If I tried too hard to understand it, I might miss the view.
From a hand-drawn sign taped to my daughter’s bedroom door.
of what I like and love
I’m looking out the window
for my baby to come home
because today I spilled over,
supersized with my own wonderfulness
when I asked, “Want some Coke?”
(Which I never do, you see, since Mommy says it makes kids stop growing
and that settles that.)
I poured this one-time specialness over ice in a cup,
toasting my good-motherness,
handed it to her
and instantly it spilled,
emptied over homework and folder,
onto table and chair,
soaking the Crate and Barrel rug.
The poison rose in me like foam over a tumbler
streaming down the sides
puddling on the counter
my long tongue lashing out the blame
lathering the shame
my arms and legs erupting
in a crazy-lady dance
saving wet pages
letting her wet face dry by itself.
How awful, how inane, over a pause that refreshes?
Sugar water and dye.
I’ve had my pause. I’ve died.
I’m sick and sad and sorry to be
looking out the window
for my baby to come home
where I can catch the first gleam
It’s what moms do
we do it forever
even before we are moms.
The waiting is worth it.
* * *
For Denise. In fullness. Of time.
It’s not supposed to be fire season but we have one nonetheless, a little fire that exploded into a big and menacing one overnight on the brushy mountains behind our home. We are still here and safe, one block outside the evacuation line.
I already had the title of this post in my head two days ago and it applies even more now. I’ve written about Southern California wildfires before. They are an intermittent fact here in desert paradise. You might wonder how we can handle it. The answer is we just do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Today we wait and trust and offer a hand to those who live one block higher up the hill.
The fact is, no matter which state we reside in we all live in the pit of the flame, confronted time and again by conditions that seem too hot to handle. Sometimes the most we can do is offer an oven mitt, a sopping towel, a tall cool one, or a breather. Whatever we do is the best we can do. We all handle what we think we can’t.
And in that spirit I offer for your interest and consideration several quenchers.
Those of you who oohed over my daughter’s tortured art may be ignited by her one-of-kind potholders now up for bid at the Bloggers for Jeni auction. She made four to contribute to this amazing endeavor, all to raise funds for Jeni Ballantyne and her son Jack. The bidding on these is still quite low, and if you knew what I had to pay the wee miss in order to secure rights to her work, you would appreciate the bargain. Please bid high and often because these little squares are guaranteed to get you out of a hot spot. I don’t know how, but that Georgia can weave magic.
I’m offering my own kind of comfort on the auction, and it is already high priced enough. When the chance came to contribute to the sale, I couldn’t think of anything to give other than myself, and I routinely give that away for free, as you’ll see below. But that wouldn’t net any money for the cause, so we figured out how to give away nothing for something. The Comfy Day I’m offering is everything and more I can do for a mom (or dad) who thinks she’s in it alone, without a clue, a break, an extra pair of hands, a shoulder to cry on or a day off. I wish I could give it straight to Jeni but I think she’ll be just as soothed knowing that someone else is getting a lift. Think of it as a Mommy 9-1-1, suitable for a new mom, a multiple mom, or a group of moms, a shower gift, or a rescue for your own combustible self. If it doesn’t sell, I’ve already committed to contribute the value of my plane ticket to the auction fund so Jeni and Jack will get the most I can give no matter what.
That’s how we handle the heat, giving the most comfort we can give, knowing that there’s always someone farther inside the evacuation line.
Last week’s giveaway really caught fire and inspired a burst of wild-eyed generosity:
I’m sending the German version to all five people who asked, because what else am I going to do with a box of books in German? (Especially when I evacuate!)
Winners, please contact me via email on my profile page and leave me signing and shipping instructions. Soon the air will clear, the breeze will cool, and I’ll be winging your relief packages in a flash.
It was not a surprise. On Christmas morning he handed me a piece of paper with the picture of a car on it, the car he had determined was right for my needs: hauling all kinds of precious and ever-growing cargo. Then he spent several more months deliberating on the features that were the ones he thought I deserved.
