Stay gold, Ponyboy

You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.

You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.

You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.

What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.

As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.

As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”

As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.

You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.

But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.

Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.

Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.

You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.

Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.

You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.

You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.

You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:

A different kind of falling

This house of mine and me, we’re not the stuff of fairy tales. I did not fall in love with her at first sight (or second or third or fourth…), and while I’m hoping we’ll live happily together I don’t think it will be ever after. (But you never know, do you? You really never know. Boy, haven’t I learned that.) Ours is a practical  union, forged by the things each of us needs and can provide the other.

We’ve been together since mid-May. I’m still not all unpacked, and the kids’ rooms were a disaster for a good two months and still aren’t functional. (But they don’t live here, so that doesn’t really matter. Hate to think how much energy I’ve wasted on things that don’t really matter.)

At first, for a lot of reasons having little to do with the new house and everything to do with why I left the old one, I didn’t like her much. Oh, I tried, but some nights I wandered alone around her rooms with “Once in a Lifetime” playing on repeat in my head, feeling like somehow things had gotten completely away from me. Even though I’d made my choices consciously and knowingly, even though I felt, given the things I’d accepted I could not change, that I’d made the right ones, my brain couldn’t stop singing, My God, what have I done?

At first, I thought I would move the things I loved best from the old house into the new, and that would make it feel like home.

It didn’t.

None of them really fit in this new house, which I blamed on the house. But to be honest (which I was having a hard time being with myself), my heart was broken. There was no sexy new romance of any kind (house or otherwise) to keep me from feeling all of its jagged edges, and those reminders of what I once had just made me feel my losses more deeply.

One low day I took down all the art I most associated with Cane and the life we’d had together and put them out in the garage. That felt better, and I began to understand that it wasn’t the new house’s fault that our things didn’t fit within her walls. I began giving previously beloved items away, keeping only those that didn’t carry strong memories of what once was.

I also started bringing out things that had been stored in boxes for years, things from my family. At the same time I was moving, my grandmother died. When I returned from her funeral with items from her home,  I found that they didn’t fill me with sadness, even though they, like those from my old house, might have been fused in my heart and head with loss. Instead, they grounded me in who I was back in the beginning of my life, before I ever had a home of my own. Sometimes they made me sad, too, but it felt like the right kind of sad.

I kept telling myself that I needed to unpack the boxes with practical things, but instead I spent hours arranging sentimental objects and working in the garden, pulling and deadheading and cutting back and planting. Those tasks felt more necessary than finding my extra towels or kitchen gadgets.

As I did those things, I started to feel flickers of affection for the new house. I began to feel her charms, not just tell myself that she has them, and when a trip away went several kinds of wrong and I longed to go home, it was this house, not my earlier one, that I wanted.

Still, it’s been a process. It is a process. We’re a work in progress, the house and me.  When I’m really not feeling it from or for her, I sometimes pick up my camera and wander the rooms and garden looking for things I can love. I zoom in close, so I can truly see them, framing them from different angles in order to find the ones most pleasing. (As my friend Kate recently said to me, “there’s something to be said for cropping.”)

I’m finding that love this time–for the house, for my life in it, for my new, transforming-yet-again self–is not about a sudden falling. There isn’t even anything I could call love yet, but there is gratitude, and it is something that’s growing through the small things I’m collecting and discovering and doing over time:

A bouquet I cut from the hydrangea bush and arranged in a pitcher on the kitchen table.

The way the afternoon light spills across the sofa now that we’ve thinned the shrubs in front of the windows.

My mother’s childhood milk cup placed against the backdrop of a thrift store painting.

Morning birdsong in the weedy part of the yard I haven’t yet tamed (and might not).

A quilt top my great-grandmother pieced and that I spread on the bed in what will be my son’s new room.

The patina of a worn dresser that’s become a potting table in the greenhouse, where I hope to grow flowers and vegetables from seeds next spring.

The more I’ve noticed, the more I’ve realized that the things turning this house into home are those I could take to or create in any place I might live. They are things with the right kind of history. They are the things of and from me, not the architecture that surrounds me–things I can carry with me when I once again find myself starting over. Because some day I will. Isn’t life always the same as it ever was, in more ways than it sometimes feels we can hardly bear knowing?

