(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 Meanwhile, I reorganized our kitchen shelves, tossed outdated salad dressing from the refrigerator and donated a large bag of canned goods to our local food pantry.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.

Change

For over a year now, Andrew and I have held a membership to Stone Mountain Park, just outside Atlanta.  The Rock, as we like to call it, just twenty minutes from our house, is heavily wooded and surrounded by a fresh lake in which our dog Ivy loves to swim.  The Rock, itself, which stands at the center of the park, is a humpbacked granite slab resembling a somber whale or a planetary hemisphere.

We love the place’s peacefulness – the view of local crew teams gliding across the lake’s early morning glimmer in conjunction with ducks in low flight is truly soul-settling – and we love that it gives our little family a taste of the great outdoors in the midst of a bustling metropolis.

But we also love and are intrigued by Stone Mountain’s irony.

The Rock is of sad history.  In 1915, hooded men in white robes revived the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) atop the lovely granite monolith, burning a cross in celebration.  This “reincarnation” of the Klan was led by a man named William J Simmons, and featured Nathan Bedford Forest II (the grandson of the KKK’s original Imperial Grand Wizard) administering oaths.  The group had permission of The Rock’s owner to hold all its rallies there and in 1924 commissioned a stone carving of the South’s Confederate heroes on its mountainside. (The KKK supplied half the funding for the artwork; the US government supplied the rest of the money.)

Today, however, few signs of the hatred and fear that characterized Stone Mountain for so many years remain.  The carving is still there, of course, and throughout the summer the park puts on a campy laser show to which tourists flock and clap along to the tune of Dixie.  The Confederate memorial, which details information about Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, is also there but rarely highlighted and does not appear to draw any crowds at all.

Far more prevalent than signs of bigotry at Stone Mountain are the African Americans who use the park grounds as a meeting place for cookouts, who bike, walk and run the trails surrounding The Rock, who fish in the lake and let their dogs run free through the woods. They have claimed Stone Mountain for themselves, not any more or any less than the rest of us, but equally, in light of forgiveness, in light of progress.

The juxtaposition of these two entities – proud Confederates and those they fought to oppress – is just downright bizarre. But it is also because of this juxtaposition that it feels as if the spirit of Stone Mountain has been set free, as if something very wrong has been righted there.

Earlier this summer, Andrew and I saw a group of young black boys – maybe between the ages of seven and ten – chasing one another up the sidewalk by the park grounds.  They were laughing and squealing and running as fast as their little legs could carry them. And I was so glad for them to be out of the city, to know the feel of fresh air, however hot and humid, to be assured for them that times do change, and that they have.

I saw in the boys’ faces the joy that I hope for our country, a country that may, indeed, be at the cusp of electing its first African-American President.

If Obama is not our nations hope – the leader of a revival forced from hard times – he may still be the hope of all the little black boys sprinting full speed through the trees at Stone Mountain, an iconic figure for the future America.

The future America.  What will it be?  I pray for a place, like The Rock, that can overcome its history; for a place that seeks justice and loves mercy; for a place that makes those who live in it healthier, happier, and freer in both mind and spirit.

Until then, we will seek refuge among Stone Mountain’s ironies, waiting, patiently, for change.

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 …

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

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.