Thursday, May 27, 2021
Friday, April 30, 2021
Nationally, it has been poetry month, but personally, it has been gardening month (with plenty of gravel schlepping!). In the realm of poetry, my collection Hope of Stones was nominated as a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. I wait to hear the results. In the realm of gardening, I planted seeds. I wait to see the results.
I’ve always honored the timeless metaphor of a garden, but it’s one thing to write about it. It’s another to prepare the soil and plant the physical seeds.
Since I’ve spent far more time with a shovel than a pen this month, I thought I’d pull out a poem from Hope of Stones. Unlike the opening line, it is still the “month of April & maybes.” So much waiting. And even more than the results of the book awards, I am excited to see what this coming harvest season will bring.
The more I wonder, the more I love.—Alice Walker
It is no longer the month of April & maybes.
It’s October & root vegetables—the soil-
pulled concretions of harvest. What we seeded
in spring has grown up & down & waits
for us to lift it from the skin of earth.
How silent prayer was revelation & heresy.
The clouds roll in. The leaves redden.
The cat’s coat thickens. We gather
the tangible close & prepare for cold.
How physics is the science of prayer.
One friend is dying. Another is trying to love
someone who doesn’t love her back.
I visit the first friend, & we sit on his deck
watching tractors in the adjacent forest dig
foundations for new houses he will never see.
I visit the other friend & notice the old
potatoes she keeps on a shelf. They’ve
shriveled a bit but have new eyes—new shoots
already looking for somewhere else to grow.
How a perennial can inspire prayer.
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
|The house foundations last August|
Part One: In Which I Vent About the Enneagram (Though I Love It, Too)
If you know a bit about the Enneagram, you know that you are likely one of nine types—and that each type has specific fears and desires and motivations. Learning about this framework helps us understand ourselves and others.
However…I’ve also learned that you can come into this world as one type but can learn to adapt into another type that appears to serve you or others better. And then you can be very confused.
There are various schools of the Enneagram, and many of the types have different names according to which one you study. I believe I came into this world a Four—the Romantic or Individualist. But the world rewarded my ability to be a One: the Perfectionist or Reformer. I joke that I’m either a Perfecting Romantic or Romanic Perfectionist.
From my school years through the first months of my marriage, I lived pretty well as a Perfectionist-Reformer One. Even my creativity was highly structured; I’d embark on a series of 100 portraits, 30 days of painting-poems, et cetera, et-orderly-cetera. It didn’t help that most organized religion and education love achievers—and boy could I achieve. In grade school, I memorized whole chapters of Corinthians for our church version of the Girl Scouts, The Missionettes. (Somewhere, there exists a photo of myself wearing a turquoise polyester sash with all of my badges). I worked to be high school valedictorian. Then I worked even harder to be undergraduate summa cum laude. By grad school, I let myself breathe and settled for magna cum laude. And that was probably because, while I shaped my poetry thesis, I rediscovered a wild creativity longing to play free—uncaged by a rigid grid of quantification.
And then, decades later, I got married. Funny thing about marriage: your True Self emerges in a way it never did before. True union eventually squeezes out anything false. And when two become one, a lot of shit has got to go. (I could make a terrible pun here about two each becoming the most annoying parts of the Enneagram’s Reformer One, but I shall not!)
Suffice it to say, that whatever façade we’ve built basically gets shaken off, and whatever’s underneath probably has some black mold and maybe a rat or two, despite however many years we think we’ve done our spirit excavation.
And also, I married an Eight: the Challenger. Challengers can call your bluff pretty darn well.
Part Two: In Which I Vent About Building a House (Though I Love It, Too)
This all leads me, most indirectly, to the process of building a house—before we’d been married a year. (In fact, as I write this, we are just about to reach our nine-month anniversary).
But before I get to that, I should also mention that it took me until my forties to see an obvious life pattern. During my college years, I worked as a housecleaner—for residential and professional buildings. And then I worked as an editor in some capacity for longer than most starting editors have been alive. Cleaning and editing. Basically, I trained myself to see the mess and the misspelled and to perfect them all. But such tasks, though they felt good when done, didn’t feel good in the process; they felt exhausting and never-ending. I wouldn’t so much celebrate as check off the completion of each round of “perfecting,” even as I braced myself for the next round of trash and typos. Versus celebrating the process—mud ‘n’ all.
