I feel like I’ve been ship-wrecked at sea for the past four years and finally have reached the shore.
I want to kiss the ground.
And then get up and dance.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, America!!!
I feel like I’ve been ship-wrecked at sea for the past four years and finally have reached the shore.
I want to kiss the ground.
And then get up and dance.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, America!!!
I’m painting again, thanks to my granddaughter.
She turns 8 years old next week and custom ordered two paintings for her birthday. The painting above, which I dubbed “A Secret Garden,” originally was a watercolor and oil pastel abstract, sans critters, that I painted long ago. But as much as I liked it, it seemed missing something. That’s when I added a humming bird, Audrey’s spirit animal, and wrapped it up as a Christmas gift for her last year.
She seemed to like it, but then one day said, “Grandma, don’t you think it needs some more critters down here hiding in the garden?” I had to agree with her, but didn’t get to work on it until a few weeks ago, adding the deer and fox and quail we see on a daily basis behind our home. A reminder of the year she spent with us before she moved away again, and all the fun we had looking watching wildlife together.
But she also wanted a painting of a white kitten with blue eyes in a teacup. We spent many hours looking at images of kittens on Google, as well as foxes, bats, and other creatures that she’s interested in.
I finished the one below just a few days ago. I modeled the tea cup after a child’s china set I gave her when she was three-years old. I hope she will approve. She’s very particular. I’ll be taking both paintings down to her for her birthday next week, along with a long frilly princess dress, glittery shoes with heels, and a pink, faux fur carpet for her bedroom.
Oh, to be 8-years old again!
Last in my series “Brushes With Blackness” on how Black lives and Black Culture colored my Whiteness.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to write or what I wanted to write until I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman.
What I mean by how and what is this: Sentences so carefully crafted they grab and bite. Images so sharp and powerful they cleave you to the bone. That lift you up and tear you apart with one clean stoke. Characters that are utterly human and yet larger than life. Story-telling that is a kind of myth-making. Themes that capture the heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching brutality of an oppressed people.
Song of Solomon is the coming of age tale of a Black man in the 1930’s, Macon Dead, III, otherwise know as Milkman, because his mother nursed him until his his legs were dangling toward the floor. It’s about his strange aloof family, a wealthy bitter father and a secretive, passive mother, a bootlegger Aunt born with no novel, a beautiful cousin he lusts after and abandons. It’s about his best friend Guitar who joins other angry young men bent on revenge killings, and his own quest to escape that violence and a dead-end life and learn to fly, as his own great-grandfather, Soloman, is reported to have done. All the way back to Africa.
It’s tale that reminds us about the possibility and need of transcendence, to find something within ourselves that lifts us beyond where we ever thought we could go.
Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize, struck me in similar ways. So much so that I taught the book in my freshman literature and composition courses for many years. Reading that book was an experience that I believed my students must not miss out on. “A book like an axe,” as Kafka recommended, “to break the seas frozen inside our souls.”
Beloved tells the story of slavery, its escape, and its aftermath. It’s based on the true story a a woman who would rather kill her own than to see that child return to the horrors they’d just escaped. And it’s the tale of how the horrors of the past, in this case a dead child, can come back to haunt us.
In the end though, it’s about love. About loving others, being loved, and learning to love ourselves, despite all that would argue against it or try to stop us. This is the great theme that runs through all her books.
In one moving scene, Baby Suggs, Holy, a backwoods preacher in a sunlit meadow, offers up to those who come to hear, her great big heart:
Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!
Morrison’s writing is a kind of “diving into darkness on wings of light.” She does not flinch away from the darkness, but at the same time shows us how it’s pierced with light.
She has inspired me as a writer on not only how and what to write, but also why. To write large, and write deep, in language that sears and soars. To write stories that matter, that make a difference, that must be heard. To write in nuanced and meaningful ways about both the beauty and brutality of the human experience. Stories that inspire us to rise above our smaller selves.
You want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. –Toni Morrison
My granddaughter who had been living with me this past year is visiting with her Aunt and Uncle this summer, 300 miles away. If all goes well, she will be staying with them while starting second grade.
My long, hard-fought struggle to win permanent guardianship of my 7 year old granddaughter was finally won. Which means I must decide what is in her best interest: To continue living here with me and her grandfather in virtual Covid-isolation. Or to allow her to live with younger, more active caretakers who love her dearly and can provide a far better life for her than we can.
