Next Year I’m Going Barefoot



Originally uploaded by NicaMom

For almost everyone I know, 2008 has been a year full of challenges.

One of my best friends kicked off the year on interminable bed rest, forcing her to miss her brother’s wedding. Another good friend’s aunt and grandmother died within weeks of one another. Claire’s arrival was certainly a joy, but in the beginning those long newborn days felt mighty hard. And then there was Ivy’s seizure and liver failure, Peter’s stroke and associated difficulties. Then, in the latter part of ’08, as we all felt we were coming out of the haze, another friend’s family was mugged at knife point. In the midst of all this, we have also faced down alcoholism, loneliness, a non-profit in financial crisis, a baby in need of a new heart, and two (very young) crumbling marriages.

As hard as it’s been, I feel fortunate that I have heard and felt all the stuff that’s shattered this year. I am fortunate to be a part of a community that doesn’t pretend that everything’s perfect when it isn’t, part of a group of friends that not only offers and delivers help, but also asks for it. And, in the midst of a year that qualifies for us as the most challenging on record, I’m thankful I still want to be and am sympathetic to others. There’s nothing like tunnel vision to fuel an already devastating fire.

All the bad news we’ve received in 2008 has also made the good news that much better. Claire, as she’s grown and thrived, has served up laughter and sweetness better than any healing balm – for us and for our extended family. Friends have safely welcomed five healthy babies this year. My niece, Madeleine, was born, and another good friend recently announced her pregnancy. I got an agent. Our friend John got engaged to a wonderful girl and set an April wedding date. America elected Obama (which made for good news for at least the voting majority). Andrew and I also worked in a much needed, baby-free vacation (thanks, Mom!), have been reminded of what is truly important in life, and – as a direct result of all the bad news that’s been going around – have closer friendships now than ever before.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been one of those “behind every dark cloud is a silver lining” types. Instead, I tend to wonder when the other shoe is going to drop, waiting anxiously for the next big thump. But this year – a year that has been full of big, jackboot sized thumps – it seems that everything that can drop has (even the stock market), and in spite of everything, we’ve found that there is still always something to celebrate … if not in our own life, in someone else’s.

This Thanksgiving, we were weary – as though we’d just survived a harrowing journey – but grateful, ready to head into a holiday season that would lead us out of this worn down year and into a brand new one.  We’re good stock – by which I mean we have determination and that we are fiercely opposed to any sort of prolonged sulking – so I am hopeful for a holiday season and a 2009 that has great capacity for joy.

Speaking of joy … although I will probably post a few more thoughts on Joyful Things before the end of the year, in January, you’ll find my writing (more of it, and more consistently) on a new blog named Proximity – a group project with two of my very talented friends from graduate school. The vision is still in the works, but the blog will be a mix of journalism and essay based on weekly themes, and it should be as entertaining as it is enlightening.

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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

Brave Enough?

Six months after Andrew and I got married, we quit our jobs, sub-let our apartment, packed our bags, and jumped on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. It was a crazy thing to do. Ridiculous. But, we were young and in love and brave, confident that everything would fall back into place upon our return to the States. We also knew that taking such a trip – a four month excursion to South Africa (one month), Australia (two months) and New Zealand (one month) – was, at least for Americans, an unusual experience, and that nothing could possibly be better than spending the latter half of our newlywed year abroad.

In Cape Town, we lived with friends of friends whose house happened to have a spare wing, empty and in need of warming during the African winter (our summer). In Australia, on the outskirts of Sydney, we bunked in another friend’s spare room, a fifteen minute walk from the Turra Murra train station – gateway to the coolest city in the world. Except for a brief stay with new friends in Auckland, we did New Zealand on our own; it was a time to reflect on our experiences as guests while seeking out adventure alone.

Andrew and I learned volumes in the few months we spent abroad: we learned about accepting the generosity of others graciously without feeling the crushing need to give back; we learned about each other, how to travel well as tourists and in life; we learned how to extend the gift of hospitality, and we learned about the necessity of leisure, the gift of solitude and the adventure of not knowing what’s next.

Upon our return to the States, Andrew and I both fell into a mild depression. This depression stemmed not from having to return to work, but from the reminder that life here is so heavily weighted with expectations, expectations that are both ours and others’; expectations and assumptions that are far more debilitating to the spirit than finding oneself in a sea of gray paneled office cubicles day after day.

Our culture impresses upon us the importance of “success” in its myriad forms. Strangers begin conversations by asking us what we “do” as a means of finding out who we “are,” when the reality is that these two things might not be true reflections of one another at all.

Our reentry into life as we had once known it was difficult on a number of levels, although not in the ways we might have expected. New jobs – better even than the ones we’d left – fell into place, and, upon our return, our decision to leave was lauded more than it was questioned. But in order to cope with the challenges of coming back home, I found I needed a constant – something that would remind me of the carefree days crossing the Harbour Bridge, the astonishing sound of breaking waves in Tsitsikamma National Park, the celebration of New Zealand’s natural beauty, all physical representations of the freedom we’d come to embrace.

So, I became a tea addict.

