Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Process

I just finished pulling together a collection of my poems for a contest that I'd really, really, really like to win.

It provided me with one heck of a learning experience. I'm by no means the first writer to be astonished by my own process, but I am. I am 100%...amazed by how my writerly brain works.

The main cause for pause? There's very little writing in my writing. I think accepting this may be the number one thing I need to do to nurture my creative side. Honestly, my Puritan work ethic equates productivity with worth. I hear my grumpy old New England forefathers grudgingly admitting I can fool around with that writing stuff as long as I can produce X pages a year and get paid.That's the American way, right?

But if I can sit with myself, if I can make peace with the fallow times, if I can accept that the bulk of my creative iceberg lies below the surface, maybe I can finally commit to writing.

So, just for fun, I made a pie chart. And then I learned something else: I am entirely mediocre at dividing up pie charts. But, for what it's worth, here's a pie chart of my writing process.


Also, please feel free to making offerings to the spirit of Emily Dickinson on my behalf between now and April 30. Thanks!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dear Bougainvillea




I've had a love-hate relationship with the bougainvillea next to our driveway since the moment we moved in. It's a thorny, sprawling bush planted TWO FEET from our driveway. It could literally grow three or four feet overnight after a rainstorm, so it needed constant trimming.

Our tree guy refuses to deal with any bougainvillea bushes after an epic battle he once had with one. So it stayed. Eventually, I got the brilliant idea to turn it into a tree. We cut back every branch below my head. During this process, I stood up, hit my head on a branch, and acquired the one-inch thorn in my scalp that stayed there all the way through the Tough Mudder. 

But it worked. Trimming the bougainvillea got much easier, it only scratched up the roof of the car after growth spurts, and it looked charming--flowers on top, bird house and flowers underneath. I could almost like the dang thing, even if it required several solid hours of attention every time I did yardwork. And do you know how hard it is to stick thorny branches in a yard bag? Oy.

Unfortunately, the trunk wasn't sound; trimming it like a tree made it a bit top-heavy, too. It toppled in a windstorm a few weeks ago. And, with profound apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and everyone associated with the cultural phenomenon Hamilton, I could only think of this:

Dear Bougainvillea, what to say to you?
You had long thorns
You had bright magenta blooms
When we bought our little house, you grew and it broke my heart
I’ve dedicated so much time to you
Gardening work was never quite my style
 
But when you grew, you scratched my car up and I pruned you back
And I thought I was all done
Then you’d grow three feet after a rainstorm
I’d bleed and fight with you, I’d make it right with you
 
If I could cut enough long branches
Then I could stop pruning you, I could park next to you
And you could bloom all day
Someday, someday
The wind’ll blow you all away
Someday, someday

Oh, Bougie, when you bloom I am undone
My tree
Look at my tree
Pride is not the word I’m looking for
Mixed feelings fight inside me now

Oh, Bougie, you glow out in the morning sun
My tree
But when you grow, I fall apart
And I thought I was so smart
Trimming you up higher (trimming you up higher)

I swear that
I’ll find a way around you
I’ll do whatever it takes
I’ll make a million mistakes

I’ll make you look pretty and taller
I’ll work with all your long thorny arms, ‘cause
I’ve bled and fought with you, I’ve tried to make it right with you

I tried to trim you so that
We could drive safely by you, we could reach the world despite you 

But the wind’ll blow you all away
Someday, someday
The wind’ll blow you all away
Someday, someday

How could I forgot the pink flowers that stuck to everyone's shoes and left stains all over the floor?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Empathy


An interesting concept has made the rounds of the internet lately. People have begun to notice that the “Facebook algorithm” determines the content we see online. The programs, designed to please us, track what we view, what we like, and what we comment on, then give us more of it. We then receive a narrower and narrower stream of input, all of which confirms our feelings, our opinions, and our world view.

In other words, we only hear what we sympathize with.

A lot of us have lost track of the distinction, so here’s a refresher—to sympathize means to be in keeping, accord, or harmony with; to share in suffering or grief with; or to be in sympathy intellectually.

It’s a like-attracts-like kind of relationship.

I’m voting for empathy from here on out. Be on guard against anyone who promotes conflict, question anyone who says “others” are to blame, and overthrow those marketing algorithms that promote sameness. Instead, empathize with real human beings of all kinds.

And here’s our refresher on empathy, which is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either in the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

In other words (because that’s a lot of words), having empathy means you can put yourself in the place of someone entirely different than you without having their point of view spelled out for you.

It’s an act that builds bridges between people who are not alike.

To be even more direct, sympathy says, “You have the same pain I do. I get that,” but, conversely, leaves out the pain of others, “Your pain is not my pain.” Empathy says, “I see your pain. I’ve known pain. All pain sucks. I’m sorry for your pain, my friend.”

What if, rather than a competition or a barrier, our pains, unique though they may be, became a bridge? What if we use empathy to build that bridge?

I belong to a segment of society once considered property to be disposed of at another’s whim, with no legal standing, no right to own property, no vote, no mention in the Declaration of Independence. We’ve only recently won freedom from those bonds, yet we are still dismissed, marginalized, judged by our appearance. I may not be more likely to be killed by police because of my body, but I’m more likely to be killed by my partner.

