December 15, 2013

The Measure of My Powers, 2014

This post was contributed by Katy McColl.


I stole that title from an MFK Fisher memoir, in which nearly every chapter is titled, The Measure of My Powers. The best thing about the book, in my opinion, is the epigraph:

“To be happy, you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.”

Sarah hasn’t come out and said so, but we’ve been feeling unusually powerless this year because our mom is sick.

Our mom’s a farmer’s daughter who grew up riding her bike, reading Nancy Drew novels, and teaching herself to sew upstairs in her bedroom in a 19th century house on an 18th century farm. High times were celebrated with spaghetti and juice glasses of beer (kids included!); low times meant the family survived on the cream-topped milk straight from their cows. College advising? Not so much. I hate to see you waste all your babysitting money applying and end up disappointed… said my grandmother, without acknowledging that insulating yourself from disappointment often staves off greatness, too.

Then in 1967, Procter & Gamble awarded my mother a 4-year scholarship to Smith College—petty cash and book money included! And just like that, she changed her fate. “Did you hear about the farmer’s daughter,” the owner of a feed store 20 miles away asked my grandfather, marveling. Imagine the pride he must have felt in saying she was his.

Imagine the pride I feel now that she’s mine, too. Among other things, she introduced Great Books to our elementary school and raised four children—encouraging us to dream big and mess up as often as necessary. A full year into chemo, my beloved mom can’t walk, but she spends her days running an organization dedicated to ending child poverty.

So the best I can do from my sometimes powerless perch is to invest in the next generation of problem solvers. Women like Shirley Lemus, who grew up in a remote Guatemalan village and was ostracized by relatives for not dropping out of school to support the family. She’s gone on to work with Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus to offer microcredit, healthcare, and other life-changing opportunities for the poor. She won a gifted and talented scholarship from Guatemala’s prestigious UFM university—where everyone studies economics and everyone learns how to be an entrepreneur. The school’s run on a shoestring—they’re quite proud of that—but scholarships are offered to the poorest, smartest, and most motivated students in the country. Including women intent on making the jump from the 3rd world to the 1st world—and dedicating their lives to helping other women make that jump, too.

I’m going to make a donation to the ITA Scholarship (Spanish for gifted and talented).

If you’d like to join me, I’d be very touched. More than that, actually—I’ll double your donation myself. (Just make a note of your gift in the comments section so I can be sure to match it.) Because I want us all to feel the measure of our powers grow exponentially from here on out.


p.s. I vetted this myself, but you can also read more about the scholars here, if you like.

August 30, 2013

Look Back, Move Forward

I have been out in an old country house much of the summer, falling asleep to crickets. There, in my childhood bedroom, on the bottom of a rattan bookshelf, were nineteen years of journals lined up like little time bombs. I thought it would be fun––funny, maybe?––to start reading through them again. That was one of my more short-sighted moments. Once plucked off the shelf, one by one, I read them late into the night like suspense novels, unbothered by time slipping into early morning. I couldn’t stop. They were by pages humbling, hilarious, humiliating, and I had to know everything I’d forgotten. Every adolescent embarrassment, every disappointment, every obsession. Would Jenny and Blake break up? Would Alex lean over my library carrel one cold winter morning? Was my writing any good, and how would I know? There are snaps into depression and the kind of grandiose bravado that must be the stock-in-trade of the insecure. My college journals felt more familiar––I still remembered much of that time’s happiness––but they were every bit as aching to revisit.


The boy-craziness––going strong now for coming on twenty years––didn’t surprise me. It was there in sixth grade passing notes with Kevin addressed to our grown-up selves (“How is work on your latest novel going?”) and still there, more fiercely than ever, in the summer after my senior year of college. What did surprise me, in a stabbing and bittersweet way that stuck in my throat for days, was how much the world of language and ideas had once meant to me. All the evidence was right there: when I sat in a rear pew of a church listening to Li-Young Lee read and felt so moved by a sense of wonder there was nothing to do but cry. Jenny and I drank coffee on the front steps of Wallace and talked about beauty. On dates in Wisconsin diners over plates of chicken fried steak and white gravy, I talked about Mrs. Dalloway with a boy I loved. I vandalized a Hélène Cixous library book with my furious underlining and wanted to be a mash-up of Naomi Wolf and Susan Sontag. There are few moments as distinct with accomplishment in my life as the early evening I skipped home after presenting my senior thesis filled, finally, with a buoyant sense of freedom and release. I was surprised to see how completely I’d lost my tether to a world of curiosity.

