small talk

Our recent move to Virginia has provided numerous opportunities for one of my least favorite things: small talk. Whether it’s meeting people at church, establishing care with a new doctor, attending a gathering with other adoptive families, or chatting with a neighbor down the street, there are those obligatory conversations you get through in order to establish relationship and connection. One of the classic small-talk questions people ask me:

Do you work or are you a stay at home mom?

I typically mention that I stay at home with my kids and that I used to be an operating room nurse in the Air Force. One thing leads to another, and then it comes up that I’m also working on my MFA in Creative Writing.

This is the moment in the conversation when some people begin to look puzzled and make various comments that all communicate a similar message:

Those things don’t fit together. 

These encounters usually leave me feeling like a cluster of fragmented pieces that don’t fit together, a conundrum of opposing and conflicting ambitions and desires. One of my neighbors once responded, “Wow, nursing and creative writing? You must have really strong and opposing parts of your personality.” In between the lines, I have started to wonder if I made a mistake somewhere.

Art has always felt like home to me, whether it’s writing a poem or painting a picture. My sketch pads and journals have been a consistent place of refuge and rejuvenation. Growing up, my spirit felt at rest each time I stepped foot in an art studio, amongst the charcoal and paint chips and still life displays. In college, I toyed with the idea of majoring in studio art, but decided to take the more “practical, reliable, sensible, and noble” route. I chose nursing instead.

I don’t know if this is a generational or a cultural pressure, or perhaps a bit of both, but it seems that there is some unspoken yet pervading idea that choosing a career in the arts is indulgent, impractical, bohemian, and narcissistic. It’s okay to indulge your creative side every once in while, perhaps as a hobby, but to make it your profession is assuming and irresponsible. In the past, I have felt a sense of shame and embarrassment when I tell people that I am studying poetry. I mean, what kind of respectable human being has time to read and write poetry? Aren’t there more important things to be done in the world?

Perhaps I don’t fit into a label, and that might provoke uncomfortable interactions with other people. I am learning to accept this. I have been tempted to replay my decision to become a nurse–to wonder if I should have chosen art instead. And then there are days when I wonder if it’s audacious to think that there’s a place for me in the world of art. At the end of the day, I know it’s a huge freedom and privilege to even have a choice in the matter. Many people don’t.

There are things I desperately miss about being a nurse. I miss being a part of the surgical team, working together with others to bring about a life-changing and tangible improvement in someone’s health. It was meaningful work, and even on the bad days, the hard days, the exhausting days, I could walk away feeling good about that. On the other hand, there was always some part of my mind that nursing failed to engage, and over time, this made me feel depleted and burned out. And, so, here I am, back to pursuing art again.

I don’t know how my different “selves” will fit together in the end. I do believe that God doesn’t waste anything, and at the end of the day, the so-called “opposing” parts of my personality must be there for a reason.

I often like to end my posts with a poem, because, as I mentioned before, there’s a poem for everything. This poet that I want to share with you today has a very prized place in my heart.

Can you think of a writer or an artist that has given you permission to be yourself–someone whose work validates who you are and what you love? I can think of many writers like this, but the one I want to share today is Laura Gilpin.

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Gilpin was a registered nurse and a poet. She is proof that the credentials RN and MFA can be a compatible couple, and she is an inspiration to me. Her book, The Weight of a Soul, has been on my nightstand for months. I take it along with me on errands. I read her poems at stoplights and in waiting rooms. She started out with a BA and MFA and then went back to school to become a nurse. In 1976 she won the Walt Whitman award for her book, The Hocus Pocus of the Universe. She passed away in 2007.

Laura Gilpin reminds me of what can happen when we embrace all of who we are, even the parts that don’t seem to fit together. The next time a new acquaintance makes a remark about how odd and ill-fitting my educational pursuits are, I may just hand them a copy of Gilpin’s book.

It was so hard to choose, but the following poem is one of my favorites. It reminds me of working night shift and walking through the eery, dark, hospital halls towards the blood bank. She captures this moment so well…

The Ritual of Hanging Blood
Laura Gilpin

Two nurses, the ritual requires two nurses
as though the blood is so heavy
it can’t be carried by one
though the bag is small
no bigger than a heart
but flat and dark and viscous
not bright like urine
urine is usually clear and bright, almost sunny
deceptively filled with life’s impurities
but blood is thick and dark and dusky
as though the darkness itself
holds the secret of life
holds the breath of life, is life giving.

I wind through the darkened hallways
to the blood bank, sign my name
beside the patient’s name
as though I am signing for him
in the book of life.

Then I wait for the second nurse.
She holds the blood while I hold the patient’s wrist
read from his name band his name,
which we spell together,
his hospital ID number
which we read aloud in the darkened room.

Whose life is held in this bag?
The blood drips through the tube, drop by drop,
like the original heart still beating
the way life flows through a small cord
between a mother and child.
The blood drips, drop by drop,
like the pulse in his wrist
I reach for in the dark
as the blood merges with his own
becomes his own.
All night I walk in and out of his room,
listening to his heart,
listening to his sleep.

