Friday, November 30, 2007


In my writing, I’m pursuing two stories involving loss of sight, and one about kindness and hospitality. I’m also pounding away at two essays by David James Duncan. I’m at the end of the quarter and need to edit, edit, edit my work but on my way I’m making a note: At some point I wake up and all my story lines intertwine in a confusing tangle. My blind friend offered life-changing hospitality, making workdays a joy. Duncan asks “how to see more?” how to peel back the layers of blindness. Even the story about the depths of the ocean, and mortality, is also about the perception of light. Sight and seeing, simple thoughtfulness and the willingness to see truly with such sight as one has, to see, as Duncan suggests, with the ability to illuminate, to see in such a way that gives light and even to see in a way that brings healing.

I ask myself, now which of these stories needs to include that line from Bruce Cockburn?

All the diamonds in the world that mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and sunlight sparkling on the sea…

And the answer seems to be, all of them.

My work is due in less than a week, and I couldn’t wrangle all of these story lines to converge, even if I wanted to. I just letting you know: it’s one life, one story. I’m writing pieces as best I can, reading as well as I can. It’s good to wake up in a tangle.

Now I need to pick one strand and get to work.

Annotations nine, ten, and eleven are complete. One more book and its accompanying annotation is due, but I CAN’T READ ANOTHER THING until I work on the REAL writing.

Draft two of critical essay is still not remotely meaty enough. (I swoon instead of critiquing. What good is a swoon? If readers want a swoon, they’ll read David James Duncan for themselves!) And at least two of my three essay lines need Massive Overhaul. I’m thinking I’ll get physical, print them out one essay at a time and use scissors to cut pieces and rearrange them on my new floor. In college, I used to write longhand on legal pads for my college courses, and I’d often run out of tape, crafting long scrolls for the (poor) typist and hoping my papers contained “enough.” It might work, who knows?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

secrets of a sneaky mom

I spread the newspapers on the table, and place the rolling pin in the center, with the dry bundles of spearmint stems Madeleine picked last week with her friend Merry. I start the tea kettle and set out the willow-ware teapot and cozy.

“Wait! Are we making the tea from my spearmint? I WANT TO DO THAT!”

“Oh, you want to crush the tea leaves? Okay. Grab an apron.” I hand her the rolling pin. The first fish is reeled in, ah!

In the calendar of the children’s year, the weather has turned and the clocks have turned. The light lasts for perhaps an hour after we arrive home. We watch for pretty sunsets at four-thirty, then light a candle or turn on low lights. It’s the season for hands-on projects—without an on-going project, each child degenerates, forgets all house rules, begins practicing the high kick with slip-on shoes and giggling heartily at whatever breaks in the process. Without projects, I find a girl shrieking that her brother is shoving her, and he swears he did not (he’s been arguing that he is NOT pushing for all the years since he could talk, often arguing even as he is evicting whole families of people from warm and cozy beds or favorite seats on the couch.)

I tend to speak needs clearly—this is what I’ve been trained to do in the adult world of communication. I state. But as a mother, I state and I state and I state, and clearly I am talking to myself. I ask. I tell. I repeat and I raise my voice. When I am lucky, I remember the futility of this method before I launch.

My children are not direct-eye-contact beings. They are not, primarily, rational beings, though they do reason fairly well in some instances. They are Not Suggestible. They will tell you all the reasons “why not,” to exhaustion. As it has always been, if I accidentally ask “would you like to?” the answer will be a resounding NO. Projects must be employed, but a certain amount of stealth is required. When I am lucky enough to forget my communication training, I turn. I tempt. I sneak up. I appear, as if from nowhere, with a chore that is no longer a chore but instead A Great Mystery.

Within minutes, Brendan insists it’s his turn to use the rolling pin and I interrupt the bicker by placing the mortar and pestle squarely in the center of Brendan’s work space. The rolling pin is trumped and somehow a trade agreement is worked out by both children. I take a spoonful of the crushed leaves into the teapot and pour hot water, cover the teapot with a cozy, right next to the table. I set out the honey and three tea cups.

I lift the newspapers and aim the pile of crushed leaves into a small jelly jar. Plenty of leaves remain left to be crushed, so I spread the papers again and pour cups of tea laced with obscene quantities of honey to reward my sweet-toothed workers. Two armloads of spearmint leaves fit easily in the jar. Some of the mint is actually crushed into dust, lovely green dust that rubs into the aprons and skin and the children still smell of mint for the rest of the evening.

