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Words to live by

e kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” B

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Muscles

My husband has introduced me to an athletic trainer who is helping me heal my back and neck.

He calls what he does “muscle activation,” and that phrase is coming to seem more and more an analogy that applies to multiple areas of my life. Certain muscles in my body need to be waked up. Certain muscles in my artistic life need to be waked up. Certain muscles in my life as a mother and as a “house-keeper” and as a person who prays need to be waked up. The muscles in my life as a teacher and editor are kind of incredible: I’ve got a six-pack! It feels really strange to deliberately step away from exercising those, earning money from those.

I have been a “stay-at-home mom” before, but never when my kids were all in school during the day. What will I being doing with my time? My deepest intuition says: spend the time waking up muscles! Take up my study of yoga again. (I’ve been to one formal class in the last eight years.) Write creatively again. Commit to new spiritual disciplines. Find out whether my nearly-constant efforts to draw, sculpt, and paint are worth pursuing in a serious way. Open myself up to what’s possible.

And then I feel the fear coming in, contracting all the muscles: what the hell is all this dreaming, Judith? You’re quitting teaching because the laundry needs doing and the kids’ lives need organizing. You won’t be journaling and going on yoga retreats–you’ll be driving to football practice and cleaning out closets. Or, you’ll be working part-time in some office job so you don’t go into debt and your kids can go to interesting summer camps.

But last week my trainer told me that my body is responding so well to the treatment–my body is sound, whole, a good instrument. What a message of hope–and I find myself believing it! And in this moment I think I can believe the same thing about these other areas of my life: the artist-dreams and the priest-dreams in me are not dead or, God forbid, silly. They are sound, and whole, and real. And the message coming to me from a hundred different sources is that it’s time for these dormant muscles to be awakened–for my family’s sake and others’ sake as well as my own.

And surely it’s all connected–all one big system? Then it’s false to label some needs selfish and some needs unselfish?

Daily Surrender

My life, as the masthead of this blog suggests, is made of pages. Ten years ago those pages were full of poetry, recorded dreams, prayers, and longings for the concrete forms of life–marriage, career, children–in which to pour my passions. To my joy (and endless wonder), those longings have been satisfied. As a consequence, naturally enough, the purposes and forms of my writing changed. The equation used to be TIME + DREAMS + READING ( PRAYER ) = POEMS. Now it’s TIME + GRAMMAR + REVISION ( PRAYER ) = MONEY. It’s not a bad change–especially since something deep within assures me there will one day be a return to poems and the making of books.

The one kind of writing that’s remained a constant is journaling. Opening up a blank, unlined book and pushing, pushing, pushing the pen across the page. This simple act of forming words–any words–never fails to bring me into contact with my truest self and with, these days, an amazingly patient and creative God.

I haven’t published a poem or a book in almost five years. Yet I know I am growing as a writer. Why? Because my goals for my writing, and living, have slowly changed from desiring beauty and fame to desiring more simply to be of use.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Marriage, mothering, teaching, moves, friendships, community formings, community breakings, health difficulties and discoveries: all these concrete happenings, added to and multiplied by page after page of written reflection (and rebellion!) have brought me to the place where I can say I know what Dr. King is talking about here, and I know that he’s right.

On my best days I decide to walk in the light.

Poem for Advent

ANNUNCIATION

 

Into the rushing dark

a hundred starlings rise,

a hundred breaths, two hundred,

oh! a thousand climb the air,

their single body swelling like a lung

inhaling sky and still

more sky, wings lifted into light

already fallen as they turn

and dive to girder nests beneath the highway.

 

I’m hushed in my fast car, just

passing the bridge when they’re

up again, wavering now in the dusk

like a casual hand, raised for a moment

then dropped–I am reeling,

swept to the edge of the highway and left

 

with what but to follow,

wholly, smitten,

this summons so swiftly, so

distantly given.

 

Originally published in Southern Poetry Review. See a wonderful film clip of birdflight in action at geninne.com.

Quotable

To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish. — W. H. Auden (from “Writing” in The Dyer’s Hand) via my friend David Michael’s commonplace book.

Welcome to Newark

In the air, headed from my (new) home in Indiana to Princeton, New Jersey for a week of writing retreat at the house of a generous friend to artists. Down below me the earth is scrunching up its face–the ground is a vasst wrinkled brow of furrows and clefts. I thought I’d see the bright green and tan squares of midwestern farmland but I see shadow, bristle (evergreens?), crumpled hills. It looks like an enormous sheet of forest has been taken up in God’s hands and crumpled gently like tissue paper then set down again, with little toy roads and ribbony rivers added here and there. For a variety of reasons I feel an outsider in all this–a sneak and a cheater who’s not supposed to be here, writing this, in on this amazing scene. Yet I am. God’s grace feels inexorable. Indifferent almost.

And now the landscape has changed: humans smoothing out the wrinkles in the tissue and making little farms, straight hedges, flat roads and gridded football fields. The cloudscape has not changed: it drifts over all, serenely. And we fly above those clouds, majestically. Mechanically.

This week I want to write about the power of randomness, the power of restraints, the negative, the not, I want to write about the power of long lines and of short lines, the power of a naked encounter with a text and the power of encountering that text equipped with knowledge, context, lexicons, philosophy, philology, zoology. The interplay between grammar and art, grammar and music. Oh I wish I had more knowledge and more skill! I want–and I want to run from that wanting, the work that fulfilling even a fraction of those wants would require. Shame sits heavily on my shoulders, slumping its dead weight from one aching joint to the other. And my soft round belly just sits. The sun is a hard white circle in my window. The spires of Manhattan poke up small in the distance.

We turn. Blue clouds wash over the land and invite my lowered eyes to come back out to play. Roads carve through the trees. We tilt, and all I see are the bellies of couds. We tilt again, and water hoves in view, coast and coastline, tiny white boats, the city closer now, a presence, a Destination. I see a baseball diamond next to the water. I see roads paved and painted that run right down to the sea. Thirty silos–a factory. Bright chunks of painted metal–cargo trucks. Cargo ships. The Lady just inside the Verrazano. Cranes and cars and haze and arcs of bridges, a million trucks, stacked next to factory slabs. The wheels touch and rush. And the voice in the microphone says, “Welcome to Newark.”

The school year is nearly over, and so is the experiment of homeschooling my 4 and 7 year-olds. It’s funny that I always use the word “homeschooling” rather than “teaching” to describe what I’ve been doing this year. Why? In part because, if measured in concrete hours of instruction imparted by me to my sons, this year’s experiment ended up achieving WAY less than I’d hoped or expected. Lesson plans? Jotted on the backs of bank-statement envelopes as I rush to finish my coffee before the baby wakes up. (Yes, there’s been a baby in this mix as well.) It turns out that being a good high school English teacher does not automatically or easily equate to being a good elementary/preschool teacher-of-one’s-own-offspring-in-one’s-home. I’m tempted to give the year a failing grade–but I doubt my ability to judge this experiment as much as I doubt my ability to carry it out. Instead I’ll look for the positives:

  • My respect for and trust in the teachers of my children has gone way up. The default has become: they know more than I do.
  • The one activity that truly “worked” this year, day in and day out, was reading. I sat on the couch with my 8-yr-old on one side and my 4-yr-old on the other, and together we read book after book. Any length, any topic, any style: they were rapt and I was wrapped in the peace of knowing I was doing something right. Yet another scenario where entering a text brings life, breath, trustworthy realness. What a joy to enter that realm with my kids.