On Poetry

by Carol Snow
Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.
Or - we had no way of knowing -
he'd swept the path between fallen camellias.
Since my kids returned to school last month, I've been a bit bored. Well, not bored exactly. Being bored implies I have nothing to do, which is far from the truth. A better description of my status would be: in limbo. The kids still need me, just not as much as they used to, which means I have hours a day to myself. Hours. All. To. Myself. The rest of the time, I'm like a plane circling the airport waiting to land, waiting for someone to say, "Mom!" so I can touch down and be of use.
"You're life is so boring," my daughter said. "All you do is watch documentaries, listen to podcasts and read books all day long." To a 14 year old girl, my life seems like purgatory. So boring. Of course that's not all I do; it's just the part of my day I enjoy most. My house has never been cleaner, nor has dinner been more consistently on time. Our dirty clothes are cleaned and put away in less than 24 hours of wearing them. Amazing. I go to the gym, hike with friends, paddleboard across a lake, or shop for hours, and no one even knows I'm gone! And since I'm no longer in charge of selecting and implementing curriculum for my kids, I'm doing it for myself. In addition to cosmology and astrophysics (I even have a textbook!), I'm studying poetry.
My method is this:
I read a poem from a poem-a-day website (never mind that it's for high schoolers - I'm a teenager at heart);
transcribe it into a pretty composition book;
think about it's meaning (or google it's meaning if I have no idea what the poem is about);
and record my thoughts about the poem (if any).
Yesterday I learned that remora, the fish that latches onto sharks to feed on their leftovers, means "to delay" in Latin, based on the belief that fish attached to boats and slowed them down. 
From today's poem, Tour by Carol Snow, I learned my life's purpose. Or at least my life's current purpose as a mother. "Today's poem reminds us there are two ways of looking at things. Note: This is such a short poem, it should be read twice," read the instructions preceding the poem. I read it several times and was inspired to sit down and write about it, and as I wrote, another meaning revealed itself.
On the surface of the poem, I can relate to the nameless, faceless "he", the sweeper of camellia blossoms, who I imagine to be a monk from the shrine. I too sweep the floor (almost) daily, but my work goes unnoticed; the floor gets dirty again. It's as if I've done nothing. The same is true for all other housework.
Or - my life is so tidy, organized and simple right now - my alone time nearly monastic, my home often quiet as a shrine.  Is this just the natural flow of things? The sweeping between fallen camellias. Or - did I work really hard to set it up this way? The intentional placing of camellia blossoms: the years I spent fostering independent children, creating a peaceful home, an environment conducive to growth, and financial simplicity which affords me the time and space to stay at home... and ponder poetry and physics.
Either way, the path before me is beautiful and inviting. On the surface it's sprinkled with bright, dewy petals, and underneath, it's paved with intention. The behind the scenes effort to construct the current scene makes it appear effortless, natural, as it should be. Swept.
Life is like poetry: we don't have to know what it means to enjoy it. Perhaps there is no way of knowing anyways.


To Write

Random Doodling by Avery

George and I recently watched a fantastic documentary: “Mortified Nation”, based on live events held around the world where adults go on stage and read excerpts of their childhood diaries. I laughed, I cried, I cringed. True to its title, it was mortifying.

I kept several different journals throughout my childhood, but none of them survived to bear witness to my awkward adolescence. I destroyed my journals, not just because they contained sensitive information, but because, now as always, I hate what I write. This is quite a conundrum for someone who identifies as a writer. I can barely bring myself to read things that I wrote a few years or even months ago. An old grocery list culled from the bottom of my purse once brought me shame.

My good friend called me this weekend to ask for permission to reprint a blog post I wrote a few years ago. Of course I gave my immediate consent because, well, I’d do anything for her, and also because, let’s face it, I was flattered. A post I had written in 2011 had made an impression on her, and was timely and relevant to a writing project of her own. But when I went back to read it, I cringed. Bits and pieces of it were ok, maybe even good, but I thought to myself, I could have done better.