My old car was doing fine, but at 12 years old, it could definitely be called old. I had driven it from Texas to California in 1997 and it symbolized the life I had left behind: a life of workaday grind, grief and stress, yet relative solitude and independent ease; a life without a child, a dog, a Brownie troop and Keebler crumbs. Mine was the kind of car that never fails, yet lately, when pressed to make a road trip, I felt better off renting some reliability.
When we arrived at the dealership, I could tell from the start that times had changed since the last time I bought a new car.
I remember the delivery process like this. You sit behind the wheel with the salesman beside you. He shows you the refined and slightly unfamiliar features of the dash: the windshield wipers, the gear shift, the lights, the stereo, the AC, the adjustable steering column, the cruise control, the CD changer (!), the remote side mirrors (!), the cupholders (!).
There was none of that.
Instead, we sat in the front seat and he began punching a touchscreen that occupies the center of the cockpit. As a car marketing professional, he must have sensed the slight quiver that was about to send my female eyeballs orbiting, because he said:
I’ll never buy another car without one of these.
Hmm, I thought, I’d better keep my opinions to myself.
His fingers were flying through maneuvers that I would never remember.
You can find the nearest Starbucks, for example.
Isn’t there one on every corner?
When you’re alone on the road this will lead you straight to the nearest Chinese restaurant.
If I’m ever again alone on the road I’m heading straight to China.
I’ve already programmed in your home address.
Can’t I just go back the way I came?
I considered it all harmless folly, even when he handed me the owner’s manuals. That’s right, two manuals. The manual for operating the car was 584 pages. The manual for operating the GPS system was 274 pages.
My husband sensed my trepidation and said, “Want to just follow me?”
And I did. Things went smoothly until he decided to try a shortcut. Then the map started scolding me, in that mildly sensual yet patronizing voice inherited from patriarchal computer forebears.
Right turn in one-quarter mile, she suggested.
Left turn in one hundred yards, she intoned.
Right turn ahead, she insisted.
Left turn ahead, she shrieked, and shot me in the head.
The commands elevated in urgency as the system rapidly reconfigured the route to accommodate my husband’s own innovative guidance choices one car ahead. Once we arrived home I was drenched in flop sweat and palpitating with fury.
I did not set my ass in that car again for one week.
Oh I know there’s plenty of gender psychology at work here, but I consider it all too obvious to mention.
Suffice it to say this may well be the car that I deserve, but I’m more convinced than ever that I don’t deserve it.
Honey, I said carefully to my husband one morning, I just don’t find myself getting lost that often.
Compassionately, he disabled the GPS and I’m getting used to driving again. I’ve located the radio. But I haven’t yet ventured toward the windshield wipers.
And I know in my gut what the lesson is. If I can overcome my aversion, if I can truly find my way around it, then I will finally be getting somewhere.
She was standing on my front porch, right where I would find her. I rushed up and hugged her. I was so happy, although she was dead. Her body was like ash in my arms, crumbling and decayed. She was dead, but I was not afraid or repulsed. She took me up, like in a flying dream, but not a flying dream. We flew into space, into the vast darkness and pulsing light. I felt celestial wind in my face. It was exhilarating.
I asked, “Is there a heaven?”
She said yes.
“What’s it like?”
Like this, she said, like this.
My mother died on April 13, 2001. Seven years, and this is how I remember her.
It was an attribute of her deep Christianity and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the small hours before Good Friday, the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them.
Not too long ago I chanced upon a telling of what has become a bit of family lore, that my mother, a devoted Lutheran and good churchgoer, had never known that I was Buddhist. She would not have stood for that, the reasoning goes among my relatives, who have mistaken the strength of her faith for hardness.
What is true for me, what I remember, is what my mother said when I told her of my first encounter with my Buddhist teacher and the peace that I had found. What she said then, 15 years ago, was what today I recognize as the ultimate sanction a mother can give.
“Now I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”
It’s not that she was flawless. She did a lot of things I know she wished she hadn’t, a few things I wished she hadn’t, and some of them, like marry my difficult dad, she did more than once.
