Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Manifesto for the Month of February

I love winter, but heading into February everything always just seems difficult. I think this is the hang-on time of the year, the keep-plodding time, the let’s-just-do-what-we-can-even-though-we-are-all-worn-out, passing-illnesses-from-person-to-person time of year.

This is the time of year I intentionally look for ways to fight discouragement. This is the time, especially, to cling to read-alouds, and art supplies that take over a room, and new projects of all sorts. Oh, and living room bacchanals—I hope my kids are never too old for those. They are the only people on this earth who have ever seen me dance wildly, and so far they are still quite tolerant. I have literally taken to writing manifestos for myself the last few years, not because I’m so good at handling the long stretches of darkness, but because I need to remind myself of how to fight the urge to turn inward completely. So I thought I’d share, just in case you are feeling a bit battle-weary yourself:

Seek out warmth and light and wrap yourself in it.
Then look for somebody else to wrap.
Fill your head with music.
Stop saving the good stuff for special occasions.
Enjoy your food as if you were still a child.
Dance like a maniac.
Pile on everything beautiful and hang on for spring.
Defy the darkness with beauty. Recklessly, if necessary.

And you? What would you add? Is it February, or another time of year for you?

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Come and See

Sometimes—when I am too tired, or too busy, or too whatever—to notice something, one of my kids will see fit to share it with me anyway.

Sometimes they will insist that I take a picture.

This usually means an interruption, and I am almost always glad for it, in the end.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On Starting Fires

“You’re a hopeless romantic,” said Faber. “It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us…”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

I finished reading this book recently. It was my second time through, and I found it struck even closer to my heart this time around.

I also just finished reading What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920 – 1933, by Joseph Roth, a collection of articles written for a variety of newspapers. The last essay, standing alone in a section titled, “Look Back in Anger,” is called, ”The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind.” Unlike the previous articles in the collection, which appeared in Berlin newspapers, this one appeared in a Paris paper. It opens with these words:

Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean. The technical apotheosis of the barbarians, the terrible march of the mechanized orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia, and nitroglycerine, with gas masks and airplanes, the return of the spiritual (if not the actual) descendants of the Cimbri and Teutoni—all this means far more than the threatened and terrorized world seems to realize: It must be understood. Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination (it will be the task of some future generation to establish the reasons for this disgraceful capitulation.)

He wrote that in 1933, by the way.

I’m thinking it’s an ancient problem, really. What we love, what we fill our hearts and minds and bodies with, how we choose to use our time and resources, especially when we have a wealth of it at our disposal. It is so easy to be lulled and think that being occupied is something else, entirely. Sometimes when my kids are clamoring to watch another movie or play more video games all I can think is that really what they need is to be bored and alone with themselves, because the world is filled with things to do and infinitely un-boring, and it is far too easy to spend all our energy filling ourselves up with emptiness to even notice.

I’m not against being busy. But what with?

There have been times in my life when I was convinced I did not have time to read “for pleasure.” At some point I decided, to heck with it, I’m going to read anyway. Now I’m convinced I can’t afford not to.

Teachers, artists, musicians, writers—so many of my friends, so much of my family, so many of the people who have touched me, fall into these categories in one way or another. They are people with messages burning in their hearts. They work long and hard to spread the word, to light sparks in other hearts, to "stitch the patches of the universe together", and they deserve more appreciation than they get most of the time.

More and more, I think of them as prophets, crying out in the wilderness.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

7°, the World Wreathed in Light

It was 7° Tuesday morning when I went running. A stark number. I had every bit of flesh covered except for the strip around my eyes. My face was warm with my own breath, my hands and feet warm from running. I love being out on the edge of the day like this. I got to watch the sun rise and turn the frost on the ground from hematite to gold to silver. My breath gathered frozen on my eyelashes and for the length of my run I saw the world framed in ice, wreathed in light. The feeling of seeing like that lingered for hours, the way dreams sometimes do.

