Tuesday, October 30, 2012


We were so proud of these. Each pumpkin so carefully picked, each face so carefully designed. And we all knew about Halloween pranks and the possibility of vandalism, but we put our creations out on the front porch anyway, to share with the world.

O pumpkin-smashing pumpkin thieves, if you only knew what my children wanted to do to you, maybe you would have thought twice.

There was much venting. Along with reminders that there is such a thing as mercy.

And Monday afternoon we made time for a do-over.

The pumpkins were less-carefully picked, and the scooping-out of pumpkin guts and designing-&-carving of faces was interspersed with regular schoolday afternoon and evening activities. But we are very proud of these, too.

We have not been defeated. Later today I will put them out on the front porch to share with the world.

At night I’ll bring them in.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Recent Magic

Saturday: sunlight and warmth and not much of a schedule.

Sunday: my first trail half marathon. It was hard and beautiful and sometimes felt beyond me, but I did it.

Monday: ran into a friend at just the right time.

Tuesday: a morning run in driving rain with another friend—listened to stories about ultramarathoners, tore through large puddles, laughed hard.

(Tuesday night: caught Piazzolla on the radio)

Wednesday: a gift of habaneros. There's a hot pepper chutney recipe calling to me.

Thursday: laughed with a friend. A lot.

Friday: looked up just in time to see a shooting star. Kids off from school, and the sound of tape being used for an elaborate project. Lots and lots of tape.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Let the Whole Thing Flower


"Let the whole thing flower: the poem and the person writing the poem."
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I keep thinking about what it means to make things. Why we do it.

I carved the top of this box during the summer between fifth and sixth grade, at Norwegian language camp. Karveskurd, a form of chip carving. I was so proud of my work. Drawing out the starry, snowflakey design was deeply satisfying. Carving out the little triangular wedges was even better. And goodness, somebody trusted me with a knife!

But the most significant thing about this box, to my almost-11-year-old mind, was that I made something real. Real, like the-stuff-grown-ups-do real, which is a different kind of real than school and camp and crafts designed and packaged for kids. This box was a tangible thing, linked to tradition, beautiful. Plus, it had hinges and you could put stuff in it.

I got a lot of that kind of real in my childhood. Around the time I was learning to sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” I was also playing Bach minuets and various and assorted gavottes on the violin. I know I could sing a lot more pieces than I knew how to play because my mom often had to remind me that I was humming along too loudly with whatever the older kids were playing while I waited for my own lesson. And the other Suzuki kids around me—they were all doing the same thing.

It was a rich way to grow up—learning how to make music and art. Real music and art. My child-world overlapping with the adult world.

*       *       *

I listened to this story on NPR yesterday morning, while I was making lunches for my kids to take to school.

I read these words last week, in a book I am half-way through, about a groundbreaking movement that uses music education as an instrument of social change:

"…it’s not just a bonita idea—‘Isn’t it sweet, the children playing music?’—I mean, sure, that’s beautiful. But his [José Antonio Abreu’s] vision is much bigger than that. It’s about the orchestra giving a sense of life to young people, in the deepest possible way.” (from Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall)

I keep thinking about the way I was raised, steeped in music, due to the influence of a man who looked around his devastated country at the end of World War II and decided he could do his part to rebuild it by teaching violin to young children, creating noble human beings in the process. (That creating noble human beings part—that’s what the Suzuki Method is really all about.)

And I’m trying to wrap my head around it all.

*       *       *

Here’s what I know:

There is a tremendous amount of power in an education.

There is also a tremendous amount of power in creating something. Power, because creating something gives you a voice, gives you a way to reach out. Allows you to make a difference in your world, even if in the teeniest possible way.

Because what do you do with what you encounter in this life, otherwise—the hurt, the joy, the beauty, the bare facts of it—if you do not respond somehow? I know how easy it is to think of Art as some kind of extra in life, but I don’t buy that. It comes from our very core as humans. It comes from our need to respond—to reach out, and look for, and show. It begs for interaction and community and it is meant to grow beyond itself. And if you show a child how to hone and direct that power to create, to find that voice, to reach out and look for and show, you are giving that child something huge.

Now. While we are educating our children (all of them, regardless who they are or what anybody thinks will be their usefulness in this life—) while we are giving them opportunities and opening the world to them and filling them with information, are we also giving them a voice? The ability to process and translate and communicate everything with which we are filling them? Because that’s not extra. That’s the depth and the power of their education. The stuff underlying and sustaining all the rest.

