Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Life, My Art: Janice

When I was a graduate student I used to walk through the streets of Evanston admiring the beautiful old houses and daydreaming of filling my own beautiful old house someday—not only with family but as often as possible with friends and guests—artists and musicians and writers, creators and thinkers and dreamers. I wanted to make a place where all these people could gather and talk, share and inspire and challenge each other. As it happens, my beautiful old house is far from any big city or cultural center and my friends are scattered all over the place. I don’t have friends over nearly as often as I’d like, and I’m no Gertrude Stein, anyway. But I have been blessed to know some really amazing people, and as I hear their stories and see what they are doing with their lives I still want to share their lives and their art with each other. It struck me that this blog, which is sort of a gathering-place for the things close to my heart anyway, could maybe also serve as a meeting-place.

Today I want to introduce you to my friend Janice. She has two blogs you should read (
Whimsy-ma-blog, and In the Tangles) and an Etsy shop, The Whimsy, where she sells custom-made wire jewelry. She also has adorable children with big brown eyes and loads of personality. And she is one of those mysterious people who can speak knowingly about things like rocket science.

I’m honored that she accepted my request to share this part of her story:

Until Karen’s invitation to write a blog post about a remembrance necklace that I make, I had not realized that I could write a full length book about it. Since it seemed like sending Karen a 90,000 word manuscript might be taking advantage of her hospitality, I’ve attempted to sort out one piece of my thoughts.

The second of our four children, Jack, was diagnosed with a complex heart defect while I was pregnant with him. Essentially his heart ended up with two working chambers instead of four. Those two chambers tried heroically for nine weeks after his birth to pump the blood his tiny body needed. We tried to help with intensive care units and surgeries, but in the end it was only God who could redeem such an insufficient heart. And instead of healing it here he chose to take Jack’s entire little being, exhausted heart and all, to heaven.

I was already making wire jewelry for a little online shop, so I decided to make myself a remembrance necklace for Jack. The point of it was a longing to hold him so I ended up with a shape that reminded me of two arms encircling something precious.


One thing I wanted was for my necklace to be silent.

I had looked for a remembrance necklace but they all had words or dates or angels or babies. I wanted something that I understood but that would remain silent when it was shown to the world. If I felt like sharing its meaning, I wanted to be the one to do it. Losing my baby is hard and deep and although I’d like to talk to you about it, I’m not always sure that I can.

Because sadness makes me uncomfortable. It gives me irresistible urges to tell inappropriate jokes. It leaves me feeling speechless and helpless. And as far as I can tell, no one else likes to be sad either, so watching your discomfort grow as I talk about it just makes everything harder.

In fact, I realize that I have always thought that sadness has no place here. If you do things right, if you always offer your friend the bigger cookie, if you believe in God, then there won’t really be much sadness. Sad has no place in a good life.
I’ve been wrong. Parts of the great sponge of life are saturated with sadness. But there are days that I’m tired of sloshing around in it. I want to tiptoe past the gloom and bounce around in happiness and cheer.

Wondering if someone else might feel the same as I did, I listed the necklace in my shop. I was a bit stunned when the first order came through. Then others did as well and I began to realize that it was the silence of it that mothers liked. Many of the necklaces I’ve made were for babies lost through miscarriage. So much of that grief is privately mourning our own dreams and imaginings of this child that we were able to hold so incompletely.

Silent…but so very noisy.

I also discovered that this necklace was the noisiest silent thing I’ve ever heard.

While the necklace was silent to the world at large, probably even because of that silence, it seemed to create a safe place for mourning mothers to talk. Orders came through wet with tears. My heart breaks with each email that begins with, “I know I’ve never met you, but I don’t know anyone else who’s been through this and no one seems to understand…”

And for each email I am so grateful that she has someone to talk to, but then I’m freaked out that the someone is me. Because losing my baby is hard and deep and I’m not good at sharing hard and deep things. I made the necklace silent and you wanting to talk about it makes me want to run. Except that I understand you too well, so how can I leave you here alone?

I debate every so often about not making the necklaces anymore. I’d much rather make something happy. Something made out of rainbows and gumdrops - or a magic fat-dissolving suit.

