Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Attempting New Lives

I am a short-sighted person. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a ten year plan. I'm not sure that I've ever had a one year plan. I have ideas, vague notions, castles in the sky, and when I'm called to make a decision, I generally do it with little forethought or planning.

No. That's not entirely accurate.

I do plan. Sometimes I plan for months. I scour atlases and worn, informative books, sketch detailed drawings or outlines in journals, clip images from magazines and paste them into other journals. And then, when the time comes to do the thing that I've been planning, I put all of the journals and books and atlases and images aside and do something entirely different.

My kitchen floor, for instance. As I peeled back the probably asbestos-ridden sixties tiles and scraped at the sticky adhesive day after day for a month, I imagined painting an Oriental rug in the center of the floor. I sketched it out and dreamed about it each night. However, when the time came to start it, I traced circles with a mixing bowl and painted in a pattern of circles and diamonds instead, not bothering to determine the mathematical center of the floor, by the way, which galled my math teacher neighbor.

For years, I've drawn layouts for my kitchen garden, but in the end, I threw it together, completely disregarding the geometric loveliness of my fantasy gardens. In fact, once again boggling my neighbor, in digging post holes for the entryway, I dug one too deep, causing the posts to be significantly different in height, but I left it that way, declaring it to be an artistic choice.

Now, I am at that stage in my life where I wonder if a ten year plan wouldn't have been a bright idea after all. What was it that I wanted to do? I know beyond a doubt that I didn't want to teach when I was in high school. I was dismayed when I got the Teaching Fellows scholarship. But here I am, and I'm not bad at it. The fact is, I even enjoy many aspects of teaching, the creativity, the kids, the summer vacations. The summer vacations can never be sold short.

Still, I'm sure that there was something else. Did I always want to be a writer? I can't remember. I know that I always wrote. I wrote short stories about monsters and talking dogs in kindergarten and short stories about mothers and children in high school. I penned imaginary newspapers and tons of terrible poems about love and death. But I'm not sure that I ever thought, "I want to be a writer when I grow up." Maybe I just never thought it was possible.

So here I am trying to decide if I was wrong-headed. If I never allowed myself to make the plan because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to follow through on it. And if that's the case, if I felt that I wouldn't be able to follow through because I wasn't writer material or because I'm an inherently lazy person who finds planning easy and follow through...well, work.

Regardless, it's back to revising the novel. I don't have a plan, but I have an idea. Maybe that's the best approach to attempting new lives after all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My son's dreams

I have been curious about my son's dreams since he was old enough to have them, since I watched him sleep in my arms as a warm, milky infant, his eyelids fluttering wildly as they do when the dreamer has entered his fantasy.

I wondered of course what fantasy infants could have when their whole world is new and fantastical, filled with giants and ephemeral faces moving in and out of view, unknown beasts and unexplained lights and sounds. How would an infant even know the difference between dreaming and waking?

And then when he was three, he started to recognize dreams for what they are. He had a terrible nightmare about a bunny rabbit who sat on top of his head and wouldn't get off. I spent days trying to imagine this dream and what made it so terrible, trying to envision the reality that his fresh little mind had created.

Fearful of more nefarious rabbits, Fain requested that I do something about his dreams, so I began to "make" dreams for him over his head before bedtime, throwing in pinches and dashes of things that he would like: candy islands, pirates, sea monsters, skies raining impertinent bunnies. When he would complain about a nightmare, I would assure him that I had checked on him in the night and that the dream that I'd made was playing out smoothly in the air over his head. I could see him there, and he was having a great time, fighting pirates and eating candy. It really did seem to convince him, and for a while, a few years, I didn't hear anymore about nightmares.

Until Tuesday night. The night before the school Christmas play. He woke Wednesday morning to tell me that he'd had a bad dream and that I was in it. I'd ruined his Christmas play! I asked what I had been doing to ruin it, and he told me that I'd been blowing kisses everywhere, kissing him in front of everybody.

Well, it's pretty clear to me that kisses and bunny rabbits are bad news to a young boy, and I suppose that's natural. I'd really like an opportunity to see this dream in which I am so sorely indicted of heinous public displays of affection, but in the mean time, I recognize a growing boy's need for his mom to back off, so I promised him that I would never kiss him in public again, to which he replied, "But you'll still kiss me, right? When I ask?"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Hill Where They Abandoned Old Women

I've been thinking about a book that I want to write. I have the title: The Hill Where They Abandoned Old Women, and I know that it will be divided into four sections, one for each season. I know more, but I won't tell yet because it's too early, but it has me contemplating time.

I imagine time in a Victorian lady's traveling gown, green velvet, hair a ringleted mass crowned by a tiny hat with a large ostrich feather. She sits on a wooden bench at a depot, her back line-straight. She has booked passage, and she awaits her transportation demurely, smoke curling around her, dampness in the morning air.

Of course, time does not wait. She booked passage years ago, and she has been riding ever since, I suppose, but it never seems that way to me, and the very idea of time overwhelms me when I try to make sense of it.

Time is really the addition or subtraction of elements from our lives. In this moment, there is the scent of freshly brewed coffee in the air and the sound of the heater sighing its warm breath through the rooms. There is an absence of my son's capering adventures with imaginary heroes and villains because he is asleep still. As time passes, he will wake and there will be an absence of stillness and the addition of silliness, and I will know that time has passed.

If all remained the same, no aging, no births, no giggling or crying, we'd never note the passage of time; we'd sit stiff as boards there beside time at the depot, wishing for a game of I Spy to remedy our boredom, but there wouldn't be anything new to spy, and so we'd remain bored.

Time gets a bum rap, and so does age. Years and decades pass, filled with delight and with hardshipa, and then you reach a certain age when all that defined you slips away, your appearance, your job, your children, all of it, but I've listened to my grandmother tell stories about her grandmother, and I see that what is left is all of your time, given back like a Christmas gift to share with anyone who will sit still and share. All of your time is given back when you grow old, and the sharp edges are worn away like green glass on a beach, and your time is soft and smooth and lovely to behold

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snow Day Hoodoo

This morning, I woke at 4:00 to write, a habit that has taken several months to become habitual. Snow was whipping around in the dim cone of light projected onto the darkness by the street lamp next door.

I quickly paced through the house, turning the light over the stove on long enough to get a pot of coffee brewing, flipping lights on and off to finish the little tasks that have become my morning ritual. Normally, I would leave lights on all over the place, but not on a morning when snow is falling. Silly as it is, I've got myself convinced that if I leave a light on, it will somehow affect the delicate weather pattern. Hoping against hope for a snow day requires certain superstitious sacrifices. I will not contribute even a joule to the heating of the immediate vicinity through reckless light emission.

So devoted am I to the snow day that I have on countless occasions performed snow day dances. Fain and I frequently pray for them.

To the teacher who argues that we'll have to make them up at the end of school, I say that the end of school may never come. Any number of natural or manmade disasters or acts of God could come between today and that precious June day when we are all released from our scholarly servitude. We are promised only today, so let's make it a snow day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Infinite Variety of Christmas Trees

I pulled down all off my Christmas boxes before Thanksgiving. I admit it. The busted, brown boxes overcrowded with ornaments that span my life and some that predate my time were all stacked up, forming a fortress in the living room on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

I love Christmas, but it was not holiday joviality that caused me to start working early. It was the irritability that decorating for the holiday generates. I wanted to get it over with before Thanksgiving.

I'm not one of those women who spends a week decorating. (My neighbor is, God love her, and she usually waits until the week before Christmas. At the last minute, her house becomes a photo spread for Southern Living.) If I can't get it done in a day, it's not worth doing. That's my motto in most endeavors. In truth, if my attention is diverted within an hour, it's pretty much all done but the Christmas goose.

That Saturday, I attempted to decorate and clean the house at the same time, a laughable feat, with Christmas music playing until my son decided to use the laptop to play video games while I worked (thanklessly) on the task that he had personally requested, at which point, I began to threaten the very existence of the holiday season. He, fearful that he would not get the coveted Nintendo DS, carefully got the Johnny Matthis "Marshmallow World" going again to drown out mommy's growling, and I finally gave up before the tree was decorated, having discovered that many of the pre-lit lights had suffered in my parents' attic and given up the Christmas ghost.

Later in the week, we had a friend and her child over as well as the neighbors for a tough roast and cold mashed potatoes (because that's how I roll), and I let the two boys decorate the tree, much to the amazement of my friends. As I mentioned, my neighbor has one of those really beautiful white light color coordinated Christmas trees and my friend has always had the same. They've got the really lovely fragile ornaments that children really shouldn't handle.

