lists

My life is measured in lists. To-do lists, grocery lists, wish lists, lists of goals, lists to keep the anxiety of life at bay. I even pray in lists. When I wake in the morning, lists race through my head: take shower, pack lunches, feed dog, unload dishwasher, make dentist appointment, etc, etc. It’s these unglamorous details of life that end up written in my journal, in lieu of more substantial, reflective entries.

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The turn of the new year is typically a time to reflect and pursue a more “balanced life.” Perhaps all of my list-making is an attempt to strike that balance–to keep the balls in the air–to keep things from tipping into one extreme or another. However, the deeper I get into this parenthood gig, the more I question whether a balanced life is a reality that any of us actually achieve. I wonder if striving to attain it is, ironically, an exhausting and futile endeavor?

I am reminded of one of my favorite poems by Linda Pastan, called “Lists”, which begins:

I made a list of things I have
to remember and a list
of things I want to forget,
but I see they are the same list.

I suppose it’s a bit sad how much I rely on lists to order my little world, but as I leaf back through my journal entries of lists, I realize how much life exists between the bullet points. As Pastan’s poem continues…

My mother makes lists on tiny
scraps of paper, leaving them
on chairs or the seats of the bus
the way she drops a handkerchief
for someone to find, a clue
a kind of commerce between her
and the world.

A kind of commerce between her and the world. I love that.

Last night we celebrated my husband’s fortieth birthday. Somewhere between the “buy ice for cooler” and “make salsa” and “clean bathrooms” and “pick up house,” the meaningful moments took place.

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I suppose I am coming to appreciate my lists more and more because I realize they are the scaffolding of life. They may not be the heart of life, but they are the skeleton. Our most significant moments can’t be deduced to bullet points, but I think the bullet points provide the framework for the good stuff to happen.

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What lists do you keep?
How do they serve as the “commerce between you and your world”?

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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.”

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?

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?

courage

I’m in the thick of working on the aesthetic statement for my thesis. It feels like an overwhelming task–to put to words what I find valuable and meaningful in poetry, how my own work reflects that, and how it fits in with the larger conversation of art and artists. I’ve been looking back through the books that have inspired me over the years and picking out the pieces that I’ve held onto. A few quotes have stood out to me–ones I thought were worth sharing.

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“…the courage to be an amateur.”

We hear a lot about courage in the new year. We want to be brave, or to do big things, or to try new things. We perhaps want our story to look a bit differently, to get out of old patterns that might not be healthy. The thing that stands out to me though, is that this change doesn’t happen overnight. It occurs over time, over the accrual of many mistakes. It’s a long process and progress is slow. And perhaps, mistakes are not the enemy.

This is a passage from the book The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young. Dean Young adds on to Wallace Stevens’ statement, saying,

“I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.”

Young also writes,

“I don’t believe in writer’s block, writing well is very easy; it’s writing horribly, the horrible work necessary to do to get to writing well, that is so difficult one may just not be willing to do it.”

I’m seeing a theme here…it requires courage to be an amateur, to make mistakes, to do crappy work. We can’t get to where we want to be as people or artists without it. This requires vulnerability, taking chances, trying new things, and being ourselves. “Our genius is our error.”

When we speak of courage, we tend to think of doing big things for big causes. But sometimes, courage is simply putting something out there, again and again. Just keeping at it, whatever it is, growing in the process. Most of the time, the growth is so slow, it is only detectable after you’ve put years of work in.

Here are a few more gems, written by Richard Hugo, another poet:

“When you have done your best, it doesn’t matter how good it is. That is for others to say.”

“An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.”

“What a silly thing we do. We sweat through poem after poem to realize what dumb animals know by instinct and reveal in their behavior: my life is all I’ve got. We are well off to know it ourselves, even if our method of learning it is painfully convoluted. When you write you are momentarily telling the world and yourself that neither of you need any reason to be but the one you had all along.”

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Ok, back to work. I hope these tidbits encourage you today!

Pears

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Three Pears; Acrylic on paper; 8×10

I haven’t done much painting lately, but on Christmas afternoon I got the itch to pull my acrylics back out. It was a way to mentallly and emotionally regroup in the aftermath of holiday chaos. Still-life paintings call to me lately and this little line of pears became my latest subject matter. They seemed to represent the Christmas season in shape and color. They are a reflection of the three little people that fill my life, elbows touching, each with their own personality.