There was another sense of loss, too, maybe even more profound. All that youthful excitement, all those portentous moments, all that intense longing. Desire sets out into the night, and the world is full of potential, adventure, promise. It’s like Joan Didion writes: “I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none them would count.”

At some point things do start counting, or I started to sense that they should, despite being a young(ish) woman still unencumbered,  no mortgage, no children. But years ago a grown-up ballast planted me firmly in a material, adult world. Work a good job. Contribute to a 401(k). A body that was once the form for joy and mischief, high-heeled feet pumping the pedals of a red bicycle, is now scanned for suspicious moles and malignant lumps. The trouble with remembering just how vibrantly alive you once felt is realizing how very quiet a part of you has been.


But part of reading was seeing something that’s never changed. Any “realization” about what matters most to me in life is really just me circling back on something I already knew, echoes. Take this: Earlier this summer I thought I’d figured something out. I was smoothing the soil in my first little garden plot, where I crushed up egg shells and dropped them in holes dug for young tomato plants and pushed a wheelbarrow full of rotted manure on an uneven gravel driveway. I worked in the hot sun and had streaks of dirt on my face when I went inside for a glass of water. I stayed there in the country at my parents’ house for weeks, watching the raised beds explode with basil and spicy, bitter Asian greens. City ambitions––some idea of what “success” is––were crowded out by the quiet, familiar hum of rural life. In the evenings, after the work day, I closed my laptop not motivated by what I could achieve but by what I could experience. It turns out there are miles of country roads around my mom’s house I had never seen, and I steered my bike on them, past barking dogs and swimming holes. The air was thick with summer smells, mown grass and hay. When the wind blew through the trees, the sound was like rushing water.

Whatever that is, my adolescent self already knew it. I wrote long passages about being a baker, living in a cottage in Maine. I wanted to be this painting when I grew up.  I felt connected to something bigger than myself, bigger than my sadness or school drama, when I was outside slicing through snow in a back field on my cross-country skis, or running the same roads I rode this summer, chasing the  exhilaration, wanting that same hit of being alive.

And so that is what’s been on my mind during this long summer silence from here. Those past selves, still always within us, no matter how dormant they might feel. Can we invite them back in, into this seat on the bus, into the short weekend? They are why I have the same abandoned thrill on my bicycle, why I still step into a pair of red high heels I once wore to catch a cowboy’s eye. Three weeks ago, I found a large, empty cardboard box downstairs in my parents’ living room and carried it back up to my bedroom. I dropped the journals in it, stacked high and lining the sides. It wasn’t with a sense of a sadness that I folded down the top and pushed it to the back of the closet. I felt maybe more myself than ever.

June 22, 2013

Summer Happy Hour: Bourbon Cures What Water Can’t


The cure for anything is salt water––tears, sweat, or the sea. –Isak Dineson

Chlorine will do, too, though lake-swimming is my favorite, especially when there’s a quarter-moon of sandy beach hugging the edge of the water. It started twenty-five years ago at Margaret Lindley with plastic buckets, shovels, tadpoles, and a sign announcing a water temperature best suited to the brave, and more recently on hot Minnesota nights, where we drove out past County Road F and felt the temperature drop through the open windows and would sneak in the water after dark. There doesn’t have to be any rule-breaking for sweet relief. Just the other weekend, my sister and I pulled into a parking spot and handed a life guard $6 for two adults to wade into a flooded quarry so cold, we dunked our heads under the surface, and ran right out. Then we sat on our wet towels and ate cold turkey sandwiches on a green sloping lawn under the shade of a tree. It was the best thing we could have done that June afternoon.

She’s taking the waters, they say in 19th century books about the sick seeking cures in healing springs. But I’ve found, for everyday ailments at least, any water will do. Even the windowless, subterranean pool at the Y, where the water splashes out from the shallow end and onto the tiles, where the politics and egos of lap swim are almost enough to keep me away. Even a bath tub will do in a pinch.

My closest and most appealing waters are around the corner about a half-mile from my parents house, in the pool my brother tucked behind the L of this house. There are two orange foam noodles, floats with drink holders, and an inflatable cooler. A plastic ladder descends into the cool water. If we run around the edges, the water swirls in a lazy river effect. There’s a view over the rail of the wood fence, past the tree line, and into a field he cleared by hand. It feels secluded back there, with a view of openness too, so that it’s secluded and still there’s a sense of expansiveness. It’s easy to float there, weightless and filled with wonder.

A dip is all I need, and then I slip my dress back on and my wet feet back into my clogs and ride back to Mom’s on my bike in a soaked swimsuit to eat a chicken and mayonnaise sandwich in the quiet of the kitchen. This is summer. I always seem to forget its idyll. Out of the city, the evening air thick with honeysuckle and mown grass, the sky a pale watercolor wash of pink and blue, and some nights too warm for more than a blanket across my legs.

