A Little Journal Entry on Homework, Blues, and Gratitude

emma 16Back in the day, when I was reading every book I could find on infertility and adoption and…well, babies, I came across a story (somewhere in there) about a new mother — thanks to in vitro or some other modern miracle — with a cranky baby. Her friend comes to visit, and the baby is howling. The new mommy, at her wit’s end, says, “I know, I know, I asked for this.” And her friend says, “Honey, you begged for it.”

My daughters are no longer babies, but the last few months — with all three living at home — have somehow managed to remind me of the intensity and difficulty of having infants and toddlers and preschoolers underfoot. This summer, as much as I ever yearned to have children, I have yearned for them to grow up and move on. 

A lot of this feeling stems from Em’s summer on-line classes. “I can’t work at home,” she tells me. “I hate the library.” What she likes to do is to go to a coffee place and drink iced black-tea lemonades or fancy coffee drinks that look like milkshakes. But sitting at Tully’s or Starbuck’s, I can usually get her to focus for an hour or two…or more. Bit-by-bit she has worked all the way through an algebra class and part way through U.S. History. Wish us luck in getting through to the final exams (in both classes) by Sept. 6.

It’s so easy to complain about our lives, about diapers and crying babies and laundry and homework and housework and even book deadlines. But the other day, while supposedly working on a class, Emma wanted to talk about the Mukilteo shooting. I listened to her as she reported on all that she and her friends have been processing, and what she has been told about the funerals. She concluded with something one of the fathers said: “I was supposed to be driving him to college. Instead, I’m attending his funeral.” And, looking old and wise, gravely shaking her head, she went back to work.

That was all it took to flip my blues off and the gratitude on. All the petty drama we’ve gone through in the last few months — the clutter and sugar and road trips for family stuff and the mess (which I am always complaining about) — is so worth it, with all three of my daughters. They have big hearts and they are fiercely independent in spirit, if not quite out of my house yet. Someday (I truly believe) they really will be grown up and ensconced in their own lives. And I will miss the hell out of them.

Meanwhile, I’m so thankful that I get to hang out with this kid. It’s been a great way to spend my time this summer.








Rethinking Regret

regretsLast night I couldn’t sleep. This morning, I was thumbing through a notebook, from 2004, and I found this poem by Elaine Sexton. I had copied it out without noting where I found it. On-line, I learned that it was first published in American Poetry Review.

Rethinking Regret

Let’s thank our mistakes, let’s bless them
for their humanity, their terribly weak chins.
We should offer them our gratitude and admiration
for giving us our clefts and scarring us with
embarrassment, the hot flash of confession.
Thank you, transgressions! for making us so right
in our imperfections. Less flawed, we might have
turned away, feeling too fit, our desires looking
for better directions. Without them we might have
passed the place where one of us stood, watching
someone else walk away, and followed them,
while our perfect mistake walked straight towards us,
walked right into our cluttered, ordered lives
that could have been asleep, but instead
stayed up, all night, forgetting the pill,
the good book, the necessary eight hours,
and lay there — in the middle of the bed —
keeping the heart awake — open and stunned,
stunning. How unhappy perfection must be
over there on the shelf without a crack, without
this critical break — this falling — this sudden, thrilling draft.

To hear Elaine Sexton read this poem aloud, follow this link.

Crazy Brave

This past week a friend of mine invited me to go to Portland and write poetry. My mother was stable, my kiddo was home from camp and getting caught up on her on-line classes. My husband would have to do without me for only three days and two nights. We were staying at my friend’s daughter’s apartment (she was in Iceland!), so there was no cost other than a couple of meals out (and a trip to Powell’s Books, of course). How could I say no?

image borrowed from bryanpattersonfaithworks.wordpress.com

Because it was 90-95 degrees in Portland, and I don’t do well in heat, I woke one morning with a migraine. Once I’d recovered, I decided to take a short walk, got lost, and walked two miles. But I proved surprisingly resilient. Even without the right meds in my bag, I recovered. I went to movies (ah, air conditioning!), and enjoyed wonderful meals. I drank lots of water. I took naps. I wrote and wrote and wrote. My friend and I took breaks to read to each other, our own work, and poems by favorite poets. I bought Joy Harjo’s memoir, Crazy Brave, and read the first 50 pages in no time flat.

My life has been about 1000 times easier than Joy Harjo’s, but I’d like to claim that it was a little brave of me to drop everything and go to Portland. I know for certain that writing is brave, if it’s any good, if it’s true. (Joy Harjo’s poetry is crazy brave.)

One theme of my new poetry manuscript is loss, and life keeps very happily offering me examples to draw from. A good friend has gone through so much loss this year that it looks as though she’s cutting loose from everything familiar — from God, from me, from all that she can’t seem to help feeling betrayed by. I tried this week to write about her, about my complex feelings, my huge longing to do something about this situation. My inept attempts to do anything effective.

