The more you know…

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On the way to school today, my youngest son Miles read every single billboard and street sign, offering a commentary on each one. He talked and read non stop. He’s wrapping up his last week of the third grade, his first year attending “real” school. He was a late reader due in part of our massively unstructured version of homeschool and in part to his unwillingness to WANT to read. Reading lessons with him were like pulling teeth- for us both. For this reason when he began school this year it was with great trepidation for us both.

I’d warned his teacher that he’d be coming in below level. I set the bar low but she didn’t believe me. Entering third grade he could barely decipher the world around him. When she tested him the first time she called me to say that I’d called it right. She was surprised but she was kind about it, not shaming him, not shaming me. We’re fortunate to have gotten this amazing talented teacher on our first roll of the real school dice. Within one school year he was able to find that sweet spot of learning and then something clicked in him and suddenly he was reading.

His teacher gave me his Spring results this week, he clocked in at the 85th percentile. We high-fived each other. I thanked her for her hard work but she thanked Miles. “It was his work” she said and she was right about that. He worked hard for this, not even knowing what the world would look like once he could read. I hadn’t realized that for him, the goal felt strange and intangible, it was a goal he was not even sure he wanted, like being offered food that looks weird when you’re not hungry at all.

This morning after he read out all the street signs and billboards and before he jumped out of the car to run to line up for class I asked him, “Do you remember what it was like before you could read? It wasn’t that long ago.” He marveled at the question, saying that it was hard to remember. It felt to him as though he could always read. But he did remember how he felt; he remembered the jumble of foreign looking symbols all around him, he remembered the headaches that came from puzzling through them, he remembered the frustration and the anger and confusion. “The more I read, the more natural it is and there are WORDS everywhere. It’s amazing.”

I was struck by how often I take that for granted, that there are words everywhere and I can decipher them, be a part of the ongoing communication they offer and because of that I can enter into the larger world…and it is amazing.

 

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The answer to gun violence…

Yesterday a shooter opened fire at Seattle Pacific University, killing one and injuring several others. I sat forward in my chair when I read this because I have a number of friends who attend or teach at SPU. It was a strange feeling, two sides tugging at me; first about how unlikely it would be that someone I knew was involved and then the counter-thought of “well, you never know.”

We never do know.

Thankfully I discovered that my friends were safe. Consuming the information coming from my computer and television was about finding out this very thing. Are they safe? But I didn’t stop there. I kept consuming information that streamed out, long after I got what I needed. I was still hungry.

Or perhaps not.

There’s  a mindfulness aspect to eating. If I’m not careful I will sit and eat the food within arms reach without thinking. In restaurants I must move the bread basket far away from me to avoid it. Don’t even get me started on the “all you can eat” buffet. There’s a whole bounty of studies done on why we eat after we’re filled, after our body has what it needs on a physical level. We eat from boredom, out of fear, the loss of control, the specter of death. We are lonely and we are powerless and food is our savior and food is available. This fuel for our bodies can be our undoing. We eat until we feel nothing.

So I consumed the information and the pictures and the reports of eye witnesses. And I searched for articles on how and why it keeps happening because it seems as though it does just keep happening. Why universities? Why students? Why this university? Why these students?

Why?

We say that we do this in the name of change, in the name of reform and redemption but it’s ridiculous the amount of food set before us and the speed at which it is offered. When no good information comes quickly we are restless. We are angry. We are hungry.

Or perhaps not.

We think that this eating is about “doing” something, becoming more aware, solving the problem, knowing our place in the wide world, uncovering the mystery of “why.” But in that steady stream of meals eaten with no real regard for quality, nutrition or purpose we simply consume the information until we feel nothing.

The answer to gun violence will not come in the moments or the days after the tragedy from the banquet of information offered. It will not come out in steaming pans which sit under heat lamps ready for eager hands and mouths.  The answer to gun violence will come only when we experience the emptiness, when we sit in the grief of it. We forget our humanity if we rush from grief too soon. We forget what real hunger feels like, an aching inside, an emptiness, a weary body in need of fuel.

