Seeking Smallness

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Elliot and Emily sometimes ask about my childhood.  Elliot enjoys my young fantasy of becoming a tiny person, and my secret wish to be a member of The Littles. Imagining myself to be the size of a fairy, minus the insect-like wings, was my great mental escape.  It was my dream to enter into my doll house, or take a vacation inside the stick shacks I made at the base of the cottonwood tree, where my knees and the soles of my bare feet would collect those sticky seed cases.

During our real world adventures visiting mountains or taking a rest at the edge of great bodies of water, it’s always that feeling of smallness that thrills my heart.  I think I would make a very good astronaut for that reason.  Vastness, endlessness, and then, a little something beautiful. The blue earth with swirling white clouds. The thought that there are people down there, tiny little people!  And I am one of them! I’m so small down there that I can’t even see me.

I am counter cultural in my thinking because of this.  When I discovered Etsy, I was thrilled because it meant that small was good, even preferable.  You didn’t have to try to be McDonald’s or Target.  You could just be tiny and that was cool.

When I write, it only works well when I talk to myself.  That’s how tiny I have to think.  It may seem selfish, but I really can’t write to entertain anyone except myself or the stories just don’t work.  And because of this, critique group experiences are absolute hell for me.  It’s like walking into a room where everyone else is clothed and I am naked.

It takes me a while to forget that I was naked in public.  I try to do a lot of covering afterwards. There’s a lot of obsessive behavior that happens.  A lot of building up of grand ideas, a lot of obsessive worrying about what comes next.

But for some reason, being here doesn’t feel that way.  I’m not so acutely aware that I’m even here in public. The internet is a mountain, and I am standing at the base.  Even if I were at the summit, it would afford the vision that I’m even smaller at the top than I was at the bottom.

I love the feeling of smallness.  The smallness afforded by travelling on an endless road that leads to a rock the size of a country.  You can do anything in all that space!  You can walk and walk and run, or climb all day, and bliss out with that pleasant feeling seeping through all of your muscles, the tired that carries you into the mist of untroubled sleep.

I am seeking that feeling of smallness when I write and when I travel.  Getting outside is the best feeling.  I recently learned that my grandmother was claustrophobic.  I never knew this about her.  But now we are connected in our shared dislike of small spaces.   Maybe she felt, as I do, that small spaces make one feel like Alice after eating the cake.  That feeling of being so tall you touch the ceiling?  Terrifying.  Sickening.  I wonder if people in power feel this way.  It must be traumatic to fill up the world with your voice.

Maybe this is why God whispers.

 

We once took a tour of the Arch of St. Louis and climbed into a little pod that carried us all the way to the top and down the other side through the inside.  Being in that tiny pod was not a good feeling.  Scratch that former statement about being a good astronaut.  While the idea of feeling small next to Earth would be fantasic, I could not take life inside a can.

 

 

 

Confidently, I Love You.

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Love is fueled by confidence, which is a matter of belief.  Analysis, by it’s nature of breakdown, might lead one closer to the truth, or to a semblance of reality. When we love, we want it to be real, as Jane does in Austenland. But like the slippery nature of meaning through language, reality is complex. As my friend Courtney writes, by way of her father’s wisdom: “there is no reality, only perspective.”

I want to be confident that love is real and lasting, and that the perspective I have regarding love, is true.

 

That what lives in my heart is not so ephemeral and fleeting as the foam that dripped into the water from my bath pouf, in the perfect shape of a heart that disolved before my eyes.  A sign of love, but not love, just an image fading into the water.

But love is also a thing that works on me, like sandpaper on wood.  It is a knife that carves, trying to find the form within the block.

But enough of metaphor.

When it comes down to it, criticism, that knife that carves the wood, doesn’t make me feel love.  And I want to feel it so I can give it.  Criticism can give me writer’s block and lover’s block.  I guess I want praise, and that makes me needy.  I guess I want compliments, and that makes me greedy.  I want to be lifted up somehow, not shown where I fail.