Therein lies the rub of writing. It can always be better, which is exactly why I force myself to keep on doing it, even if it means blushing with embarrassment upon hitting the "publish" button, or ripping apart journals and burying them at the bottom of the trash can. Every once in a while, if I’m lucky, a sentence or a paragraph turns out to be really great. It escapes my vicious editorial weeding, plants itself in a reader’s mind and grows. How could I hate that?

Over the weekend we excavated a strip of weed covered dirt in the backyard to, quite literally, pave a path from the house to an outbuilding we constructed a few years ago. Originally intended as a garden shed, its purpose has been upgraded. With a thorough cleaning and a bit of sprucing, it will become my studio, a place I can go to write without as many distractions (no piles of dirty dishes or laundry, to be specific). With shovel in hand, I told George, “It feels like we’re building a path to my future.”

A room of one’s own does not a writer make, but it seems a good place to practice . . . or at least a place to record and destroy my mortifying moments in private.


To Be the Best

My son sits on the floor with his art supplies, a science book, and a fresh sheet of paper. His project is to draw a diagram of the circulatory system.

"[So-and-so] always draws the best pictures. I want my picture to be the best one on the wall for Open House," he tells me as he labels the ventricles of the heart.

My heart knows this feeling. The desire to be the best. The burn of coming in second. Competition pumps through his veins just as it flows through my arteries.

But I'm trying to change my pulse. Slow it down. Shift from the desire to be the best to the drive to do my best. Stop the comparison of my work to the work of others, because here's the thing: somebody else's best doesn't make mine the worst.

Their fast doesn't make mine slow.
Their strong doesn't make mine weak.
Their smart doesn't make mine dumb.
Their pretty doesn't make mine ugly.
Their interesting doesn't make mine boring.
Their right doesn't make mine wrong.

To compare is easy, natural even. To appreciate is the challenge. So-and-so's art inspires my son to create, just as accomplished authors inspire me to write, strong athletes inspire me to push harder, and generous friends inspire me to give more. Their best makes us better.

There's only room for one best in any given pursuit, but there is infinite space in this world for better. 


To Fight is Futile

Relationships are precarious. People are volatile. A friendship, marriage, or business arrangement can be dissolved with just a few words.

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are," wrote Anais Nin. When a dispute arises, neither party can see things from the other's perspective. Literally. As David McRaney writes on his blog, You Are Not So Smart:

"The brain scans of a person shown statements which oppose their political stance show the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented which confirms their beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened."

Your brain shuts down when presented with ideas contrary to your own. The experiment referenced was based on political stances, but it seems likely the physical reaction is the same for issues of religion, race, sexuality, and lifestyle choices. When my husband and I almost split up over a broken doorknob, I can assure you neither of us were experiencing proper blood flow to our frontal cortexes.

Even when we attempt to see things from someone else's point of view, we're limited by our own perspective. We could make a million guesses as to what somebody else thinks and still be wrong. I am reminded of the end of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", when Scout walks Boo Radley to his front door then turns around and surveys her neighborhood from his porch. She imagines the events of the past year as Boo might have seen them.

"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."

You might be able to walk up to a person's front door, but you can never see out of that door the way they do. Most of us are so busy looking out our own front door we don't even think about observing our neighborhood from our neighbor's porch. But what view are we missing? Boo, the neighborhood boogey man, turned out to be a "real nice" guy.

"Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them," Atticus said, right again.

Relationships are precious. People are valuable. A friendship, marriage, or business arrangement can be solidified with just a few words.

"Would you rather be right or happy?" Buddha


What I Read: January

My dad is never without a book. When we travel together, he inevitably finishes one book and reads most of another - over the course of a long weekend. A few years ago I urged him to keep a list of the books he reads, mainly because I was curious how many books he reads in a year, but also because I've witnessed him read a few chapters of a book and say, "I think I've read this one before." The first year he kept track, I believe he was just a few books shy of 100.

