Surprises!

Photo Courtesy of Digital Agent

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received some nice surprises. The old adage is that bad things often come in threes, but in my case, these good things have come in threes, all delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

It all started when a mysterious package arrived in my mailbox on a sunny afternoon. It was addressed to Prof. Mary Towles Allison Kintz, and there was only a return address, but no name. Inside was Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Essentially, it’s a book about story telling, and the anonymous sender had marked a passage on transformation for me. Miller had an artist friend named Marco who did a project focused on the purpose of life, and when he asked his friend what he’d discovered, he said:

… “[Marco] didn’t know what the point of the journey was, but he did believe we were designed to search for and find something. And he wondered out loud if the point wasn’t the search but the transformation the search creates.” (p. 69)

Now, as it turns out, our friend Todd had purchased a used copy of this book and had its previous owner, in upstate New York, mail it to us. But the marking of this passage came from the stranger, and I sort of love the mystery of receiving someone else’s book marked in such a way that it sort of poses a question to the receiver, whom he will never know.

The second two surprises came on the heels of one another. Last week, I received a hand-written letter from a reader of my Art House essay. She thanked and praised me for it, offering me and my writing such wonderful encouragement I nearly cried. I’m not telling you this so that you can be wowed that I’m the sort of writer who receives fan mail (as this never_ever_happens), but because it was truly one of the nicest, most meaningful surprises I have ever received, and it taught me a little lesson on going out of one’s way to offer praise and encouragement to strangers. It also answered the question I constantly battle: Why does writing matter? It never occurred to me that something I wrote, something that felt so uniquely personal, could reach out and touch another person and lead her to write me a heart-felt letter. The truth is that my beliefs about why other people’s writing (and my reading of that writing) matters have never faltered, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hear a total stranger say to me, “YOUR writing matters.” Wow. I’m still reeling.

Finally, out of the blue, my friend’s Aunt Gail, who is a great poet and screenwriter living a real writer’s life in NYC, sent me a book: Writers of the American South: Their Literary Landscapes. It is a beautiful collection of photos and prose profiling Southern writers and their writing spaces. I don’t know why Gail sent this book to me (unless maybe she felt a little sorry for me upon reading this post), but I have loved learning about how some of my favorite writers – Ann Patchett, Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Conner, to name a few – live(d) and work(ed). It was such a delight to be remembered in this way – to receive a present that I didn’t even know I wanted from someone whose work and perspective I hold in high esteem.

That all of these surprises came in the mail and made my day makes me want to send a personal note to Congress asking it to preserve the USPS. Being the recipient of so much lovely mail has made me reconsider the way I communicate, and it’s reminded me that being thoughtful and intentional is really the only way to live life fully. So now I’m off to put together a care package … for who, I’m not sure. But if I have your address, it may be you!

A Dream Life

The other night I had a dream: It was Christmas time, and Andrew and I were in Lowes. He was excitedly negotiating with a salesman for a high end, front-loading washer/dryer. The units were purple; this mattered to neither of us. They were on clearance. When the salesman in my dream promised to throw in a new Dyson vacuum for free, I was a goner.

Given the thrill I felt in my dream, you would have thought Andrew was buying me an entire case of jewelry at Tiffany. When I woke up, I thought, “Awesome! A new washer/dryer!” only to be sadly disappointed that our old, (mostly) faithful run-of-the-mill Whirlpools were still taking up residence in our laundry room.

I find it hard to believe that my ideas of appropriate/exciting gifts has come to this. I am a romantic at heart, and I keenly remember thinking that Andrew and I would never resort to the sort of practical gift giving I’d seen so many married couples fall victim to – giving one another a few shares of stock or a coveted kitchen appliance; paying off their cars before the dawn of the New Year; stuffing one another’s stockings with tubes of toothpaste and Costco packs of toothbrushes.

Andrew is a great gift giver – he never fails to be thoughtful, and he’s almost always on the mark in terms of my preference or style. When he proposed, he did so with a ring that he designed. The Christmas after my father died, Andrew commissioned for me a painting of the farm where I grew up. When I turned thirty, he gave me a box filled with thirty slips of paper, each telling me what he loved about me. You really can’t get much better than that.

