Posts tagged: family
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.

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?”

January 14, 2013

Wisdom Anywhere

When the list of bite-sized wisdom below reached my email inbox last week, the authors age had been inaccurately advanced from 50 to 90. Advice from a 90-year-old would be more quaint and compelling in a way, but alas, it just isn’t so. Nothing’s lost. A 50-year-old can be as wise as the sages (as no doubt many of you already know):

Regina Brett’s 45 life lessons and 5 to grow on

To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me.

It is the most-requested column I’ve ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here’s an update:

1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

5. Pay off your credit cards every month.

6. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8. It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12. It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today.

18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.

19. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.

22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

24. The most important sex organ is the brain.

25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

27. Always choose life.

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

32. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35. Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

36. Growing old beats the alternative – dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.

38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41. Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

42. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

45. The best is yet to come.

46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.

48. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

49. Yield.

50. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

Originally published in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, May 28, 2006

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September 20, 2012

Against Reflection

Have you ever stopped caring about something that used to mean the world to you? It happened to me in the spring, maybe in the early summer, and it was the weirdest thing: I stopped wanting to reflect. I know! My daily bread and butter, the very way that I approach the world, rejected! Whatever kind of seeker’s quest I had been on for the past, oh, seven years or so, I gave up, for no other reason than I was sick of myself. What had once seemed like a rich topic of investigation suddenly seemed like the most boring material on earth. Who cares why I do things the way I do or how I can do them better, what I want or what the future holds? Certainly not me!

I like to think that it began at first because I was so happy. I was so happy, in fact, and for such a long stretch, that I stopped fearing it would slip through my fingers. I stopped reflecting why it was so. So I gave up yoga (too much tuning in!), tarot (whatever!), Buddhist podcasts and all my stacks of books about a considered, conscious life (boooooring!). Turns out, I thought at the time, when you stop thinking about how to get more contentment and joy, it just appears! Maybe the secret to feeling good was to stop thinking about yourself so goddamn much?

Continue reading “Against Reflection” »