All The Married Ladies

Going to church has become something of a fraught experience in the last year, and not for the reasons people might think. It’s got nothing to do with God or doubts about my faith. It’s got everything to do with the fact that, after years of being happily single, I am now happily in a relationship, and I am discovering that, as Caitlan Moran writes in her book How to Be A Woman, “For some reason, the world really wants to know when women are having children.” I would add that the world also really wants to know when women are going to get married and how their romantic relationships are going, as if their lives have become an ongoing rom-com and the world is its eager, popcorn-eating audience.

I’ve encountered this as a single woman plenty of times, but what I hadn’t realized is that it gets even worse once you’ve been dating someone long enough for it to be considered, you know, a relationship. A few months into mine, a woman I typically speak to about twice a year strode up to me and breathlessly asked, “Are you still dating X?” “Um, yeah,” I replied, unsure of how to interpret her abrupt intensity. “Oh, good! I mean, I haven’t seen you two together in a while, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear! I hope Katherine hasn’t broken X’s heart!'” At which point she laughed like it was all jolly good fun while I wrestled with the implication that I would obviously be the one to end the relationship and break hearts. Granted, X has been through some tragic stuff that the entire church knows about, so there are some pretty high hopes for his happiness and general well-being (no pressure there!), which I get, but still.

About the time X and I hit the year mark of dating, I was coming out of the bathroom at church and ran into a woman I hadn’t spoken to in months. I asked how she was doing, she talked some about her kids, and pretty much the next question out of her mouth was, “Are you and X are still dating?” When I confirmed that we were, she asked, “So are you guys talking about marriage?”

Then there was the time I was washing my hands in the bathroom (no, I don’t spend all my time in the bathroom–it’s just where I tend to run into other women), and in walked a woman whom I’ve been avoiding the last few months. Why? Because the last time I saw her, she’d jubilantly exclaimed, “I can stop praying for you now that you’ve found such a wonderful man!” and then told one of my single friends, “Now we need to pray for YOU!” So there I was in the bathroom, trapped at the sink, and as she started to ask me something (three guesses what), I interrupted her to tell her I had to run because I was on duty in the nursery. Which was entirely true since I volunteer to help out there once a month. My secret satisfaction at having a bullet-proof ‘out’ from an awkward conversation I didn’t want to have burst when she nodded knowingly and said, “The nursery? Good! Getting some practice, eh?”

A few weeks later, I was in the middle of talking to some people, and another woman I’ve had about six conversations with in the past fifteen years snuck up behind me, grabbed my left hand, and crowed, “Just checking!”

I could go on. And here’s the thing. These are nice ladies. The one making comments about getting baby practice and the one grabbing my hand are both bedrocks of our church—the kind of ladies who wear corduroy jumpers and turtlenecks and will drop everything to bake a casserole for anyone in need. They are motherly and sweet and good, and I truly do honor and love them. And the other women who have made comments and asked questions? Also really nice, good, intelligent people.

But I’ve got to be honest: these comments, questions, and little winky moments are really fucking annoying. Here’s why:

  1. While they may not be consciously doing so, they are making some pretty big assumptions. They are assuming that I automatically want to get married and have babies and that these are the only things that will truly make me happy and fulfilled.
  2. They are ignoring (and therefore devaluing) all the other wonderful things going on in my life that are an important part of who I am.
  3. They are being nosy and intrusive about things that are really none of their business.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does still shock me that we are living in 2017 and there are still so many women—married women—who assume that the primary aim of all other women is to find a man and have babies. And yes, I’m singling out women, because I have never experienced a man asking me about my dating life, asking whether I’m talking marriage with my boyfriend, or making comments to me about babies. Men ask me about what I’m reading, how work is going, what TV shows I’m currently watching, and so on. Anyway, back to some women and their assumptions and why I get fired up about this:

