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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Georgia Love, gratitude

Open. Alive. Here. So far. Now.

We spent part of our day at the small strawberry farm that we visit every year. It is close to home and familiar, and by now, the kids know its hilly landscape and gravel drive. We arrived around 11:00am today, and Georgia springtime showed up for us in her very best way.

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It’s the beginning of the growing season here, so many of the berries are still firm and green, and it took some hunting to find red ones. They were there though, shining like jewels under the wide green leaves. The kids would spot one far away and take off running to get it. It took us a while to fill two large buckets, but eventually we did.

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We followed berry picking with a little time in the farm’s petting zoo and playground, and we ended up on a wagon ride where we ran into neighbor friends. I can hardly believe the community that emerged for us in the past year or so. It’s a natural thing, nothing spectacular. But this house and these sweet spots so close to home and these friends we’ve made — they’ve all worked together to build roots when I didn’t even see it happening. And now here we are, settled in our lives as a family of three. Watching seasons come with familiar sights and faces. It’s all so ordinary, but it feels miraculous sometimes.

Simple things fascinate kids at these ages. I know this is a limited window in the grand scheme of things. I’m glad that — despite the chaos and demands of life with two little ones — the joy is easy to come by. Any little trip to see something new can feel like such a treat to them.

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We arrived home three hours later with pink cheeks and more strawberries than I know what to do with. My two shared berries with neighborhood kids on the back patio while playing with sidewalk chalk all afternoon. I could hear them scheming elaborate ideas with friends just as I remember doing the same with my cousins when I was younger. They made their own bird feeders from ice cream cones with peanut butter and birdseed while we were at the farm, and this afternoon, we hung them on the tree I can see from our kitchen window.

Today wasn’t all perfection. Their sibling bickering this morning almost killed me. I’m bone tired and was relieved to get them in bed asleep tonight. I’m listening to the dryer hum right now as I’ve settled in to write a bit, and I’m thinking of the mountains of laundry still left to do this weekend. The sticky floors I need to deal with tomorrow. I’ve got stacks of essays to grade and more coming in on Monday, and the final deadlines of the semester are looming over me and feeling impossible. I’ve got bills and worries and so many unanswered questions as I look at the stretch of weeks in front of me.

But the universe just delivers sometimes when you’re paying attention enough to see it. The sunshine, the spring breeze outside all day, the berries, their intent little faces as they hunted for the ripest ones. It pierces in the best way when I let it. As for the never-ending stress amidst the rest of my life, I don’t know. But spring Saturdays don’t happen often, and today we honored what was here for us.

In her poem “Landscape,” Mary Oliver writes, “Every morning I walk like this around / the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart / ever close, I am as good as dead. / Every morning, so far, I’m alive.” That’s all I can say sometimes, but I’m finding that it’s all that matters, too. Open. Alive. Here. So far. Now.

Summer is coming. It’s about to bust wide open in that way it always does in the deep south. Produce stands are popping up along roadsides already, and soon enough the days will stretch long and hot. Here we go again. Like every year before but like something completely new.

 

 

 

 

 

gratitude

to pay attention

My February calendar is a scary sight. The entire month does not present one “normal” week that follows our usual routine. Doctor appointments here and there – for me and also for the kids. A work conference that overlaps a couple of weekdays as well as part of a weekend. Not to mention the usual craziness that comes with kids stricken with cabin fever and sniffling in the usual winter fashion. Norah graciously shared her preschool germs with me, and nighttime sounds like a tuberculosis ward in our house. Cough cough, groan, reach for a tissue. On repeat for much of the night.

We are reaching for the smallest signs of spring. The kids and I walked to the playground to soak up some sun a couple of weeks ago when then weather surprised us one afternoon. When I arrived home tonight, neighborhood kids were already in the yard throwing a football to soak up a few last minutes of winter sun.

It’s when you are trudging through the hard stuff that you look intently for any little glimmer that shows you that warmth is around the corner. And it always is. It’s funny how those little seconds can push you through. The littlest break from something hard can encourage you to keep walking.

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I’m beginning a couple of weeks of a poetry study in my Research & Writing class. My throat is scratchy, and I’m tired. The temperature yesterday hardly reached freezing, and the wind was miserable. But as I prepped for class in my drafty office, I steeped some ginger tea and settled in for a minute to remind myself how much I love a good poem. How hard poets work to make it all seem simple, how they express the feelings that have no other name and no real language. I think what I appreciate most about poetry is its ability to boil down a single second, a single moment in time, a single image. It distills it until all that is left is its very essence.

It’s a skill I wish I could do more of in my real life. Only seeing this moment for what it is.

Tomorrow is a holiday for Jude’s school district, so the kids are away from me tonight. It feels strange and wonderful – but mostly just strange – to have a quiet house with no demands on a weeknight. I’m usually running bath water at this hour to get both kids cleaned up. Or cleaning the dinner dishes while checking off a manic to-do list in my head. Or packing Jude’s lunch while waiting on the dryer to buzz with a fresh load of clothing that needs prompt attention.

And tonight, I am here writing instead. Alone. Quiet.

I soaked in a steaming tub at 5:30pm and listened to music. I reheated our favorite soup that is leftover from Tuesday night. I poured a glass of wine and layered my favorite blanket on my lap to sit here and write a minute and see where it goes.

It’s so easy to look ahead at a list or a calendar or a monumental task that is waiting for me. And sometimes you have to look ahead to keep up. But to be here now, to see the immediate moment for what it is and nothing more – that is both a challenge and a comfort.

We were sharing favorite poems in class yesterday, and I read my favorite Mary Oliver – a poem that always reminds me what it means to pay attention.

 

“The Summer Day” 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

And really what more is there? To be idle and to pay attention. That’s where the golden light hides. Rumi says, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are 100 ways to kiss the ground.”

Even in the depth of winter, I’m kneeling and kissing. Poetry, homemade soup, music, silence. The beauty I love is what I do.