Madeleine skips off to find fabric scraps and scissors, and the jar is then “capped” with a pretty floral cloth and a rubber band. She haphazardly writes “Mint Tea” in silver Sharpie pen on the former jelly label, and a late afternoon is saved by an hour and a half of good-smelling work.

Scott looks at me to offer a silent “thank you,” and I think of other ways to rope them in, after dinner. I set up a shallow bowl of soapy water and the basket of cookie cutters for Madeleine, while Brendan takes a bath—we agree that she can experiment with my loose wool to craft ornaments for Christmas gifts. When Brendan emerges from the bath, he is eager to choose cookie cutters and do the same project, “felting wool inside a form,” which I wrote about for Living Crafts. He crafts several ornaments from a house-shaped cookie cutter and she crafts hearts and Christmas trees, while they sing Beatles songs.

Scott made the mistake, last weekend, of reasoning instead of tempting—he announced he needs button replaced, and stated clearly where he would put the shirts. I will remind him of the trick, soon, of baiting hooks and placing them carefully for small imaginations: put out the button bin, a threaded needle, and make convincing gestures that you are about to do the work yourself. Then disappear for twenty minutes. Stealth doesn’t work every single time, but often enough, I get lucky.

I place sandy shoes on newspaper beside my son’s workbench this morning, with an old toothbrush. I start to remove the dirt imbedded in my sneakers, tsk and move onto making breakfast. Sure enough, I look up and sand is everywhere, but he is vigorously at work, happily scrubbing off the sand and soil before his breakfast. When I ask Brendan “for a favor,” he answers “first I have to know what it is,” and he invariably says “no” or asks how much money he can make from this. (I’m a cheap date—I often offer a quarter if all the million socks are folded and put away, or a penny per towel folded.) But there is no argument today. I get three pairs of shoes cleaned enthusiastically and thoroughly, because it sort of looked like fun.

When I am thoughtful with stealth, I become Tom Sawyer and harbor my own desires secretly, and instead of words I focus on gesture, temptation, disappearance, mystery. Alas I cannot fish them into folding towels or other non-mysterious tasks, but for some things, baiting and waiting is just the communication I need. I need to think ahead for the evening and consider what project might reel them in, today.

I put the idea in the back of my mind. I need to sneak up on myself and get some work done.

Friday, November 23, 2007

the scorecard

It’s nine-thirty in the morning before I realize my watch is fastened upside-down. I started to read a fascinating article on Puritans and the practice of the Thanksgiving “public day” (which involved fasting as the centerpiece, and feasting as more of an afterthought). Want to read? Here. Then I needed to send it to half a dozen friends. Then I needed to serve orange juice and find a handkerchief…

The sound of a penny dinging around a wooden case is not exactly musical—Brendan is home with a cold, and he’s playing his favorite “penny hockey” on the couch, practicing the little finger flicks to hit the goals just right, between sniffles and nose-blowings. He hopes to be well enough to go to school tomorrow for the long and delicious Thanksgiving assembly, with its music and class presentations. So today we will finish crafting chicken stock into hearty soup to heal the weary boy, and we’ll finish off the roasted pumpkin into puree or pumpkin butter.

I turn on the folk radio station to cover the sound of penny on wood clickity-clicking. I prefer quiet, but this boy needs a constant something. Thank goodness for wood and pennies. I settle in for a moment with the laptop here, another there. I can’t seem to keep that small cup of coffee warm.

Grad student deadline-terror update:

In ten days, I need a five-page critical paper, four annotations of books from my suggested reading list, and twenty pages of creative writing, preferably polished writing.

Yesterday I crafted a DREADFUL first draft of my critical essay assignment, just to get that first draft out of the way and to dig into the material. At some point, I’m just happy to have my subject matter set, to type in the quotes from the text I’m studying. (I’m looking at two or three essays by David James Duncan, a contemporary writer with fresh and unorthodox views on religion and the environment. His writing carries the unmistakable scent of the Pacific Northwest, edgy and compassionate and furious. I set out to do a close read of the first two essays in My Story as Told by Water—sitting at the tea shop with a small pot of vanilla rooibos on Sunday, I ended up re-devouring the entire book.)

I finished Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and quickly zipped off an annotation. Annotations are “like a writer’s journal, but thoughtful.” I’m not sure I approach “thoughtful,” but I tend to revise after a few days.

