A Break from the Bad News

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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.
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Sunlight and Shade

About a year ago, I added over nine hundred followers to this blog thanks to a post entitled “A Letter to New Mothers,” which appeared on Freshly Pressed. The baby I was so eagerly anticipating when I wrote that essay started kindergarten last week, and leading up to her first day, I felt restless – not so much with worry, but with wonder. What had I done with her for the last five years?

When my first child went off to kindergarten, I had poignant flashbacks of all the fun things we’d done together that I was going to miss – leisurely trips to the zoo, spirited library story times, play dates with friends now scattered across several area schools, and a few who’d moved out of state.

Elizabeth and I kept a very different preschool rhythm. She was happy to play quietly in her room alone or with me, happy to draw or make perler bead art, happy when left with her own imagination to tinker with things that may or may not appear to be toys. She loved an occasional outing, but rarely demanded one.

In the days leading up to kindergarten, I found myself feeling guilty for not having more zoo memories with her. What had we done? We had gone to Target together, where she’d tried on every pair of sunglasses that struck her fancy. We’d drawn with chalk on our driveway and used up several giant sized bottles of bubbles. We’d overcome a year’s worth of furious temper tantrums brought on by the arrival of her baby brother. We’d gone to the grocery store, to buy shoes, and to pick up dry cleaning. We’d curled up on the couch and read book after book, pulled out the baby pool, eaten popsicles, and imagined the most elaborate stories a preschooler can muster.

At the time, it felt to me that I was taking the easy way out – schlepping an ornery two year old and a nine month old to the zoo is no way for a young mother to keep her sanity. (I know, I tried.) But the truth is that the reason being at home felt so easy was that there was really no other place E wanted to be.

Home, not the zoo, or the library, or the playground with a dozen of her friends, is the place where our hearts were sewn together, and, it should come as no surprise, the place where E wishes she were – right this second.

Kindergarten has been in session for a little over a week now, and every day at drop off, or at some point during the day, she’s cried. I’m not talking about a little sniffle. When Elizabeth cries, she gives it her all – true teenage heartbreak channeled by a five year old. After several days of this, I called a counselor I know, and he said, “You know, the problem with society today is that no one wants anything to be hard. Hard is OK. Hard can, in fact, be great.”

I hate it, but I agree with him. If I pulled my girl out of kindergarten right now, it would send the wrong message. She’s big enough and brave enough to know that some things are hard, but that they’re still worth doing.

Confidence is a bear of a thing to cultivate in a child. According to experts, saying “Good job!” too much can eventually have an adverse effect on self-esteem; telling kids they’re smart, rather than hard workers, can make them more anxious about their performance; correcting their bad behavior, rather than effusively praising the good, can make them feel like they never do anything right. Our knee-jerk reactions, like wanting to give Elizabeth another year under my wing, are not always the right ones.

I miss snuggling with E on the couch and hearing her little voice up the stairs, but I don’t want to snuggle her to defeat, or to love her to the point of not knowing what she might accomplish in the face of a challenge. I don’t want her to consider herself a hard worker because I say she is, or for her to measure her worth based on how many times her dad says “good job.” I want her to consider herself a hard worker because she’s carried the load and felt the satisfaction of having done it her way, to know in her heart that whatever she feels pleased to have done is, in fact, as good as it gets.

For the past week, when I’ve tucked Elizabeth in, she’s told me she doesn’t want to go to school, that she’s “not ready,” and/or that she misses me. As painful as all this is to hear, it gives me the opportunity to tell her the truth – something she can return to in five or ten years when other, possibly bigger things, are getting her down – that it’s my job to believe in her, even when she doesn’t believe in herself. I say it, and she looks at me like she’s studying a page in a book:

“What does that even mean, Mama?”

It means that I can see the spark inside her that she’s too clouded over with bewilderment and mommy-wanting to feel. It means that I’m going to pull her along until she can see the beauty of her own mind unfold, until her confidence finally takes root and becomes the thing that takes in sunlight and gives her shade. It means, and this is what I tell her, that I love her, and that she’s going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way quite yet.

Find Me at AHA

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Art House America is a wonderful nonprofit for whom I have written several essays in the past. I am proud to be part of an organization that that seeks to inspire its readers, and whose aim is “Cultivating Creative Community for the Common Good.”  Let me know what you think of my essay, “Eulogy:”

http://www.arthouseamerica.com/blog/eulogy.html

I can’t remember a time when I’ve worked so hard at getting every word just right!