Still, none of that stays.
What stays is something else, something that is replenished with every recollection, with every blink and heartbeat.
When my father died four years after mom, he had just begun to keep company with a sturdy and decent woman. I told her of my dream about my mom and she made it real.
“When you can remember it,” she said, “it’s not a dream. It’s a visit.”
My mom brought me right back home, to the front door, and then she said something.
“There’s only one thing I want you to do.”
What is it, I asked. I would have done anything she said. I was filled with immense joy and thankfulness.
“Love Jesus,” my mother said.
I will, I said. I will.
Only later, upon waking, did I wonder. And then I stopped wondering.
I am sorry.
I am sorry that I am too often clever, unkind, rude, and critical. Too snide and quick. Sometimes when I am like this it causes others to hurt. Even when it inflicts no outright pain, it causes confusion, and that is the most chronic and enduring pain of all. So for your sake, for my mother’s, and for all of us, I’m sorry.
I offer this reparation not because I am a Buddhist. Not because I was raised a Christian. I say this because I am my mother’s daughter. Being my mother’s daughter is the only way I can know who she might have been, and the only way you can know her is through me. This is how I keep her alive. This is how I keep peace. By loving as she asked me, as she showed me, as Jesus loved.
There are many names, but only one love.
Rest in peace, Mom. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.
Artice Patschke Tate
June 20, 1933 – April 13, 2001
Children need to believe that the world is an interesting and safe place. Without it, they cannot grow and explore. When we rear our children to fear other adults we truncate their growth. Human development occurs within the context of real relationships. We learn from whom we love.
–Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other
I scarcely gave the circumstances of my daughter’s life much thought before she was born, occupied as I was with my wished-for baby as the imagined end of the process. But soon, I faced up to the obvious. Here on this earth she would be mostly alone, without the company of kin. [Insert tears here.]
Not only were my husband and I older parents and she an only child, my parents were older and soon to be gone, my sisters older and far away, my nieces decades older and also far away, my husband’s parents farther away and his nieces way farther still.
But as soon as I mustered the gumption to roll a stroller down the hill into our two-bit town, I saw relievedly how it would go. With every coo, grin and bat of her lash, my baby drew people to her, perfect strangers, who filled her eyes and ears with the marvel and music of love. I saw her future instantly: She would draw people to her, and she would never be alone. She would always be loved and her life would always be full and new, if I could keep mustering the gumption to leave the house.
And this makes known my third and final ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity.
Ingredient Number 3: A Stranger
It is difficult to trust people, I know. It is difficult to trust teachers, I know. It is difficult to trust other places and even other children, I know. But when we don’t, when we burrow and hide, when we reverse and recoil, when we bind ourselves too tight to our better judgment, creativity curdles. Full and thriving, life doesn’t just depend on the new; life is the new. Life is, by definition, strange. It is always enhanced by the kindness of strangers.
But now I can see that strangers are not always strangers, rather just people with new and unfamiliar gifts. The strangers who will serve and inspire your children may well be the same-old friends, family and neighbors; those with high recommendations and faultless referrals; or they may be the untried and unknown; the teacher you most dread in the school you’re dead set against; and the troublesome kid in the back row. We cannot know or second-guess which strangeness will spark creation’s promise, only that it will. Life is forever new and unfolding; endless and – get this – good.
The stranger my daughter needs most is very often me, when I emerge from my shadowy house of fear and follow her into the bright light of an unknown world where we frolic and swirl to the marvel and music of love. That could be today. It could be any day. Anyone stopping me? Anyone stopping you?
If you still doubt the pervasive and positive influence of strangers, consider this: No one you really know was involved in the writing of this post. Or the reading.
My daughter came home from Spanish class one day last week and plastered signs all over the house. Seeing them everywhere has really shed some light on things.
Over at my friend Shawn’s new review blog, The Chunky Purse, she talks about a Spanish-immersion DVD set for teaching language to young children, and it sounds pretty neat. Eight years ago, we didn’t have that, we had something else.