I’m not saying this makes my fears or pains more or stronger or even the same as anyone else’s. They do make me empathetic. They do make me yearn—and act--for a world where no one feels “other” in any degree, for any reason.

I heard a lot of bigoted talk growing up, some directed toward groups that included me, but most of it directed toward people other than me. Do you know what I learned then? I learned to fear being different, to avoid being “other.” I saw that my safety lay in staying within the circle of sympathy.

And do you know what my mature, adult response to that is? No. I choose empathy. I choose to see pain in another’s eyes and say, “I see your pain. I’ve known pain. All pain sucks. I’m sorry for your pain, my friend.”

I choose to yearn—and act—for a world where no one is other.

We are all so weird and wonderful and unique.

Friday, January 13, 2017

In Patience



Some people call these little flowers impatiens. They don’t really look much like the impatiens I grew up with further north, so I call them vinca. Anyway, they’re my kind of plant. They’re hardy and tenacious and bloom daily.

I am a reluctant and less-than-talented gardener, but I enjoy refurbishing my yard twice a year. Fall is time for trimming back, weeding, mulching, and getting ready for the few months of relative down time the plants give us in this climate. It takes time to do it right—at least, it does when you do it by hand—but it’s very satisfying. Peaceful.

I frequently cringe over the institutional landscaping philosophy down here. All floral plantings in the medians and development entrances get scrapped four times a year. A crew comes in, clears all the plants out as soon as the blooming dies down, then replaces them with new plants in the peak of bloom. I suppose everyone wants to see where their HOA fees go, but I can’t get behind that “we need it instantly and we need it perfect” mentality.

It seems wasteful to me—and irresponsible. In The Little Prince, the fox says, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” Doesn’t that apply to plants, too? Anyway, I feel a tie to my hardworking vinca, in blooming season or not.

Don’t get me wrong; they bloom all year. But in fall, some branches die off and little baby plants emerge into the sunshine that die-off creates. When not as many plants bloom for a little while, it can look a bit scraggly. But adolescent humans can get leggy and we don’t throw them out. Besides, fresh mulch makes everything all right.

I’ve had another lesson in patience lately. My loyal Green Car had a day when it periodically didn’t start. I took it to my amazing mechanics, who couldn’t find the problem (of course it started for them all day!), but tightened everything anyway. So now I try to start my car far enough ahead that I can make other arrangements if it doesn’t start. I start it five minutes before we leave for the bus, so I have time to call a neighbor if it won’t go—that kind of thing. Those extra minutes of preparation time have really calmed down a lot of the rushing in my life. In our lives, since I’m nearly always driving the kids somewhere.

So far, the Green Car has started every single time since that one day. And every single time, I give thanks. I truly appreciate my car. Thinking of the gymnastics I’d have to go through and the favors I’d have to ask if I didn’t have a working car makes me so grateful!

It’s easy to get caught up in the dryer timer that’s on the fritz or the leggy flowerbeds, but why? Everything has its season.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hunting Over Fallow Fields


The hawk has haunted me the last few weeks.

Part of me knows that, with his habitat shrinking in ten and twenty-acre increments, he has every reason to sit on the edge of our preserve and claim his territory.

Part of me reflects on the symbolism of the hawk, seeing the need for clear vision, intensity, and ferocious drive in my life.

And just as I relegate the hawk’s metaphorical message to superstition, he stoops across my windshield as I leave the neighborhood. And the next night, as I wait at a red light, a beautiful, enormous owl flights straight across the intersection in clear sight beneath the stoplights. The owl underlines the hawk’s message with his own symbolism of night vision, meditation, and clarity.

I feel this past year has been a year for my mind, creative drive, and pen (keyboard) to lie fallow. My creative soil felt thin, dry, and exhausted. These days, even wildly popular authors feel pressured to pile one success on top of another, so it’s hard to value time spent…waiting. Especially when I’m not recovering from a successful harvest.

Or am I?

If I’ve made any resolution for this year, it’s to question society’s definitions of everything. What do I consider time well spent? What do I consider a worthy goal achieved? What crop do I want to harvest?

Right now, I have a contentment that I imagine resembles that of my mid-Atlantic farming ancestors’ in January. Our home feels warm and cozy, filled with laughter, music, and growth. We have been blessed with food for our table and a roof over our heads. We continue to clear our spaces of the material goods that weigh us down, keeping what brings us joy. I feel our children, growing like any healthy young creatures, need less constant tending. Contentment.

Why does the hawk’s lone, plaintive, fierce cry haunt my peace?

Perhaps because I, like him, cannot wait for the spring with its new, tender crops and frisking, careless targets. My prey, less substantial than his, feels no less primal to me. I yearn to soar seeking clarity and stoop for the words that latch onto others. I want to tear open what we seem to struggle with and show everyone that the answers lie inside the problems.

Glennon Doyle Melton calls our world brutiful. And it is. It is brutal and beautiful, both at once and both entirely.

The hawk knows.



Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Now

Good morning, Americans! How are you doing today?