I chose the latter, of course, but not without anguish. I miss her dearly, despite the daily face chats, photos, and reports of her adjustment. She loves her new “awesome” bedroom with the pink walls and loft-bed where she and her new dog Sasha can hide-away beneath and play. She has a “real” sidewalk to ride her scooter now, not a long steep driveway that leads to a narrow road. The beach is only minutes away, and already she’s surfing, and standing(!) with Uncle’s help. She’s in a musical theater day camp where she plays one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. She has two active caretakers to play with her and put her to bed and teach her new things every day. They are the kindest, most loving couple I know, and they are so excited to have her there, filling their home with love and laughter.
My arms are empty and I ache for her. I know despite all the good that has come and is coming her way that it’s not easy to adjust to so many new changes. But she’s strong and resilient and wise beyond her years. Before we ever contemplated this move, she was reading a book about a girl who was anxious about a new move, going to a new school and making new friends. She said, “Grandma, I don’t get it, why kids are always so scared of change? It’s just a new school! She’ll make new friends! It’s nothing to get so dramatic about!”
She knows this from experience. She’s had so many changes in her young life and she’s learned to take it all in stride and make the most of it.
I know this is the best possible outcome, and I’m thrilled for her, and for my daughter and son-in-law. She knows that I will be visiting often, and she’ll be coming here to spend holidays and summer vacation. This will always be her home too.
It’s what her parents said they wanted for her also. Years ago they chose this Aunt and Uncle to care for their daughter should something happen to them. They trusted them then, as I do now.
Still, it’s not easy letting go. My house feels so empty without her. My arms crave her warm body. But my heart is full. She’s safe, she’s happy, her future is secure. She’s is cherished, and so very, very loved. God is good.
With graduation season upon us, I thought I’d re-share the most inspiring graduation speech I ever read. One by the acclaimed writer George Saunders that went viral several years ago. Below is a slightly altered version of my original post as well as the poem by Hayden Carruth that inspired his speech.
It’s not often you get major writers speaking of such mundane and seemingly trite things as “regrets” and “kindness” to students graduating from ivy-league schools. But that’s what Saunders spoke about at Syracuse University in 2013.
You can read the whole speech HERE.
Saunders starts out with this amazing statement:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Then he lists sensible ways to learn how to be kind:
Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.
But not to worry, he says, because kindness, hard as it is, becomes easier as we grow older. As life kicks us around a bit we learn to become more kind, because we realize how much we need it, and depend upon it, and want it for our loved ones.
Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.
Wow. To be replaced by love. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal to strive toward for anyone starting off in life. Or winding down, for that matter.
Here is Carruth’s poem.
by Hayden Carruth
So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below
In the Time of Corona we all need a little mothering on Mother’s Day.
A huge influence on my understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, is found in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV):
There was something complete and nebulous
Which existed before the Heaven and Earth,
Unchanging, standing as One,
Able to be the Mother of the World.
This Mother of the World, of course, is Tao in this passage. And what I see as God, the divine Creator, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s what evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for all its “children,” all individual being.
A tall order for a mere human.
Yet something about that passage spoke to me as a woman and mother. It drew within me the desire to embrace my children in that spirit. And I found the mothering of my own two children improved immensely when I was able to step back and project in some way this more expansive sense of mothering that allows them to feel loved and supported without all the worries and anxieties and criticism and fear that accompany a mere human sense of mothering.
This mothering is not as personal, intense, or myopic, as the latter. It doesn’t hover, it doesn’t obsess, it doesn’t fret. It frees them “to be,” and is based on an immense sense of trust—in myself, in them, and in the universe at large. In God, or Tao, or some divine presence or higher power that embraces all of us, and gives each of us the capacity to mother each other.
This is not to say that I often meet this ideal. Far from it.
But I know I mother my own children best and make fewer mistakes when I’m able to embrace them in that larger, more expansive way. And it feels more natural, less constricted, to mother that way.
I find this kind of mothering works best when all-inclusive. When I embrace all around me with the same mothering spirit. Not just my children, but all children, all people, all things—my home, my community, my work—even the individual objects that fill the space around me and the space outside my window. When I’m able to actually feel and identify with that potential, to “be” the “Mother of the World.”
Mothering, I learned, is a capacity that anyone can embrace: man, woman, child. You don’t have to be a mother, or have children of your own, to mother the world. When you adopt that stance, all things become your children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.
Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”
First printed in a slightly altered version on these pages in 2015. More “mothering” images below.
after the photo by Jonathan Bachman
Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.
Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?
Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.
To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980)
I wonder, is this true?