But every time I have just about convinced myself to quit, I get an email from some heartbroken mother and she thanks me for this necklace. Thanks me for its silence. Thanks me for talking to her. So I decide to fight the urge to run for a little longer and allow myself to go back in and meet her there in the sad place where she is.

I’m beginning to accept that although sadness isn’t the only character in life, it plays a bigger role than I expected. Sometimes sloshing through sadness is part of the life we have here. God hasn’t removed the sadness, it’s leaking out of all sorts of places and we can’t keep from at least getting damp. It’s not comfortable or fun, but I begin to see the value in it, the extraordinary amount of life and passion that exists in our sadness. There is such openness and raw humanity in meeting someone in their grief.

The necklace sits silently on my dresser and tells me that there is sadness because life is so precious and good. If life was worthless it would never be mourned. We’d brush off its ending as though shooing a fly. But that silent wish to hold a tiny life is a good wish because the tiny life is good.

And dare I say that the sadness of mourning can be good? Not pleasant, certainly, but good? That there is value in missing someone because it is a reflection of the love you have for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pretty sure I’d shove an old lady out of the way to get to it if there were only one Sad-Free Life left on the shelf. But since I don’t think any of those are available, I am learning a new level of comfort in a place where sadness can be acknowledged and quietly shared.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Color Series: White

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

Purity. Light. White. I remember when I learned that white was not the absence of color, but the presence of all colors—as if you could take white and tilt it a little to make blue appear, or shake it so that red or green or yellow would float to the surface for a while. That white is actually a swirl of colors just waiting to be released. How odd it seems, then, that white can appear so blank sometimes. Were you, like me, tricked somehow into thinking that white was calm, serene, boring even? How could that be, with so much color going on beneath the surface? I like to imagine white as something teeming and alive. What other color is both searing hot and freezing cold? Life and death? Empty space and Holy Presence?

There is something to the fact that pure white light, illuminating and life-giving, contains all the colors of the spectrum.

There is something, too, about the process by which different colors rise to the surface at different times. Headed into fall, I always look forward to the leaves changing color. I think often of that one fall six years ago, when it struck me so strongly that trees would greet winter—and what looks like death—not quietly but in blazing red, orange, and gold. Especially red. I’m captivated by the thought that all those hues are inside each leaf all along, that the vibrancy is merely hidden by all the green, and only revealed when the chlorophyll leaks away.

Color hidden within color. Waiting. Things hidden then illuminated, seen only when you tilt an object, shake it, let something beautiful bleed out. It seems cruel sometimes, the way new colors rise up, and yet the new can be as beautiful as the old. And all of it is hidden within something as still and clear as white.

Many years ago, in a high school English class, the other students and I were assigned one of my favorite projects ever—to create and present to the class a symbol of ourselves. I made a folded paper box, plain and white on the outside, small enough to fit in my palm. On the inside, the box was full of color, every wall completely decorated. Suspended from the top was a tiny paper crane. From the outside the box didn’t really invite much attention, but if you took the time and effort there was a whole lot to see on the inside. Even then, though, you couldn’t get the whole picture. When the box was open the crane was no longer in its element, flying through the middle of all that color and life. You could imagine the complete picture, but you couldn’t actually see it.

It strikes me that most people in this world would see a little white box and not give a second thought to what might be inside. Even fewer would be tempted to open it. They may be perfectly nice, friendly people: “Nice box. I bet it’s cool inside. I’ve seen that kind of thing before.” But they will never peek inside. I don’t know why this is. Personally, I sometimes feel like I could spend the rest of my life just opening boxes and exploring their contents. Most, I’m convinced, want to be opened, whether they are beckoning or just sitting there.

I kept my little box for years, but after years of storage and being moved from place to place, I think it was eventually crushed and discarded. I’ve lost track of it, anyway. Here, in writing, I find it taking on a new form. To those of you reading—thank you for looking inside.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Color Series: Black

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

Halfway through my first year of graduate school, my grandpa died. It was sudden; we had all been at my parents’ house for Christmas and had a lovely time. New Years’ Day he had a massive heart attack. He was unconscious for several days before he died. My mom flew to Nebraska during that time, my sister went along for support. I wanted to go, too, but everybody thought it was important that I head back to school in order to start the semester on time. So I flew back to Chicago and waited.