Four texts to go for this quarter! Ten more days, and most of my time needs to be for writing that paper and editing my essays from earlier this quarter. I hate “speeding” so, but it must be done and at this point I need to simply go for the numbers and get the list done. (That’ll be TWELVE books this semester, most of them enormous and packed with the work of thirty or more writers.) My suggested reading list includes many old favorites right here on my bookshelves—I step into Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water like a warm bath. (I have a poor memory for content of books. I forget everything but the flavor within a few years of reading, and it’s been more than ten years since I read this volume. The sticker inside assures me I bought it from Byron, and it’s inscribed with my maiden name. I can’t wait to see my notes in the margins—Hey! I read this twenty years ago!) I’m hoping to quickly read (alas, but it must be done QUICKLY) and update my thoughts on Buechner’s memoir or possibly my dear Capon, to finish the total number of texts required.

But first, today. Pumpkin and chicken soup and a boy who is now listening to audio books of Winnie the Pooh, holding the tiny texts in his hand. He tells me that some of the stories are dumb (um, okay) and he doesn’t work too hard at following the sentences with his finger. He smells of Vick’s VapoRub and tea with honey. I’ll make a new cup of tea for us both, then pack my L’Engle and my boy to go to the dentist. We’ll be back for soup soon enough, and another go at the paper or editing, if the boy is quiet enough.

Note: I wrote this “diary” on Tuesday, finished L’Engle on Wednesday. On Thursday, I produced large quantities of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas in cream sauce and homemade cranberry sauce (from LOCAL cranberries, picked by my children), and potlucked for Thanksgiving at the tiny farm, with some of my favorite families.

I also read four essays from Gregory Wolfe’s The New Religious Humanists, while cooking. Challenging and interesting reading. I’m working my way through more of that book’s essays, today. THAT LEAVES ONE MORE title. Then one week to dig, dig, dig into the next edit of the critical essay and the next edits of my creative writing.

IT’S DO-ABLE. I think. If I keep up this pace for one more week.

I also started to knit a pair of gloves, if for no other reason than “because I needed to.” I only knit when I am waiting or listening, and never when I could be reading. Halfway through the first glove, I stop and ask myself if I wouldn’t prefer fingerless “mitts” to allow me to type and read with warm hands… regardless, it’s beautiful yarn. All goes well.

Friday, November 16, 2007

day in the life of a student

The pumpkins are roasting (finally) and the boy is bathing. The girl practices violin. We finished the last of the ice cream for dessert and Scott should be home soon. And we finally have a new floor, which looks GREAT.

In two weeks I need to produce a five-page critical paper (my first literature paper in twenty years) and four book annotations (which means I need to first READ the four books) plus twenty-five more pages of creative writing. I just turned in nearly fifty pages of fresh creative writing in the past month.

In the past five weeks, I traveled 2000 miles by car, with children, then disassembled my house for two weeks. I was named “contributing editor” for a gorgeous magazine. I’ve yet to catch up on laundry. And I’m about to complete my first quarter of full-time graduate work.

It’s going to take some time to figure out to do this well—I’ve not touched knitting or spinning, and I only crafted one felt project under duress. I need to MAKE THINGS, and I need to read fiction, and in this three month quarter, there’s been no time for either. I’m not volunteering at the children’s school fair, and I’ve made nothing to sell, for the first time in a decade. It’s okay, on one hand, but I miss the satisfaction of handmade things, and my tiny wallet will miss the satisfaction of Christmas spending money.

When the door opens, Scott will man the kids, the stove and laundry for awhile and I’ll rush to help set up the candle-dipping room for the fair. Tomorrow, whether or not I am signed up to volunteer at the holiday fair, I know I’ll be cutting wicks and listening to musicians in the warm little room with the melted beeswax. Each year I wonder how I could write of such intoxication, and then I don’t even try—it’s too sweet, too quiet, too sedative. We will eat pumpkin soup (not mine) and fresh bread, and children will shop for gifts for parents and friends.

Then I’ll come home and read, and write some more.

On my turntable, by the way, is We Walked in Song, Innocence Mission, highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

weather report: Atlantic commute

Each moment I stay in my house, the workman blocks off another vital pathway to my desk, my purse, my kitchen, and with the aroma of industrial flooring glue, I finally grab my sweater, my book bag, and thread my way through the maze to my door. Neither the workman nor I know exactly what the day holds, but we are each doing our best. Perhaps tomorrow most of the new floor will be installed—that is the hope. Perhaps by the end of this week, I’ll be ready to turn in my next round of homework. I head for my borrowed studio on a stormy Tuesday, on the Atlantic.