And let’s just say that pointing out all the dirt and dialogue flaws is not a beneficial marriage skill. But the long-entrenched One in me—the Perfectionist-Reformer—was so used to doing this, that it was hard to stop. It took me a while to be grateful for the fact that my husband doesn’t really care if things are clean or if every T is crossed. “But these are my strengths!” a part of me kept shouting.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the truer part of myself kept saying she loved going off on muddy river adventures and not needing to analyze the etymology of the kayak term “boof.”
One book on the Enneagram is called The Road Back to You. The One-Me never understood that title. The Four-Me is jumping up and down for childlike joy, saying, “Yes! We’re back!”
Marriage has invited me to return to my creative being: my True Self, the Self who loves paint splatters and rough-edged canvas and impromptu word play for pure fun; the Four who knows that all of life is poetry, not just words on a page—or a specific page count. That Self has risen up alongside our house.
Yes, finally, I get to the house. It has become my metaphor for building a more authentic self and marriage.
Last summer, I took a photo of the foundations—surrounded by heaps of displaced earth. Where wild grass had grown in beautiful abandon, the hillside looked like a jagged scar. But we wanted to build something, and so we had to tear into what was there. We had to make a mess.
Now, a brick home stands on that site, finished, after months of trucks and lumber. But nothing is ever finished, is it? The wake of construction rubble and ruts surrounding the house remind me how ongoing building really is.
|Our first day in the house|
So that Miller quote I opened with; I am still struggling to love the messy process. But now that I’ve been building a life with someone and building a house with someone—I am beginning to get it.
I am also beginning to embrace both the Reformer and the Romantic in myself—and I consciously choose those two labels for the One and the Four. The drive for excellence in the former helped ground the often formless creative sensitivities of the latter. Maybe I’ll call myself a Romantic Reformer—head in the clouds but feet on the ground. Imperfectly trying to bring Heaven to Earth.
The two types in me have finally become one.
Union starts in our very own hearts.
Part Three: In Which I Don’t Vent About Marriage, But Instead Write A Poem About It
O this strange bliss—
mess & misspellings
mud & wonder—
I embrace all
your stains & stars.
|Right after the land became ours last spring|
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
To celebrate this month that celebrates relationships, I decided to write about gaskets.
I don’t think I really knew what a gasket was until we had three needing to be replaced. First to go was my husband’s kayak drysuit neck gasket (which I really didn’t know about). Second was our woodstove door gasket (which I learned how to replace). And third was my little stove-top coffee maker gasket (which apparently gives up if I accidentally leave the contraption on the burner too long).
Once things happen in threes, I start to pay attention. And I start to research meaning. Turns out, the official definition of a gasket is a seal that fills the space between two or more mating surfaces.
Well, if that isn’t a relationship metaphor!
A favorite of the hundred or so books I’ve read on marriage (I exaggerate that number, but only slightly) is Rob Bell’s Zimzum of Love. In it, he explores the ancient Hebrew word zimzum, which essentially means “the space between.” I’m kind of obsessed with this idea. In fact, my first poetry collection many years ago was a little chapbook titled, The Space Between. I look for connections everywhere—for what brings things and people together and what keeps them together.
The best part of the gasket definition? It allows for less-than-perfect mating surfaces between two, irregular parts. Which could be said of the space between two, irregular people.
“So,” I asked myself, “What is the gasket of marriage?”
First, I should explain that my husband and I are very different. We are learning to laugh about this.
He’s Mr. Spontaneity. On a Friday after a long work week, he can grab a jar of peanut butter and head out camping on a whim. I am Mrs. Planner. If we are going camping, I like to A) know about it at least a day in advance and B) pack a cooler brimming with pesto, sliced aged cheddar, pre-chopped onions soaking in olive oil for morning eggs, driving snacks of sea-salt dark chocolate, at least one good bottle of wine, etc. etc.
