Beautiful Time

By Nic-C

While reading the New York Times the other morning, I was distraught to find not one sampling of good news. Not one. Every ugly headline I read had something to do with destruction on both a global and a personal scale. And for days afterwards, columns of bad news piled up around me, rising like cinders, threatening to distort my world’s simplest joys.

More than that, the bad news made me think about the world we are handing to our children, to my children, and how I might help them cope with the onslaught of negative information and experience (i.e. middle school) that will inevitably come their way.

When I was growing up, I read and wrote poetry to process and lend beauty to circumstances that were not always the best, and some of my favorite memories of my father, a strapping, stoic farmer, are of his recitations of poetry at the dinner table – something that shaped my love for language and the comfort I’ve taken in it. So, I decided that I would help my family (and myself) combat the stress and uncertainty of each day with a few minutes each morning dedicated to the consideration/reading/hearing/tasting/smelling/seeing of something beautiful.

We call it “Beautiful Time.”

Now, this is a lovely idea in theory. And, actually, it’s a lovely idea in practice, except that our three year old has her own conceptions of beauty, and TV happens to be one of them.  Each morning, we drag Claire away from “Jack’s Big Music Show” to share with her the things we hope will eventually sustain her when NickJr. is a thing of the past: truly great music – not just classical, but rock, folk, country and alternative – beautiful, interesting art, and kind words, spoken and written.

For now, we recognize and give in to our children’s line of vision: we allow Claire to put on her princess dress and dance to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Major, even if it’s a harried morning; on occasion, we use her art as a “Beautiful Time” focal point; we ask her what she thinks is beautiful, how she feels when she makes something beautiful (“happy”), and what makes her feel loved. In this way, her perspective (and soon, Elizabeth’s) will shape our grown up perspectives on beauty in all its forms, bringing with it a peculiar joy and curiosity.

Absorbing artful sustenance for whatever lies ahead seems a good practice for anyone unwilling to surrender completely to the world’s painful realities. It can be a reminder of how best to process bad news – a lot of incredible art has been born of hard times – and how to find a center point of beauty and strength to return to in otherwise unwieldy chaos.

On Tuesday, we looked at a wood carving of a flower Andrew’s dad made when Andrew was Elizabeth’s age. It is one of his simpler carvings, but beautiful, and both our girls loved holding it and running their fingers across its intricate detail. Claire was so enamored by the idea of “Pete” having made the carving that she lingered longer than usual at the kitchen table, and didn’t even ask for the TV to be turned back on, allowing me, even, to read her a poem far above her reach, but filled with beautiful words. I’ve posted it below to give you your own bit of sustenance for whatever your day may hold.

From Blossoms

By Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

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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

Claire.

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Three days before my pregnancy came to its welcome end, Andrew looked out our bathroom window and saw something of a wonder: seventeen robins pecking the ground, springing from branch to branch of our scrawny magnolia tree, zipping from one corner of our back yard to the other. Seven more could be seen from the window overlooking our front yard. These precious, red-breasted gifts were only on our property which made for a very bizarre, God-given, Magnolia-esque moment – heavy with symbolism at a time when I badly needed encouragement and promise.

The robin, of course, has always been a sign of spring’s arrival. But, as Andrew and I found out later that day, it is also traditionally thought to symbolize new birth, renewal and patience. By that time, I’d had just about enough of patience, but there was something phenomenal about having nature, itself, remind me of our little one’s assured arrival.

Claire came into the world on February 23rd at 9:56 am. She was, and is, perfect.

On the other side of delivery, I see all the more clearly how appropriate it was that so many robins had gathered in our yard in anticipation of Claire’s arrival; she signals a renewal that is not just physical – though the new baby smell is pretty intoxicating – but spiritual.

To hold a new baby – especially if it is yours – is something like having a tent revival take place in your heart. The patience I cultivated during pregnancy prepared me surprisingly well for the long sleepless nights I have lately been enduring, and there is no encounter – even in the most mundane sense – that does not have an edge of newness to it.

The past week has been a haze of visitors, free food, sleepless nights and diapers. Last night we discovered the power of the bouncy seat; today, because Claire refused to sleep all afternoon, I downloaded Sounds of the Womb, to which she immediately fell into a deep slumber. Due to all this joy and exhaustion, my blog postings will be sporadic for a while. I’ll do my best to keep writing, though.

In honor of Claire’s arrival, a poem about little girls and their fathers:

My Daughter’s Morning

by David Swanger from Wayne’s College of Beauty

My daughter’s morning streams
over me like a gang of butterflies
as I, sour-mouthed and not ready
for the accidents I expect

of my day, greet her early:
her sparkle is as the edge of new
ice on leafed pools, while I
am soggy, tepid; old toast.

