Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Writing Practice

I'm excited to get the chance to write Writer's Boot Camp. I think the original proposal was from 5 or 6 years ago. I am finding it so rewarding to stop and think about my own writing. I love to think of it as a practice. There is something calming and centering about that. Writing as practice. First, the idea that you have to practice. That just like playing an instrument, you don't expect to do it well every time or even most times. You're always pushing yourself and stumbling through new pieces. So there is the idea of just putting in the time, whether it's struggling through a problem set in math, or trying various experiments in chemistry, or taking a first stab at an idea you have for a painting that captures the gray, still air of today, Tuesday, June 28th. There is the knowing that what you first write won't necessarily be what you wanted or needed to say, but it will be a way into what you want and need to say. There is knowing that today, or even next week or next year, you may not get into that deep, still, calm place where you are finally able to tell the story you've been dying to tell. But the point is not the end goal. It's the practice. It's the process. It's, as Littlefinger says in Game of Thrones, the climb. 

I just found mold on raisin bread I bought last week. Wally made his own sandwich today and of course didn't notice the mold. I was pleased he had made his own sandwich. But then I had to call the school to ask them to intercept the sandwich. They said they would.

Today is his last day of 2nd grade. A half day. I thought about picking him up instead of letting him take the bus home because of this idea that on the last day there should be some big hoopla around dismissal. Traditionally on the last day much of the school congregates for lunch at the nearby playground. We have done that the past two years, but we have been down there a lot lately for various end-of-the-year events and I don't necessarily think Wally needs one more. But obviously I'm on the fence about it or was or needed to talk through and rationalize what is really a minuscule decision (to have him take the bus home this half day, as usual, and hang out with neighborhood friends rather than a goodbye-to-school friends afternoon). Minuscule decision, much labored over, means to me that the decision is part of a process of working through. Working through doesn't sound like a technical term but it is the one Freud used in 1914, Remembering, Repeating and Working Through (Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis II).

One thing I did want to was take a picture of Wally with his teacher. I have this pressing memory of the picture my mom took of me with Anne Smith on the last day of my second grade. We found Anne cleaning up her classroom. I had stayed after in the library waiting for my mom who was the school librarian. There was no idea back then of a big last day celebration for 2nd grade. There was maybe a stop at McDonalds for an ice cream on the way home and a dinner that was something you especially liked. Stuffed shells we liked back then. Either that or tacos. The pool would be open and maybe Heather would come over and we'd go for a swim. 

Do you know the artist Sark? She writes this outrageously uplifting, tap-into- the-power-of-the-universe type stuff. I have to say I love her advice about how we shouldn't set out to have a great time or fantastic, mind-blowing time (I can't remember her exact words here) but rather to have "a time." That feels calming and centering, too. Wendy Mogel has the advice in one of my favorite parenting books (I've mentioned it here, and here) about allowing things to be mediocre. Just hanging out with your kids and having a mediocre day. That advice came before the onslaught of pinterest-perfect days posted everywhere seeming to point fingers at our mediocrity and it's even more important to take now. It would be fine, it would be great, to have mediocre days. For people as lucky as we are, mediocre days are pretty damn amazing. 

I meant to write about the other kind of writing practice, the one that builds on the isolated activity of practicing. That is the habit that becomes ritual, that accrues significance through its repetition, through the steadiness of applying yourself to something daily, through the stead-fastness, the almost sacred aspect of a practice, where you commit yourself to the hope for incremental improvement, to the kind of growth that comes only from that level of devotion. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Swedish Pups

In more hopeful news from across the pond, Harper Sweden is set to pub Test Your Dog: Genius Edition in the fall. Here's the cover.


Let's Hope They Can

...and get our kids outside as much as possible...with pens and nature journals (i.e., cheap notebooks from the dollar store) always on hand. 

Can Poets Save the Parks?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Democrats are still sitting on the house floor. We have to keep the pressure on today. Here's the cover of the Daily News. 

Here's The New York Times from 4 am. 

This has to stay front-page news today and until the House gets a chance to vote. Paul Ryan is on vacation. Called recess until July 5. The Dems haven't left and there's a sit-in building outside the Capitol building. 