*       *       *

I can’t exactly explain myself, but last week I signed up to run a half marathon. A couple of friends have been encouraging me and I blame them at least partly. Amy offered the goal of a ten-mile race in October, Ashley suggested the half marathon this spring. And because they think I can do it, I want to try. I want to learn what I can do.

This is, I should tell you, not in the usual realm of things I set out to do.

I have dropped in and out of the habit of running for years. Usually I hit a point where I either get too sick or feel too busy to keep it going, but here it is the dead of winter and I am still running.

There are many reasons, I think. I started taking a daily asthma medication for the first time in my life last fall, and all I can say is, I had no idea. What I took for normal lung capacity apparently wasn’t. Then there is the fact that pretty much daily I feel like I cannot keep up the pace of my own life, daily I feel like I do not have the strength. I want to know more about endurance. I am convinced that the physical exercise helps me cope better emotionally and spiritually.

Running is not just a tool for coping or a new-found strength, though. There is something about the time, about being quiet with myself, about the physical connection. When I am running, I can let everything flow—my thoughts, my imagination, my burdens, the world around me. All of it can wash up and over, and I am free to let it happen—to feel it all, name what I can, and acknowledge the rest. I can know that this is me, real and alive, physical and spiritual, mental and emotional—all of it connected and working at once in this quiet, raw way.

Each day has a different personality. I see the sun rise or set, I watch the seasons change, I witness skies that are fiery or stony or beatific. I have run in cold and heat and rain and snow, and all of it mixes with whatever is happening in my head and heart each day. I wish I could explain to you what that does. I admit things I could never admit, I think crazy thoughts, I have epiphanies. I run towards and away.

*       *       *

The ice stayed on my eyelashes for my entire run until, a block from home, the warmth of my breath made them melt. They felt like tears sliding down my cheeks, except for their coolness. Even after they were gone, though, I carried them with me, let the light drift alongside me as long as I could through the day.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Notes from a Suzuki Violin Workshop

This past weekend my girls and I drove back and forth a couple of times between our home and Quincy, IL for a day and a half of classes with artist teachers Gabe Bolkosky and Christie Felsing. We finished with a recital—the first half featuring Gabe, the second half featuring all the kids who participated in the workshop—and returned home full, spent, and with new resolve. I don’t think you could ask for a better couple of days.

As always, I have a million thoughts rattling around in my head. Here are a few I was able to catch:

• Realizing you are bound by music to a bunch of kids you’ve never met is pretty cool
• So is running around like a maniac with them between classes
• Work—careful, detailed, technical work—can be a joy
• The above is especially true when you’re doing that work in a group
• Cultivating technique as a tool for expression = giving a child power and a voice
• Striving for excellence is so not boring
• Teaching is as much a craft as playing violin
• Ditto for parenting
• This is more about lifestyle than it is about extra-curricular activities
• This is more about who we are developing into as people than anything else

"The heart that feels music will feel people." --Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Feed Me

Youngest got paper for Christmas. Not sheets, but rolls—two bountiful rolls of blank paper just waiting for her artwork.

She got her very own art caddy, too, full of supplies.

Her response has in turn been bountiful. The fact that she is not limited to 8 ½” by 11” sheets allows her to think and work continuously. I now have two thick scrolls under my protection to keep safe and round until she can give them to the people for whom she made them. I fully expect there to be more.

Teach a child to read and let her loose in a library. Put a drum set in the basement and don’t complain about the noise. Listen. Find ways to say yes as often as possible. I can’t say I’m always very good about this. But I’m always glad when I put in the extra effort.

Because it’s an amazing power, isn’t it? Offer somebody tools and permission and watch them fly.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

The New is Old Again

I miss snow. Real snow. Snow that starts in November at the latest and hangs on into April. Snow that packs down on sidewalks and in streets, so that even after shoveling and plowing the sound of your boots on pavement is a bit of a shock. Snow that glitters in the sun and under streetlights at night, snow that gathers in your hair and dampens sound. Because even though shoveling gets to be a pain, and scraping car windows just makes me more late for everything, and even though bare sidewalks in January mean I can keep running outside without worrying about killing myself on a patch of ice, I love winter and I love snow.