But I also want the feeling of love, and the idea of love, to be real.

And not being perfect, all that praise and complimentary talk would ultimately lead me into enough self doubt as to wonder: is this real? Do I always want my relationships to be exchanges of non judgement?  Can I, as as my friend Mariela says, give what is vital to love–acceptance?   Acceptance for hard uncomfortable stones in my boots?

Can I accept that relationships involve criticism, and that I have given out loads of it over the years?  Is there a way to truth in love without critical judgement and analysis?  Do we always need the perspective of distance?  Or just some very close eye contact, and no words?

Let me be silent, and sweet, and kind. The truth is that I’m fire and ice and storm.  I’m earth, soil turning with blind worms.  I’m clouds and leaves that drop, brown and thirsty.

 

 

 

Pergola Makeover, A Family’s Creative Project

 

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This ivy and rose covered pergola stands in our yard, a mature vision of the former owner’s dream.  When we bought our home thirteen years ago, the structure stood bare, with a single stalk of a thorny climbing rose, and a pot of English Ivy at the base.  A decade later, it became a mass of leaves and blooms, so lush and full as to inspire a daily retreat into the arched garden.  I loved it then.  I loved it when it was a bare thing waiting for leaf children to climb on.  I always thought it was a romantic sort of thing for someone to build.  A bit of poetry inside a chain link fenced yard.

Last year when mom came to visit, we discussed the idea of removing the ivy because it was a struggle to keep clipping back.  At one point the ivy from the top would reach down and touch the ground on the back side.  Mom thought it was beautiful and said try to keep it.  And I agreed.  Then this year, I noticed the entire structure start to sway in a strong breeze.

It turns out, English Ivy, so romantic of vines, is also a destructive force of weight and a hide-out for chewing, munching, wood hungry ants.  And the thought of losing our beautiful little pergola, which for some reason I’ve always called “the arbor” sent me on a mission to the garage for a shovel, some clippers, a hatchet and gloves.  And this is what I found:

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And underneath that,

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Aye!

With the help of my husband, who said a few cuss words and threatened to get out the saw and bring it all down, we worked for days removing and burning the old ivy.  Getting to this point was a huge relief.  Almost like a psychological cleansing.  A clarity of mind after a meditation.  A sigh of relief.  Whew!

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But that is not all.

I have become more aware about the magical power of intention when it comes to projects big and small.  That my focus has a tendency to draw me nearer to manifesting my imagination.  And the way Spirit provides things that I might want to make use of.  First to arrive was a gorgeous, heavyweight, textured cotton duvet from an overstuffed rack on the back wall of the Goodwill.  A couple of small stains meant it was perfectly acceptable to use it outdoors and was meant for my project.  A few days later, I was on the hunt for some hooks to hang curtain rods.  Elliot, patient, tolerant son, who was nonetheless pulling on my sleeve, bumping my side, gently prodding me like a herding dog to leave the second hand shop when we didn’t find hooks, got a lesson in treasure hunting.  “See, Elliot!  See how this works? I had an intuition that there was something in here we can use.”  Our treasure?  An old brass chandelier!

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A few days after this, four white flat sheets arrived like magic for 2.25 a piece!  The basic elements were in place.  I worked for a few days at the sewing machine and came out with four white panels for the back of the pergola, and two heavy duty drapes for the front, with fabric leftover for new chair cushions.  I even had some leftover fabric paint to make my own designs, and that turned out to be a fun day making art in the back yard, the sweetest therapy there is. Elliot enjoyed using the spray paint on the chandelier, which was his reward for being so patient while I treasure hunted.

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Richard even contributed by bringing home some galvanized pipe and hooks for hanging the curtains and drapes.