Use these hashtags:

Post updates and signs of solidarity on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapshot. Keep calling your Congresspeople today. Here's another idea from some random guy on Twitter: 

This has to be what our discussion is today and for all the days going forward until a conversation begins. These are teeny, tiny first steps in passing sensible gun control. The vote won't pass. But the discussion will start. We can't allow this inaction to go on. We're all complicit in the inaction when we go on without doing anything. I think we're complicit, too, when we wet blanket the conversation by saying, "Nothing's going to change." For goodness sake, women have only been voting since 1917. We began the country on the backs of slaves and continued that way for nearly 100 years. Things take time. But this is a spark. It's hope. It's something. It's more than something. Of course it's going to take a long, hard fight but now there's a fight at least. Now we're in the ring.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Bring on the Boredom

My kind of thinking! NJ Dad: Here's Why I Hope My Kids' Summer Vacation is Boring. It's true, it takes work and good fortune and a lot of resources to let your kids have the joy of boredom, or joy that springs out of boredom. And the opportunity to develop the creativity that you really can't without that luxury of time in-between. 

Brian Donahue writes: 

"In today's hyperconnected, over-scheduled America, boredom has become something that takes work to achieve. And our decision to pursue it, normal for my parents' generation, feels like a luxury.

For the first time, my wife and I find ourselves in a rare situation this summer where she will not be tied up with work or school. 

And so we have to do this now. 

It may be our only shot to have them revel in time unfettered. In beautiful stretches of long hot nothingness. Who knows what next summer will bring in terms of family demands or kids' newfound hobbies?" 

I think I'm too quick to censor kids from saying, "I'm bored" ...too quick to steer them away from that feeling. The words are anathema to me. A kid saying, "I'm bored" is like nails on a chalkboard. I literally recoil. There are a million books to read! Games to play! Blank pages to paint on! Insects to identify! Dances to learn! Bikes to ride! Stories to write! Trees to sit under! Poems to ponder! How on earth can you be bored? It feels terribly ungrateful to me. If a kid says it while you're playing something with them, then it's insulting and a bit spoiled I think. Rude, basically. But if the grown up is busy doing housework say or even if the two of you are just sitting on a park bench and the kid says he or she is bored, that should probably be okay. Maybe even encouraged. Me flooding a bored child with ideas about what to do--even if they're free, creative, earth-child/nature ideas, or whatever version of activities "free-range" parents* sanction as morally and spiritually superior to over-scheduled or plugged-in pastimes, that's just as bad in some ways as whisking the child off to some over-structured activity. Mindful Parenting Coach Avital Schreiber Levy warns, “Solving children’s boredom with a list of ideas or jumping in to organize an activity straight away is to castrate their own problem solving abilities and to undermine them as authors of their time.” She has excellent advice about what to do to cultivate “the gift of boredom” here

 My list of ideas to do--and maybe even worse, willingness to jump in with the child on some new task to "cure" the boredom--doesn't allow them to reap its benefits. It's programming the child just like taking him or her to Karate. Done often, it means taking too big a role in deciding how he or she will fill those long, vacant, shapeless hours with which our society as a whole has grown so radically uncomfortable, the ones we do anything, anything to avoid and the ones about which we bemoan and scream and cry and wail because we lost. 

Instead of "You can't be bored" maybe I should tell the child, as Wally's kindergarten teacher used to say at dismissal, after the kids had sat inside learning for way too many hours, "Go and be free." 

Ladybug Release Last Night - Anything but boring

*Term is problematic as I've explained in earlier posts, but for lack of a better one...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

On Caterpillars and Catastrophe

Terrible things happen all the time but when something as senseless and horrifying as The Pulse attack in Orlando happens it is disruptive to the practice of writing. It rips at the seams. As I wrote on my friend Amie's beautiful piece in response to the awful news, it takes me out of my writing mind, but also seems to demand a response, to re-activate my sense of responsibility. And the way I most often take up that responsibility is through writing. 

So first I'm going to re-post something I wrote after Sandy Hook, as I am struggling now with many of the same questions, wondering if writing about to protect childhood in terms of making sure kids have enough free-time to play outside is responsible or ethical given the scale of mass tragedies it seems we are reading about constantly now. Here's the post from January 2013. 

Is it naive to say it feels like this might finally be the beginning of a turning point? I don't know if it is the horrendous scale of Orlando or if it's because most people are tuned in because of the election or because it appears to be a specific, targeted hate crime - but even Fox News' anchors are calling for a re-instatement of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. 

And next, as I'm wondering how the Congress will vote today, I'm also going to ask: can I write about the caterpillar Wally found at school and kept in his pocket and brought home in his backpack when the world is reeling? When I am reeling, too? Is that irresponsible? Tone-deaf? Irrelevant? 