When I got to Nebraska a few days later for the funeral, it seemed as if everybody had already settled into their roles, everybody knew when and where to pitch in. I wanted to help in some concrete way, but there were a lot of people around, and it was hard to know where exactly to step in. My one job was to play 3 minutes of music for the funeral, and that felt like a meager thing to offer.

I played in a haze. My hands were cold, I felt numb all over, but I kept myself together because that’s what I know how to do when I’m performing. I spent a few days with family, remembering, crying, even laughing a little. And then I tried to return to life as usual.

The loneliness hit hard when I went back to school. I spent hours every day in a practice room, and all I could think about was how insane it felt to be alone in my tiny room, surrounded by other human beings alone in their tiny rooms, all honing our craft, learning how to communicate, and all very much alone. I felt like I was doing anything but communicating. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I was working towards any more. After years of trying to make music my entire life, in the face of death it suddenly looked like nothing.

I started violin lessons when I was 2 ½, but with two free-lance musicians/music teachers for parents, I was surrounded by it from the beginning. Music has been a part of me since before I can even remember; a part of my family, an essential to growing up. For years, though, it was one thing among many. Through high school there were always books to read, stories and poems to write, languages to learn, pictures to draw. Things that drew me in, absorbed my time, my energy, my passion. When I went to college, though, I decided to make music my career, and I went from taking it for granted to thinking it was the only thing I had room for in my life.

I have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing approach to life. Choose one thing and black out all the rest. Put on blinders. I knew music was a tough field, and I convinced myself I had to give up everything else in order to “make it.” After my grandpa died I realized I didn’t want to—I couldn’t, in fact—give up everything for music. I wanted relationship. Family. I couldn’t let music get in the way. I didn’t want to feel the pull between family and career, and I figured if I let go of all my aspirations for one, the other—family—would be all I needed. And so I traded one pair of blinders for another.

My life has not been wasted. Neither has my education or skill. But I’m old enough to see that my story isn’t going to go the way I think it is, either, and music never faded completely into the background the way I thought it would. I both tried to make music my life, and tried to walk away from it. Neither, it turns out, is possible. Somehow it is deeply a part of me in a way I do not understand, nor do I always know how to handle. I’ve learned since my grandpa’s funeral that sometimes just speaking from the heart—gathering up the pain, the love, the hope, and everything else, and offering it up in a piece of music that goes beyond words and deeds—sometimes that is the thing that is needed. It is not such a meager role to play, after all, and it’s what I have to offer.

“You who see, tell the others,” my English teacher wrote in my yearbook at the end of my senior year of high school. Over the last few years I have started to think of that as a call-to-arms for the artist, the musician, the writer. It is a tall order, a high calling. And here I am, a mom and (very) part-time violin teacher living in a small town in the Midwest that’s awfully short on gigs. The opportunities that come these days are precious. They are also few and far between. Maybe that will change, and maybe it won't. But maybe I have a small part to play. Hopefully there are things I can see, things that I can share from this precise point. I'm finding strength in discovering this is still something I can do. That I can be a mom, a wife, a teacher, maybe even a writer, but I have a voice as a violinist, too, and I can once again embrace it. I want to be done with trying to black out certain parts of myself.

Somehow they fit together.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Color Series: Gray

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

First published August 17, 2011

I took Oldest to school today. After months of struggling with this decision, agonizing over the best thing for all of us, I enrolled him part-time at the middle school last week. Today was his first day. He will attend two classes there, and can stay for lunch if he wants to (he does—at least sometimes.) He is taking a third class with a small group of homeschoolers, and we will cover the rest of his subjects at home.

For a long time, I thought I had to decide between all homeschooling or all public school, and I was overwhelmed. I’m aware that people do all sorts of combinations of things when it comes to their children’s education, but all I could see for my family were the extremes. It took a friend to show me the gray area, suggest that I could try walking there for a while.

Gray is a lovely color. Mysterious. Delicate. A place where light and dark dwell together, the vast area between extremes. The place we spend most of our time in this earthly home. The thing about in-betweens, though, is that you don’t always know exactly where you are. Choose to walk there and you may have to admit that you are walking, just a little bit, in the unknown

Assuming that you have two or more choices that are potentially good, how do you choose The Best? I don’t really know. We prayed, we deliberated, we sought advice, but there was no direct word from heaven on this one. For now, I think we have a compromise that is Good. Oldest will inhabit two worlds for the time being. He will get a taste of middle school without giving up homeschooling. We are holding on to some precious goals but adding new experiences to the mix. It is a bit of an odd place to be in, but this may be where the balancing point is for us, right now.