I read A LOT, and though I don't read anywhere close to 100 books a year, I am curious how many books I can read in one year, and while I rarely forget a book, I often forget what I've recently read. So this year I'm keeping track, and sharing my reading list here with a few brief notes.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: I actually listened to the audiobook, but I bought a copy for my daughter and I might sit down and read it when she finishes it. I fell in love with the characters, and cried when . . . I won't tell you. You just have to read it and remember back to when you were a teenager in love and when nothing seemed to go your way and when all that mattered in life were your friends, and wish that you had been as witty and wise as Hazel Grace or had loved somebody as raw and romantic as Augustus Waters.

Why We Write edited by Meredith Mann: A collection of writing lessons from 20 writers across a wide spectrum of genres. Indispensable advice for wordsmiths. I especially appreciate Mary Karr's consolation: "For most writers there's a span of twenty years or so when you can't write because you're doing eighty seven other things." So that explains it! I'm in the midst of a twenty year drought.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: I really wanted to love this book, but alas, it fell short of my expectations. However, the following passage spoke to me: "Wasn't one of the goals of life to be comfortable in your own skin and in your own bed and on your own land? But as soon as you achieved it, you felt an immense sadness, and then you wanted to wreck everything around you, just because you could. Comfort was the best thing, and maybe the worst."

The Wife also by Meg Wolitzer: Just because I didn't love The Uncoupling didn't mean I was going to abandon Wolitzer, and fortunately so, for The Wife is MY MOST FAVORITE BOOK EVER! I have never, in all my years of reading, claimed to have a favorite book. If Philip Roth's The Human Stain and a few of Alice Munro's short stories had an orgy, The Wife would be their unexpected love child. Now I am not saying that The Wife is the best book ever written and that you should absolutely read it, but rather that this book got me in a way no other book has. If you want to know me, read this book; or at least read this excerpt:

"Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring brother, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what o say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.

'Listen,' we say. 'Everything will be okay.'

And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is."

Meg, Meg, Meg. Yes, yes, yes.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: Eh. Not a favorite, but I will say that just because the plot centers around baseball doesn't mean the book is all about sports. And I should also say that I have a newfound interest in sports since becoming a coach and an athlete, so reading about a character's struggle with training, competing, winning and losing is of great interest to me. Perhaps my favorite thing about this book was the book within the book, a field guide for fielders by a Hall of Fame fielder, also called The Art of Fielding; particularly this quote:

"3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few."

I caught my new goal in left field: thoughtless being. It fell from the sky, right into my open glove.

One month. Five books. Eleven months to go. A zillion books I'd like to read this year. Time to get to work.


Step Up and Lift

I step up to a racked barbell and wrap my fingers around it, my hands just outside my shoulders. I duck my head under the barbell and stand up, lifting the bar off the rack. With the barbell resting on my upper back, balanced on my "muscle pillow" as I like to call it, I step back and away from the rack. I take a deep breath and look straight ahead, focusing on a knot in the wood on the wall in front of me.

"Down and up," I tell myself, a reminder of the simple movement that is the back squat. Down I go into a squat, staring at the knot in the wall, squeezing my butt and abs, keeping my chest up, driving my knees out, imagining I'm spreading the floor apart with my feet as I stand up, returning to my starting position. I rack the barbell, add more weight, and do it again. When I reach my max weight, meaning I can squat down but not stand back up, I drop the barbell, strip some weight, re-rack it, and attempt to max out on my shoulder press.

"Breathe and push," I tell myself, focusing on the knot in the wood on the wall as I press the barbell from my shoulders until it's straight over my head and my arms are fully extended. I add weight after each successful lift until I can no longer push the barbell all the way up. Four or five times I'm able to raise the bar to eye level, but no further. My failure reveals my goal for the next time I perform the shoulder press. I move the barbell from the rack to the ground and add a few 45 pound plates to set up for the dead lift.

"Step up and lift," I tell myself. Feeling the cold steel against my shins, I push my butt back towards the wall behind me and reach down to grip the bar, keeping my arms straight, sensing tension in my hamstrings. I wiggle my toes to make sure my own weight is in my heels. I look straight ahead and pick a raindrop on the window as my focal point. I take a deep breath, squeeze my butt, drive my heels into the floor and stand up. Once my hips reach full extension, I slowly reverse the motion to return the barbell to the floor.

