Posts tagged: meaning
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

Continue reading “Wisdom Anywhere” »

October 11, 2012

Leaning into the Light

Here are some truths:

I sniffled and sneezed my way through Brooklyn and midtown last week before changing into my pajamas each night before dark and pulling the bed covers over my lap, hours before an acceptable bedtime. During that same bout of head cold suffering, I somehow tweaked my back so that a wincing tender spot ran from my right mid-back, up the inside of my shoulder blade along my spine and marched achingly up my neck to my ear. I groaned like an old woman turning over in bed.

When I climb the subway stairs in the evening and arrive above ground, the world is closing in on full darkness, and it’s not yet 6:30.

We ate ramen noodles for dinner on Tuesday.

And yet.

I smelled the first fire of the season on Monday, woodsy smoke lingering in the air as I rounded a corner near the library.

At the farmer’s market on Sunday, when the dahlias looked frowsy and trampled, I bought an armful of untamed eucalyptus branches. Also four honeycrisp apples, an acorn squash and a pumpkin. Carrying the tall branches down 5th Avenue, Sebastian remarked I looked like a koala bear. At home, I pulled out a tall mason jar, a footed orange planter, and a slim vase of milk glass for arrangements on the dining table, atop a bureau, and in our bedroom. Each time I rise from bed for a glass of water or to fetch a book, the leaves brush my arm and fill the room with their medicinal fragrance. I can never quite decide if I like the smell or not.

I roasted the squash in the oven side by side until their ribbed walls collapsed, then cut them open and scooped out their seeds. I cubed the acorn squash and cooked it with tender red lentils and turmeric in a stew, but the pumpkin fell apart and could be scooped out of its skin, as soft and formless as a puree. I warmed it last night in a pan with butter, olive oil, and soft translucent onions, before adding crushed tomatoes and thyme. We ate it with hot spaghetti and a scoop of goat’s milk ricotta. I felt like a farmsteader.

I am talking about small things, of course. More so than usual, I find myself lately holding up each day’s tiny, quiet moments as if they were nuggets of gold I’ve panned for in a river. In a way they are. Earlier this fall I read a book that felt like a wise, intimate companion, The Journal Keeper. Phyllis Theroux writes that she uses her journal to “lean into the light.” It’s a phrase that’s stayed with me. Does it take more effort to lean into the light than into darkness? I don’t know, but as someone who has at times been subsumed by darkness so cloaking there seems no light at the end of its narrow tunnel, leaning is the endeavor I care most about these days. It’s what I’m scribbling about in my little red notebook and right here. Leaning, panning for gold, finding it in a bowl of ramen soup and the insides of a pumpkin.

October 2, 2012

Bright Spots

Happy fall, says the sign at the Locktown Grange, and so say I.

Today was the kind of day when city rain soaks through your shoes, leaving your tights damp. Beating a few eggs for dinner feels like therapy. Now, zucchini is cooking on the stove, and a pot of water is set to boil. That zucchini, sizzling away in a cast iron skillet, is my bright spot today. So, too, are those eggs, soon to be scrambled, as is the scoop of ricotta that will go with the whole mess of it. Then the couch, and Parks and Recreation, and every other little joy that comes from closing the door on the wet, rain-soaked world and coming home.

These photos are from a walk I took over the weekend while I was out at my mom and step-dad’s farm. That’s a horse, up there, who lives around the corner. Leaves floated onto the blacktop every time the wind blew, and dry, brown-stalked dandelions stood by the side of the road, tall and scraggly save for the clusters of seeds, dense and puffy as cotton.

Before my walk I searched my high school bureau to find a pair of socks. Among the mismatched pajamas and flea market half-slips was, to my great delight, a note and a stack of tea bags from my beloved high school English teacher. She wrote:

How often, in a poem, do we mangle the real beauty we were moved by? How poorly in our art do we reflect our world…and yet, we cannot stop trying. We are driven to create, write, sculpt, and share our crude reproductions of the fine and perfect stuff of our lives.

They were words unearthed at just the right time. I thought about them all through my walk, looking up at the changing leaves, at the blue jay that stirred inside a thicket, and at the vast overcast sky. I hope her note might be a bright spot for you, too, whatever your (fine, crude, perfect) creation may be. It is always worth a try.