At sixth grade orientation on Monday, I watched Oldest navigate the hallways, find his locker, locate his classrooms. I watched him work the combination for his locker over and over, watched him test the metal button on the inside that releases the door to the upper compartment with an extremely satisfying pop. This challenge, this gray place, will be good for him, I hope. Today when I dropped him off at the Middle School, I watched him walk up to the door alone, wearing the gray t-shirt he got at camp this summer. He looked taller to me. Strong, too.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Color Series: Yellow

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

This song was one of my favorites in high school. It was the chorus that spoke to me: I still haven’t shaken it/This feeling of fakin’ it. What a perfect soundtrack for certain seasons of my life. I imagine singing it like a song going into battle—scared and unprepared, but going nevertheless. There is something joyful to admitting that I don’t really know what I’m doing. That I often don’t feel the way I think I should. I might as well sing and dance a little while I plunge into unknown territory. Maybe after a while I won’t even be faking anymore.

How is it, anyway, that yellow--the domain of caution signs and cowardice--is also the color of smiley faces?

In the violinist part of my life, I am used to preparing. I get the music ahead of time, I mark fingerings and bowings, I practice, I rehearse, and even if I have a performance after only one rehearsal, I’ve got the music in front of me and years of experience behind me. It may not be perfect, but I feel pretty comfortable with the setup.

But there was this one gig in Chicago. I don’t remember how I got it, but I assumed I would be playing in a string quartet or some other small ensemble, and that the contractor had music for me at the very least. When I got to the restaurant at Navy Pier, though, it became clear that this was a strolling gig—two violins, playing in parts, from memory. That meant a whole repertoire of music I didn’t know, in a style of music I had never played. You know those stress dreams you have sometimes, when you are in college again and have to take a final exam in a class you never attended, or you are at the church for your wedding, everybody waiting for you, but you don’t have your dress, or you are on stage for a big solo performance with an orchestra and you suddenly realize you never learned the piece? This was like one of those dreams, but real.

We had no choice but to fake it. The other violinist told me to play things I knew, as much as I could remember of them, and he would harmonize whatever I came up with. He made lots of suggestions, and if I knew the melody I played it. We played the first page of the first movement of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” We played bits of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, portions of Vivaldi “Spring” and some Beatles tunes. Pachelbel Canon. Somehow we filled at least an hour with music and then I got out of there as quickly as I could.

Improvising scares me. I don’t think well on my feet. Give me some paper and let me write out whatever I’m going to say, or play, or do, and I feel much better. In the heat of the moment my brain wants to shut off, but whatever is on the page stays there, anchors me, guides me through. One of the problems with life, though, is that so very much of it is improvised, and most of what I get written down to help me through is after the fact. I find this both freeing and terrifying.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about performing is that sometimes I just have to pretend. Pretend I’m not terrified, pretend I’m relaxed, pretend it’s easy, pretend I meant to do that, pretend that I am in fact a fabulous musician with music just flowing from my pores. Because something happens when I fake it. I play differently when I decide to ignore all my misgivings, my trembling hands, my queasy stomach. I get a lot closer to confidence when I pretend I’ve already got it than if I sit around and wait for it to come to me. Act first and trust the feelings will follow.

It turns out I’m afraid of many things, big and little. Sometimes I think the yellow streak down my back positively glows. But a lot of what this summer—maybe even the past year—has been about for me has been about acting in spite of my fear. Trying out a high ropes course, a zipline, a Tarzan swing while on vacation. Accepting opportunities to improvise on the violin. Going to the writing workshop in Minneapolis. Deciding I’d rather be the one who reached out than the one who said nothing. Saying the things that are burning inside me. Making changes. I would love to tell you that the results have been joyful and glorious, and sometimes they have been, but I’ve also spent a lot of time feeling awkward and clumsy and—to tell the truth—shaking. I am still a coward, but somehow I seem to breathe differently these days.

