My essay, “The Problem With Vacation Re-Entry Is That Everything Is Just Like I Left It,” was recently published online. You can see it here:
In the practice I facilitate in my writing circles, I use poetry and prose as prompts to help the mind get moving, to give it something to respond to. To alleviate the stare of the blank page.
To give you an idea of what this sort of writing can look like, I’m sharing a piece below, one I wrote in response to a lovely poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Time’s Low Note by Naomi Shihab Nye
When the giant moon
rises over the river,
the cat stretches,
presses himself to the window,
He needs to go outside
into dark grass
to feel the mystery
combing his fur.
The wind never says,
Call me back,
I’ll be waiting for your call,
All we know about the wind’s address is
A peony has been trying to get through to you
When’s the last time you really looked at one?
Billowing pinkish whitish petals lushly layered
Might be the prime object of the universe
Peonies in a house
profoundly uplift the house
never say no to peonies
Some days reviewing everything
from brain’s balcony
filigree of thinking a calm comes in
you can’t fix the whole street change the city
or the world
but clearing bits of rubbish possible
moving one stone
Never Say No to Peonies
A peony has been trying to get through to you.
Answer the phone and it’s a peony calling with all her fluff and fullness, asking you to come outside, play, dance.
They are some of my favorite flowers, so plump and showy, not afraid of fullness, of their own richness and lushness, not ashamed of anything, shouting out about their own beauty, so full, buxom, vital.
The peony calling me is pink—light, pastel, fat, delicate, puffed out, content in a patch of sunshine next to a porch.
She asks me to put down my load, to gaze at her beauty. To sink into her voluptuousness, to take some of it for myself.
She asks me to get soft like her, to get light, frothy.
She’s an invitation to lighten up, to relax, to drink iced tea on the porch.
She asks if all the things I’m worried about have to solved today. She wonders what would happen if I approached life as a big pink flower who only cares for sun and water, the bees who brush against her, swaying in the breeze, making people smile as they walk by.
She’s suggesting joy. No, maybe, in her very presence she quietly demands it.
She won’t last that long. She knows her petals will wilt and fall as the days get hotter but she doesn’t fret. She just asks me to join her right now. Fragrant, lush, billowing.
When she fades, she fades. So be with me now, she asks. Sit with me. Feel the sun on your face, think your thoughts. Love. Dig deep for joy. Don’t give up. I’ll bloom again and again, she says, and so will you.
Tender, soft, strong enough to withstand pelting rain.
Never say no to peonies.
Gather them in bunches. Put their fat globes in vases to dine among.
Worship them. Pray to them for their wonder, their lusciousness. Listen to their wisdom. Praise their aliveness.
Be like them. Heed their wisdom.
Never say no to peonies.
I was in a local restaurant where you go thru a small cafeteria line to choose your entree and sides. With my lunch on my tray, I walked up to the cashier to pay. The woman behind the counter looked and me and asked, “Are you a senior?”
I’m not. At least, I don’t think I am.
Lots of thoughts flashed thru my head. Do I look old enough to be a “senior?” Is that good or bad? How old do you have to be to get the Senior Discount? (Which, by the way, I was too flustered to ask.) If I said yes, would she card me?
“No,” I replied to her. “But I’m getting close.” I laughed. She didn’t.
My thoughts continued: What makes me look like a senior? My hair isn’t very gray. Have those little lines around my mouth, the ones I’m really starting to hate, gotten to the point of making me look old? I wasn’t offended but surprised. And curious. What had propelled me into possible senior-hood?
This was a new one for me. I’ve spent most of my years being mistaken as younger than my age. For many years that was annoying—as a kid I wanted to be seen as older than I was— like most kids, I think. The constant bid for bigger and better and all the things we thought another year would afford us.
Most annoying was the fact I was small and therefore quite a bit shorter than my same-age friends. This was okay until we started going to amusement parks and Six Flags together. Outside many rides would be a wooden figure with a measuring stick on it and a sign saying “You must be this tall to ride.” My friends were all tall enough to ride. I was still WAY shorter then they and so, NO, I was not tall enough to ride. Being short and small suddenly stopped being cute and fun for me.
But then things flipped again and in adulthood, being viewed as younger than my age was flattering. My husband and I got married at 24 and both had baby faces. On our honeymoon, I was sure people thought we were twelve.
