Ocean to Sky

Photo courtesy of Lorenia

For the first time in about a year, I’ve had a couple of good reasons to be away from the blog:

1) I actually had some writing to do for someone other than myself (hooray!).

2) We went on a vacation … without our children (hooray, hooray!).

Last Saturday, Andrew and I traveled down to Guana Cay in the Bahamas for a week’s vacation with friends. If we’d gone to Florence or Edinburgh or even San Francisco, I might have something interesting to say about the trip, but the fact is that we did very little.

We sea kayaked and snorkeled. We slept, read and ate. We sat in the ocean drinking rum punch, and in the fistfuls of red-flecked sand we pulled up in the shallows came star fish, sand dollars and intricate pieces of coral. Beauty was everywhere, from ocean to sky, and the main thing I felt for the seven full days we were away was gratitude. It is amazing to feel so consistently grateful for such a sustained period of time.

Now that I’m back to my real life, I’m trying to remember the lessons I learned last week:

1) Reading makes me a better person.

2) Waking up to complete quiet is an unspeakable joy.

3) Immense gratitude makes me feel like I have super powers.

4) My husband is still the most thoughtful, handsome person I know.

5) When you start getting paranoid that a shark is going to appear out of nowhere while you’re inspecting the coral reef, it is time to come in.

If you’re disappointed that I didn’t write a real essay tonight, go read some other insightful, lovely, inspiring words on the Art House America blog, a diamond in the rough. I am really excited to have been included in last week’s batch of features. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Reunion

We met at a tree-lined, lakeside picnic shelter on Saturday afternoon. The Kintzes, having juggled nap times and an ornery three year old, arrived late, and we entered the scene carrying a gigantic, unnecessary watermelon. But as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were met with the warmth specific to family – that strange, but instant bond.

The tables were filled with fried chicken and pasta salad, ham biscuits and Chex mix. They were lined with people I hadn’t seen for five or ten years or more, and yet I was known to them, if not in my present state, certainly in some past version of myself, which, in some ways, matters more.

The cousins I tended to when they were babies are lovely young women now – almost the same age I was when I was their babysitter. And yet, somehow, the cousins who knew me when I was in diapers looked the same to me: still my senior, but otherwise only vaguely aged. There were too many people missing, which I guess is the hard thing about family reunions; they were there in photographs and conversations. It was a scene in which I could easily picture my father – the reason I was there – and if I had the power, I would have put him on the picnic bench eating fried chicken, wearing his suspenders and belt and that smile that always seemed to know more than it was telling.

Family reunions are sort of funny if you think about them. All those disparate parts, far flung, gathering for one hot afternoon, or one long weekend, in hopes of conjuring up connection. It doesn’t sound like it would work, or that it might even matter that much. Why pack the kids in the car for a five hour drive so that a collection of relatives can lay eyes on them/us, or vice versa, for such a short time?

I haven’t quite got the answer, but I know that it matters, and that I’m glad we were there. I know that there is something great, something respectable about considering and honoring one’s lineage, making peace with it, even, if that’s what it takes. I know that it’s something special to hear someone you hardly know speak fondly of someone you deeply loved, and that there is something wonderful about the way someone who knew you as a child regards you as an adult.

I know that it is a beautiful thing to see my dad’s sister’s kids watch my baby girl wriggle from my arms and crawl away from the shelter, so that the raindrops from a sudden summer storm could douse her. And that that moment was made all the more meaningful, for me, at least, because my dad and his sister aren’t here anymore. No one called us to to give any guilt trips, or to suggest someone’s feelings would be hurt if we didn’t show. We came because of that invisible thing, specific to family, that requires our presence, and because we wanted to capture it, if only for an afternoon.

FirstWord/LastWord

Christmas Clairewww.keriecleveland.com

On Saturday morning, Claire awoke in a happy mood, babbling in her crib for a good long while before demanding to be taken out and given milk.  When she finally did “call” for us, Andrew and I were still feeling lazy, so we pulled her into bed  for what we hoped would be some nice baby snuggle time.

But our unmade bed is to Claire a fascinating obstacle course.  She crawls over stray pillows and random coverlet lumps as though she is an all-terrain vehicle, plowing through the rumpled sheets while making sounds akin to a sputtering engine.  In dim light, she finds our faces with her little hands and grabs hard at our noses, or slaps our cheeks.  Occasionally, Claire will face plant into a pillow and suck her fingers for a hopeful moment, but this is just a way to buy some time while hatching a plan for her next adventure. Always, she heads towards the nearest edge of the bed, which is 32 inches high – a number we know because we had to measure it after Claire, at six months, rolled off.

All of this makes for a less than restful snuggle. But it’s fun, and it delays the beginning of our inevitable morning routine.