Perhaps we ought to back away from the table and just let that ache rise a while.

On endings and beginnings

The school year is crawling to a close. Finally.

Because of snow days this past winter, CPS extended the school year a full week and it’s evident. The kids are downright twitchy. It’s fascinating to watch in particular because it’s the first year all four of my children have been in “real” school.

We have our routine down to a science. We all know our way around our schedule now. We know our respective places in each of our environments. Summer time is when we move into some kind of weird lull, unstructured time, floating here biding our time until the new school year takes over. My kids can only see a week ahead right now. I am looking at September already because September is when college visits begin for my daughter, High School visit begin for my oldest son, a new school awaits my youngest boy and my middle son moves up to middle school.

We’re always in motion here, school years shifting, knowledge blooming, pants becoming suddenly too short, voices changing. There’s no standstill. I’m envious of my children and their short attention span, their short lens on the world.

As my children get older I find I’m in this “middle” place with parenting. When they were babies it was clear- keep them clean and safe and fed. Now, they take the reins on much of this and I’m tasked with that looking forward job. It’s no less exhausting.

I often wonder if people who have followed the more traditional approach to education (ie starting “real school” at pre school and continuing on til graduation) have it all figured out at this stage but I know that’s the trap of parenting- comparison and “if only.” It’s enough to make a parent crazy.

So today as I sit and savor the last 7 days of our lingering routine I commit to pull back from comparison, pull back from future thinking, pull back from the fear of an unstructured summertime looming. Today I’m going to be here now…at least until the second cup of coffee kicks in.

Lucky

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I’ve been unpacking all the boxes that have been in storage for the last few months. After the basement flooded last October we wrestled with contractors and insurance folks until finally March rolled around and this time carpenters flooded my house instead of water. They tore everything out and then built it back up again, better than it was before to be honest. It was all Bionic Man over here. Now the previously finished, then flooded basement is again finished and it’s lovely, I’ll tell you.

The unpacking is happening now.

This past weekend I sorted through the books and the plastic guns and the random things that lived in drawers in that basement before the flood and then in boxes while the repair happened. I was given some advice that I ought to throw out anything I didn’t miss in those 6 months it was all packed away in the storage locker and I considered that. I really did. I went into the unpacking with this in my head at least on some level but as I got into the boxes I found it hard to commit to let things go.

To keep myself motivated and maybe entertained I put some video music channel on the TV and I sifted through my stuff. I would paw through a box, thinking about letting go and dump it all back in. Unsure of why it was so hard to give things up. It was then that this live version of Jason Mraz in Hong Kong singing “Lucky” with a young singer named Gem came on the television. The audience was excited when she came on. They were enthusiastic when they recognized the song but they went crazy when in the second verse Jason Mraz shifted from English to Mandarin.

And that got me to thinking about language and about connection while I sorted through all the familiar things before me.

It was striking to see that connection played out right there in front of me on the television. I imagined then what it must be like to be standing there hearing a favorite artist singing a favorite song then suddenly being aware that he is speaking in the language of the land, the language I know the best. It was as though he reached through the crowd and grabbed hold of the listener saying, “I know you. I know who you are.”

We want to be known.

I thumbed through the many pages of kid art work I’ve kept, the receipts, the piles of photos and the dusty and abandoned scrapbooking gear. It takes a long time to pack and unpack and repurpose and redistribute stuff because I just have to put my hands on it. Here was the language of the land, here was the connection. We want to be known.

I watched Jason Mraz and that lovely Chinese singer and I felt lucky because I realized that all the stuff in these boxes told the story of me, the story of my children, the story of my marriage. This etched glass was from Dave’s mother. This book came to me through a friend. This pile of drawings came from Miles. This scrapbook, unfinished but optimistic shows photos of births and old houses and first steps. This box of old LPs, this set of plastic army soldiers, this box filled with board games, each was a treasure, each a story, a flood of memory, a roar of recognition.

Magic and Metal…

 

 

The “writing” vs “publishing” trap gets to me way too often.