My tree is not so. First, there's the outed lights. I'm not going around the tree trying to figure out which one is the traitor, so I just wrapped some more (multi-colored) lights around the branches to hide the dim little corpses. Then, there's the selection of ornaments. One, for example, that elicited the comment, "You're really going to put that on the tree?" is a cheap-o stuffed rhinoceros that Fain and I were forced to decorate in pre-school. Yes, it's hideous with its cotton ball Santa beard and felt Christmas vest, but I can't quite bring myself to leave it in the box. There's a puff ball ornament, what I think is meant to be a yellow and blue owl, that belonged to my parents before I was born. It was always one of my favorites because it was so ridiculous.

So the boys hung the ornaments, mostly on the same five lower branches, which I did rectify later, and the tree looks really lovely to me now. Like a quilt or a homemade cookie.

I find myself excited by lunch time at the idea of going home to see my cozy little cottage, warm and full of twinkling lights, like a star in a kaleidoscope. A Christmas tree, whether pristine silver and white perfection or a Charlie Brown fiasco, makes a home feel different. Makes it feel like just the place you want to be at the end of the day.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The professional part...

It's the professional part of every profession that I really loathe. The paperwork and the connections and...well, what some might call "the work part."

Currently, I have two projects that I am attempting to pull together.

First, the final revision of The Absurd Coincidences of the Vicarious Woman and the subsequent submission to agents everywhere. Revision is work. I'm a little weary of revising now, having already revised this particular novel three times, and I'd like to put off this last go round for a while longer, but I've been putting this book off for years. It's time to bite the bullet. Buy the ticket.

Then, there's the sending it off to agents. This is the kind of thing that I need a personal assistant for because my mind does not deal well with this sort of secretarial labor. While I can be counted upon to sew monsters from felt and the vaguest blueprints drawn by a six-year-old and to complete a ridiculous novel in a month, putting a stamp on an envelope and putting the envelope in the mail is chancy. Ask my mom. She'll verify. Simple tasks are not my forte.

The second task: devising a strategy to fund the road trip that will become the travel memoir Always Time to Go. I have this truly brilliant idea to persuade Michael Sprague, VP of Marketing and Communications at KIA, to give me a KIA Soul to take across country in exchange for free publicity. Imagine the commercials! Single mother, public school teacher struggling in an economic crunch, seizing the opportunity of summertime, against all odds, to show her son the world...well, at least the North American part of the world.

Initially, I had intended to create my own home video style commercials, but my friend Molly insists that KIA will want to send along a handsome cameraman to shoot the commercials, and she promises that will lead to a wonderful romance as well as a best-selling book.

Do you see what I mean? The dreaming part I've got covered, but I have quite a challenge reigning in the dreamer in order to access my inner staff assistant. Or either my inner staff assistant is like the secretary from The Carole Burnett Show who just sits around smacking gum and filing her fingernails, looking pretty.

Now that I've put it out there, maybe I'll be shamed into getting the work done.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In the Beginning was the Word

I have an image of God as a rustic, in a cabin balanced precariously atop a high, narrow mountain, like the mountains in Japanese sansui paintings, a mountain that is in a perpetual state of fall, golden and scarlet forest encircling it. In my mind, I see him hunched over his desk, writing away, writing from the top of the mountain down so that his words flow out like thick threads, weaving everything around him, from his floor boards down into the trees, through valleys, cities, farmlands, even into my own little home, where sometimes I can even catch glimpses, tiny word threads, woven into the delicate green three leaf clovers painted on my porcelain coffee cup.

He writes in cursive, in black ink, never picking up his pen so that the words flow together, in the way that monks once wrote, but as the words weave their way into the world, they are imbued with color by God’s audience. We, the readers, add our own perception to the creation, the way that readers interpret all writing, believing that the author must have meant such and so because that’s what we would have meant if we’d written it. However, in this case, we are also characters interpreting the book that gives us our existence, which makes us very unique characters in the history of literature.

We are stitched together from words and phrases, which is true to this fanciful notion that I have but is also true to uncontested reality. If I have been told dozens of times by dozens of people that I am beautiful, then I perceive myself as beautiful, likewise if I have been told that I am worthless, I believe that I have no value.

We, in turn, pull threads from God’s creation to piece together our own existence, a bit of blue here, a thread of work or of play, embroidering in love and cinnamon and pots of stew beef and whatever else we choose to add to the tapestry of our lives. Even after we die, other people pull at our threads, stitching our stories into their own lives the way that Ma does when she tells me about her Ma.

Maybe God doesn’t writes down stories, and in fact, I don’t want to pigeonhole him into the role of story-teller. He is clearly also a poet because only a poet could create love and patches of snow, glittering rainbows in the sunrise. He is a lyricist, writing melodies for mockingbirds, and he is the author of manifestos, stirring us to righteous indignation when we see another human harmed by selfishness. He created elegant scientific proofs, algebraic equations and philosophical treatises. Who else would wonder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

New myths to solve old problems

It's the holiday season, and parents often face a host of holiday-specific dilemmas that can be mitigated with just a little creativity. The following were two solutions posed to me by fellow parents when dealing with two pesky problems that arise between October and December. Though the first is perhaps belated, it is something to bear in mind for next year.

To deal with the surplus of Halloween candy, the mother of one of Fain’s classmates suggested “the candy witch.” The candy witch, I presume, is the self-same witch as she of Hansel and Gretel, and naturally, with the perpetual demolition of her house by the nibbling of plump, pink young children in lederhosen, she is always in need of free or cheap building supplies. Therefore, if young children will stir up a pot of Halloween candy on an unheated stove and say a certain magical spell to summon the candy witch, she will come and take the candy at night while he sleeps and replace it with a toy. The beauty of this is that the toy can be a gently used one because it probably was left behind by one of the juicy little morsels she ate for dinner. (Of course, I don’t recommend that you tell your children that, unless they’re of a particularly gruesome nature.)

Now, how to deal with the pesky question of why some children get Nintendo DSs and mini-limos from Santa at Christmastime while others only get apples and cheap little wind up robots? This is the children’s philosophical equivalent to the problem of an all knowing, benevolent god and the existence of evil. The answer requires a little knowledge of the limitation of elf labor and copyright infringement.

The fat man and his elves have been making wooden toys and wind up robots and plucking oranges and apples from orchards on their world tours for centuries, but elves are not particularly tech-savvy; therefore, while the demand for new fangled toys has increased, the elves capacity to meet this demand has not. Frankly, elves are lost when it comes to anything requiring wiring or computer chips.

Furthermore, some toys are licensed. After the lawsuit against Santa pressed by the lawyers of Howdy Doody back in 1952 when Santa delivered an elf-made (read: unlicensed) Howdy Doody doll to Timmy Jameson of West Palm Beach, Florida, Santa has understandably been reluctant to ask elves to reproduce licensed toys.

Consequently, Santa has to purchase all digital as well as commercially licensed toys at Wal-Mart like everyone else. (Not at Black Friday prices because that’s his busiest time of year. Believe it or not, there are still kids the world over who are content with generic wooden puppets and teddy bears.) As a result, parents whose children want these “ticket item” toys must pay Santa for his trouble, including finder’s fees and delivery. It’s really just cheaper if parents buy the toys themselves and let Santa stick to his fruit delivery service.

Therefore, I am buying the Nintendo DS this year, while Santa will be delivering a bouncy ball, a few wind-up toys, a couple of books, and some fresh fruit just like the old days.

*Note regarding the threatened livelihood of elves: Elves tend to live a very long time, and currently, many are reaching retirement age, so do not fret that the desire of our children for technologically advanced toys will create a recession in Santaland. Elves have been putting money (re: chocolate coins) into their 401Ks for a millennia in most cases before retirement. Besides, their houses are made from gingerbread by the same gnomes that build for the candy witch, so the supplies that make the North Pole tenable for elven-kind are pretty easy and cheap to come by. It’s unlikely they’ll have to worry about a housing bubble bursting up there any time soon.

Friday, December 3, 2010

From the archives: Brunswick Stew Recipe for a Yankee

First, you cook a chicken until the meat falls from the bones. Then remove the bones and any other icky parts and put the meat back in the same pot of water. Let it simmer a little while longer just to really get all of the flavor infused in the water.

Chop up some potatoes into cubes, some smaller and some larger. The stew cooks for hours, so some of the potatoes should be small enough to break apart and thicken the broth, while others should be large enough to withstand the stew and retain their shape though they should still be bite-size and soft when the stew is done.

