Friday, January 30, 2009

In my writing cabin...

...a photo of our daughter sits next to the printer. She wears a red velvet dress, holds a peach rose, each petal fringed crimson. She’s leaned against the white marble statue of a hand, so large that the palm’s lifeline curves past her shoulders and she is cupped, the hand extending still three feet above her head. She likes the photo, she tells me, because of how she’s held. I tell her I love it too—but don’t wax on about how it’s a great metaphor for divine protection, for all the times I won’t be able to be with her. I tell her instead I love it because it reminds me of our girl date. The rose was for Sandy (that mom-who-happens-to-be-a-sculptor) and we were on the way to see her work on the town square. It was nearly Mother’s day, and we ran into a friend from my grammar school (Doug) who was out shopping for a present for his mom.

“I’m coaching softball now,” he said, and then leaned down on his knees towards my girl. “Do you know what we used to call your mom?” She shrugs shyly. “The Polish Powerhouse. You should’ve seen her hit that ball.” Watching her blush, I realize I want time to slow—she’s only 8, but I want her still to care more than anything about her ferals, the hat she’s knitting, buckeyes.

I can’t imagine being ready to let her go, ever. But I have, she’s in 2nd grade and goes most days. And every day she comes back to me, down the gangplank, lunch basket in hand and an octopus arm’s worth of clothing for me to carry to the car, trailing 11x13 drawings of Philomel and the King of Ireland’s son on horseback.

Later, standing in the stairwell, just outside the bedroom door, seventh milk-skin of the day forming on my tea, I’m reading Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman:

A mushy, brown peach is lifted from the garbage and placed on the table to pinken. It pinkens, it turns hard, it is carried in a shopping sack to the grocer’s, put on a shelf, removed and crated, returned to the tree with pink blossoms. In this world, time flows backward. (p. 102)

If, somewhere in the universe, such a tree exists, well, then, I can stand to love my daughter, my sons, as much as I do. In loving them, I face every parent’s fear: losing them. Maybe you don’t just get to ripen once—but you can actually return to the limb, ripen at a pace dictated by season and sun, and fall again to Earth. That small window of brightness might recur, then, if one allows it. I write in hopes of stumbling upon such a sequence of words or images that alters the world so I might inhabit it more fully. Would that it do the same for someone else, reading.

For once you have a child you are host to a kind of dual citizenship as parent and child. Behind you: your childhood, which you pack up in a trunk until moments like now, or when you run into childhood friends. Before you: your parenthood, in which you must rise to the occasion and shepherd your little ones through their childhoods. There are many yous under your skin, and you empathize now with your parents, your children, and your own child self who comes out only late at night (when the rest of the family sleeps) to float soundlessly back up to the peach tree, ready to start over again, day after day.

Friday, January 23, 2009

When Elizabeth invites me to a poetry reading, I say to myself: I can handle this.

I, mother of three, can escape for a night. But I get a headache just trying to remember the last reading I attended...ten years ago, was it?! I think so...Tess Gallagher, talking about her life with Raymond Carver. I wondered what Gallagher meant when she mentioned the obligations of running a household (I was teaching a couple classes--using Carver’s Where I’m Calling From--pregnant with my first child, clueless). I remember thinking, Gallagher keeps house? Writers keep house? I clung instead to her next image: Gallagher and Ray looking over one another’s work (guests gone, dishes done) like a pair of horses, one black, one white, pulling the chariot of poetry behind them.

Everything’s lined up: the husband agrees to watch the kids, Liz will drive. I don’t even know who we’ll hear at the bookstore, but I’m busting out. Glitch one: my husband’s cross-country team needs a chaperone for the weekend. Liz’s husband graciously offers to entertain, in addition to their son, my three children; embarrassed by the last-minute ditch, I agree. My two-year old clambers up beside Liz’s husband, and says, Go away Mom, bye. Liz and I don our coats and head for the door. Until (glitch two) my middle child (the five-year-old) falls to the ground, wraps his arms around my ankles, and cries on my shoelaces.

