Postcards

I have a room in my house set aside for creative projects. It used to be the bedroom of a child who can’t live here any more. I think I thought that making it a generative space would be healing in some way. That hasn’t quite been the case.

My words have dried up. I am interested in images, but I spend more time looking at others’ than making my own. I’ve thought often of Ira Glass’s words about how creative beginners have to struggle through a (usually long) period of producing stuff that doesn’t live up to our vision for it. He thinks we’re driven by a desire to create works that match our good taste, and that we have to understand that our work won’t, at least initially.

My grandmother is 100 years old. I send her a handmade card every week. Originally, I thought I would scan or photograph each one before I sent it–so I’d have some record of them–but I haven’t. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When I visit her, I see all of them in a stack on her kitchen counter. I guess I will get them back eventually, probably sooner than I would like.

Whenever I get them it will be sooner than I would like.

A blogging friend writes about taking photos to help her see the beauty in everyday life. I like this idea. My photos aren’t particularly great, don’t capture what I see–but they are enough to remind me of what I was doing and how I felt when I saw.

Maybe when I can no longer stroll through a farmers’ food coop in Chimacum, WA with my mother, a photo from a June morning in 2017 will remind me of how I felt and what I had when I once did. That will be good enough reason for its existence.

My grandmother knit sweaters when she was younger. She used gorgeous, high-quality yarns. Wool, not the cheap synthetic stuff. She taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, but I’ve never made anything more than cotton dishcloths. When I was in college, I wrote a poem about her knitting. I called it her art. She gave me her knitting needles when she was done with them.

I want to take the time to muck around with images and words and paper and cloth and ink and yarn and thread, but I rarely do, other than when I make the weekly card. I cannot quiet the voice that says, Is this what you want to do with what remains of your “one wild and precious life”? And the one that says, “What are you going to do with your not-very-good art, anyway?” I don’t hear them when I’m making the cards. The images I make are not the point. My uncle tells me that the cards are a highlight of the week. He tells me this three times when I visit for an afternoon.

A Facebook friend I never really knew in high school posts his anguish one night over the death of a childhood friend, a musician who was once almost famous. Something about his words reflects like a mirror, and I write back. Later, he thanks me, and I respond that I know something of grief. Don’t all of us, once we reach a certain age? Doesn’t the exchange of words about that make us real friends?

When my son is leaving for Marine boot camp, I tell him that I will be cleaning up his room. “Just don’t make it, like, a sewing room or something,” he says. “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”

I want to say, “That’s not what cleaning your room is about. That’s not what it will ever be about.”

What I say is, “I already have a room for sewing.”

When I am done, the room is both his and not-his. I open the door every few days, wishing and not-wishing that I will see a tangle of blankets on the bed, dirty clothes on the floor, an empty chip bag on the nightstand. I don’t know why I keep opening it, but I do. Every time, it’s so damn clean. And empty.

It will never be my sewing room. I hope he knows that.

A friend I first met in a poetry workshop 32 years ago tells me to write whatever I want. He tells me not to worry about genre, or form, or making meaning for anyone else. He tells me to write–or not write–for myself, that it is time for me to do that now. He tells me it is OK if I’d rather grow flowers or make food than write. He tells me I don’t need to serve the world with my words. I don’t need to serve the world with anything. I have served enough, he says. His wife died last year. I worry about his heart, which is failing. Who will tell me these things if he’s not here to say them?

I go to lunch with my grandmother, my uncle, my parents, my brother. I look around the table, wondering when everyone got so old. I feel the engine of us shifting into a lower gear. I miss my grandma. I miss summertime lunches in her backyard, tuna salad on her homemade bread, iced tea in a sweating glass, bees buzzing among her flowers. I hate this Applebee’s, with its TV playing silently on the far wall, its too-big plates of pasta with gelatinous sauce, its air-conditioning that leaves all of us cold on a warm day.

On Saturday, a different writer friend posts on Facebook about how she misses writing. She says she is going to start telling stories again. On Sunday morning I am here, after making my weekly card, gathering the first of these words without worrying about genre or form or serving anyone else, in the former bedroom of the child who doesn’t live here any more. (I am tired of stumbling over what to call this room. What will it mean if I give it another name? Which stage of grief would that act represent–denial or acceptance?)

The world as we know it is ending, you know. No one’s going to save it. But here’s the thing: The world as we know it is always ending. Ira Glass tells us, “You’ve just gotta fight your way through,” and he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Being creative is not about persevering to make things of good taste or to achieve ambitions. It’s about staying in the gorgeous struggle–and living to tell.

 

You can’t go home again

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Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.

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I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.

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Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.

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Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.

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Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.

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Bits and bobs

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Oh, hey there. Long time no see. Whatchya been up to?

Me? You know…busy busy busy these days…

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I’ve only made it to half the sessions of my writing-about-hard-topics-with-humor class. Which means two. Yeah, that might not have been money so well spent after all, considering the per session cost. And that the response to my last piece was heavy on adjectives such as “hard,” “dark,” and “serious.” I believe the word “grim” might have been used. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be looking for places to let some light in.