Also add okra that has been chopped into disks – not modern, high-tech disks, but rustic, stone-wheel disks. And slice some onions into rustic rounds as well. As to how many of each, when you’ve added all of them to the chicken pot, you should cry out loud, “Why! I’ll never be able to fit the other vegetables in this pot!” But never you fear. Allow the potatoes, onion, and okra to simmer for hours. I don’t know how many, so don’t ask. A lot of them. Enough so that you finally sigh, “Whew. There may be just enough room to squeeze in the other ingredients after all.”

But don’t rush. The key ingredient in Brunswick stew is time – and forehead sweat. The forehead sweat drips in as you stir and stir and stir. Not a lot, mind you. And you should really take a nice, long bath before you begin the process so that your forehead sweat will not be contaminated by hairspray, moisturizer, smog, or acid rain. But, once you are relatively certain that your forehead sweat is clean, then don’t attempt to make Brunswick stew without it. It’s just not the same. Now, if you happen to know a fat man from the coast of Georgia, you might ask him to stir for you because his forehead sweat will be more seasoned than yours. He should be about forty; older is fine, but if he’s younger you may just as well do it yourself.

One more comment on time. A good Brunswick stew will take no less than twelve hours. If it takes longer, even better, but if it begins to look done after only six or seven hours then your flame is too high, your water is too bubbly, you’ve added vegetables too soon, or perhaps you’ve let fall too much or too little forehead sweat. Shame on you. Your stew might not taste paltry, but I can assure you that it is not a true Brunswick stew. Don’t feel too badly. After all, you’re a Yankee.

Now, look into your pot with the intense gaze of a ninety-year-old chicken-bone-reader from northern Mississippi. Here is what you should see if you are thinking of adding any more ingredients – chicken strings, NOT chicken chunks, just threads of chicken stitching through a fabric of okra that has shed its earthly form to become one with the chicken, potatoes that have been mostly reduced to a shadow of their former selves, and onions that are now pure essence. But, regarding the potatoes, remember that some should retain their shape, like Elijah in a heaven of souls. The souls here being those of vegetable rather than Baptists.

If your stew has reached this level of soulfulness, then , and only then, you may add tomatoes. There may be some debate as to the kind of tomatoes you should use – some might attempt to persuade you to peel fresh tomatoes. These people are hippies, and they probably don’t bathe before they add their forehead sweat. Ignore them. They are probably from California anyway and don’t know the first thing about real Brunswick stew. The tomatoes should come from a large can. They may be whole or crushed, depending on your mood. But they should not be diced and definitely not seasoned with Italian herbs. This is Brunswick stew, not marinara. There should be enough tomatoes to tint the final product reddish-orange, the exact color of clay in the foothills of Georgia. If you are unsure of what I mean, you might consider Google-ing “Georgia clay.”

Once you’ve dumped the entire contents of one large can of crushed or whole tomatoes, including the juices, into your pot, allow the whole mess to simmer more, stirring occasionally or reminding Buford, your forty-year-old Georgian, to do so. After a while, a good long while, keeping in mind that while you may be on New York City time your Brunswick stew is on Southern, porch-sitting, howdy-do-ing time, the tomatoes will have intermarried with your okra and potatoes and onion and chicken, regardless of what their mammies and pappies have told them about it. This is the times to populate your stew with the more colorful vegetables – corn, green beans, and lima beans. Please do not add carrots or cauliflower or broccoli. Especially do not add Brussels sprouts. While they do have their places in a variety of stews, this ain’t one of them.

At this point in the game, if Buford is still sober enough to stir (you can rest assured that he’s sober enough to sweat), you may relax and enjoy a beer – but not a glass of wine or champagne – well, maybe a jelly jar of Boone’s Farm, if you must. And don’t be urbane or ironic and drink a German beer or even an English ale. Maybe I should explicitly limit you to Bud or Coors, but not Light. You can give that to the hippies with their freshly-peeled tomatoes and their free-range chicken.

When the stew is done, your stirring-spoon should nearly stand straight up in it. You should have the vague notion when you look carefully at it that vegetables once lived there. A green bean might bob to the surface and call to mind a memory of a swamp where once you saw a log that might have been an alligator peeping through the muck. A kernel of corn might seem to defy the uniformity of the whole, like a Cousin Myrtle who up and married a Mexican and now wears a sombrero wherever she goes.

Add some salt and pepper to your taste. Maybe even some red pepper flakes for Cousin Myrtle. But nothing more. You now have yourself a big, old pot of Brunswick stew. Enjoy.

But first a few more rules. Brunswick stew should only be made in the fall on a cool day when the leaves are a sympathetic orange. You might be able to pull off Brunswick stew in the winter, but you’d be better off just freezing some of what you made in November. You can eat Brunswick stew in the fall, winter, and during particularly chilly springs, but never in summer. Unless you’re the kind of person who eats ice-box lemon pie in December. I don’t think you are, though. The main reason for eschewing Brunswick stew in the summer is one of common sense – like why children only have three months of summer break during which to ride their bikes and abandon the rules of grammar – if you eat Brunswick stew year round, you won’t have it to look forward to.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Always Time to Go

I've been trying to think of the title for a book that I want to write this summer, a travel book. I want to take Fain on a road trip and write about the experiences of meeting people and seeing things, but I could not for the life of me think of a title, which is unusual; that's generally what comes first for me.

The day before yesterday, my friend and co-worker Acker and I were talking about writing, I guess, and he asked if I'd read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and I'm ashamed to say that I haven't. I know the premise, but I just haven't gotten around to it. There are a lot of those books. I read so voraciously as a child and even through college, but as I've reached adulthood, I've fallen off in my reading. Or I might read five chapters and never finish the book. That's usually the case. I have good intentions, but I'm easily distracted.

However, feeling guilty over this lack of Vonnegut in my life, and knowing that I have many friends who would look down on me for this confession, I took the book that he offered me and went back to my classroom and sat down to read for a few minutes.

One line captured my attention. In the first chapter, Vonnegut wrote about stopping by the Hudson River to let the two little girls traveling with him reflect upon it. They'd never seen a river, only the ocean, so they were captivated, but eventually, of course, they had to move on. Somewhere in there, he writes: was time to go, always time to go.

I immediately scribbled this line into my journal, the way that I scribble in weird things that my students say or funny things that my friends say or random and wise things that strangers in malls or used book stores say. And I immediately thought, "This could be the title."

It fit. Traveling with children to see old friends, sure.

However, there are also the many other meanings lodged in the words always time to go. My first thought was the sad one. That's because I'm a mother and my child, my most favorite person in the world, grows each and every day, despite my protests. He is always headed in a direction far away from me, and it's impossible to be a mother and to not be aware of that. Time, like the Hudson, is always going, taking my son along with it, and one day, when I ask him to go with me, he'll say that he can't, and if I'm a good mother, I'll accept that and be happy for him.

My second thought was the more optimistic one. There is always time to go. Time never stops. It is always waiting for us to splash in and enjoy the ride. Time is one of those inner tube rides out in the country that I've passed and considered stopping for and continued on without stopping because I had another engagement, promising myself to come back on a warm summer day. There is always time to enjoy my child now. There is always time to go. Now is the time to go.

Sure. The economy is gray and there are wars and kids are growing up despite the protests of their parents, but right now my kid is still my kid and we have time to enjoy life and life to enjoy, and we shouldn't wait for some more convenient time; we should enjoy it right now. It is always time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Smith's Red and White

Yesterday, I took Fain to Smith's Red and White in Dortches for groceries. It's far out of the way, and it may be a little more expensive, but it's the only local grocery that we've got in rural Nash County, North Carolina as far as I know.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not opposed to warehouse supermarkets. In fact, I love them. Robert's in New Orleans. Ralph's in California. Fresh Markets and Whole Foods and Trader Joe's everywhere. I could spend as much time in a grocery store, whether warehouse or tiny shop like the neighborhood Zara's or William's in the Garden District, as I could spend in a book store, whether a Barnes and Noble or a Beckham Used and Rare Bookshop.

When I was a child, Sunday was what you might call "going to the market day" in our house. We made a special trip from Tarboro to Rocky Mount, a thirty minute drive, to go to Harris Teeter, which was (and still is around here) the closest thing to a high class, specialty item grocery store. It used to annoy me. I dreaded the call to the car to make the long trip to walk up and down aisles. Can you imagine anything duller? But it must have lodged in my brain, sandwiched between other pleasanter memories, because now I find myself making excuses, sometimes on a daily basis, to make a run to a grocery store.

It's not strictly the food. There's an aesthetic quality to a grocery store; whether it is a cathedral or a small chapel, it is dedicated to Andy Warhol and Normal Rockwell. The shelves are neatly stacked with rows of uniform cans, each with its own iconic image of sunshine yellow corn or bright cheerful green peas, like little round babies tumbled together. Mythical creatures and comforting mortals intermingle, the tiny mermaid on a can of tuna and the matronly Mrs. Butterworth, King Arthur on a bag of flour and an impish devil on the canned ham. And then there are the landscapes, golden wheat fields and lush vineyards, Sumatran jungles and maple tree forests steeped in winter snow printed on the labels in miniature.