  1. Assuming a woman’s highest happiness/fulfillment comes from a husband and children is limiting and even damaging in two ways: it demeans single women and sets up unrealistic expectations for women who do get married and have kids and think that’s going to lead to an automatic happily-ever-after. I have written before about being single, and I can truthfully say that I found that time of my life to be just as meaningful, happy, and fulfilling as my current life of being in a relationship. In fact, part of what makes my current relationship so great is that I came into it NOT looking for it or needing it. I wasn’t looking for a man to fulfill me or make me feel happy or special. X doesn’t have to complete me or fill some hole inside me. And thank goodness, because what a lot of pressure on him that would be and often is for many men and women in relationships. It’s not to say that I don’t need anything from him, but that what I need is for the good of nurturing our relationship with each other, not for fulfilling me as an individual. Loving him and experiencing him loving me is wonderful, but it’s the gravy on an already full plate. And I think that’s really healthy and good—for both of us—and has led to a rich, joyful, and easy-going dating experience with pretty much zero drama. As for babies? That ship has sailed, folks. Have I wanted them in some hypothetical way in the past? Yes, now and then. But when I didn’t have them and it became clear that it was unlikely I was going to have any, I discovered I was really okay with that. And now, as I head toward my 44th year on this earth, I can say without any doubt in any corner of my heart or mind that I definitely do NOT want to have any babies. I am too old and too tired and too interested in other things to want to create a human being that will be dependent upon me for the next 18-20+ years. The weird thing is that admitting this publicly feels a little risky to me because there is a very real possibility that some people might judge me as selfish or unfeminine or whatever other negative things people think about women who admit they don’t really want babies. Do they think the same things about men who either don’t want or are ambivalent about having kids? Do men even get asked about that nearly as much as women do? I don’t have any hard data, but I’m guessing they do not. So, married church ladies, that’s #1. Some women—maybe even a lot of women—really want to find a husband and have babies. But not all women. Some women are equally okay (or even better off) with other kinds of lives, or the men/children in their lives are wonderful but not their entire world.
  2. When people (including women) talk to my boyfriend, they ask him about his kids, which makes sense since he’s got some and, as a widower, he’s a single parent bearing full responsibility for them. But they also (and mostly) ask him about his work and his creative projects and talk to him about things they know he’s interested in and/or has expertise in that have nothing to do with his kids or his relationship with me. They do not see his role as father and boyfriend as his sole identity or interest. Why, then, do women so often define other women according to these roles—even when the other women aren’t in these roles (in which case, they are defined by their ‘lack’)? We are not living in the olden days, where women were defined solely by their relationships to males and children and did not exist as individual adults in the eyes of the law. Women now have the freedom and right to use their God-given talents and abilities in a variety of ways that better the world, and to live many different kinds of lives. Yes, the fact that I am dating a great guy is interesting and exciting. Also interesting and exciting? My job, where I impact hundreds of lives and have to use a high level of skill and creativity daily to educate, inspire, and meet the needs of my students. My writing, which I have dedicated myself to pursuing in a disciplined and meaningful way for over two decades. There’s also travel and literature and music and current culture and politics, etc. All things I love and/or am interested in! The truth is that the large majority of people I encounter at my church and the world at large recognize this and are lovely, gracious, open-minded people who treat me as a whole person and engage with me in all sorts of ways. That’s why I think it’s so jarring when I bump up against those who engage with me only as a Woman-Who-Is-Dating-Someone.
  3. Curiosity does not always justify an inquiry. X’s close friends and my close friends have the right to ask and know how our relationship is going, and really, that’s all who needs to know. I’m not walking up to married women I seldom speak to and asking them how their marriage is going or whether they’ve ever considered divorce. Because that would be rude. Also? Not all dating relationships become marriages. Some people break up. Some people date for a really long time before they get married. Some people get married quickly and eagerly and end up unhappy. There are many different possibilities and outcomes, and adding pressure to two people already engaged in the delicate and complicated business of building a relationship is not helpful. In fact, church ladies, now would be the time to start praying, not stop.

Two Poems

Barbershop

When my sister’s hair began to fall out,
she was told to go to a barber
as he would be more skilled
than the average stylist
in applying the razor
to her tender scalp, which has always
been covered by hair, even if
just a fine baby down,
but would now be laid bare.

She sits in the chair, surrounded by men,
and explains to the barber three times
that yes, she wants him
to shave it all off.
His English isn’t good.
A man who’s brought his son in
for his first cut translates. “Yes, todos–all.”
My sister points to a photo of a muscled
bald man on the wall.

And so it begins, hair falling
to the floor like soft grass cuttings
to be swept up and thrown away.
A pause after each row
so she can reach for a tissue.
The men in the shop fall silent
and avert their eyes, thinking, maybe,
of their sisters or their wives
as the electric razor whines.

(first published in Poet Lore Fall/Winter 2016; www.poetlore.com )

 

The Craftsmen

All the shoe repairers and tailors and watch-battery replacers
are little old men with shiny heads bald
except for the rim of white hair circling
the border of where hair used to be,
and ears and noses where hair still sprouts,
weeds growing out of cracks in the sidewalk.

They stand behind their laminate counters with tired shoulders
and peer with mournful eyes at the offering you’ve brought,
turning it in their hands, shaking their heads,
clucking in the back of their throats.

And just as you are teetering off the precipice into
hopelessness, they nod and say, “Come back Thursday”
and quote a price so low
you feel you should talk them higher.

What will happen when all these little old men,
with their secret knowledge brought with them
from another land and learned in another tongue,
go the way of their fathers?

Who will take over their musty strip mall shops,
the same faded shoes and blouses displayed
since the eighties? Who will fill out the little tags
in shaky pencil and know just how to tighten that shoe
strap or hem your pants or maneuver those tiny
tools into the crevice of your watch to pop it open?

Just think of all the broken heels, pants dragging
in the dirt, the watches gone silent and still.