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Citrus and Espresso

Citrus and Espresso

Citrus and Espresso.
Acrylic on paper; 9×12

I started this still life during the doldrums of winter when the days were gray and damp. The trees were barren and life felt dismal. The light and joy of Christmas had faded and spring was still a faint fleck in the distance.

We found relief in the color and scent of citrus. We took momentary refuge in the warmth and richness of espresso.

This painting reminds me that God gives us good gifts each day, gifts that breathe beauty and hope back into our spirits even during the darkest seasons. I am grateful for that.

a history of thought

I find it obscure how memories can be latent and lost for years, beyond recollection, until something suddenly awakens them again. There are massive gaps in my childhood memories, and yet there are certain moments I remember with such precision, it seems as though they only happened yesterday.

Many of my vivid recollections seem to be attached to a particular age, and for some reason, ages seven and eight seem to hold some of my most accessible memories. I believe these years brought with them the wonderful and equally tragic world of self-consciousness. For me, they mark the beginning of a more abstract and complex pattern of thought.

Age seven. I remember standing in the large foyer of our house, my small form swallowed up by empty space and high ceilings. I remember staring out the windows that bordered the front door and thinking about God. Who was He? Where was He? What would life be like if He had decided not to create any of this, any of us? What would the absence of life feel like? All I could imagine was a void of nothingness. All I could picture was blackness. The thought made me shudder, but I found myself returning to it again and again, as if my mind was a new toy I was just learning how to play with.

Age eight. I remember carpooling with my friend to gymnastics practice. I remember sitting in the backseat of her mom’s Mercedes Benz in my leotard, my thighs sticking to the tan leather seats in the humid Atlanta heat. I looked over at my friend’s thighs and noted how much skinnier they were than mine. I thought that if I positioned my legs in a certain way on the seat then they might look as small as hers. When someone mentions the word “self-consciousness,” this is one of the first memories that comes to mind.

One afternoon, at around this same age, I remember sitting on the wooden swing set in my best friend’s back yard. I anchored my toes in the dirt as I swirled the rest of my body around in a circular motion, trying not to tangle the metal chains that suspended me. These random details surround the first time I can remember having “the thought.”

It’s a thought that we’ve all had. It says, “What if I had done that, and not this?” The thought looks like a person standing at a crossroads and choosing one direction, and then, miles and years down that chosen path, looking back and wondering, how would life be different if I’d chosen the other way? 

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This thought of “what might have been” can be intricately laced with regret and longing, and if carried too far, can become unproductive and even damaging. However, I also think there’s a chance that it can enhance and inspire how we choose to engage in the life we have chosen, or rather, the life that has chosen us.

As a seven-eight year old, I didn’t do much with the thought. Most decisions were made for me; life was still quite simple. At the time, I think I was more intrigued that a person was capable of pondering such things and that the human imagination could construct such vivid scenarios in attempt to fill in the blanks to questions it did not know the answer to. In the years to follow, this would become a favorite past-time of mine.

And now, twenty five years later, I still find my mind drawn to these questions. What if I’d never gotten married? What if I’d never had children? What if I had never joined the military? What if I had never met this person or attended that university or gone to that church? Where would I be now, and how would life be different from what it currently is? The current one I’ve been pondering: “What if I had chosen art instead of nursing?” (more on that later.)

What if? What if? What if?

I believe that my ability to construct elaborate and fantastical answers to this question can be a strength, but it has also been one of my great downfalls. My mind can create and imagine that which has not yet become a reality. This means that I also possess the ability to scare myself–to create my own worst scenarios and entrench myself so deeply in them that I start to loose a grasp of what is real and what is not.

Over the years, and with support, I believe I’m starting harness up the darker side of these thoughts while also loosening the chains on the brighter side of my imagination. This is leading to a greater sense of gratitude and contentment with where I am now, while also allowing myself to dream deeply about what is yet to be.

I’ll finish with a poem that comes to mind as I write all of this. After all, there is a poem for everything…

“What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.”

–from “Mornings at Blackwater” by Mary Oliver

***

Food for thought:

What are some of your most vivid early memories?
When do you remember first pondering more abstract and complex ideas?
What thoughts does the question “what if?” provoke in you?

the beginning of everything

Yesterday was the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, the shortest night. All the days of spring, so full of birth and growth, have climaxed and transitioned into a new season–summer–the season of light and fullness. What will this new season bring?

Last night Ren and I went on a trip to Target, just the two of us. He lost his pacifier yesterday–it is the original pacifier we brought home from China. He held onto it for almost a year before it finally disappeared. We got him a brand new paci last night and he seemed unfazed by the change. He embraced his new green one wholeheartedly. He continues to settle in. He continues to surprise me.

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I also bought a brand new journal during our Target trip. I opened it up this morning as I drank my coffee. Staring at that first blank page always makes me feel as though the possibilities in life are endless. What will happen in the days to come? What will be written in its pages? What poems will be conceived, what thoughts explored, what experiences captured, what stories told?

This all reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “At The Cafe” by Patricia Kirkpatrick.

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If I choose this window, this black-and-white notebook,
I must appear to be what I am:
a woman who has chosen a table
between her sleeping child
and the beginning of everything.