And the smells. The thick, sweet smell of the bread aisle. I confess that I manhandle the loaves and insist that Fain stick his little, freckled nose into the flowering plastic packages to determine which smells the best before we buy any. The earthy, warm, dark scent of the coffee aisle intoxicates me. And the scent of the spices. I couldn't even begin to describe that. What I suppose must be cumin and chili and cinnamon and cloves and dozens of other herbs and spices in their pretty glass jars. The possibilities of the spice aisle. To just stand there and consider the names, Chinese Five Spice, Herb de Provence, Hungarian Paprika, and then all of those American mixes from Paul Prudhomme and Mrs. Dash. I've got a dozen herbs right now in my cabinet that I bought in a fit of scent-induced passion, believing that I would truly have need for them in the near future.

Grocery stores are centers of communities, comforting ports when the outside world is all awry. Living in my car in Los Angeles many, many years ago, I found myself walking through Ralph's on a daily basis, as much for its normalcy, grocery stores are mostly alike wherever you are, as for its novelty, each grocery store has its own local wares. (And then, of course, there were the samples, which my child also pilfers today.) Likewise, in New Orleans, I found myself drawn to Zara's, the tiny neighborhood grocery store on Prytania. It was the first time I'd ever seen a neighborhood grocer, and I felt as if I'd traveled back in time. I can still remember vividly watching the manager peel back the unappealing brown skin of onions to make the display tidy and attractive, the onions shiny and purple. Even though the goods were probably the same as what I'd have found in a larger store, they seemed different, specially chosen. I suppose because the space was so small, I assumed special choices had to be made. And in Nashville, I'm drawn to the old Lowe's because I see the same people there every time, people from my church or from my neighborhood, and so it feels a little like a home away from home. A home on a special occasion when everyone has gathered together in the kitchen.

So I find myself repeating the pilgrimages of the past with my own child, driving down country roads while Fain reads to me from Captain Underpants, in order to buy the same groceries that I might have bought just down the street. Insisting instead on Smith's for its local customs, the three toy trains set up for Christmas, suspended overhead so that amazed children can walk around and around following their paths while parents plunder the spice aisle. The Christmas trees and the old-fashioned candy barrels, the over the top holiday decor mounted on the tops of the freezers and shelves, wherever they fit, the temptation of meatloaf made fresh in the deli and the blackberry cobbler, a former student talking and joking at the cash register, a local woman referring to the employees by name. It feels like being home for the holidays. Over the river and through the woods, to the grocery store we go.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Day by Page

Working on the sequel to The Vicarious Woman has reminded me of the joy of writing. It's also been a source of self-discovery.

Each morning, I've managed to wake up at four o'clock to write. Each time I sat down in front of the computer screen, completely oblivious, I've managed to write 1700 words or more. I've managed to move from one event to the next, one revelation to the next, one scene to the next, without having even the faintest clue when I sat down, where I was going to go. I followed my own advice to my students: Don't try to get it right, just get it down.

Yes, there's a lot of dusty black coal in there, but I've got more diamonds than I'd have if I didn't start picking away to begin with.

And I've learned that I do really love writing, and I would be happiest as a writer. Even with the nervousness, the anxiety, the fear of creating something from nothing, all of those pulse-quickening elements make writing worth the time. Every day I'm surprised by the novel. It feels like a separate entity that is writing itself; it just needed a pair of hands.

On the other hand, I've learned that life is exactly the same, and perhaps should be handled similarly.

I let myself be overwhelmed by worries so often. Worries far off in the distance. What will happen next month? What will I do next year? What if the money doesn't come through? What if the car breaks down? But worrying doesn't solve the problems. It just occupies my time and keeps me in a state of stasis.

What if I handled my life the way that I've handled the novel this month? What if I just woke up and moved forward, fully anticipating problems to resolve themselves? What if I just focused on the next 1700 seconds instead of the next 1700 hours or days? What if I let next year be a problem for next year? Next month for next month?

What if I discovered that the only thing limiting the plot of my life were the limitations set by my own mind? And then what if I pushed those limitations off of a cliff and chose not to establish new ones?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth...
and then he sat back and said, "This is good."

Then he did something really remarkable by modern standards...he rested.

How many modern people, especially those grouchy, judgmental ones, gather that the very first model of godliness in the bible is appreciation and rest?

I need this lesson desperately right now. I feel so tired and overwhelmed by work, a mortgage, even sometimes disappointment and fear, and I never really give myself a break. Not a real break. A break from not only working but also from speaking, thinking, acting. A true rest from every thing.

Sunday, I was so blech. That's the only word for it. I had a headache and a stomachache just thinking about work. I felt like bursting into tears when I looked at the state of my house, which could pass for a FEMA trailer right after a tornado. Fain, always the guardian angel, wanted to go to our neighbor's house, but I knew I needed to clean. However, I was too tired to even argue, so away we went.

I flopped down on their hammock and just lay there in the cool breeze of late morning. I couldn't help feeling gratitude for the smell of fall, fallen pine needles and damp maple leaves, the shade provided by the overgrown wax myrtle and the late blooming zinnias and dahlias. For a few moments, I allowed myself to push those thoughts of lesson plans and essays and unswept floors off of a cliff in the back of my mind.

But they keep crawling back over, which I suppose is a sign that I need to sweep, but is it a sign of something else also? Am I so caught up in the swaggering power of busyness that I can't even relax anymore?

Fain assigned an adjective to each of his immediate family members. My mom was happy. I was tired. My dad was also tired, but not as tired as me, according to Fain. That's just sad. I don't want to be the tired one.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Time and progress.

I spent the night with my grandma a few weeks ago, and we spent some time talking about time and progress. She wasn't foisting her ideas on me. I was actually making the leap from my own era to hers without aid.

When my mom was growing up, several generations lived in one house here in the rural south. As in many more "primitive" places throughout the world still today, families eased the burden of care through sharing it.

Over the years, progress has meant not only moving forward but moving away from that model. Success means having room to divide more and more thoroughly from our bonds. Success means being able to say haughtily with each new addition to the task list, "No, no. I can do it by myself," like toddlers.

During my pregnancy I read Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. I really couldn't get into What to Expect While You're Expecting, so I decided I might take the anthropologist's approach to child-rearing.

In the book, Hrdy compares those cultures that promote parent-child togetherness with those that separate the child. In traditional Japanese culture, mother and child would stay in bed together for a month or more bonding while everything was taken care of for them. Then, perhaps for economic reasons, there are those areas where whole families share one room, even one bed.

And then, there's America, where an infant could be expected to have his own wing of the house, parents eavesdropping remotely to his breathing through a one-way walkie talkie. Once, in Audubon Park in New Orleans, I observed two white mamas strolling leisurely through the park some distance behind their strollers, which were being pushed by two black nannies. If the mothers were walking anyway, why didn't they push the strollers themselves?

I was convicted when I read the book of the anxiety that an infant must feel being abandoned in a wide, silent nursery room so soon after being expelled from mom's warm, cozy, noisy womb. And what did it say to the child that mom expelled and abandoned him, and then went and snuggled up cozily with pop in their warm little bed, while baby squirmed alone? It truly disturbed me, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows me and knows what a hippie I am anyway.

I'm circumnavigating my earlier point. I was at Ma's house, where I'd spent the night to keep her company and watch some old black and white monster flick, and we were eating breakfast -buttermilk biscuits stuffed with hoop cheese, old fashioned spicy sausage from the Red and White grocery store, and fried apples - and talking about the economy and the state of the world. I myself, besides feeling early on that the economic crisis would not affect me, have begun to feel the pinch of a salary frozen for three years at the rate of a third year teacher while paying a mortgage that continues to rise with the taxes, have begun to feel remorse at my earlier proclamations that I can do it all on my own. I consider Ma, living alone in a house with three bedrooms after the death of my granddad. And I can't help wondering if this is all madness.

Are we better off because we're farther off? Or are our current problems a result of this continual spread into separate rooms, separate houses, separate worlds?

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Is a man who makes $250K per year rich? That was the question being posed on an NPR episode yesterday afternoon. The interviewer was asking people on the street and elicited a wide array of responses.

I didn't have to think about it. Of course he's rich.

Naturally, as the story developed, the reality of location and psychology were brought into the debate. If you live in Manhattan, $250K is not much money. If your neighbors make $500K, $250K is not much money. Etc.