Scratchy voice

A few years ago, I used to try to call my grandmother on Sundays, and often when she answered her voice would be thick and scratchy. She’d clear her throat and explain that she hadn’t spoken to anyone all weekend, and so her voice wasn’t clear.

It is the same with writing–when the words haven’t come through our hands in awhile, they feel a bit clogged and it’s hard to get them out. The only remedy, I think, is to just start. To trust that our voice will find itself if we just start using it again.

I don’t think I wrote about it directly, but I began this year with a vow that I would not end the next one as I’d ended the previous three. I suppose if I had the gift of foresight and were still interested in such things as choosing a word for the year, mine for 2018 would have been “grief.” I knew, on New Year’s Eve, that things needed to change–and I changed them–but change is always ending and ending (at least for me) always has at least some element of grief to it.

In the months since I last wrote here, I left the home that was always more dream than simply a place to live. I lost the grandmother I used to call weekly (and then wrote to weekly), ending my run as a grand-daughter. I made and put into place a plan for finishing my career. I’m living in a place of more questions than answers, which is perhaps how life should always be, but it’s new for me. I am wading in as much possibility as loss, but sometimes all I can see is empty horizon. Sometimes I get knocked down by sneaker waves of sadness or anger. But other times I walk in deep enough to release my legs and float. It’s good to remember that floating is an option, always.

This isn’t much of a post, but it’ll do. Off to unpack some boxes and put up some shelves and pull some weeds.

 

Adulting. And stuff.

My daughter’s biggest challenges in the last year have come from learning how to adult. I feel her pain.

Although I am firmly into my 6th decade of living, when it comes to adulting I feel I could be the Imposter Syndrome poster child. I look like a fully-functioning adult. I know all kinds of things about a lot of things–you don’t even want to debate me about the Oxford comma–but I am sometimes shocked by how little I know about the basics of maintaining a life. You really can wing it/kinda fake it for a lot of things. For a really long time. Or, at least, I’ve been able to so far.

This is not an adulting desk.

But it bothers me that I don’t really know how a lot of things work and feel I have very few practical life skills. If the zombie apocalypse comes or the grid collapses or the bottom of privileged, western life falls out in some other way, I’m toast. I can function pretty well in a world with big box stores and electricity and YouTube and take-out, but I will definitely not be the fittest in any kind of basic survival contest.

I’m not really worried about doomsday scenarios, but I descend from farmers and fishermen and machinists–all self-sufficient people who knew how to grow and make and do with their hands. It bothers me to have so little skill in taking care of my own needs. I’m tired of feeling mildly (or majorly) incompetent a lot of the time, especially when it comes to feeding myself and keeping house. Also, I really like it when I occasionally do something well in these arenas.

I didn’t grow any of this not-organic food, but I made this grown-up meal all by myself.

So the other day I checked this book out of the library:

At first I thought it was going to be another lifestyle porn kind of book–and it does have gorgeous pictures with rustic tile, simple linens, and lots of things in glass jars–but it’s got a lot of substance to it:  philosophy, practical strategies, and concrete tools. Most pages look like this one:

There are a few things I particularly enjoy about Erica Strauss’s philosophical approach to food and home. The biggest one? “…don’t be afraid to take it slow at first.”

This is one of the few books I’ve read that makes me think I could actually learn how to do food and home, which makes me want to jump all in. I want to do it all–grow vegetables, can, make my own household cleaners, revamp my household routines–and I want to do it all right now! But this is what my kitchen looks like right now:

And the only way it’s going to look better is if I spend a substantial amount of each day for what’s left of the summer working on it. I’ve also got family to love, and some work to do, and….  I appreciate Strauss’s stance that “this is not an all-or-nothing thing” and that the “ultimate goal of a hands-on homekeeper is to be proactive about shaping your own healthy domestic life.” In other words, she’s not an insufferable purist about the whole thing. In fact, she’s pretty damn funny (as you can see in this post from her blog).