On the rare occasion when he has gone for something less than romantic/sentimental – there was that one shoe-themed Christmas – I’ve tried to cling to the bright side (I really did need some new shoes, and Andrew noticed without my mentioning it). But practicality is just generally not my gig. I’d rather be wooed.

So to dream that my romantic companion would give me a purple washer/dryer bought on clearance for Christmas? Truly a watershed moment. I have no Freudian or Jungian analysis for this. I think it’s just a sign of the times. Better appliances mean less work for me, and, as mentioned in a previous post, I need as much help as I can get.

Therapy

I live in Nashville with my family, and here, music really is everywhere. Any night of the week, there’s a live show to see, a number one party to attend (if you’re in the business or in the know), or an open mic night to take part in. All that music, whether you’re involved with it or not, shapes a city. I think it makes a place more dynamic and certainly more creative, and I might even venture to say it makes a place more friendly. Music, like laughter, and, ok, just about any form of art unless it is really weird, is a unifying force, and I consider it a privilege to live in a place that is creative at its core. It may not be as chic or as metropolitan as my previous home, but it is as unique and inspiring as any city I’ve ever visited or lived in.

Because my husband works in the music industry, we enjoy some insider’s perks. The other weekend, we were in North Carolina for the Mountain Song festival (highly recommended) and had All Access passes thanks to an awesome little bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers. Steve Martin, who I am convinced must be one of the world’s most creatively gifted people, often tours with the SCR and plays banjo with them, and he was there, with his wife Anne and their dog Wally, for Mountain Song.

All Access basically means Andrew and I got to go back stage and hang out with the band, and that when they were performing, we could sit in folding chairs at Stage Left and watch the intimate workings of a show in progress. We didn’t spend a lot of time with the Steep Canyon Rangers because they were warming up, and we did not even meet Steve Martin for fear of making an awkward scene. (What would we have talked about? That my roommate and I watched “Father of the Bride” on an almost weekly basis my sophomore year of college? Best for some conversations not to be had.) But we did have a pleasant conversation with Anne, and we got to meet Wally, a yellow lab that can only be described as one gorgeous hunk of love.

When the music started, it didn’t really matter that we were back stage. We would have enjoyed the show if we’d been on the farthest row back, because with Steve Martin there it was kind of like a comedy set to music, and there just isn’t anything more fun than that. But having that insiders’ vantage point meant that we could see how the guys backstage handled the instruments, carrying them gingerly as they walked quickly to put them in place, setting them down gently, making sure the banjos’ shoulder straps were loose and straight with the same delicacy a maid of honor unfurls a bride’s train. We were able to see how much pure fun the Steep Canyon Rangers have with their music, how the humor that comes from the strings and their voices really is not as much an act as an acting out of joy. And it was easy to see that there, on stage and in the midst of music, Steve Martin is just one of the guys,someone who can play one heck of a banjo solo and can write one heck of a tune, but otherwise, a (very high profile) member of the band.

For me, music is therapy. It has the power to uplift, enlighten and distract. If Andrew and I have had a tough week, there is nothing better for us than a night of music. In the midst of music’s heavenly harmonies, we are somehow able to find ourselves again, to figure out what is most important and to hold onto that perspective for a good long time, sometimes a week or more.

Being able to go back stage and meet Steve Martin’s dog has its perks, but to be in the presence of music, really great music, is truly the best of all gifts, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Woody and the Steep Canyon guys for giving us the chance to get up close to their truly remarkable talent.

On Writing and an Unkept House

Over the weekend, I was reading a little of Billy Collins’ poetry collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. I love Billy Collins’ work, and not just because, as a former US poet laureate, he’s a high-profile poet. I love Collins’ writing because he finds meaning and humor in every day things and communicates those lessons by composing poetry that feels tangible and well-reasoned. His lines make you think, but not too hard. That’s a feat for a poet.

At any rate, I was reading this collection of Collins poetry on the way to the mountains last weekend and came across a poem entitled “Advice to Writers.” The first two stanzas read:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
 
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

 

I had to wonder if Collins would offer writers with two children under the age of four the same advice, or if he might just say to make sure the diaper bin had been emptied, the breakfast dishes cleared, a path made free of toys, princess tiaras and the previous night’s pajamas.

