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 Meanwhile, I reorganized our kitchen shelves, tossed outdated salad dressing from the refrigerator and donated a large bag of canned goods to our local food pantry.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

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

Fueling the Rocket

This past December, when Claire was just a kick and a dream, I met with two artist mentors, Tom and Beverly Key. I was feeling pretty crummy about my pregnancy brain at the time, and nervous about my writing career as a whole, and asked them what I should do. Tom told me, simply, to “fuel the rocket.” By this, he meant to read, to find inspiration in others’ work so that when the time came for my writing to launch I would have a sort of literary reserve from which to draw.

Over the past eight weeks, I have taken Tom’s advice to heart. I have been reading like I’ve never read before, and not just children’s books – although there are some quite delightful children’s books out there – but good magazines, especially The New Yorker and Poets and Writers. I love The New Yorker because its nonfiction is so alive, so juicy, so balanced and smart. Poets and Writers, on the other hand, makes me feel I’ve still got one foot in the literary world. It also makes me feel as though I am still in school, which, in a way, I am.

In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, the poet Mark Doty writes about veracity and memoir. Doty gives the subject a fresh glance, and it is one of the most beautifully written meditations on honesty that I’ve read. But what really touched me was a moment in the essay’s conclusion.

Doty writes about going to a children’s museum in Memphis called the Pink Palace when he was small: “The best exhibit was a tree that had somehow moved indoors. It was huge, at least to me, and dwelt behind a wall pierced with dozens of tiny doors. I could open the doors at ground level myself, and look into whatever scene lay around the roots of the tree: mushrooms, ferns, a stuffed fox. My father would have to lift me up to look into the other doors, and that is one of my best memories of him, the tenderness implicit in holding your son up into the air so he could see.”

As I have been muddling through the first several weeks of motherhood, Doty’s final sentence resonated with me. It captured – in a way I am only now beginning to discover – all that I hope to give Claire: a window through which she can see the world and interpret it for herself. But it also reminded me of my own unique purpose here as her mother. If I am expected to teach Claire new things, to revel in and reflect upon the mysteries and the beauty and the hardship of the world with her, then I must also always be learning.

At first, I wondered if it were all right to spend Claire’s feeding times reading – if she would sense that I was absorbed in something other than her sweet blue eyes – but she doesn’t seem to care. Besides, a steady diet of sound writing is as imperative to me as milk is to her, and this, I think, is the most important thing I’ve learned in the last eight weeks: good mothering means that the mother cares for herself as well as her child.

Yesterday, I went on a swimming expedition in arctic waters; today, I’m in Bengal, tracking tigers. Reading, which once felt like a leisurely, selfish indulgence, now serves a new purpose: it gives me arms with which to raise Claire up, so she can see. It’s exciting to think of all the things she and I will discover together, of the tenderness implicit in that, and how our worlds, big and small, will inform each other.

** My presence on the blog will still probably be pretty sporadic for a while, but not because I want it to be. I’m tutoring through the end of this semester which takes most of the free time I’ve got during the day, but I’ll get back into the rhythm of what Andrew calls “the old life” sometime soon. Thanks for your patience and, as always, for reading!**

Claire.

100_1375.jpg

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.