The Basket of Curiosities

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I have trouble getting anything done when there is visible clutter. This morning, the house was overrun with scattered toys, cuttings from various papers, books, and game pieces. So I spent twenty minutes getting everything back to its container and shelf. Unfortunately, there are always items that defy classification, don’t really have a place: kid’s meal toys that must be kept until they are forgotten about (for us, about a week); pieces large or small from games that are temporarily missing; “prizes” obtained from school – like decorative erasers – that must be kept but aren’t useful; bottles of soap bubbles. I guess everyone needs a junk drawer for all these things, so that the house doesn’t resemble the Island of Misfit Toys, and I found a deep basket to accommodate all these random shapes and sizes.

In one’s life, there are many such junk drawers. I have a writing binder – containing failed poems, interesting lines I’ve written but never used and probably won’t, heartening letters from mentors – that although I rarely look at it, would never throw away. The kitchen cabinet with rarely-used appliances reminds me on the bleakest days that I can whip up a Margarita in just moments. These stashes are different from the photo boxes or love letter bundles that are irreplaceable; they contain objects of often irrational desire, rather than things we solidly love or need.  Similarly, I find I get antsy when I don’t have enough incoming randomness in my life, whether it is a new friend, book, or image that pops out from nowhere – a junk drawer of the mind, so to speak.

I love Radmilla Lazic’s poem “Anthropomorphic Wardrobe” (translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic) for its interesting take on the objects in our lives. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s no more room. We are full.
Everything we stored, layer by layer
Folded, packed in as if bandaging wounds…

Forgotten. Taken down in a hurry.
Thrown in the corner: Turned inside out.
What is indispensable and what is less so
Thrown on top of each other.
Once made to measure, then grown short,
Grown too tight, faded or shiny — it’s all here.

Adam’s little broken rib.
The plucked angel’s wing.
Venus’s fur and love-stain.
Rings. Combs. Ghosts. Moths.
No one can find anything here.
Where is it? Turn it upside down! Rummage!
Lost, then found again.
Rejected, then cherished again.
Cobwebs sway. The mouse gnaws.
The butterfly spreads its wings.

Our Diets, Ourselves

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Reading a review of Michael Pollan‘s new book, Cooked, in the Washington Post, I was struck by this passage from the book:

Cooking — of whatever kind, everyday or extreme — situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other. The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.

My first thought was: you could say the same of poetry, or really any art form. But as a terrible cook – and one who is always looking for the quickest solution for dinner during “Unhappy Hour” with little kids – I’m envious of people who feel that kind of connection to their food and to the cooking process.

I recently had a physical and learned that I had gained ten pounds in the past year. This is not really a surprise; I had fallen into a pattern of rewarding myself with food on stressful days, eating too fast and not really processing what I was eating, and offering treats to the kids (and myself) whenever out and about. I’ve tried a number of diets over the years, from South Beach to Paleo, but thought that I needed more intervention, a refresher course in nutrition and balance. I decided that I wanted to get back to my college weight, about 20 pounds away.

I joined Weight Watchers’ Online program a few weeks ago, and although I’m cranky and often hungry (as on all diets), I feel like the low level of accountability (just tracking food consumption, weight, and activity online; no meetings to go to) is perfect for me. They use a system in which you are assigned a certain number of “points” for the day, which translate into portions of food, but as most fruits and vegetables are “free,” the natural tendency is to eat as many as possible. So at night, when I’ve eaten all my points for the day, I’m scarfing down oranges, cherry tomatoes, and olives (and wishing desperately that the latter came with a martini), rather than ice cream. You don’t have a counselor, just the hard numbers in front of you on your little spreadsheet. (And tons of online resources to make it easier; for example, this list of hundreds of restaurant foods translated into points.)

And though it hasn’t improved my cooking any, I think Mr. Pollan – an advocate for local, whole foods – would approve of my new fruit and vegetable obsession. :)

Robert Hass’s poem “Late Spring” beautifully articulates the “translation and negotiation” made possible through our food:

And then in mid-May the first morning of steady heat,

the morning, Leif says, when you wake up, put on shorts, and that’s it
for the day,

when you pour coffee and walk outside, blinking in the sun.