(first published in The Naugatuck River Review Summer/Fall 2016  https://naugatuckriverreview.com/)

Holy in the Humble (Advent 2016)

Holy in the deep
Holy in the high places
Holy in the blackbird calling
to the morning
that has not yet arrived
Holy in the pain
that cracks the calloused heart
wide open
Holy in the bell’s ring floating
through the evening air
Holy in the many laughing
with a shared joy
Holy in the silence
that hovers in the space
between words
Holy in warm skin
and the clasp of another’s hand
Holy holy holy
is Lord God Almighty
who sparks each
humble miracle
lights each stumbling path

Neighbors, Not Enemies

I’m going to start this post by acknowledging that the last thing anyone really needs is another essay/article/commentary on the election and the current state of our nation. If you are tired of all things related to this topic and would rather not spend another minute of your life on this, especially reading a post by someone with no more knowledge or authority about much of anything (except, maybe, grammar) than you, I completely understand and support you in stopping here. As is usually the case with what I write on this blog, I am writing primarily to figure out my own thoughts, and while I genuinely hope that in doing so I might help one or two other people out there, I harbor no illusions that my ramblings are doing the world any type of great service. I understand that everyone functions just fine without hearing from me. Thank goodness.

A little bit about me related to politics, none of which I have ever shared publicly before: I am registered as an Independent. I tend to favor fiscally conservative policies, but also believe it is the collective people’s responsibility (represented by the government) to provide and care for its most vulnerable members. I’m against the death penalty and for increased gun control. I’m anti-abortion and support banning third-trimester abortions (except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk), but think providing women easier access to IUD’s is a smarter way to reduce abortion rates than attempting to criminalize all abortions. I support gay marriage and the right of any two consenting adults to marry, but I don’t think it’s the government’s place to force a small/private business owner to provide services for a wedding they feel conflicts with their religious beliefs. I think the government has a responsibility to err on the side of great caution and care with regards to the environment and to be proactive in funding research and development of alternative and green energy. I voted for Hillary Clinton, about whom I harbored a number of misgivings, but saw (and still see) her as a more competent and reasonable choice than Trump.

That paragraph was hard for me to write (and will be hard for me to post), because there are statements in it that any number of people, from both ends of the spectrum, might vehemently disagree with and object to. There are assumptions people might make about me and labels (or unpleasant names) that some could find easy to apply to me, especially if they (you) don’t know me personally or only know me superficially. In those cases, all you have to judge me by are those few statements, which can’t even begin to capture the amount of thought I’ve put into all of them over the span of years (often changing my mind) and the doubt I still harbor that I could be very wrong about most of them. Okay, maybe all of them, although I’d like to think that I could be right about at least one.

So why put myself out there and make myself vulnerable to misunderstanding, contempt, or attack? I suppose because I need to be reminded that behind every opinion and stance is a person with a life and context that has shaped and formed them, for better or worse, and to be reminded that I need to be as open-minded and respectful with them as I hope they would be with me. The old Golden Rule, which, as it so happens, is still a pretty good rule.

One of the things I’ve deplored most about Trump and his campaign was his active stoking of and appeal to some of people’s worst traits: fear, bigotry, and misogyny, to name a few. The easiest response to such hateful behavior? Respond with hatred. Someone scorns the rights and dignity of others? Scorn their rights and dignity. They make negative assumptions about entire groups of people? Let’s make negative assumptions about all of them. The Golden Rule might sound nice, but An Eye for An Eye feels so much better, at least in the moment. But the result is a lot of maimed and blind people, not to mention hypocrisy.

As I struggle to wrap my head around this election and the reality that so many Americans seem to truly know and understand each other so little, I’m finding some glimmers of hope in, well, neighborliness. There’s a couple down the street from me who regularly open their garage, set out lawn chairs (as well as wine, beer, and snacks), and host happy hour for anyone and everyone who wants to join them. A couple evenings after the election, I joined them and another couple from our neighborhood. Before long, the election came up. I shared who I had voted for and why, and they all listened respectfully. The hosting couple shared that they had found themselves unable to vote for either candidate, and the other couple shared that they had voted for Trump. They acknowledged their uneasiness with his flaws and explained why they felt he was still the better choice. I drank my wine and listened. And I thought about what I know about them as people.

Though I disagree with their choice, I cannot deny that these are good people, because I know them. In the more than ten years we’ve been neighbors, they’ve opened their home to numerous individuals and entire families who have needed a place to stay, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few years. They once walled off their dining room and turned it into a bedroom for over a year to accommodate one such guest—a woman with health issues who wasn’t able to work and lost her apartment. They also care for three dogs and somewhere between 7 and 9 cats, all strays they’ve adopted. Every time they come to happy hour, they bring plates full of food, eager to share what they have. They are some of the most generous and loving people I’ve ever encountered. They don’t just say they love others; they actually live it out in their actions in a deeply sacrificial way. They are not a stereotype, and they are certainly deserving of respect and compassion for the concerns they shared.

But what about those who are not-so-nice? Shouldn’t we condemn those who mistreat others and distance ourselves from them? Yes and no. Yes, we should speak out against injustice, and yes, we should speak up for what is right and good (assuming we know what that is). But distancing ourselves? Cutting off relationship? I don’t think that’s the answer. I think something approaching the answer is in this story, which details the transformation a white supremacist underwent, causing him to leave a movement he was once the shining star of. It’s an incredible story, and what struck me most in reading it was that his change of heart came from a classmate who invited him over for a Shabbat dinner and other attendees of that dinner who were equally willing to engage with this young man. Had they shunned and condemned him in the way he might have deserved in some of their eyes, he might still be a white supremacist. Instead, they treated him as a neighbor, inviting him to their table, and connecting with him as a person first, viewpoint second.

