Monday, October 28, 2013

Bowlfuls of Light

It was during the Hard Time. She bought herself a pair of earrings, and to an outsider maybe that seemed like a simple act, but to her it was a symbol of who she wanted to be. She bought them because they were beautiful, but also because of their shape: bowl-like—open, fillable, generous. They were small but also bright, capturers and reflectors of light. Circles, and therefore whole, but imperfect—like all things that have life.

For a long time she wore them almost exclusively. She wore them and fought to embody those things. She fought to stay open most of all, and when she could not stay open she fought to see light, and to cup it in her hands, and reflect it outward.

The time came when she tired. Her resolve was still there, but something inside of her went underground. Had to. She did not wear the earrings every day, partly because she was tired of fighting. Partly because she wanted to be more than the fight. At night, in bed, she wished to die. She knew she couldn’t because of the small ones who needed her, but she could not stop from wishing it. During the day she paid careful attention to where the light came from, and moved toward it whenever and however she could.

And then a week of vacation, at a summer camp with her family. She resolved to sing and play and pray and love, but her outsides felt brittle and cold. The rawness inside threatened either to break through the shell and overwhelm everything within ten feet of her or else to shrink down to a cold, hard pellet. Either possibility was destruction.

So what do you do when you are rawness rattling inside a brittle shell, to occupy yourself during Free Time every day when the kids are happily occupied?

She found her way to the Arts and Crafts building. She would make something. It is some kind of wordless prayer, making something and hiding yourself in the process—in form, in color, in watching your fingers shape something new. 

Just being in that place felt safe. Supplies, and music, and people working. On one wall hung examples of possible projects: picture frames, bracelets, a paper-mache bowl. It was the bowl that caught her eye—colorful, translucent. Nobody had instructions for making it, but there was a coffee can full of bright squares of tissue paper, and newspaper and Mod Podge, and an old aluminum bowl to use as a mold. So she experimented. Each day she worked on it, layering newspaper, then tissue paper. Color upon color, layer upon layer. Sticky fingers. Quiet heart and mind. The bowl solved nothing, but there was healing in making it. Something about the color and the transparency of the paper spoke to her about warmth and light. How good to hold that in your hands, to watch them work steadily in such a medium.

This habit of looking for light—it is powerful, habit-forming. And when you are in the dark and trying to find your way out, even the smallest glint will pull you forward. So glint-by-glint you move, gathering as you go, and one day you realize you have bowlfuls.

To an outsider maybe it seemed like a simple bowl, made at camp. To her it was more. She set it on the mantel when they got home, just to set it down. All around it life shifted, the light increased. Miracles ensued. She did not move the bowl.

It is still there on the mantel, a bowlful of light. She cannot imagine it anywhere else. 

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

To Share: 10/24/13

A friend shared this with me, and in the off-chance that you haven't already seen it, I am passing it on to you: Collaborating with a 4 year-old 

I loved it for a variety of reasons—the collaboration part, and the 4 year-old part, but also how it spoke to me about my own tendency to want to not share, and the cool-mysterious stuff that happens when I let go. Her take-aways are great, but so is the underlying message about relationship. Hope you enjoy it.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Yours To Do With As You Wish

I bought her a diary at the book fair. It has a jeweled lock, and came with two perfect tiny golden keys. And it’s for writing your dreams. She adores it.

So I can understand why a well-meaning adult would look at it and say, “What did you do to your new diary?” I almost asked the same thing.

“I made the moon blue.”

I don’t know how much she’s heard about blue moons. She’s perceptive, and well-read, and pays attention to all sorts of things you don’t think she’s paying attention to. But clearly blue moons are special.

*     *     *

I loved the idea of a diary, myself. I loved the small book, the perfect tiny golden lock and key, the lined pages waiting to be filled.

I just hated filling it. I could last two or three days, maybe. Over many years I collected journals and notebooks, “All About Me” books that came as gifts, scrapbooks. Ruined them by writing on one or two pages. Abandoned them all.

The one exception was a vinyl-covered notebook, pastel pages climbing with flowers, that I filled with poetry in fifth grade. Filled. But that one never counted.

It turns out I have no patience for trying to recount my day. I do not want to provide a timeline, or a blow-by-blow, I do not want to provide captions. I have never been able to keep up with photo albums or scrapbooks or memory boxes or anything else. The things I want to keep or remember are stuffed in boxes or drawers or stacked in piles in closets I hope you won’t ever get a chance to open. I felt guilty about it for a long time.

Then, maybe because I still wanted to be somebody who kept a journal, I read A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries, by Thomas Mallon. I drank this book. It was full of people and life and writing, and that, maybe, is even better than a tiny golden lock and key. The best part was that it introduced me to the idea of a commonplace book. Like a scrapbook, a commonplace book is a collection of the kind of thing I’ve always written down on scraps of paper, the things I carried in the back of my planner, or left sitting on my desk or dresser: quotes, ideas, notes and letters, lists, books I want to read. That could be my journal. That was my journal, unformed and ungathered. All I needed was that definition, and suddenly—freedom—a whole world unlocked.

