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.

An Experiment with Self-Improvement

On Monday, Baby E had her one year checkup. I often go to doctor’s appointments with a brief list of questions in my mind, and every time I make my mental notes, I am astounded by the responsibility entrusted to us as parents.

Before each of these doctor’s visits, I feel a little the way I did upon discharge at the hospital, when the nurse tells you everything that could potentially go wrong with your baby and then whisks you away in your wheelchair, holding a precious, burritoed bundle, to the unknown. Whoa.

Before my kids’ major checkups, I fear that I will forget to ask the most important questions, or that some huge, but yet-unknown-to-me parental failing will out itself at the appointment. I strive to look as presentable as the mother of two small children can, as though the doctor will take one look at my under-eye circles and the workout clothes I wear every day and deem me incompetent.

This ritual is ridiculous: no one is going to care whether I have on makeup or not at my baby’s one year checkup, and yet I give it weight, compensating for the insecurity that shakes my confidence and the confidence of almost every mother I know: getting it wrong.

As it turns out, Baby E was, and is, thriving. I remembered to ask all the questions on my mental list. She cried, but not too much, when they gave her her shots. We left, well-tended and on to the next thing. But the prep work that went into that appointment got me thinking about how all our efforts, in everything, reveal a little – or a lot – about who we are and what we care about, and where our insecurities lie. Since parenting is, for me, my most consistent gig, I began thinking about the rules I’ve set for our household, especially for Claire, and how those rules reflect on me.

A few, for example: C may only watch two hours of tv a day, tops; her treats usually have to be earned, not expected; she is only allowed juice (diluted!) once a day.

I know: some of you without kids are thinking, “What are you running up there, a prison?” And some of you with kids are thinking: “Are you kidding? TWO hours of TV? Her brain is going to melt!”

So, I’ve taken a couple of these rules to heart, just to see if I really believe in what I’m enforcing and if life will improve if I, not just Claire, abide by them. I never watch TV, so I’ve started limiting my internet access to no more than two hours of web and email, holding myself to the discipline of not checking email every time I pass my computer. It is amazing how much time can get sucked away by the internet, and how numb I often feel after too much time on Facebook or looking around even at interesting, engaging things online. There is a much richer life to be had in writing, books, folding laundry, cleaning out my closets, talking to friends, etc. and I feel more human when I participate in this sort of mundane, real life stuff. So far, so good.

Lately, well, OK, for my whole life, I have been terrible about drinking enough water. I would much rather have hot tea, juice, Pelligrino, or champagne. I mean, who wouldn’t? So, for the next thirty days I’m challenging myself to drink the recommended amount of water each day – 64 ounces. Honestly, I am kind of bummed out about this, since I really just do not like water that much, but if I expect my children to follow suit, I’d better get on board or change my tune.

This self-improvement/experiment at enlightenment may be kind of silly. As I write about it, it feels a little like a delayed New Year’s Resolution or Lenten promise. Its purpose, though, is sincere: Am I teaching my children, even at the most basic level, about who I am and what I really believe, or only about what I’ve been told to do? Let’s hope the former.

Beautiful Time

By Nic-C

While reading the New York Times the other morning, I was distraught to find not one sampling of good news. Not one. Every ugly headline I read had something to do with destruction on both a global and a personal scale. And for days afterwards, columns of bad news piled up around me, rising like cinders, threatening to distort my world’s simplest joys.

More than that, the bad news made me think about the world we are handing to our children, to my children, and how I might help them cope with the onslaught of negative information and experience (i.e. middle school) that will inevitably come their way.

When I was growing up, I read and wrote poetry to process and lend beauty to circumstances that were not always the best, and some of my favorite memories of my father, a strapping, stoic farmer, are of his recitations of poetry at the dinner table – something that shaped my love for language and the comfort I’ve taken in it. So, I decided that I would help my family (and myself) combat the stress and uncertainty of each day with a few minutes each morning dedicated to the consideration/reading/hearing/tasting/smelling/seeing of something beautiful.

We call it “Beautiful Time.”

Now, this is a lovely idea in theory. And, actually, it’s a lovely idea in practice, except that our three year old has her own conceptions of beauty, and TV happens to be one of them.  Each morning, we drag Claire away from “Jack’s Big Music Show” to share with her the things we hope will eventually sustain her when NickJr. is a thing of the past: truly great music – not just classical, but rock, folk, country and alternative – beautiful, interesting art, and kind words, spoken and written.

For now, we recognize and give in to our children’s line of vision: we allow Claire to put on her princess dress and dance to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Major, even if it’s a harried morning; on occasion, we use her art as a “Beautiful Time” focal point; we ask her what she thinks is beautiful, how she feels when she makes something beautiful (“happy”), and what makes her feel loved. In this way, her perspective (and soon, Elizabeth’s) will shape our grown up perspectives on beauty in all its forms, bringing with it a peculiar joy and curiosity.

Absorbing artful sustenance for whatever lies ahead seems a good practice for anyone unwilling to surrender completely to the world’s painful realities. It can be a reminder of how best to process bad news – a lot of incredible art has been born of hard times – and how to find a center point of beauty and strength to return to in otherwise unwieldy chaos.

On Tuesday, we looked at a wood carving of a flower Andrew’s dad made when Andrew was Elizabeth’s age. It is one of his simpler carvings, but beautiful, and both our girls loved holding it and running their fingers across its intricate detail. Claire was so enamored by the idea of “Pete” having made the carving that she lingered longer than usual at the kitchen table, and didn’t even ask for the TV to be turned back on, allowing me, even, to read her a poem far above her reach, but filled with beautiful words. I’ve posted it below to give you your own bit of sustenance for whatever your day may hold.

