Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Boys in Summer

In youth, summer days
Stretch as interminably
As the bright open sky
Horizons so distant we forget them

Wading through dawn’s
Amber and gold streaks, the grass dewed
I came upon a stretch of sidewalk
Palpable with the life of boys in summer

Scrawled in char from a burned stick
Were three simple words, poignant as
Kilroy was here.
They read, simply: Hi i fart.

Strewn nearby
Lay an empty pudding cup
Further, a discarded squirt gun
Beyond, a smattering of bang snaps

I smiled as I thought of those
Wild boys still tucked into beds
Exhausted from the day’s play
And possibility

Moments later, tears sprung and my heart caught
There on the path was a broken robin’s egg
It’s blue undeniably beautiful
It’s fragility evident

We rarely notice a robin, commonplace as they are
But a robin’s egg pulls us up short, beckons
Oh, sweet boys, full of wonder and curiosity
How soon before you too are broken open

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Placing Petals

In honor of the Summer Solstice, Oliver and I made floral sun catchers. It's a simple, quiet art. After
tucking the two little ones into bed for afternoon naps, Oliver and I made our plan.  I told him we needed to gather materials from nature.  We'd break them apart and make something new.  We watched a video about the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge (it's on my bucket list).  Then, with the deepest clarity of understanding, Oliver said, "Oh. So we're combining science and art.  I love that!" He capered off to don his lab coat, because, science.

In the yard, Oliver saw the familiar in close detail.  I mean, he did have the magnifying glass (science, after all), but in a more figurative sense.  He noticed the veins in the leaves, the pollen on flowers, the delicacy of a flower's petals, the coarseness and variation of a blade of grass. He noticed the pieces that make up the whole. I never tire of seeing the lessons nature has to extend. She is a powerful teacher. How can we hope to understand the whole if we don't see the pieces that play a part?

With a melange of petals-grasses-leaves in hand, we settled at the dining room table to begin. Oliver plucked petals from flowers. Then, with his little Oliver twinkle in his eye that somehow always manages to make the freckles on his nose more pronounced, he glanced at me, smiled, and said, "She loves me, she loves me not..."  He asked if I knew about that.  I smiled and told him I did.  He responded, "I figured." And just as the natural world came into sharper focus with new eyes, so did my son.

Oliver shared things he's learned recently. We sang to Gillian Welch and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Beyond enjoying the soft moments of creation alongside my son, the placement of petals in a new order leant itself to a reflection on my morning.  My close friend lost one of her dearest friends today. I thought about cycles and time and how much beauty is there that we fail to notice. I thought about circles and cycles -- how comforting and ever-present they are, but how it can still manage to feel like a punch to the gut, even when we know what's coming. I thought about how rare it is to experience a pure emotion -- that the others so often overlap. I thought about memory-making. As a mother, I always wonder, will this one stick?  Will this one embed?  When we're 60, will this moment flash -- sitting at the dining room table singing and placing deconstructed flowers to build a creation of our own? Will it implant?  Will he remember it?  Will I?

Oliver's Suncatcher
Neither of us worried much about the past or the future as we celebrated the solstice today. We were present, the two of us, velvet petals between thumb and index finger, seeing parts to make a new whole.  On the longest day of the year, we were content.  We were full.

Monday, June 19, 2017


When all else fails, retreat to nature.  I don't know if anyone's ever said that, but someone should have. It's solid advice. I'm wound tightly.  After a full day at home with my children -- a day I loved and deeply enjoyed -- I began to feel that tug to retreat, to escape.  And this is one of the things I love most about my husband.  He understands me and never judges.  I knew I needed to flee to quiet the rolling storms.  I knew that would happen in nature.  He helped me toss the essential camping items in the car, kissed me, and gave his blessing for me to take myself camping. Alone.