Head on over to Ruminate Magazine’s blog to see just how much 🙂

 

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I wanted to write about that dollhouse but the words won’t come. I’m thinking too much today about the rejection notices I’ve gotten already this week. I’m consumed today not by the “magic” of writing but by the messy business end of this writer’s life. It could be that it’s on my mind because of the most recent failed submissions or the agent email saying he’ll “take a pass” on reading my work. But more likely it’s on my mind because I spent some time at a writer’s conference a few weeks ago.

 

At home with “Frost”

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It snowed again today. Again.

Hello March 22nd. Sorry, Spring…your brother Winter is a jerkface.

It’s appropriate then that a new connection sent me a quote by Robert Frost. Synchronicity, huh?

“What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home
in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper
poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe
anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative
values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength
and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may
expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.
You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.”

Dive into the warm water of metaphor, folks.

🙂

The problem with poetry…

Last week I was fortunate to have an essay I’d written picked up and published at Art House America’s blog. This week I had the opportunity to do a Q & A with poet, Scott Cairns for Image Journal’s Good Letters blog. This morning as I drove through the alley that takes me to and from the safety of my garage I saw the broken glass that littered the sidewalk just where that alley meets the road. There was another shooting last week here. It was at around 3am and it involved known gang members, as is usual for shootings in Logan Square.

It was after another such shooting a few months ago that I wrote the essay that was picked up by Art House America. This one was a few blocks away. The scattered safety glass glimmered on the blacktop and spilled onto the sidewalk. After the driver was shot the car must have hit a bordering tree. Police tape flapped in the wind and I thought, does poetry matter here?

I went home a little shaken, not because of the shooting but because of the idea that perhaps my love of poetry was frivolous, extraneous and maybe even elitist. I have the luxury of reading poetry. I have had the privilege of studying it, of writing it, of discussing it with smart people in many beautiful places. But here, in the broken glass and police line tape, does poetry matter here?

The essay for Art House served to assure me that poetry was more than frivolous for me, it has been life blood in all of the difficult times in my life. My family, though smart folks, were not intellectuals. We did not sit around reading for fun. We did not discuss or debate literature or poetry. We were as ordinary and maybe a little more troubled than most of our neighbors but my parents valued higher education and pushed for it. They instilled the idea in my siblings and myself that going to college was an honor and a necessity in a time when going to college was not a certainty for most kids of my generation. I had to work hard to make it to college. I had to work hard to pay for it. I had to work hard to keep my grades up and keep my meager scholarship and aid money.

But unlike the kids in my neighborhood, I did not have to worry whether I’d live long enough to do any of those things.

Sometimes I think about being able to have a short talk with the gangbanger boys I see in my neighborhood. I don’t see them as dangerous or degenerate. They are all someone’s son. Many of them are the ages of my own children. I consider asking if poetry matters to them. I want to ask about their hopes and dreams, about their family lives. I want to ask them to write a poem, to imagine this poem would be read someday far in the future by anthropologists and literature professors and young people who want to know about life in this time, in this place. What would they say, I wonder.

And I just want to understand, not so that I can fix it, because when my white savior instincts kick in (and they do) I try hard to remember that these kids are not a problem to be fixed. They are someone’s son. I don’t have the solve them so that I feel safer in my neighborhood or so that I feel better about my own worth. I want to understand so that I can avoid being part of the problem.

While I will profess my undying love of poetry to all who will listen (obviously) in moments like this, the day after another shooting, another loss of life, it is sometimes difficult to know that poetry matters here, where the alley meets the road.

friends…

Essayists, like poets, are born and not made, and for one worth remembering, the world is confronted with a hundred not worth reading. Your true essayist is, in a literary sense, the friend of everybody.

William Ernest Henley

I can’t say for sure that I was born an essayist yet I sincerely hope one day to be one worth remembering. In any case, I like this idea of being the friend of everybody. That resonates. So, hello friends. Happy monday.