I remember the first time it seemed I had crossed that line from young to . . . what? Mature? I was standing in a little market/deli in the town where I had gone to college. I had been out of school for about 5 years so was in my late 20s. The aisles in the store were narrow so passing another person took some turning and squeezing. A young man, clearly a college student, walked up behind me. I was blocking his way and politely he said, “Excuse me, Ma’am.“
I turned around, looking, wondering where she was. Where was the Ma’am who was in the way?
Oh. That was me. I had must become a Ma’am.
That was a bit jarring. I had clearly made some sort of leap. Or maybe he was just from the South and had learned to refer to any woman older than him as Ma’am. One could hope.
Today propelled me once again into new era of my life, the one where I might be perceived as a Senior. I have to admit, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Based on the thoughts swirling through my head at the register, ambivalent.
I am 57 years old. So it’s conceivable that by some measures I’m a senior. I think part of my surprise comes from the fact I haven’t designated myself as a Senior yet. In my mind, seniorhood starts at 60 at the earliest. (Though AARP clearly thinks it is 50 since that’s when I started receiving never-ending solicitations from them.) Why 60? I have no idea. It’s a notion I wasn’t even aware was in my head.
For all my jitteriness about possibly being as senior, part of me got pretty excited. Senior discounts? Hell yeah! I’m all for that. If it’ll save me money on lunch, I don’t feel so bad about it.
25 Random Things About Me
I like to chew gum.
I can make my gum make a popping sound as I chew it.
My dad can do this and so could his mom. Inherited talent.
I am all about Smartwool socks. Merino wool is where it’s at for me. Accept no substitutes. I was not paid to say this.
I was devasted recently to find Ibex Clothing no longer exists. Again, merino wool.
I FOUND my favorite Ibex wool hat, the one I thought I’d lost, the one I searched the house and cars high and low for, the one I scoured the Internet for, trying to replace.
When I cough or sneeze, it sounds just like my mom to me. I like that.
I DO NOT like to get up early. EVER. Sometimes it seems like a good idea the night before. It never seems like a good idea the moment of.
I like to sniff my dogs—their paws, the space between their ears and eyes.
I was recently a bit relieved to find out that “cute aggression” is a thing. Someone is researching it. It’s that feeling you have (well, I have it) when something is so cute you just want to squeeze it. Really hard. I tell my dogs I’m going to squeeze them til they squeal. I felt the same about my babies. I DON’T squeeze them that hard but I want to.
Bhakti Chai, Boulder-made, and the only chai worth drinking. IMHO.
Hot showers, hot tea, hot coffee, not food. I like it hot. Scalding hot.
Sunshine. Give me sunshine. I’ll take a gray day here and there, one to snuggle in and never leave my pjs, but really, sunshine.
I’m not a big shopper. Sometimes my husband makes me go shopping for clothes to update my wardrobe a bit. I would spend all winter wearing a black turtleneck and the same 3 fleece pullovers if I could. Mostly I can. And do.
What I do like to shop for is books. I try to use the library but I can barely resist the call of a book to be MINE. A bookstore is a danger zone for me. The most I can hope to do it to limit myself to paperbacks and to a smallish number. So yesterday I went into one of my all time favorite independent bookstores. I only bought one book. But it was in hardback. Sorry. It was the most compelling.
My mom says if I could go into a bookstore or library and lick the books, I would. True. My word altar. Holy ground. I like the way books smell, the way the cover cracks on first opening. I am the dork who examines the front and back cover, reads the publishing date, the dedications, ever little bit. I want to touch the paper, smell it, feel the heft of the pages in my hand.
I have the last 75 pages of Gone With the Wind in a memento box in my basement. As a teenager, I was on an international trip, going to South Africa as an exchange student. In Brussels, they weighed our luggage for the first time and we were all overweight. Not having the money to pay the fees, we had to jettison stuff to reduce our baggage weights. I had 75 pages to go in my book. So I tore the last pages off, took them with me, and left the rest behind.
I’m not “premium” about many things. But about a few? Yes. 100% cotton sheets of a high-high-is thread count. Please do not talk to me about bamboo or microfiber and especially not about polyester in my sheets.
I am also an ice cream snob. Ben and Jerry’s, Haagen Daz, or other premium brands. It’s not worth wasting the calories on less. Sorry, Breyer’s and store brands.
I went to college south of Burlington, VT. A great road trip was the 50 mile trip to the original Ben & Jerry’s store there—the only one at the time.