Freshly Pressed, and Thoughts on Being Super Mom

In the past year or so since I’ve let my blog go dormant, I’ve gotten a few notifications from WordPress. Sometimes they included legitimate comments from readers, but the more occasional ones were all spam, and I thought the email I received from the site a little over a week ago would be no different.

But it was. So. Different.

Krista, an editor at WordPress, somehow found an essay I wrote over two years ago. She liked it so much she wanted to feature it on Freshly Pressed. This digital age is a funny one, and for a minute after I read her email, I thought, “Oh, ‘Krista’ is probably just a computer, trolling sites for key words.” But then I read her email again, and she actually sounded like a human being, who had actually been moved by my writing.

When it hit Freshly Pressed later that week, I started getting comments, and “likes” and reblogs, and followers that trumped my previous numbers several times over.

All this attention for something I wrote such a long time ago has made me feel like I’ve woken up in a room filled with bright lights and party hats. As soon as I sit up, everyone shouts, “Surprise!”

I didn’t know how much I needed that kind of attention, but I did! It’s set my brain on fire.

All around me, the world is loud. My children are loud. My husband is loud. My tea kettle is loud. My new phone, because its speaker is not yet clogged with apple sauce, is loud. My dog has acquired a barking problem, and I’ll be damned if she is not loud. My own thoughts are loud, too.

But for the last year or so, I have been quiet – not writing, barely investing in reading – because if there is anything I want right now, it’s quiet. I want my brain to be quiet, my life, especially when I am alone, to be quiet. Pictures instead of words, if you please.

One could say from all this talk that I am depressed, or not coping very well with the chaos that is life with three young children, but the reality is that most of the time, I love my life. I am deeply grateful for everything in it, painfully aware that in just a few years, I am really going to miss the noise and the mess that trails after my children at every turn. I breathe in the sweet smell of my two year old every night, and I revel in how simple it all is right now. No one is begging for an iPhone; no one’s rolling their eyes; no one is sneaking out, or getting bullied, or having their hearts broken. It’s pretty great, really, in the grand scheme of things.

But my thought life, and therefore, my writing life, does suffer. Until this week, I’d been willing to let that go as an inevitable consequence of the season. It had kind of fallen into the mini-van category: a necessary evil that makes life for a mother of three exponentially more convenient.

The convenience of not writing, though, the luxury of all this quiet, has its consequences. And while I am not exactly sure what all of them are, the sum of their parts equals Not Good.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about modern day Mommy Culture – how our life as mothers has somehow become so defining that it’s supplanted our core identities. Until my third child arrived, I felt I was able to hold most things in balance. Since then, I have (mostly unknowingly) been asking myself the following questions: “Do I want to be: A Mom Who Writes? A Mom Who Exercises? A Mom Who Volunteers?” Etc. etc. — As opposed to being a person who does all of those things and also happens to have a family.

The article in the Times came down pretty hard on our culture, and perhaps rightfully so, but I would also argue that all the Super Moms out there are knowing parties in the madness they’re perpetuating. These high achievers want to be the best, and it doesn’t matter if all we’re talking about are cake pops and class party logistics. They’re women who have had their dreams deferred (and sometimes derailed) by the process of parenting, and like everyone else, they’re desperately fighting the demons of insecurity.

I don’t have it together enough to be a Super Mom. I’m kind of a mess, really. But I feel for them, because I kind of know what they’re going through, and I wish for them that they could just take a deep breath and stop. Their kids don’t actually want them to be crazy.

My kids don’t want me to be crazy, either. Occasionally, I have been – and I am not using the term ‘crazy’ as a colloquialism when I write that. But as I have quietly been making my way through the past year or so, I’ve started to mix a little bit of my old self back in with the new. I started exercising after an embarrassingly long hiatus; I’m taking turns editing this awesome new lit mag; I felt the freedom to sit on a porch swing at the beach house to finish the last few chapters of The Goldfinch, while the dads manned the fort. Maybe writing again, more often, is next. We’ll see.