Another book I was reading — not coincidentally to everything else I’ve been thinking about — is Rita Dove’s Mother Love, a retelling of the story of Demeter and Persephone. I thought a lot about my friend, but also about my mother and me, and my daughters. For my postcards, I wrote some very short poems in a Demeter voice. I’m not sure they were very good, but I mailed them anyway (which was sort of brave). In my journal I wrote questions.

  • What is it exactly that I’m afraid to do?
  • What is feeding my fears and how do I stop feeding them?
  • What small acts would move in the opposite direction of fear?
  • What might I do now that would feel just a little brave?
  • What would be crazy brave?



To Be Kind

A friend was confiding in me about a situation in her life that deeply upsets her. She is a poet — a genius of a poet — so, while I tried to be a good listener and not jump in with personal advice, I asked her if she’s tried writing about it. “Not yet,” she said, “but maybe I should.”

I’ve been avoiding writing about something that deeply upsets me. So here it is.

I know I’m not alone in feeling dismayed — horrified, traumatized, gutted — by the gun violence we’ve witnessed this summer. Two weeks ago, the violence reached into our suburban community, when four teenagers at a Mukilteo party were shot, and three of them instantly killed. Like the other kids, the shooter was a graduate of our local high school, where my daughters attended, and attend. The girl, a nursing student, the former girlfriend of the shooter, had been a choir student, like my daughters. I’m not sure I know how to write about this…what the parents of these children are going through is a nightmare too great to even attempt to imagine.

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The novelist Henry James said that there are three things that are important in life. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

When I hear of someone responding to a shooting by joining the NRA, when I hear about the makers of the AR-15 used in this crime donating money to NRA lobbyists, I worry about us and our future. I worry myself sick about my daughters and their friends. I try to imagine what I can do.

I can be kind. And I can write.


image borrowed from http://www.borealforest.org

This morning I picked up Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems and read for a long time before settling on this one:


A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

The title makes this poem what it is. (Imagine it as “Not Making Love,” or “Jilted.”)

After writing out the poem in my journal, and contemplating today’s postcard, titled “Yawning River Otter,” I struggled with how to write what I wanted to write. If otters yawn, my thoughts ran, why don’t they laugh? And if that’s simply my rampant anthropomorphism, it was followed by wondering why an otter might laugh. Maybe he laughs at the silly man staring from nearby reeds and making the weird clicking noises with that box, or because the world is joyous, or because laughing keeps him from crying.

The idea of how we (humans, not river otters) so often laugh to keep from crying, kept resurfacing in my draft of today’s poem, but I couldn’t make it fit. Then, I remembered that I had the title, too, to write.

Poetry Postcards

rainer-cover-reidOne of the strategies I use during the August Poetry Postcard Fest is to write out favorite poems of about that length by other poets. Despite having read and loved short forms — such as Haiku and Tanka — for many years, I still find it amazing that someone can pack so much into only a dozen or so lines.

So here is a poem from Sharon Olds, from her 1983 book, The Dead and the Living:

The Winter After Your Death
(for Katie Sheldon Brennan)

The long bands of mellow light
across the snow
narrow slowly.
The sun closes her gold fan
and nothing is left but black and white —
the quick steam of my breath, the dead
accurate shapes of the weeds, still, as if
pressed in an album.
Deep in my body my green heart
turns, and thinks of you. Deep in the
pond, under the thick trap
door of ice, the water moves,
the carp hangs like a sun, its scarlet
heart visible in its side.

Sonnet length, but with shorter, irregular lines, this poem accomplishes a great deal. We might notice the sounds of the opening lines, long bands of mellow light, where the n’s get us started and then the l’s fall into place. The o sounds of mellow, snow, narrow, and slowly, and then closes in the next sentence, raise a kind of expectation that sound is important here. If the lines are setting a visual scene, there is also a kind of hush created by these sounds.

If we abstract the moves this poem makes, we’ll notice that the first sentence draws simply and naturally from what is present, a description. It’s a move any one of us can make, just by looking up from the page. Just by looking. (In my writing cabin — a lamp, a ceramic bird with a candle in its belly, cracked coffee cups full of old pens.)

The next sentence shifts into metaphor. The sun is a person, a woman with a gold fan, which she closes now, and then the woman behind the poem is present too, the quick steam of my breath. We get another image, this time a simile, the weeds as if pressed in an album.

And then the images are repeated. Heart is introduced with the poet’s (or persona’s — the supposed person’s) green heart, and the carp’s heart. The sun (and notice how its gold chimes with the other colors in the poem, especially of the carp itself).

If we go back to the title, we can notice how much work it does, as well — “The Winter After Your Death” is a kind of idea or engine behind the poem, but it never has to be stated within the poem, because it’s in the title, expository, not quite necessary to the poem’s effect, but ancillary to it. What I love about this poem, finally, is how it paints a vivid image, like a postcard, and hangs on in my mind’s eye.