Books, gratitude

It feels good to feel.

Last Sunday we hiked with the Boy Scouts. It was drizzly and foggy and 40 degrees and definitely not a day I would have left the house if I didn’t have a reason I had to. But we’d committed, so I packed the backpack with snacks and water bottles and extra scarves, and we set off – the three of us and the other three families who were there. Up the mountain, one foot in front of the other. The weekend before I’d hiked this same spot alone when it was 60 and gloriously sunny. (Thanks, Georgia winter.) And that day, my head was running all sorts of meandering directions which is a welcome moment sometimes, but this day, in the damp cold, it was hard to think of much else. Only the task in front of you gets your attention when it requires some physical discomfort it seems.

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We reached the top, and the boys completed a little lesson on pitching a tent and tying knots, and Norah and I found a large rock to perch on for a while. The view behind us usually stretches for miles, but it was all fog. When they were done, we walked down the mountain the same way we’d gone up – one step at a time. Then we got home, both kids laid under blankets on the couch for a while, and lentils simmered in the slow cooker. It feels good to feel something. Even when it is cold or some discomfort or some physical exertion. It feels good to feel.

Mary Oliver died yesterday. My writer-friend texted me while I was standing in line for our annual MLK convocation. I was in academic regalia and huddled in the hallway with other English professors, and then we all filed in the century-old auditorium where the university’s gospel choir met us as we walked in to take our seats. The rousing piano and the raised voices and the row of us in black. It felt like my own little funeral for her. There are memorable moments in each life that etch their shape on your mind forever, and this is one for me. Decades from now, I will say, I know where I was when I found out Mary Oliver died. And I will think of a gospel choir singing “Break the Chains.”

I think I have quoted her here probably more than any other writer. I’ve been reading so many online tributes, all of them beautiful, and one mentioned that she was always purposely ignored by a few high-profile literary critics because her work was so easily accessible. But I know that was with purpose, and I think this was one of the million things she taught me – that simple is perfect and that simplicity can stab you right in the gut where you need to feel it. Why embellish when what is here and real and simple is what pulses anyhow?

She taught me to, as she says, let the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to float a little above this difficult world, and to keep some room in my heart for the unimaginable.

I was flipping through one of my volumes of her work last night before bed, and Jude asked me what I was reading. I explained who she was and that she’d passed that day and that I just wanted to read a few lines to make me feel better. He asked to choose one to read, so I left him alone for a while with it and came back to his insistence that we read Alligator Poem. I read it aloud for us and he asked for another, so I flipped to that old favorite Wild Geese.  Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.

I bought tickets months ago to the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors exhibit here in Atlanta. I’m lucky that my university has a partnership with the High Museum, and we had the place to ourselves for two hours. We could bring ourselves and one guest, and I chose Jude as a treat for him and a rare day just the two of us. I emailed his teacher to explain why he was missing school and she agreed yes! go! It has been nearly impossible to get tickets in Atlanta, and the lines are typically long. I’m grateful for what feels like outrageous abundance allowing us to do this. It was an incredible morning.

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Art touches that place that you cannot get to any other way. And I know this is a very cliché English teacher thing to insist, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t much else that matters. That place, that indescribable space that is both tangible and weightless. People spend their whole lives trying to fill it, and it really is the simplest things that can occupy that hole. We all crave it. It feels good to feel something.

What I feel lately – despite the state of our national affairs and the weather and the early darkness and the weariness that bubbles up in my everyday life and the huge unknown territory in my future – is something like hope. I feel it fluttering in my chest when the gospel choir sings that repeated refrain of I hear the chains falling. I feel it when I read her line, for the millionth time in my dog-eared copy, asking me Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? And I felt it standing in the mirrored room with my favorite boy watching infinite twinkling lights. Beauty can propel me anywhere. It can float me on from here to there.

Mary Oliver’s gift was writing single lines that can slay you. But I want to share some full verses from her work “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” before I sign off tonight. She composed it years ago when she faced a cancer scare, and it speaks for itself in one massive breath that I cannot embellish or admire or talk about except to distract from it.

Thank you, Mary. For the words and the spaces between them. For teaching me how to pay attention.

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I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?

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Frugal Living, gratitude, motherhood, Toddlers

Excess and Imagination: How much is too much?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about excess and materialism – or more specifically, American parents’ need to buy buy buy for our children. Jude’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks and then Christmas is around the corner which means that A LOT of junk too many toys will make their way in to this house in the next few months.  Here’s the funny part, though. We currently have a large basket of toys in the den and a variety of playthings in Jude’s nursery, but I’m realizing he only plays with those for a maximum of about ten minutes at a time. What would he rather be doing?

bothering the dogs……

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making loud noises with pots, pans, bowls, or spoons

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playing with the washer as I unload clothes

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And of course his favorite……touching things he shouldn’t touch.  Buttons on electronics are the most fun.