I wonder if this ever happens to other folks when they are working on a project.  Everything starts to come together, piece by piece.  The anticipation for completion builds.  Excitement is high.  Then, there happens to arrive something to thwart the completion, just in the last push to the finish line.  For me this is usually a knotted thread on the sewing machine, a crazy grinding and humming and slow to respond computer issue, a big distraction that requires immediate attention, or a mistake caused by the increased momentum and speed of the work as it comes to a close.  This time, that Canadian cold front brought us big gusty breezes, which on a sunny spring day can be so absolutely wonderful, especially in a subtropical, dense humid climate. But yesterday it was really giving us fits!  Trying to hang curtains in the gusts was testing all of our nerves.  I ended up sewing a wide hem on the bottom and Elliot helped by hunting for rocks, washing and drying them, and placing them inside the hem to weight the light cotton back panels.

And then it suddenly came all together at once.  Richard brought out the handpainted pillows and our plastic wicker chairs, followed by our old iron table that he resurfaced with tile.  Elliot brought a washcloth to wipe the dust and pollen from the table, then said, “We need flowers!” And so after wiping the dust, he brought a sad little pot of yellow marigolds for our centerpiece.  Richard, being the tallest, hung the chandelier.  I snapped a few photos, and we went inside to fix our Sunday chicken dinner.

But excitement was still high.  After dinner, guess where we went?  Not to the living room to watch a movie.  Not to our tablets or phones.  Not to the road for our evening walk.  We went on a mini vacation on a Greek Island formerly known as our back yard.  And we read about Shakespeare’s language in the sunset.

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And just in case you were worried, the rose bush was saved.

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As the moon shone above us and the candles flickered, Elliot asked, “Did your mom ever do magical things for you when you were a kid?”  And I said, “Yes. Yes, she did.  She was the one who taught me how to make the perfect blanket fort.”

 

This is The Story of You Book Review

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Books are often an oasis in the midst of trauma, loss and struggle. This week I needed an oasis, a rock of a story to stand on amid the blowing, uncontrolled winds of change. Appropriately, the rock turned out to be a story of community and personal disaster. Yet it carried me home to a place of gratitude.  The best stories do this.  They fill you with thanks for your own life, lifting our gaze to notice how resilient we can be when everything is torn apart, as characters rise above the most devastating circumstances.

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart collects the shards and fragments of a beach community nearly obliterated by a massive hurricane, and arranges the pieces in a beautiful mosaic. Filled with sentence fragments that are in one way the speech pattern of the teen- woman at its center, and another way a poem by a master storyteller.  Read this book, and walk the recovering ocean shore with Kephart as she collects the remains, carefully arranging memory fragments in a glittering, light-filled and emotionally rich world.

The structure of This is the Story of You is built upon the fragments of the aftermath of a massive hurricane, not unlike Hurricane Sandy.  Kephart must have noticed in her perceptive and thoughtful way, that the rest of the world misses something deeper when they watch the news coverage of reported natural disasters.  That we, far away, passively observing the wreckage on our screens, miss experiencing the personal stories of loss, and also the stories of healing, restoration and survival.

Here lies the power and importance of fiction as a bridge that connects our imaginations (and our hearts) to the lives of people who either lived through the devastation, or died without a voice. Through Kephart’s fiction, we are given ideas that get lost in the sea of news media.  Like the idea that our youth are a valuable asset in times of crisis, perfectly capable of organizing searches, capable of being dependable citizens who contribute to the safety and care of survivors. A young person’s voice is never heard among the clamor of dominant voices when people in fear look to appointed, adult figures to solve big, messy problems.  Through the main character Mira Banul, Kephart reveals how committed and reliable young people are in a time of great need.

This is the Story of You is layered with meaning and multiple storylines to add complexity and variation within the mosaic.  There are sibling relationships that give a new definition to the meaning of family.  I particularly loved the relationship between Mira and her younger brother, Jasper Lee, who has a rare genetic disease.  Mira’s love for Jasper Lee is one that motivates her to be strong and to live bravely.  Her kindness to him reminds me to call my younger brothers more often.  The quality of love and support that exists between them defies the old stereotype of rivalry.  Not all relationships between siblings involve conflict.  But Kephart doesn’t ignore that sometimes rivalries do impact families in profound ways, with surprising results.

