the last days of summer

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Nectarines
acrylic on canvas; 10×10

I painted this two years ago. Each year, around this time, I come back to this painting and remember how life felt when I painted it.

It was the end of August. I had to hurry to finish the painting because the nectarines, my models, were beginning to rot in the bowl. Each time we passed the bowl on our dining room table we could smell their sweet scent.

About a month prior to painting this, we had returned to the States with our son from China. Life was raw and unfamiliar for all of us, trying to settle into one another and find our new normal. I remember sitting down during late afternoons to work on my painting, the angles of the August sun beating through the dining room window, my son upstairs napping in his crib.

For me, this painting captures the tension of August–the tension between the end of summer and the start of a new season. It reflects the sweetness of life and the impending rot of death. In this life, we cannot taste one without the other.

One of my favorite poems is “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. I don’t think anyone has said it better. Here’s an excerpt:

“O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

The Double Identity

“You are a citizen of the world, that’s all you are.” –Carrie Fountain

Well, I graduated. Six years is what it took, amidst a plethora of self-doubt, several military moves, a spouse’s deployment, childbirth, an international adoption, and the nitty gritty of daily living. I am very grateful to have attended my commencement ceremony in San Diego last week. I am grateful for the many people who have made this possible, the support of my husband, parents, professors, my thesis mentor, and my friends who cheered me on along the way.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been ruminating over the big question that haunts most graduates’ minds: Now What? Part of the pressure I felt as a new MFA graduate was that in order to feed my writing, I also needed to teach writing, or do some sort of job in the publishing/editing world. I think this pressure started to emerge as a result of reading the bios of other published poets, as it seemed that a vast majority of them taught creative writing in universities. I suppose it’s easy to deduce that in order to be a successful writer, one must also have a job in academia.

Then I came across an informative interview with poet and attorney, Amy Woolard, which was published in The Atlantic. The interview explores what the writing life might look for someone who chooses a day job unrelated to the writing world, and it freed me up to start thinking outside of the box.

One of my favorite contemporary poets, Carrie Fountain, also gave a fantastic interview with The New Orleans Review, in which she discusses a lot of these issues. It’s as though she plucked the thoughts right out of my head:

It’s very hard after you graduate, figuring out who you are, who you were, who you want to be. I think that many of us are still figuring that out, outside the universities where theoretically we would be teaching poetry, teaching writing for the rest of our careers, and publishing books. I’m still trying to figure out what I am. What I am during the day…and what I am at night? Then there are all these other complications–such as, what I am is a mom. And a wife…

So, in some ways it’s easier to define oneself in a creative writing program. But I think what Charles Wright is trying to say is that what really matters is what you do after the reality of things settles in. Because that’s what you gotta do. You gotta keep writing. Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams. They weren’t teaching poetry. Their daytime lives belied their identities as master poets…

And that can be valuable. And it doesn’t take away. Your identity as the development person at a nonprofit does not take away from your identity as a poet. It only enriches it. You’re a citizen of the world, that’s all you are. It doesn’t make you any less of a poet that you’re not teaching poetry…What matters is that you sit down and you keep writing. That’s all that matters. 

Over the past month, I’ve been looking for jobs, applying, and interviewing. It’s been a challenging process, mentally and emotionally, to make myself vulnerable to the scrutiny of the real world after camping out under the umbrella of “stay-at-home-mom” and “grad student” for the past six years. How on earth can I market myself? Am I still even an actual human being? (I have actually thought that.) Nothing had knocked the confidence out of me quite like staying home to raise my family, I am sad to say.

Long story short, after much prayer, deliberating, seeking the counsel of friends and family, I decided to return to work as an RN, and I am very thankful to share that I was offered and accepted a job as an operating room nurse at a surgery center close to my home and my children’s schools. I am very excited for what this next chapter will bring as I transition from mom/student to mom/nurse/writer. It’s a double identity, or maybe a triple identity, and I’m learning to live with that in-betweenness.