I add fifty more pounds to the barbell and rest for a few minutes before I lift again, adding twenty, ten, then five pounds to the bar after each successful dead lift. Step up, reach down, grab hold, focus on the raindrop, breathe and lift. I repeat the process until I can no longer move the barbell off the ground.

This is an ordinary day at the gym for me. I show up, warm up, load up and lift. Some days it's weights on a barbell, other days it's gymnastics, sprinting, rowing, jumping, throwing weighted balls or swinging heavy kettle bells. The movements vary, but my mind runs the same course. I clear my head of everything but the task before me. I count reps, but try not to add up my weights until after I've lifted them. Over and over again, I chant simple commands to myself: down and up; breathe and push; step up and lift; do it again; one more rep; don't think, just move.

It's mind over matter. It's meditation in motion. It's growth and progress. It's a hell of a way to start my day, and an incredible way to live my life: one rep at a time. It's CrossFit.


The Living Home

My friend, Maya, invited me to participate in a collaborative group called "The Living Home". 

As she explains, "The Living Home is both a gift and a thank you.  It's whole-hearted reciprocation for this international community, the diverse inspiration you provide, and the warmth you create in your homes.  If there's anything this world needs to thrive, it's families that wake to love, presence and nourishment.  In that image, there's so much hope."

As a firm believer that the home is a sanctuary and the birthplace of all good things, I accepted the invitation.  Also, I'll run, jump and scale tall buildings to play with Maya.  She is pure magic. 

My definition of home has evolved over the 15 years I've been a homemaker.  In the beginning, I thought our home should look like the pages of my favorite magazines and catalogs, and I worked to make it so.  When children entered the scene, so did primary colors.  Stains took the place of throw pillows on the sofa, plastic toys competed for floor space and family photos replaced breakable pottery on the mantle.

The lived in preschool look only lasted a few years.  Eventually my children outgrew their toys, learned to wash their hands and began to express opinions over which photos of them could be displayed.  Chapter books replaced board books, and stacks of drawing paper and buckets of crayons took up permanent residence at the dining table.

Change came again when my children grew taller than me.  They disappeared into their bedrooms behind closed doors.  iPods and ear buds replaced Kidz Bop cds.  Double mattresses replaced bunk beds. Hanging out replaced play dates.  Curling wands replaced dolls.  I unsubscribed from Magic Cabin and put a few vases back on the mantle.

For a short time, I mourned the passing of their childhood and resisted their emerging adolescence; but then I discovered the freedom that accompanies evolution and change.  As my growing children demand more privacy and autonomy, I receive my own as well.  They explore their interests and passions, and so do I.  In the living home, there is room for everybody to grow and expand.

Today, The Living Home is . . .

three different types of music playing at the same time.

a stronger router to deliver greater bandwidth.

an invitation to the dinner table without insistence that everybody shows up (but silent gratitude when they do).

a trip to Ikea for new bedding with the belief that everybody will sleep better under a duvet pattern of their choice.

a cabinet full of tea and three different types of milk in the refrigerator.

a garage where dad can disappear to tinker and think.

comic books that are graphic enough to make a mother cringe, but engrossing enough to make a boy choose to read rather than play video games.

a front door that is always open to friends.

back to back episodes of America's Funniest Videos, because the family that laughs together spends hours in the same room together.

walls with patches of paint, and a family's patience for a mother who needs change but can't make up her mind.
no alarm clocks, and acceptance that a teenager's natural sleep cycle is very different from a middle aged adult's sleep schedule.

more laundry baskets, because it's easier to live out of a basket than to stuff clothes into drawers.

finding my missing workout pants in my daughter's room.

a mom who disappears for a few hours a day to be an athlete and a coach.

sandwich making ingredients on hand, always.

a bowl of fruit and access to permanent markers.

Care to play along? Tell me, how does your home live?