If you are a lover of lyrical, imagery-packed language, you will be surprised and delighted by Kephart’s craft.  My favorite line of the book:

 

“We die backward.”

 

In a flashback to nine year old Mira, drowning in the ocean, Kephart connects her main character to another beloved character who is found on the sand, and also to anyone who has ever contemplated their own impending death.  In this context, “we die backward” becomes a metaphor for all of memoir writing.  The reason we write memoir (or fiction that feels like memoir) is to make art of that process we all experience, living forward but dying backward—and in so doing, give back a form of life to the dead. This is one of the results of art making, as we reach out to live beyond the boundaries of our limited, physical and temporal selves.  People died when Sandy hit.  Do we remember them still? Maybe not collectively as a society in our news.  Maybe only if we knew them personally.  But maybe it helps those of us from far away to remember who they might have been, and to remember what their loved ones survived.

As we live in a forward motion heading to somewhere that cannot yet be described or used as wisdom for decision making, we tend to look back, to hold in our beings the memories as evidence of life.  None of us go forward without pausing to look back, or at least subconsciously carrying lived experiences with us.  Contemplating the past lights up the dark, unknowable future and projects those vibrant memory clips of our fragile and beautiful lives, in images rich with light, or sharp with pain, or comforting in peace, onto the future screen that formerly looked like a blank and terrifying void. Think of death, think of your life obliterated, and all you can see is the life you lived.

My first night sleeping in a tiny backpacking tent in the wilderness of bear country brought me to seriously contemplate the possibility of being mauled to death in my sleep.  Fixated and certain of my demise, in order not to get up and scramble out into the midnight woods, alive with swishy sounds to cry out my fear, I lay in the cocoon-like tent with a memory of my most perfect experience in life— being a child playing house in my blanket fort on the green lawn.  In that memory, the grass was greener than all of Ireland, and my brothers were there, kicking a ball and laughing.  I wanted to go home to that memory so fiercely that all kinds of details came into view; the pink metal doll trunk inside the make-shift fort, with a yellow baby doll blanket that my grandmother had embroidered with flowers.  The blue of the sky in the opening where the sheets sagged between clothespins.  The knowledge that my mother was inside, baking cookies. It was bliss.  Thinking of death, I looked back to my life.

 

“We die backward.”  Indeed.

 

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if people knew the deeper, more intimate and tender story of you?  Not only you, personally, but this poetic and detailed work of art.

 

Earlier I mentioned that Kephart has written a story that feels like a poem. Like a great story, it is filled with edge of your seat mystery and anticipation, yet tenderly woven into a sensory-filled, speak it out loud, read it out loud, language song. And though a mere stringing together of beautiful words does not make a poem, a story artfully told that reveals a universal truth we all recognize may make this book leap across multiple genres.  Is it poetry?  Is it fiction?  Is it memoir?  Is it mystery?  While playing with language, Kephart accomplishes all.  Like a poet, she uses fewer words to describe a mass of complex feeling in response to an event in history with overwhelming impact.  Her prose/poetry expands our understanding of unmeasuable, deeply significant experiences to inspire the reader, carefully building one image on another.  This is what gives This is the Story of You a sense of tangible reality, placing us directly in the path of a massive storm, so that when the chaos happens, we are disoriented and later changed by the expanded understanding of what survivors faced.

There are so many beautiful passages, I could dive into each page and bring up a treasure.

Here’s one of those treasures:

 

“I heard that strange song on the sticky keys.  I lifted my head and squinted into the flickery dark.  I could see the armchair that had been dragged across the sand and left by the piano.  I could see the outline of a person sitting there, hands like light rags at the end of dark sleeves.  The song sounded like boots walking through rain, like no song I’d ever heard.”
This is the Story of You is available in April of 2016.  Please visit Beth Kephart on her blog for this title and many more of her great works. (I especially recommend Handling the Truth, but that is only one of many that I love.)

 http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/p/this-is-story-of-you.html

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Peace Metaphors and Worry about Losing the Lonely

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Something inside is missing.  I recognized it this evening, when for a brief time I embraced some precious solitude to feel the warm air  under the stars. Looking out into the darkened yard, I felt around for it like an old man searching his pockets for a squashed pack of smokes, who realizes that there’s none to be found.  Instead of cigarettes, I searched for evidence of my lonely ache.