As with many things in life, I arrived less than prepared.  I didn't anticipate that I wouldn't be able to purchase firewood at the campground.  The mosquito armies were relentless.  In a matter of minutes I was covered in giant, red weals.  I was without bug spray.  When one feels the compulsion to flee, bug spray is an afterthought.  I didn't anticipate the misogynistic attitudes of both the park ranger and the campground host; they were seemingly caught of guard by my ability to pitch a simple tent, by my ability to build my own fire (even if I had to be resourceful and fuel it with pages torn from my son's Reconciliation book, praise the Lord).

In so many ways, the whole experience -- the urge to escape, arriving in nature to be met with a series of other unanticipated assaults, and finding the beauty anyway -- echoes the peaks and valleys of my 33rd year.  It would have been easy to throw in the towel, to pack up, let the mosquitoes win, give in. But I didn't. I visited a nearby gas station. I procured firewood. I bought bug spray (it didn't do much to stave off my assailants).  I regrouped.  And then there was the beauty.  After a bit of rain, a rainbow.  The clouds transformed into fluffy swaths of cotton candy, imbued with oranges and pinks. The breeze enveloped and reminded me to breathe.  The fire crackled.  Birds chirped.  I found clarity. That night was, perhaps, the beginning of my reflection on my year. Yes, there were elements that poked and pricked, there was some unexpected pain, but there were great rewards too.

I turned 34 last week. I've never experienced any turmoil over aging.  In fact, I've always wanted to be older than I am.  I'm jealous of my friends who have gray hair. I've never longed for an age that has passed. I have to be careful, however, not to wish away my youth -- to be present now.  There were certain years that seemed to hold greater promise -- years I was anxious to reach for no reason other than because I'd attached some significance to them. 17, 22, 25, 30, 33.  But I don't have another number in my mind; there isn't another milestone I'm anxious to reach.  Maybe 67.  But the others have come in fairly close succession.

I'm not sure what it was about 33, but I apotheosized it to such an extent that it was only a matter of time before it fell shattering from its pedestal.  33 was the epitome of balance.  It was about reason and centeredness.  It was about knowing myself.  It was a settling, a grounding -- no longer aimless and wandering, but intentionally and pleasantly rooted.  It was a sense of purpose and creation.  It was the embodiment of contentedness.  A long-awaited arrival.

Those who grew up Catholic know there are lessons, stories, and histories so deeply engraved on our inner walls that we can't ever shake them.  Maybe that's part of it for me.  Jesus was 33 when he was crucified.  Maybe it was something to do with wanting to be reflective of one's maker.

At any rate, 33 was anything but venerable, anything but balanced.  In fact, it was a bit of an upending.  33 was oddly and disappointingly reminiscent of 21.  And who wants to be 21 again? 21 was uncertain, insecure, inexperienced, ego simultaneously looming and fragile, searching for a sense of self and one's place in the world.  No. 33 wasn't supposed to be like 21 at all, and yet...

On the surface, I suppose 33 was a failure. I often felt more lost and out of control than I can remember ever feeling (though time has a way of dulling the sharpness of experience).  I cried more in the last year -- not just tears, but body-wracking sobbing -- with more frequency than I can recall. I was cruel to myself in many ways. My judgement was often clouded. I felt marooned at work.  I contemplated calling it quits on my marriage. I invested energy in people who drained and didn't fill. I misread more often than I got it right. I questioned whether I possessed any value, any worth in the world. I dredged up many demons who were never dormant exactly, but caged.

It's easy to see all the failures. But cliche as it is, I steady myself: never a failure, always a lesson. There was a great deal of success and accomplishment over the last year, too. Friendships came to the forefront.  They blossomed and were strengthened. I made several new friends who have been paramount as I've attempted to sort through my messes. As frightening as change is, I took the plunge.  My dear friend, Allison, provided a beautiful balm from Marjorie Leader: "Go now, you are ready to go.  I know, leavings are lonely, but growing is only a larger kind of living.  The world, my sweet, like any other womb, is round."

If I'm honest, I don't want to live a predictable, comfortable life. I want a life of excitement and surprise and experience.  And I'm doing that.  I'm uprooting in order to do that.  This year, and the accumulation of many years before it, have nudged me. So I'm taking the leap into the unknown.

