk did, too, settling on the exposed limb of a scraggly tree just a few feet away; minutes later, with Andrew and Ivy looking on, the bird swooped to the ground and crushed an unlucky chipmunk in his great, greedy talons.

This summer, Andrew and I have both felt a little like that unwitting chipmunk. Our bad luck started when Ivy had an inexplicable seizure in late May, followed, a week later, by Andrew’s dad‘s very serious intracerebral hemmorhage (a sort of stroke). Then, just when the dust had begun to settle, Ivy threw us for another loop: last week, her body went into toxic shock from something (we know not what) she ingested, almost killing her. (Thanks to our fantastic vets, she survived!)

We feel Someone must want us to learn something from all this hardship, from our hearts breaking and mending, only to be broken again. We are becoming softer people, which is not to say that we are more fearful, but that we are just more aware of what a writer-friend of mine would call “preciousness,” the sweet, poignant internal reality of all things. (I envision here a Caramello.) We are also more acutely aware of the necessity for gratitude in easier times; in retrospect we are able to see our blessings most clearly.

Tomorrow, we leave for a much-needed vacation. My brain is full of Things to Do, which makes me feel anxious and distracted, and I wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to say we’re going on vacation and stay at home. But we need the break, and once my feet hit the sand the Things to Do will feel, miraculously, more manageable. I know this from experience.

Still, since the hawk showed up again this morning, and because his presence haunts me, I did some research. Not unlike the robins in our yard who preceded Claire’s arrival, the big, wild bird in our neighborhood holds a lesson for us, too: Equated with wisdom and power in the Native American tradition, the hawk is seen as a messenger, a protective provider to his young, a creature that teaches us – via its keen eyesight – to pay attention and be close observers. In the Christian tradition, the hawk is also often interpreted as a symbol of power, though rarely is it the sort of influence that’s gently or fairly wielded. The bird’s name, in Middle English, means “to grasp.”

Andrew and I don’t need a hawk to tell us to use what power we have for good, but we do, I think, need to pay better attention to the small things, to see clearly that which we have been called to protect and that which we are being urged to see in sharp-focus. More than anything, we need to be reminded to grasp onto the things and people and great possibilities within our reach, to hold on tight to that which nourishes our bodies and our souls.

I’ll pick up the blog again with more frequency upon our return. My prose is in need of some serious rest and renewal. Thanks, as ever, for reading …

Becoming Greenific

Leg Warmers

Ok … time for another confession.

Even though I grew up on a farm, I have never been much of a tree hugger. In fact, I am so poorly versed in eco-friendly culture, I have no idea whether or not it is all right to call anyone a tree hugger or not, even when referring to one’s self. This may be the equivalent of using other offensive, outmoded words – and I would just have no idea.

It’s not that I don’t care about the earth, but that I grew up in a place where the land and its resources were so enmeshed with daily life that they required little extra thought. The farmers seemed to take good care of our pastures. (That was their job.) My dad led soil and water conservation for years and prided himself on his best practices. But I guess I always thought of these things in economic terms: you turn off the water while brushing your teeth because if you waste water, you waste money; same with the lights, and shutting the door behind you, and running the attic fan instead of the air conditioning. Conserving soil and water on the farm seemed also to reap financial rewards, although I do remember my dad mentioning something about erosion, and that it was bad.

These days, conservationists are all the rage. Thanks to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore and global warming have become national celebrities. Going green has taken on similar characteristics to the ’80s fitness rage. Reducing one’s carbon footprint is the 2000’s equivalent of jazzercise (sans leg-warmers).

I found An Inconvenient Truth almost unbearable to watch – not because I don’t like ‘ol Al, but because what he was saying was so true, and so devastating, and so big. It was like discovering that someone or something you’d been taught was immortal had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly (but not really suddenly), we are the ones in charge of saving everything – not just our own lawns, but everyone else’s, too.

I have never been one to jump on bandwagons. If the entire world is talking about a novel (think The DaVinci Code), for example, I’d really rather not read it. But this whole carbon footprint thing has gotten under my skin. It goes beyond the bandwagon. It must.

I, for one, am going to follow in the steps of my awesome, aforementioned sister-in-law, Jupe. Jupe is always thinking of new ways to be ecologically sound, and, for her birthday, I found these awesome bags called Envirosax. They are extra-strong, reusable grocery bags, which means that you save our landfills and recycling facilities from some plastic – and look stylish in the process. Jupe loved them so much, I’ve decided I should get some, too. (They come five in a set, and hold two plastic bags worth of groceries each!)

Still, I fear that our little smartcars and our recycling drives and our styrofoam avoidance will go the way of jazzercise. For heaven’s sake – if our current health trends are any indication, our air and water don’t stand a chance. According to the American Obesity Association, since 1976 (my birth year), our population’s percentage of overweight people has risen from 46% to 64%; the rate of national obesity has more than doubled, from 14.4% to 30.5%. So much for jazzercise. (Were the legwarmers to blame?)

I don’t have any answers on how to be greenific (remember, I’m a newbie – officially “green” – ha!), but I am committed to being my own little green person in whatever way I can. I hope, for the world, carbon reduction becomes as enmeshed with daily life as the rhythms of the land were for me growing up.

If anyone has helpful suggestions on how to become more ecofriendly – beyond buying Envirosax and conserving energy – please make a comment on my blog.