Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Poetic Thursday--Wendell Berry (and a thank you)

I am so, so very grateful for all of your comments in my last post. I need to think about them, and savor them, and craft responses. Just hearing your stories, seeing you all survive and thrive--it helps so much. Thank you.

For Poetry Thursday this week, I went hunting for some inspiration. Here is the soul food that I found.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.


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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The givens

Edward Munch, Despair
Writing, like everything else, is a habit. It’s very easy for me to drift away from it, rationalizing that I’m "thinking" or "taking a break". Sometimes that’s even the truth. A lot of little things have pulled me away from the computer these days--Madam is teething, TEG is on a business trip. But those aren’t the reasons I’ve stayed away. The truth is...I didn't want to read about everyone working, dreaming, crafting art and a life, when I just felt like there were no solutions for me.

It comes on my slowly, my depressions, creeping in like a slow fog--the atmosphere around me fades, clouding me until all I can see are my own thoughts. The circle of my life tightens and tightens as I try to keep up, until I am just spinning until everything blurs, but I’m not progressing anywhere. I try to keep up a cheerful front, for TEG’s sake, for Madam’s sake, but it becomes harder and harder to drag my slumping form into anything approaching joy.

First it was the disappearance of my Big Thoughts--the ones I like to think about, chew on, heft back and forth in my mind even as I change yet another diaper, or take another endless midnight stroll to nowhere. The thoughts that keep me excited about facing a new day. "Well, no one can stay on a creative high all the time. Maybe this is all about settling down and getting down to the work." But I couldn’t see the work. I couldn’t see anything but this blackness spreading like a stain.

Then, the walls of my routine started to feel barbed and close. What is there to look forward to, after all, but more of the same? I imagine every mother out there with a young baby can relate--it’s wonderful, beautiful, to be so entwined with another human life. But, Lord, it can also be BORING.

Meanwhile, the loneliness just sits on my chest, heavy, wet. TEG has always been my best friend as well as my husband, but he’s short tempered too, busy, always busy. Our conversations are curt laundry lists, or tip sheets about the Madam. We pass each other in the hallway, work in shifts. I feel like we’re comrades in our parenthood mission, but little else. And I’m so very guilty about that, guilty about thinking it. You all seem to have such wonderful relationships--I used to be like you, too. I don’t understand--we both love the Madam, so why does that love feel like it’s separating us?

I know these are all serious problems, but somehow they felt like symptoms of something more fundamental. I still needed to face Medusa, and cut her off head.

After TEG left for his business trip, I took Madam out for one of our walks, to try and keep her entertained while I cleared my muddy head. I’m far from the world’s best problem solver (that cosmic snort you just heard was from TEG at my delicious understatement), but I’m usually very self-aware. I might not know how to solve the problem, but at least I have a passing acquaintance with it.

And then I remembered something TEG said, something about how it "was a given" that I wouldn’t do something or the other.

Why was it a given? What else was a given in my life--something I just took as a truth and never questioned, never really even looked at? Maybe these things made sense when I was eight, or eighteen, but maybe some of them were outdated,a groove worn into my brain from a dance long ago?

When I came home, I made a quick list of the givens in my life--and it came to over seven pages. I’m being governed by so many rules and regulations--all unexamined, all looming powerfully in my mind. It is a given that I should be able to handle Madam all alone most of the day. It is a given that my writing shouldn’t matter because it doesn’t make us any money. It is a given that I can’t drive on the highway with Madam, because she’ll cry. It’s a given that I should protect people from Madam’s precarious moods; I should be prepared to stay at home a lot, in case she cries. It is a given that I shouldn’t spend money on "frivolous" things, because I don’t earn anything. It is a given that someone who doesn’t earn any money matters less than someone who does.

My givens keep me from having any fun (because it’s a given that parents should stop needing fun), from really enjoying motherhood (because it’s a given that all mothers do is sacrifice themselves), and from taking the time to take care of myself (because it’s a given that I shouldn’t need to do it…other mothers manage without bothering anybody, I should just suck it up). They rule me. It’s a given that all of my writing won’t change anything, after all, because I don’t know HOW to change. I don’t know how to act in the face of this judge and jury inside of me.

Do you all have your own list of "givens"? How do you live with them, or get rid of them? How do you keep feeling BIG when everything in your mind tells you to stay small?

I’ve read so many of your upbeat optimistic posts today, and they helped, but it’s that old feeling--of living behind a thick plane of glass, mouth pressed greedily against it, trying to really taste and understand and BELIEVE what you are saying.

But I can’t, not yet. The walls are still too high.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Poetic Thursday, Has My Heart Gone to Sleep?

Has My Heart Gone To Sleep?
Has my heart gone to sleep?
Have the beehives of my dreams
stopped working, the waterwheel
of the mind run dry,
scoops turning empty,
only shadow inside?

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming—
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of vast silence.