In high school, a special outing with friends was to drive 50 miles down the valley to Glenwood Springs, CO to eat at Pizza Hut, go bowling and swim in the hot springs.
One of may childhood dogs was named Ruffles. He was a small black poodle and he was curly and well, ruffled.
An earlier childhood dog was named Stonewall Jackson. Pretty sure my dad was responsible for that one.
My current dogs are name Queso (blame that one on the kids), Sugarplum (blame that one on this little pup coming into our lives 2 days after Christmas. We claim that visions of Sugarplum were dancing in our heads), and Buddy (highly unoriginal on our parts but that’s what we kept calling him.)
Long toenails, my own or anyone else’s, creep me out.
People ask me what I do. Every time I say I teach writing, I feel simultaneously giddy and like I’m going to be struck by lightening. I’ve been a writer forever but a few years ago I realized I’d like to pursue work around writing but wasn’t sure what that would be. Then a year ago, I completed a teacher training to learn to facilitate a process called Wild Writing with one of my writing teachers, Laurie Wagner. Wild Writing is a way to approach to writing with freedom, a practice that allows us to put our truth onto the page and helps us escape the grasp of that crafty critic in our head. It’s transformative. It’s healing. So now here I am now, teaching Wild Writing.
As much as I love teaching it, as much as I know this practice is healing and nurturing, something everyone should experience, I’m not great at promoting it. It’s an edge for me. Uncomfortable. Because I tell myself there are people out there who are more “qualified,” who have been published, who have an MFA in writing, . . . . But here’s the thing, I’m good at what I do. People love it and they come back for more.
I recently sat down to talk with Laurie about how to bust through my discomfort and share the classes, because as great as the practice is, I can’t share it with people if I don’t tell them about it.
As soon as I told her about my discomfort, she smiled and her eyes lit up. “Great—let’s find three ways to make you really uncomfortable in this area!“
I groaned and laughed. “Ugh! Really?”
It’s not as if I’ve had a shortage of discomfort in my life recently. I’ll spare you the details but just think aging, questions about my parenting ability as I try to help two teen boys into the world, the swirling on the domestic and world stages. Oh, and did I mention being married for a LONG time? Basically, the squirminess of being a person. Yes, I know something about being uncomfortable.
As much as I want to push away more discomfort, I know it’s only with this sort of stretching I’ll make any headway in any area of life. Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist who lived in the early 20th century, described what he called the Proximal Zone of Development (see image: https://goo.gl/images/W5B8cN.). Imagine a bullseye with three rings. In the middle are the things a person can currently do with out help. In the second ring are things a person could do with some support and guidance. The third and outer ring contains skills that are currently out of reach.
Ideally, we keep our eyes on the middle ring, that place that requires some stretch, some reach. And, yes, some discomfort. It’s both exciting and scary to lean out over that line, into those places of uncertainty, where I don’t yet feel competent. I mean, what if it doesn’t go well? What if I lean too far, lose my balance as it were, and fall in? Kerplunk. Soaking wet and sputtering. What if I don’t lean far enough and don’t make any progress? All just ways of asking, what if I fail? Specifically, what if no one signs up for my classes? What if people do come and don’t like it? What if, what if, what if?
Lately I’ve been reading and listening to the poet and philosopher, David Whyte (https://onbeing.org/programs/david-whyte-the-conversational-nature-of-reality-dec2018/). He speaks to this vulnerability we experience as humans. He says that if we are to live this life fully, we will inevitably experience heartbreak. Who wants that? Except that to build a wall around one’s heart, to refuse to be vulnerable, to refuse to feel anything less than what’s comfortable is another type of heartbreak. It’s the heartbreak of limiting your life, limiting your experience, limiting where you might go, who you might love, what you might do. Allowing fear and discomfort to cage you up.
Being human is tricky. If a fox goes after prey and doesn’t succeed, she’s just hungry and tries again. She doesn’t go back to her den feeling like a failure. Humans, on the other hand, often do. We have all those icky feelings to deal with. But as another mentor of mine frequently points out, they’re just feelings. They won’t kill you. Sometimes in the moment, I’m not convinced of that. Feelings can be overwhelming and threatening.
I have to keep making the choice every moment, every day. Do I stay nice and safe and comfy or do I reach and stretch myself out of my comfort zone and even possibly go KERPLUNK? This is my life. It’s worth getting wet.