Yellow dances through the places I am afraid to walk. I’m trying to follow suit, faking it a little as I go.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Color Series: Transparent

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

Just a few thoughts at the end of a week of eating, sleeping, and breathing violin, surrounded by both children and adults who are at all levels and stages of learning how to make music:

Some teachers are impressive because of their vast store of knowledge, which they parcel out bit by bit to their hungry students. There are others who work quietly, seem more interested in drawing out and nurturing what is hidden deep within their students.

There are musicians who can astound you with their great skill; they look impressive, their sound is huge, they are unforgettable performers. There are others who take you to the essence of the music while they themselves fade into the background. They make you hear differently, forever change your impression of a composer, show you how to get lost in a piece of music.

There are writers who amaze with their mastery of language, their particular way of saying something, the way they can turn a plot. There are others who leave you with a story, a thought, or insight that haunts you for years.

It’s worth asking what kind of teacher, or musician, or writer I want to be. My gut instinct is that people talk about you more when you direct them towards yourself. And every time I put my work—a piece of myself—out there, I am asking to be heard. But as a musician, I want my audience to hear the music; as a teacher, I want to develop and draw out the student; as a writer, I want people to come away with a story, an idea, light for the darkness. And it strikes me that this requires a certain sort of invisibility on my part.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Color Series: Purple

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

Youngest was born into the crumbling of my idealized adult life. I spent most of my pregnancy hardly believing she would be born, still reeling after my recent miscarriage, the death of a friend, and the recent health emergencies of loved ones. The secure job we were sure my husband would land right after finishing his doctorate had not materialized, and all our hard work seemed to produce nothing but more hard work.

Youngest did not have a freshly-painted nursery (she slept in a portable bassinet in the hallway outside our bedroom door), and she wasn’t a neatly-spaced two years younger than Middle, the way I had envisioned she would be. Our health insurance ended a week after she was born, and we spent the first year of her life paying as we went at the doctor’s office, hoping that the health emergency that could ruin us wasn’t just around the corner. We had friends, but I felt close to nobody, out of touch with old friends after moving several times, and unable to feel like I connected with the new ones. I sat with acquaintances while they compared notes about home renovations and quietly hated the white walls of our apartment, wondering what everybody around me had done to be able to own a home. I was not the gentle, abundant, glowing homeschooling mom I wanted to be. I was tired and disorganized, and my husband worked long hours and got paid only a few dollars an hour more than the babysitters we hired once in a while when there was no other choice.

And then, Youngest herself spent the first two years of her life showing me that my determination to have well-behaved, disciplined children and a perfect, well-groomed family was pure fantasy. She was loud, emotional, headstrong. She got into things my older two never dreamed of—kitchen knives, for example. She seemed bent on mischief and destruction. My parents referred to her as a force of nature. It was fitting, actually, that when a tornado struck our town two years ago, she couldn’t shake the idea that it was a person, not a thing, that did all the damage.

People love to say that being a mother is hard. What I wish they would say, even though it isn’t very good advertising, is that motherhood will probably at some point not only take you to the edge of yourself, it will hold you over the edge and let you dangle. Older women would stop me at the grocery store sometimes, and say things like, “You’ve got a big job there. I remember what those days were like. Hang in there—these are precious times.” The way their eyes held mine when they said it assured me they knew what they were talking about and had most likely spent a fair amount of time dangling, themselves.

Youngest stretches me. But somewhere along the line I realized that she is in many ways the girl I always wished to be. She is strong and feisty and outgoing. My social advice to my children is based on my experience as an introvert: be nice, make eye contact and answer people’s questions, and if you can’t manage anything else, a smile will get you a long way. My four year old, on the other hand, will march up to a complete stranger at church and say, “I haven’t seen you here before. What’s your name?” She won’t even blush or stumble all over her words or feel like an idiot, the way her mom would. She sings and cries loudly, loves being on stage, endears herself to everybody, and asks for what she wants. She is a free spirit, completely comfortable in her own skin, and I have a lot to learn from her.

Two years ago when we finally bought a house, we decided that each child should have their own room. Youngest was barely three, so I helped pick the color for her room. She loved purple, and the day-glo orange she wanted was not an option, so I found what I thought was the perfect purple for her: something light but somehow deep, passionate and mysterious, feminine but not frilly. It was a color that seemed to define everything I love about her.

