The Hawk

On Andrew’s birthday, August 9th, he took Ivy on a walk. Down at the end of our street, smack dab in the middle of the city, he saw a curious sight: a hawk – imposing, regal, haunting – circling above. As Andrew came closer, the hawk did, too, settling on the exposed limb of a scraggly tree just a few feet away; minutes later, with Andrew and Ivy looking on, the bird swooped to the ground and crushed an unlucky chipmunk in his great, greedy talons.

This summer, Andrew and I have both felt a little like that unwitting chipmunk. Our bad luck started when Ivy had an inexplicable seizure in late May, followed, a week later, by Andrew’s dad‘s very serious intracerebral hemmorhage (a sort of stroke). Then, just when the dust had begun to settle, Ivy threw us for another loop: last week, her body went into toxic shock from something (we know not what) she ingested, almost killing her. (Thanks to our fantastic vets, she survived!)

We feel Someone must want us to learn something from all this hardship, from our hearts breaking and mending, only to be broken again. We are becoming softer people, which is not to say that we are more fearful, but that we are just more aware of what a writer-friend of mine would call “preciousness,” the sweet, poignant internal reality of all things. (I envision here a Caramello.) We are also more acutely aware of the necessity for gratitude in easier times; in retrospect we are able to see our blessings most clearly.

Tomorrow, we leave for a much-needed vacation. My brain is full of Things to Do, which makes me feel anxious and distracted, and I wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to say we’re going on vacation and stay at home. But we need the break, and once my feet hit the sand the Things to Do will feel, miraculously, more manageable. I know this from experience.

Still, since the hawk showed up again this morning, and because his presence haunts me, I did some research. Not unlike the robins in our yard who preceded Claire’s arrival, the big, wild bird in our neighborhood holds a lesson for us, too: Equated with wisdom and power in the Native American tradition, the hawk is seen as a messenger, a protective provider to his young, a creature that teaches us – via its keen eyesight – to pay attention and be close observers. In the Christian tradition, the hawk is also often interpreted as a symbol of power, though rarely is it the sort of influence that’s gently or fairly wielded. The bird’s name, in Middle English, means “to grasp.”

Andrew and I don’t need a hawk to tell us to use what power we have for good, but we do, I think, need to pay better attention to the small things, to see clearly that which we have been called to protect and that which we are being urged to see in sharp-focus. More than anything, we need to be reminded to grasp onto the things and people and great possibilities within our reach, to hold on tight to that which nourishes our bodies and our souls.

I’ll pick up the blog again with more frequency upon our return. My prose is in need of some serious rest and renewal. Thanks, as ever, for reading …

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Yellow-Bellied


The Wizard of Oz
Originally uploaded by twm1340

Because I have made all you faithful blog readers privy to my inmost thoughts – the anxiety and joy associated with having Claire, the ups and downs of the literary market (my literary market in particular) – it seemed only right that I share the following shocking news with you:

An agent is interested in taking me on as his client.

For those of you arriving late in the game, I’m not talking about a secret agent, although that would be pretty cool, too, but a literary agent – someone who will be an advocate for me and my writing with editors and publishers in NYC.

All of this happened very suddenly. A conversation with friends over dinner turned into a book idea, which turned into a one-sentence, would-you-be-interested-in email to JW, which turned into a “YES!”, which turned into a couple of phone calls, some research and more positivity. And, just like that, something clicked into gear and started rolling.

Nine months ago, I would have felt nothing but pure joy upon receiving the news that an agent liked both my writing and my idea enough to take me on as his client. Six months ago I would have happily traded my screaming (hungry? gassy? disoriented?) newborn for at least a few hours alone among the stacks with a pen in hand (or even just alone … anywhere).

But now the wailing newborn is a grinning, giggling, milk and honey scented, pink-cheeked wonder. Now, I do not mind that she wakes me up in the middle of the night, or that she dictates my schedule, or that she is more trouble than the family dog. I’ve fallen for her, and that makes the decision to take on a new project – especially a big new project with a real agent attached – somewhat complicated, somewhat hard.

I did not expect this conflict any more than I expected JW to be genuinely interested in my idea. It appears I have been selling everything short.

And then another call came today: after months of piecing together childcare that would allow me a couple of days to work (or get my hair cut), the preschool I loved at first glance notified me that Claire was off the wait list. Some yellow-bellied mom backed out of going back to work (and who could blame her? She, no doubt, has a pink-cheeked wonder too!). So now I’m the yellow-bellied one, and the onus is on me to follow through with the thing I’d set out to do all along.

The synchronicity of these two events cannot be a coincidence. I am hesitant to agree to both, hesitant to drop either, and, upon closer analysis, recognize a crippling common denominator in this conundrum: Fear.

Oh, Fear, my little friend. He begs so many murky and unanswerable questions. But I have been around long enough to know that fear is a bad reason to say no to almost anything (except eating oysters out of season and other obvious dangers). I should try to say yes to both – just try – and recognize that nothing has to be permanent.

When taking on anything new there is so much uncertainty, so many trails to blaze on which there will be the inevitable doubling-back, sure footing that leads suddenly to quicksand, straight, sunlit paths that turn precarious, circuitous, unpredictable.

But isn’t that life? If I am to teach the pink cheeked wonder boldness, I must proceed.