And marriage.  Marriage is a choice we have to make every day. We have a tendency, I think, to make our relationships with our children the most important in our lives, especially when they are young. Those relationships are the ones we feed.  But when I always put my children at the forefront, I starve my relationship with my husband. I starve the relationship with myself, too. And it's an easy pattern to fall into. Matt and I had been languishing in some kind of torpor, I think. And it could have gone in 3 ways, as I see it: quit, languish, or lean in. We chose to lean in. The embers were still there, still burning. We just had to fan the flames a bit. We needed to remember why we chose one another. We needed to commit time. We have to be honest, ask for what we need, and strive to provide it. Though 33 was painful in many different ways, especially in regard to relationships and a sense of my personal worth and value, I know that Matt and I wouldn't be where we are now -- a really good place -- if I hadn't experienced those dark moments. Peaks and valleys. Always peaks and valleys.

So I'm heading into 34 in much the same way I feel after a difficult run or a challenging yoga practice. There is strength and a sense of accomplishment that comes from enduring, from not giving up, from pushing through the pain.  My friend Lindsay and I made vision boards the other night. We focused in on what we want to manifest in our lives. It hangs in a place that I see many times throughout the day.  It reminds me of what is most important for me right now: meaningful and reciprocal relationships, whole health, and writing as a means of knowing. Those are the places I need to direct my energy. I trust that the rest will work itself out.

33 may not have encompassed all I'd hoped it would, but I think it certainly provided the groundwork. 3 plus 4 is 7. Maybe 34 will be the luckiest year yet. Maybe 33 did the work.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Paradox of Permanence

Sometimes I imagine the sheer unbridled thrill that must have accompanied the first charred line on the wall of a cave, the determination to make paint of dried seeds and water and mud, the rush that must have traveled through the hand of the artist scratching lines into soft clay. One of the defining characteristics of humankind is our language of expression. In Art History my teacher's enthusiasm and passion and awe when she spoke about Mesopotamia and the Sumerians and cuneiform stirred something in me.  When she projected slides of marked tortoise shells and cave drawings and tablets carefully imbued with scratches, it called to mind the human desire to document, to leave a message behind.  Perhaps that's the pull to the page -- to leave a message about who we were and what we believed.

There is a power that comes with the permanence of marks or words.  Of labeling and naming. Soft clay, cave walls, and papyrus weren't enough. Whatever is left behind is an expression of the self, so it only makes sense that virtually every culture in the world has some history of the body as canvas. Our word tattoo comes from the Tahitian to mark.  A mark on the human canvas can be done for good or evil.  We certainly have history close enough to show us that -- the marks placed on the bodies of slaves to remind them of their place (and still they found song and dance and laughter, in spite of the horrors).  In the Japanese Edo Period, each time a criminal was caught for a non-violent crime, another mark was added to his forehead, ultimately creating the pictograph for dog.  He was marked.  But most ancient tattoos were oracular and bridging. They communicated a sense of belonging, just as the Cree would mark each of its people. It provided a sense of identity. In 1891 Egyptologist Eugene Grebaut discovered the mummy of Amunet.  Her abdomen was covered with tiny dots; when pregnant, those dots would spread as a net, safeguarding her womb from the world outside it.  Her thighs were marked by Bes, a divinity who served as protector in childbirth.  Sailors, too, marked themselves with such amulets -- anchors and swallows.

I suppose, then, it was in my rich human history to feel compelled to mark my own canvas.  But I did so without much forethought, unfortunately. On my first day of college, I was presented with a college coupon book at the University's book store. Inside, like a siren, was a coupon for a tattoo at the shop just around the corner.  It whispered to me, called me. Perhaps it was the desire to ground. To remember myself. To become.  I was away from home, away from my friends.  Lost.  And so, a few hours later, I found myself there in the tattoo parlor, coupon burning a hole in my pocket.  I quickly sketched out the design I'd doodled in notebooks for years. A spiral with lines emanating outward.  My version of a tribal sun. Why tribal? I can't be sure. Something ancestral not snuffed out through evolution and breeding and modern civilization?