But it had vanished, leaving only a trace memory of existence.  Like remembering a time when you were really hurt, but no longer feel the pain as you recall the experience.

Maybe since adolescence that ache has been with me like the steady, ever present beating of my heart.  It keeps a rhythm that marks the passing of months and years, a chronic condition of living.  We all share this loneliness to a certain degree,

being individuals.

At times the presence of this loneliness has enlarged and risen to a chest squeezing, hollow stomach, homesick yearning for something nameless and formless, perpetually out of reach.  If only I knew what was missing, I would go in search of it to end the ache.  Who could I call?  What would I say? I am missing someone or something, some ideal?  Have I missed some calling that would fill in the hole, if only I would be brave enough to simply do what inspires me most?

So instead of running and dancing around in the dark, barefoot in the grass under stars– celebrating the absence of loss, infused with giddiness to be unexpectedly liberated from the lonely shadow,

I worried.

What would it do to my writing?

Isn’t lonely the reason I write? Isn’t it the absence of companion and that quiet solitary feeling that propels me into this alternate form of expression?  These days it seems I’m talking so much to people that there might not be any need to reach for the pen and give a thoughtful response to the day’s events.

But as I felt around the pockets for my packet of lonely, I hit upon the shape of another memory: an occasion to reflect, a moment I wanted to capture as if I were taking a photograph.  It was a mental still shot from the day’s earlier walk, an image that brought calm and peace and quiet to my head; significant enough to make me want to mark it down for later; a scrap of afternoon to use in a poem.

If anyone were to ever ask me to name one metaphor for peace, I can now say that peace is the wake line behind geese swimming in acute angles; the strands of traveling light on the surface that follow their random curiosity.

Migration is happening here now, and the lake is full of these back and forth streams of light behind the graceful swimmers.  If you can find your way to a shore near sunset when the lake gets luminous, your day has magic. Your day has awe. Your afternoon has brought you to the awareness that your life in this moment is completely effortless.  You can just stand there and breathe and observe. There you’ll find the space to release the effort and striving of the day’s need-meeting and want-satisfying.

Everyone should have a pond.

And a sunset and geese.

And friends like mine.

Biodegradable Anger, Compostable Pain

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I once wrote a short poem:

“my heart is a trampoline.

you can jump up and down on it

and I will bounce right back.”

Perhaps that’s not always true.

In fact, it’s just a thing I say to carry on.  The real truth is that my heart also contains a little landfill,

where the buried anger has not quite broken down all the way.  The polymer residue of events and conversations that challenge my tolerance and patience, that cover up the kindness, are like the plastic in the real landfil;

here to stay, it seems.

And somehow I think it’s my job to clean things up. You know, to be healthy and happy.  Just for the sake of relief and enjoyment.  Maybe this is the job of every person, not just mothers tending home and babies. We’re used to cleaning up messes.  Especially the kinds of messes that return every day, like dirty socks to wash and crusty pots to scour, and cat pee— (give that one up!  Only fire works.  And maybe rainwater, but I’m still testing that experiment.  Perhaps acid rain is the main ingredient in Nature’s Miracle.)

Like plastic and animal urine, or war and violence, pain and anger are going to be with me, likely until near the time of my death, when the only thing I can do is give up the exercise of living.  Wouldn’t it have been better for me to give those things up long before that moment?  Maybe it could happen.  That I could achieve a state of enlightenment so brilliant that all of my suffering was disintegrated by luminescent love and gratitude.

I secretly wish for that, but let’s be real for a second: has anyone like that ever existed?  Even Jesus was throwing around tables in the synagogue.  If only I had a table to throw.  That  would be such a relief.