At some point during Claire’s Saturday morning theatrics, Ivy sensed a good time and bounded onto the bed with us.  The baby, who was delighted, and completely unphased by Ivy’s tail,  giggled and squealed “EyeBee!” All other babbling we have been able to write off as just that, but the “EyeBee” we heard from Claire on Saturday was an intentional first.  She’d put two and two together.  Today, she did it again.  At lunch, I caught her passing  pieces of chicken and cheese to her new best friend, the vehicle for her first intellectual milestone: EyeBee.

Just as Claire ends 2008 with her first word, I end this year closing out “Joyful Things”.  Certainly, as I’ve continued to grow as a writer, this site has become a surprising tool in helping me suss out fake narrative voice – too many of my friends read this for me to go around putting on airs – and, it’s served as a constant reminder that writers are never truly out of ideas.

In closing, I hope this little blog has captured the wonder of the every day, that it has rung true, and that it has pointed to the power of paying attention.  In writing, I think that’s what we’re all after – or at least I am.  I’ll keep doing it, in a somewhat more structured way of Wandering at www.proximitymag.org, beginning January 1.

Proximity is a collaborative project with two of my writer friends, Carrie Kilman and Maggie Messitt, narrative journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and rural South Africa, respectively.  Each week, we plan to spend an hour at a chosen location in each of our cities (coffee shop, bus stop, restaurant, etc.) and write around that theme.  Later, we’ll ask readers to contribute their own posts in what we hope will become a global portrait of common ground.

I hope I’ll see you there.  In the mean time, Happy Holidays!

Next Year I’m Going Barefoot



Originally uploaded by NicaMom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York State of Mind

For the past several days, I’ve had a hankering for New York City.

This happens to me, inexplicably, every now and then, usually in early fall or late spring.  I felt the hankering coming on recently, when “New York State of Mind” became my internal iPod’s constant soundtrack; it’s as if Billy Joel decided to set up his piano in my memory bank, refusing to leave unless I booked myself a flight from ATL to JFK.  (He hasn’t broken me yet.)  I’ve also been reading The New York Times in earnest – more thoroughly and with more interest than usual, and this has only intensified my curiosity and desire for the place: for its hustle; its literature; its rhythm.

Still, I can’t really explain this lingering New York want.  I’ve never lived there and have only actually visited twice.  I could not, if plunked down in the middle of Central Park, find my way to Times Square.  There are no favorite New York City sandwich shops in my memory, no quaint ice-skating-hand-in-hand-at-Rockefeller-Center moments in my past, no warm flashbacks of shopping in the city’s grand department stores with my mother, no great personal literary moments recorded at the New York Public Library.

But I do like the idea of such things, and I think that’s what keeps the hankering going: my life, imagined, in New York City. For the past few weeks, as I’ve felt my creativity take on volalitility not unlike our current stock market’s, I imagine that living within a community of writers, and among so many publishing giants, would keep me afloat.

When in a New York state of mind, I begin making excuses for the sluggishness of my Atlanta-based pen: if I lived in New York I would believe in (and be surrounded by believers in) my writing; the cooler weather/walking/cultural wealth would inspire me; if I lived in New York, I would be more hip and in the know, steps away from my (so far) very encouraging agent, and in the midst of general excitement. I spend valuable free time imagining paid writing jobs on subjects both literary and creative, museum days for Claire, runs in Central Park with Ivy, nights out in some great NY restaurant with Andrew –  and Billy Joel sings on and on.

But what I need is not New York.  I do not have, as one friend puts it, “itchy feet” for anywhere, really; we have a nice yard here, and no traffic to speak of on our surface streets, and it is quiet, which is, perhaps the most vital necessity to my concentration and creativity.  Like the imagined great office space and the imagined great book deal which, in my imagination, contribute so significantly to my creativity, the New York state of mind is just a diversion, allbeit a happy one.  It is so tempting to imagine myself anywhere but here in the midst of times that are challenging, or too day-in-day-out.  I wonder if the whole world doesn’t do that to a certain extent.  Maybe we are all living dual lives in our minds.

As I switched my closet from summer to winter this weekend, just before the hankering for NY hit, I came across a black cashmere sweater I bought just before my last trip to the city.  It was on sale, but still felt like a luxurious purchase, one worthy of New York in the fall.  But in the end, I think it did nothing to make me look anything but hopelessly Southern – in New York for a weekend, with no real sense or desire for direct belonging.

And so, I find myself reassured somewhat: I am who I am, and where I should be; however temporarily the cultural outcroppings of [the imagined] New York life woo me, they’ve got only peripheral bearing on my creative aims and successes.  Billy Joel, too, will fade in time. As he goes, I just hope he will leave with me some inspiration.

(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.