Translated by Alan S. Trueblood

Antonio Machado

This sums up the way I've been feeling the last couple of days...on the edge of a silence. Trying to stay patient and open, even as I can feel myself growing restless. I don't understand this stillness--am I hiding from myself? Or is this a necessary prelude? The not-knowing feels stiff, frozen.


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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Mama says Om--Foundation

Feet planted on the earth
Wide, cause space is generous
Thighs sway
To ancient tidal rhythms
Modern as yesterday

My mother’s murmurs
Echoing inside my own exasperations
And my daughter’s mewling cries

I plaster over the cracks of my stories
With astonishment that becomes
Stronger in the broken places

All in all
My all is all

Feet planted on the earth
Wide, cause I learned
From every loved memory
Dreamed in the inbetween time
I hold my daughter
She sways with the palms
Swallows the moonlight whole

I am my foundation

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Monday, March 20, 2006

An appreciation

The Quilting Bee by Grandma Moses

Isolation is the dream killer-
-Barbara Sher

“What are you looking for?” TEG asked me curiously as he saw me spending endless amounts of time online. I shook my head, not quite knowing how to answer that question. I was at loose ends in my life, having just left Cool but Aimless job without a new job or a plan(yeah, won’t be doing THAT again). I looked towards the internet as a way to search for a solution, a new job, direction. So I searched for tips--resume tips, cover letter tips, career search tips. It was a time to be hardnosed, a paragon of practicality.

I didn’t want to admit that I was searching for something more elusive. Inspiration lurking in binary code, perhaps, or encoded in HTML.

During that time, I spent a good deal of my day diligently reading, convincing myself that I would find the Answer, and stuffing any errant creative longings down where they couldn’t be able to hurt me or anyone else.

It was a lonely, isolated time. I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute to, well, anyone. So I steeped in information, passively, and ignored the way that it made me almost desperately bored. Everyone else’s work was polished to a high sheen, no seams visible.

Moving to California just deepened that sense that I was sitting this round out. Now I was pregnant--moving slower, these strange sensations inside of me making me feel like an alien to myself. And full of foreboding that I wouldn’t be able to be a good mother, not when I had made such a mess of my own life. So the search continued, only this time, I was on the lookout for anything that could help mold me into a Good Mother. And again, everyone else was an expert, and all I could do was be meticulous and take good notes. Surely, I had nothing to say about this experience. My imagination was stymied by the sheer force of the informed opinions around me. I knew nothing.

Madam arrived and I drowned in her. When that tidal wave subsided, however, I was surprised to find that those nagging longings hadn’t gone away; in fact, they had intensified. My surfing became even more fitful, dissatisfied.

I’m not sure why I clicked on that crafty link that day. I’ve never really been interested in any of that, even though I’d had Wish Jar Journals bookmarked for a while. But every time I clicked on it, I felt my throat closing up with envy--she was an Artist, another expert brimming with esoteric knowledge and proud authority.

In hindsight, I guess I was scared to read it too closely.

But that one link led to another, and another. I found a whole community of women making their art a central theme in their life. A paradox--they took their work seriously (something I’ve always been afraid to do) and took themselves less so (allowing themselves to make messes and mistakes and enjoying them--wait, you can do that?). I found mothers mulling about ways to remember ideas and create in the in between times--nap times, bed times. I saw work evolve over time, the dailyness of the “how to be an artist” question being answered everyday. Enthusiasm was everywhere--weekly projects, monthly projects--and insights and praise were shared generously. I learned that knowing nothing was as good a place to start as any.

And for the first time, it felt wrong to stay silent. I couldn’t just sit back and allow myself to be entertained by the Experts anymore. These seams were visible. This work was possible.

So thank you all, for practically forcing my voice out of my strangled throat, for being open and honest with your art, your questions, your answers, your process, for showing me your imperfections. Thank you for dwelling in possibilities.

If TEG were to ask me “What are you looking for?” now, I would have a clear answer.

I was looking for you.


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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Poetic Thursday, Bilingual Sestina

I chose Bilingual Sestina by Julia Alvarez, from her book The Other Side/El Otro Lado. Julia Alvarez is truly one of my muses. The first time I read her book Yo!, I felt an electric current of recognition. The question mark I always carried within me, "Can I actually be a writer?" became an affirmation, "I can become a writer." I'd always been hesitant, discounted the experiences which formed me, devalued the sounds and swagger and accents that surrounded me as common, jagged. But her writing showed me that literature could live in the streets I walked everyday; that my life and my parents' lives could smooth into something beautiful.

I love that this poem melds a very traditionally English poetic form with the rhythms and the languages she loves.

(Alas, I don't know how to replicate the accents and the like in Blogger).

Bilingual Sestina

Some things I have to say ain’t getting said
in this snowy, blond, blue-eyed, gum-chewing English
dawn’s early light sifting through persianas closed
the night before by dark-skinned girls whose words
evoke cama, aposento, suenos in nombres
from that first world I can’t translate from Spanish.