Funny how a seemingly innocuous prompt–

“Two dollars doesn’t seem like much, unless…”

became a piece about income inequality and powerlessness and regret. (Except it wasn’t funny. At all.)

So, I guess I haven’t been busy going to my writing class. Or writing, with humor or anything else.

I think it’s because I’ve been really busy fighting all that’s wrong in the world on Facebook. (I know that sentence’s likely got a misplaced modifier, but it kinda works just the way it’s written.) Scrolling Facebook these days is like driving down a highway clogged with one horrific accident after another. I know that I should just look forward and keep moving (or stay home more–a lot more), but I can’t seem to stop myself from getting on the road and then fixating on the wreckage. I’m either staring in fascinated horror or actually stopping to try to do something–even though I have no useful skills to save anyone or anything and am really just adding to the carnage by getting in the way.

Unless, of course, I’m posting mindless things I think are funny, like this exchange between my son and me in the hours before the stormaggedon that never quite materialized here in the northwest last weekend.

Although sometimes I just post silly things like this exchange with my son.

Sometimes I get something positive out of my social media travels, though–like this piece by Magda Pescayne at AskMoxie–which helped me understand that what I’m feeling in response to this damn presidential election (and systemic racism and rape culture/misogyny and violence andandand…) is grief as much as anger and fear. (If you’re in the same place, take a minute to click on through. It’s got some great advice on how to get through the next few weeks. Not that I think everything is going to be all better when the election is finally over. In fact, I’m starting to fear that things will be worse.)

It’s not like I needed another thing to add to my List of Things I’m Grieving, but I guess there’s some comfort in recognizing that that’s what’s going on.

Speaking of grief, well…that’s the kind of thing that can just fill a person’s day right up, isn’t it? It takes so many minutes to talk yourself into getting out of bed, to wander aimlessly around the house from one unfinished task to another, to remember what it is you came for at the grocery store, to make and cancel the plans with friends you promised your therapist you’d reach out to, to make and cancel appointments with your therapist, to pick up take-out because grocery shopping used up all the energy you have, to fixate on the question of how one can distinguish between grief and depression and get online to Google it and get sidetracked by Facebook (which only exacerbates your grief/depression or whatever it is), to revise and revise and revise a blog post you’re never going to publish, to fight a series of migraines and other physical ailments, to put on a happy face so you won’t have to talk about any of the things that are making you sad/numb/angry/numb/hollow/numb.

But even though I’ve been so busy with those things, I have found time to pick up a needle again. I’ve decided that embroidery is my version of all those adult coloring books that are going to be on all the year-end lists of things that are this year’s equivalent of the pet rock.

A long while back I found a piece of fabric with finished edges that I bought because I wanted to embroider on it.

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Rather than embroider on it, though, I let it sit in various closets around our house. I think I didn’t let myself do anything with it because there is no practical reason for me to spend hours embellishing this piece of fabric. It won’t even serve any kind of decorative purpose, most likely, as the style and color scheme is unlike anything in the rest of our house.

But a weekend or so ago I picked it up because I was home alone and feeling really sick with migraine-med hangover and my grief/depression/whatever means I don’t have any house-related projects to do (because I no longer care much about doing things to make our house nicer) and because I just wanted to. I turned on an old movie and made a cup of tea and sat on the couch with the dogs and started “coloring.”

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This is not going to be an awesome work of original art. It may well end up spending more time in various closets when I’m done with it. But, when I am lying awake in bed and my mind is spinningspinningspinning about all the things that trouble me these days, I’ve started turning it to this canvas. I imagine what I might add to the tree’s white foliage. I wonder how I can make it look like the trunk has been yarn-bombed. I consider the kinds of stitches I might use to fill the leaves.

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Something about those middle-of-the-night wonderings calms my mind the way the actual work of it does in earlier hours of the day, and I’m usually able to get back to sleep.

That’s a good thing, I guess. At the very least, it keeps me from becoming another wreck for others to rubberneck at on their journey through this world.

So, yeah. That’s what’s new with me. How about you?

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I almost forgot. It’s puzzle season again.

 

Falling up

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Thursday might be the first day of official fall, but there was unofficial fall all over our weekend.

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It was long jeans and short boots and even a light jacket kind of weather. It was a trim the spent blooms from the garden and be glad there are still a few left kind of time.

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My girl was home (sort of) for half a week.

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She was flown home to attend the Pendleton Round-Up in her role as Rose Festival Queen. I’m so glad she had to come back for this. It’s almost as if her leaving cast a spell over the house, the kind you read about in fairy tales, and in the weeks since she left we’ve been sleep-living in suspended time–the way everyone is knocked out for years in Sleeping Beauty’s castle but when they wake up it’s as if they never stopped living.