So I’m starting with something simple:  making natural household cleaners. I’ve wanted to do this before, but I got stymied by not knowing where to find borax and castile soap in the store. (I kid you not. I still don’t know where to find them, but if I can’t figure it out this time I’m just going to break down and order them from Amazon.)

Baby steps, baby.

Once upon a time I wrote a blog in which our basic premise was that how we do home is how we do life. I still believe that. For three years, life has been an on-hold, up-in-the-air, what-the-actual-fuck, one-transition/calamity-after-another affair. Home has been slap-dash, make-do, get-through-the-day-however-we-can-and-call-it-a-victory sort of thing. Making my own household cleaners might be only the first step on a thousand mile journey, but at least I’m finally moving, and it feels like the right direction. George Eliot wrote that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I generally think that’s a crock of hooey, but when it comes to this I think she’s right.

Now this is a guy with practical life skills.

 

Doing home, doing life

Summer in a nutshell:

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Beginning of summer

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End of summer

Back in June, struggling with tremendous change and uncertainty (which is where I’ve been living for at least two years), I gave myself permission to stop. Stop trying to figure everything out. Stop trying to make things better. Stop doing things unless they truly had to be done–so that I might figure out what it is I even like doing any more.

I think I had some idea that if I’d just stop, all the dust clouding my vision would settle and I’d find some kind of serenity and things would become green and shiny again. Or, at least, I would be able to see what is still green and shiny. And, well, yeah…what you see above is fairly indicative of how things look right now.

Most of you who read regularly followed me here from the home blog I used to write with Cane, where we (hopefully, optimistically, enthusiastically, joyfully) proclaimed that “how we do home is how we do life.”

The internets is full of people waxing philosophical about the meaning of home. My friend Laura pointed me to this (rather pedantic, privileged-perspective) piece last week that annoyed but also intrigued me a bit. In it, the writer posits that home “is a place where personal ideals are externalized or personal failures made visible.”

Well, clearly mine is more about personal failures made visible than anything else these days.

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This summer we did fix some things that have long needed fixing. We finally gave up on doing anything cool/creative that we love with our entry and painted everything the same shade of brown and covered the stairs with a boring, serviceable carpet.

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We got rid of yellowed vinyl flooring in a bathroom, painted the walls, and took out a plastic-covered vanity that surely replaced a solid wood one in a previous owner’s quest to attain a different sort of domestic ideal than any we ascribe to. We put in a new one that’s probably a lot like the original one.

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Some of you might remember when we put some lipstick on the pig of the room that it was when we weren’t ready to replace the flooring and cabinet:

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The bathroom needed new flooring and the new cabinet takes up less space, which is good, I suppose, but I’m not in love with it. I’m in meh with it. And though I don’t like to say it out loud, given the time and money we put into the changes, I think I  liked the funky lipstick version of it better.

Unlike so many of our earlier house projects, these were not labors of love. These projects were done not to make a home but to fix things that would need fixing if we decide to sell the house. (Kind of amazing how that shows, huh?)

When Cane and I wrote that “how we do home is how we do life” we saw it as a statement of power:  We can choose how we do home, and a complementary life would grow out of that choosing:

Want a simpler life? Create a simple home.

Want an authentic life? Create an authentic home.

Want a connected life? Create a home with routines and traditions and rituals that connect its inhabitants with each other and those who enter it.

What I’m coming to understand, though, is that this question of home/life might be a chicken/egg sort of thing:  Which comes first, home or life? Maybe how we do life is how we do home–and many of us struggle to do life the way we want to.

Some of us live in poverty. Some of us live with abuse. Some of us are living out the inevitable effects of multi-generation oppression. And, even those of us who are relatively privileged sometimes get thrown a curveball that we just can’t hit with anything resembling grace–if we can manage to hit it at all. Sometimes, life throws us not a curveball, but a series of fastballs discharging from a pitching machine set to its highest speed. Then, we end up doing life the best we can, swinging furiously, knowing we’re going to miss more balls than we hit.

Sometimes, life has us so worn out that caring about home feels really beside any point that matters.