One of Georgia’s first words was “awa” for water. Whether she was speaking Spanish or speaking English, who can tell. We congratulated ourselves for the clever good fortune of having a babysitter who could not only put Georgia down for a nap, but speak Spanish while she did it.
How we all wish we could lock-in these predispositions. We see the astonishing development of our babies and toddlers – their seemingly effortless learning – and what we might overlook is the amount of practice they put in. From where I sit now I view it all a bit differently than I did then.
Every day from birth to age one or so they practice mobility. Every day from age one to two and beyond they practice language. Without maintaining that level of constant practice, nothing gets very far off the rug.
Nearly two years ago as I was wandering the wilderness in search of readers (yes, we not only have to write books, we have to find readers) I found a little something that led me to Wendy Cook. I sent her one of the first copies of my book. Authors like me have to buy and send a lot of freebies that don’t amount to much. But Wendy responded. She sent me the kind of heartfelt message that you wait your whole life to hear. And she didn’t just tell me. She ran out and posted reviews here, here, here and here. Then she began dousing her blog with my quotations. And she interviewed me. Wendy is a veritable nest of kindness, and I wondered how she came to be so generous. Then I realized that she too is an artist and understands the role of the circle, the community, in making us whole. Because she has been so personally merciful to me, meet Wendy, my soul sister, who wears kindness like a bracelet, a bracelet that would look good on you too.
Every month on your blog you interview a mom about how she nurtures her creative life. So tell me: how do you nurture yours? Is it a quest? A struggle?
I think of it as one big beautiful juggling act (insert circus music here). I had to reconsider my definition of creativity and focus on projects that I can either complete quickly or work on in spurts. Luckily I don’t limit myself to any one medium, so there’s a lot to play with. Is it a quest? Oh yes. Is it struggle? Sometimes. Most recently I wanted to attend the Squam Art Workshops and really had a hard time asking my husband about it, knowing that it would mean he would have to work overtime so that I could go. I am still struggling with the feelings of joy to be able to feed my soul and guilt for wanting this for myself.
You discover and share a bounty of children’s books and music on your blog. Do you find that your own art is influenced by them?
Yes, because there is a sense of nostalgia at the core of my work. But I mainly do it so I can provide my son Satchel with inspiration. I share my findings to save other moms time because there are tons of children books, but not all of them have wonderful illustrations or beautiful messages. The best of them also teach me to believe in myself, to be myself, to help others, to care deeply and to help Satch do the same. They also show me that the dreams of our youth might very well be our authentic selves.
Do you have a sense of a calling now in your life other than motherhood?
Being Satchel’s mama is the most important thing I can be. That said, I still have an overwhelming drive to create, to work with my hands. When I go too long without making something, I get a bit wonky; I feel anxious and irritable. The remedy is often as simple as making something for Satch -– like felted Easter eggs or a clothespin catapult. Thankfully, my husband is very supportive and will step in so I can do something creative.
Tell me how your family inspires you.
To know that we belong to each other, that we are loved and respected, that we untangle our messes together, share our joys, and ride this fantastic twirling rock together: I’m inspired to be as real and as present as I can possibly be.
What do you want to do with your life now?
As Satch becomes more independent I would like to spend more time producing and promoting my work. I want to inspire others to follow their own creative dreams. I want to grow, evolve, love deeply, laugh often, dance with wild abandon and be a centenarian.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Wendy has donated the grand prize for the week’s giveaway, the Robin’s Nest handmade vintage button bracelet shown above, so please enter early and often before 6 p.m. PST this Friday, March 7. Winners revealed on Saturday. You can read this week’s earlier interviews with my inspirational sisters Jen Lemen and Sally Dworsky. And thank you for visiting this week. It did my soul good.