Scripture commands me to love my neighbor as myself, which can be interpreted as “love your neighbor as much as you love yourself” and/or “love your neighbor as though that neighbor were actually you.” Both require engagement and connection. Both require sacrifice and a valuing of the “other.” I struggle with this, but I’m recognizing I can only get better at it when challenged by those who differ with me and are different from me.

So, in the words of Mr. Rogers, won’t you be my neighbor?

 

 

Reality

Lately, unless you are completely unplugged from media (social and otherwise), you cannot escape politics and the near-constant flood of Trump/Clinton stories, along with analysis of and heated opinions about these stories, followed by arguments about said analyses and opinions. I’ve found myself reading (sometimes against my better judgment) long threads of arguments in the comments sections of people’s Facebook posts about one candidate or the other. There have been a few instances where this has been genuinely informative and given me some good things to think about and investigate. But mostly this has been, for lack of a better term, a huge bummer, albeit a fascinating bummer.

The bummer part is how deeply entrenched most people seem to be in their current position and worldview, and how completely unwilling many of them are to allow for even the slightest possibility that they might be wrong, or that they might not know as much as they seem to think they know, or that the way they’re thinking and coming to conclusions might be flawed. There are a lot of people out there who are absolutely certain they know what is true, and everyone who disagrees or doesn’t think like they do is a fool and/or terrible person and/or insert-dismissive-all-encompassing-generalization-here. It’s as though they have coated their reality in Teflon, and nothing that might contradict or add even the slightest shade of grey can penetrate. Or at least that’s my perception—one that can make me want to plug my ears and close my eyes and hide out in some cave until after the November election.

On the other hand, I also find all of this behavior fascinating because it gets me thinking and wondering about all kinds of interesting things, which is something I happen to enjoy. For example, are people really more entrenched in their worldview/rightness now than, say, fifty years ago, or does it just seem that way because of social media and the fact that we are exposed to so many more people’s opinions than we were when we had to talk to each other directly or just read a few angry letters in the newspaper? Is the flood of information we now have access to making people feel more knowledgeable and informed (even though some of that ‘knowledge’ is specious), and that’s part of the problem?

It also makes me think about the nature of reality, which is often far more fluid and difficult to nail down than most people like to acknowledge. I’m not talking about pure relativism here. I actually believe that there are some absolutes and fixed realities in the universe. But what I question is our capacity to actually perceive and correctly interpret these absolutes and realities.

When I was in college, I borrowed a book from my brother to read on a long flight called Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. It was my first introduction to a physics that I actually found interesting, high school physics seeming to consist mostly of math equations, which I did not enjoy at all. I don’t remember much from that book as it’s now been over 20 years since I read it and my brain doesn’t hold on to information like that very well, but one thing I clearly remember was Kaku’s discussion about various dimensions whose existence has been mathematically proven by really smart people. However, these dimensions remain in the theoretical realm as we simply don’t have the capacity to physically perceive them. To illustrate this, he gave an example of a two-dimensional stick figure drawn on a piece of paper. If a three-dimensional ball were to pass through the paper, the two-dimensional man would only see a point stretching into small circles, widening to larger circles, then constricting back into smaller circles back down to a point. He would then run around excitedly to his friends, telling them about this weird phenomenon of circles and points, not understanding or having the capacity to conceive of something entirely different. Namely, a ball.

This kind of blew my mind, which is probably why I remember it and nothing else, because it gave me a metaphor for my interaction with all of reality. How often, I wondered, did I only see a small and distorted part of the whole, interpreting the fragment I could perceive and classifying it as something that was completely other from what it really was? When it came to my understanding of God, it was easy for me to say that that was probably true 99% of the time. But what if that were true for other aspects of my life—my perception of the people around me, of situations I was in, my understanding of the world around me, my perception of myself? In a way, I have my older siblings to thank for being open to the possibility that I might be wrong or have incomplete knowledge on a regular basis. Growing up, they were always smarter than I was, more knowledgeable, and if I ever brought up a memory of something none of them remembered, I was told that I had “dreamed it.”

The more education I’ve had and the more I’ve read, watched, listened to, and people I’ve engaged with, the more I realize how regularly I’m wrong, whether it’s in assuming something based on not much of anything or seeing only a part of the picture. For example, for the past two years, I’ve been reading through the book of Genesis and Exodus with two friends, one of whom is an Old Testament scholar. Stories that have been long familiar to me, that I’ve assumed I’ve fully understood, have become completely new to me due to this friend’s knowledge of ancient near eastern culture, the Hebrew language (and the wordplay often at work in OT literature), and the careful attention to detail and analysis of those details by both friends. Another example: assuming that systemic racism wasn’t really a thing these days except in some isolated circumstances, then reading article after article, historical and statistical documentation, personal narratives, literature, watching documentaries, plays, etc. that have completely contradicted that assumption.