It probably couldn’t be any other way. I grew up across the street from a winter fairyland. I can remember two winters specifically, although there may have been more, that I practically lived there after school. There must have been a lot of snow when I was in fourth and fifth grade, because the church parking lot across the street from my house had enormous plow piles all around the edges of it. Tall, magnificent piles you could climb all over, pretending you were traversing endless rugged mountains. There were places, though—miniature chasms and shallow depressions—where you could sit, hidden from the whole world, nestled in snow and quiet. I gathered icicles, smoothed out snow thrones, pretended I was a queen, a fairy, a wanderer. I lost track of everything else in the silence and the glittering snow and the blue shadows.

Did you have places like that?

Do you now?

*       *       *

I think about where we live now, and wonder if my kids will ever get to play in the snow the way I got to. If—because they were too young and I was too exhausted when we lived in snowy places, or because now we live in a place that has snow only in stingy amounts—they will never while away the hours in that kind of wonderland.

The temperatures this week have gotten into the 50s for days in a row. It feels nothing like winter. The kids have been outside a lot, playing in the dirt. The city dug up a large part of our yard before Christmas because of a storm sewer project, so we not only don’t have snow, we have a wide swath of turned-up earth. Clay, really. And my children have discovered that you can make things out of it. Turns out it’s like having a yard full of free brown Play-doh. They spend hours sitting in our torn-up yard, dreaming and creating. Their hands are stained, and they bring me gifts.

Watching them outside, completely absorbed, I realized the other day that there was a magic to it all that was familiar. A different form of it, and all their own, but I recognized it nonetheless.

For that I am thankful.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

In Case You Missed Them the First Time Around...

Some of my favorite posts from 2011. I can’t guarantee they’re the best things I’ve written, but they are closest to my heart:

Quiet Girl
One Friday Morning
The Color Series (If you start at the bottom with "Green" and work up to "White" at the top of the page you will be reading the posts in the order they were written.)

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Shiny New

The beginning of our New Year has been marked by wind, violent gusts of it at times. No snow. Bright sunshine. Part of me wants very much to hibernate, the other part wants to make and do, to reach out and connect. Somehow, in between the restlessness and the urge to hide, I feel extraordinarily quiet.

I spent the better half of yesterday afternoon reading, letting the laundry stay un-done, the dishwasher stay un-emptied, the new calendar I should be filling out stay not only un-filled-out but also not-yet-bought.

I keep thinking about resolutions, about the urge I have to make some sort of statement about the New Year. And really all I want to do is drag my feet. I want to hold on to Christmas a little while longer. I want to keep hold of that warm beauty that doesn’t last long enough before the calendar turns the corner into new-and-stark-and-cold. I want to not feel quite so keenly this sharpness of wanting.

If I could sum up last year, I would say it was about growing, and growing pains, and stepping ever farther out of my comfort zone, and connecting. It was in many ways a good year, and in many ways a hard one.

*     *     *

The yarn in that picture above used to be a sweater, one I knit a little over a year ago. I was proud of it, but it never quite fit me. Last week I unraveled the whole thing, winding it back into balls as I went. I hate tearing apart something I spent so many hours creating, but I know I will be happier with it when it is remade. I tell myself it is the same process I have to go through when learning a new piece on the violin: break it down, put it back together, break it down, put it back together. I can take comfort in the process, in the feel of the wool between my fingers, in the pleasure of seeing something grow right in my hands. In the end, the work will always be worth it. This, I believe, is how art becomes art.

*     *     *

I don’t have any shiny new resolutions this year. But I do feel resolve—mostly to keep going with the things I have started, maybe rework the things that don’t fit quite right. To learn how to love better. To continue reaching out and speaking up. To make decisions in spite of my fears instead of because of them. To lean into the hard stuff. Because even though doing those things feels clumsy and seems to involve more pain up front, I have found more blessings and more friendships—old and new—in the last two years than probably any other time in my life. And from that I don't think there is any looking back.

Happy New Year to you.

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