I used to be a ruminating smoker. Here are two of the most unhealthy means of processing anger:  to ruminate brings severe depression, as thoughts circle until there is no way out of the labyrinth, bringing an acute sense of hopelessness, desperation and dependency. To smoke brings loss of life.

Somewhere along the way I was able to put down the cigarettes.   I remember how I did it.  First I started taking a pill that masked the nicotine receptors in my brain, and second, I took up sewing.  Hopeless, empty hands needed a new set of motions.

Over time, I began to feel significant relief from the hopelessness.  What I learned and what I can say with confidence is that anger is biodegradable, even when it regenerates afresh.  But first, it needs to go through processing.  It belongs in the compost bin, not the landfil.  Once processed in this way, the packaging is much more convenient to life.  The processing and composting of my pain involves five specific themes:

The first is a focus on something totally unrelated to the current pain.  Distraction works on toddlers, and apparently also on me.

The second involves a physical activity that accompanies the focus.

The third is a challenging and tedious mental activity that is enmeshed in the focused task.  It’s going to need to be something that takes time—stress chemicals will remain and operate under the surface of everything I do, and leak into conversations and relationships.  An activity that allows for some healthy solitude can be incredibly healing.

The fourth is a clearly defined purpose (example: I’m starting with this pile of scraps to make x.)  Working on creative, artistic activities provides a way to temporarily transform the stain, the black spot in my heart.  It also helps to fill the hollow emptiness of loss.  The results of my efforts are kind of like compost: useful for growth.  Fertile elements from darkness.  Incubators for seeds of future projects.

The fifth involves attention to spirit.  Prayer.  Meditation.  Surrender.  If this attention is also accompanied by time in nature, the result is more lasting and uplifting.  I love to be refreshed in nature.

If you want to skip all five steps and get immediate relief in a short amount of time, hard running also has a similar affect.

If only I were at the point in my skill of composting pain to be able to let all things pass straight through.  To let the anger and the pain burn with their toxic chemicals, to be set free of the negative downward pull on my psyche without the physical, material component.

Perhaps that state of being involves the recognition of something I fail to see in the blurry smear of being upset.  Have I, like a stubborn mule, been led to some refreshing peaceful clean water to drink, but refuse to touch my lips to the surface? How have I missed the message? To simply accept a gift of peace; a thing perhaps undeserved but given, the renewable resource like water for the fire.  The message floats up to me now: release.  Do not attempt escape.

I Run to Trosper Pond

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I Run to Trosper Pond

Fallen yellow leaves damp and fragrant

make their way by scented droplets

to my inhale.

Down, down, then up the hill on Oak Tree road,

where patches of woods hold space

for squirrels and a canopy

for warblers, hawks and owls.

A blue ream of after the rain sky opens

as I turn the corner,

cumulus and stratus stretch out

in a diagonal, north and

south.

I run to Trosper Pond and there is

country.

Grass tall around a painted mailbox

with a black and white hunting hound,

suspended, mid-leap,

bounding for the pheasant.

I stretch my stride and seek the grass

as a silver compact car

accelerates without concern

that I’m inches from his door.

But why be angry; there is joy

in the near miss…

I live and run on to Trosper Pond,

where a gaggle of new white geese are raising a ruckus

on the gravel path

that leads to the weeping willow

and the rippling surface of the water

so gentle it will embrace the cloud

that has somehow found a way to float there

while also hanging in the sky.

A little A-frame boathouse sits by the empty dock,

inviting me back to those years I wore two braids, and

dad called me injun.

He a descendant of the Cree Nation, a fact hidden

from school and workplace,

passing for white because being a native

in the time of his parent’s short life

was as degrading as being black or worse,

you were dirt–

a drunken vulgar savage

with no rights to live free,

being so poor his mother hid her children

in pickle barrels

from social service tyrants,

who believed poverty was a reason to separate

a family.

I run to Trosper Pond

700 miles and six years after his death

to find him here enjoying this late afternoon light

and these obnoxious geese,

and the dogs who bark at us

all the way home.