Gladys, Rosario, Altagracia—the sounds of Spanish
wash over me like warm island waters as I say
your soothing names: a child again learning the nombres
of things you point to in the world before English
turned sol, tierra, cielo, luna to vocabulary words—
sun, earth, sky, moon. Language closed

like the touch-sensitive morivivi whose leaves closed
when we kids poked them, astonished. Even Spanish
failed us back then when we saw how frail a word is
when faced with the thing it names. How saying
its name won’t always summon up in Spanish or English
the full blown genie from the bottled nombre.

Gladys, I summon you back by saying your nombre.
Open up again the house of slatted windows closed
since childhood, where palabras left behind for English
stand dusty and awkward in neglected Spanish.
Rosario, muse of el patio, sing to me and through me say
that world again, begin first with those first words

you put in my mouth as you pointed to the world—
not Adam, not God, but a country girl numbering
the stars, the blades of grass, warming the sun by saying,
Que calor! As you opened up the morning closed
inside the night until you sang in Spanish,
estas son las mananitas, and listening in bed, no English

yet in my head to confuse me with translations, no English
doubling the world with synonyms, no dizzying array of words
--the world was simple and intact in Spanish—
luna, sol, casa, luz, flor, as if the nombres
were the outer skin of things, as if the words were so close
one left a mist of breath on things by saying

their names, an intimacy I now yearn for in English—
words so close to what I mean that I almost hear my Spanish
heart beating, beating inside what I say en ingles.


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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pity, party of one

I wish I could say that I spent the last weekend in a welter of creative activity or a dreamy musing lull, or basking in the fine glow of epiphany.

I do wish I could say that, but I can’t.

Because, actually, I spent the last weekend taking a hit of the self-pity pipe, and I’m still feeling the hangover.

Like many (most?) people, I have a secret vice, one that poisons my days and clouds over the moon of my nights. I am addicted to comparing myself to other people, and then berating myself when, inevitability, I don’t measure up.

I suppose if I dig deeply enough, I could find the roots of this behavior in (where else?) childhood. Emigrating to another country shifts the sands of who you thought you were, what you thought you wanted, so my parents compensated by wholeheartedly embracing the mores of their new country. And that meant constantly monitoring the behavior and gains of the neighbors in order to orient ourselves, figure out where we stand (but only in relationship to them), figure out what we lack (but only compared to what others have and value). Contentment meant that you weren’t trying hard enough…surely, if you looked with a critical enough eye, you could find something that was not right, something that needed fixing, or effort, or an apology. That was American ambition, in my mami’s eyes. Making sure you were never satisfied, never stagnant, never done yearning and reaching. Satisfaction was the refuge of the lazy.

For years I took this as unexamined gospel about how to live. Every party could have been good, had it not been for the underspiced food, or lack of dance music. Every holiday could have been celebrated, if only Tio Pedro hadn’t been late with the whisky, and the sun would have come out, and we’d had a bigger crowd and…

I’m sure you get the idea.

As a child, this never affected me all that much, to be honest. Perhaps I was protected by a child’s incurable optimism and sense of wonder, perhaps I assumed that dealing with the unfortunate downside of every desire was an adult’s job. I noticed the fleeting sourness beneath their smiles, but I didn’t really compare them to anything or anyone back then. I just luxuriated in my enjoyment.

I do remember feeling a certain dread about becoming an adult, however. Adults never seemed to be wholeheartedly glad about ANYTHING.

Of course, we model what we see, and before long, I was a master of this insidious little habit. As Shakespeare said, “desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” Nothing was ever quite good enough…someone’s work was always better, cleaner, more inspired, more imaginative, and that instantly detracted from my own. I learned to view my own life, my own thoughts, as a narrow festering swamp of mediocrity, while everyone else was reflected in glistening healing waters. It didn’t matter how happy I had been with my efforts initially. Once I saw the work of others, I knew that mine was all utter, unrelenting, useless crap and idiocy. Forget learning from others. Forget allowing the creativity of others inspire my own dreams. Clink, clink—the chains of failure and feeling like a fraud are on my wrists again. My inner judge leads me away again.

This is not at all conducive to living a creative life, or to the person I long to become. When I compare myself to others, the multiplicity and playfulness of life becomes grimly focused on one thing, What the Other Person Did. There are to be no other possibilities, no variations on that theme. Any chance of play, of imagination, gets goosestepped into that tiny prison cell. So now I have the opportunity, nay, the DUTY, to berate myself for being the smallest, most mundane person who ever walked the earth. Oh, how I wish I were exaggerating. But I can go from cheerful striding to the fetal position of self-pity in the time it takes to, well, see and absorb anything I wish I had done myself—a beautiful poem, a fluid bit of brilliant wordplay, a breathlessly exciting film or piece of music, a graceful work of art. No appreciation, no love for the form, just the doomed dullness of knowing (in that thudding way we acknowledge all of our most loathed traits) that I could NEVER do anything like that. So what’s the point of me, anyway?

