The Significant and the Superficial

As a nurse, so much of my job deals with the physical matter of life—vital signs, lab results, radiology reports—tangible phenomena I can observe with my own senses and measure in quantifiable outcomes. But what of the deeper things that we can’t assess or treat—the deeper emotional and spiritual aspects of human existence?”

Today I’m writing a guest post for The American Journal of Nursing. You can click here to read more.

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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!

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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the other place

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In my last poetry workshop, we studied some of Juliana Spahr’s work. I love the simplicity of her verse and I also love the way she weaves language together in such a way that it reveals the complex and paradoxical connections between things. The above excerpt is one of my favorite parts of her book, as she explores the human longing for more–always searching and seeking “the geography of the other place.”

I think this sense of longing is universal. I believe it is a good thing, as it compels us to go after something “other”–something beyond ourselves. It is the urge which ultimately leads us to find God. However, like anything, it can have a darker side–a side that can steal contentment and acceptance from our lives–a side that leads us to seek perfection in an imperfect world.

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Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

This is one of my favorite paintings. It used to hang in my high school art studio and I remember how something inside of me connected with this girl in the painting–the way she seemed fixed in one place yet longed for the home on the horizon–the way her posture seemed to be reaching for what was beyond her. I wondered what was in the house that she wanted, and I wondered why she stayed in that same spot on the grass. My art teacher eventually told me that the girl in the painting was handicapped–she had suffered from polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. It seemed such a sad portrait of a girl alone in an open field, longing to move yet unable to.

Do you ever feel like that? If you were to put yourself in this painting, what posture would you assume and what would surround you? What would that thing in the distance be that you are longing for? Is it real, or is it a mirage?

I have often struggled with contentment, idealism, and withdrawing into a fantasy world. I can tend to have this unhealthy awareness of what is missing in life and allow my own imagination to fill in the missing pieces. I am like Spahr when she writes, “I am in one place and longing for the geography of the other place…I am in days wanting it all.” In recent years I realize how much this struggle can steal from my enjoyment of actual life. Living in some fantasy world of “what might have been” or “what could be” or “what should be” takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. It can steal my ability to truly engage in the present-tense-reality of what life actually IS.

Growing up, I had an idea of how my life would turn out. It is an illusive idea, not grounded in reality at all. It was always wrapped up in living overseas, in some brand of self-glory, living life as a loner and free-spirit, perhaps as a traveling nurse, helping others and needing nothing, free to do anything, to be my own person. The more I try to nail down the fantasy, the more disappointing and vague it actually is. I don’t know that I ascribe it to any one place–it is not grounded in anything truly tangible or even good. Yet, I find myself ascribing to it when my current reality is hard or disappointing. It is a way to escape.

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Tess, had a stomach virus. She was puking into plastic bags from Target in the backseat of the car as we drove her two younger siblings to preschool. As we drove along in our Honda Pilot, past stop lights and strip malls, I thought: why didn’t anyone tell me about this part? It was not a scene my imagination had conjured or clung to when I envisioned my future. At the alter, saying my vows with my husband…in the bathroom, holding positive pregnancy tests…vomiting children is among many things that I had not envisioned. (You know that part of baby showers when you ask older mothers to share their wisdom with you? How did projectile vomit miss the memo?)

This got me thinking about how unreliable our ideas of the future really are. Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would. My foresight is terribly limited. And, the life I originally imagined for myself, which floats up in some pastel cloud, fluffy and unreachable, is completely detached from anything I would probably ever want to touch, taste, or feel in reality. This realization leads me back to the present, to this hard wooden desk where I currently write, to luke warm coffee, half-eaten biscotti, the stack of half-read books and crumpled napkin at my side. This is what is real. This is what I love. The here, the now…the paradoxes and dichotomies of daily life. The more I accept these, the more I am happy to let my flowery fantasy world float away like a balloon until it shrinks into a tiny speck in the sky, no longer visible to the naked eye.

I was talking with a friend of mine on the phone last week. We are both thirty-somethings–now fully established in the decade that has largely (though not entirely!) escaped from the drama, reactivity, grandiosity, and insecurity that defined our twenties. We are “officially grown ups.” At this point, we are realizing that if we don’t start to discard the fantasies that we chased in our teens and twenties, our lives will pass us by, un-lived and unappreciated. It is time, we both have decided, to accept and embrace the full reality of life, in all of its ordinariness. If the fantasy hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t, because it probably was never attainable anyways. It is time to embrace the plainness of a dry open grassland and a cloudy sky and the fact that, try as we might, we sometimes can’t move ourselves from where we sit in this big open field. We are here, where we are, for a reason, and perhaps there is joy and contentment in burrowing deeper into our current landscape, embracing both the grit and softness of the earth around us.

This week, the week of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for life–even life that is “less than ideal” at times. I am grateful that my life didn’t turn out the way I imagined it–I would be miserable. I am thankful for the geography of the place I am in–its ordinariness–its many joys and disappointments. I am grateful that God gives us a heart that always longs for more…but that can also find rest and peace where it currently is. I am finding that there is great significance and value in “normalcy.” I am grateful that the home on the horizon–the one that I long for in the distance–is not something I can ultimately create for myself. It is a place that God has made for me, and it is real.

What do you long for?

What are you thankful for?

the world, as they see it

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I sometimes catch my children staring quietly out of the car window. It is mysterious how the senses and images they experience each day will be incorporated into their memories. Their ideas about the world are wildly forming. As a mother, it is humbling to have such an integral role in the whole process.

I remember as a young girl riding in the back seat of my dad’s jeep. I remember road trips through the tall grasses of Georgia and South Carolina, listening to Bruce Hornsby and Paul Simon. I remember how the southern landscape became a part of my bones, how I came to associate certain stretches of the road with comfort and familiarity. Sometimes my dad would turn off the music and tune into an SEC football game. The sounds of the AM broadcast, the whistles and roaring crowds, still remind me of him and those nostalgic autumn afternoons.

I’ve introduced my children to some new bands this week. I checked a few albums out from the library and we’ve been making our way through them, savoring each one. This morning, we listened to The Decemberists.

Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day
Heralding a summer’s early sway
And all the bulbs all coming in
To begin

We found a turtle crossing the road as we drove out of our neighborhood. We stopped and the children touched its hard shell and scaly legs. Later, as we drove through town, I found Lucy staring out the window as we passed strip malls and stop signs. How will these little moments during the day nourish and grow her unique perception of life? How will these sights and sounds become a part of who she is? Life is a mystifying mosaic of senses. We each hold it differently.

What is the world, as my children see it? What is the world, as you see it?