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.

Saving Our Endangered Minds

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to peel myself away from my computer, forcing myself off email, away from the shamelessly addictive Facebook, and out of the comforting synthetic community of online print.

This painfully difficult exercise of going “unplugged” began with a creepy, guilty feeling.  I’d been wasting far too much precious time online.  I knew this without wanting to readily admit it, and while some of it could be chalked up to searching fruitlessly for good (as in, paying) writing gigs, I’d also spent my fair share of free time perusing online sales and eBay listings, nosing through long lost “friends'” pages on Facebook, and checking (and refreshing) my email as though I were expecting correspondence from Barack Obama, himself.

Like the addict I am, I lingered in denial for a while, telling myself that my computer habits weren’t that deplorable, that I still managed to get my work done on deadline, that many of the things I did online, like connecting with old friends, were life-giving, etc. etc.  But then, in an attempt to begin research for my book (which actually involved turning OFF the computer and picking up a real paperback), I began reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy.

Healy, a PhD in educational psychology, wrote Endangered Minds after noticing that her new generation of students didn’t seem to respond to teaching techniques that had worked for her for decades.  It wasn’t just their attitudes that were different; their brains seemed different, too.  Her colleagues agreed.  Healy approached several neurophsychologists and posed this question: Were modern lifestyles altering childrens’ brains in subtle, but critical ways?

Some of the scientists were hesitant to go on the record with Healy, claiming that yes – children’s brains did appear to be changing (and not necessarily for the best) – but that no one could prove it.  Others emphatically agreed with Healy’s hypothesis – pointing to the brain’s lifelong plasticity – and begged her to write a book that might lead to reform, better education, and a greater understanding of what today’s kids are up against.

Healy’s prose is smart and engaging. But what’s kept me reading Endangered Minds are her startling findings: material that was once used to teach middle school students is being used in high schools; standardized tests are easier now than they were in the sixties, but our childrens’ scores are lower; the practice of reading is nearly outmoded, which is bad enough, but students’ comprehension of read materials is also abysmal.  Teachers report that their students today exhibit more aggressive behavior, poor attention spans, and difficulty integrating what they learn in class with day-to-day experience.

TV is often blamed as kids’ greatest intellectual hazard, but the internet and video games are surely rounding the curve, as are busy parents’ lives – one can’t expect a child to know how to navigate his or her world without a parent to plot the course.  Kids’ brains, as limber and changeable as their little bodies, are being molded by electronic babysitters, things that whizz and buzz and blink.  No wonder black and white print seems so boring.

Fifty pages in to Endangered Minds, I felt as though a tiny light was being shined on my dark corner of online distraction.  If children’s brains could be remolded (read: warped) by excess media and a lack of life experience, couldn’t mine?

“Yes!” shouted a little internal voice.  “Keep reading!”

And so I did, finishing Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, picking up Atwood’s The Blind Assassin,  and plugging along through Endangered Minds (“assigned” reading, no matter how fascinating, always feels like more work than fun).

As I spent more time with books than on the internet, I began to notice a change in my own brain: my thoughts were deeper and more complex, and my ideas for essays and writing jobs felt less out of reach.  Reading more has revived my capacity for and love of language; it’s reminded me of why writing is important, and why what I want to write is important.  Reading has made me more certain of myself and my purpose.

Without my even knowing it, all that internet surfing had made me slightly cranky, unsatisfied, and uninspired, like an overtired child.  Now, after drawing some boundaries with Mac, I feel as though I’ve woken up from a much-needed nap.  I’m more alert and settled, eager to learn and to contribute.

While Dr. Healy’s book may sound like an indictment of today’s children and their families here, it’s not.  The purpose of Endangered Minds is to call attention to the shortcomings, and then to propose solutions – a vital read for anyone who has children.

But the point of this posting isn’t to get everyone on a bandwagon for the education of America’s children … it’s to encourage you readers to invest in the plasticity of your own unique and brilliant brains.  As the holidays kick off this week, find some time to turn off the television, unplug the computer and let your cell phone battery die.  Go off into some quiet corner with a steaming cup of something, a good book (that is, a book that is good by your standards, which means it holds your attention) and lose yourself in it.

It may take time to get into the habit (I haven’t quite kicked Facebook yet) – getting into any sort of daily ritual takes patience.  But once you do, you may find yourself seeing the world through a new lens, better able to sustain the blows life brings, and less obsessed with modern day immediacy.

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.

For the Love of Blog

After a few days (or weeks) away from the blog, returning to it always feels intimidating.  I worry that I have nothing of interest to write about, or that there are so many interesting things to write about that the simplicity of the blog will be overcome.  I begin posts and then, having been distracted by infant or restless pup, do away with them.

But then I start formulating blog postings in my brain while in the shower or cooking dinner.  An idea for a little essay will cruise through my mind at light speed, high-fiving my firing synapses as it goes; a word sparks the formation of a sentence that is lost before I can find a suitable piece of paper on which to write it.  I dismiss these ideas.  Or, I make them empty promises.

But then, before settling in to an hour’s worth of worry about Claire’s bottle strike (now somewhat resolved), or Ivy’s liver levels (getting better), or how I will ever begin to wrap my mind around this massive book idea in the midst of everything else that’s going on, I hear a little voice that tells me to return to the blog – as if the blog is my muse, or a counselor.  To return to the blog as if the blog has ideas for me that I cannot see or hear unless I am writing for it.

Perhaps Joyful Things is to me as the Island is to Lost: administrator of magic powers, mysterious healer, maker of bizarre connections. Or maybe it’s just here to remind me that the practice of writing, in whatever form, takes practice and requires the sort of attention I give it here as a means of exercising my brain – sort of like what running suicides does for soccer players.

Either way, whenever I’ve finished a post, I know by how my brain feels settled and a little more alive that it has been worth the time.  I would probably feel this way if I diagrammed a few sentences, too, so I’m not talking about artfulness – just that the practice and ritual of this thing is productive.  (Don’t worry – I’m not foolish enough to think that anyone else finds diagramming sentences as interesting as I do.  I would like you to keep reading Joyful Things.  Therefore, you’ll find no grammar lessons here.)

So, for the love of the blog and the love of the craft, I’m back, just in time for fall.  Enjoy!

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 …