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!

My Stroke of Insight – A Book Review

My family and I are learning a lot these days, and it all seems to come back to patience. Peter is back in Atlanta now, getting stronger, but still has a journey of rehabilitation ahead of him. In the midst of this new reality, a family friend recommended Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight.

Insight is a memoir of sorts, but it is also a story of encouragement and enlightenment for stroke sufferers and their families. Taylor, a Harvard brain scientist who suffered a cerebral hemmorhage (much like Peter’s) when she was just 38 years old, tells the story of her stroke and recovery with odd clarity. Her recollections are, in many ways, comforting; they serve as a guide for those of us in the midst of caring for a family member who has suddenly lost skills that once required little effort. Taylor writes with an authoritative voice, not simply because she knows from experience what it is like to lose the ability to read, speak and walk, but because she is a neuroanatomist. With affectionate voice, she explains the power, plasticity and intricacy of the brain. I have never been more in awe of gray matter.

My Stroke of Insight is a reminder to everyone who interacts with stroke patients that the person they love is still in there, but maybe a little quieter, or a little more confused than usual. Taylor tells her readers how to interact with friends and loved ones recovering from a stroke, encouraging them to be positive, speak quietly and slowly, and to remember that they are interacting with someone who has been wounded but is by no means stupid or hard of hearing. Taylor’s book reminds us that life in the “real world” – or at least the world that we with normally functioning brains perceive as real – is terribly harsh; using her own experience as a backdrop, she urges us to be gentler, kinder, more humane. I can think of no better service for a book to provide.

A Bump in the Road

On Sunday afternoon, my beloved father-in-law, Peter, suffered a major stroke. I have neither the poetics nor the mental capacity to write about this right now, but if I did, I would begin by using his dog, Charlotte, as an example – she is holding steady by the door, waiting for his return – and end with a word or two about who Pete is (an artist, a philosopher, a storyteller whose wit knows no equal) and why it is essential that he get better.

Peter is one of the most consistently faithful people I know. If you are the praying sort, please shout a word or two to God for him. My 8 year old cousin, Hardin, asked God to “fix him real good.” In other words, we seek complete restoration, will power, peace, progress, and a good night’s sleep for his loved ones.

For more information on Peter’s condition, go to www.caringbridge.org/visit/peterkintz

Thank you.

Happy Birthday, Blog!

One year ago today, I sat, Indian-style, on the yellow couch in the old catch-all office with Ivy beside me, and launched this blog. A lot has changed since then. A year ago, I was still working four days a week in accounts payable, and I was just two months shy of an MFA in creative nonfiction writing. I was pregnant, but didn’t know it yet. I was worried that, after graduating from Goucher, I would have nothing to write about, and that my stuff would never get read.

I launched Words, Wanderings and Other Joyful things more for myself than anyone else. I thought a blog would help me keep writing, that it could serve as an idea-container, where I would shelve essay ideas until I had time to refine them. I didn’t suppose anyone (other than my mother and husband) would be interested in reading my random thoughts, happinesses and provocations. But a few of you were interested, and then a few more.

Now, 49 posts later, thirty good souls even get my newest posts in their email inboxes. Sometimes people search for me on WordPress – using my name or the name of the blog. Let me tell you – there’s really nothing more thrilling for a no-name writer than to see that her very strange name has been entered as a search term. Finally, according to WordPress stats, my blog has been viewed five thousand two hundred and fifty-two times. I don’t know if that is a lot or not, but it sounds pretty good for starters.

In celebration of the little blog’s birthday, I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways in which I might improve. What sort of posts do you gravitate toward? Which ones bored you? Would a more structured blog be better? (See Seymour Cornelius for an example of a structured blog.)

Now that I have such a limited time to write, I do have to be careful that the Blog doesn’t become my only literary outlet. But since it’s been so fun, I’ve got plans to keep on chugging along for another year – or more! Thanks for reading. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts.

The Power of NOW

No, I don’t mean the National Organization for Women. I mean “Now” as in “this present time.” I am learning all about living in the now these days. Having a baby does that. The meaning of this for me is two-fold:

These days, I can only do what I am doing right this second, which is to say that if I am feeding Claire I cannot also unload the dishwasher or make the bed or go running (though I can read The New Yorker and/or Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child). Having a baby sucks you in in this way; you are, for several stretches of the day, entirely engaged and indisposed, entirely at the mercy of the now.

Secondly, I’ve realized that living in the now means I’ve had to bid farewell to procrastination; if Claire is asleep or happily “playing” by herself, I’ve got to do whatever I want or need to do, and at double the speed. Procrastination used to be part of my daily routine. Now, if I allow myself that luxury, I’ll get absolutely nothing done.