I’m always interested in how painting and poetry intersect. Paintings are images in color. Poems are images in words. I love to see how the two different forms of art speak to each when they are placed side by side. Many of my poems overlap in subject matter with the paintings I’ve done or the photos I’ve taken. One inspires the other, and vice versa. As I was painting these pears the other day, I found myself thinking of a Linda Pastan poem from her latest collection of poetry, Traveling Light, entitled “Pears”:

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Do you find the different forms of art overlap for you?
What inspires you to create?
What images speak to you during this time of year?

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas!

remains of the day

It’s Friday night. Not a normal time to write a post. But here I am, at my computer, unwinding from the day and “de-bulking” my thoughts. A haphazard and unplanned post. Random thoughts with no correlation, other than this is how my brain thinks…

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Ren and I were back at the doctor today. This little dude has a very strong immune response–>skin inflammation–>excessive itching–>open wounds–>resulting infections. The above scene felt familiar this morning as we sat in the office waiting for the doctor. We had already read all of the books, played all of the kid’s apps on my phone, and eaten all of his snacks. Taking selfies was a last resort for entertainment. He’s back on antibiotics and high-octane band-aids that he can’t pick off in the middle of the night. I am thankful for modern medicine.

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Christmas:I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love it from the time I wake up until about 3pm. Then I’m tired…and the school parties, the traffic, the pressure, the presents, and the low-quality milk chocolate get to me…and then I hate it. But then I get a moment to sit down and journal and I read a verse like John 2:14, and I love it all over again. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. God among us, on earth, mingling and saving humanity.

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I had to Google “Duck Dynasty” yesterday because I am clueless about these sorts of things. All of these social-religious-media-driven controversies make me want to tune-out even more and perpetually bury my head in poetry books.

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from “For Annie” by Joseph Millar

Speaking of poetry books, I’ve been reading Joseph Millar’s collection, Blue Rust, and loving it. He is one of my favorite contemporary American poets. I first discovered him after reading this poem in Billy Collin’s anthology, Poetry 180, and then coming across a few of his poems in other journals. I love how Millar writes about ordinary life, ordinary moments, the way he enters a poem in one place and exits in another, and his gentle and precise way of experiencing the world.

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I took the above photo today. A scene from my dining room. Perhaps it will be my next still life project? These colors cheer me on gray winter days.

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Motherhood is hard in a way that no one can prepare you for. It is hard in a way that you wouldn’t want anyone to prepare you for. It is so all-encompassing. There is no part of me left untouched by it. There are days when I feel that all of who I am has been squeezed out and I wonder what is left. Perhaps the biggest struggle for me in this is the feeling that there is no end in sight. It is chronic. People always say, “Enjoy it…it goes by so fast.” I know this has to be true, but it doesn’t feel true, for the most part. The time that it does feel true is late at night, when the hard work for the day is over and I wander into my children’s rooms to kiss their cheeks as they sleep–as they are quiet and unconscious–and I think to myself, “Wow, enjoy this, freeze this moment, you will someday miss this.”

I think of the quote–it’s not verbatim–but it goes something like,

“I don’t like to write…I like to have written.”

Perhaps that is true of many things. Putting in the labor is, well, labor, but looking back on the accomplishment is priceless. And perhaps that is why I love “to have written”–it is a tangible end product that is frozen in time–a symbol of labor and love. Raising children is less tangible and one often wonders if there ever is an end product. Where does the work go? When are you ever “done?” Is there a way to know if you are doing it right or not? What kind of impact do your actions have? The answers to these questions may not even reveal themselves until our children are in their mid-twenties and seeking a therapist to deal with their childhood issues. But even then, that’s not a black and white indicator of whether or not we were good parents…because we ALL have issues…and mostly likely would all benefit from therapy.

I think about all of this, but then I come full circle, back to the moments when my children are content and asleep, back to Millar’s poem and the final stanza, and hope that maybe, just maybe, I am doing an okay job…

There’s a song women sing
you know all the words to,

to make a child stop crying and sleep,
a song to make a grown man forget.

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