Somehow, her coming back was like the Prince’s kiss that broke the spell and woke everyone. (OK, maybe not everyone. Maybe just me. I’m probably the only one who’s been creeping through fog.)

She noted in a text to me today that the day she flew back to school was exactly one month after the day she flew there in August. Maybe there’s some kind of magic in that.

Her visit home was at least a little bit enchanted. We were able to get ice cream at a (pretentious) Portland shop that is famous for its long lines, without waiting in line at all.

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Of course, it might be that we got lucky because it was pouring down rain. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

I still miss her like crazy, but I’m getting used to the new normal. The grieving isn’t so much a howling these days as it is a quiet voice that startles me at odd moments. It’s more hollow than full, more yearning than demanding. It’s a companion whose presence I can yield to.

It’s nice to feel the season changing, a turning toward a different state of being. We had that glorious rain this weekend, and I unwrapped a puzzle that’s been wrapped in plastic on the living room table since July. We made chicken soup. I haven’t done anything in my studio, but I begin a writing class this week. It will be good to be forced to exercise those muscles with some like-minded people.

It’s nice to be looking up again.

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This seems like a fitting view for these days. A moody mix of cloud and shadow and shots of color.

PS: You might notice that things look a bit different here. Messing with blog design is something I do when I’m feeling at odds with the blog. And blocked. I also revise the About page.

Lingering

“I’m sure the next the next chapter will be wonderful but I’m going to need to linger a bit on this one before I can turn the page.”
–message from a friend whose daughter left for college last weekend

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There is much I would like to be able to write about what I’ve learned in the past few weeks as I’ve been letting go of my daughter. It’s too close, though, and my feelings too raw, for me to begin sorting all the thinking I’ve been doing into a clear, coherent post.

I can offer this, though:

We don’t allow enough messiness in our culture. We want things–especially feelings–to be simple, clean, and neat, but living fully is not conducive to tidiness.

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This experience of sending my daughter 3,000 miles away into the beginning of her life apart from me–it is messy, and ragged, and complex. I am a big, hot, tangled mess of emotions these days:  elation, gratitude, sorrow, regret, longing, hope, relief, pride, joy, loneliness, love.

The day she left, these feelings knocked me to the floor–literally–but I keep reminding myself of the words I’ve offered to others in their grief:

The size of the pain is commensurate with the size of the love.

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If the size of my feelings is any indicator, well…my love for my child  is bigger than anything I’ve known. And what it’s been looking like lately, in concrete terms, is some mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime:

Picture me the day after she leaves, making myself go to the gym (because exercise makes us feel better! Right?) and feeling a dull, achey missing-her because the gym reminds me of all the yoga/pilates classes Grace took with me when she was working on an alternate PE credit and how I laughed and laughed at her half-assed poses and the way she went to bathroom every. single. time during the first pilates track.

If you were there you’d see me doing OK, holding it together despite my sadness, until the song about loving you for a thousand years comes on, and then there I am, losing it in child’s pose as I hear

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What’s standing in front of me

and I’m stuck there long after everyone else has transitioned to down dog because I don’t want anyone to see the tears dripping onto my smelly yoga matt while I tell myself to breathe, breathe, breathe.

Later, at home (after tearing up, again, in the produce section of the grocery store when I realize I won’t need to buy as many apples any more) I look up the lyrics to the whole song and watch the video (because the song’s chorus is now stuck on repeat in my head) and learn for the first time that the song is from a Twilight movie and it’s about Bella and Edward’s stupid vampire love–which, of course, lasts for 1,000 years because they never, ever die–and I think about how I got all torn up over a vampire love song (which could have ominous symbolism if I think too hard about it) and how Grace would roll her eyes at all of this and remind me of how awesome it was when my mother and I took her to a Twilight marathon that culminated in a midnight premiere at which 1,000 (or so) tween girls on Team Jacob squealed deliriously every time he took off his shirt (which he did about a thousand times).

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This is the kind of thing I’ve been keeping to myself not only because it’s strange and embarrassing, but also because in response to expressing the harder emotions I’ve been feeling–my sorrow, my fear, my regret–I have been given the message, more than once, with good intentions, I know, that I should be grateful, that I should feel good because it is time for this to happen, because my daughter has great opportunities, because her success means I’ve done a good job being her parent.

True, every word. I am, and I do. But.

It’s not helpful, and it feels like the world wants me to just move along, and I’M NOT READY TO.

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The raw, howling grief I felt in the first hours after her departure is waning–though it continues to flare unexpectedly–and while part of me is grateful for the relief, there is another part of me that wants to hold on to it, does not want to feel it subside, does not want to go gentle into any kind of parenting good night.

That deep, unreal, this-can’t-really-be-happening sorrow feels like shit, to be sure, but it also feels holy. It feels like a testament to having fully loved with every single part of my being. It feels like some kind of honoring of the deep bond I’ve shared with my daughter over more than 18 years.