At first, this drove me crazy. I wanted to multi-task the way I did in the old days; I wanted to get things out of the way. The general state of impatience and quickness that once characterized my days had turned into something much more deliberate and mundane. Before, I was always completing one task in the midst of thinking about the next, all so I could get through the things I knew I had to do in order to procrastinate for a good long time with my writing assignments. With a baby, one can only be patient, slow, and available.

Andrew has been worried about me slipping into the MomZone, a zone, that is, where my entire personality and thought life is poured into our child. As anxious as I was about the danger of losing myself prior to having Claire, I don’t feel threatened by it at all right now. Living in the Now, from moment to moment, forces me to prioritize well, to focus on those things that are most important (for myself or for Claire) and to be available – to friends, family members, and even my writing – in ways that I was too self-consumed and impatient to be before. Plus, I recognize that Claire’s absolute need for me won’t last forever, and, furthermore, that she is a great excuse for a myriad of social and professional faux pas.

For example, there are not enough Nows between now and the end of the summer to help me get all my thoughtful baby gift thank yous written; not enough Nows to serve ketchup in dining-room-table-worthy containers rather than the cold, half-used Heinz 57 bottle; not even enough Nows to put on matching shoes to go out to lunch with my husband – Just yesterday, I got home, kicked off my heels, and realized I’d gone out about town wearing one black sandal, and one brown one. So much for thinking I had it all together.

But I revel in the Nows I do have: stolen moments with my good friend Mac, the time between feedings when I can give Ivy some much-needed love, the presence of mind to pick up a freelance job (hip hip!) and complete it on time (hooray!). Most of all, I am grateful that some of my cherished Nows are not when Claire is sleeping, but when she is awake, because the power of Now truly rests in balancing two worlds well: mine, so full, exhausting and complex, and hers, as simple as the smile she shares with me.

Not Forgotten

In the weeks following Claire’s birth, I felt a little overwhelmed. This was to be expected, of course – I’ve never had a baby before – but it’s worth mentioning on the blog that one of the major contributing factors to my responsibility overload (and serious guilt-feelings) was – and is – our golden retriever, Ivy.

Andrew and I got Ivy when she was eight weeks old. At a gas station on the Georgia/Alabama line, we met her breeder, Zegie, a woman with a strong country accent and a sweet disposition, and traded cash for lop-eared puppy. Ivy rode in my lap, trembling, all the way home. She was the softest, sweetest thing, all pounding heart and over-sized paws.

Ivy’s grandmother was a seeing-eye dog and her mother had the sleek, muscular build of an American Golden – more akin to an Irish Setter’s bodacious bod than that of the bulkier British Retriever’s. But it was Ivy, not her good looks or family line, with whom we fell in love. The puppy was all heart; she was feisty and mischievous; irresistibly snuggly; nearly human.

As Ivy grew (and grew … and grew) her heart grew even bigger than her paws, her loyalty stronger than the thump of her ever-swinging, golden-flocked tail. In the worst of times, she has catered to us with a sort of divine sensitivity: when I found out my father had died, Ivy leapt to my side, warming the shock out of my system, nuzzling me, as if expressing some sort of shared grief and deep understanding.

In the best of times, she has only added to our joy.

We talk to Ivy as if she is a human. She has only seen the inside of a kennel once in her life. For a dog, she has an astounding vocabulary, including (but not limited to) “Be patient!”, “Find your collar,” and six to ten names of friends and family members. Ivy knows to expect presents (and a chunk or two of real meat) on her birthday, February 1. In short, we have coddled her into human-hood.

Had Andrew and I decided never to have children, this human-treatment of pet would, though odd, pose little problem. But Claire’s arrival has complicated things. Friends, after congratulating us on Claire’s birth, would often ask – with serious gravity – “How’s Ivy doing?”. And the truth is, she’s done just fine, but we have had our hands full.

To feel loved, Ivy needs two walks a day. If we miss one, she gives us dirty looks. Every now and then, when I am in rapt “conversation” with Claire, I will glance over to see Ivy looking seriously despondent. This breaks my heart. When the baby cries, Ivy will often look away from her and sigh, and I worry about canine depression.

In reality, I know she’s just transitioning to a more sustainable place in the family pack, but the transition is hard. Ivy feels superior to Claire, and in many ways, she certainly is better domesticated, less wild, more considerate. I do like to remind her that she was much less trouble than Claire when she was a puppy, but this does little to placate her.

Going forward, Andrew and I are hopeful that Claire and Ivy will become good friends, eager playmates, sharers of little secrets. If our girl is anything like us, she’ll fall easily in love with Ivy, and Ivy, sensing that deep affection, will love her back. My only fear is that I will be the jealous one then, forced to cede the warm, lovey lump at the end of my side of the bed to Claire – a younger, more fun, less distracted version of myself.