I’m so tired of this cycle, unrelenting pity parties of one, of the ceaseless drone of my faults, like the whine of a fly in my ear. I want to throw back my head in gratitude to the sun, throw open in my arms in love with the productions of time, bow my head grateful that I have a body that can revel, a mind that can think, and a soul that can be excited by beauty and art and dreams. But instead, I compare and contrast, judge myself mercilessly, and fall listlessly into the arms of helplessness. I’ll never be any good, why bother being ANYTHING?

So I pouted my way through the weekend—tumbling into an icy Snowball that froze through all that I ever was, am, and will be.

As usual, Madam wouldn’t let me live that way for long. She demanded my immediate attention to the serious matters of play, of singing, of laughter. I defy anyone to remain depressed after 500 renditions of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." And walking with her in the dark reminded me of a half-forgotten quote; It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. All weekend, I’ve been cursing the darkness—the lack—of celebration, of friendship, of joy, of writing. I’ve been parched, sawdust stinging my tongue. Pressing my nose to the overflowing glass of everyone else’s warm glowing abundance. Feeling frozen and helpless.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. I can continue to light my tiny candles—on my blog, creating small celebrations to mark the importance of everyday, learning from those further along on the Art Path, taking responsibility for filling my empty well. I can be a small church (not a great cathedral) and really pay attention to the great ebb and flow and throb of humanity’s heart, and my own.

Fine words (I think, I haven’t compared them to anyone else’s yet.) But I’m still not sure how to avoid the trap of self pity and envy in the future? How does everyone else deal with this?

Time to stop wallowing. Now I need a shower.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Writing into the dark

I pace with Madam in the dark, again, my eyes never quite adjusting, so everything is in an undifferentiated void. She’s squirming, unwilling to be led to sleep. Obstinate. I try the wiggle/walk that worked for the last nap, alas, it’s lost its charm and she only wails harder. So now it’s time to scan my mind for any possible combination that may have worked once or maybe never worked...but every night is different. Sway and sing. Pat and rock. Low voice. Hush. Warm breath in her ear. Why won’t something work all the time? I bring all of me to every bedtime; try not to get too attached to any method that seems easy. It will probably fail before long, and then succeed again, and then fail. She grows bored, frustrated. I try to stay with a method long enough to see any results, despite my inclination to switch and switch and switch...trying for instant results. But Madam does not budge, does not rest.

How to keep my exhausted mind from whirling, hallucinating? I am distracted--crash into shelving, spin into walls, bump my head. I need to call on all of my memories of where the rough spots are--still nursing bruises--but these will heal and leave their knowledge behind. She’s still awake. I keep walking. Crash again, jostling her from a tentative sleep. And the whole process begins again. Never the same twice.

Resentfully, I long to be anywhere but here, to lay her down awake. To leave my task incomplete. But she needs to sleep. I have to go on.

I feel the scratchy rug under my calloused feet, the cool hiss of the air snaking through the crevices in the doorframe. I need to know this small area thoroughly, to walk past the boredom, to be able to think my thoughts without losing my hard won footing. I am purposeful in the dark, walking neither too fast nor too slow, finally losing myself to the motions, trusting them to lead me where I need to go. Back and forth, seemingly arriving nowhere ever, but tuned into a different process. Time slows, pulled into rhythm with every breath.

Shallow breathing grows deep.
She is asleep.
I am awake.

This is what I need to remember every time I sit down to write.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Poetic Thursday

e.e. cummings, 95 poems, 77

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
--i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth's own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
--i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)


I chose this poem in response to a comment a poster made about being insignificant. It reminds me that even a little church can dance in the splendor of the world.

I'm weary--I feel sleep deprived and shouted at and generally beaten down by life today. But finding this poem was like taking a little mental vacation.


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My parents like to quote an old Spanish admonition, "No te ahoges en un vaso de agua." It means, "Don’t drown yourself in a glass of water." They usually shake their heads sadly in my direction when they say this. TEG calls it "the snowball effect" which instantly makes me imagine a Barbie doll dressed as a skier, tumbling down a hill gathering enough snow to become a larger and larger ball.

I just think that the word "and" has not always been kind to me.

It’s so easy to get swept up in the litany of "and", creating a haphazard pile of things to do as scary as my laundry baskets (I apologize for the fixation on laundry of late, but the piles are growing exponentially everyday. I think they are breeding in the night.) It’s not just household tasks either...there’s also the running commentary in the back of my mind, you know the one... "I need to be a good wife, AND a good mother AND an excellent laundress AND be kind of children and animals and the elderly AND shouldn’t I call home AND what about my writing AND did I make a mistake not going to graduate school AND..."