Certainly, sometimes the thing we’ve craved, once held in hand, does not live up to what was rounded out in exquisite detail when beheld in mind. Nor does the thing in hand last quite as long, if the thing we crave is not an object we can possess.
But is the thing in hand a mere shadow of the thing we craved for?
Is the matter-object we hold for but a moment in our hand less substantial than the ideal we crave and can bring to mind at moment’s notice and hold onto forever?
Sometimes I like to think so. I like to think those we’ve lost that are dear are as close as our thoughts of them fleshed out by memory and imagination. By a pure, keenly-honed desire to have and hold. Desire as sharp and hot as a welder’s flame.
I like to think that all I love and long for–that deeply felt-sense of them–is never lost. It’s shadow-substance may come and go and disappear as things do in a world of constant change. But its essence, the thing-in-itself that ever was, remains.
Brighter, clearer, than when held in hand.
Sweeter, purer than before.
The clean, keen edge of it never lost. Never wavering.
I ended a blog post at the tail end of 2018 with this wish list for 2019:
A happy ending for my son.
A happy ending for my novel.
More novel-writing, more painting, more blogging.
More artful living.
More Love. Lots and lots of love, for all of us.
My wish list for 2020 is much the same. For one year, it appears, was not long enough to fulfill these wishes.
The happy ending I’d hoped for my son seems less likely now than ever. His addiction has once again robbed him of everything he built during four years of sobriety.
The happy ending for my novel is still on hold. We took it off the market while I sent it to a professional editor. And the editing I had begun was postponed when my granddaughter came to live with me.
Instead of more writing, painting, and blogging in 2019, there was less and less. I did not blog or paint or write at all last month.
More artful living? More love for all of us?
Not so much last year.
The one gift 2019 gave me (which is huge and fills my heart!) is hope for my granddaughter when she came to live with me. Hope that she will remain in my care–happy and safe, healthy and strong, responsibly cared for and dearly cherished as she grows into a young woman.
May this blog post be the beginning of a bright new year for all of us.
One of the joys of grandparenting is revisiting stories I loves to read my own children and sharing them with theirs. What fun it was to read to my granddaughter some of her father’s favorite books, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge. Equally fun is discovering new favorites all her own, like the audibles we’re listening to of Junie B. Jones series narrated in that delightfully scratchy and droll voice of Lana Quintal as Junie B. rebels against riding the stupid smelly yellow school bus, and gets back at that meany boy Jim who invited everyone in room 9 to his birthday party but her.
A new recent favorite is the Pete the Cat series, and my personal favorite I Love My White Shoes. This groovy blue cat with the yellow eyes and long skinny legs has a new pair of white hightops that he loves, loves, loves! So much so that as he strolls along he sings this song: ” I love my white shoes! I love my white shoes! I love my white shoes.”
But then, “Oh no!” he steps into a huge pile of strawberries, turning his white shoes red. What does Pete do? Does he cry? “Goodness, no!” He just keeps strolling along singing his song, “I love my red shoes! I love my red shoes! I love my red shoes!”
And when through a series of accidents his shoes turn blue, then brown, then wet and white again, what does he do? He just keeps strolling along, singing his song, which changes according to the circumstances: “I love my blue shoes! . . . I love my brown shoes . . . . I love my wet shoes . . .!”
The illustrations are so vivid and cheerful, the cool cat’s insouciant optimism so infectious, with the repetitious sing-songy verses undercut by unexpected riffs from the past (Everything is Cool! Groovy! Rock N’ Roll!), we don’t even mind when, at the end, the story points to itself and sets out the “moral” in black and white on the page:
“The moral of Pete’s story is
No matter what you step in
Keep walking along and
Singing your song . . .
because it’s all good.”
So simple. So wise. And for all its triteness, so encouraging to this grandma and her little granddaughter, each of us in the throes of transition, our lives turned upside-down since she’s come to live with me, not knowing what will come next as I petition for permanent guardianship, the decision so completely out of our hands.
All we can do and must do is just keep strolling along, singing our songs, reading our books, enjoying our sweet time together in the here and now, come what may, regardless the shifting landscapes and incidences that continue to color our lives.
Knowing, like that great, wise, groovy Peter the Cat says: It’s all good.
[NOTE TO READER: While the Junie B series is new to me and my granddaughter, it’s been around for a long time, since 1995! Pete the Cat is not as young as he is cool either, having debuted in 2010. If you younger parents and grandparents know of newer book series you think my sweetie might like, please let me know. She’s an “old soul” first grader.]