Still, I don't care how you slice that cake, it's a lot of money. I'd have a really hard time sympathizing with someone who felt like she was cash poor because her neighbor could afford a stove that cost $15K and she could only afford the $10K model.

I listened, and I considered a different question. What is the best definition of wealth? By best, I mean, most valuable. (There's value inherent in things other than money, after all.)

Ben Franklin said that you're wealthy if you're content.

In that case, wealth is less predictable than I'd even suspected watching Wall Street. Some days, I must be very wealthy. Maybe the wealthiest person on the planet. On some days, not only am I content, but I'm absolutely magnanimous with contentment. I'm a veritable Vanderbilt of satisfaction.

On other days, my personal stocks plummet, and I feel like, despite the fact that my paycheck hasn't changed (in over two years), I've lost my shirt on the market. I feel like I've been chewing on my own shoe sole all day, Charlie Chaplin style.

In reality, most days, I don't think $250K would make a huge difference in my life. I'd travel more, but I still don't think I'd feel compelled to go out and buy $500 shoes. I think there'd just be a giant surplus of money in my bank account. Overall, there's not much that I want that I don't already have. Even the things that I want that I don't have, I could get without much more money, with just a little more ingenuity. If I wanted to travel to Japan this year, I could teach English and get paid to do it, for example. As for physical things, I really just want some comfortable t-shirts, and I don't need $100 for that, although I've heard you can spend that much on t-shirts if you've a mind to do so.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Coffee shop

I'm tucked neatly into a brown and beige, velvety corner of a coffee shop on the Wake Forest campus. I love college campuses. They are so very, very different from high schools.

Jazz is piped in, competing for airspace with a clutch of conversations, espresso machine rumblings and swirling, shouts from the barrista. But the noise is not distracting in a coffee house. It's enriching. It's rich and thick.

In a high school, the noise is overwhelming and distressing for a delicate little flower like myself. I stand in the hallways and listen to the teenagers fly by shouting and muttering. Even when they're wrapped in an embrace, they shout. Is this the effect of immersion in surround sound? Teenagers in hallways en masse are so loud that they become unintelligble, and I experience the same sensation that I had upon arriving in Paris. I strain to hear a word that I recognize, but it's like straining to understand a new language.

Here, too, there is leisure and learning combined, which is not the case in a high school. One girl, seated on a plush semicircular sofa to my right is reading a novel by Elizabeth Bowen. She says that it's for a class and that it's slow, but she sits for a while, and she doesn't seem pained by the act, as many of my students would.

The girl to my left on a matching sofa, is studying Japanese, something that I also did in college. Do you know why? Not for a grade. Not for the credit. (I don't think I got any because my grade was terrible.) Just because I thought it would be something interesting to learn. Because learning is inherently interesting to me. For me. It seems like that's not the case for many of my students. Instead, learning is drudgery.

Now the girl studying Japanese has put away her studies and pulled out a paperback copy of James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It is also for a class, British Lit, which is not her major. The Japanese is for her major - Business Enterprise Marketing. This diligence though. This lovely, industrious, steady study of things in general - languages and literature, statistics and social patterns. This is what happens in a coffee shop on a college campus, and it's so invigorating to just sit here and observe the students. (I want to say "the young people," but I don't think I'm quite old enough. I'll pretend I'm not quite old enough.)

Sitting among the students, I feel a little better about the state of America. It's easy sometimes to be distressed and fretful as a high school teacher. It's easy to forget that there are young people who have chosen to continue learning, who see value in the process. Some of these kids might have even been lethargic and apathetic in high school. That makes me feel better.

Last week, I was mentally bemoaning American youth for not being as aware and bold as those French kids raising riots in Paris and Lyon. I wondered if American kids even paid enough attention to the news today to notice when they're about to get screwed over by the government, or if they would have the energy to protest. Or the time.

I feel hopeful now that if they can make time for Joyce and macchiatos, they might also make time to raise and raze empires like earlier generations did.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Forward thinking and procrastination.

I am guilty of both. For instance, right now I should be working, but I am writing. That is because, primarily, working is working, and writing is not working. Writing might be working if I worked as a writer, but since I work as a teacher, writing is leisure. Reading, on the other hand, especially when I'm reading essays, is working.

Right now, I am procrastinating in regard to my job. I should be reading essays. However, I am forward thinking in regard to my life because I would rather be working as a writer. I don't think I fully realized that until this year.

In the past - now I'm procrastinating and backward-thinking - writing was always a fantasy in the back of my daydreams, like a ship with red sails bound for unknown ports. Unfortunately, I was never on the ship. I was on an island in the middle of the ocean, worrying about getting my feet wet or being crushed by unforseen storms.

Now - back to the present - I am recognizing that, despite my past disdain of people who claim that if they didn't write they would die, it may be the case that if I don't write, I'm not really living. At least, not in the way that I want to live.

I have this sense that now is the time. I've been waiting for years, trying to do the reasonable thing, and I'm relatively good at the reasonable thing. I've gotten awards for doing the reasonable thing. However, if I'm pretty good at doing reasonable things, when in my heart I am without a doubt an unreasonable person, how much better would I be at doing something unreasonable and slightly preposterous, like trying to make a living as a writer?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Starlings at sunset

A couple of weeks ago, my school had its annual New Student Orientation, which I was required to attend. The school is situated in a rural area, beside a cow pasture within a ring of tall pines. Near the parking lots, behind the business building, a tall communication tower with six or so guide lines dives into the ground creating a skeletal circus tent formation.

When the event ended, I walked through the sterile public school corridors and out into the parking lot where I was immediately overwhelmed by the song of thousands of starlings perched high in the pines and along the guide lines of the tower. I cannot do justice to the nearly deafening chorus of the birds. I was thrilled. I felt for a moment as if I'd been transported from rural North Carolina to a rain forest in Brazil.

It called to mind all of the other times when I became suddenly aware of birdsong. I can remember distinctly walking to Lucky's in New Orleans one morning, passing under crepe myrtles and oaks along St. Charles and realizing with a start that birds were singing just by my ear. I remember stopping and wondering if they had been singing all along, continuously for days, and if so, had I merely blocked the songs out? The idea became an obsession for the day and has recurred often since. I'll walk out in the morning, hear the birds, and wonder if I have been ignoring them. It still bothers me. As if taking the songs for granted makes a statement about my general appreciation of the beautiful things in the world. I feel this profound sense of guilt, as if I've found a gift that some long dead relative gave me as a child that has become lost in a dusty corner of a closet due to my own carelessness.

On this particular night, I can honestly say that I have never before heard so many birds singing in unison. It was beautiful and breathtaking and eerie. I leapt in my car and drove to my parents house to snatch Fain away and bring him back to the performance.

I told him, "You won't believe this! Wait until you hear!" We were both giddy with excitement.

He was surprised when I pulled the car into the school's driveway and then into the parking lot, and I was so afraid the starlings had flown away in the interim, but when I told Fain to roll down his window while I parked, I could hear the multitude of birds all twittering together.

I jumped from the car and ran around the side to help Fain out, and then just said, "Listen!" I pointed up to the hundreds of birds perched along the guide lines and to the fluttering tops of the pines, where their wings and tail feathers, silhouetted in the black pine tops, looked like moving branches and brooms of needles.

His face registered the delight and wonder that I'd hoped for, and then we began to pay closer attention to the little birds on the guide lines, who seemed to have begun to perform in Vaudeville fashion for our small audience. One starling would attempt to nudge his way into the line of gossiping birds, and in doing so, she would create a domino effect, causing one bird to slip and slide and budge the next, which would in turn cause another ruffled biddie to slip and slide and so on down the line. Fain, who was wearing only his boxers and a t-shirt, laughed so hard that he had to hold his belly.

And then, suddenly, the noise would cease, just that quickly, and all in unison, there would be complete and utter silence, and all of the starlings would burst into flight in a mass of black against the blue sky, and that was the strangest part because when they flew, all at once, their wings would generate a vibration that was palpable and a sound like a heart palpitation, and it would make my own heart palpitate, not metaphorically, but actually. It was almost as if they had lifted me up and dropped me, and my heart skipped a beat for fear and excitement.

Fain said that it was the best night of his life. Of course, he's at that age where every day is either the best or the worst, but I was so proud of him for being moved by something that didn't come from Walmart. And I was relieved to know that when I'm swamped with work and worry that birds will conspire to sing loudly enough to catch my attention.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cabbage white house

Today, I have established the ten minute rule. The ten minute rule is the result of a yard overgrown with nimblewill and crabgrass and purslane. It is also a product of a season of contemplation of the roots of many of my personal problems.

