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!

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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.”

 

 

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.

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