One answer is you don't write about protecting over-privileged childhoods from too much media and too many activities when there are so many horrendous things happening in the world. When climate change and gun control demand swift and decisive action. Demand that we call and write to our elected officials. Demand that we focus our resources as efficiently we can on the areas where they will have the greatest impact.

But another answer is that you do write about this very topic. That it's not trivial, even if it focuses on something tiny. That focusing on something tiny, like the slug, or the caterpillar, or the tiger mom at the small farm, by paying what what Nancy Mairs calls "rapt attention to the infinitesimal" you sketch out your relationship to the rest of the world. Naturalist Miriam Rothschild said her one hope for her children was "that they [would be] interested in natural history, because I think there you get a spiritual well-being that you can get no other way..." A spiritual well-being seems so very absent from many of our over-privileged lives. The ones with resources are the ones who must have empathy to help those with fewer resources. Disengagement, partly shaped by media absorption, nature deficit, lack of free time, lack of time to play as children, is a blight. Can even be dangerous. Can lead to silence that complicit with destruction. 

This answer says we should listen to Walt Whitman when he tells us to "Love the earth and sun and the animals..."

This answer says we should listen to Alicia Ostriker when she tells us: "If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie." 

This other quietly defiant answer says you do write about these small topics of motherhood, small, but vast, that you choose to help build a latticework of voices seeking peace, of seekers typing alone at night and trying collectively to think through and write through these questions, big and little, about how we want to live our lives and raise our children. How, as we toggle between our blog posts and our letters to Congress and our paid work and our errands, in the few hours we have between drop offs and pickups, or during naps, or in the evenings, we commit to imagining the kind of world we want and the best way to raise kids who are not only empowered but equally important, engaged with others and with the world around them. That we stay engaged and focused and alive to it as we do our best to guide them. That we return to writing, not itself an answer, but as a way to signal that we are searching too. That we are listening. That we're trying, alongside them, also to grow. 

Great clip from “Symbols and Facts: Guns, Cars, and America" -- we can tackle the "problem of evil" later. Let's do what we can now, what we know works, to #MakeItStop

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sensible Gun Control

If you're opposed to any reasonable gun control at all-even limits on buying assault weapons--and you're not absolutely insane--what are your ideas? Because we're getting a little desperate here. We all agree about strengthening our mental health system. We all know Good Guy with a Gun theory is deeply flawed. About The 2nd Amendment, I think Rolling Stone said it best:
"Here's a good time to remind everyone that the Second Amendment was written by slaveholders before we had electricity, much less the kind of weaponry that would-be murderers can buy today. But sure, if you think it's that precious, we can compromise: If you love the Second Amendment that much, feel free to live in a powdered wig and shit in a chamberpot while trying to survive off what you can kill with an 18th century musket. In exchange, let those of us living in this century pass some laws so we can feel safe going to class, or the movies, or anywhere without worrying that some maladjusted man will try to get his revenge by raining death on random strangers."
Right now, someone convicted of a violent hate crime can still legally buy a gun. Right now, someone prohibited from buying a gun can still purchase one online or at a gun show, no background check required. Right now, suspected terrorists can still legally buy a gun. In fact, reports show the Orlando shooter was twice put on the terror watch list by the FBI. [1]
Congress is considering legislation that could close these dangerous loopholes that arm hateful people, and we need to call on them to finally act. Sign our petition calling on Congress to #DisarmHate and prevent dangerous people from buying guns.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Living on the Mountain

Australian twins and friends from HS

The house is quiet finally. Alex asleep now, too. He went on an overnight trip with his school last night and only slept from 4 to 7, not well. He was such a city boy and only brought a light, cotton blanket. Apparently it was 42 degrees and he slept on a plastic mattress with that little blanket only. 

There are a lot of things I've been saving up to write about. Or just things that have passed through my head and I think -- I gotta put that in somewhere. But there's no frame right now to put them into. I feel like I'm thawing out from my grad school days. Like I'm not even at the point where I can look around and assess the situation and figure out what's next (other than continuing with my various little books and nonprofit work hopefully). I walk around sometimes lately and feel so light and think I can only just feel this lightness for now, this sense that it's okay to be where I am, that I'm not late to catch a train up to the Bronx, that I don't have to be guilty for working at the playground or nervous about some paper or school project that we don't have the right glue for. 