Poetry Reading

One of my favorite professors once compared a poem I’d written to the work of Mary Oliver; it was and continues to be the best compliment I have ever received about my writing, and I often return to it when I am feeling un-writerly.

I don’t write much poetry anymore (my intensity has waned since my college days), but I love to read it and am grateful for the light it gives to the world. I thought it might be nice to end the week with a few good poems. Enjoy!

The Hug

by Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too,
with our arms around each other. The poem
is being read and listened to out here in the open.

Behind us no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I am giving it to you,
like a variable star shooting light off to make itself comfortable,
then subsiding. I finish but keep on holding you. A man walks up
to us and we know he has not come out of nowhere, but if he could, he would have.

He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?’ he asks you, and I feel you nod.
I am surprised, surprised you don’t tell him how it is –

that I am yours, only yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to its face.

Love – that’s what we’re talking about. Love that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on so thick I can’t feel him past it.
I’m starting the hug and thinking. “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already we could be eternal,

His arms falling over my shoulders, my hands not meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in. I lean into him. I lean
my blood and my wishes into him. He stands for it. This is his and he’ starting
to give it back so well I know he’s getting it. This Hug. So truly,
so tenderly, we stop having arms and I don’t know if my lover has walked away

Or what, or if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses – what about them? – the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing. But when you hug someone
you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek when I walk away.
When I try to find some place to go back to.

An Afternoon in the Stacks

By Mary Oliver

Closing the book, I find I have left my head
inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open
their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,
words adjusting themselves to their meaning.
Long passages open at successive pages. An echo,
continuous from the title onward, hums
behind me. From in here, the world looms,
a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences
carved out when an author traveled and a reader
kept the way open. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move

Genesis

By Anthony Abbott

The swinging Lord, that master maker
of cool chords, shifted in his empty
heaven and said, “I need me some music,”

So the sky was full of music
and he declared that it was good

And then the equally androgynous Lord
said to herself, I need some light
to fill the fragrant fingers of the night

So the waters shone with light
and she declared that it was good

And when the light and the music played
together the stars wept for the beauty of it
And the swinging, singing Lord said

I need me some people to praise
this thing that I have made

The Lord thought long and long about what
sort of people might be the purest praisers,
what sort of people might truly see the light

And he made man, with his cunning brain,
and he made the zebras and the elk
and the swift running antelope for man

to wonder at. And she made woman with her
imagining mind and her long, limber dancing
legs and her eyes that saw the color in the light

And when the man and woman had been crafted
The Lord declared that it was good

Then the man heard the light in the woman’s eyes
And the woman saw the music in the man’s mind
And the music was the silky manes of violins

And the light was like the laughter of clarinets
and the glitter of guitars. And the man and the
woman moved to the measure of the music and swayed

to the gold and amber brilliance of the light.
And they knew that the sound was neither his nor hers
nor like anything that ever was before.

And the Lord saw what they had made

And behold it was very good

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.

Oxford American Magazine – A Review

Be faithful to that which exists within yourself.
-Andre Gide

The quotation above appeared at the top of a freelance job posting email I received this morning. I found its presence there slightly ironic, because the sort of work that appears on this email list often begins with, “Do you want to write about cars?” and ends with, “Compensation: $10/story.” (I have found I may be keeping the subscription for the quotations alone.)

“That” which exists within me isn’t driven by compensation (if it were, I wouldn’t be writing at all), but since I’ve made more than ten dollars an hour working RETAIL – nevermind the Master’s degree – accepting ten dollars for a story (even if it is about cars) seems to be the most unfaithful thing I could possibly do with myself. As a writer of creative nonfiction, I might quite enjoy describing an electric blue T-top Camaro (in another life I dated a driver of one, after all …), but probably not for a publication that doesn’t appreciate the work it takes to put the reader in those vinyl bucket seats.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If a select few magazines and/or online journals wanted my writing but could pay me nothing for it, I would consider it a gift – and might even write the editor a thank you note. The Oxford American (OA), a magazine for and about the South aimed at publishing solidly written narrative nonfiction, is one of those.

My mother, who could have made good money discovering big talent for literary agencies or record companies (she is always surprisingly ahead of the trends) gave me my first issue of the OA when I was in college. She thought the magazine’s music issue was neat, and that the writing was better than most – and it was. But not enough people knew about the mag, or maybe not enough people cared, and it foundered.

The magazine, recently resurrected as a registered nonprofit, is now housed by the good people at the University of Arkansas. I love the Oxford American not just for its excellent writing, but for its humor. The magazine embraces the South’s quirkiness, revealing and exploring personalities and cultural phenomena that usually defy the Southern stereotype. I rejoice in this defiance because it is done so cleverly and with such playful curiosity.

The Oxford American‘s writers take their readers by the hand and lead them through the South on old, forgotten trails, aimed not at shallow industry or fad or stereotype, but at getting to the everyday oddities that make us and our region so interesting.

In this way, the OA is a magazine both for those who are Southern and those who are not. In the current issue, I’ve read a story about Merian C. Cooper, the high-flying Southern renegade who created King Kong, as well as a more serious article about the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin – an African American man embittered and empowered by the Civil Rights movement to write the South’s unvarnished history. The Oxford American‘s identity as a magazine about the South is clear, but it is for everyone interested in back stories, quirky personality, and true-to-life narratives that read like fiction. To learn more, or to subscribe, www.oxfordamericanmag.com

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

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!