Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Living the Question / Mommy Blogs

Okay I am wasting time on the internet. But, I did work straight for an hour and a half almost (which isn't even that good but I have to take baby steps, I'm used to toggling back and forth between work and email/internet all day long). I decided to buzz around online for a bit and found this article about a mommy blogger Josi Denise ending her blog with a fantastic confessional piece called "Dear Mommy Blogger". Here is my favorite part:


I mean no one. Even the people you think are reading your shit? They aren’t really reading it. The other mommy bloggers sure as hell aren’t reading it. They are scanning it for keywords that they can use in the comments. “So cute! Yum! I have to try this!” They’ve been told, like you, that in order to grow your brand, you must read and comment on other similar-sized and similar-themed blogs. The people clicking on it from Pinterest aren’t reading it. They are looking for your recipe, or helpful tip promised in the clickbait, or before and after photo, then they might re-pin the image, then they are done. The people sharing it on Facebook? They aren’t reading it either. They just want to say whatever it is your headline says, but can’t find the words themselves. Your family? Nope. They are checking to make sure they don’t have double chins in the photos you post of them, and zoning in on paragraphs where their names are mentioned.
Why? Because your shit is boring. Nobody cares about your shampoo you bought at Walmart and how you’re so thankful the company decided to work with you. Nobody cares about anything you are saying because you aren’t telling an engaging story. You are not giving your readers anything they haven’t already heard. You are not being helpful, and you are not being interesting. If you are constantly writing about your pregnancy, your baby’s milestones, your religious devotion, your marriage bliss, or your love of wine and coffee…. are you saying anything new? Anything at all? Tell me something I haven’t heard before, that someone hasn’t said before. From a different perspective, or making a new point at the end at least if I have to suffer through a cliche story about your faceless, nameless kid.
You’re writing in an inauthentic voice about an unoriginal subject, worse if sprinkled with horrible grammar and spelling, and you are contributing nothing to the world but static noise.

I'm kind of fascinated by this and I have to say somewhat satisfied and I'm not sure if that's only because hardly anyone is even pretending to "read my shit" so I at least have that consolation. But I guess it's also because I have wondered about/marveled at/recoiled from that world of mommy bloggers with conferences and giveaways and enormous site traffic. I like that she asks about goals - how she says that many mommy bloggers have the goal of driving up traffic and that seems to be the end. For what, she asks. And I too ask myself this sometimes - why is it you want to post on your blog and have people read and interact with what you're saying? What is the benefit over a traditional, private journal? Yesterday when I had in-between moments I flipped every time to a journal, a real notebook my sister gave me with pages, and a pen, half the time a leaking one or one without ink half the time and having to rummage around for another one and then poof - that in-between moment I had would be gone. But I did get sentences down here and there. can't say I have a clear distinction for what I write in my journal vs. here except, obviously, the private one is more private. I guess I do think of my blog as more of a conversation, an interaction, with people who are thinking and wondering about some of the same things - raising kids, maybe in a city or not, trying to simplify their lives, trying to live consciously and compassionately, to live an examined life but not to the point of neurotic introspection. 

I realized -- this seems simple and obvious, and I think it's something I "realized" 25 years ago -- but again recently, that I want to be challenged, want my perspective altered, want symbiotic, synergistic conversation. It only works if the other person is equally willing to change his or her view. It doesn't work if one person has the answers. Gives advice. Disagrees reflexively. It has to be thoughtful. All participants in the conversation have to be willing to push others and also to be pushed. To say, "I hadn't thought of it that way" and re-consider their positions. A true dialectic. I thought I'd find more of that dynamic in the academy. Sadly, many of the conversations are simply rehearsals of what people already know. Recitations. Inflexible and unyielding. Sure, a scholar might be extremely knowledgeable and able to teach others through this inflexibility. But the best way, it seems to me, is to always be open to learning and growing. 

I see this blog as a place for that, a blank and always open space for questioning. In the commencement speech our Dean Eva Badowksa made a plea for the continued ability to pause and to question. I come here with observations, complaints, reflections, but most of all, with questions. I have noticed that questions can make you sound shaky and uncertain. Milton Glaser, a designer, offered this advice: "Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience..." I think I definitely err on the side of being too open to experience. But I'd rather that, then be closed off. Writing, a questioning, I hope, open kind of writing, helps me to stay open to experience.