So of course I've fallen into a kind of slight stupor, where I'm just not that efficient. Partly because I don't have to be, but also because I feel like there is some kind of in-between state that I seem to need, some kind of mental transition, where I'm able to say yes to the kids tonight at 7 pm when they wanted to make chocolate molds even though it was a huge mess and then to play "Skinny Love" on the piano with Wally and then to hand cupcakes out to neighbors and read Shel Silverstein out loud in silly voices. Whimsical and aimless. I'm not writing or thinking enough about my experience. I can feel that missing piece. That incoherence. But there is also something about resting and even this resistance that maybe feels okay.  

You know how to really write you have to sink into the writing space? Not to say a muse has to visit or inspiration has to hit, but you have to let yourself be part of that blank page. You can't be toggling back and forth between screens. You can't be trying to check unrelated items off your To Do list as you go. I can't say, "Your head can't be buzzing with a million different things" because as we've all lately been saying, as moms our heads are always buzzing with a million different things. The teacher gifts, the potluck, the bday parties, the money for the field trips, the book order, the child's shoes full of holes on rainy days that need to be replaced. 

And maybe partly I'm regressing into some of my old habits. That might explain the Australian Twins that are hounding me. Not really hounding me...but trying to find me. I met them a couple weeks ago out by the river and agreed to this art project, which is apparently a real thing and kind of a big deal. But the problem was I agreed to it when distracted by Reisling and carousel music and chasing the kids around and didn't realize that I would need to meet up with them again to hand off the matchboxes and explain them. 

Wally did one he calls "Flower City" and mine is called "We live in the mountain house" (something Petra often says and also believes) but the problem is that I've tried various times and spoken on the phone with the twins at various points but can't seem to meet up with them (they need Wally there, too) and it's becoming sort of this ridiculous, ongoing, nagging thing over the past five days. Can we meet now? No. Later? Maybe in this fifteen-minute interval. Oh but then Alex is leaving and I'll have to bring both kids. You're still in Williamsburg? I thought you said you would be on West 44th.

So a question I have is: why did I agree to this when none of the other people there with me -- altogether probably at least another 15 -- got roped in? And why am I always agreeing to these kinds of things? It's not just a people-pleasing phenomenon. I think it's that combined with poor judgement, in-the-moment decision-making, and, on the plus side I think, genuine interest, enthusiasm. But I have such a hard time tempering that interest and enthusiasm with an appropriate level of hesitation or reservation. It's like I'm so put off by the possibility of being a wet blanket, that I hurl myself in the total opposite direction. That means I get mired in situations where lots of energy is spent in the service of a goal that isn't mine. I think there is a goal in the moment that's a larger one, too, one that led me to the Australian twins--the desire to embrace art, interaction, adventure. But I can so easily become scattered, larger goals shattered, by this dispersal of energy outward. 

For the first time in the longest time we spent the afternoon and evening cozy together inside our mountain house. There was a poem two years about in Cold Mountain Review by William Jollif with this line: "And you want to slow it all down,/ to rub your fingers over etched patterns" in a poem called The Songs We Live By. Petra thinks we live in a mountain house because we go up, up, up to get to our apartment and also because last year Wally always used to sing the Harry Belafonte song with the lines about coming from the fire, the water, the mountain. I haven't heard him sing it now in what seems like such a long time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Isn't it weird to me to go to a blog you've never been to and see the latest post where the person wrote in media res like everything was normal and she was just going on about her day and was planning to keep writing but then that's the last post. Like from 2011 or something? Which in blog-world seems like so incredibly long ago. Did something awful happen, or did the blog author just get distracted? Start a new job? Begin an affair? Lose interest? It doesn't seem like you would lose interest that quickly, it seems like it would fade out, like the last few posts would signal a shift, but maybe it was fading out. Maybe that first post you read--the last post she wrote--was deflated, maybe, to the people who knew her, she already sounded far away.


Nature in New-York ongoing series - found the above on the sidewalk across the street. Tried to move it to safety but it was gripped onto the sidewalk. Some kind of slug. Anyone recognize the species? 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

My cousin Leah Fisch's latest post on productivity. I find it so very true that the reason certain items stay on my To Do list so long is that the first baby step to getting them done has some (often ridiculous) anxiety attached, but that first step is hidden by various layers so I don't even register that block. For me it's often a fear I missed the deadline for something, a contest, a gift card, a reimbursement, so I put off even checking if I missed it, thereby magnifying the chances that--if I haven't already--I certainly will. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Meant to post this beautiful piece my grad-school-mom friend Amie wrote for Mothers Always Write. So I'll post it tonight. (For some reason I am thinking of Ani Defranco out of nowhere.)