Yet I am the first version
of later princes; for all my blear
and bluish jowl I am welcomed
as though the plastic bottle

I hold were a torch and
my robe not balding terry.
For her I bring the day; warm
milk, new diaper, escapades;

she lowers all bridges and
sings to me most beautifully
in her own language while
I fumble with safety pins.

I am not made young
by my daughter’s mornings;
I age relentlessly.

Yet I am made to marvel
at the durability of newness
and the beauty of my new one.

Narrative – A Magazine Review

I’d planned on reviewing Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a novel by the young and talented (and beautiful) Marisha Pessl, but I couldn’t get through it in time. I blame this not on the writer, but on my own brain’s current fitful, circuitous state. My mother-in-law and mother, two women whose literary opinions I hold in high esteem, both thought the book was brilliant. It just wasn’t linear enough or short enough for me right now and I needed to give myself permission to put it down.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magazines lately, both as a means of planning submissions and as a source for inspiration. Narrative Magazine is an online literary journal; in its five years of existence, it has blazed a path of great prestige in the online world. To say you have been published by them means that you are Well On Your Way (if you aren’t already There); in the journal’s current issue are essays by Gail Godwin and Bill Barich, both Guggenheim fellows, fiction by a woman named Ann Pancake, who I happily discovered a few years ago, and poetry by Ted Kooser – the US poet laureate from 2004-2006 – among others.

Whether the writing featured in Narrative is by Guggenheim fellows or by up-and-comers, I’ve found it is consistently engaging, moving, solid and smart. Yesterday, I read a piece by Wendy Sanford called “Bodies.” It depressed me. In fact, it depressed me and the depression stayed with me – which is always proof of good writing. This morning, I read the magazine’s excerpt of Gail Godwin’s “Solo Notes,” and got inspired – and the inspiration has stayed with me. I will feast upon Narrative’s pages until I’ve read each piece even if its writing makes me angry for an entire day, or wistful, because there is such joy and satisfaction that comes from reading good sentences, such affirmation to be found in reading about Things That Matter.

In my opinion, there are few magazines – in print or online – that offer readers such fine work with such consistency. The Establishment once dismissed online publishing as unsophisticated – akin to self-publishing and self-promotion – but we are living in a digital age, and digital media has begun to become very sophisticated, indeed. Best of all, Narrative is free!

Monkeys & Such

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There is a man in our neighborhood who walks the streets with a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey is small and brownish-black and is always partially shrouded by his owner’s gray hooded sweatshirt. The man walks with a long gait. He is tall and lanky, has a coarse gray beard like his monkey’s.

Sometimes the man’s lady friend walks with him; she is petite and blonde and appears to be the monkey’s lookout. When an official-looking car drives by, the blonde keeps power walking while the man makes sure his hood is up and turns his back to the street, as if he is checking out a house for sale. Nevermind the long, black primal tail trailing from his hood, or the blank little face that sometimes peeks around to see what’s up. It is a weird arrangement, and although I’ve been observing it for almost three years, seeing the monkey peeking out from the hooded sweatshirt still catches me off guard.

When Ivy and I are on the street and we happen to pass this odd pair, the monkey bounces and chitters while the man hisses and kicks in the air to keep Ivy away. I wonder what sorts of diseases the monkey carries and I give the man annoyed, peevish looks. The man wears mirrored sunglasses, so I have no idea what sort of looks he’s giving me.

I’m not sure why I’m blogging about this except that I think it’s so interesting that we have a man who ambles through our neighborhood with a real, live chattering monkey on his shoulder; I also don’t often have the occasion to mention this odd neighbor in casual conversation. If he were friendlier, I would ask him for his story. I wonder where he works and if his co-workers know he owns a monkey; I wonder where the monkey came from and what he does when not shrouded by his owner’s sweatshirt hood.

There is also a man who runs around our neighborhood at night carrying an empty plastic grocery bag with him; he appears always to be training for a marathon, always completely exhausted. He stutters. He throws imaginary sticks for Ivy and tries to strike up conversation about the weather, or about dogs. But because he keeps running as he talks, our conversations never get far.

Another guy bikes through our residential streets wearing huge headphones, thick glasses, a black baseball cap, a t-shirt, a backpack and cargo shorts. His hair is long and curly and flows wildly out of the baseball cap, which makes him look like a boy – slightly unkempt; completely free. I always expect to see him coasting down a hill with his arms up-raised, and although he never does this, seeing him ride his bike so joyfully makes me happy.

I am glad to have these odd people in the world. Which is not to say that I want any of them to follow me home or that I have come to like the monkey-man. But I admire their weirdness, how life has not made them so tired that they can no longer be themselves, can no longer walk with monkeys on their shoulders or throw imaginary sticks. These three men are harmless, but I know people who would be afraid of them because they are different. I try not to be that way.