Strawberries have appeared in the markets, and peaches will soon;

squid is so cheap in the fishstores you begin to consult Japanese
and Italian cookbooks for the various and ingenious ways of preparing ika and
calamari;

and because the light will enlarge your days, your dreams at night
will be as strange as the jars of octopus you saw once in a fisherman’s boat
under the summer moon…

Kids at poetry readings

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Last night, I took an enormous leap of faith and took my first grader to her first poetry reading. This particular reading – part of the Iota Reading Series curated by Miles David Moore and hosted by Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia – seemed a good fit. I promised her a brownie sundae, and packed a bag of books, paper/crayons, and other items to keep her entertained while I listened. 

Poetry readings can be a wild card: profanity happens, and just about any subject can come up in a poem. When that happened last night (and it was possible to see it coming) I whispered in her ear about what she was writing/drawing/reading to distract her. I suppose at those times we could have taken a bathroom break as well. We hear “adult content” in public places anyway (just take a ride on the Metro to hear plenty of choice words, not redeemed by any possible artistic value). Explanations must be given at some point; she knows that adults sometimes drink different drinks than kids (alcohol, soda with caffeine), and make different choices (in behavior, language), so I felt I could handle whatever questions might emerge.

She loved it, and amazingly, asked when we could go to another one. Part of it was probably the brownie sundae and being out after her usual bedtime, but she also seemed to view other poets as exotic creatures (“Is she a poet? Is he a poet?”) and liked the lit-up stage and the bar stools. She paid more attention to the poetry than I’d anticipated, quoting lines back to me later, and citing particular poems (“I loved the pirate poem where they walked the plank.”). I did miss the usual moments of reflection afterwards; when my mind would normally be buzzing with the energy of the evening, I was bombarded with questions on the way home: “How did they get those lights to work? Can I get some for my room? Can I read up on the stage next time?”

She came out of the reading with a book she had written and illustrated, “Humphrey Saves the Cow,” about a heroic hamster who has to use advanced engineering skills (and tissues, string and rubber bands) to create a parachute for a cow falling from an airplane during a tornado. (Now, there’s a poem.) :)

One of my favorite poems by Sylvia Plath is “Child,” which illustrates the perfect vision that we all begin with:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate –
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Little

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

A season of waiting

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This winter, most of my quests for excitement have collided with a paralyzed will, or body. Yesterday, my mom offered to babysit the girls so Jeff and I could enjoy a kid-free outing. Jeff now has the cold I had a week ago (and older daughter (‘OD’) had a week before that), so we decided to do something that required little walking – a movie and dinner. But upon arriving at our favorite second-run theatre to see “Skyfall,” we learned that we had gotten the show time wrong, so ended up talking in the car for two hours, heading to the grocery store for cough drops and ibuprofen, then getting dinner at one of President Obama’s favorite hamburger spots, Ray’s Hell Burger.

I later realized that this was a perfect afternoon because in everyday life, I rarely get to talk. Both kids talk constantly; they’re full of rhymes, songs, potential projects and fresh observations. They are the texting keyboard to my sticky-keyed manual typewriter. (Knowing that this is temporary and that all too soon they will be shadows passing silently in the hallway, the language stays inside, or hides in my bedside notebook.)

Even as my body begs for more sunlight, I don’t want to let the winter go until we have a good snowstorm, at least enough snow to operate our sled and build a snowman. We may get it on Tuesday night, it seems. Fingers crossed for ending winter with a bang. :)

This time of year, I love Stephen Spender’s poem “Polar Exploration,” for its sense of suspended animation:

With faces swung to their prodigious North
Like compass needles. As clerks in whited banks
Leave bird-claw pen-prints columned on white paper,
On snow we added footprints,
Extensive whiteness drowned
All sense of space. We tramped through
Static, glaring days, Time’s suspended blank.
_______________________________________

I cannot sleep. At night I watch
A clear voice speak with words like drawing.
Its questions are clear rifts:–Was
Ice, our rage, transformed? The raw, the motionless
Skies, were these the Spirit’s hunger?

Renew, Reuse, Recycle…

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We live in a fairly eco-conscious area, so when my older daughter (OD) started kindergarten, she began talking about the importance of “renew, reuse, recycle.” We have a great recycling program in our city, so very little goes to waste; our recycling container is usually twice as full as our trash container.

I realize now that I’ve been recycling long before it was popular. I remember going to garage sales with my mom back in the 1970’s, and how exciting it was to find a great toy for a quarter. My mom would buy desks and dressers and fix them up. I haven’t been to a garage sale in a long time, but I love the thrift shop in our neighborhood, and Craigslist – really, a giant online garage sale – is the first place I look for furniture, toys, and video cassettes/DVDs. (And yes, I’m the strange woman driving slowly  through the streets on trash day, who gets excited when she sees your broken, two-legged chair.)