I have struggled with the belief that in order to be successful at one thing, you need to dedicate every morsel of your energy to just that one thing–to put your eggs in one basket, so to speak–to form and uphold one identity. But we are many things, many selves, and it seems that the relationship between the roles we play exist in a realm beyond our own understanding, or at least, beyond my understanding. What I do know is that my roles as wife, mom, nurse, and writer are all connected, just as all of life is connected, just as the world speaks a common truth through a variety of means and measures. In the end, I am just a citizen of the world, and perhaps it is that simple.

Do you have multiple identities? What are they? How do they relate or connect to each other?

process/progress

One of my favorite opening lines of a poem:

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from Dean Young’s collection Beloved Infidel

This morning I woke to a warm spring rain. I hope it’s safe to say that winter is finally behind us. This winter has been a good time, a productive time, and I’m also looking forward to a new season.

In April I will start the final phase of my thesis work, and if things go as planned, I will finish my MFA by the end of May. It seems hard to believe. I’ve had many moments of doubt that I would ever finish, given all the transitions our family has been through over the past five years.

One lesson that life continues to teach me is PROCESS. Bringing our son home, learning each other, attaching, bonding, settling into a new home after a move, building new relationships, and creative work: just a few things that involve a slow, steady, and committed amount of time and attention.

I’m growing to love the writing process and one of the things I’ve valued most about being in school is the way it’s teaching me how to write: the many constructions, deconstructions and re-workings involved in creating a “finished work.” I recently read an article stating that the process of revision is not interior decorating. It’s architecture–building and re-building–the tedious work of renovation. Sometimes the structure collapses on you if it wasn’t strong enough to begin with.

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I started this still-life drawing a few months ago. Perhaps I will finish it this summer after my thesis is completed. Sometimes, though, I find that I like the look of the rough outlines contrasted with the objects that are done. It’s an image of life, is it not? We are all a constant work in progress, like rain that begins all day, like a road that stretches into a distance of blank miles.

What kind of “processes” are you currently immersed in? What is the journey teaching you?

a rose and a love poem

Valentine’s Day seems to be synonymous with roses and love poems, so I thought I’d share one of each…

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Rose; gouache on paper; 8×8

This is a little gouache exercise I did last week. I’m still getting the feel for this medium, and each time I sit down to work, I learn something new. Painting is an education…as is love.

Also, an excerpt from one of my favorite “love poems,” written by one of my favorite poets, Laura Gilpin:

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The poem is called “Dinosaurs” and comes from her collection The Weight of a Soul. I believe this book is out of print now, which saddens me, and makes me value her work even more.

What I love about this poem is the imagery of the bones of two lovers curled together, like the petals of a rose, so that they are no longer distinguishable as two individuals, but as one entity. I think that’s what God intended for love to be.

What images embody love to you?
Do you have a favorite love poem?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

the artist within

Over the past two weeks, my children have only had three days of school, which means we’ve had A LOT of downtime at home. My son wanted nothing to do with the snow, and the girls lasted about five minutes before they were whimpering to come back inside.

Art has always been a resting place for me, and now, as a mother of three, I am also benefitting from its ability to occupy my children! I am quite certain we would not have survived the past two weeks without new watercolors and crayons at our disposal.

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As a parent, it’s exciting to see your kids gravitate to the things you are passionate about. I love watching my children embrace their creativity. It fascinates me that at such a young age their artwork already reflects their unique personalities.

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By the end of the week, I had massive stacks of kid-art crowding my desk, so I decided to spread them all out on the floor. Here’s an aerial view. That’s not even all of it!

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My oldest daughter is energetic, determined, and detail-oriented. She is a girly-girl who loves fashion and pretty things. She says she wants to be an artist when she grows up. She drew a few self-portaits this past week…all lashes, lips, and earrings.