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I really miss caring about such things as growing vegetables and sewing grocery bags and planning meals and restoring banged up furniture that no one else loves any more. I keep trying to “act as if,” thinking that maybe I can make the equation work the other way:  Maybe if I just start doing the stuff, the caring will return and the life will follow suit.

So far, it hasn’t been that way. But as so many on the internets constantly remind me, we’re all just living in one season of life at a time, and they all pass. I’m hoping that as summer fades into fall, this one I’ve been living in for the past few years will move on, too. I’ll keep you posted.

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This is not a dead pig. It was a live pig at the Clackamas County fair, which we visited at the end of the last month, and it has no super-important meaning to this post. I just like to end posts with a photo and couldn’t bring myself to use another dead plant one (although I have plenty of dead plants that could be up for the task.) Going with this because there was a reference to pigs in the post, and, to be honest, there is something in this photo that speaks to my current state of being. Especially that food trough is resting on the pig’s head.

 

 

 

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.

*****

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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About those darling succulents…

Remember these?

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Back in February, inspired by lo the many, many images of cunning little succulent pots I’ve seen online…

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I decided that turning these sweet little 70’s coffee cups into such planters would give me justification for buying them.

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Here’s what they don’t tell you in all those blog posts:  If you do even a half-way decent job of nurturing your succulents, they will grow out of those adorable little pots:

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And it will happen far more quickly and spectacularly than you ever thought it could.

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As you see new shoots budding, you realize that the charming vision you had about those pots is going to have to be abandoned. You are going to have to let it (and them) go. If you want those succulents to keep living, you’re going to have to find a new place for them to grow. Because–of course!–they have to keep growing. The only way to not grow is to die.

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And you don’t want that:

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So you look for new pots, ones with more space. You prepare to transplant. You let their old life, in the little cups on the kitchen window sill, go. It’s hard. They were so sweet, and you loved them even more than you thought you would. You know how empty the sill is going to look without them.

In not unrelated news, this song–released the year my daughter was born (yes, that was really 18 years ago!)–has been playing on repeat in my head the past few days:

 

Of seeds and waiting and blossoming

Please let me introduce you to Miss Rumphius:

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It is because of Miss Rumphius, aka The Lupine Lady, that I’ve always wanted to grow lupines.

She is first a librarian and then a world traveler, but after an injury she realizes it is time to find her “home by the sea” and fulfill the final prong of her 3-part life mission statement, which is to make the world a more beautiful place. She comes to do so by planting lupines.

I have always wanted to be like Miss Rumphius (well, at least since I first met her–which was probably 25 years ago), and it is because of her that I’ve long loved lupines.

Sadly, I’ve never had much luck with growing them. I’ve planted lupines numerous times, but they’ve always been a bit puny and nothing like the ones growing on the cover of  Miss Rumphius’s book.

Until this year:

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I have only this one plant, but isn’t it glorious?

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It’s struggled to grow for at least two years. Its leaves would come up, but it never flowered. I’d pretty much given up on it, thinking that, perhaps, I was just not meant to be a grower of lupines.

It’s funny how things sometimes grow and blossom when we leave them be.

Miss Rumphius plants a few seeds in stony ground, and they bloom several seasons later, after winter and then a spring of illness. Looking out her window at them from the confines of her bed, she wishes she could plant more, but her health prevents it. When she is finally able to get out again after another winter and spring, she sees that the flowers have spread, their seeds carried by the birds and wind.

It happens without her needing to do anything other than plant those few first seeds. And wait, and let things take their natural course.

I suppose it might have been well enough to leave it there, but she doesn’t. She orders bushels of seed that she begins to carry in her pockets, tossing them everywhere she goes. Some people call her crazy, but she just walks and flings seeds, trusting in the process.

Which, of course, is enough. Eventually, her flowers bloom everywhere.

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Like Miss Rumphius, I am ending one stage of life and beginning another, wondering what I might do to make the world a more beautiful place.

I suspect the seeds of an answer to my question have already been sewn, and that it will unfurl when I turn my attention to other things and stop waiting for its bloom.

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A friend told me this week that a watched peony never blossoms.

What about you, friends? Anything you’re waiting for?