Last year, I felt so overwhelmed by unfinished projects that I became depressed and quit doing anything at all, which just led to more unfinished projects. During the spring, I attempted to get the yard in order, and I found that I could accomplish a fair amount if I worked a little each day. If I worked too much, I became exhausted and discouraged and resented having to work the next day.

Then summer came, and I participated in the National Writing Project Summer Institute, which was a wonderful experience, but left me as depleted as any outdoor venture. Consequently, all projects were once again put on hold.

Now, the yard is worse than before, and I've again been overcome by that sense that it's just all too much. The kitchen garden is overgrown with lush carpetweed. It's almost beautiful. It is beautiful in its own weedy way, green and flush. The collards were long ago devoured by cabbage worms, which I couldn't entirely detest because they did become the loveliest cloud of cabbage whites. The tomatoes, all except for one hearty bush of golden orange jelly bean tomatoes, died horrible deaths at the hands of summer heat and too little calcium in the soil. They exist now as skeletal brown cobweb plants. The pumpkins dried and withered, as did the squash and even the zucchini which I'd had such high hopes for. The watermelon, God bless it, has thrived, sending vines with the daintiest sunlight yellow flowers climbing up the makeshift fence, even dangling watermelons there. The zinnias didn't do too poorly, sprouting in the decay of the pumpkin leaves. However, the cucumbers were a hot mess, yellowing and swelling and lying like bloated corpses on a Civil War battlefield. The morning glories and moonflowers grew and overtook the fence as I had hoped.

The foundation beds around the house are full of quackgrass and bluegrass, and then again the pieris that had finally bloomed in the spring for the first time in years, drooping white bells, disintegrated in the heat of July, drying up and turning crackling brown.

Everyday, I walked out in the yard and felt a heaviness on my chest and a hopelessness. How in the world can one woman manage this?

Today, I worked in one bed for ten minutes. That's it. I cleared a space of approximately one foot by one foot before I retired. For a moment, I allowed myself to feel that inevitable sense of despondence that comes from looking at a foot of cleaniness situated pitiably in two lots of shamble. But then I decided that if I worked for ten minutes a day, I could accomplish much more than if I didn't work at all. In that light, much could be done, and so I tried not to appraise the rest of the yard, just my little bit of labor right here and now. Granted, it won't ever look like a yard in Better Homes & Gardens, but it won't look as ramshackle as it does right now. And then, what would be the benefit of having a Better Homes & Gardens garden anyway?

In the meantime, I'll have to bear in mind Sei Shonagon's passage in her pillow book when she declares that the garden of a woman who lives alone should be overgrown and dilapidated looking because it is more romantic than a neat garden. I suppose the single woman with an overgrown garden has better things to do. If she's always working in the yard, she must not have a life.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The old door

I have avoided cleaning my house for months. Months. I was so unhappy for months, and that state of mind was just not conducive to cleaning or any other activity. Which is funny because a vicious cycle ensues. Which is also not funny.

So I began cleaning last week, determined to set things right before school starts back. Because, as I say every few months to anyone who will listen, I really feel like I'm ripe for enlightenment, like it's right there, and I just need to get my house clean enough to see it.

(That does not extend to cleaning the windows, which I have relegated to an ephemeral to do list that continues to grow as I proceed forward, like the sterile hallway of nightmares, which is just fine with me as I have no desire to wash windows. Still, not cleaning the windows may be the one little foible that has prevented me from attaining enlightenment thus far.)

I cleaned out the kitchen cabinets, something I've vowed to do for years, really purging them of canisters, scraps of paper, five year old bills, empty jars, etc, and revealing space that I didn't believe I had. Now, it is dauntingly bare, but that was intentional, as I want to renovate it altogether. Clear out the old linoleum countertops, repaint, the works, and the stuff was standing in my way. I kept thinking about the hassle of having to move it all. So now it's not there. No move necessary. No more excuses.

I also cleaned out the rainy day cabinet, disposing of paper towel tubes, tin cans, old Christmas light bulbs disembodied from their strands, and a box of broken things that I believed in all earnestness for five years that I would eventually repair. More space.

(Of course, the very next day, I decided to finally create a movable brontosaurus puppet with my son and there were no blasted paper towel tubes to be found!)

Yesterday, I tried my hand at a yard sale, which was a flop. I made six bucks before packing it all in and shipping it off to Good Will. However, while I sat waiting for the hordes to come and pay me for my detritus, I became restless, and started roaming around the house grumbling about things that I haven't done, such as cleaning the windows, weeding the garden, and re-painting the door.

The door, painted a dour black by the former inhabitants, has been peeling since I moved in. I can't open it without waving in a cloud of paint wisps. I walked in and out of the door a dozen times during the yard sale, refilling my coffee, talking to Fain, scouring the closet for that one item that would draw buyers, and each time, I muttered at the peeling paint, finally returning with a chisel. I got straight to work.

It's odd how something will peel and peel for a long as you cuss it, but the minute you give in and decide to acquiesce, all of a sudden, it's stuck like epoxy. Tiring from the chisel, I pulled out the sander. I barely put a dent in the paint when I finally wore myself out. There's a patch of raw wood now, exposed to the elements, surrounded by peeling black paint, a fringe of little middle fingers from my door to me personally.

I mentioned this to some friends, and they said, "Well, at least you'll have to finish it now." Which is utterly not true. Everything in my house is chipped and half painted, and I've rarely been compelled to finish any of that stuff, rather just to murmur threats as I pass.

So I feel like there's a metaphor in there somewhere that I can't see. Dirty windows and doors in a perpetual state of disrepair. Enlightenment and laziness. Maybe I'll get to it later.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pickling the Universe

I am tricky

I keep rocks
remember shadows
learn languages
hide fears
read clouds

I shout
I am still here

I see possibilities
hear jokes
taste ice cream
feel my son's soft arms
around my neck

I whisper keep going
I am still here

I want the universe
I will the universe
I can the universe
like pickled peppers
I pretend to eat the universe
as a side dish to meat loaf

I sing over the river
I am over the hard parts
I am still here

Thursday, July 8, 2010


i find you here
tucked quietly
into the reference section of the library
your yellow-gray beard
as yellow-gray as a page from Bartlett's menagerie
of proverbs and maxims

i find you here
writing rapidly
composing fiercely
among the thesauruses of song and of rhyme
your blue-green plastic wrapper
the remains of a studious breakfast
spread out before you
like a wrinkled Caribbean sea

i find you here
cloistered and detached
from the kids
who are here
finding themselves
who are here
sucking up cold air
who are here
reading trepidatiously
to avoid the heat

i find you here
active in your retreat

i find you here
your quill a black ballpoint
your scroll a slice of notebook paper
your blotter an old newspaper
your ideas a mystery to me

what do you find here?
a history of the United States
transcribed from the minds of those around you
an ontological proof for God?
an appreciation for Russian fairy tales?
a solemn sabbatical from the world
as it is?

what do you take from here?
what do you gather neatly onto that page?
what do you fold up
like golden fish in a market?
like silk spun from Malaysian spiders?
what words do you swaddle in your saffron-gold envelope?
a treatise? a poem? a manifesto?

you found me here
you glanced up for a moment
fixed the silver-rimmed spectacles on me
before you turned ferociously back
to your masterpiece
we fixed each other on our pages
like butterflies are

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reading Whitman as Sacred Literature

I picked up Leaves of Grass with the intention of reading it beginning to end. A poem a day. To try to roll that poem around under my tongue all day, really think about it, imbibe it. I have the notion that I'll glean some sort of enlightenment from it. Not anything transcendent or global necessarily, but I feel like I might learn something about myself. I've felt in the past, just from reading a poem or two of Whitman's, that we would have been kindred spirits, so I've decided to adopt him as a spiritual (I mean, actually spiritual as he's long dead) grandpa.

Yesterday I wrote a poem. It's posted below, and I wasn't really satisfied with it. I just wanted to write a poem, so I took what I was thinking about and tried to do it justice as free verse. Still, it didn't capture what I was feeling. I'm not going to delete it. It's there. It's something I did, but I'd like to do better.

Lately, I've been trying to embrace myself just the way that I am. To lay off myself. I don't think people realize that I'm my own worst critic. I read once that you should never point out your flaws to others because most people are too absorbed to notice them independently. So I don't point out my flaws to others, but because I am self-absorbed, I can't help noticing them myself.

I work in the yard, for example, planting Russian sage or basil or roses, and they die, and I assume responsibility for that. Weeds take over garden plots, and I beat myself up. I don't get the kitchen painted, the table sanded, the poem written, and I fall into a funk, feeling like I'll never get anything done.