He’s Mr. DIY. Whether changing the car oil, installing a new dishwasher, or cutting his hair, he’s a do-it-yourself kinda guy. I’m Mrs. Outsource-My-Weaknesses. I like to take the car in for its checkup to my trusty mechanic, hire a handyman to install anything that comes with a lengthy instruction manual and connects to electricity or water, and when I did briefly cut my own hair for a season, it just confirmed that I should leave some things to the professionals.
He’s Mr. Down-to-Earth and says it like it is. I’m Mrs. Pie-in-the-Sky and tend to quote literature aloud. When we watched Starsky & Hutch one night, I recognized the start of a favorite Shakespeare line, quoted by Snoop Dog, “To err is human…” and I spoke in time with the rest of it: “…to forgive, divine.” At dinner parties now, my husband likes to say I quote Snoop Dog, at which point, I start distinguishing between primary and secondary sources.
Whether expressed by a 17th-century bard or a 21st-century bard, forgiveness is something my husband and I both agree on. It’s the gasket of grace. Especially in marriage. And especially when two different people approach life in different ways—which is bound to lead to misunderstandings.
I have a hunch that you don’t need a lot of grace to love someone who’s a lot like yourself. That’s pretty easy. Learning to love difference is a gift in that it does require a lot of grace. Maybe the more difference between two people, the more grace you can have—if you also choose to give it.
I looked up zimzum to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Part of HarperCollins’s definition states: “In marriage, zimzum is the dynamic energy field between two partners.”
We are learning to celebrate the dynamics.
So whether I lean toward my poetic-academic love of Big Words and call it zimzum, or whether I lean toward the practical gasket, I know that whatever seals the space between us will be made of grace.
Wednesday, January 6, 2021
|"Heart Wins," from the Take Heart series|
Once upon a time, I spent the week between Christmas and New Year's reviewing the previous year, evaluating it, and forecasting/goalcasting the year ahead. You might say I was an overachiever with resolutions.
Some years, I was bullet-point specific. Like when I determined to go on an archaeological dig, learn salsa dancing, and take up archery: check, check, check. (I discovered that I hated the heat and dirt of the dig, I wasn’t a fan of prescribed dance steps, but I was a decent aim.)
Other years, I was more open-ended, listing four to five feelings I wanted to cultivate. Once, I painted a four-point compass with harmony at its center and joy, peace, prosperity, and grace as its north, south, east, and west.
At the end of December 2019, while housesitting at a lovely home, high on a hill—as I had for many years—I sat in front of the fire and started my review and projection.
Or I tried to.
I even had a fancy calendar that led you through all the steps with lots of questions to answer and blanks to fill in. (I should note that I am very good about answering all the questions and filling in all the blanks.) And yet, as I flipped through the pages I usually looked forward to filling, I found myself completely uninspired by all the specificity.
For once, I didn’t want to grip the steering wheel of my life so hard and beeline for the next goal. And believe me: I can beeline! From putting myself through undergraduate and graduate school on scholarships to getting a grant to write poetry in Germany for a year to all manner of less scholastic but equally daunting goals since: I. Get. It. Done.
But those last days before 2020, I didn’t want to get it all done. Because I had a hunch that there were things waiting to happen if I were willing to let go of my limited ideas of what I could achieve and maintain in my own strength. And so, to my surprise, I found myself writing the word “Love” in big, loose cursive across all those usually inviting blanks I was “supposed” to fill in.
Fun facts: Just over a month into 2020, I began dating an old friend. Then he proposed. Then we got married. And we have spent the last half year learning the intricacies of love—and I could not have forecast any of them!
So, for 2021, I didn’t buy the fancy, fill-in-the-blank calendar. In fact, I’m using one of those free company calendars. I’m keeping it simple. And I’m metaphorically writing love across every month.
And on this Day of Epiphany—a feast day celebrating the manifestation of the One who is Love—I invite the continual manifestation of Love to us all…in all its unpredictable forms, across all the days of this year.
Sunday, December 27, 2020
When all manner of bad
lands in our laps,
and the mean things
land in our news feed,
instead of responding
we respond in kindness?
we invite the other to dinner,
polish our best manners,
and serve goodness?
we lift a banner of love,
lifting each other up,
until there is no other?
*The illustration above is from Blessings: A Children's Book for Grown-ups, cowritten with my dear mom, Jan Elkins
Monday, November 30, 2020