What I am realizing more and more as I get older (and, hopefully, a little wiser) is that the closest we can get to a complete truth or reality is through a multiplicity of sources and people, and disagreeing ones, at that. Such tensions, rather than posing a threat, actually open the way to understanding something greater than our pea-brains can conjure all by themselves. In discussing reality and poetry, Christian Wiman asserts that with the greats, there is “some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.” He goes on to refer to what physicists call “quantum weirdness.” I explored that term for myself and came across an article in the NY Times, which explains this phenomena through an experiment involving electrons being fired at a screen. Through various tests and under different conditions, the electrons behave in baffling ways, pointing to completely contradictory conclusions about the known physical realities of electrons. The author concludes, “What this research implies is that we are not just hearing different ‘stories’ about the electron, one of which may be true. Rather, there is one true story, but it has many facets, seemingly in contradiction.”

Our country could learn a thing or two from physics—namely, that the person we disagree with most might have an important piece of the whole. Might they also be repugnant and offensive to us in some way and maybe wrong about a lot of stuff? Absolutely. But to dismiss what contradicts or offends us entirely risks dismissing a facet of the truth, keeping us stick figures stuck on a page instead of fully alive to the world around us. Reality, then, is most complete in community—not just with those who are like us, but those completely other.

Haste

During dinner last night, a friend shared her concern that her daughters  are diving into intense and committed relationships at ages 19 and 21 and exclaimed, “Why are they in such a hurry? Everyone is rushing everything these days, but there’s time! There’s time to fall in love and get married and have kids and do what you want to do in life!” She then added, “I mean, there’s not time, in one sense, but in another sense, there is.” Which pretty much sums up a conundrum I’ve wrestled with for years. Life is short, time flies, and yet we create our own realities of life and time through mindset, habit, and lifestyle.

The many conveniences and options we have available to us are simultaneously an amazing luxury and an overwhelming source of time-distortion. We have machines to cut hours of labor out of our lives, make travel from one distant location to another a fraction of what it would otherwise be, and have learned to be impatient when it takes a website more than two seconds to load. Things can be done more quickly, which makes us want to do more. If we want to relax with a little entertainment, we have literally thousands of options—cable TV channels; streaming movies or TV shows from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and dozens of other platforms; access to thousands of book titles, music options, and podcasts that we can download with the click of a button. Then there’s the internet, and the millions of articles, videos, and blogs (sorry) to read, watch, and listen to. It’s not uncommon for me to turn on my computer to check and send a couple e-mails, something that should take about 10 minutes, only to find myself still at the computer an hour and a half later due to some rabbit hole I’ve gone down because of something on my screen that looked enticing (gaarr, Facebook!)—an interesting article, a funny video, a recipe that promises to be easy and delicious using only 4 ingredients that will give me a flat belly. This doesn’t even include all the other daily busyness: working, doctor’s appointments, going to the dry cleaner’s, meeting up with friends.

And because there is so much to do and see and it all seems so (theoretically) attainable, time is constantly slipping away. As a result, I try to speed everything up. I hurry and rush. I multitask, my attention often skipping from one thing to the next without ever quite settling. I know I’m not the only one, and I wonder about the impact of all these conveniences and options on our collective psyches and the way it shapes our culture as a whole, which I know has probably been written about extensively and I could read all about by just typing a few key words into Google. But I’m just going to wonder about it for myself for now. Is it impacting my friend’s daughters, causing them to hurry even in potentially life-changing situations because that is the mode they are accustomed to operating in, or are they just being typical young people with a tendency towards speed and intensity? In what ways do all of us rush and hurry in all areas of our lives (including emotional and spiritual) because that’s become our default modality?

I think of another friend whose washing machine broke mid-cycle a few weeks ago. She had to take out all of her clothes, rinse and wring them as best she could in her sink, then put them into the dryer. Just the rinsing and wringing of one load took her over an hour. In relating this story, she expressed sympathy for women doing laundry prior to washing machines and dryers, and we marveled at how just that one task would take all day in “olden times.”

While I’m deeply thankful not to have to spend entire days washing my clothes, it does make me reflect on the differences between spending all day on one clear task vs. rushing through twenty different tasks. Time would definitely feel like it was going by more slowly, and I imagine there might be more peace. Less stress and less anxiety. Probably a lot more soul-killing boredom and drudgery as well. But if one replaces doing laundry with something more enjoyable and meaningful (not to say that clean laundry doesn’t have its importance), the entire self devoted to a single action and purpose for an extended period of time, it seems like it could offer a kind of antidote to the plague of hurry and rush. Or at least a balancing corrective.

Poet Theodore Roethke seems to think so. In his words, “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” This is a guy who died long before personal computers and smart phones, but apparently haste was already a marker of life in the first half of the 20th century. I find this to be such a true and insightful comment, because it recognizes that there is a cost to haste and that our lives tend to be full of “everything else”: things that consume our hours but don’t really have any lasting or deep significance. And the antidote comes from “art.”