It turns out she wanted pink. Just like Middle’s room. Not only that, but within a month of moving in, Middle and Youngest started sharing a bed again, and insisted that they hated being alone in their rooms. For a year and a half, they had sleepovers, alternating between their two rooms. They played together in whatever room they slept in, and the other room was always empty and trashed.

This summer, I did something I’m pretty sure I learned from Youngest: I asked for what I wanted. Not everybody was excited about the idea, but my daughters are sharing a room again. They both have the pink room they wanted, and they have loft beds, so each girl has a top bunk with her own private space underneath. And the purple room—I swear I didn’t choose the color for myself—but it is my space, now. My office. I still stumble over that word “my,” but there you have it.

There were a number of years that I truly believed that to be a mother I had to completely pour myself out, give up all of myself. As my children are getting older, though, I’ve had to rethink that. I feel like I am growing up alongside my kids, trying to help them discover who they are, but also rediscovering who I am. That idealized adult life I thought I wanted—a good portion of it was based on how I thought I would best fit in. How I could look good and feel accepted. In reality, though, the times in my life where I have felt the most accepted were when I was being myself, doing the things I loved. Being the person I was made to be.

I started writing seven years ago, during a time of great hope and great stress. It was something I did a lot of as a child, something I always loved, but I pushed it aside for years simply because I thought I had to. Recently, though, it has become a lifeline. I write to think, to pray, to connect the things in my life that I otherwise don’t know how to connect. To understand, and also to communicate. I refuse to call writing a hobby, but I hesitate to say it is a calling because I don’t know how you determine something like that. But it became clear that I needed to carve out a place for myself in this wonderful family—a physical and emotional space just for writing, and oh, it is the loveliest shade of purple.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Color Series: Blue

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

When we moved into our house two years ago, I took down all the heavy curtains the previous owners had left. Gold lamé, thick satin, heavy florals—they all ended up in the basement, folded unceremoniously and waiting for all the projects I have imagined I can use them for but for which there will probably never be time. The red, white, and blue star curtains on the back porch—those, too, were dealt with quickly. I wanted to be connected to the outside world, not closed off from it. That back porch pretty much embodied the difference in taste between our family and the previous owners. The entire room was painted red to match the patriotic curtains, except for the spot where the chest freezer used to sit, which had been left blue. And as much as I love color on my walls, that room did not work for us. It felt oppressive.

My husband has been working on the back porch for most of the past month, fixing the windows that were painted shut, making the old door fit better, and doing various other thankless jobs that will transform this room into something other than a place to keep the vacuum and the recycling. We lifted our ban on white in order to paint the trim, although the color of the beadboard under the windows has not quite been decided (I had no idea, going into marriage, that the color of our walls would require quite so much negotiating.) The ceiling is blue, now—not quite sky blue, more of a hazy blue-gray. And I love it. I love the blurring of lines between inside and outside, as if when you look up you can see straight through the ceiling into the sky.

Blue seems to be about clarity. Seeing. It is the deepness of the sky, and all the distance you can imagine in it—eternity over our heads. But blue also reflects, like a glittering lake mirroring the sky, even while it hides a shadowy world underneath. There is something clean and pure about blue, even in its darker shades, and yet it seems to increase in power and depth when you add in other colors. Add darkness and a hint of green, and you are dabbling in mysticism with midnight blue. Add light and more green and you can have something as cheerful-but-deep as turquoise.

I have read in home and gardening magazines that cool colors tend to recede, and warm colors advance. I’ve always accepted that statement, but now I find myself peeking at our new blue ceiling and wondering if that is quite true.

Is it really receding, or is it drawing me with it as it goes, pulling me up and out?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Color Series: Red

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

The red crayon was always one of the shortest crayons in my 64-color box of Crayolas. It was my favorite color in first grade, the one I betrayed the day my class voted on popular colors by raising my hand for blue at the last moment. I figured blue must be the best color if everybody else loved it so much.

But red is an old friend. It is passion and strength and life, and these things are staples. It is the shining thing flowing through each of us, without which we could not live.

Red is vision, and dreams—the life blood that sustains us through hard times and hard work. That road you follow that for some reason you are sure was meant for you, even if other travelers think you're crazy. Red is full of the energy you get from doing the things you love. It is also perseverance; the thing you keep doing because you know it is good, even when it hurts, or drains all your energy away.

