Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ruby's not an artist

The other day I was dropping Eloise off at school and one girl at the art table had an announcement to make.  "I am an artist" she proclaimed.  I think I said something dopey and neutral like, "How wonderful, this class must have many artists," to which the student replied, "No, Ruby's not an artist.  She just does scribbles."

I lost a little breath, as if I were Ruby, the four year old who was just told she was not an artist.  I sat there dumbly, unarmed with a proper response.  This felt like such a wrong thing, for one four year old to tell another four year old what they could not be.  I fumbled on.

"I think many artists scribble.  Many famous artists work has a lot of scribbling in it." It was a pitiful response, failing on a number of fronts, not the least of which was defending little Ruby.  

Eloise, piped up and said, "I'm an artist.  I make lots of pictures."

"Yes, Eloise, you do.  You are an artist,"  and then I added, feeling fraudulent,  "I am an artist too."

The other girl looked up from her colored blocks, right at me and told it to me straight. "No you're not."

"How do you know?"

"Because my mom is a doctor and she goes to a real doctor place to see people." 

She turned her back and walked away.

A day or two later, I recalled that over Thanksgiving break I met someone who introduced himself as an artist.  Graham, the girls, and I were guests at a friend's "holiday leftovers" lunch.  I found myself sitting next to a man about my age, maybe a bit older, with curly red hair, glasses, and a rumpled plaid shirt.  When I asked him how he spent his time, he told me he was an artist.

On hearing the word artist, my presence of mind split into layers.  Inside snippy commentary bombarded me:  that's kind of pretentious to introduce himself as an artist, is he professional, does he make money at this, or have a grant, or is he kind of faking it, like he wants to be an artist, and he makes stuff in a studio, living off a trust fund or something.  It was not a kind narrative.

Outside I asked, "So what do you make?"

He described making things out of found items.  Out of old tires, a used up couch and his grandmother's cushion that he had saved because no one else in the family wanted it. Stepping into what felt like common ground, I told him, "I make things out of fabric I save too, like from the girls' baby clothes."

He turned a few degrees in my direction, and tilted his head.  "You do?  Wow, what do you make?"  And from an undivided place I described sewing Christmas ornaments out of old nightgowns.  He listened carefully, asked a few more questions, and in the light of his kind attention, my previous confusion, along with its edge, evaporated.

Back at preschool, Eloise sits at the art table.  She has a pink marker in her hand, and edges it along the paper.  "Mama, it's me and you.  And there is Hawaii." I ask her a few questions about her drawing, looking carefully at the sharp corners and swift turns of her lines.   I spend a bit of extra time, allowing us the luxury of lingering in a conspiracy of art.  She shows me her work, I receive and enjoy it, and somewhere in between she has become the artist she claims herself to be.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday January 24, 2013


My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird--
    equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old?  Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
    keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
    and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
    to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
    that we live forever.

--Mary Oliver, Thirst 2006

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Celebrate: Graham's Birthday

Today I'm going to go out on a limb and talk about why I love my husband.  I'm sure there are those of you out there who might find this overly sentimental and cheesy, but I'm doing it for myself, and I'm doing it for my daughters, who someday might care what transpired between their parents, or, maybe if they are happy and well adjusted in their own lives they may not give a hoot at all.  And I'm doing it for my husband, because it's his Birthday, and I want to give him a bit of something from the edge, from the place where I'm working the hardest to become the person I aspire to be.

Here is what being in love with Graham feels like to me now.

I'm driving down the streets of Palo Alto.  The air is as clear and sharp as glass.  The sky is a flat dome of blue.  I feel the sun warm my face as I turn onto a street in my neighborhood.  The girls are at school, Chicca our German Shepherd is in the back of the car, and Graham is at work.  I drive slowly and notice the way that the daylight penetrates the green leaves.  Out of nowhere a thought crashes into my head.  What if something terrible were ever to happen, to happen to Graham.  What if there were god forbid an accident or an illness, and he were suddenly gone, pulled out of our lives.  Having disoriented myself, I swiftly move into irrational executive planning mode, mentally rearranging to make a practical list.  The first item that pops into my head, is how would I go about finding a husband just like Graham, who would listen to my crazy ideas, and tuck the girls in at night, and watch bad tv, and send me LOL cats when I'm in a bad mood.  How could I find a person exactly like that?