The whole thing flowering—the poem (or painting or piece of music) and the person. That's the real.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hard Run/Run Hard

Friends, last week got a little dark. (I’m telling you this not to be dramatic but because I don’t feel like I can honestly write about light if I'm not honest about the dark as well.) I lost my voice for a while. Physically, because I was sick, but in other ways too, it felt like—enough that I started to wonder how many different ways a person can lose her voice at one time. Then I got smart and decided, No God, I really don’t want to know the answer to that question.

But I wasn’t too sick. My lungs have gotten stronger, between asthma medicine and allergy shots and all the running I’ve been doing. And so I decided on Wednesday morning that even though I was coughing and feeling ragged and couldn’t speak above a whisper, I could still run.

So I ran. Not long, but hard. Because I could. And because my body, even though it let me run, felt tight and tired and unwilling, and I wanted to escape that feeling. Because, also, I’ve been feeling soul-tired in a way that I can hardly stand, and I wanted to escape that feeling, especially.

So after giving myself the gift of sleeping in, I took my unwilling, tired body for a run in bright sunlight for once, instead of in the dark of pre-dawn. And then I countered my hard run (because that’s what it was, given my unwilling, tired body and restless, soul-tired self) by running hard.

*       *       *

When I first started running a year and a half ago it was with the knowledge that it was part of a fight against things that wanted to overwhelm me: stress, depression, frustration, anger. It felt good. It cleared my head. It calmed me, helped me deal with things. Made me feel stronger.

It wasn’t long, though, before I noticed that running also shakes things loose. Trapped things break free when I run—they jostle against each other, burst open, start flying. Thoughts, feelings, fears, ideas, dreams—they come out into the light. They find their voice. And running for me no longer means just a strengthening of the body, but a strengthening of the heart and mind and soul, as well.

*       *       *

The thing I am learning about strength is that it is something you have to use. And I don’t always want to. I know exactly how Middle felt, that one-morning-among-many that we were struggling to get to school, in danger of being late, and she was pedaling so slowly up a particular hill I thought for sure her bike would tip over. I tried to encourage her. “Come on, Tigress, you need to show your power!” And she roared back at me, “I DON’T LIKE TO SHOW MY POWER!!!”

I get that. Using my strength is not necessarily the glorious thing I want it to be. More often than I would like it means pushing myself when I feel ragged, fighting when I no longer want to fight, keeping on when I want to stop.

And yet I’m sure it’s there to be used.

So I ran hard Wednesday morning—knowing that I would shake things loose that had to be dealt with, knowing I still had to fight when really I just wanted to crumble. Counting on the fact that I had more in me than I thought.

I was right—that day I did have more. I averaged a pace, over 4 miles, that was my fastest ever. It’s a pretty decent number for somebody who never considered herself fast or athletic. It’s a number I’m going to hold close, regardless, because it speaks to me about things I didn’t think I could do, and strength I didn’t think I had. A small victory in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one I’m going to keep like a trophy, like a promise that there’s more there.

And my voice? Not gone. Hiding, maybe, but not gone. I plan to keep using it—counting on there being more behind it than I once believed possible.

Photo by Amanda Truschinger

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Picking out Gourds

What could be better
on a Saturday morning
than the delicious agony
of hunting through
a truckbed full of possibilities
at the Farmer's Market,
waiting for The Perfect One to speak to you,
knowing (almost) without a doubt
that you will recognize it when you see it?

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Just Because

Another pretty picture:

Because I love what happens when light takes over.

Because maybe the night was long.

Because color—it’s good, isn’t it?

Because it spoke to me. So did this.

Because I love the quiet edges of a day.

Because even though—no, especially though—there are times when you feel raw and worn-thin, these things matter. So does sharing them.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

"I Could Always Live in my Art, But Never in my Life"


I had lofty aspirations for this post. It was going to be about going to the Minneapolis Art Institute, especially the time in high school when I went to complete an assignment for an art class: pick a piece of artwork and draw it.

I wanted to tell you about the hush of the place, and the coolness, and the shiny floors that echoed with my footsteps. How I’ve been there many times in crowds, but in my memories I am usually there alone, or almost alone.

I wanted to tell you about copying the work of someone greater than you—what it is like to try to recreate their lines, and how you internalize something of theirs as you work. How when you hold your drawing up next to the original you can see your inexperience—the stiffness and haltingness of it—but that there is also something there you recognize, and that is a feeling that surprises.

But when I went looking for that drawing in my old high school art portfolio, I also came across this:

And my lofty aspirations sort of fell apart.