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Perhaps this sounds a bit dramatic, but I feel humbled when I look at my children’s artwork. There is no pride, no inhibition, no self-consciousness. They follow their impulses and don’t second-guess themselves. They aren’t bound by perfectionism.

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As adults, I think that self-consciousness can make us or break us. It can drive us to improve our craft as we become aware of what works, what doesn’t, and why, but it can also paralyze us with fear. There is a certain beauty that comes from a child’s innocence. Their art is bold, raw, and unhindered.

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My second-born daughter is more of an abstract artist. She is also not a rule-follower by nature. She is our free spirit who marches to the beat of her own drum, a quiet soul with an active (and unpredictable) inner life. I love how this quality shows up in her art work as well!

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At the age of four, she is already exploring the relationship between shape and color and letting these things stand for themselves on the page. If you ask her “What are you painting?” she looks at you in disgust…as if to say, “If you don’t know, then I’m not going to waste my time telling you.” I love her sass and confidence.

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And…my boy…is all boy, with big strokes of brown and black, perhaps some green or blue mixed in, big blobs of color side by side. He is three and is still learning to rinse his brush between colors. He has meticulous hands, an eye for detail, and I look forward to see how this translates to his art work as he grows.

The poet Dean Young writes that “Everyone is a good poet up until the third grade. I saw it when I taught as a poet in the schools. The sublime coincides with the ridiculous, babble with referent, the witnessed phenomena with the combustion of name in song of dazzling appeal, of play. The alphabet presents itself as an unsolvable mystery to be frolicked it.” (The Art of Recklessness p13)

Young’s words also remind me of one of my favorite quotes by Picasso:

every child an artist

I suppose, as adults, we are always trying to get back to who we were as children, before self-awareness and insecurity came into play. A few weeks ago, my daughter, Tess, told me,

“I am just me. I am just Tess.”

The simplicity of a child, the way they exist in the world, without pretense or assumptions, is one of the greatest blessings of parenthood.

Little do they know how much they inspire me to keep writing and painting…

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…to not be so critical of myself…
and to have the courage to share with others…

creativity takes courage

How have you “stayed an artist” as an adult?
What, or who, inspires you in your creative work?

reaching

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For me, life has been a process of elimination, a process of trying on different identities that didn’t fit before finally returning to one that did. Like a piece of art, you don’t always know who you are until you figure out who you are not.

Perhaps some of us must embark on long detours before we finally return to ourselves. The beautiful thing is that we often return changed, wiser and more mature than before, more confident in who we are meant to be.

I found a few of my old sketchbooks this week. They’ve been hidden in a dark hallway closet since our last move. I dusted them off and sharpened my old charcoal pencils, which still work well after ten years of dormancy. I also came across the sketch above, which I must have drawn sometime in college.

I suppose that the truest things about ourselves have been true along.

Life is a process of reaching out and returning to ourselves, over and over again.

juxtaposition

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ocean snow

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 sunbathing, anyone?

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 black & white

Juxtaposition. Two things seen or placed together with a contrasting effect. The snow this week provided a perfect backdrop for contrast, for unexpected pairings.

Also, I love when little bits of life converge all at once, like this poem and our current weather…

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“A Hymn To Childhood” by Li-Young Lee

I’ve recently been reading more Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite poets. I found two of his collections–Behind My Eyes (which the above poem is from) and The City in Which I Love You–at the library last week.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that he’s a Chinese male, like my son, and that his lyrics feel like some sort of link to my son’s culture, which we long to preserve in some way, or the fact that he has this elegant and sensual way with words. Probably both. He is one of those poets that feel very special to me in some indescribable way.

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In any case, this poem felt like the perfect one to share today, as we are holed up in the house, the city shut down from snow…

Still talking to God and thinking the snow
falling is the sound of God listening…

What juxtapositions do you see or experience in your life lately?
What unexpected pairings?
What convergences?