Before I know it, I’m splayed face down in the snow of my self-created avalanche while my mind gleefully exhausts itself hopping from fear to worry to doubt, landing just enough to disturb but not long enough to resolve anything and possibly remove it from the pile. Each "and" is a knife aimed at carving up my already-scattered attention, leaving me with a hollow sense of incompleteness.

"And" and my thoughts combined are like a forty-three car pile up on the LA freeway.

I can try another way.

When I was in college, I took a class on the poetry of John Milton. There were whispers from former students that this class included an infamous assignment--to write a paper on "Milton’s use of ‘and’ in Paradise Lost". I suspected this was just a joke to scare the first years. But...there it was on the syllabus the professor handed out on the first day of class.

I started to panic. How would I pull together an entire paper on Milton’s use of "and"? I’d have to drop the class or fail, and then I’d probably have to change majors and I didn’t want to do anything but English and...well, you get the idea. (Lesson #1 I should have learned then but didn’t: Try not to panic before you have any of the facts.)

When the time came to do the assignment, I pulled out my Milton tome and doggedly tried to examine what, if anything, was so special about "Milton’s use of ‘and’"--tried to keep an open mind.

I read slowly, with dawning delight. Milton’s "and" was no pileup of endless clauses. No, this was a deliberate invocation of graceful order, one "and" unfolding into another "and" in joyous profusion. A celebration of the glories of all of God’s creations. (Lesson #2 I should have learned: Professors tend to have a reason for their assignments.)

I haven’t thought about that class or that paper in years, until today. I’ve been wavering between the "either/or" of a divided self, struggling to compromise between my roles as wife, mother, daughter, wannabe writer. I wonder if I’ve set myself up in a situation where it is impossible to commit fully to any of them. I wonder if part of the reason I am so hesitant to start anything is this persistent fear of getting interrupted. Won’t it be worst to have a little taste of something only to have to stop? How can I make any progress towards anything?

TEG attended a Catholic high school in Bombay which took as its motto, "I choose all." Abundance, instead of scarcity. Gathering up all of scattered parts of my life and weaving them into wholeness. Life doesn’t always have to be like school, thoughts lost as the bell rings, moving efficiently into the next class. Ideas and selves can bleed from one area of life to another. In fact, it’s probably all much more interesting that way.

Like Milton, I can choose to use "And" as a translucent connection between all of the shifting, shimmering layers of me, learning that all of the many breaks and interruptions of my life can be a part of a dazzling abundance. Flow.

I choose all.

And alas, no progress on the totem/talisman (thanks Rachel!) front today, as our walk was cut short by a sleep deprived Madam. Just thinking about it brings up all sorts of interesting questions though. What does creativity look like to me? What types of images inspire me?

I’m curious to see what emerges.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

After enlightenment, the laundry

I have, as TEG is too fond of reminding me, an unfortunate tendency to make Grand Pronouncements that yield little fruit and no follow through. I know that he is right, alas (though I wish he would stop reminding me all the time), but I feel that this time is different. Maybe all of those other times were just dress rehearsals for this one, or perhaps I had been waiting for the Universe to make things concrete for me. I don’t ask for much...perhaps a few cloud bursts, angels we can hear on high, or at least a rainbow or two. But, in keeping with the tenor of my new attitude, I figure the only one who should be blaring trumpets around here is me.

The question is, as always, how? The Buddhists say, “Before Nirvana, chop wood and carry water. After Nirvana, chop wood and carry water." Intellectually, I know that’s excellent advice (well, in my case it would be “craft writing, carry baby") but emotionally I have yet to make it stick. I’ve never been good at making my epiphanies concrete in the workaday world, so all of my lovely castles in the air tend to stay there. How would I be able to live out my new ideals in the face of cooking, diapers, bills, and mounds and mounds of laundry?

I pondered this question while strolling with Madam this afternoon, and then I hit on it. I would make a totem--a way to commit to my creativity and make it a partner on my journey. It seemed like the perfect way to start. And I’ve been so inspired by all of your gorgeous collages and art that I suppose that’s where the seed drifted in. Surprised by my childlike glee at my plan, I decided to stop at Michael’s on my way back from Starbucks Park. Now, one thing you should know about me, I Don’t Do visual art. Not for lack of desire. In college I took a photography class and was told my photos were too “verbal" and “literal", not paying enough attention to the pure visuals. I guess I like my photos to tell too much of a story. But, I reasoned, this totem would just be for me, and everything you all make looks so delicious, it would be fun to try.

A word about Madam lately. If anyone reading this thinks that babies are docile and cute until they become intransigent toddlers...well, Madam must be advanced in that regard. Gone is the baby who sat peacefully in her swing, chewing on her fists while I wrote out my morning pages. No, now she looks askance at my notebooks and shares me only grudgingly with the computer. It appears she sees them as rivals for my attention (and I suppose they are...sometimes inspiration strikes while she’s awake). It’s a bit like living with the world’s tiniest teenager. If she could walk, she would be stomping off to her room in tears and slamming the door at all sorts of moments. But she was peaceful enough, leaning back to watch the tree branches wave in the breeze, feeling the sun kiss her face. I thought I could chance it.