Sure, bring him-- Liz says kindly, she in her lovely black pants, top, scarf. I disengage my son from my snot-damp sweats, zip up the old blue overcoat and take his hand. We’re late; when we walk in a poet’s wrapping up a stanza. We grab a couple seats on the fringe; my son plunks down on the floor. We make it through the next speaker’s comments about the book he’s compiled on Philip Whalen. Then my son (on his stomach) creeps towards the bookshelves on the far wall. The weight-loss section keeps him a few seconds: on one cover, a woman in tight scarlet pants holds a platter of fruit. A few headshots of perky brunettes, blondes, tilted and smiling. My son stealth-crawls, fist over fist, to Relationships: beaming couples that beat the odds and stayed together. I’m wondering where photos of all the couples that didn’t make it end up. My friend’s listening, probably actually absorbing the poetry. When my son starts drumming on the shelves, I scoop him up and step outside.

I’m sorry, I say to Liz when we reappear (my son and I having downed ice-cream cones around the corner and yet another poet at the mic), I have to go. I’m worried about the two-year-old (who informs me indignantly when we get to the house that he’d like to stay longer). It’s not that I can’t stomach poetry anymore--though, on occasion, I too, dislike it (as Marianne Moore opens with in her crucial poem Poetry)—but after eight years of either being pregnant or nursing a baby I’m used to sleeping by 9. I’m grateful we escaped, edging back to the public world of poetry, and for those rare minutes I got to spend alone with my son over scoops of mint-chip ice-cream. I’m just a bad date these days, I remark on the way out of Liz’s house. Don’t mention it, she says, and shortly scores us a pair of tickets to hear Mary Oliver, balcony seats, the parking lot and entire theater--we note with glee--full of people who came out just for the love of poetry.

(See also: A Dangerous Mission: Tess Gallagher by Gary Lehman on Gallagher’s trajectory as a writer and which portion of her writing defines her in the public eye at: )

(For complete text of Moore’s poem:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

My husband is my Pretentious Monitor. I’ll hand him a fresh poem...

...and if he squinches up his face and says, “Dumb it down,” I know I’m getting stuffy. On the other hand, I can tell if he’s just using that line as an excuse not to focus for more than five minutes on something that doesn’t involve underwater hockey or chainsaws. We’re a good balance that way.

And he’s the one to harass me, when I get rejection slips in the mail, “Was it a poem about me?” I give him The Look. He shakes his head. “Write about me and you’ll be fine.” To appease him this Christmas, I compiled the thirty poems I’ve written in the ten years we’ve been married into a chapbook: The Ironman and the Poet. I caught him on the couch a couple of days actually reading it. Ok, so the poems were either about him or mentioned him. But I took it as a good sign.

At 3 a.m. (having weaned the youngest but unable to sleep after waking three times to rock him back down) I found myself skimming my husband’s copy of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales (because the intersection of our secret lives, when we’re not parenting means The love poems of Elizabeth and Robert Browning sit next to Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army; The Warrior Athlete sits next to Richard Bach’s Illusions; Sfar’s graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat sits next to Lee Child’s One Shot.

By 5 a.m., I finish reading the accounts of snow mobile accidents, disoriented hikers, sailors stranded at sea, a teenager who fell out of an airplane and navigated the jungle alone until she found civilization again (the17 others who survived falling out of the plane decided to stay put and wait for rescue, an iffy decision at best). Arms numb from the two hours of rocking and reading, my son snoring peacefully, I’m wondering how young is too young to sign the kids up for survival camp.

Though Gonzales notes that we start teaching them in the womb—as he observes a woman, pregnant, surfing: “Limor looked like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus out there, drawing the mana into her womb from the sea, filling herself with that energy (p.147)”... and a page earlier, describing what she’ll pass on to the child (surfing in utero): “Now there’s a child out there somewhere who began amassing a critical kind of knowledge about a certain type of energy system before he or she was born. True knowledge.”

Do I start that list, now, of things I did pregnant with the kids, chasing my husband? I’m thinking of the time we got stuck swimming in post-storm waves outside a coral reef just off the Big Island of Hawaii. Last morning of our vacation; “Last chance to swim with the spinner dolphins,” the husband had said to me. 3 month’s pregnant with my youngest son (the former nurser). My daughter, on shore, waving us in. The desire to run across that Kona beach house lawn to her so strong it hurt. A coral reef at low tide to skim with our bellies and chests, the disorienting suck and pull of the receding waves to withstand...

...(sneaking a read over my shoulder, the husband adds, “How about those half-dozen sea urchin spines we pulled out of my instep, or how about you, in your bikini, crawling out of that cove without a single scratch?”) Absolutely: I was in charge of the in utero lesson that day.