And of course there is always Rainer Maria Rilke, with his advice for all poets, young and old:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Monday, May 30, 2016

I guess that last Annie Dillard quote had a bit of a melodramatic air to it. What I'm trying very hard to do now that I am done with grad school and can stay a little bit more on top of things (if not "get ahead" as my mother is always begging me to do) is make sure this last month of the school year doesn't fly by. I don't feel there's a risk of the summer flying by. I'm incredibly lucky to have flexible freelance work and lots of time where all I have to do it take care of the kids. Taking care of the kids is harder than any other job, of course, but more gratifying and soul-fulfilling and rewarding and meaningful (right?!?). I'm endlessly grateful for long stretches in the summer where I take the kids to the lake and forget sunscreen and read library books under the back porch on rainy days and forget bug spray and even take crazily exciting trips like California last year and Alaska this year. During those breaks, when we're not on a schedule, when we can bring our journals on nature hikes and have bbq dinners with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, time does slow down. I don't have to force it to. Yet for these last weeks of the school year, with fundraisers and recitals and pot-luck dinners and neighborhood get-togethers and pajama day and the day I have to bring pizza in to Petra's school and snacks into Wally's school and the day my niece is graduating and there's always a whole slew of June birthdays and bbqs...I feel I have to stay on top of things to make sure we don't get into frantic, where-did-that-mont-just-go? territory. I'm compiling a list of strategies I'll post soon. I'll be curious to hear your ideas, too. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

“Last forever!' Who hasn't prayed that prayer? You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying.” 

― Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Monday, May 23, 2016

I've really been able to be here now lately (but unfortunately that hasn't been here -- writing). All the writing on this blog is partly why I've been able to be here now notwriting. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What I realized a little while ago, with some dismay, was that if you're not going to work for someone else and sell whatever they're selling (a product, a service, a program), then you're going to have to sell yourself. I don't mean prostitution obviously and I don't even mean sell out, as in somehow lose credibility or legitimacy or integrity, I don't mean necessarily give up what mattered to you in order to make a name for yourself and/or a profit. But I do mean sell, promote, "brand" yourself to some degree, attract people to your shows or to your gallery openings or your massage table or to the bookstore to buy your book or sign up for your course or follow your twitter feed. You can work for a publisher and help sell books, or a government agency or nonprofit and help sell a program by writing grants. And that all seems somehow okay, and not obnoxious. At a publishing house, a content editor works on the text and jacket while the acquisitions editor has to pitch her books to the sales team, and both editors do less selling than members of the sales and marketing team, generally. And other jobs involve hardly any selling per se—teaching high school, serving coffee. The selling is mainly done by other people. But it's there. Someone is selling in order to uphold the structure that makes your job available, whether it's the principal, the coffee shop owner, or senator who keeps your programs funded. When you don't have someone else holding up that structure, you have to hold it up yourself. But there is something somehow dirtier about promoting yourself than about selling a product, even one we can all agree nobody needs, like knee-pads for toddlers. This presents a dilemma. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

You have time

"Life is full, and life has space. There is no contradiction here."

Yes, yes, yes! From today's Times: The Busy Person's Lies by Laura Vanderkam. Might be worth keeping better track of our time. I've thought for a long while that the invisibility of our "free" time now is partly what makes it so pernicious. Sure with TV there was the danger that you might watch hours more than you planned (and one woman in the article describes wasted time channel surfing) but in general for me, if I watch something, I have a pretty clear sense of it and "count" it as free time -- last night I watched Game of Thrones for an hour, for example (or attempted to, I never stay awake for the whole any-thing, but that I can't blame on lack of free time). But you can count it as something you did just for fun. Free time, not wasted time. Whereas, with checking email, reading an article here or there, answering a text...it steals time. It fills in the cracks. I only have ten minutes so I'll just read this one article..check this site...watch this video... Three of those "only" ten-minute sessions you gave away for free, and you would have had a half hour to sit with a cup of tea and stare out the window like those people we envy, who have "so much" free time. So now much of our free time gets wasted, and doesn't feel free.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Crossing Trestles

I handed in my final Master's project on Motherhood and the Imagination on the first day of May. So you would think all this free time would come rushing in ...like the world would open back up. In some ways it has. I don't feel so pushed every morning as I walk the kids to school and daycare. We take our time. Play little games outside. Notice the flowers everywhere, the house sparrows. I bring the kids snacks when I pick them up--washed, cut-up fruit--instead of wasting money buying some junk at CVS because I didn't have any time in the morning to even think about after-school snacks. I love taking in the season with them. Not in the mind-set of "just get through the week" or only half listening to Wally talk about how the Titanboa could have killed T-Rex because I'm thinking about how to use what Derrida said about spectrality to find agency in 18th-century "daughters of folly"...all those days of tripping toward deadlines and somehow--not wanting to--but always seeming to be racing ahead.