I think this is a big part of why I’ve always loved poetry and why I’ve been particularly drawn to reading and writing it in the last several years. Poetry and haste are completely antithetical. You can’t skim a poem. Truly, you can’t (try it). The way poetry is written demands careful attention, thoroughness, and a slow pace. To really get a poem and appreciate it, you have to invest some time, lingering over particular words and phrases, considering line breaks, visualizing images. The same thing is true of writing it. Those poems that come out in a rush intacto, the ones you don’t have to do much to, are wonderful but also rare. Most of the time, poems need a lot of work to become good poems. I can lose hours playing with line breaks and form, figuring out what can be cut, what words or phrases can be reworded to be stronger, what images or metaphors are most effective, what will produce the best rhythm and music in a line, etc. I enjoy going through this process in editing my friends’ poems just as much. And even though those hours are “lost” in the sense that I lose all track of time and more of it goes by than I usually anticipate, that passage of time produces a very different effect from spending that time on other kinds of activities.

After spending a large chunk of time reading articles online, watching TV, or meandering through Facebook, I typically feel a sense of anxiety and, in some cases, guilt/disgust. The time feels wasted. Though I might experience some enjoyment or pleasure in the moment, those positive feelings rarely last beyond that moment. Instead, my most typical response when I look at the clock is to spring into action, rushing to get through whatever’s on my list for the day and make up for the time lost. However, when I spend time reading literature and writing, I come out of those hours with a sense of deep contentment and satisfaction that lasts the rest of the day. On those days, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t get to some of the things on my list. I am freed from guilt and hurry.  Yes, I may have spent half an hour writing and rewriting the same two lines, but that doesn’t feel like wasted time.

I don’t know that what I’m engaged in is capital “A” Art, but it’s at least an orientation and movement toward art, which I think serves the same purpose. And, as someone who has a tendency towards haste (as anyone who’s driven in a car with me can tell you), this is a wonderful thing, a discipline in taking my time. I experience this when I play the piano and pray as well. “Art” can encompass many things, after all. For some, it might be drawing or photography; for others, gardening or tinkering on a car’s engine. Rather than defining it by whether or not it can be hung in a museum or published in a journal, Roethke defines it by how it affects our relationship with time. And that’s a definition I find beautiful and, well, timely.

Ginger

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I recently came across this photo as I was cleaning out the closet in my guest room, a project that got far enough to turn said guest room into complete chaos and no further. This glamour shot, taken when my mother was a teenager in the 1950s and displayed on a bookcase in my grandparents’ home, was little more than a curiosity when I was growing up–evidence of a life that I was only minimally interested in because it had nothing to do with me. With the egocentricity typical of a child (or maybe I was just a self-centered little monster), I didn’t think much about my mother being anyone other than my mother—the woman who made me dinner, yelled at me to unload the dishwasher, and kissed me goodnight before bed.

That changed somewhat as I got older, and somewhere in my teens and early 20s, our conversations shifted to include more of her history and the life she had before she became a wife and mother. But I was still fairly self-involved in my 20s, and the maturing process I went through to truly become an adult was her illness and death. Now that another fourteen years have passed and I am (gasp) a middle-aged person with students as old as my mother was in that photograph, I find myself reflecting on the complexity and contradictions of my mother’s life and identity—the fuller picture of a woman who wasn’t just mom, but an individual with a life and traits that defy easy categorization.

Ginger (she hated her given name, “Virginia”) felt everything deeply and intensely—love, anger, empathy, judgment, anxiety, joy—and she expressed it vocally. No one could accuse my mother of repressing her emotions. In our house, we saw them on full display every day. The stress of raising four children and the nearly constant pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia made her yell. A lot. And she could be harsh. But the same woman who could scream, “How could you be so stupid!” could also be incredibly tender and compassionate. I’ll never forget the time I found her standing at the living room window, staring at something in the park across the street from our house. When I asked what she was looking at, she pointed out a mother walking with her two young children. She was holding an infant in her arms and was trying to get a toddler to keep riding his toy tricycle. But the toddler also wanted to be held and refused to pedal the tricycle. The mother was forced to keep walking, carrying the baby in one arm and the tricycle in the other while her toddler ran behind her, sobbing and screaming out, “Mama!” My mother watched this unfold with tears in her eyes, murmuring, “Poor thing, poor thing.” At first I thought her compassion was for the child (and I’m sure some of it was), but then she said, “She can’t carry them both,” and I realized her tears were for the mother.

Motherhood was the be-all and end-all for Ginger, which my siblings and I mostly benefitted from, although there was also a bit of a downside. Her dedication to raising us (reading countless books on the subject, not to mention preparing thousands of healthy—if sometimes unappetizing—meals for us) was absolute, and she raised my sister and me with the ideology that being a wife and mother was the best and most fulfilling role for a woman. Even though my sister and I excelled academically and loved the intellectual life of our college experiences, my mother, who had quit her job upon marrying my father, discouraged us from pursuing graduate school (lest we become “too intimidating” to men) or any career that might be “too demanding” to raise a family. Though I have found deep joy and contentment in a very different kind of life than my mother lived or envisioned for me, it has still made me feel a little alienated from her—or at least my memory of her—to care about and pursue things that are so different from what she cared about and pursued. Or so I’ve thought.