I will be the first to tell you that I am not any kind of a political or historical expert. I’m the artsy-fartsy one in my set—and in my family. Of course, you can’t grow up listening to people debate the Magna Carta, Hobbes and Locke, or Reconstruction, among other things, without picking up an idea or two.

And, believe me, when the other kids are playing Robinhood and Prince John is the bad guy, you will NOT make any friends by pointing out that if he hadn’t caved to the barons and signed the Magna Carta, we might not have the rights we have today.

In any case, there hasn’t seemed to be much place for the pure thinkers, the writers, the artsy-fartsy people in recent days as we struggle to elect our next president. Yet I’ve always believed that those folks, the artsy-fartsy ones, offer the world visions of what might be. Then the statesmen, inventors, engineers, and leaders—the sensible folks—make the best visons real.

Here’s my vision for our country: start now.

Republican reformers and loyal Democrats, Democratic reformers and loyal Republicans, start refining your parties’ platforms now. Start standing for something now rather than falling for anything later. Start now by supporting the representatives within your party who responsibly represent their constituents. Start reviewing your policies and procedures now. Start discussing term limit reform, campaign finance reform, and districting reform now. Start now—listen, learn, apply the lessons.

Independents, skeptics, and outliers—would you like more options? Start now. Educate yourself now. Run for local office now. Find others who share your views and get your third parties rolling now, not in the summer of 2020.

I have hope now. I have a vision for the future because of what is happening now.

The last few elections have shown that previously disinterested, disenchanted, and disenfranchised citizens of our country can mobilize and raise passionate voices, altering the nation’s discourse.

This most recent election has shown the power of every single vote. Just the math for Florida alone boggles the mind—as of this writing, Florida’s 29 electoral votes were awarded by a margin of approximately 129,000 popular votes out of 9,350,000 or about 1900 votes per county. Every vote counts.

Our recent election has given me a vision of our country accepting, considering, and electing women, political outsiders, and third party candidates as often as traditional candidates. Our country is on its way to drawing from its entire pool of talent to govern wisely, according to the will of the people.

Start now. It's a new day. Start now.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Parenting: Level Intense



Some days, the best and worst of parenting swirls together in one giant feel and I think, “This. This is the real thing.”

Our kids’ school noticeably increases the expectations of the students each year. Work that got rewarded in second grade because “I can see you understand and I can see you’re trying” does not fly in third grade. Little A, who needs to test every limit to make sure he knows right where it is, has been finding that out.

We warned him about sloppy handwriting, we showed him strategies for checking his work, we stressed the importance of reading carefully…. Then his Friday folder came home last week. His giant stack of worksheets (parents of elementary school kids, you know what I’m talking about!) had a full range of grades, a rainbow of scores ranging from red to purple. They ran the COMPLETE gamut of possible number grades.

There’s no doubt he can do it. The missing factor? Motivation. He wants to “do homework in school” so he can come home and play; he sees no need to do homework to the new, higher standard. Whatever he brings home, he does over (and over!) until he gets it right. So he’s learned that doing it right the first time is faster. It’s those “I did it at school” papers that have fallen largely into the purple end of the spectrum.

Luckily, supporting him as he does some of his homework has shown me that he’s a big picture guy. He may be slow to memorize certain spelling words, but if I explain that “destructive” has the same root as “construct” then he remembers to use the “ruct” in the middle.

It took me a weekend of despair and a sleepless night Monday night, but I woke up Tuesday—at five o’clock—with a plan. I got out of bed an hour early to set up our lesson. I pulled up two chairs at my desk and his grades on my laptop. Then I wrote out a chart with ten rows of ten boxes and got some game markers. I was all set.

After breakfast, I invited him to a meeting. After one complaint—“It’s about homework, isn’t it?”—he settled in. He absorbed the information SO quickly that I’m eternally grateful I had it ready to go! He helped me set up the game pieces to represent 100s, then helped me slide them over to show what happens to an average when a few low grades sneak in. He got it!

With only the slightest hint from me, he figured out what happens to his yearly grades if one marking period is low and three are high vs the opposite. And with only the slightest hint from me, he remembered that he’ll have more choices in the future (robotics or rocket design school!) if he has good yearly grades.

Newly motivated, we went to check his homework one more time. And then, because God, fate, or the universe decided to shower us with good fortune, he went over his science one more time and—all by himself—realized he’d left three questions blank. I had the privilege of saying, “Awesome! You just went from at-best-a-70 to maybe a 100 and all by checking!”

I sent him off to school, happy as a clam, and then I collapsed with my coffee for five minutes before starting work. After all the stress, all of the head-desking, all of the late night “how do I walk the line between stressing him out and showing him what’s important?” thoughts, I hit it. I offered the right lesson, the right way, at the right time.

Best of all, he took the ball and ran with it. In all my various experiences of teaching, that’s the moment—the rare and precious moment—that makes it all worthwhile. When someone takes something I show them and goes with it. As a parent, I've learned to savor these moments.

He’s heading far beyond my reach. I’m so proud of him! And exhausted. And elated. And drained. And hopeful. And anxious. And proud.