So Georgia and I are driving around one Saturday afternoon a few years back listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio and the little one erupts from her car seat: “Mommy, that’s Sally Doorsky!’ It turns out that Sally, frequent radio guest, is the mom of her pre-K mate Charlie, and his little sis Lila, and in that moment Sally Dworsky has become the most famous person we will ever know. Her transcendent voice, her songs of pure heart: we can’t sum it up except that we have become fans of the most slobbery kind. Here is Sally, another soulful sister, mother of mercy and angel of inspiration talking about singing in and out of her new CD, “Boxes.”
I can remember having coffee together one day and you were as doubtful as any of us mothers that your creativity would return, that you’d ever have the time or the impetus to write songs again. Tell me how that struggle eased for you, because look, here you are!
The truth is, I think I have always had that insecurity. Even before kids. That sense that I would never write another song, or at least not another good song. Each time I do, I am so excited and relieved and surprised, and then I return to that state of not knowing. But I did wonder how I would ever have time to be alone and still enough to receive the little bursts of inspiration and follow them. And it’s true, I have much less time to explore an idea, but there is a benefit to that. I can’t afford to labor and self-judge as much as I used to or I’d never get a thing done. I realize now that it has always been about capturing those little ideas that usually come in the midst of doing something else, not in the time I’ve set aside to write. So if anything has eased with motherhood, it’s my acceptance of that fact, and my willingness to record it as it happens and not worry about the many different ways I could have played it or sang it or said it. Kinda like the way I am answering these questions while the kids watch Arthur. No time to try too hard.
I can hear you singing about your mother, your father, your kids, and your partner in these songs. Am I right? Tell me how your family inspires you.
Some people are great at making up stories and characters. Not me. I can’t even make up a bedtime story for my kids. It all comes out of my real relationships. Both of my parents have passed away now. That, coupled with having children keeps me in a perpetual state of reflection and processing of the cycle that we’re all a part of; keeps me wondering if or when I’ll ever feel grown up as I try to guide these little people. My family, and my place in it, is relentlessly inspiring.
What song on your new CD is the most personally powerful for you?
There are a few, but maybe Sweetest Days. I want to be present as it all keeps flying by.
What do you want to do with your music? With your life?
Creatively, I feel more honest than ever before, and therefore more confident. Also less competitive, which is freeing. I am connecting with other wonderful singers and musicians and exploring new collaboration. I want to be playing and writing more routinely, so that it is just woven into my life with all of the rest of my responsibilities. Then I think professional opportunities would come more easily. The practical need to be making a living makes me want to break through in some significant way: songs in films, other people recording my songs. There is not a clear path for an artist like me. It may be about some fluky little opportunity that I can’t even imagine right now (like those two sweet songwriters from the movie Once). That’s why I just want to find a “practice” so that I keep doing it and doing it honestly. I would also love to facilitate other people singing together. Especially kids. Maybe a kids’ choir?
What is your greatest delight?
Singing, singing in harmony with others, listening to my son sing, watching my daughter do sign-language and monkey bars, making soup and eating it with a good hunk of bread and a glass of wine.
Be greedy for love! Leave any comment this week and a sudden burst of inspiration from Jen Lemen, songs from Sally and even more could come your way. Enter your name or enter the name of one of your own sisters who could use some soul support. (And hey: the sister could be a mister too.) Prize winners drawn after 6 p.m. PST this Friday and announced on Saturday. Keep entering to win, and make sure you leave a way for me to reach you with the good news. That means you don’t need to have a blog, but if you don’t, be sure you contact me via email on my Profile page so I can get in touch.
All this week I’m introducing you to mothers of mercy in the order of soul sisterhood. In today’s installment with Jen Lemen, we consider both small and large matters underfoot. And remember to comment here or any day this week to enter my weekend giveaway of inspirational art by Jen and others.
What is the predominant color of clothing in your closet? Why do you suppose that is?
I can’t resist the color brown – even though my little urban family often campaigns for any other color, I wear it so much. I love the way brown can feel earthy and rich at the same time, depending on the texture and the fabric.
Describe your favorite pair of shoes.