A road detour winds me through back streets, but right past my favorite independent coffee shop. Dorothy, the owner, waves to me as she pokes her head out of the drive-up window to assess the line of cars waiting. When it’s my turn, we chat only long enough for her to pour my coffee—the wind promises rain, any minute.

And then I have a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and the road detour threads me past my favorite beach for watching surfers. Just as I’m hoping no one is crazy enough to be surfing in this tempest, I see the flashes of bright blue and green, swooping and jerking—two kite-surfers! Twenty cars line the beach-side of the narrow road, spectators alongside the parked cars of the wet-suited athletes. Usually, the surfers walk calmly by to their cars, but today the men scamper like children to tell tales to one another, faces alight and hands gesturing, like boys describing a soccer game. The two closest men are my age—one balding and one who looks like a handsome college professor I remember. I wonder at men so in love with the sea and the weather.

After I study the joy on their faces, they haul boards across the footbridge, and I turn to the kite-boarders again. As far as I can tell, the rider wears the kite’s harness around his waist and rides a board that attaches to his feet. One kite-surfer rides the shallow edge of Good Harbor Beach back toward me as far as he can come, then cuts wave after wave in the opposite direction down the mile of shoreline. At several points the surfer flies in the air—more than twenty feet into the air—then “lands” again on a wave and rides. He is leaning back hard on his kite-lines and nearly touching the water with his back. I can’t imagine the training necessary to evoke this confidence. I drink my coffee until I see one kite surfer walking onto the beach, wrestling his kite to the ground and folding it. The other rider walks ashore, too, and the first runs to help the second fold his kite. I imagine their faces radiant, like the men who just passed me on the footbridge, and their hands and storytelling as they pack their cars and maneuver the heavy wetsuits. Will they be going to office jobs, next? It’s only nine o’clock in the morning. Perhaps they will sit at a desk by ten.

The road detour takes me along the rocky Atlantic coast for another mile. Drivers rubberneck to see the grey-green curls of wave, veering toward my half of the two-lane road. I drive carefully through the sea spray until I find Edgemoor Road. I take a right once again and familiarize myself with the house numbers. The owner of a boutique in town told me he’d introduce me to the new residents of T. S. Eliot’s childhood summer home. The boutique owner is charming and lonely to talk books and reading, but also he is lonely to tell me how atrociously Americans use the rules of grammar, how shallowly American literature compares to European. This makes me self-conscious of the looseness of my childhood education, the Midwestern drawl and rhythm that won’t be parsed into sentence diagrams. I have little desire to defend my literary loves, but he is an interesting character. I’ll offer him a cup of coffee some winter morning when I can be patient. I believe it’s 3 Edgemoor or 5 Edgemoor Road. I consider pulling into St. Anthony’s By-the-Sea—surely someone there would know the answer to this question, and perhaps hold insight as to why Eliot named his road Edgeware instead of Edgemoor in his poem. Edge-Where? Edge-More? The crest of homes does overlook what could be called a moor, I suppose. I decide not to pursue this question today, either. I need to write.

I make a left onto Eastern Point Boulevard and within five minutes I open the car door to the sea howl and the foghorn. The lock gives way without a struggle this time. I climb to the third floor with my book bag (Eliot’s thin volume is in there, along with a Cowley Brothers book of meditations on Eliot) and laptop, find a blanket and settle into the eaves. I begin writing at nine-thirty in the morning in a stormy paradise.

The kite-surfers have me wondering—perhaps writing is like that, though with less muscle. The surfer rides one ocean with his feet, one weather system with his arms, one unpredictable self inbetween and from the looks of the faces after, I can only imagine how fully engaged he is. The call to writing, as I am learning, is to become more vulnerable, more in touch with rawness of feeling, and more persistently in pursuit of truth. Harness the wind of a story, ride the undercurrent of the deep, be ever aware of all the unpredictabilities of weather and self. Watch for dangerous rocks. If you are not a writer you might think this description is self-indulgent—and it might be. I am sitting in a chair, after all, not feeling the wind and rain on my face.

But I’m playing just as hard as they are. I joined this writing program to change my writing, with no thought that my writing may change me. Like those surfers’ faces on the footbridge, perhaps I will be changed, if I do it well. Who could possibly encounter that tempest and still be the same?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

I wish I could take credit for this project-- found this in my summer files. She made it at camp.