But we all do race ahead, right? Like the freight train in that folk song, we run so fast. We have to keep catching ourselves and telling ourselves not to. Telling ourselves to take deep breaths. To be in the moment. To be where we are. Be here now. 

I remember last year someone telling Wally (on one of the first days of June) that June was essentially over and therefore First Grade was essentially over and it bothered me, that race to the finish line--and then, what? Always on to the next thing -- pushing babies to get through milestones and into toddlerhood and once they're toddlers we can't wait until they can do more fun stuff not just toddle around and we think about Pre-K and K and once they're in elementary school, racing through the days...to what? 

The lilac bush that we watch and wait for day after day on our way home bloomed so quickly and faded so fast.Thank goodness one Friday evening toward the end of April we all went outside after dinner and enjoyed those magical trees. It was supposed to rain that night (that was the beginning of that stretch of cold rain, day after day) and I knew that might really be the last time to enjoy the pink blossoms. It was. The blossoms were gone in the morning. Here the kids are outside. 

Yesterday I was going through books to bring to the rummage sale at Wally's school. This book—Freight Train by Donald Crewes—I put in the give-away pile. 

Wally is reading The Indian in the Cupboard and as much as I truly believe all ages can enjoy picture books (and many times, the vocabulary in them is more challenging than in early readers or chapter books), I think we've read this one enough times. There's too much stuff in the house. He's not the train-crazy-kid he was. I stared at it in the give-away pile with too-small sweaters and a mini pair of rain boots. I remember how way before he could read he knew the words, like kids so often do, how he would recite "Red caboose at the back, Orange tank car next...". How, also like kids often do, he knew odd words at an early age, like trestle.

I pulled the book out of the give-away pile. I went about the other things I had to do. Laundry, grocery shopping, working on my two upcoming books, going up to Fordham to take care of some paperwork for Poets Out Loud (the job will end in a couple weeks). Racing back to pick up both kids, get ready for the graduate student social up in the Bronx, meet up with Alex, hand off the kids with their snacks. I asked Alex, "Do you have water for them?" He said, "I didn't think of water." How do you not think of it? They always need it. Especially if they're going to stay at the playground for a long time. On these beautiful nights, we stay as long as we can. 

I raced up to Rose Hill campus and tried to soak it all in and enjoy the lovely green grass and blooming azalias and seeing the grad school friends who will mostly continue on with their studies while, for now at least, I take a different path.

What path?

Walking Petra to her daycare another mother asked me my plans for next year. Would I keep her there or move her someone else? In New York at least, people are always moving their kids around. Day to day and year to year. Moving their kids around. I said I really didn't know what I was going to do. Last year (2014-2015) Petra had been in childcare only 3 days a week, home with me 2. That made work and grad school a bit crunched, but it worked out okay, and I still had that time with her. This past year she was in full time. But for what? For me to work. For me to go to school. Working, that one is "easy" psychologically - we kind of have to both work to some degree, even with our incredibly low rent. School was a choice, but why did I make it at that particular time, when she was so young? Why didn't I focus more on her early years? Why did it seem so important to reach my own professional goals? Goals that got choked off—like my album, The End of May—with parenthood. 

Maybe partly I'm thinking of the article I linked to a few weeks back, God I can't even find it now, can't remember the woman's name. She talked about how she got right back to work as soon as she had her baby and then realized that was kind of sad, to pride yourself on acting like you don't have a baby, when you do.

So I answered the woman, whom I really barely know, that I wasn't sure and was wondering if I might want to stay home with Petra even though I know that's ludicrous given that she's now at an age when she really does seem to benefit from the social interaction and stimulation of a daycare/preschool setting. This other woman said she felt exactly the same way. The same question was nagging at her. She said, of her daughter, walking beside her at the time, "I just realized that she'll go to one more year of preschool. Then it's onto elementary school and then that's it."