For some reason, I chose to leave Starbucks Park from a different direction--and passed an intriguing little shop. Now, I live in the suburbs, where almost every store is a chain and branded to within an inch of its life. This odd little store was an anomaly--individual, and clearly someone’s labor of love.

Madam and I entered the empty store, and I lit up to see all sorts of handmade objects and lovely, unusual jewelry. I thought, Surely I’ll be able to find a totem here...or at least something to use in the making of it!

The store clerk smiled warmly at us, the only customers in the store, and wandered over to coo and smile over Madam. Usually Madam is wonderful with strangers, but her Inner Teenager emerged and her little face crumbled as she let out the kind of wails that peel back my fingernails. I shot an apologetic glance at the clerk and wheeled us out of there pronto.

Madam continued to wail and I knew there would be no Michael’s for me this day. Maybe tomorrow.

Perhaps she wants to remain the only creativity totem in my life.

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Monday, March 06, 2006


So of course as soon I wrote my great big manifesto below, I started feeling embarrassed--thinking "Why would anyone read through ALL THAT babble?" and "Why am I sharing something that means so very much to me? What if they laugh? Should I edit it down? It's probably too long..."

Clearly I have a L O N G way to go...

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While I was working at Cool but Aimless job, they hired a new assistant to work in my department. I was asked to train him, explain the office rules, etc. As we started talking, something about this guy immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps it was his penchant for bragging, perhaps it was the way he cocked his head to the side and smiled at me condescendingly whenever I explained something he thought he already knew. When I took him to lunch, he asked me about other positions open around campus (yes, Cool but Aimless Job was at a university...heaven!). Curious, I thought. Didn’t they mention to him that we’re not allowed to look for another position for the first six months? I asked him if he’d been told, and he said, "Oh, yeah...but I’m not going to let that stop me. After’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.”

Ooh, how I hated that phrase (he would repeat it often during the short time he worked in our department). I told myself that it was because I despise cheerfully amoral bland business speak, and I do.

But it wasn’t just that.

I’ve always had an issue with needing permission, with obedience, with following the rules. From the time I was a little girl, I was searching the Universe for Signs...signs that I was on the right track, that I wasn’t doing it wrong, that I would thus be spared the embarrassment of everyone seeing me try and fail. For a long time, I got my Signs in the form of praise from my teachers--I was a very good student, and so obviously loved school that my teachers responded to my enthusiasm with effusive applause. Is there anything more wonderful than working through a task and then being acknowledged for it, having it read to the class, singled out? Not when you’re seven (and probably not when you’re seventy seven either). I learned that if you did things correctly, you got a gold star...and there was only one way to be right--to have someone else tell you that it was right.

Oh, sure, I’d get the occasional reprimand at home--for being "too emotional”, "too absent minded” and for having my "head always stuck between the pages of a book.” But, back then, intuitively I knew that this was the way I wanted and needed to be.

The problem was, I stopped knowing how to find pleasure in my work without a chorus of approval. How would I know it was any good unless someone told me? How would I know I should continue without a Sign?

As I got older, unfortunately, the Signs became fewer and farther between...or maybe I just became less adept at seeing them. I wanted so much to be discovered, rescued, to be anointed by Someone in the artistic mentor, a patron, a cheerleader. I suppose everyone wants this...but I needed it. So I searched...and found a lot of ambivalence. There was the college writing teacher who told me flat out, "I can’t tell you whether or not you have any talent at this.” (Which was probably true, but at the time I was devastated). There was the summer honors program I applied for and didn’t get into (I took that Sign into, oh, last week or so). There was the occasional, "You’re not bad at this.” But I never managed to take those as Signs. No, a sign was now a warning from the universe, to make sure I ceased being troublesome, and settle down like a good girl.

But I still needed someone to tell me what to do...anything to avoid embarrassment (I am one of those people who needs to change the channel during Three’s Company, so strongly do I feel that gut twisting cringing before people get laughed at). I learned to divide the world into "Me” and "Not Me”...and of course "Not Me” was absolutely everything I wanted to be. I got it into my head that if something was natural, the world would sing and dance for you. Trumpets would blare from on high, and it would never feel like work, never feel awkward, would always feel effortless, instinctual.

You can imagine how often this happened.

So I stuffed my unruly desires away, staring with envy at the people who seemed entitled to everything--the people I went to school with who were brilliant and creative and never, ever struggled. People like John Updike, Joan Didion, Anne Rice, Joseph Campbell, Oprah, people I went to school with, people who were bohemian--a much longer list than this one.
Basically anyone who was, you know...Not Me. You may have one of these lists may even be on mine.