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I get that we will still have a bond that transcends time and distance, but we are leaving behind the life that nurtured it. That bond did not live in the big, shiny, occasional moments we shared–the holiday dinners, the award ceremonies, the vacations and birthday parties and special treats. It grew over years of day-to-day, mundane, sometimes difficult, intimate moments that only those who live together experience.

And we won’t be doing that any more.

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Why would I easily let this kind of connection go? Why should we think that such a gift can or should be quickly and neatly packed up and put away?

Beth Berry, who writes the blog Revolution from Home, just wrote a beautiful post about resisting the messages to “bounce back” after giving birth. In it, she says:

The very notion that we are meant to change as little as possible, and even revert back to the women we were before we became mothers is not only unrealistic, but it’s an insult to women of all ages, demographics, shapes, and sizes. It makes a mockery of the powerful passage into one of the most essential roles a human can live into…

When my children arrived they completely altered the shape of my days–which altered the shape of my life. Their presence transformed every part of it. Why, then, wouldn’t their leaving do the same?

Why am I feeling ashamed to be so profoundly impacted by it, as if my inability to just be happy and move on means that I’m somehow weak or our relationship too close to be healthy? My children’s birth was a profound experience, and the one I’m having now–of letting go of what we’ve been, of entering into a new life that will reshape both of us, again–is profound, too. And profound experiences should not, I think, be rushed.

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So, like my friend, I am going to linger. I will not be bouncing back, and that is OK. It is OK to be the kind of mess I have been–just like it is fine to keep wearing maternity clothes in the weeks after giving birth and go days without showering and cry because  your baby’s fingernails are just so exquisite–because the whole thing is overwhelming and that’s all you can manage to do. It is OK because, just as it was during that first monumental transition, we are never going to be what we once were, but we are all going to be OK.

Just not right away. Like my friend, I need a bit more time before I can dive into the next chapter. I’m going to take it.

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Taking the long way home

Twenty-five summers ago, I lived in a sweet little house in a charming old southeast Portland neighborhood. It was the first house I owned, bought not long after I married and started my first teaching job.

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It was only a few blocks from a park where I walked every day with my dog, Billie. The previous winter we’d gone to the mall one Sunday morning to buy a Billie Holiday CD (remember those?), but the record store was closed. The pet store wasn’t. This was before I knew about puppy mills. Before I knew the first thing about taking care of another living being. Or about making commitments.

That summer, Billie and I went on many walks, traversing up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood’s tree-lined streets. I remember looking up into the trees, thinking that their branches looked like canopies. I wrote that into a poem I worked on later that fall, thinking that no one else had ever seen how trees looked like canopies. I didn’t know, then, that many people have seen canopies when looking up at trees that flank both sides of a street. These were so different from the trees of my childhood neighborhood, which was filled with Douglas fir and cedar. We had no sidewalks, nor any tree-lined streets. It didn’t occur to me that these new trees were common, or that my perception of them might be.

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I was lonely that summer. I had lived in that charming neighborhood less than a year, and in that city for less than two. I had spent most of those months working the long days of a first-year teacher. Although there were people at work I was friendly with, I hadn’t made any real friends, there or anywhere else.

My husband worked during the days and studied for the MCAT in the evenings. I spent my days walking the dog, working out to an aerobics TV show, sanding (probably lead-filled) paint from the woodwork of our 1920’s house (I didn’t know about lead-based paint then, either, even though I should have) while watching soap operas, planning dinner, and waiting for the hour or so I’d get his company when he came home. I made the uninsulated attic into the kind of private space I longed for as a teen-ager, not realizing that it would always be too hot up there in the summer and too cold in the winter, or that I didn’t need such a space because the whole house was my space. There was nothing I needed sanctuary from within its walls.

That husband–he was a smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle person who, like me, had no business getting married or adopting dogs. He was as good to me as any good person can be who is too young to get married. I was not as good to him. Or to myself.

Instead of facing the chasm within that my loneliness illuminated with blinding intensity, I ran away from it. I ran away from him, and our dog, and the house, and the neighborhood, and the park filled with geese that Billie loved to bark at. I ran away from all of it, too blind and scared to see that I had everything I’d ever wanted, right there:  a good person who loved me, a safe and cozy home, meaningful work, the promise of children with a man who would be a good father to them.

I didn’t know that many, many people had looked up into the same void and seen the same thing I’d seen, and given it the same wrong names I gave it.

*******

The weekend before last, Cane and I drove through my old neighborhood on our way to spend a late afternoon on the river. As I always do when driving through there, I felt nostalgic and wistful. The aftertaste of regret lingered at the back of my throat.

I thought of my house project, my recent fascination with small, working-class houses. My first husband and I bought that first house with the salaries of a first-year teacher and a lab tech. Although Cane and I both have equity in another home and advanced degrees and decades of work in our field, this neighborhood is out of our reach now, even if we could make our lives fit within its geographic boundaries. That is due as much to our respective (poor) life choices as to Portland’s gentrification, and we know the sting we feel is nothing compared to the pain of those whose communities are lost to them through the effects of systemic racism and other injustices. Still, it hurts.