From Blossoms

By Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Genius

On occasion, my husband, A, and I have conversations about what we would do if we had an inexhaustible amount of money. Since I will likely never have to make good on this, sometimes I try to impress him and say I would give away half and invest the rest. But if I’m honest, I tell him I’d spend a lot of it on continuing education, enrolling myself perpetually in classes covering everything from literature and art history to astronomy and biology. I would want to be responsible for completing a lot of interesting, difficult homework for these classes and to get a real grade, even if my grade ended up not being very good (see: astronomy).

I am not owning up to this so that you will think I am smart, but because it is (somewhat embarrassingly, strangely) true. There are just few things I love more than school, and there are few ways to recreate the joys of discovery found in a university setting once your time is up. Until now.

A couple of years ago, I discovered TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.   Each week, experts in their fields speak for twenty minutes on their newest discoveries, creations or innovations, and TED, God bless ’em, puts these talks on the world wide web for free. Like that favorite college professor, the presenters are all, almost without fail, charismatic, convincing and convicting. They cover fascinating topics you wouldn’t otherwise know or care anything about, and, before you know it, their passion for natural light or leadership or the printing of organs has hopped from their minds and hearts to yours in a matter of seconds.

The constant presence of the Web is, in my house, anyway, not always the best thing.  Like the Pied Piper, the charming, insidious chimes of our cell phones and the ever-presence of the internet and its relentless deluge of (often useless/empty) information,  leads my family away from one another, because family – even at the very happy, early stage we are in – takes emotional work and active investment, while our electronic “communications” allow us to function at B-level all the time.

But the makers of TED have somehow redeemed the internet for me, making it, in my mind, what it should be – a vehicle not only for spreading ideas, but inspiration, artfulness, intrigue, beauty and light in a world that shifts all too naturally into corners of desolation, defeat, cynicism and darkness. And although it doesn’t assign homework (am I the only person who’s disappointed about this?), TED does allow for the kind of interesting follow-up conversations that I crave, especially after a day of saying “no-no, no-no” to an eleven month old and “yes, of course I want to see how (big you are/well you can crunch your pretzel/beautifully you twirl)” to a three year old. Watching TED reminds me that there are still amazing and incredible things happening in the outside world, and it allows me to be a part of them – if only vicariously, for now.

To watch: http://www.TED.com

From the Writer Formerly Known As Towles

Since my last post on this blog, I’ve written in other corners of the Web and otherwise, moved cities, had another child, and reluctantly started a new blog, quickly followed by a complete end to my writing presence, online and otherwise.

For a while, friends and readers asked when I would begin again, to which I responded with a sort of sheepish shrug and mumbled comments about my crazy kid(s). And for a while, I didn’t think I needed to write anymore, at least not during this particularly family-absorbed phase of life. But what I have found, as my second child nears her first birthday, is that my brain is actually still writing stories. I just haven’t allowed it an outlet on paper or computer. This has resulted in some totally random Facebook status updates, wild dreams, fantastic monster-tornado-spawned anxiety, and well-placed fears that somewhere down this old Cheerio-scattered road I’ve lost the writer formerly known as Towles.

Which got me thinking about inertia. All things in motion tend to stay in motion, including imagination, creativity, and the desire to write. And the tricky thing about writing, like exercise, is that once you stop, it is really, really hard to begin again. Liken my brain right now to a 350 pound man faced with a fifty yard dash.

But begin again, I will, and I’ll do it here. If you’d like to watch and encourage me as I journey back into the writing life, keep your subscription to what used to be Words, Wanderings and Other Joyful Things, and invite some friends. “The Interior Life” feels like a more appropriate title for me these days. Not that I’m not joyful. I am! Ever more so! But I spend a lot of time indoors with children and within myself rather than wandering and reporting as before.

If you want to unsubscribe, please do. I would say it won’t hurt my feelings, but it might … just a little … and when embarking on a journey like this it is important to be honest.

Stay tuned.

A Note to Readers

A few folks have asked me to re-send information about Proximity, which has been up and running since January 1.

If you’d like to subscribe to RSS feeds or email updates for this new venture, go to http://www.proximitymag.org and enter your information there. Opting in at “Words/Wanderings” does not mean that you are also opted in to Proximity – I didn’t want to make any assumptions!

While you are at ProximityMag, also check out our “Readers Write” section. We’re requesting submissions from other writers (professional or otherwise) to contribute their perspectives on Proximity themes past and present. Don’t be shy!

Thank you for reading my work and for your encouragement! Have a great day.

LAUNCHED!

On New Year’s Day, my friends and I launched PROXIMITY MAGAZINE, a brand-new online writing project. Read our inaugural issue today at http://www.proximitymag.org.

We are three writers in three different places: a Midwestern college town, a big city in the Deep South, a rural village in South Africa.

We live in worlds divided: by oceans and mountain ranges; by state and national borders; by accents and politics; by race and by history. We live in worlds divided by real and imagined lines.

But our worlds are increasingly connected. By cables and computer screens. By trade agreements. By communities reuniting, realizing our fates are tied to what happens to our allies, our enemies, and people oceans away.

Our worlds are far apart. Our worlds are the same.

Each week, we choose a different place that exists in each of our three locations — a coffee shop, for example, or a street corner, or a family dinner table.

Over the course of one hour, we find a story. Then we share it with you. Over the course of one year, these stories will form a collective whole, illuminating the surprising ways in which our worlds are uniquely different and remarkably related.

Our inaugural issue explores the theme of HOME and serves as an introduction to each of us, our lives and our “place”.

Beginning next week, we will publish new content each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

My publishing day will be each Wednesday, but I can almost guarantee that you will be so drawn to all the writing on the site that you’ll find yourself visiting Proximity three times a week.

Thank you for your support of MY work for the past year and a half. I look forward to sharing more of it with you in this new venue.