Aside

snow and mystery

It snowed again. This is a freakish occurrence in our particular pocket of the world. The snow has accumulated to almost a foot in some places. As I look out the window, I feel like I’m dwelling in some dreamy Scandinavian room with white walls, white floors, a few accents of natural wood, and sparse decor. Pristine and clean.

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So, we are home again. As much as I struggle with the lack of light in winter, or the cold temperatures that get into your bones, I am thankful for the creative space that winter provides. It’s always suitable weather to retreat to your favorite corner of the couch with some coffee and just think.

There’s been this poem in my head over the past few days–a poem I remember reading years ago–but couldn’t remember exactly where I’d first read it. After some digging, I was delighted to find it again. It’s by one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass. The poem, “The World as Will and Representation,” is featured on one of my favorite poetry blogs, How a Poem Happens. In this post, Hass shares the poem and discusses the process he went through to write it, as well as the process he goes through to write many of his poems.

I enjoy getting to see a bit of the “behind the scenes” in any creative work, because in my own experience, “behind the scenes” is not a composed, refined, or finished space. It is not a pristine Scandinavian room.

This particular poem that Hass shares is a narrative poem about his childhood. I suppose it suddenly came to me because I’ve been working through a few narrative poems this week and I feel that I tend to get stuck inside of them, obsessing over the details and order of how things happened, which tidbits are important to include, which things should be left out for the sake of the story and the rhythm, and what, in the end, the meaning of the story is, what the heart is. Hmmm…sounds a bit like life.

I like that Hass says he can come back to a draft after months or years before it is finally finished, and that certain poems, no matter how much struggle has gone into them, don’t ever come together, but how these poems are often precursors to the ones that just flow onto the page with ease.

The creative process is a mysterious one–mysterious like the snow we keep receiving in this coastal town–like the way our past experiences form the people we are today–like the way our minds suddenly remember something after years of forgetting.

…We get our first moral idea
About the world–about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things–from somewhere.”
–Robert Hass

That’s all for today…but one more fun tidbit…and a bit mysterious to me…I just realized yesterday that three of my favorite songs by different artists (Coldplay, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Imagine Dragons) are all called “Amsterdam.” There’s something to that city…and I suppose there’s a poem in that.

Any little mysteries in your life recently?

French Press

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“French Press”
9×12; mixed media

It’s been a long week here. The children staying home from school 4 out of 5 days this week completely derailed my plans. Plus, I have a willful first grader at home and it appears that she is six going on sixteen! We are facing the sobering reality that as parents, we can do what we can to teach our children what is right, but a lot of what they decide to do is out of our control. Terrifying. All at once I want them to be self-sufficient but also do exactly what I say. I guess it doesn’t work this way.

Enter: God…

…and faith that the big stuff that’s out of our hands is in His. It’s hard to do what you can and detach from the rest, but I am learning that it’s essential to sanity and survival.

In any case, amidst the hard work of parenting, there was magical snow…waking up to snow on Wednesday morning, the entire yard covered in smooth and unsullied white. I remember drinking my first cup of coffee that morning standing at the window, looking at the beauty just beyond the glass, life seeming to stand still for just a moment.

Life is such a blend of struggle and beauty. I suppose we are always bouncing between the two and grappling with where to land amidst the polarity.

The above painting is one that I did a few months ago, but it felt appropriate to share it today. Coffee and poetry in scripture have helped sustain me this week. Trusting in Him…pouring out my heart to Him. I am thankful for faith–for freedom that comes in trust–and for creative endeavors that bring me peace and calm even when life doesn’t go as planned!

Window

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Window to San Lorenzo
watercolor on paper, 16×20

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a painting and a photograph,
a window to a world much bigger than us.

This was the view from our apartment window in Florence, Italy during the summer of 2001. I ended up painting this for our final project during our summer semester. The memory now lives in watercolor and hangs on the wall of my living room, thirteen years later. I am thankful for the way that art and photographs help us preserve the people and places that hold significance in our stories, in our small windows of the world.