Yes, that's it. I thought, as I looked around Wally and Petra's room yesterday, hustling to clean it up a bit before I left for work because on nights Alex puts them to bed by himself he seems to find it so challenging to locate pajamas or stuffed animals or anything.  

Not, that's absolutely it. They're still around in the afternoons and weekends and vacations. It's not quite an empty nest. But there is something final about it. Those early childhood years. Those quiet, long, shapeless days. Those mornings reading picture books together on the rug. Making play-doh and playing dress up and settling into a rhythm together. Taking a walk, just a walk, not to anywhere, with a child who doesn't really know or think about anything else but your own little world together. That's it. Even now, just lately, I feel something different when I'm in the room playing with the kids. Petra's still fully immersed, but it's like Wally's partly not there. Partly he's thinking about the playground or friends at school. Just as my nieces--the last few times I've played with them--have suddenly seemed not fully in the game, playing maybe as much to please me as anything else, a different kind of role-playing, playing the role of the younger child who could fully inhabit that role. 

The lesson is partly the same one I always spin and spiral around back to—staying in the present moment, at much as you possibly can. The beginning of May is not the end of May. Sometimes those last days of school in June can be epic, fully live-in, sweeping days, the most inside a certain grade you ever feel. 

But there are other threads to tug at, in days and months to come. Why is it that I am faced with the choice, the difficulties, the distress, the tugs, of mothering OR career, while fathers do not seem seem to be torn by that same "or"? 

I'll begin, now that I'm done with my academic work—at least for now—by trying to be here now, and doing what I can to re-imagine motherhood.

Last night when I got home from the Bronx the whole house was asleep. On the couch, with plastic cups of milk left out unwashed, Freight Train. They had read it before going in to brush their teeth. I flipped through the last few pages. There's the train, "Going by cities, crossing trestles, moving in darkness, moving in daylight, going, going..."

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Another take in this article on I guess one of my obsessions from yesterday's Washington Post...have things fundamentally changed in terms of freedom for children to wander...is it a class issue...how much of the helicopter-parenting is related to living in a city...how different are things really outside it? For years now I've assumed based on probably not-enough data (observations, anecdotes from country or suburban-dwelling friends) that children do not wander around and find other kids to play with the way they did when we were kids anywhere. More supervised activities, more parent-arranged playdates (as Clint Edwards talks about in this article) and more time inside more generally because of screens, ipads, netflix, other gadgets. I'm always curious to hear from parents outside NYC. From Lenore Skenazy's research, it has certainly always sounded like a broad problem, maybe even particularly bad in places I would have imagined kids wandering the most.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

People of Radical Imagination

Below, from Prof. Kathleen Dean Moore's commencement speech last spring at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. On this rainy May morning, hope for a sea change from philosopher/environmentalist whose new book Great Tide Rising just came out from Counterpoint Press.


"How did they finally do it? our grandchildren will ask. How, at the absolutely last possible moment, did that generation crank the heavy, creaking wheel of the world to make the great turning? The great turning away from a culture enslaved by fossil fuels, away from a culture that prided itself on accumulating wealth instead of sharing it, away from a culture that gobbled up the fecundity of the planet instead of nurturing it, a great turning away from an economy of infinite extraction that could have been a giant going-out-of-business sale.
How did they make a great turning toward a new understanding that human beings are kin, woven into a world of living beings, who all share the same origins, who will share the same fate? How did they create a culture based on gratitude, reciprocity, and restraint? Who were these people?
I think I know.
The everyday heroes of this time will be people of intellectual integrity, educated to viscerally understand the evolutionary, ecological, indigenous story of a world that is finite, resilient, interdependent, and astonishingly beautiful.
They will be people of radical imagination, reinventing everything. Starting over. They will know there has to be a better way, so they will set about to imagine it into existence.
They will be people of deep moral courage, who refuse to be made into foot soldiers in the old economy's war against the world, who refuse to be disempowered by despair. They will be people who love this raucous, reeling world, who affirm its absolute value and defend it fiercely and faithfully, for all time.
You have the education, and you have the wild, roaring imagination. May you summon the moral courage, and may it sustain you in the great work ahead."