As we drove through again on our way home, I thought about the home of a colleague I’d recently visited. Her lovely Portland house sits in an even more charming neighborhood, and it is filled with photos of her family. I could see how all of them have grown, together, through two decades or more. I imagined, briefly, the home and life I might have had if I’d faced my demons 25 years ago, if I hadn’t left that kind boy I married and we’d done the hard work of growing up together.

“I should never have left here,” I said to Cane as we drove back home. “I had everything I wanted, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have had your children,” he said.

“Oh, I know. I know. That’s what I always tell myself. But as my daughter reminds me whenever I say that’s why I’ll never regret marrying their dad, I probably would have had different children I love as much as I love them. I’d never have known them, so I wouldn’t have missed them.”

“You can’t know that,” he said. “You might not have been able to have any children at all.”

He is, of course, right. We can never really know where a different choice at a fork in our life’s road might have taken us. We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had. In mine, I somehow get to have the same children I have now.

“Well,” I said, reaching for the hand of the smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle man who loves me now and takes no offense when I suggest that perhaps I should be married to someone else, “I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, so I guess I need to just get over all that.” I squeezed his hand, hoping he knew I meant it, hoping my daughter knows that any life I might have had without her and her brother would have been a lesser one.

******

On one my friend Jill’s recent, always-wonderful weekly list of Something Good, I found this post by Austin Kleon, about bliss stations. In it, he writes:

“It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.”

Between events in the world around us and those in my own private world, I know more than I’d like to about being distracted and despondent. But what is a bliss station? Kleon, quoting Joseph Campbell, says that it is

“a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”

Kleon wonders if it is enough to have either a particular place or a particular time, and reading his words I realized that in this summer I have been lucky enough to have both:  Time almost every morning, and my own, dedicated creative space.

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Although I found solace in this space during the spring, over the weeks of this summer I have entered it only to iron clothes or drop off junk I didn’t want to take the time to find a real home for.

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I thought of another post by another friend, Shannon’s musings about how hard it can be to get started again after a creative dry spell.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I wanted for years:  time and space to create. I thought of all the times in my life I’ve been blind to what is in front of me, and how I don’t want to be that way any more.

I thought about how good it would be to spit the taste of regret out of my mouth.

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I went back to my old neighborhood, to take photos for my project. To take inventory. To confront my regrets. To see.

The old park, which once had a big, flat, grassy open field, swing sets, and a square, man-made pond, has been transformed into a natural wild space.

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I didn’t see any of the geese Billie used to chase, but a stream was home to delightful ducks.

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I walked the neighborhood sidewalks I used to walk with Billie, remembering the young woman I was 25 years ago. Trying to figure out how to forgive her.

I took photos of houses I might want to do something with.

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You can’t see the older woman sitting in a chair in front of the window, reading a book. But she’s there.

I left when I felt a migraine coming on. I went home and took a nap, grateful for the time and space to do that.

******

A few days later, I went into my creative space, wondering if I could cultivate bliss there. I pulled out my scraps of text about houses.

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I set aside a few that spoke to me, when I thought about my first house.

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I sketched it.

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That was enough for one day.

*****

I had coffee one morning with a friend who is also sending a child to college in a few weeks. The day my daughter flies out, she will be heading south with her husband and son in a car packed with the college supplies that have been accumulating on her dining room table all summer.

We compared notes on the unfortunate places we’ve been overcome by tears.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the detergent row at Target,” she said. “Another woman took a tissue from the box in her cart and gave it to me.”

We laughed.

“I’ve come to understand,” I said, “that as much as I’m crying about how I will miss her–and I will, terribly–I’m also crying over my own mortality.” She nodded. We struggled for words to capture what it is, exactly, we’re mourning.

“Their lives aren’t going to be about us any more.”

“It’s just gone so quickly. I’m not ready to let it go.”

“Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“And it’s too late now to do some things right.”

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*****

I saw my therapist.

“I don’t want to talk about how things are going,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about Cane or his daughter or my daughter leaving for college or what’s happening with my son. I want to stop dealing with the surface of things.”

“OK,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Here,” I said, handing her a book open to a poem. “I wrote this maybe 20 years ago.”

A Map to the Future

You try not to despise her.
You know it isn’t really fair:
What more could be expected
of one such as she,
growing in the twin shadows
of anger and expectation?

She was the kind of girl who ran
to the edges of cliffs and jumped,
just jumped–
not because she was daring
but because she didn’t know
there were cliffs and once there,
jumping seemed the only option.
She was that blind
to her own geography.