I live in a pair of chocolate brown Pumas with light lavender stripes. They’re nice and squishy and they don’t look like ordinary sneakers. When these wear out, I’ll go buy another just like them.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
I have dreams of living for a year in Cape Town, New York or some European city, but the truth is it’s hard to beat where I live right now. My little city is a melting pot of African immigrants and every day friends from faraway places come to my house to cook or visit or tell stories. Nothing makes me happier than being with refugees or immigrants, so I feel incredibly blessed to live here.
What one thing are you going to do this year that could set it apart from any other time of your life?
International travel is not out of the question for me this year. I have a dear friend from Rwanda who would like me to go to Africa to visit the children she left behind. I can only imagine how that kind of journey would alter the landscape of my heart. In the meantime, I’ve always wanted to publish a book, and I think this is the year to do it.
* * *
Oops! She said it out loud.
And for all you seekers: here’s the link for purchasing your own copies of the poster featured above. (One of the not-so-secret prizes I’ll award later this week!)
Be greedy for love! Leave any comment this week and a sudden gust of inspiration from Jen or others could come your way. Enter your name or enter the name of one of your own sisters who could use some soul support. (And hey: the sister could be a mister too.) Prize winners drawn after 6 p.m. PST this Friday and announced on Saturday. Keep entering to win, and make sure you leave a way for me to reach you with the good news.
She calls herself a professional blogger, but those of us who attend regular services at her sanctuary know that description hardly captures the dimension of her spirit. I asked writer and artist Jen Lemen to reflect on her life and work during a week in which I’ll introduce you to a few of my very favorite mothers of mercy in the order of soul sisterhood.
You are from a family of sisters. How intrinsic is sisterhood to your art and writing?
Sisterhood is so major for me, I almost don’t know how to talk about it. I can say this – if my work as an artist or a writer has any hint of the spirit of connectedness or deep trust in the Universe, it’s largely because of the love I’ve experienced from my sisters. We don’t always get along, and there are times when our differences feel personal and painful. But no matter what, my sisters are sewn into the fabric of my heart; it’s hard to think of myself outside of the circle of their love and support.
Do you have the sense of a calling in life?
Since I was a little girl, I’ve had a deep desire to write and also to change the world. It’s impossible for me to think of one without the other. Even now nearing forty, I still want to tell stories that change you and me forever and I want to do it in such a way that you feel inspired to action and filled with hope and love for the world around you.
What is your faith tradition?
I grew up in a Christian family of the low church, born-again variety, but all those labels really don’t do my religious heritage justice. My parents embodied a theology of kindness that didn’t have much patience for rules or dogma. They taught us how to care for the elderly, love the poor, cook for crowds, talk to strangers, show up in a crisis and have fun as a strategy for healthy living. Even though I long ago left the church, I’m still deeply invested in this particular brand of openhearted generosity.
How would you describe your spiritual practice?
My spiritual practice is mostly homemade and borrowed from various traditions. I keep a tiny gratitude journal and set up little altars in my house to mark the travels of my soul, but my real practice is to love strangers and allow the poorest of the poor to be my sage guides and teachers.
There’s more from Jen tomorrow, and more sister inspiration all week.
Here’s your chance to enter the sisterhood. Leave a comment, any comment, many comments this week and you could find a sudden gust of Jen Lemen’s inspiration on your doorstep. Enter your name or enter the name of one of your own sisters who could use some spontaneous soul support. (And hey: the sister could be a mister too.) Prize winners drawn after 6 p.m. PST this Friday and announced on Saturday. Keep entering to win, and make sure you leave me a way to find your email address so I can reach you with the good news.
F-a-d-e to i-n-v-i-s-i-b-l-e. Step b-a-c-k and a-v-o-i-d becoming a p-e-s-t. After my s-n-e-a-k-y p-l-o-t to t-e-s-t her l-i-s-t for this Friday’s spelling bee she did not d-i-s-g-u-i-s-e her c-r-y. “Mom, you are taking over my life!”
Editorial Note: G-r-i-n. H-a-p-p-y. H-u-g. L-o-v-e. T-h-e-s-e are more than words to m-e-m-o-r-i-z-e.