Someone asked me recently if my daily routine changes in the summer. For me, the change is all about the openness of those evening hours when the sun still hangs in the sky past 8. There are no more hours in the day today than there were in February, but if I can stay away from the television and ride my bike in early evening light so bright it feels like late afternoon, the day feels longer, more expansive. It can contain a little adventure, and more lazy moments, too.

I’ve been laying off the sauce lately, but late June seems to call for cocktail hour. So after the bike ride, after the evening dip, and while I’m throwing together a meal with zucchini and basil that practically cooks itself, there is a drink. Last summer it was a classic daiquiri. This summer, it’s a slight twist on that. Lemon juice instead of lime, local raw honey instead of sugar, and bourbon in place of rum. It’s my favorite kind of drink––small and strong––and if water and bike rides haven’t taken the edge off the day, one of these will do the trick. It also makes another cure, those salty tears, much more likely to spring, seemingly out of nowhere.

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June 5, 2013

The Poetry of the Everyday

In my high school sophomore English class, our desks were separated along the two long sides of the room facing each other, half of us with our backs to windows that looked out into a courtyard.  A walkway passed between the desks, and it was here one morning after the second bell rang at 7:35, that my teacher stood and read What the Living Do by Marie Howe. Before the last lines I was in my seat, facing two different boys I had crushes on, crying before 8AM.

That was seventeen years ago. How little we change, really. I thought of this recently when I climbed onto the brown leather seat of my bike and was filled with the same thrill I had on the sidewalks of Drexel Drive, streamers flying from my handle bars. We love what we love, and what we hold dear we hold dear, from the first moment on and on.

And so it is with Marie Howe. Each Friday, I have a long stretch of rote, yet time-consuming tasks to accomplish at work. I listen to On Being each week while I go through them. And guess who was on recently, speaking in a voice I never imagined would be so round and robust. She read her poems, and I was back in moment just like that one in 1996, breath caught in my throat like so much rushing life. Listen to it.

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

This is why I love On Being so much, and why, when I am programming modules on a webpage while I listen, it is an especially welcome distraction. I imagine Krista Tippett sitting in a dark studio with her guest, and Minnesota’s bright snow-sun or mosquitoes outside the room. There they talk about what we don’t always have time or energy or even the language to ask when we’re meeting someone for a coffee. What’s at the heart of meaning in your life? How do you create beauty and change and delight?

Or: Folding sheets, rinsing glasses, mustard sandwiches. What makes a thing suffused with so much more than it is? Why does it matter so much?

Later in the talk, Marie explains an assignment she gives her writing students. They must write ten observations. No metaphors, no interpretation, just life as it is.

It’s very hard for them. Tell me what you saw this morning, like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. But to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. We want to say it was like this, it was like that, we want to look away. And then they say, well there’s nothing important enough, and that’s the whole thing. The this, whatever it is.

Weeks later, everything’s changed.

The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff, and it so thrilling. I mean it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like wow, you know. The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean it almost comes clanking into the room. And it just, it’s just amazing, you know […] On the fifth or sixth week, I say OK, use metaphors. And they don’t want to. They don’t know how. Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it’s itself?

Why are the details of our world so important? Why do I love Marie Howe’s poetry, and care so much about the table set with low candles and sweet williams in jam jars, the begonias I planted  on Mother’s Day, and the streaks of mud still on my calf two days later? January’s soft-bright winter light, that the coffee is hot in its little white cup, and that the cherry trees down the block erupted in ruffles of prom dress pink and a few weeks ago turned into a thrash of green leaves just as suddenly.

Here’s the best I’ve come up: our lives are speeding forward on a timeline we may or may not find agreeable. Either way, there will never be a moment just like this one. Just as soon as we notice the light hitting the water glass in three places, we’ll be off: onto the late train, the to do list, the minutes on the clock. But if we can first just notice that thing, whatever little reality it is, the world around us becomes more animated and our connection to it moored there for a moment. Clinkety clank clank clank. Is that grace? I don’t know. Whatever it is, when I notice it, I feel alive from hair to heel.

Which brings me to this, as close to gentle instruction as I can come. I was returning home to Brooklyn after planting those begonias in a shady spot in front of my mom’s porch. We were saying goodbye in the dark cool of the TV room. “Don’t take anything for granted,” she told me as we hugged, and I answered into her shoulder, “That’s hard.” And she said, “Enjoy. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”