Lately, I’ve been trying to read a little poetry every day. These few lines are from Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes”:

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

Great With Child – A Book Review

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** I’ve decided to take my friend Richard’s advice and begin reviewing books on my blog.  I’m hoping that this will motivate me to read more voraciously.  ** 

There are a lot of books on the market about pregnancy, and even more, I’m sure, about parenting. I dislike these books. I say this a few weeks into my third trimester after receiving (from well-meaning friends and acquaintances) a stack of them almost as tall as my bedside table.

Of these many texts, the ones I’ve thumbed through have left me feeling somewhat uneasy, or alarmed, or angry.  I nearly threw one across the room.  The marketers of these books impose a sort of moral authority over pregnant women, suggesting through various means that one will be an unfit mother unless she reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting from cover to cover.  The books also appear to be written by people who might also, say, have too-strong opinions about things like the NRA, or taxes, or the space shuttle program. Like heat-seeking missiles, the writers target with remarkable focus expectant mothers’ unique vulnerabilities, sending already tweaked-out hormones into a new and utterly unpredictable frenzy.  The authors of these books take on the sort of know-it-all tone that used to make me want to hit someone hard with a kickball when I was in middle school.

My doctor’s first word of advice to me, when I was just eight weeks along, was to rely on her when I had questions or fears and to avoid all books and web sites concerning pregnancy and childbirth. She needn’t have worried.

But among the stack of pedantic, agenda-driven pregnancy books there is one shining gem: Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly. Fennelly is a poet and professor of writing at Old Miss who wrote a series of encouraging letters to her friend Kathleen during K’s pregnancy. In Great With Child – the book that resulted from these missives – Fennelly, who herself has two children, gives pregnancy and parenthood its due while celebrating (and sometimes bemoaning) its mysteries and its madness. She offers Kathleen both grace and freedom, covering topics from miscarriage to the administration of pain medication to work/life balance with a calm, supportive, reassuring voice.

Great With Child will not tell expectant mothers when their babies’ ear drums are forming, this is true, but Fennelly’s poetic sensibilities offer readers a broader, more literary and more powerfully feminist view of what it means to be “expecting.”

Interpreting Joy

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Earlier this fall, I founded a little artist’s group. I knew from previous freelancing experience how isolating (and depressing) it can feel to sit at home all day without access to humans except via email, and I was keen to find a way around that problem this go-round. At the recommendation of a knowledgeable friend, I picked up a book called The Artist’s Way, aimed at nurturing the creative spirit. The author, Julia Cameron, suggests readers form “creative clusters” for support and community.

My creative cluster consists of Kristina, a visual/decorative artist, Kerie, a photographer, Natasha, a graphic designer, and Laura, also a photographer – all women I respect and admire not only for their artistic talents, but also for who they are as people. Although we’re all in different creative fields, when we meet, we discuss the same sorts of things – how to balance art and commerce; what to do about taxes incurred by our small (tiny!) companies and how to bar against them; where to fill our creative wells, etc.

As I was leaving our group this past Monday, Kristina and Kerie began talking about the nature of their work. Kristina’s paintings are full of color, joy and life. She uses pink paint, often. Her work is bold, with a fun flare, and beautiful. Kerie does all sorts of photography (weddings pay the bills), but enjoys her work with children the most. She loves to bring out their liveliness and innocence, captures sly, mischievous smiles and quirky personalities.

Both girls talked about their peers from art school, who were so focused on finding reflective meaning within their paintings and photographs that they seemed to discount the value of something that was simply beautiful, or dear. I remember feeling a similar tension while studying poetry in college. It seemed all “legitimate” poets were writing about fear, death, longing or depression. With varying degrees of success, my peers there followed suit. I sort of tried to walk into the shadows, but always felt I came off as a sham, and there’s nothing worse than insincere poetry.

Still, the “true artist” stereotype sometimes serves as a deterrent to my own work. I imagine that I will not achieve real success with my writing unless I addict myself to an illicit drug (or maybe just some painkillers), go crazy or become madly self-centered. Unfortunately (I mean, fortunately), I’m just not wired that way, and I kind of like my balanced life as it is. I try to remind myself that there are plenty of wonderful, “legitimate” artists out there whose work has tracings of both light and shadow, who are not destitute, and whose lives are not in shambles.

But the question remains, can art be joyful and still be considered art? I think so. If all artists were tortured souls, searching for an outlet for their grief, the world would be in a very sad state, indeed.

FYI: The painting, above, is by my friend Kristina.  It is one of my favorites.