Later in Collins’ “Advice to Writers,” he writes, “…you will behold in the light of dawn the immaculate alter of your desk, a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.” My only consolation upon reading this is that the man must be crazy; I have a desk, but it is far from being an immaculate altar – it’s currently covered in Claire’s (highly entertaining) artwork, four craft buckets, puppets, and the detritus of our every day lives. It seems my desk has become the sacrifice rather than the altar to which I bring my words for penance.

My house is a disaster. Since August it seems like we’ve barely been home, and when we have been here, I’ve hesitated to put away the unpacked bags, or even to completely unpack them, because another trip was on the horizon. Elizabeth is in that delightful phase where she treats emptying boxes and bags as her full time job, and Claire, my unkempt little princess, tries on several outfits each morning before settling on any one and refusing to let me brush her hair. I folded two massive loads of laundry yesterday while the girls were napping; I can’t bring myself to face the third, waiting for me in the dryer. On days when the girls are at school I often take myself off-location, but honestly, there’s no place like home for writing. I can focus here, even if it is messy, and I can write without feeling self-conscious or pressed for time.

In all seriousness, I get what Billy Collins is saying. I agree that an orderly life most often leads to orderly inspiration, that a mind clear of nagging chores does better work. But if I waited for my entire house to be clean, for my children to be perfectly presentable, dinner expertly cooked, and for all my motherly and volunteer duties to be wrapped up in a lovely little bow, I would Never. Ever. Sit down to write.

So, here I am, sitting on my rumpled couch, in front of my magazine/children’s book scattered coffee table, going after inspiration in whatever form I can find it. Sorry, Billy. I’m taking Annie Dillard’s advice, instead: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

 

 

Strong Willed

In August, Elizabeth started in the toddler room at Claire’s preschool. Her teachers were Claire’s teachers, ladies who are both loving and nurturing and have the keen expectation that the children in their class are on a journey towards self-sufficiency. The tots are encouraged but not coddled; they are taught in love. I could not be happier with our experience there.

On orientation night, Miss B asked me how Claire, now three and a half, was doing. Claire’s stubbornness had permeated that particular day, her fight to do what she wanted to do, regardless of my ideas for her, so incredibly strong that I was forced to ask myself whether or not I truly cared whether her hair was combed, her shoes matched her outfit or if she ate anything other than cheese and bread for the rest of her life. Nothing had been easy. I sighed and said, “She’s learning how to push all my buttons.” Miss B nodded and said, “I’m not surprised.” We both smiled.

Even in infancy, Claire was a force of boisterous energy, enthusiasm, and stubbornness. Her key phrase, from the time she could speak a phrase was, “I do it!” And yet, she has this contagious joy that makes her deeply strong will a little less maddening. And there are times when she is both compliant and accepting of the fact that things can’t always go her way.

But when Claire is of a mind to elbow her way through life, she does so with such insistence and determination that it takes everything I have not to find the nearest diaper and use it as my flag of surrender.

Which leaves me to wonder: How much of Claire’s will should I try to break? How much should I leave for the world to break? And how much should I celebrate?

I believe in raising strong girls. Girls who appreciate what others can do for them but believe deep in their heart of hearts that they can and will do for themselves just as well, if not better. I want them to stand up against bullies, to run hard and fast towards the things that they believe, to be individuals who live fearlessly from now through their adolescence and adulthood.

And by that, I don’t mean that I want them to be overly daring, to jump off the highest cliff because they’ll appear to be brave, but for them to be fearless when it comes to matters of the heart: to embrace themselves for who they are and what they look like, to uphold the truth, even when it’s scary, to pursue the best and highest purpose their lives hold for them.

It will take strong will for my children to live into these hopes I have for them. The world is unkind. Girls, especially, are unkind. When I talk to other young mothers of girls, I find we are all already worried about middle school and its meanness; my heart will break the day Claire combs her hair or dresses differently because she doesn’t want to be the butt of a joke, and then I’ll wish for these preschool days, when absolutely nothing mattered to her but her individuality.

I find that I am looking for light on the horizon to help me end this post, a way to conclude with certainty. But that is just not how motherhood is. I can no more assure Claire and Elizabeth that their futures will be a carbon copy of what they hope for than I can offer a blueprint, or even a cheerful metaphor, about parenting a lovably strong willed child. So I’m going to leave this one open-ended, saying only that I am grateful for the opportunity, and, as one who has lived with it, that tenacity is not the worst trait a kid could have.

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.