Unearthing this photo reminded me of who and what else my mother was. She was a woman who left her family and home in Minnesota as a teenager to complete a B.S. and, subsequently, nursing degree at the University of Colorado. She was adventurous enough to go to Germany with a friend and work as a student nurse for six weeks in order to earn enough money to travel around Europe. Once she became an R.N., she had the gumption to drive to California in a VW bug and take a position as a public health nurse in the city of Pasadena. She had the nerve to marry a Chinese immigrant in the 1960s, in spite of the fact that both families were adamantly opposed to the marriage and people in her hometown openly stopped, turned around, and stared at her and my father walking down the street because they’d never seen an Asian before. Not in person, at any rate. She gamely went to Taiwan with my father and my one-year-old brother to meet my father’s family for the first time, beaming in every photo I’ve seen of that trip even though she must have been wildly intimidated by her complete ignorance of the language and customs. Not to mention going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. She also had the strength of character and conviction to recognize that the church we had all been part of for so long–the one she and my father had met and married in–had a number of serious issues, and that we needed to leave it, a conviction that was, in part, inspired by reading the novel 1984 (part of her good mothering was that she kept up with what we were reading in school).

All to say, while my mother was deeply conservative and traditional in many respects, her life and character had its radical components as well. And this daughter, who also feels deeply and tries to live authentically according to her convictions, who loves travel, independence, and a life of the mind, might not be so different from her mother after all. At least not in the ways that matter.

Power Loss

This morning as I was drinking tea, listening to classical music on the radio, and about to open my e-mail on my laptop, the radio suddenly went silent and the internet went down. When I went to investigate, I discovered that I had no power in any outlets. My ceiling lights were still working, so I remained fairly calm, assuming that something had tripped a circuit and I just needed to do a little reset. But flipping the power breakers had zero effect. At this point, my calm began to fray a little. I texted a few people (struggle demands witness, after all) and decided to go to church and figure things out when I got back. I think part of me was hoping the problem would go away if I ignored it for a little while. But the power was out in my garage as well. I know how to disengage the little doohickey so that I can manually open the door, but when I pushed against its heavy solidity, all I managed to do in the zero-traction shoes I was wearing was slide myself back a foot or two. Not in the mood to wrestle with the door and realizing I should probably start making some calls for help, I went back into the house. After searching for some local electricians using the internet on my phone, I left several messages, then proceeded to slide into further agitation. Because now all I could do was wait.

What, oh what, was I to do with myself? I couldn’t watch TV to pass the time. I hate reading and composing e-mails on my phone. Which only left about 25 other options. I could call a friend, I could attack some type of cleaning/organizing task in my house, I could write, and I have enough reading material in my house to last me about the next 20 years. In fact, I frequently bemoan how little time I have to sit and read. So why was I so paralyzed? Because this wasn’t something in my control. Because I hadn’t planned to do those things. Because I felt helpless, and I really really hate feeling helpless. This unpleasant confrontation with just how dependent I am on my electronic devices and internet reminded me of another such encounter from a week ago: namely, forgetting my phone and driving down the freeway realizing that if I got in an accident and ended up in the hospital, I wouldn’t be able to call anyone because I didn’t have anyone’s phone number memorized and could end up suffering alone for days before anyone would figure out where I was and find me (I’m a regular Pollyanna). I made a mental note to myself to do something to remedy that, and this morning is when the note finally resurfaced.

Scrolling through the contacts in my phone, I wrote down several numbers on a little card that I put in the back pocket of my wallet (I will attempt memorization some other time). Then I sat around feeling helpless and frustrated some more, then got upset that I was getting upset. The fruit of this double-upset was a new determination not to be trapped by my circumstances and, wearing different footwear this time, I went back out to the garage, tapped into my anger, and heaved the door open Hulk-style. At this point, one of the electricians called back and said he could be at my house in a couple hours. Hooray! A light at the end of the tunnel! I drove to Trader Joe’s, full of upbeat optimism once again. I navigated the busy aisles like a pro, weaving between distracted shoppers and grabbing items off shelves with systematic efficiency. I even found a checkout line that had just opened up. And then I discovered that I’d left my wallet on my dining room table, full of my emergency contact numbers, as well as all my cash and credit cards. Mortified, I offered to put everything back, which was rejected by the cashier, who said “it’s no problem” for them to do it for me, although the subtext I read was “It’s totally a pain in the ass, lady, but this is what I have to say to customers who are too stupid to bring their wallets with them.”