You walk away
when you sense her
wandering through the dark
valleys of memory, wish
she could be forever exiled.
You can’t help but regret
all that she lost or wasted,
and you can’t seem to forgive her
for what she never knew,
want only to put that floundering
child away from you, forever,

do not see that you must
carry her with you
if you are ever to climb
from your desperate canyons
and lie upon the grassy meadows
that frame those gaping holes.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I want to know how to do it,” I said.

*****

Last Saturday I returned to my bliss station again.

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That morning, my daughter found me there. As she settled into the corner chair, I stopped what I was doing. I sat on the floor, and we chatted for a good long time–about the election, and how different some things were when I was her age, and about college, and the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family, and the meaning of life, and what kind of life she wants to have.

“My therapist told me the other day that it takes three generations for a family to fully recover from addiction, abuse, trauma,” I told her. “But it gets better with each one.”

It was just the two of us home together all day. I vacuumed the floor of her room, which she (and sometimes I) have been cleaning out for the past two weeks. It is still filled with her clothes, her toiletries, her scent, but it is empty of the things that made it hers. I did cry some, alone in there, but not the way I did the morning I took all the bags of stuff she no longer wants to the thrift store–her cheerleading uniform, her many school spirit t-shirts, the vampire series books she devoured as a young teen, the photo display thingy she wanted when we re-did her room a few summers ago, the pottery she painted over the course of many trips to visit her grandparents.

“Do you think we’re ever going to paint pottery again?” I asked her as she put those things in the bag.

“If you pay,” she said, grinning. I kept two small pieces and let the rest go. She thought I was being silly to keep them, that I should let go of all of them. Thinking of the clay monster I made in third grade that resides, still, in my parents’ bedroom, I told her that it’s good to be silly sometimes.

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After vacuuming, I thought about doing more of the things on my never-done to-do list, but she wanted me to watch Gilmore Girls with her, so I did. Somewhere during the second episode, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any of those things that day. I was going to just be, with my girl, all day long.

We might not get this again before she leaves, I thought, just the two of us alone for the whole day.

We puttered around a bit before going out to get pedicures. We had dinner at our favorite noodle place. We came home and made popcorn and watched Legally Blonde, an old favorite of hers. She deconstructed the feminist messages she sees in it. She left before the movie ended, to accept a last-minute invitation from friends.

I watched the end of the movie by myself, feeling the emptiness of the house settle around me. I didn’t let myself shrug it off my shoulders. The weight of it was uncomfortable, but I could hold it.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I’ve wanted for years. I felt grateful that the woman I’ve become is  stronger than that girl I was 25 years ago. That I knew it wouldn’t be nighttime in an empty house forever–that the next morning I would wake up to a day filled with light and the return of people I love, where I could enter into a bliss station and begin this post and keep working on projects with eyes that are becoming increasingly clear.

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Poem ©2002 by Bellowing Ark Press.

 

 

Grief and creativity

This week’s ear worm song:

When I tell my therapist that I can’t talk about my daughter’s impending departure for college without crying, she says, “Of course. You’re grieving.”

Really?

“Grief” feels like too strong a word. I mean, c’mon. She’s not dying.

But last week, as the time left for her to live with us changed from the unit of month to week, I have found that I often can’t even think about it now without crying. Yesterday as we made breakfast, I had the thought that Cane should make his beignets, her favorite, before she goes, and I was so flooded with memories my body literally couldn’t contain them.

Time has taken on an almost tangible, viscous quality. I have no work-based entries to make into this creative notebook because, I am learning, creativity requires a kind of mental fluidity that’s beyond me right now. I feel suspended in some kind of thick, gelatinous reality that is not reality. Although time is moving, I am not, and it feels I won’t be able to until what’s going to come next is finally here.

It’s true:  No one’s dying. But something is–the life I’ve been living for more than 18 years. It might seem as if that statement’s not true; in that 18 years I’ve changed jobs and homes and life partners. Through all of that, though, my kids were the constant, the one thing I knew I’d never leave, the only thing I’ve ever remained wholly true to.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that when you have kids, your life stops being all about you. It becomes about them. You’re no longer the most important person in it.

Um, no.

It’s still all about you:  When you have kids, they have to go where you take them and do what you tell them to do.  They are woven into the fabric of your every day. They become your people, and you are theirs, and you are a family, a unit in the world.

Truth is, I didn’t feel my life really started until they came into it. Now, that life–with both of my children–that’s ending, and it’s happening less than a year after the end of the family life Cane and I tried to create.

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So, yeah:  I guess I’m grieving. And it’s kicking the stuffing out of my creative productivity.

Back in the spring, I finally “finished” the house project I’d been documenting here:

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This isn’t the final product, but it’s close enough. I did finish it by covering it with a glaze.