We are out to dinner on a Thursday night.  We are sitting at at table near the window and the shape of Graham's head cuts a clear dark edge against the setting sun.  He is talking about something technical, maybe the various methods of making sense of big data, random forest or stacking, I can follow him and I understand the concepts he talks about the way I understand poetry.  I swallow the words by the bushel, and a shape stays.  I get it, but in a way that I have little control over the information.  I am with him letting his thoughts make their impression, and for a second I loose track.  I don't hear him, there is silence in my head.  His face is talking to me.  The sun lights up a few tiny red curls in his sideburns.  And I wonder, when he leaves his body for good, where will he go.  How can I find him there.  In a second I am back.  I am crying at dinner, again.  He knows me and how I do this and jokes, "You're going to make the waiters here think I'm mean to you."  We both laugh.  

Here's the thing, he's going to think these little bits are morbid, and is his Birthday, so I need to flesh this out with a bit that stays in the here and now.

I am in the kitchen pressing a clove of garlic into a yellow cup.  A pile of romaine lettuce is in a white bowl, waiting for dressing.  Gwendolyn is sitting at her usual stool at the counter, crouched over her homework, head down.  Chloe is hidden from view erecting the Death Star out of legos; the project is so huge it has taken over a half a room.  Eloise dances across the floor singing a pop song of her own making, her pink skirt a twirl as she coos, "and you're troo- ooo-ooo…"  Just then the door cracks open, there is the jangling of keys.  We all look up and turn toward his arrival.  We have been waiting for this moment.  He joins us in the kitchen. I let everyone have their turn and then I take mine, tucking my face into his neck, inhaling all I can of his skin, his neck and hair.  I kiss him on the lips.  

Yes, this is how it happens.

Happy Birthday, my love.  Happy Birthday.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Celebrate: My Grandmother's Birthday

Today I'm thinking of my grandmother. To celebrate I'm posting an essay I wrote about her (and my mother and me) that was published in 2010 in a small anthology that is now out of print. In the essay I recall catching "a glimpse of time," and I notice how fast it is moving. Four years later, this experience of time continues; days melt as fast as butter in a hot pan--and if anything, with three girls in my daily care, the pan seems to get hotter everyday. But something new is coming into view about time. It's not in good focus yet, but it's shape stretches over generations, and hints at what can be passed forward. I can't quite pin it down, it sounds about as loud as the trill of a humming bird, but when I listen closely, I hear it, I definitely hear it.

My Grandmother and my mother, probably 1950

My Grandmother and me, 1986

For Barbara Gilman Wattiker

My grandmother loved gardenias, Hershey bars with almonds, Joy Perfume, and tall men.  She cooked beef strogonoff, rack of lamb, and other hearty American fare every night for her husband and six children.  Six feet tall, with a flare for eclectic fashion, a deep throaty laugh, and a slim brown cigarette burning between her fingers, she stood out wherever she went.

Her eldest daughter, my mother, grows geraniums year round on the east coast.  She knows how to cook her mother's beef strogonoff and has bested her rack of lamb.  While I lived at home my mother cooked every night for my father, my brother and me.  She is tall, not as tall, swears by Manolo Blahniks, and smoked until she was into her forties.

When my mother was a Freshmen in college, my grandmother overdosed herself with sleeping pills before her two youngest children came home from school.  She was rushed to the hospital where my grandfather was chief surgeon.  She was in a coma for some time before recovering.

Over the course of my mother's life (and my own life), my grandmother tried to kill herself two more times and was hospitalized for her bipolar illness on many more occasions.  During these times my mother never hesitated to disrupt her schedule for an unplanned visit, never avoided the embarrassment of being seen in a psychiatric ward, and never acted in such a way as to make me, her eldest daughter, think that visiting my grandmother in a mental institution was odd or awkward.  She was my grandmother, and if seeing us was beneficial to her, we went.

I remember one of our visits.  My grandmother, always the gift giver, did not let the modest circumstances of her small hospital room prevent her from presenting me a gift hidden in the palm of her hand.  She handed it to me quietly, behind my mother's back, as she had done many times before.  This time, it was a hard boiled egg.  It could have just as easily been a folded hundred dollar bill.  In the car my mom and I laughed.  My mom said, "That's Noni, you can always count on her for a unique gift."

As a mother now myself, I am struck by the grace with which mother chose to embrace my mentally ill grandmother.  Having grown up under the care of a woman who was exuberant and eccentric at her best, but was negligent and unstable at her worst, it would have been easy to dwell on the disappointing and challenging aspects of their relationship.  But the fact that I grew up thinking that my Noni was nothing short of fabulous, is evidence of my mother's authentic acceptance of her mother for who she was. 