The Lemon Tree…

I make no secret of my habitual killing of all manner of plant. This winter alone I managed to kill most everything that grew in happy abundance last spring, summer and fall on my decks. It was an embarrassment of fecundity last year. I tried to winter a few things inside but the house has little to no direct sunlight spots and one at a time they fell to the dry air, the lack of light, the forgetfulness of their caretaker where water is concerned.

This one plant still has some life in it and for that I’m thankful.

photoFor a short while it lived on the windowsill in our living room, then the floor close to the back door. The leaves dropped off one at a time, turning yellow then falling pitifully to the muddy soil below at the base. The long, stick-like stalk shows evidence of past lives, potential for the fruitfulness I hope it lives to see.

It’s been a rough road, I’ll tell you.

The lemon tree began as a grocery store lemon I had purchased and forgotten about. When the lemon had finally dried up too much even to slice and put into water for some festive but unlikely Martha Stewart moment, I rescued the seeds. I dried them on a paper napkin on my countertop, half thinking I’d try to grow it, mostly thinking I’d throw it out by the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month.

After a time, I tossed it into a small paper cup with a bit of soil, stolen from a plant that no longer needed it, a plant that had moved on to a “better place” we imagine. When the first shoot poked through the soil I considered that it was a losing proposition. Even if I managed to keep it alive it was likely it would not survive the swings in temperature in Chicago. Even if it grows to maturity it’s likely it won’t bear fruit. Most grocery store produce has had that bred out of it already. Who grows a lemon tree from a seed in Chicago? Who’d want to?

The picture above is the culmination of almost 2 years of fighting the elements and the odds and my own brown thumb and yet here it is. It feels triumphant and terrifying too. When at last this winter all but one leaf had taken a powder my husband scratched his head as I watered the poor creature day in and day out. He shrugged his shoulders when I placed it in the bathroom near the glass block window. I knew it would be warm there all day, stream in as much light as possible in the house and perhaps soak in the moisture from the room when I forgot to water it.

This, the last ditch effort, pulled me a long a little at a time. I was unable to give up on my lemon tree, on this bare stalk with only a little life left in it. Then, last week, a shoot sprung out from the side. It was only a nub of a thing but it was new and I spoke to it softly, “well, what about this?” I spoke soft words of encouragement and wonder. I held back still, not placing too much pressure on the tiny, struggling plant. “Do what you can…take your time.”

And it did. The nub shot out, reaching tiny leaf fingers to either side, feathered fingers from fists, palms opening wide. And every day I look to see more growth, more hope, more life. And every day I dare to consider that maybe there will be more, maybe there will be a tree taking the place of that struggling stalk, until then I will speak softly and offer water and hope and room to grow.

Why I hate Valentine’s Day…

“What do you think Dad will get for you for Valentine’s Day?” Miles asks.
“Um, nothing?” I respond,
He puts on a shocked expression, over the top and dramatic, which fits him perfectly.
“Why not?”
I shrug.
“We just don’t do that.”
He shakes his head and wanders into the next room.
“I don’t understand you guys at all.”

I never have cared much for Valentine’s Day. I’m also grumpy about the traditional Mother’s Day and maybe even a little about Father’s Day, Sweetest Day and St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not grumpy about all the holidays, only the holidays that bring with them outside pressure to have fun and romance or deep meaning. Ok, maybe I am grumpy about most holidays.

It may be my non conformist talking here but I don’t need any more pressure to feel something at a certain moment. It’s the “you’re not the boss of me” attitude coming out. I’m a burgeoning curmudgeon. What can I say?

When faced with Valentine’s Day this year I realized that for the first time ever I would be responsible to providing treats for about 90 kids. My boys are all in “real” school for the first time in their lives and each swim in a sea of about 30 kids day in and day out. Two of the classrooms allow candy with the Valentines and one allows only paper and cheap crap that will gather dust under my kid’s bed if it’s lucky enough to make it into the house at all after school.