I’m not pleased with the final result. It’s too cute; I was trying to express something more serious than this image conveys. The book pages I used to make the house came from a chapter of a history text on the Industrial Revolution. It talked about the terrible housing conditions for the working poor in many cities, and how difficult it was for mothers, especially, to care for their children. The text for the tree came from a children’s book about animal habitats. When I started it, I had recently read a YA novel, The Hired Girl, in which the protagonist runs away from her abusive father and works as a maid for a wealthy family in the city. I wanted to create a piece that would provoke thought about need vs. want, resources, social class, and how we nurture our young (and don’t). The leaves around the edge make this too cutesy/cheery, and I don’t like them.

There are also some issues with my (lack of) skill. Part of the reason it looks too cute is that I don’t have the skill to execute the vision I had in my head.

As a learning piece, though, it’s fine. I learned some things doing this one that will serve me in the next. I’m ready to let it go and move on. Working on this piece, while simultaneously thinking lots of personal thoughts about housing, home, resources, needs, and privilege, has me interested in small (not tiny) houses, particularly those in what were once working-class neighborhoods. Portland (OR) is in the midst of a housing crisis. A deep history of racist housing policies and current gentrification are driving many out of Portland. (If you’re interested, this article recently published in The Atlantic is an important read.)

Although I’ve tried a few times to go into my studio and begin some new work, I haven’t gotten anywhere in there. The most I’ve been able to do is go on walks and take some pictures.  I’m posting them here so I have easy access to them:

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Great photography wasn’t my goal. I just snapped these with my phone. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. These are just interesting to me, and even though I don’t seem to be in a place to do anything much with them right now, I know that will change.

I’ve been doing creative work long enough now to know this is just the way of it. Sometimes, other things in our life use up our creative energy. Sometimes, those very things are the source material for future work. This might seem like a disjointed post–about grief and kids leaving home and…working class houses and gentrification and displacement?–but I know it’s all connected. Just as I know there will be future work.

It always comes back. There are so few enduring constants in any life, but this is one of them in mine.

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Careful what you wish for

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My parents live on Washington’s Olympic peninsula, and the journey from my house to theirs is framed by bridges. It is only after I leave Oregon by crossing the Columbia River on the I-205 bridge that I feel I’m really on the road, and it is only when I hit the peninsula’s Hood Canal Bridge (shown above) that I feel I’ve arrived.

When I’m crossing it, I can feel the thrumming inside me quiet. My body lightens and my breathing deepens. I am back in the landscape my life started from–home, in every sense of that word.

Every time, I wish that I could stop on that bridge and capture the water that surrounds it with my camera. But there’s no place to stop on the bridge. Once on it, you have to keep going.

Unless, of course, the bridge is up to let passing ships through. A few times, I’ve been stopped on the highway that approaches it. I’ve always found this to be a frustrating inconvenience, especially if it happens when we’re heading east to catch a ferry. Last Saturday, though, for the first time ever, I got stopped on the bridge.

At first, I muttered to myself and cursed the delay. I was on the way to a ferry. And, it felt unsettling to be stopped on the bridge:

What if one of the ships hits it?
What if an earthquake strikes?
I am trapped here, far from safe land.

Miraculously, though, for once I’d left with plenty of time to spare. It took only a moment for me to realize that this wasn’t an inconvenience or a deathtrap, but a gift. I was finally getting what I’d always wanted:  A chance to take photos from the bridge.

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This trip to my parents’, it was a bittersweet one. My parents moved to the peninsula after my children were born, and it was my first trip there without them. Ever.

For much of the week, I felt the ghost of visits past all around me. I saw and heard all the different versions of my children that I took to this place, the setting for some of our best memories.

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Saturday, I took off on my own to see an old friend–and that’s when I got stopped on the bridge.

Sitting in my car, waiting for the ships to clear, alone for the first time in days, I realized that for the past few months, I have been racing across a bridge from the life I used to live with Cane and the kids to a new one that is (from this distance) shrouded in fog. I’ve been spinning my wheels through the prospects of new jobs and new houses and new towns to live in, changing lanes over and over to position myself to be in the right one (whatever that is) when I exit the bridge. I have  wanted that next place to look and feel and be as different from the old one as possible, so that I won’t feel haunted by the ghosts of the people and times that have passed.

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That old friend I visited came into my life more than 30 years ago, when I was a student in a poetry workshop and he was an editor just starting a literary journal. He was the first publisher of my poetry, the one who told me that I had written a book before I knew it myself.

“If you could do anything with your life right now, what would it be?” he asked.

I looked around the park we were sitting in, thinking of all that’s happened in the past few years. Thinking of all I once wanted to do. Thinking of what’s now possible and what no longer is.

“I don’t know, ” I said. The truest words to come out of me in months.  Years, probably.

The truth is, I have never known. Watching my children taking their first steps into a life largely independent of mine, I can look back at myself at their age and see that I took off running and never stopped. College, job, marriage, house, kids–all the destinations I thought we all needed to arrive at. Sure, I took some major detours (hello, divorce), but even those were navigated at high speed, my way to outrun fear, discomfort, grief, boredom, pain; all taken without ever fully stopping to look at them and see them for what they really were.