My mother consistently channeled our focus toward my grandmother's finest qualities, and transformed challenging "bipolar" moments by gently joking about them.  When my grandmother snuck expensive Italian gold rings through US customs by pinning them to her brassier, my mom said, "You can't say she doesn't have good taste." When she showed up at our house at ten in the evening in a new blue minivan that she had been living out of with her dogs, my mom said, "At least things are never dull around here,"  And I remember hearing my favorite Noni comment, "Well, she's a character alright," after my mother watched my grandmother "edit" one psyciatric ward's in-take forms before she would agree to be admitted. 

All of these soft-hearted comments helped make way for me to have a positive experience my grandmother.   Rather than shield me from who she was, my mother gave me ample opportunity to see her and make my own connection with her.  And so to me, she will always be the warm, funny woman who let me eat Hershey bars at breakfast, let me play dress up with her expensive designer hats, and frequently snuck me unpredictable gifts. 

When the time came for me to become a mother and my mother to become a grandmother, I was blind to the immensity of the effort my mom had made on behalf of my grandmother and me.  Rather than embrace my mother's effusive love for her new grand baby, I'm embarassed to say I tortured her with my short temper and exasperation.   "Mom, you CAN'T heat the bottle in the microwave."  "No mom, we DON'T turn the TV on in the afternoon."  "MOM, she's one year old, what are you DOING giving her Godiva?"  Many times, a single aggravated "Mah-ahm" communicated my pointed dissaproval. 

In the scope of things, the misteps I perceived her making were so small, so inconsequential, they hardly seem worth of judgement; yet judge them I did.

Until, one day, I woke up.  By this time my eldest daughter had turned three and my youngest had turned two.  We were on vacation in Mexico, staying in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  It was one of our first big family trips.  We were joined by my mom, my husband's parents, and good friends of ours who had their one year old son with them.  Our days stretched out long and sweet like taffy; breakfast together in the kitchen, long afternoons taking turns playing in the pool with our girls, sunset margaritas on the deck while the "big girls" sang ring-around-the-rosy, collapsing again and again to get their new friend laughing.

As my two and three year old made their best comedic team effort, with the sun setting on the Pacific behind them, I caught a glimpse of time.  And I saw how quickly it was passing. 

Already my baby girl was more than a year older than my eldest was when we conceived her little sister.  Already they were running and laughing and making jokes.  And with my youngest girl two years old, we had a scant few baby months left in our young family's life.

That evening, I made two decisions.  I decided that we weren't done with the baby years yet and that we should consider bringing a "bonus" baby into our family. 

And I decided that there was no time left to waste nit-picking and judging my mom, who by all measures is the best grandmother I know.  From that moment on, I made a conscious decision to make way for my own daughters' fond memories of their grandmother in every way that I could.  I encouraged my mother to move out to California, which she did.  And now that she's here I try to create lots of opportunities for them to be togetether, including letting my girls have as many sleep overs at their grandmother's as they want.

A couple of weeks ago while driving my girls home from my mother's house, I asked how the sleep over was.  My oldest daughter, who is now five said, "Mom, it was AWESOME.  We had chocolate ice cream and bacon for breakfast!"

My response: "That Nonny makes a tasty breakfast!"

My mother has helped my girls amass a large collection of commercialized toys I would never buy.  When she is charge they go to bed "pretty early" by her standards--nine-thirty or, so.  And, to carry on the family love of fashion, my mother has made sure that for all occasions big and small, my girls are outfitted in get-ups that would inspire envy in Fancy Nancy.

My response to it all: "Wow, Nonny sure knows how to have a good time, doesn't she!"

This is how I've chosen to do my part to insure that the gift of grandmother love gets passed on.  This is how I've chosen to practice what my mother did so well, loving and accepting her own mother.  And while I am far from perfect, I do my best to follow in my mother's footsteps by focusing on what is wonderful and treating the rest with warm, accepting humor. 

So these days, if you come to my house, you will see that I grow geraniums and gardenias all year long, I am a sucker for an expensive, sexy pair of shoes, and with smoking way out of fashion, I pay tribute to my grandmother's and my mother's mischevious irreverence by toasting the pending arrival of baby #3 with a glass of real champagne.

PS Making a mental note to plant geraniums again this spring.  Gardenias are still doing well, I'm happy to report.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday January 17, 2014

"After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future of the world depends."
--Wallace Stevens

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Practice what?

The word practice, of course, begs the question "Practice what?"  

Well, its embarrassing to admit, even when the cat is already out of the bag.  

I want to write more.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that.  And part of me is ready to commit more time to this practice. There is another part of me though that is pulling back hard, kicking up all kinds of doubt and fear.