A Submission Call … and Some Thoughts on “Calling”

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About five years ago, two of my favorite writers and I launched a fun online project named Proximity. The effort was theme-based and made interesting by each of our different locations – Madison, WI (Carrie Kilman), Atlanta, GA (moi), and a small village in South Africa (Maggie Messitt). For each “issue” we chose a place, usually physical, sometimes temporal, and we wrote a short essay about our experience of it, yielding a diverse trio of perspectives. The project lasted a year, at which point we each felt it was time to move on.

Now, Maggie, Carrie and I are excited to serve as editors of the “new” Proximity, a literary magazine in the same vein as the original. We’ve added Traci Macnamara, an old friend with a stellar writing voice and a concrete sense of place, to the editorial team, and we plan to launch the first issue in January, 2014. Its theme will be “Morning,” and submission guidelines can be found on our web site. Please check it out, “like” us everywhere we can be “liked,” and tell your friends!

For my part, I am having a difficult time transitioning from having full-time “mom/family thoughts” to “mom thoughts” slightly diluted by “writer thoughts.” Everyone still needs to be fed and the kitchen cleaned three times a day; there is still, on average, ninety minutes of laundry to be folded and put away at least a few times a week; and there are things to volunteer for at the kids’ schools, and cookies to be baked, and parental awesomeness to act on.

And yet I now have this separate, highly creative project that I want to contribute to in meaningful, productive ways.

How I can make that happen in the midst of an afternoon like I had yesterday is going to be a work in progress. First, the baby tripped and split his forehead open on the (brick) corner of our house. Once consoled and cleaned up, he then dumped the contents of his diaper on the pantry floor (only to be found by me later, while grabbing canned tomatoes). At about the same time as the head injury, my three year old was yelling at the top of her voice for a headband she could not find among the playroom’s detritus and my five year old was having a monumental, if not historic, meltdown about misplaced butterfly wings.

Did I mention that we were having another mom and her two kids over for dinner and that the dads were working late? Our guests showed up just in time for me to find my 18 month old’s “present” in the pantry.

All is well that ends well, and it mostly did, except that Elizabeth (3) bit Claire (5) so hard on the back while I was putting the baby to bed that I could still see each tooth’s individual imprint fifteen minutes later. And speaking of teeth, I also had to play tooth fairy, which I think is the world’s most ridiculous joke on parents who really, really want their kids to believe in magic for as long as possible. Trying to get a tooth from underneath a sleeping child’s head in the middle of the night, especially when she shares a room with a light sleeper, without blowing the tooth fairy’s cover, is very nearly impossible. (Mission: Accomplished.)

Life does not slow down for me – for anyone – long enough to take stock of where I am and where I’m going. There is no time when I am not doing something, or neglecting something that needs to be done purely for reasons of self-preservation. There is no mossy rock on which to sit on and dream, to organize and plan for the next project, be it familial or professional. I read the work of great essayists, poets and novelists, past and present, and wonder how they found the time and the head space to put thoughts and words together in such beautiful format.

And for a few minutes, I find myself fraught with jealousy and dismay.

Writing is, in essence (and at its best), an act of service to the greater world. I have always wanted to minister to others in some way through my writing – to serve them for the better, because that is what writers, and so many of my writing teachers, have done for me.

But right now, I am spending my life – all the resources my heart and my mind have to offer – on the cultivation of little people’s hearts and minds. It is a service I did not know I was equipped for, but I am. It is a service that I thought would feel like a burden, but it doesn’t.

Yesterday, as I was talking to my amazing sister-in-law on the phone, I brought up Proximity and mentioned how long I’d been out of the game and how crazy it feels to be snapped back into a place of wanting to play again, in the midst of the three kids and the busy, ambitious husband, and everything else.

And she said, in such a beautifully casual way, “Right now you are writing – you’re writing your children’s lives, and one day there will be more time for writing of your own.” I almost burst into tears at the thought of engraving words into the tiny hearts in my care. I had never thought of it that way, but now I will.

How the calling of motherhood dovetails with the calling of writing for the greater good, even if we’re talking about a fairly small audience, is something that I cannot begin to wrap my brain around, but I feel confident, in a way I am not usually confident, that it will.

Editing Proximity-as-literary-journal is the beginning of that journey, and I could not be more thrilled to be a part of it. To learn more: http://proximitymagazine.org/about/

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.”