*     *     *

During graduate school I worked in a small shop that sold handpainted Italian ceramics—dinnerware and serving bowls and dishes. It was an upscale shop, and I was amused by the people who would come in—people who knew how to do things right—who expressed concern over how they could use the dishes they were thinking of buying.

“Now this bowl—which one is this?”

“That’s the salad bowl. The larger one is the pasta bowl.”

“But what if I want to serve pasta in this smaller one?”

“Well, you can do that. It’s your bowl—use it however you like.”

I was aware of a certain freedom I had, not knowing or caring what size bowl I used to serve food in. I still wonder if, after buying both a salad bowl and a pasta bowl, the people who asked ever felt the freedom to use the bowls the way they saw fit: a gnocci with pesto side dish in the salad bowl, maybe, or a colorful pile of fresh fruit in the pasta bowl.

I wonder about all the things that didn’t count because they didn’t fit the definition. I wonder about all the treasures I looked right at but never saw. 

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Monday, October 14, 2013


This morning I saw a lilac blossom, growing right there on a shrub in mid-October. And since seeing it I’ve been wondering about surprise, and timing, and how lilacs are lovely in the spring. This one is lovely, too, and out of place, and it’s hard to say if it strikes me as more lovely because it is rare and kind of goofy and I almost missed it, but now it has my attention more than most of the other lilacs in my life.

Without a doubt it is something I want to learn from today, in an absorb-into-your-soul-and-pour-out-into-your-life sort of way.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013


Husband and Middle took a bunch of pictures on The Violin Project's first day with violins. I love the moments they captured. My favorites? My first answer is "all of them," but I especially love these, by Middle. (If you want to see more pictures, you can find them here.)

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Thursday, October 10, 2013


Eight violins ready to meet their students. Don't they look magical?

Today is Day 38 of The Violin Project at Kirksville Primary School, and the first day the students will hold real violins. To say everybody is excited would be a huge understatement. They've been working hard learning to hold "box" violins and dowel-rod bows, learning rhythms, singing, marching, and yes, we have even drilled "standing still" and "not talking." They seem to especially love playing "Fix the Teacher's Bow Hold."

I've been teaching for a number of years, but the fact that children learn things always, always feels like a miracle to me. Not because I don't believe they are capable of amazing things, but because being witness to amazing things unfolding in front of you is no small thing.

Best kind of magic there is, I think. It is not an easy job. But I love that I get to do this.

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

On Mystery and Folded Paper Flowers

“When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere. It is so much more comfortable to think that we know what it all means, what to expect and how it all hangs together. When we are stunned to the place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is “Wow,” that’s a prayer.”

Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow

*     *     *

I watched a girl recently, drinking at a water fountain on her way out of church, 11, beautiful. I watched a boy walk past her slowly, watching her. After he passed and as he walked down the hall he turned repeatedly to look back at her. When he got to the door outside he stopped, waited, went through. He waited again, holding the door open, while the girl and her family wandered, so slowly, down the hall toward him. He held the door for one person, then another, and finally the girl and her family, even her little sister, who was walking even more slowly than the rest—in the opposite direction, even—and her mother, who saw exactly how long the boy had been standing there and was trying to hurry the little sister along.

When they got outside her mother asked, “Who was that boy who held the door for us?”

“Oh, that’s __________,” the girl answered. “He hates me.”

*     *     *

Folding origami lilies one afternoon with Youngest: we went step-by-step, following diagrams, creasing and unfolding, bending and folding. To her it must have felt like a wrestling match with her square of construction paper. She held up the flat, angular folds after every step. “This doesn’t look like a flower.” She agreed to keep going, though. In the end each of us held a paper flower between our fingers.

Such mystery in all those folds. So much of the process hidden in something that looks not a bit like what you’re trying to make.

*     *     *

I keep coming back to this: how tempting it is to just try to get things down to a manageable size. How little we see, especially when we think we know. How much time we spend with the thing we’re working on during which it looks nothing like what we’re trying/hoping/struggling to create.

I shy away from mystery. I try to insulate myself from it, knowing it can have painfully sharp edges. I try to fashion my world so it can fit in a nice little box, because I fool myself over and over into thinking that that’s what I want.

And then those moments happen—the ones that knock me off my feet, or shake me up, or give me the tiniest glimpse at the beautiful wildness I’m actually living in, and I realize that’s what I want: to live in that mystery—more than what I’m trying to make for myself, more than anything I could imagine. 

Alleluia, Amen.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In Which I Get Totally Distracted While Cleaning

Straightening up, yesterday, I found this:

I don’t know which child made it, although I have a guess. I haven’t asked, yet, about the story behind it. What I saw, though, was a paper moth, silent on a chair in a quiet house on a busy morning. A gift.
In another room, another gift—art and light working together:

The glitter has been glued to the floor for a while, now, and I have no desire to clean it up. That may prove I’m a slob, or overly-sentimental, but it’s the truth.
These are the things I want to focus on, the things I hope will always draw my attention. We are not a tightly-run ship in this house. We are messy and complicated and growing, all of us. When I remember that, the gifts abound.

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