I’ve had this obligation on my mind for at least a month and each time it has come to mind I’ve gently wrestled it back behind that door marked “procrastination.” A few times I’ve polled the boys with questions like, “what kind of Valentines do you want for your class?” They roll their eyes, unfamiliar with this practice, certain that it would be vastly “uncool” to bring Valentines but I know better. I know, from my own school experience, the feeling of sitting in my seat, brown bag in hand, waiting for the Valentines to be passed out, waiting and counting. This is back before teachers started requiring Valentines to be handed out to ALL the kids in a class so no one would feel left out. Back in my day, being left out was sometimes the point. The memory of it drags a deep and lasting dread over me. It was never a good experience.

The memory of sitting in my seat and waiting dregs up another bad memory- 7th grade and my “secret admirer” who I thought might be the boy I had crushed on that year. I was just discovering myself, discovering how I moved in my introverted skin, how I felt about the other people around me, mainly about the boys in the class. I was noticing who was “cute” and who was “mean” and usually those two qualities paired up. Why is that, I wonder?

My “secret admirer” sent me notes and I read them behind a bookcase in Mrs Conrad’s class.  My “secret admirer” said the best things at the right moments and promised a surprise on Valentine’s Day. He said to look on the bookshelves that afternoon at recess and I looked forward to it for a week. On the appointed day at the appointed time I stayed in at recess, presumably to do some extra credit work, I made my way through the empty classroom to the bookshelves and I found the special Valentine, it was a book sized box, wrapped in Valentine’s paper; hearts and bears and cupids, oh my.

I tore into the package, unaware at that moment there were 2 or 3 boys standing behind the next shelf over, waiting to see my reaction to what would end up being a gag gift- valentine bikini underwear.

Seriously. I lived out that tired, angsty pre teen movie scene where the geeky, awkward girl is duped once again. It’s no wonder I still root for Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” when that pig blood comes down at prom.

Still, I wanted to give this classroom Valentine’s thing a new spin, perhaps redeeming it for the boys and maybe for myself. I considered carefully which Valentines they might like as I finally stood in the aisle of the Walgreens the night before the big day. Leaving it to the last minute worked against me, obviously. We were left with Batman and Hello Kitty. For the non candy classroom we went with Batman valentines which included a crappy eraser that would most likely serve no real purpose. For the candy oriented classes, M&M mini bags with a Valentine theme. It was a half-hearted attempt on my part. No pun intended.

half hearted valentines attempts

I prodded them to write their name on each one, not even requiring they write the names of classmates. I shoved them into the backpacks and reminded the boys to pass them out at the appointed time, regretting the lack of prep as I saw posts by other parents in Facebook and Instagram about their contributions to what most people consider a fun day. I felt that holiday Grinch sigh contentedly, slapping his hands together with a “job well done” kind of satisfaction. For a brief moment I considered making a trip to the store, adding something weighty to the boys offering and dropping it at their schools.

“Am I ruining this holiday for them?” I thought to myself. How long will I hold on to this old grudge against Valentine’s day, brought on by a bunch of pre teen idiots over 35 years ago? Maybe I am getting this wrong after all.

Then, I found a note from Miles on my phone. He’d asked earlier that morning if he could write me a Valentine’s note on my phone. I handed it to him in the car saying, “Yeah, I could use a Valentine I guess, thanks!” I sat in my car thinking about the meager Valentines I’d sent with the boys, thinking about the lost opportunity to teach something deeper and better, thinking about those 7th grade boys who pranked me at such a tender time in my life, thinking about the aisles of hearts and chocolate and Batman valentines and I read Miles’ note, hoping for some redemption, some shift of my curmudgeon-y course, some change of heart-

“Happy Vaelintines Day! Buy Miles a zombie sundae from Margies Candys!”

And I was strangely calmed then for reasons I cannot truly articulate. We don’t always get what we expect at the moment we need it, but sometimes we do get just what we need and right then I needed to be reminded that I’m not 12 anymore. I’m not standing at the bookshelf waiting for a note that was never written. This is my life, these are my people and my people like ice cream. I’ll take it.

Never change, Miles.
Never change.