The tattoo cost $10.  He was done in less than 10 minutes.  I'd nervously sketched the image.  The sun was in my own hand, which I suppose is symbolic in its own rite.  He went too deep with the needle.  The ink bled and solidified in thick, disproportionate lines.  My father's joke for years every time he saw it was: "Oh my God! There's a spider on your foot!" There were things I loved about it, despite its clear imperfections.  I like the notion of the sun.  I've always been drawn to that idea. Astrologists tell us that it represents power, influence, energy, and the self.  The sun is about the present, the moon about the past.  The sun rejuvenates, provides vision.  And obviously, the sun is our life force.  Without its light, its heat, we perish.  And its also about consistency.  As Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote, "It just keeps rising and never asks for anything in return."  And I needed that concept at that time in my life, even if I didn't think all the way through it -- to be a light and an energy, to know myself, to be present, to keep rising.

I lived with that mark for 15 years. It became a powerful teaching lesson.  Each year a student would ask about it. I joked that it was a remnant from my time in the slammer.  Some smart-aleck would ask if it was an asterisk, if that was my favorite piece of punctuation.  Did I swear a lot? So it became a lesson in patience and purpose.  It became a lesson in knowing when to use a coupon and when to pay full price. It became a lesson in permanence -- some decisions aren't so easy to sweep under the rug.

I'd toyed with having it removed, but that seemed silly. The mark was a piece of my identity.  It provided a dot on the timeline of my life.  It was, perhaps, terribly similar to a rudimentary mark on a cave wall, but a mark nonetheless.

The process of covering it was as far removed from the experience of my first tattoo as it could have been. This time, I toiled to decide.  When I finally knew, I waited 2 more years before committing.  I sought out an artist, not some dude with a tattoo gun and some ink and a coupon. I booked the appointment -- she had a four month waiting list.

This tattoo is large, covering the length of my foot.  It is emblematic of values that are important to me. It is comprised of 4 prominent images: a stalk of lavender, a coneflower, 2 poppies, and a strand of wheat.  Beside the base is one simple word: be. 

Just as the Sumerians and the Egyptians felt compelled to leave a mark, an experience, a story behind, so too do I.  I feel most at home in nature, most myself. I'm tightly wound.  The natural world reminds me to breathe a little more deeply, to let go.  I'm naturally anxious.  This new image is there as my own amulet of sorts: lavender to remember to breathe and relax, a coneflower to heal what ails, the poppies for creativity and imagination, and wheat for stability and a reminder to give energy to that which nourishes.  The word be works on a series of levels.  One of my favorite quotes is Jane Kenyon's line, "Be a good steward of your gifts."  I think it ties nicely with the symbolism of the bunch.  From Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know..." -- a reminder that the world is larger than me.  I often struggle to be fully present.  I make lists and count days and think of the next thing and the next. That simple two letter word ushers in the importance of presence.  When Amy Krouse Rosenthal was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wrote about "Plan Be," not "Plan B." And it reminds me of the sun, that rash act I committed 15 years ago in a hopeless effort to make a mark, to know.  I love that the initial mark, the impetus for this new one, remains underneath.  Others won't know, but I will. And now, beneath it all, that sun is seemingly giving energy and light and love to each of the plants that remind me to be the person I want to be.

Few things in life are permanent. We are in a constant cycle of evolution, of growth.  The permanence of that initial tattoo no longer seems permanent when it can't be seen.  This tattoo will last only as long as my flesh, a nanosecond in the world's existence.  We cannot hope to last forever. We cannot hope to know something in its entirety. I am a child of the universe: small and temporary. But I have the capacity to be large in the time I have.  I have the capacity to be a light, to be a force, to be a vision.  I have the capacity to be gentle and kind, both with myself and others.  I have the capacity to nourish and inspire, to feed.  I have the power to be.  I've marked it; when I lose my way, as I invariably will, I'll be reminded.