Nearly five years have passed since our big trip and I still drink two cups of hot tea a day – one in the morning, one at night, just as we did on our trip. Tea keeps me grounded. It straightens my priorities and clears my head. Through its steamy, herby wonderfulness, I become whole again: if not hydrated, then somehow rested, internally warmed, connected to a sense of liberty that is both memory and the present time.

We have often referred to our excursion abroad as a once in a lifetime experience, but the temptation to step out of time is strong and unlikely to be sated by tea alone. Just last night we revisited the idea of taking true sabbaticals (once every seven years), a break away from it all with our little family in tow. We have two years to plan and consider our options, ask ourselves whether the limitations we perceive are real or just conditioned, insurmountable or simply in need of extra thought and care.

Even if we continue to live in a world that sizes us up by the business and busyness of our days, we want to be “about” more than that. More importantly, we want our children to know that we can do the unexpected together, lending malleability to a world full of surprises, good and bad.

I wonder: Will our leading example be that which we set as a young, unfettered newly married couple, or will we have courage enough to do the unlikely thing again, and again, and again? Until we have clear vision, hot tea will have to suffice.

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

Who Are You People?

In the past ten days, my blog has seen more traffic than it did in its first and most publicized week. Some of you Facebookers have even sent me e-love letters, and the mother of a friend has become both a dedicated reader and Joyful Things one-woman-publicist. For three days in a row, my views have broken 40! I haven’t felt this popular since my husband asked me out on our first real date.

Which brings to mind the whole concept of popularity. Popularity is tricky. It can be insidious, wonderful and distracting; empowering and crippling; fondly or bitterly remembered. It is, worst of all and no matter what, longed for (at one time or another) and painfully fleeting.

Popularity is not guaranteed, and no one seems to have a formula for it – to become a popular writer, one needs to catch the wave of a trend (and only sometimes write well); to be a popular teenager, one needs either to buck a system or buy into it – no one’s ever sure which method will work at any given moment. Popularity might be seen as shallow, but the road to greatness is unknown and unpredictable. How strange for a simple thing to be so heavily weighted.

If it had to declare citizenship, I’m sure popularity would be American. Why? Because we care. We are hurt that the United States has such a poor public image; we wonder, quietly, while reading The Economist, what might be done to increase our popularity: Leave Iraq? Save the planet? Elect Obama? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But the world is more complex than popularity allows, and sometimes, as my mother always said, the most popular thing is not always the right thing.

But still – we covet it. I love my 40 viewers per day. I write this not even knowing if 40 viewers a day equals, in the greater blogosphere, popularity. But who cares? I am popular in my own right! My many viewers make me want to dance around the room with Claire to make her giggle, toss Ivy lots of dog treats (despite the diet she is supposed to be on), and smooch my handsome husband. We popular people, if good, always share the affection – even if our popularity is only in our own minds.

So, the next time you, whoever you are, flip from CNN.com or Facebook or The New York Times to Joyful Things, imagine me floating around my house with a giggling Claire in my arms and Ivy wagging along beside. How bizarre the life of a hopeful writer! We need so little to keep us in the keys.

Cashing In or Selling Out?

So, I have a job interview on Friday.

As a writer, I wouldn’t normally be so jazzed about having a real job – we creative types thrive on the freedom to do whatever we like, whenever we like – but recently I’ve been seeking a little more structure.

I’ve had to ask myself how much it really matters if I write and publish my first book right now, and if it might not be better to make a little real money to slip into the gigantic tu-tu clad piggy bank in Claire’s nursery (her college fund). I’ve had to consider what it might be like to lose my writing to motherhood, versus what it might be like to lose my writing to said “real job.” I’ve had to ask myself if losing my writing is really an option at all.

As I’ve pondered these things, I’ve found I am also increasingly open to surprising alternatives: that I might become a more productive, motivated writer in the snatches of time that may still exist; that I might mother more joyfully and revel in Claire’s day-to-days more fully; that it may actually be possible to be a creative writer while living a structured life. None of these scenarios allows me to lose writing, but gives it a fuller experience in which to soak.

For these reasons, I think it wise not to slam the door on this opportunity.  One never knows what might be at hand.

The job is at a Presbyterian Seminary.  For twenty hours a week, I would be a writing instructor for Master’s degree candidates, evaluating their papers, sermons, theses, etc.  I am of the faith but I’ve never really weighed that heavily into theology.  My belief, though sound, is, like the rest of me, creatively processed and expressed.  I’m a feeler.

But what I really like about the job is that it would give me the opportunity to keep learning – something I love – and that it might open a new window in my soul. More than that, this job would put me in the middle of a place that (I think) needs someone like me.  The Christian faith badly needs clear, compassionate communicators.  And then, there is the tugging at my sleeve: I’ve been entrusted with this writing gift; in order to be a good steward of it, I am less compelled to hunker down within myself and more compelled to share what I’ve learned for the benefit of others.

There is a good possibility the Seminary will not want me, and I say that not as a means of defense or false humility but because it’s true.  In that case,  I’ll take it as a sign and get to work on a new book project. There is a YES in every NO.

Wish me luck!