And I continued this trend through my time at Big Publishing House--surrounded by confident, self assured people who had apparently read everything, seen every movie, traveled everywhere, and gone to every museum, art house, library--I withered, shrunk away, waited to be sent home with my low brow, television-watching, uneducated self. Never mind that I had gone to school with many of these types. Never mind that I had been hired over so many others. Obviously, there had been some mistake--this was HARD, grueling, in fact. Embarrassing when I had an opinion in an editorial meeting which was met with...silence and what seemed to be barely restrained sighs of disapproval. Definitely not natural. Definitely Not Me.

And the Entitled Ones continued doing exactly as they pleased...dancing, arguing, passionately reading, discovering, creating. And I watched them...trying in vain to see what made them special--what was I missing? I read many, many self help books for clues, for instructions, but what I was really looking for was a trumpet blare, "yes you should be an is your DESTINY!” I so wanted to have a destiny, like all of my favorite characters in my books. I wanted to DO SOMETHING with all of these vague longings, with this freeflowing passion that I was scared to act upon.

But of course, none of the authors in these books knew my name. So I took the opposite until something didn’t match up with me. That usually happened a lot faster--probably because I was looking to have my opinions confirmed. After everyone in my family said, people just can't change. If something is meant to be, it just happens. (And what a destructive belief THAT was!). So I tried to resign myself to my fate--I wasn’t meant to be an artist; that was for the Entitled Ones. I wasn’t meant to live a dream, follow my bliss, discover and hone a talent. Nope, not me.

Meanwhile, a pressure built and grew inside of me, one I tried to ignore until it crystallized into a single diamond question.

Why not?

At first I took the question literally, searching still more books to try and find everything that was wrong. At various times, I've felt I was the wrong gender, or the wrong age, or the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong social class, or fell on the wrong side of the Bell Curve. But...I still didn’t feel like I had found the answer to my insistent question. Why couldn’t I do the things I wanted to do, take the risks I wanted to take, just go ahead and get sloppy get naked fall in love?

And this weekend it just hit me. The only difference between them and me is that, well, they DID it. That was it. They were entitled to do it because they CHOSE to be, or maybe they just didn’t know any other way to be. They chose not to edit themselves, to freely imitate others they admired, to look foolish, to fail, to fall and fall again. Dimly, in memory, I saw that these people were occasionally laughed at, seen as excessively theatrical or moody or just too, too. But in their imperfections, I found them perfect. They concentrated on the object of their desires, instead of whether they should have thought of it themselves, or whether people would laugh or be scornful or cross the street when they walked by.

They give themselves permission.

And I’m starting to...thanks in large part to all of the wonderful artists I see online, struggling, dreaming, choosing, pondering, stumbling, but always, always creating. still feels awkward, and occasionally grueling, and not at all meant to be. There aren't any trumpets (yet). I’m probably still too intense, too emotional, too idealistic, too lazy, too undisciplined, too flowery with my language, too uneducated, too dumb.

But I’m still going to do it. I’ve decided to give myself a Sign. I’ve decided to give myself permission.

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Friday, March 03, 2006


The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. –Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I fear I have a lot more to fear than fear itself.

I fear how much I want to speak out, and be seen.

I fear that no one will want to listen, or see.

I fear that you wouldn’t like me, if you knew me.

I fear that I wouldn’t like me, if I knew me.

I fear that Madam is the only baby in the world that doesn’t need to sleep.

I fear that this will cause a backlog of headaches, which will finally cause my head to explode and spew gore all over our generic apartment white walls.

This place could use some color.

I fear that with sleep deprivation, a sense of humor is the first thing to go.

I fear that one morning I'll wake up and find TEG merged with his computer.

I fear that it wouldn't make much of a difference in my life.

I fear that makes me a bad wife/mom/role model.

I fear that I do look fat in those new pants, and everyone is just too kind to tell me.

I fear that I prefer not to know.

I fear that I am over the hill or possibly under the hill.

I fear that I missed the hill entirely.

I fear that I will never find my great, good place.

I fear that this is as good as it gets.

I fear that I’ve used up my life allotment of words, rendering me mute at 32.

I fear that I've wasted them all.

I fear that I am only trying to impress you.

I fear that I will fail.

I fear that I am inappropriate.

OK, no I don’t.

I fear that I’m exactly as smart as I think I am.

That one is not good either way.

I fear that I don’t have what it takes.

I fear that I don’t know what “it” is.

Perhaps I should get President Clinton to explain it to me.

I fear I might as well face it, I’m addicted to love.

I fear how much I need to open myself up.

I fear that it will never be the "right time."

I fear that it is already too late.

I fear that all I will do is fear.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Bohemia? Viva le Revolution?

I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked...Alan Ginsberg, Howl

Since having Madam, I’ve developed some crafty ways to satisfy the needs I once indulged in abundance pre-baby. One of my favorites is to browse to read excerpts of books that look interesting; in much the same way I used to peruse new books for hours at a bookstore. Add a cup of good Italian coffee (now brewed at home instead of at a cool coffeeshop) and it almost resembles that luxurious meander.