Life doesn’t give us much opportunity for truly full stops, and I’m not wishing for one of those (as they tend to accompany disaster). But I’m OK with looking at the coming weeks–where so much is suspended, waiting for what will come next–as my own little stop on the bridge.

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My time last Saturday helped me see that, sometimes, the best thing we can do on a bridge is to stop moving and take in our surroundings. Take a breath. Take notice. Pay attention to where we are.

I’m putting a temporary end to moving forward, changing lanes, plotting destinations. I’m giving myself permission (and time) to stop, get out of the car, stretch my legs, see the ponderous beauty of the clouds above, notice how truly far the road stretches ahead, know that where I am, right now, is home, in every sense of the word.

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Image of Hood Canal Bridge at top of post comes from prune picker:
http://prunepicker.blogspot.com/2012/07/hood-canal-bridge.html

Closing time

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Pretty much every educator I know is a bit of a puddle by the time the last bell rings for the school year. Even those like me, who don’t have much direct contact with kids, are spent. That has never been more true for me than this year.

It occurred to me last week that the rhythm of the school year is all ass-backwards: We are ending as the natural world is blossoming and teeming with life. In the fall, when the rest of the world is turning inward and preparing for dormancy? That’s when those of us in schools are starting new, full of energy and life. Maybe that is why I so often feel discombobulated and out of synch.

I can’t speak for all of the other educators out there, but late spring is always a sort of sad, bittersweet time for me. It was especially so this year, with so many things ending. (I know, I know, I know:  All endings are beginnings. Spare me, please. If I know anything about grief it is that we have to feel all the feelings. I can hold both sorrow and joy in my hands at the same time.)

A few days ago I saw an idea I love and hopped on board with it, but the truth is that I’m too done in right now to do anything that looks like daily posting.  And I guess I’m not quite ready to turn outward yet.

I so appreciate those of you who are writing in your own spaces right now. Even if I don’t always comment, please know that I am reading. I just need some time to re-group. If I know anything else about grief, it is that we never stay in the same state forever.

Wednesday Words 3.2.16: Finding my oxygen mask

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One of my day jobs is coaching teachers. It’s sort of like being a life coach, but I only work with teachers and we only (mostly) talk about their teaching practice.

Last week, I met one of my coachees first thing in the morning, which is how I happened to be there when she was putting away her lunch, made by her partner. I mentioned how nice it would be to have someone make me lunch and that I’d most likely be having another drive-through meal later in the day.

She gave me one of her sandwiches and an apple. (Because:  teacher.)

I protested, she insisted, and then we got to work.

Later that day, I bit into the sandwich, and tears came to my eyes. It was just so nice to eat something homemade, and I couldn’t believe what a difference it was making to eat a simple ham sandwich. It was hard to feel how hard things have been through the contrast of real food to what my diet has been so often lately. It was hard to feel how long it’s felt since someone took care of me. (To be clear:  Cane cooks dinner more often than I do when he’s here. But breakfast and lunch have gone by the wayside, and…I dunno. I just felt cared for in a way I haven’t for a long time. And tears are just under the surface all the time lately. We’re still adjusting to the huge change in our family life and my babies are getting ready to leave the nest, and everything feels raw and momentous, all the time.)

Yesterday, I met with that teacher again, and again she had a sandwich for me. In my own bag with my name on it and a bottle of juice. (Can you even?)

So, even though my last post was all about my pledge to do frivolous creative projects for the fun of it, I came home (to take care of a sick kid) and made the thank you card you see above, so that I can properly thank the maker of these sandwiches.

But it was like that card was a trap door to a land of creative fun–because after I made the practical card, I made frivolous stuff (also above).

I have long been interested in juxtapositions of words and images, which is really what started Wednesday Words. And I love love love with all my heart old books.* I’ve also long loved collage, the creating of something new with the parts of many somethings old. I like to remix.

The first three images above are all cards, which, I suppose gives me some kind of permission I needed to make something as frivolous as collages. It’s really kind of silly, though. I can’t think of any real occasions for which any of the cards other than the thank you one might be appropriate.

That’s OK. I know I’m just working my way into this. I’m playing, and I like the small scale of the cards. It means I can start and finish in short time. There’s no big commitment. Lots of shorter works means my learning curve will rise faster than it would with fewer big works.

I love how messy my work table is now–filled with real mess, from real stuff, not just clutter because I haven’t put things away.

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I love how good it felt to lose myself in it for a while. Doing that felt as nourishing to me as a homemade ham sandwich. It filled me up enough that I was able to make a grilled cheese (and chicken soup) for the sick child with nothing in my heart but joy and gratitude for the chance to mother him just this way for a little while longer.

We really do need to put on our own oxygen masks first. This is mine.

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*All book images and words came from gutted books (which you can read about here), so I didn’t have to cut intact books. I’ve lost my source for such pages, so I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’ve used them up. It’s really hard for me to cut books that are still books!