Other favorites include flipping through board books you can buy for $3 at Target, playing with anything that resembles stackable blocks, climbing the staircase (with my help), playing with my refrigerator magnets, and most of all, playing and talking with mom or dad.  And yet, do we still buy toys?  Yep.  Do we still accept toys as gifts?  Yep.  So I began thinking about it and realizing how little the toys get attention around here and how clutered they can leave our living space, and I requested no gifts at his birthday party.  Yep.  Mean mama.  I know that Emily Post says it’s rude to mention gifts at all on the invitation, so I wavered, but in the end I did it.  I found out from friends of mine who have done the same thing, however, that people bring gifts anyway.  So I decided to be even more rude and ask that guests not feel the need to bring a gift and that their “presence ” was enough but that if you do bring one, we prefer books rather than toys.

Let me say a few things on this.  First of all, I know I am being rude in asking for specific things or nothing at all. Luckily, his party will be about 20 people who know us well, and I’m hoping that these family and friends will be forgiving of my knowing ettiquette blunder.  Let me also say that there is certainly nothing wrong with showering your child with toys on a birthday; birthdays are intended to be special.  It’s just for a ONE year old?  Really?  What does he want or need?  He loves looking at books, and they store easily and you never throw them away.  Let’s be honest for a moment and speculate on what would eventually happen with 20 plastic toys. There is a reason Goodwill is a goldmine for playthings.

So I received some nice comments on the invitations and the insert we put in them, and people seemed to understand my request and the reasons for it.  But then I got a couple of comments recently that were to the effect of you are so weird why would you deprive your son of toys on his birthday which left me feeling like maybe I was the weird, mean mother in making this request of our guests and making a conscious effort to simplify our lives a little.

But then I read an article that is totally validating. I love it when that happens.

In case you don’t have the time to click over to this fabulous article, let me summarize it for you.  Claire Lerner, a child development worker, carried out a study that discovered that too many toys can actually stump a child’s intellectual development, even those toys that claim all over the box that they are “educational.”  Lerner explains, children “get overwhelmed and overstimulated and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn about it, so they just shut down.”  The article quotes another study that determined that expensive toys are a “waste of money” and kids learn “just as much” from your own objects around the home.  One Oxford child psychologist is even quoted as saying “The mistake that many parents make when they buy a toy, especially for very young children, is they get toys that can do a lot, instead of getting toys a child can do a lot with.” The imagination suffers when you have a toy that does it all for you.  So the plastic toys?  The lights?  The noises?  The obnoxious colors?  It turns out that they are not only cluttering our home, but have the capacity to clutter Jude’s brain a little as well.

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So recently we were at a gathering with some other adults with children, and someone noticed Jude was really enjoying playing with a plastic toy that was no doubt as large as the chair I was sitting in at the time.  That person said to me, “Oh!  You should totally get him that for his birthday!” which was a nice, observant comment seeing as though he loved the toy and was enjoying playing with it.  She then asked what Scott and I plan to get him for his birthday, and I sheepishly explained that his one year memory album was his main gift and that I’d purchased some great wooden blocks on Etsy because he loves blocks so much.

Nothing was said in return.

Later in the conversation, another adult chimed in asking if Jude had a large plastic car of his own to drive and when I said no, the reply was “Oh, he needs a car like that.”  Really?  Needs?  I don’t know that needs is the right word.

 

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There’s this beautiful photo that I keep on a side table in our formal living room.  Every time I pass it, it makes me smile.

It’s my Grandmother when she is all of maybe 10 years old.  Here she is, sitting cross-legged in the grass in front of a tiny white house.  It’s a simple photo really, and I know it’s my love for my Grandmother and her family that leads to my adoration of this image, but just look at it.

She’s smiling genuinely.  It’s simple. It’s happy.  It’s beautiful.

My grandmother grew up in that 2 bedroom home with her four brothers and sisters and two incredible parents.  They were a Depression-Era family, and times were tough.  I’m not sugar-coating that.  Did they have a lot of things?  No.  Did they have everything they needed?  And more.  They would eat every day around the same table.  They would listen to the radio together.  They’d sit on the porch and talk after dinner.  They’d play ball in the front yard and my tiny, bun-haired, 4’11” great-grandmother would play with them.  They helped her work in the kitchen, and sometimes they’d help my great-grandfather in the fields.  Through everyday tasks and interaction, they learned that living is an art and imaginary play is a treasure. You know what my grandmother remembers as one of the most happy, most magical Christmases of her childhood?  The Christmas when she got a bottle of nail polish from Santa.  A bottle.  One.  And she was a happy, happy girl.

I know the world has changed so much in the past 70 years, and we can never go back.  But I, for one, often crave that simplicity we once knew.  When Jude grows and I am long gone one day, I don’t want him to remember piles of plastic every birthday and Christmas or what he received as gifts.  I want him to know me, love me, and remember the time I spent with him and the simple joys we shared.