I don’t know when exactly I made this picture, or why. I know that the quote is originally from an Ingmar Bergman movie I’ve never seen (“Autumn Sonata,” from what I can tell.) I know also that it is quoted in a movie I did see in 12th grade English, “My Dinner with Andre.” I don’t know if this picture is part of a project for that class or something I did on my own. I am certain, though, that if I spent that much time dealing with those words they meant something to me.

Have those words been haunting me since then? Not in any conscious way. Yet there they are, tugging at my heart, reminding me of a 17 year-old who felt like she could live well in one place but not the other. Or was she afraid—afraid that she would not be able to find a way to live in her life, afraid of being cut off from the real things, afraid of her lack of skill?

Was it shock I felt, when I saw the consistency—that this is something I find myself dealing with still? That my continual desire to have art inform life and life inform art goes back farther than I realized? Always, I find myself looking for synthesis. And does it go back to this? Or farther?

I know that I have learned this:

When you are trying to draw a face, and you know that something is not right but you can’t tell what, you can turn your drawing upside down. Suddenly the things you couldn’t see because you were looking at a face become clear: one eye is lying lower than the other, or the nose is off-kilter, or the mouth is stuck in the middle of the chin.

When you are learning a piece of music and do not know what needs work, you can record yourself playing and listen to it. Suddenly there they are: the out-of-tune notes, the places where you rush or drag, the dynamics you thought were so dramatic but actually hardly come across at all.

When you are unsure if a piece of writing is finished, you can set it aside (for as long as you can stand—days? weeks? months?) until you are able to read it with something of a stranger’s eyes. And you start to see the awkward words, the passages that can be cut, the ideas that need to be tightened.

And that thing in your life that you don’t know what to do with? That seems harder. But you try what you can, and your efforts look something like what you might do with your art.

You can look at it from a different angle. What if it was not your thing but that of someone you love? What if the tables were turned? What if one thing was different—you were not afraid, or you knew things would work out?

You can share it with somebody else, or pray your heart out, or both, and listen very carefully to how it plays back to you.

You can sleep on it. Or simply wait.

You can decide, finally, that your life is a work of art. That you were intentional—every bit of your personality and your story. That where you are and who you are is no mistake, but part of a story line, and no, in this case you don’t get to skip to the last page to see if you get the ending you so desperately want. But you do get to wade through it.

You could, even, throw all of yourself in.

Because it strikes me suddenly that holding yourself back from your life is just as pointless as holding yourself back from your art. It’s all there, waiting to touch and be touched, to feel and be felt, to see and be seen. To go deep. And to matter, deeply.

Don’t you want to do that? Holding nothing back? Making of it the most beautiful thing you are able? Maybe you know how to live in your life, after all.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

"And What Do You Do with a Mouse?"

Asked by someone with a dog in their lap.

I love dogs. My early years were spent with a big, shaggy Old English sheepdog who claimed an important role as my parents’ first baby. I remember watching him and wanting to jump on his back and ride him around the house like a horse. I told my kindergarten teacher that he was my big brother. But he died when I was in first grade, and my parents noticed after a while that I was no longer such a sick kid. My breathing improved. Allergy tests confirmed that I was allergic to dogs and cats (and too many other things to count,) and our prospects for family pets changed drastically.

I cannot tell you how I longed for a dog. Something warm and furry to bury my face in, and hold and cuddle and pet. A companion, a friend, a resting place for my affection.

I came home with stories of hypo-allergenic dogs. I spent time walking friends’ dogs, and tested out different breeds, and if wishful thinking could have made it possible, I would have cured myself of the allergy. But the reality was that I could walk into a house where there was a dog and my lungs knew within a few breaths. I have never met a dog that didn’t affect me, and if it had been a matter of itchy eyes and sneezing it would have been no big deal. But dogs make my lungs close up. I have learned not to touch them at all.

My family improvised. Myrtle came into our life. But turtles don’t receive affection quite the same way warm furry creatures do, and a variety of other animals joined our family as well: gerbils (5, plus many babies), mice (3, plus many more babies), hamsters (2), a guinea pig and a rat. Later on, birds.

And now my children, who also are desperate for a dog or cat but are also allergic, are learning about odd pets that may or may not make other people squirm. On Saturday we brought home a mouse.

So what do you do with a mouse?

Watch her burrow through the bedding in her cage. Marvel at the quickness and lightness of movement.

Hold her in your hand, warm and light. Feel her heartbeat on your palm.

Get her used to your hands. Teach her to trust you.

Carry her all over the house. Learn her personality.

Tell her all your secrets. Wonder about her secret life.

Tell her about distant relatives: Ralph, Stuart, Reepicheep, Desperaux, Bernard and Bianca, Celeste.

Watch. Wonder. Learn. Grow. Love.

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