Red is not always pretty, and never trifling. You know those things that you hear about happening to other people—the ones you know you're not strong enough to bear? They are often soaked in red. I embraced my third pregnancy as a blessing from God. I took it as a sure sign of grace and hope and promise in the middle of a difficult time for our family. And then I began to bleed. I know how common miscarriages are, but I have rarely heard women speak of them. I was not prepared for how hidden, how quiet, how raw, it would be—all the hope and comfort I had attached to this child ending in a toilet while the rest of my family slept.

Red can be overpowering. I mostly like it in small doses, running through everything the way it runs through my veins, strengthening, nourishing, sustaining. Sometimes it is like that—safe and contained. Sometimes, though, it rises up all around you and throbs. And then you learn that grace is red, too. The days surrounding my miscarriage were wrapped in grace along with the pain. Have you noticed how often those two need to be attached? I let my older two children play. I got out all the glitter and glue and construction paper, even the Play-Doh, and watched them make a huge mess, and for once I didn’t care about cleaning it up. I only wanted to be with them, and have it last forever. Here was my hope and comfort, even—especially—through the hurt.

Imagine the spectrum without any red at all. How lifeless it would seem. There would be very little warmth. No heat, no passion, no blood, no grace.

I wonder how we would live.

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Color Series: Pink

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

I laughed all the way home from my ultrasound when I was pregnant with Middle. I’m not sure why I thought I would only have boys, but after Oldest was born it just seemed like that was the way things were going. I was fine with that—boys are wonderful, if a little mysterious. So when the ultrasound technician told me I was most certainly carrying a girl, I was surprised. And delighted. I started lingering over impossibly tiny hair bows at the store, and dreaming over racks of frilly dresses. It seemed as if everywhere I turned, I saw pink.

There was a time when I was a girl that I loved pink, although I’m pretty sure that girls’ clothes weren’t so dominated by the color—it was the 70’s, after all. There also came a time that I decided it was way too “girly” a color for me. I stereotyped pink, thought of it as weak, babyish, simpering. But pink is a good color, in all its shades. It can be soft or brash, warm or cool. It makes me happy. I gradually learned that embracing femininity doesn’t make you weak at all. When I became the mother of a girl, it suddenly became very important to be able to embrace everything that came along with being female. And my life strengthened and flooded with pink.

Pink, it turns out, is full of surprises.

Taekwon-do, for example. It was completely Middle’s idea. All three kids were influenced by way too many viewings of “Kung Fu Panda,” but she was the one who discovered the dojang downtown and convinced her big brother that this was something they needed to do. I am impressed by their interest, and by what all of us have learned since they started classes two and a half years ago. I love watching them do their patterns, I love the discipline the sport requires, and I love the mental aspect of it.

Sparring, though, is just plain tough.

At her first tournament, Middle was paired up with a girl who outranked her, and with whom she had made friends while they were waiting their turn. Suddenly this friend was hitting her in the face. The match quickly dissolved into tears, and a forfeit, and more tears. At her second tournament, Middle had decided she was not going to spar. We told her that was fine—we didn’t blame her for a second. Then she changed her mind. Her first match went well and she held her own and won. The second match was a different story. Middle is not an aggressive kid. She is shy and sensitive and delicate. I have seen her back down in many situations in order to keep the peace, even when she was in the right. And my beautiful, delicate girl wasn’t keeping her hands up in front of her face and the girl she was sparring with was taking full advantage. It made me wonder what kind of mother I was, allowing my child to get beat up, whether she was wearing sparring gear or not. When she got hit in the eye, the referee stopped the match and checked her out. “Do you want to keep going?” Her shoulders heaving with sobs, she looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, sir.” And she went back in. At the end of the match, she came straight to me and I gave her a huge hug. I had to remind myself that I hadn’t forced her to come, and certainly hadn’t forced her to spar, but I still felt terrible. Then she pulled away from me and grinned. “That was fun!” The tears hadn’t even dried on her cheeks.