And so, I ask you to wish me luck on this year's voyage.  In the face of a whole bunch of feelings, I've tossed out the elaborate plan of last year's word, and instead have done my best to build a schedule that will allow for time in the seat and time to track down some bits of history.  I am committed to serving the story that seems to be arriving.  I have some work ahead of me, and I don't know how it will turn out.  This is hard for me.

I remember when I was in labor with Chloe.  Her birth was a VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section), and so to improve my chances of avoiding surgery, I opted (before labor) to do it without anesthesia.  There came a point in the labor when I told the my doctor that I was ready for the drugs.  I remember calculating that I did not want to have gone through so much pain and end up having the surgery anyway.  My thought was to hedge--at least if I had the drugs, if I ended up with the surgery I'd have avoided a chunk of the pain.  I was trying to figure out how I could protect myself, not knowing how it would ultimately turn out.

At that very point the doctor said to me, "No, no, you'll be fine.  Why don't you get on the table and try giving some pushes."  

I opened my eyes wide, and full of disbelief, I heaved myself onto the table.  I sort of crumpled, and started to cry, "I don't think I can do this."

In her bright yellow shirt she leaned toward me and said, "What do you mean?  You're already doing it.  You're doing it."

There is a part of me, here at the beginning of 2014 that is hedging, coming up with alternate plans to reduce the pain if I am not able to pull this idea through.  If you were my writing doctor, I'd be asking you for the drugs just about now.  

I am choosing to take this feeling as a signal that it is time to commit.  To get on the table and give a couple pushes, even though there is a voice inside me crying, "I don't' think I can do this."  

To her, I say, "What do you mean?  Your doing it already.  You're doing it."

Have a good week.  I wish you luck in whatever adventures and challenges you've taken on for the new year.

A trip to the grocery store
to spend money
on the things that will feed us
this week.

This chore
This responsibility
This celebration

Is mine, for now.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My word for the year

Over the past two years, inspired by my friend and fellow blogger, Laurel, I've participated in Ali Edward's online class called One Little Word.  In the class, you choose a word for the year, and then Ali, a graphic designer, presents prompts that inspire visual interactions with your word.  Between Ali's visual prompts and Laurel's collaboration, I have experimented with opening my eyes a little wider, checking in with my surroundings more frequently, and getting out of my head a little more often (and, for the record, a little more often is still not often enough).

As I contemplated my word for this year (back in my head again, you see) I looked back on how last year went, and realized that the most growth and progress came, not in what I planned, but in what I actually did.  

I know, that sounds so obvious, doesn't it?  

The word I picked stayed conceptual in a lot of ways, while the things I actually did day-to-day became habits that had good results, including:

Flossing my teeth
Taking photographs
Translating my great-grandfather's letters
Collaborating with friends I respect and admire

A bit of an odd list, I'll admit.  It doesn't conform in a neat or rational way with how my mind approaches the developmental moment that I find myself in (you can read more about that here).  And yet, I look back on the work done and there is some weight in the palm of my hand that I can feel.  Like stones picked up on a beach walk, the bits are modest but worth holding onto.

They arrived by doing bite sized chunks of work.  Really, impossibly small increments.  So small that in more than one sense I gave up hope that I'd accomplish anything at all, and instead resigned to doing what I was able to do between attending to knots in the finest girl-hair, a failing washing machine, missing socks, and all the rest of the pieces you, yourself, are so familiar with that I need not add to the list.

I shifted focus from what I wanted to accomplish to figuring out what I could accomplish on a day to day basis.  And it turns out, this is a very loving, sane thing to do, and indeed, the only way that things actually get done.  

Which brings me to my word for the year.

My word is practice.

With the word practice there is a commitment to being process oriented.  Imperfection is built-in-which feels liberating.  There is a sense that repetition eventually leads to progress, and that showing up to work at a small piece of something, at least in the stage I'm in, trumps conceptual thinking and planning.  

Without a doubt, for me, this is the territory of faith, of taking one small step after the other, not  knowing exactly where the path will lead or how it will unfold.  

And yet, I have last year to look back on.  

I had grand plans for the word celebrate, elaborate schemes of how I would manifest that word in my life--some of which happened (like renewing vows with my husband) and many of which didn't.  One thing that did happen though, a thing that I did not plan for at all, was that I started looking around at what was right in front of me and taking pictures of that with my phone.  

I found extraordinary, saturated beauty in my back yard, and I encountered the most everyday, regular harmony thousands of miles away.  I was more attentive to my surroundings, and more open to a feeling of tenderness that would rise up in me when I saw things.  And ironically, completely off plan, with nothing more than my iPhone, Instagram, and new habit of looking around and taking a picture or two, I stumbled into what is probably my best manifestation of last year's word.  Celebrate.