When I got home, I found that my entire house was now without power. As I walked from room to room trying not to wring my hands and wondering what the heck was going on, it suddenly all turned on–lights, stereo, internet. And a couple minutes later, a giant utility truck from the city went rumbling past my window. Though I am at a loss to explain how my house only lost some of it’s power due to a city power grid/utility issue, it seems that was the problem all along and it was now fixed. I immediately sent word to my friends and family so they could get on with their lives, cancelled my appointment with the electrician, and decided to attempt another trek to Trader Joe’s, this time with my wallet. I confess that I changed my clothes and put my hair in a pony tail, which I could argue was because I wanted to get out of my nice(ish) church clothes and get my hair out of my face, but really I was just hoping that no one at Trader Joe’s would recognize me.

Some take-aways from this morning’s adventures (you know, like you sometimes get in a Sunday sermon):

  1. I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I did everything that any other person who is not an electrician could have done. When my engineer brother who lives on the opposite coast texted me suggestions, they were all things I already knew and had tried. I know where my circuit breakers are and what to do with them. I also know, from past breakdowns in power and mechanics, how to open and close my garage door by myself. With the right shoes, that is. I am also pretty competent at using a phone and calling for help. One of the things that can contribute to my emotional meltdowns when house problems occur is an irrational but weirdly convincing fear that everyone else who lives in a house knows how to handle these things better than I do and that I am not competent enough to live in a house by myself. Which is not true. I’ve been living here for a decade now, and have overseen and dealt with two bathroom renovations, a flooded kitchen, landscaping, a new section of roof installed, and more minor repairs and patches than I can remember. Sure there are people out there with far more capability than I have, but there are also people who have less. And a lot of people who are probably at about the same level. All to say, yes, I can live in a house by myself and not die.
  2. There are some really nice electricians in my area. Besides the one who said he could come out later, two other electricians called me back and, in spite of the fact that my voicemails were left in the desperate tone of someone willing to cash in her retirement savings to get this situation resolved as soon as possible, did their best to help me over the phone so I wouldn’t “have to pay someone to push a button or flip a switch” as one of them put it. Even though their suggestions didn’t work, it was encouraging to realize there are some good guys out there. I am saving their numbers.
  3. All that mumbo jumbo out there about mindset creating reality is kind of true. Okay, very true. The reality is that this morning I was totally fine and I had plenty of useful and enjoyable things I could have done sans outlet power and the internet. Instead, I spent a lot of time dithering, not to mention driving and shopping fruitlessly, because of my emotional state and the fact that my brain could not deal with the unexpectedness of this turn of events. But here is what is also true: even though I knew I was over-reacting and being a ninny, I couldn’t stop. And getting upset with yourself and telling yourself to get a grip and stop getting upset! is about as effective as going to the store without a wallet.
  4. Frustrating and silly situations can turn into writing material. Even though I’ve been writing poetry pretty steadily in the last few months, I haven’t really been able to think of anything to write about here, and I’ve been missing it. While (let’s be honest) there’s not a whole lot of value to this post in and of itself, the fact that this morning’s kerfuffle got me to write something and have fun with it redeems it at least a little.

 

 

Three Poems

Walking with Benen

He is telling you about the turtles, how there were seven of them, no, actually seven frogs, but lots of turtles too, and a large snapping turtle who was this big, and they caught them and held them, but no, they didn’t keep them, they put them back in the water and none of them were hurt and they were really happy, the frogs and the turtles, of which there were many, tons of them, and the urgent joy in his eyes and his motioning hands and the little skipping walk, as if forward is not enough motion but up and down too, and his hoarse bright voice rising, rising above even the generations-old trees with their low swooshing of leaves, because the turtles and frogs, with their legs and beaks and beady eyes, are the whole world, and you want to take this world and tuck it in your pocket and carry it always, like a bright jewel or a stone smoothed by many waters.

(first published in The Lake http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/nov15a/)

 

What a Poem Is

Both wound and consolation
the wound being truth
the consolation also.
Not truth as a scalpel
cold, precise
but more as a silken net cast wide over the world
and gathered back full
of living things.

Worded desire
or a loss unfurled like a towel shaken out
before you lay it to rest on the sand.

The rope thrown over the edge of the cliff
and the someone on the other end
to pull you up.

The pluck that sets you thrumming.

Little torn off corners of eternity you can stuff
in your pocket.

The old man inching his way through the evening air,
the metallic plink of his walker marking his steady progress.

(first published in The Lake http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/nov15a/)

 

The Headline Reads Processed Meat Causes Cancer, Says WHO

and again I hear my mother’s voice, Says who?
challenging some claim asserted
by an expert on the radio or the President
in his State of the Union address—Says who?
she would throw back, wearing her flowered apron,
her arms akimbo, the roll in her eye visible
even when we couldn’t see her face.
No authority save God was safe from her
Says who?

Says the World Health Organization, Mom, that’s WHO,
I’d tell her if I could.  If she hadn’t died fourteen years ago
of a cancer no one had heard of, not even the specialists,
even though she disdained processed meat and ate more fruits
and vegetables than anyone I know.  Because whatever we eat
or drink or smoke or think, we’re all going to die someday.
Says who? A little patch of green under an arching tree,
the bronze letters on a plaque spotted with rain.

(first published in Rattle  http://www.rattle.com/poetry/the-headline-reads-processed-meat-causes-cancer-says-who-by-katherine-lo/)