I’ve always encouraged OD to make things instead of buying them, and that has worked for a long time (except that one time when I was making dinner and she asked me if I could help her make an overhead projector). Although she uses a lot of paper, she reminds us that it’s wasteful not to use both sides; and after a project reaches the end of its useful life, she knows to put it in the recycling bag.

And wonderfully, as I’ve been cleaning out and organizing the house, I’m finding that the kids love putting to use items that have been lingering in cabinets or on basement shelves. OD fell in love with a CD rack (probably from the ’80’s) that I found, and is fascinated with an old tape recorder, which was obsolete long before she was born. She also loves going to thrift stores with me (which to someone her age, are like museums), and asking what eight-track tapes are, or what that strange appliance is. It’s weirdly educational.

Renewal is a common theme in the poetry of Modern writer H.D. In this excerpt from “A Dead Priestess Speaks,” she reminds us of the hidden life in everyday things:

If you take the moon in your hands
and turn it around
(heavy, slightly tarnished platter)
you’re there;

if you pull dry sea-weed from the sand
and turn it round
and wonder at the underside’s bright amber,
your eyes

look out as they did here,
(you don’t remember)
when my soul turned round,

perceiving the other-side of everything,
mullein-leaf, dog-wood leaf, moth-wing
and dandelion-seed under the ground.

Wallace Stevens’ Winter

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With winter only a few weeks away, I started thinking of modern poet Wallace Stevens after reading Benjamin Glass’s excellent commentary on the 32 Poems blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps I read Stevens this time of year because his poems reflect the only type of Christmas atmosphere I can endure: mostly solemn, mostly isolated, and if there is to be cheer, it must be diluted thoroughly into the first two attributes (The hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” encapsulates this dynamic). On Christmas Eves the midnight ritual at the Episcopalian church of my childhood was somber, liturgical, and ornate. During the candlelit mass, I groggily sang from the hymnal while the robed clergy led the congregation. Despite experiencing the heights of anticipation (Christmas morning was just hours away), it was all incredibly peaceful, too. And dark. I think many of Stevens’ poems reflect this solemnity and peace, “The Snow Man,” a particular holiday favorite, especially.

“The Snow Man” is probably my favorite Stevens’ poem (although it may be a tie between it and “A Postcard from the Volcano”). It describes the holiday season’s quiet reflection, idealized snow-covered pine trees, and the relationship between absence and presence that we work to reconcile during a season rife with memories. The full text is here, but I wanted to note a few of my favorite sections:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind…

Stevens’ “mind of winter” is the state the speaker enters when he has truly become one with a place, when he realizes that the circumstances that surround him – in this case, the chill and lonely howl of the wind – mean him no harm. These sounds and sights are mirrored in the speaker; he realizes that he also contains those dark, lonely places:

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow…

Standing alone in the cold, the speaker experiences what we feel listening to the blues when we’re sad: there is someone, or something, feeling the same thing. The chilly, bleak scene resonates for the speaker, becoming a source of comfort.

Preempting the Holiday Blues, Part II: Simplicity

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Yesterday Jeff and I went to see the new movie version of “Anna Karenina.” Although I might have preferred a more traditional take on the novel (the movie kept pushing the concept of “life is a stage,” which I feel has been done to death), the cinematography was sumptuous and the costumes luxe with pearls, fur, velvet.  The main characters travel in a world with every luxury, but the most satisfying scene by far is when pampered society girl Kitty, newly married to a philosophical young man, tends to her new husband’s very ill father. When she helps clean his ravaged body and we see the surprised expression on her husband’s face, we forget the opulence and focus on this brief episode of humanity and connection, in a time when a simple bath was rare, and water was not necessarily clean or disease-free.

Although I probably have too many pairs of shoes to call myself a minimalist, I love reading about the simplicity movement, and its emphasis on experiences versus things. One of my favorite books is The Simple Living Guide, in which author Janet Luhrs describes how to move toward a simpler life in every way, from how we celebrate the holidays to choosing a place to live. I first read this book after graduating from college, and it gave me faith that no matter what I became or what income I was able to earn, I would be okay in the most important ways.

In our depressed economy, when we have less to give materially, the simple act of caring for another – through touch, listening, or simple eye-contact amid a world of distractions and iPhones –  is a gift we all can use. I love Tomas Transtromer’s poem “The Half-Finished Heaven,” which describes this kind of ideal connection:

Everything begins to look around.
We walk in the sun in hundreds.

Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

The endless ground under us.

The water is shining among the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.

 

(Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton)

Preempting The Holiday Blues

Yesterday as we left my mother’s house, where we spent the afternoon enjoying lunch and decorating her Christmas tree (yup, we don’t waste any time…), my six-year-old daughter commented with great melancholy, “The holidays go by so fast.” It was funny, but also sad that she felt that way while we were still enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers.

I read this article on how to avoid the holiday blues the other day (on the wonderful Apartment Therapy blog), and thought it really hit the mark, although it doesn’t really address the cause, just the treatment. Beyond the obvious, and important, reasons for sadness (missing loved ones, having financial issues, feeling that the rest of the world has it better than you do), I’m realizing that part of the holiday blues is the fact that during those six weeks or so, we become more aware of the things that truly make us happy: time spent with family and friends, the rituals of creation (baking cookies, decorating a freshly-cut tree, taking time to create a unique tablescape), indulging our senses with candlelight, delicious smells, music, and flickering lights in darkness. It is a time when we make phone calls rather than send emails, and one of the few times during the year that we acknowledge that all those technological advances don’t fill the void.

During the rest of the year, I don’t take care of myself in the same way. I rarely bother to light a candle or turn on music to make a meal more special (and this may be just me; with little kids around it’s a major accomplishment just to get the food onto the table). So when January 1st hits, I want to remember the slowed-down time, the sensations that mark the holidays and integrate them into everyday life. (I may need to make an Excel spreadsheet just to remember to do this.)

This excerpt from Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” describes the delicious sensations and images available to us, even as we turn our calendar pages:

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Giving thanks…with E.E. Cummings

I am fortunate that in everything I do, there are people behind me offering a hand. When I was cranky and sick this weekend, Jeff took the girls out so I could curl up in a blanket and cough in peace. When I painted the living room, kitchen and dining room in the past few weeks, my mom stepped in to take care of the two-year-old so I could complete the work without chaos. Around the house, my six-year-old daughter steps up more and more to bring me things, work the VCR, prepare meals, take care of her younger sister. We escaped the derecho and Hurricane Sandy unscathed; my new book is selling (thanks, Mom!); and I’ve connected with many writers this year who have made me feel less odd to be pursuing the art of poetry in a modern world. In well-being, that must put me in the top one percent, and for that I’m grateful.

E.E. Cummings puts all this into verse beautifully:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

“Storm of the century” redux (didn’t we just do this?)

After a derecho this summer and another major storm just a month ago, we’re again preparing for what’s been dubbed “Frankenstorm,” a wide swath of rain and snow that’s likely to paralyze the East Coast for days. We’re charging our electronics, making tons of ice to keep refrigerator food cold, moving items in the basement to higher ground. On Friday I was at Target stocking up; the gallon water jugs were already sold out and the lines were long. I impulsively picked up two packages of brownie mix – perhaps if things get too Lord of the Flies, I can trade brownies for other items. :)

Shortly after we purchased our house in June 2006, we returned from a two-week family trip with a five-month-old in tow, to seventeen inches of water in our basement. We didn’t have a clue that the basement had any water issues (though we should have suspected by the presence of a sump pump), so it was somewhat traumatic. We didn’t really know where to start. We were lucky to be able to borrow a pump to get the water out to the curb, and were also lucky that due to a “sump pump failure” rider on our insurance policy, the damage was covered and we were able to restore the basement to better than new. The sixty-five year old wood basement door – literally blown off its hinges by the water – was replaced with a new steel door, and the whole basement was repainted. We put in a backup sump pump with battery backups, planted trees in the front yard to soak up water, and did a ton of drainage work in the yard.

Still, these storms are stressful – when the power goes out, the batteries give us only 16 hours of freedom, so after that, one of us is down in the basement with a bucket, watching the sump pump pit and emptying it each time it fills up. We take turns being on basement watch, one of us awake while the other sleeps. Add a couple of kids to the mix and it’s difficult. We just focus on the fact that even in the worst of storms, we have just a few days of fatigue and inconvenience, then life will be back to normal. But, is a horrific storm every month the “new normal?” We decided that our next home purchase will be a generator.

Today I’m thinking about H.D.’s long poem, “The Walls Do Not Fall,” about the bombing of London during World War II. In these lines, she hardens herself for the inevitable storm, making herself “indigestible” to that which would swallow her whole:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octopus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstances

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

selfless,
that pearl-of-great-price.