Don’t forget where pink comes from. Yes, it is tender—vulnerable even—but the surprise of pink is that it has red running through its veins, and its power isn’t as diluted as one might think. Pink is filled with passion and joy along with all that delicacy. The strength Middle drew on to keep fighting, to go back in and keep at it despite the difficulty—I hope she never forgets how to do that. She is my delicate, sensitive vulnerable girl, and I hope she never forgets how to be that, either. But when I think of the pain of this life, it seems good that she should learn how to fight, how to keep going, how to defend herself and the people around her. I can only hope to be half as strong as she is.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Color Series: Silver

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away.
Hope you enjoy:

The air is heavy right now. Heavy with humidity that reminds me of August, and heavy with the trilling of cicadas. About two weeks ago a brood of periodical cicadas began crawling out of the earth after a thirteen-year infancy underground to shed their skins, take to the trees, and find mates.

It is noisy. There are some parts of town where you barely notice the sound, but around our house it is cacophonous—like a million tiny beads spilling onto the floor, endless waves of spilling all day long. Above that sound is a higher-pitched whirring, a silvery trill between “e” and “f” that hangs in the air like a humid haze. The effect is surreal, unearthly—until I remember that it is exactly earthly. I am entranced.

I understand why people get annoyed. The cicadas are intrusive. The sound doesn’t stop, and can exceed 90 decibels if you are standing under a tree full of them. They fly into me once in a while. They land on my arm or my neck and prompt a little zing of adrenaline before I remember I’m not afraid of them. (They don’t bite or sting, but they are rather large, and if insects creep you out, this is not a particularly happy place to be right now.) Our lawn is littered with empty bronze skins. Remnants cling to flowers, branches, and leaves, and congregate around the roots of trees. Everywhere you look or step it seems there is a cicada flying or crawling or lying dead, its short life span already complete.

These times when the natural world interferes with normal life—I truly enjoy them. I like being forced to see or hear or move differently. Are you paying attention? Do you see? Can you hear? Two weeks saturated with this electric sound is like two weeks edged with silver. How can you not pay attention? This is wonder—and yes, it has an edge to it. It is decidedly not the greeting-card variety; it is the kind of wonder that takes hold of you even while you feel the urge to turn away. But it is wonder-ful, because for a few weeks this summer, the air itself is silver.

Silver is an ornament, a glaze, a lining for something the artist or craftsman wants to highlight. Earrings direct the eyes to a face, a bracelet draws attention to the hand or arm. Tinsel on a Christmas tree, a silver place setting, tremolo violins in a Bruckner symphony. Silver is precious, but the things we adorn with silver, they are more so.

Do you see? Can you hear?

These days you are walking through are lined with silver.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Color Series: Brown

Taking a bit of a blog break right now, and re-posting the Color Series while I'm away. 
Hope you enjoy:


I thought I was a blond for years. My mom single-handedly contributed to this belief, always commenting on the gold highlights she could see in my hair in the sunlight. And I was blond for a while, as a toddler and through my preschool years. My hair was light enough to draw a lot of attention when my parents were traveling with me in Japan. Who can really say when I passed from blond to brown? It happened gradually, and the moment I accepted it and moved on was probably a quiet one, fueled by my desire to avoid a well-meaning friend telling me (again) that if I was a blond, I was a dirty-dishwater-blond, at best. Brown seemed more appealing.

I learned how to embrace the color. Pale and golden is lovely, but brown has depth. I still find blond strands sometimes, but also black, auburn, caramel, and increasingly these days, white. Nobody ever accused me of being the fun girl, anyway. I was the one who went to the Sting concert and sat and listened. (I had a fabulous time, too.)

I find I like that quality in brown—it might not reach out and grab you, but if you stop and pay attention, you will always find something there. It is warmth, and depth, and richness all around. Imagine dessert without the color brown: a world without chocolate, butterscotch, or hazelnut. Consider life without all the brown spices: ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin. Brown is soil and tree bark and sleek forest creatures you almost didn’t see. Hardwood floors. Rembrandt, Stickley, sepia-toned photographs. Every shade of skin imaginable. The stuff of the earth.

Then there’s coffee. I decided to start drinking it in college—partly because I wanted to seem more mature, and partly because I really wanted to appreciate the flavor. I loved the smell of coffee, and learning to enjoy it seemed like a good challenge. Did it have something to do with being able to drink bitterness and say it was good? I’m not entirely sure. But I love it now, the darker the roast the better, rich and hot in a generous mug, the perfect companion for reading a book, talking with a friend, writing at my desk before anyone else is awake. Perfect for probing the depths of my connection to this world.

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