But lately, I've really been trying to cut myself some slack. Not the way my neighbor does when he says, "Hey, you're one girl. It's a big yard. You can't do everything." More like, "OK. Y'know. I pulled some weeds today. I did something. It's not all I'd hoped to do, but I tried. I did what I could." And then I just kind of stop there and rest, which is new for me.

I did think yesterday, walking through the garden, looking at burned collard leaves, "God didn't do everything in one day. Why do I think I can?" Then I thought about the centuries, the millenia, that God has been creating, refining, striving in order to make tangible this idea of the world that he has, and I think that it's okay if I don't get everything just right today or even this week. I have an idea of what would make the world beautiful, too, and I think that he only expects me to do as much as I can. I don't think he wants me to make myself droopy and withered and burned out in pursuit of immediate perfection. He just wants me to create and refine and strive for as long as I can.

I guess reading Whitman is my way of doing that. Reading the thoughts of someone who really learned the art of loafing.

Song of Myself, Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back awhile sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Monday, July 5, 2010


When I first bought the place,
these two city lots
of pine trees and crape myrtles and half-dead boxwoods
and all-dead grass,
I delighted in hour upon hour
of contemplation,
mental meanderings through gardens
that I had imagined first when I was ten and reading
The Secret Garden.

For two years, I worked diligently,
digging and planting,
warring against dandelions and crab grass,
and it was good.
Then I got tired, and I let it go.
And it went.
All my fine work devoured by dandelions,
nibbled and pinched away by crabgrass.

Tonight, after a renewal of efforts,
I looked back on my work, my sweat,
and saw that I had only managed to secure
a little bit of ground,
and I felt rotten,
as if I'd never achieve that vision
that I'd had when I was ten
if I could only manage a little bit of ground
most days.

Then I thought that it had taken
over thirteen billion years
to make me
just the way that I am,
and I realized that accomplishment
is relative.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kudzu and honeysuckle

Some dreams never seem to die as definitively as others, maybe the beauty of those vagaries is that they remain hopeful after years of neglect. Like an antebellum home with white paint peeling artistically from the walls, with kudzu and honeysuckle growing into and out of the windows, embroidering the edifice with green knots, coral and saffron blooms. Beautiful and hopeful, inspiring lovely visions of summer days spent repairing swinging shutters and decaying floorboards, inspiring even lovelier visions of future Christmases gathered in the ballroom around a grand piano, friends from all corners of the globe gathered to see your miraculous recovery of something nearly forgotten. Naturally, the vision is much more beautiful than the actuality would be. In actuality, the building would probably crash around you. But maybe the vision is enough.


At night,
the universe, so large by day,
so spread out and confident,
breathes silence and bundles itself,
curls in on itself,
becomes small,
hiding itself like a child beneath a blanket,
peeking out into the darkness of night.
A blanket, soft and heavy,
spreads over us all;
you are over there,
head resting against a pillow,
I am over here,
tucked coolly beneath cool sheets.
A blanket, soft and heavy,
wide and long,
stretching from one state to another,
piling atop cities and suburbs,
a worn blanket
scattered with bright holes
where small fingers have pulled at yarn,
where small fingers have rubbed the fabric for comfort.
Night, covering the universe so that it curls upon itself,
obscuring all distances,
making infinity as small and delicate as an infant;
making the long trip from here to there
the distance of a narrow bed.
We are where we are,
tucked coolly beneath cool sheets,
heads resting side by side against a pillow,

Friday, June 11, 2010


Wading across the night black street
through the heavy damp haze
of a summer storm
the thick air currents
still and silent,
you whisper
that darkness is a giant
who steps in front of our house at night,
and I take your small hand,
and we face him together.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Beneath the dogwood,
its gray branches reaching out across us,
protective arms,
a thin gypsy mother,
dangling shell and silver windchimes,
tucked into translucent chartreuse leaves
tangled and glossy as a mass of gypsy hair,
we lie and listen,
I listen and you giggle,
I ask you to listen, straining my own ears;
you manage silence for a moment
before the thousand questions begin,
and in that moment,
a mockingbird leaps and fiddles,
a wren scolds and chides,
a bluebird whistles and spins,
a mourning dove weeps and moans,
a meadowlark warbles and croons,
a symphony of crickets and cicadas tune their violins,
their cellos, their ukuleles, their mandolins,
and a firefly,
a spot of darkness floating across the creeping darkness,
pulls a star from the sky.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Dilettante

The birth of the dilettante is curiosity. Children are natural dilettantes, asking in one moment "Why is night dark?" and moving quickly to "How many eyes do spiders have?" A dilettante, like a child, is as interested in asking questions as she is in finding answers. This curiosity is grounded in open-mindedness. A dilettante is not satisfied with a pat answer. She is not bound by the parameters of "tried and true answers" that hem in more conservative minds. She is not even convinced that there are any right answers. Rather, she seeks to collect a menagerie of possible answers, one for any day or mood of the week.

Curiosity makes the dilettante find delight in even the mundane. She might marvel at the feel of moss or clover. She might search out each bird's nest in her yard and thrill at the miracle of their individual songs and their communal symphonies. She embraces the whimsical. Inquisitively, she learns how to cartwheel at the ripe old age of 35 just to see what it feels like. She dresses in a rose-colored tutu with her child to live the life of a ballerina for a day.

The dilettante experiments. She is curious to know if there is another way, a better way, than the one put forward by the textbooks and experts. She tries new things simply for the joy of novelty, the excitement of possible success. Failure is equally exciting because she perceives it as a challenge, an opportunity to “begin again more intelligently,” as Henry Ford once said.

Because she experiments, she innovates. Each trial leads to new potential. She sees that the potential horizon is only a perception. In reality, like the round globe, potential is never-ending, always expanding, always once more over the waves, through the storms, into the sunlight. And so she pushes forward, sometimes coming back to the place she began, sometimes discovering new lands or new ways to reach old lands.

Like the horizon, her interests continually expand as she progresses. She is not content to look at the universe through a telescope; she will re-create it on a canvas; she will sing it in an opera; she will tell of it in a story. She dares to embrace all that she sees, dares to grow to the size of the universe herself, not resting until her curiosity is satisfied. Never resting at all.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Umbels and Fractals

After mid-day had passed and the heat slightly relented in certain shady areas, Fain and I took our new sidewalk chalk to the front walk where he created a rambling map of "the dangerous areas." The pink path went straight through my gargantuan dandelion and rose and toadstool garden, like wee little Alice in Wonderland. When I grew tired of drawing, I brought a full gauzy scarf to lie on because the grass in the front lawn is too prickly.

Eventually, Fain also wore out Wonderland and wanted an adventure, so I challenged him to a scavenger hunt. I would ask him to bring different items to me - a flower that bees love or one that butterflies are drawn to, a leaf as soft as a lamb's ear, a leaf that smells like lemons, a prickly leaf, a flower made of many smaller flowers, etc. As he would bring his treasures to me, I would tell him the names of the plants - the Chaste tree or lantana, lamb's ear and lemon balm, holly and yarrow. After several trips to uncover the mystery plants, I would ask him to tell me again what plants the different pieces came from, and he did a fine job of remembering. Then, it was his turn, and he asked me to bring something brown or red, something that ants eat - I brought a dead bumblebee that I'd found in the garden when I was digging earlier. It was such a beautiful afternoon. Exactly what I imagined when I imagined being a mother...being a tour guide to the universe.

Later, I had to Google flowers made of many florets because it drove me crazy not to know the specific name. The are called umbels, like umbrellas, which is fitting as they do resemble umbrellas. Denise explained that they are also fractals because they are large flowers made of smaller flowers that look the same. I didn't remember that from math classes, but I thought it was interesting. Go pluck a flower of a lantana or a geranium or Queen Anne's lace.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dirt Rich

I wonder how many modern American health problems are a direct result of our wealth? Especially those mental health problems. I wonder if we would be happier with less, more at our ease with less.

Over the years, I've thought often about artful lives and beautiful lives, and I've wondered how much happier I might be if I spent more time crafting a beautiful life than hammering together a life with "enough." This weekend made me consider those ideas again.

We didn't spend money or meet demands. We just enjoyed the beauty of dogwood leaves and passing clouds, green cabbage worms and blue butterflies.

It wasn't easy, though. I had to make myself stop for breakfast. I had to force myself to put down my fork between bites to actually taste the food. I had to control my impatience when Fain wanted to dawdle. I had to persuade myself to lie still underneath the tree, to stop pulling at weeds when I was tired. I had to focus my vision on what we already had at home to prevent myself from thinking of all of the things that we should go to Wal-mart to buy. I had to tell myself that I wanted to take time to make my life beautiful, and jewelry or a degree or a raise wouldn't contribute to the art of living at all. Only by sitting still and considering the brushstrokes, so to speak, those small daily actions and words that create the moments, the still life images, of life could I really end with something breath-taking.