Today I ended up reading a few pages of a book called “American Scream: Alan Ginsberg’s Howl and the Rise of the Beat Generation.” Handing Madam a new toy to ensure her cooperation (read: buy her silence), I took a sip of my steaming coffee and eagerly began to read. I’ve always been fascinated by the Beats, Hippies, Romantics, Transcendentalists, Punks, Salon-ers..basically any form of Bohemia and counter culture. These people who made a life out of their arts and passions and questioning of authorities--these were my idols and the models I am still striving to find a way to emulate. But what is bohemia, really? Is it how you dress, what you make, where you live, an essential quality found in a certain type of person? There is a desperation to the questions, because bohemia is a long-bubbling obsession of mine, something that I've always seen sideways, to the left of me, to the right of me, north of me, south of me, but never where I am. I sat with these questions and kept reading.

One sentence caught my eye. “In the midst of unprecedented prosperity, American culture turned increasingly commercial, and writers turned increasingly to conformity.” Couldn’t the same be said about the way our society (and by “our” I mean Western, which is where I live and what I know best) is developing? And yet, the time period the author is discussing, the Fifties, also had a powerful cadre of artists, writers, and intellectuals questioning this new movement towards upholding and enforcing the status quo. The Beat Generation, and the hippie movement after them, was born out of a frustration with the hollow pleasures that a society devoted to “getting and spending” could provide. They wanted to issue a challenge to society--to shake it out of its small minded adherence to tradition-for-tradition’s sake and offer an authentic alternative. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, and often there were more questions than answers. But the desire was there--and the mainstream read and wrote and thought and talked about it even when they didn’t really agree or understand. Where is that willingness to question today? Has it be totally absorbed into the commercial culture? Is rebellion, a quest for a more authentic life merely another selling point?

I know my old industry, publishing, is part of the problem. Publishers used to see themselves as guardians of a long intellectual tradition, and while they always published fluff and fun and popular books, they saw those as secondary to the more serious, thoughtful works that would endure and redound to the publishing house’s credit. Now, unfortunately, publishing must kowtow to the monetary bottom line, and “give the people what they want” or more accurately, what will sell more, quicker, and be consumed and tossed away just as fast.

I look at the internet, at the phenomenon of blogging itself, and I see people who are searching for a way to communicate and find community in away that doesn’t involve buying allegiance to a group. the delicious abundance of generous creativity, inspiration, and thought growing online leading to something that will have a lasting change on society, or is it simply too much information inundating an already overwhelmed and exhausted culture? One thing that is very different from the Fifties, of course, is that there is no real “mainstream” culture anymore. Instead, we all drift into our own mini-mainstreams based on increasingly narrow interests--and make sure that all of our books, movies, CDs, and conversations feed back into this same loop. But what about large scale change? Is this still even possible...or desirable? Is the narrowcasting of our lives a triumph for us...or for marketers?

Basically, where are my bohemian dreamers today? Are they all online? (I’ve seen glimpses, thank goodness, but I’m greedy and need more.) Have the best minds of our generation become passive, complacent, and docile? Or are they working in isolation, waiting out this latest turn in Western culture in the underground, until they’ve got the numbers for a revolution?

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Today is Ash Wednesday. Even though I’m more of a “questioning” (as in not entirely pleased with the church’s policies, but not entirely lapsed either) Catholic, I always find myself drawn to church on certain days. There is something to be valued in living life in sacred time--the noisy fullness and glad heartedness of the Christmas season fades slowly into the desert time, the fallow time of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday asks us to make external whatever we are inside; to show it to the world. This is something I’ve always struggled with. When I was in grammar school, I used to make a game of it--sitting placidly in the knowledge that no one could see that I was a spy, or a princess, or a green fairy. No one could see inside my head, and my exterior gave no hint of what grew on the inside.

During the time I worked for Big Publishing House in NYC, I always scrubbed my ashes off surreptitiously, anxious to fit into the prevailing upper class, secular, intellectual culture at work. I told myself that it was no different from the games I played. But of course it was. That was fantasy, glorying in the amazing fact that my thoughts were my own and could riot untamed. This was shame, a negation.

Now that I am older, I want to be through with that shame. To be acknowledged as a spy, a princess, AND a green fairy (and many other things as well...). I want to be able to look in the mirror and really see myself--living above ground. I want to show myself, my ideas, to the world. No longer undercover. To wear my ashes.

And what of the ashes themselves? Ashes remind me of fire--remind me that I want to burn hot, burn be wholly used up by life and love and passion. And then I can be grateful to the ashes because some remnant always endures--memories and glimpses of old selves that can be seen slant as you sift through the ashes. Old situations caught in fingernail tears through time and unexpected moments.

And once you finish sifting and sorting, bearing witness to what still smolders and what is dead, be thankful that ashes can go back into the ground and make it fertile, and help you grow what you need.

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