And I felt more relaxed, happier; I could even see clearly for the first time in weeks. I didn't have a stomach ache or a head ache. I felt well.

I wonder if being "dirt poor" gives us the opportunity to practice creativity, which in turn enriches our lives with new skills and insights. I wonder if the term shouldn't be "dirt rich" since those who are "cash poor" by American standards have to rely more on what comes from the earth, including their own humanity, imagination, and intellect, and who, in doing so, take on those lovely qualities of the earth.

"Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." from Matthew

Monday, May 31, 2010

Cold, dirty water

Holidays remind me of what every day should be.

Today, we woke up as early as ever, but instead of rushing and grouching at one another, we idled around sleepily and smiled dopily at one another. We walked outside and took deep swallows of morning air, full of the scents of electric violet butterfly bushes and pink and white carnations. I let Fain water the squash and zinnia and tomato plants and the compost, and I didn't scold him for not doing it the way that I would. I just enjoyed the breeze and the blueberry cobbler coffee and the exuberant playfulness of a little boy with a water hose.

I didn't start straight away in the overgrown flower beds. Instead, I went inside and took the time to cut up a sweet golden pineapple and to fry eggs and bacon and butter the toast and spread the grape jelly to the crust, and then we sat down together and ate with a view of the day through the window. We drank cold milk and talked about nothing, Legos and Transformers and spies and butterflies.

I threw the patchwork quilt across the clothesline for a tent because I prefer the lovely Indian patterns and the rich cornflower blues and currant reds to the drab green of a real tent, and I love to watch the wind shiver the loose edges. I tied either edge to the ground with Christmas ribbons that I found in a box and spread a baby blanket beneath the canopy, filling it with books about birds and spiders and lizards, chips and cookies and juice, binoculars and Transformers, and crayons and a sketch pad, and then I gave Fain the opportunity to establish himself there while I went to work on the weeds.

I hacked and strained against the wire grass that has overtaken the rose campion and daylilies, clearing away a little patch at a time, occasionally chatting across the street to my neighbor who was also working in his yard. And when I was tired of that, I planted the morning glory and moon flower seeds that had been soaking in cool water all night. The water felt so good to my fingers when I dipped them in to fish out seeds that I felt desperate suddenly for cold water, and so I asked Ms. Victoria, my other neighbor, if we could borrow her wading pool, which we set up beneath Fain's slide so that he could splash down into the immediately pine straw littered water.

Just the first three hours of the day were so beautiful and peaceful, without spending money, without rushing about to meet people or do things or run errands, without television or computer or car, just working in the soil, playing in the cold, dirty water.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mourning doves and mockingbirds

Today, when I began to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities, I stopped what I was doing in favor of venturing out doors to sit beneath the dogwood, the shady spot. I asked Fain if he would join me, and he agreed to if he could take Transformers. He brought Bumblebee and Optimus and Starscream and another whose name I can't recall, and I brought his fuzzy, old baby blanket, the one that his aunt found in her yard one day and gave to us.

I spread out the blanket and lay down, sunny side up, looking through the luminescent leaves at a clear blue sky, and he sat beside the garden fence, orchestrating battles between good and evil very quietly. I could make out the whooo oh whooo of a mourning dove and the scolding squeaks of the wren whose made her nest in my bluebird box, the artful and never-ceasing crooning of a mockingbird leaping up and down in his spot on the telephone wire, and dozens of other songs that I don't know by name.

The breeze was silky and cool like sheets when you first fall into bed at night, and it rustled the leaves and stirred the grass.

It was the most beautiful hour that I've had in months.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Golden Asters

I have a constellation of golden asters, more commonly known as golden ragwort, bursting from a flowerpot bequeathed to me by my neighbor Denise. A name change occurred at some point in their history; I imagine it happened when they became weeds instead of wild flowers. Ragwort sounds far more reprehensible than aster. I've taken to calling them by their original name, golden aster, because they do look like little golden stars sprouting up out of a sworl of feathery green frills.

I remember years ago visiting a gardener in New Orleans who lived on Eden Street. He preferred green plants to flowery plants. The simplicity of green, especially when it is sparked with dew in the early morning, is somehow more serene and breath-taking to me as well.

This older gentleman showed me his collection of plants, including a miniature jungle of bonsai trees. He had cultivated them all from local trees, including knobby-kneed cypress. He also had a variety of carrion flowers, plants that smell and even sometimes resemble, rotting flesh. I had never heard of such a thing, but I like to impress people now with my knowledge of putrid plants.

We talked for a while about gardening in general and weeds in particular. I've struggled with the weed question for several years. The struggle has become more intense now that I have my own yard. Even dandelions are beautiful to me, especially when they are large and puffed up like yellow pom poms. Who decides which flowers are weeds and which are flowers? Was there someone once upon a time who was just fed up with golden asters and began to mockingly call them little ragworts? What a horrible name! I've kept mine in their pot. They look meek and humble there, but beautiful and full of hope.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I have too much going on in my head. Too many goals that I'd like to accomplish. Too many thoughts. Sometimes it's hard for me to focus. Sometimes I forget what I want to do. Sometimes I forget ideas that I had two minutes earlier.

Right now I can't quiet my mind. It's running around itself like a rat in an M.C. Escher maze. I'm not even sure what I'm thinking about. Or maybe I'm thinking too many things.

Fence. Garden. Water. Table. Poem. Story. Eye. Write. Walk. Heartbeat. Breathe. Weeds. Flowers. Kitchen. Curtain. Paint. Workshop. Journal. Class. Article. Car. Oil change. Oil spill. Morning glory seeds. Marigolds. Pinestraw. Laundry. Grad school. Education.

Really it's this wildly overgrown to do list. Or a list of worries. Fears. Hopes. I'm not sure exactly. But it's something that keeps me awake. It makes me chest tight and my breath hard to come by.

And then I get angry because I remember times - even some recent times - when I read long books about atoms and anthropologists, when I appreciated poems by Pacheco and Neruda, when I listened to Waits and Fitzgerald, when I made pizza dough from scratch and thought about the origins of music, and it makes me feel more frustrated with where I am now.

Even this. I hate writing this kind of thing. I'd much rather write about daffodils and grandmother's pincushions, but I can't get past this cataract in my head. My mind feels lost in this whirlpool of thoughts...mostly unimportant ones. Trivial, stupid thoughts.

Well, this probably isn't the best time to write, but I vowed that regardless of anything else, I'd write every day from now on. And I can't write dishonestly, despite the fact that I can make up huge whoppers to tell my students, like the one about the teacher who died in my classroom 28 years ago and still haunts it or like how we hire elephants and giraffes for teachers to ride when the circus is in town on work days.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


First, I am typing blind, so please ignore typos. I am actually quite a skilled typist. My kids (at school) marvel at my ability to watch them while typing. I've been having trouble with my eyes for a month or so, and yesterday it seemed to get worse.

Driving home in the direction of the graveyard, it looked as thought the tombstones had made their way into the street. I could see them quite clearly lined up neat and tidy across the road.

This morning on my way to Fain's Kindergarten graduation, everything suddenly became blurry. No more driving today.

However, that is not what I feel like writing about. Today, I feel like analyzing why I never complete anything that I start. Never may be a strong word. Let's say that I start many projects that I take to some halfway point before becoming distracted by some other project.

Thus, my vegetable garden is half covered in pine straw and half fenced. My dining room table is half painted. My kitchen cabinets are half renovated. Kitchen curtain are half sewn. Farmer's Market application has been filled out for two months but has yet to make it halfway to the drop off point. Dozens of novels and non-fiction tomes are half read. House is nearly half clean. It's really quite a state. What could that mean?

I want to do so many things. I want to paint realistic illustrations of tomato plants and sundrops with watercolors, and I also want to paint rich thick abstract paintings of the same leaves with acrylics. I want to embroider honeybees and bluebirds onto scraps of fabric, and I want to raise honeybees and house bluebirds in my backyard. I want to write several novels and a slew of poems and learn to play guitar and write my own songs. I want to take Fain for long walks and practice Tae Kwan Do moves in the backyard with him and make pizza dough and smother it with green peppers and red onions from our garden, bake french bread and biscuits and pies. I want to paint the walls turquoise. I'm overwhelmed by the things that I want to do, and so I never seem capable of doing anything.

I am a character from an absurdist play.

"Yes, let's go." They do not move.
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A Mirror, A Summer, A Street by Autumn Crisp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.