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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

what we can count on

I’m embarrassed to say that I had never read anything by Ellen Bass until last week, when one of my lovely students (thank you, Ann!) e-mailed me this poem after it had been featured on Writer’s Almanac. (I’m reprinting it here with the author’s permission.)

After Our Daughter’s Wedding

While the remnants of cake
and half-empty champagne glasses
lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering
in the slanting light, we left the house guests
and drove to Antonelli's pond.
On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried.
A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light.
"Do you feel like you've given her away?" you asked.
But no, it was that she made it
to here, that she didn't
drown in a well or die
of pneumonia or take the pills.
She wasn't crushed
under the mammoth wheels of a semi
on highway 17, wasn't found
lying in the alley
that night after rehearsal
when I got the time wrong.
It's animal. The egg
not eaten by a weasel. Turtles
crossing the beach, exposed
in the moonlight. And we
have so few to start with.
And that long gestation—
like carrying your soul out in front of you.
All those years of feeding
and watching. The vulnerable hollow
at the back of the neck. Never knowing
what could pick them off—a seagull
swooping down for a clam.
Our most basic imperative:
for them to survive.
And there's never been a moment
we could count on it.

Whoa. I love this: “The vulnerable hollow/ at the back of the neck. Never knowing/ what could pick them off—a seagull/ swooping down for a clam.”

This poem is from Mules of Love, but her newest collection, The Human Line, looks wonderful, as well. I plan on getting both of them.

I love when something falls into my lap (or inbox) that speaks to something else I’m reading and thinking about. When I read this last week, I had just finished talking about Julie Schumacher’s essay “A Support Group is My Higher Power” with my advanced Mother Words class. (I will review Julie’s first novel, The Body is Water, here at some point in the future. She has also written four wonderful young adult novels and a collection of short stories.)

A Support Group is My Higher Power” is about faith and acknowledging how little we can do to protect our children. The essay describes where/how Schumacher found strength during her daughter’s struggle with serious depression. She writes:

Most of us, taking measure of that world, make a series of promises to our children when they’re very young: I will protect you. I will help you to make sense of your experience. You will not be alone.

As our children grow up and away from us, inheriting the world’s complications, we discover how poignant and futile those promises are. We begin to suspect that our love for our children, although essential, is also inadequate, because no matter how fervently we love them, we can’t keep them from harm.
Back to Bass: "Our most basic imperative:/ for them to survive./ And there’s never been a moment/ we could count on it."

Back to Schumacher: “In banding together to tell the truth about our own and our children’s suffering, we have found resilience; and we have kept the terrible vacant loneliness at bay. Our belief in ourselves as parents has been compromised, but that’s probably all right. Most of us aren’t looking for certainty anymore so much as a complicated acknowledgment of what is.”

I think all parents have that realization at some point: we cannot protect our children forever; we cannot count on their survival. What we can do: hope and pray (if you are a person who prays) and do our best.

My family is not a family that prays. We say grace before dinner only if my dad has joined us, and only then because my dad is an ordained minister. But recently, I’ve felt the need to mark dinner, mark coming together at the end of a hectic day, with something, so before we eat, we now go around the table and name one thing for which we are thankful. The other night Stella said, sounding so grown up, “I am thankful for Zoë and our home and our family.” My heart nearly broke with love.

Today I am thankful for Ellen Bass and Julie Schumacher, for all the writers who write the difficult and beautiful and heartbreaking truth about motherhood.

I know that many of you who read this blog have had a very difficult year, have experienced intense losses: a child, a sister, an aunt, a mother. I know that some of you have lost your good health, that you have been in and out of the hospital, missing your children as you sleep in cold white rooms. I count you among the things and people for which I am thankful this year, and for you I hope for relief, for some kind of quiet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I suppose it is impossible to hold onto the refreshed, I’ve-just-had-a-vacation feeling for very long once you are home and have stepped again into the day-to-day responsibilities of work and family and life.

A few days ago I slipped on my running shoes and I noticed that they were still caked with the fine sand and limestone of Turks and Caicos. D and I ran only once while we were on vacation, down the pale curve of the road behind the villa, a salt marsh on one side of us, the ocean on the other side. It was amazing, but it was also very hot, and my face was flushed for hours afterward. As I headed out the door the other day, it was freezing. I wore layers of clothing, and with each step, I could feel that sandy limestone give way to the dark, fertile soil of the Mississippi River basin.

I love Minnesota, I do. But since we have been back from the Caribbean, my body has revolted. Everything—my sinuses, my skin, my sense of well-being—seem to be rebelling. Last night D and I were sitting on the couch under a blanket and he said, “It’s a little ridiculous how much I think about our vacation, how much I miss it.”

Me too. I guess I need to try harder to find balance and time to relax here in the Twin Cities. But realistically, when would I relax? My days are carefully mapped out: today I’ll write for 25 minutes at the coffee shop, then I’ll begin reading student essays. When I get home, I’ll feed Zoë and hopefully she’ll sleep for an hour so I can continue my class prep. Then D will come home early and he’ll watch Zoë as I teach, etc. etc. On the days Zoë doesn’t sleep, however, I’m screwed, and have to stay up late to finish my work. But I’m still so tired (re-entry? trying to fight off a cold?) that it’s difficult for me to make it to 9 p.m.

I remind myself that I would eventually get bored if I spent my days lounging in the sun and swimming in warm water. (Wouldn’t I?)

I would miss teaching, certainly. I love thinking about narrative arcs and narrative urgency. I love my students. I love to watch as they make discoveries after laying themselves bare on the page. My classes this fall are especially rewarding, and I don’t know if this is because I’m more focused—I don’t have my communications job to distract me anymore—or if it’s because the make-up of personalities in each class is just right. Regardless, I feel totally at home in the classroom and invigorated after each class.

This year’s Mother Words reading will feature the writing of my very talented students, past and present. I want to invite all of you local folks to come and be inspired:

What: Mother Words reading
When: Wednesday, December 3, 7 p.m.
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, Osseo, MN

I’ll post directions as the date approaches, and I do hope I’ll see some of you there. In the meantime, maybe I should get one of those sun-lamps. Then for a few minutes a day I could pretend we live somewhere warm.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

a week of celebrations

I’m back in town after a week in the Turks and Caicos Islands for my sister’s wedding. I didn’t even know where these islands were when Sara first mentioned them. I had to look them up here to realize that they are a chain of islands southeast of the Bahamas. Providenciales, the island where we stayed, is close enough to Cuba to pick up Cuban radio. How cool is that?

I was so busy before we left on November 1st that I hadn’t thought much about where we were going. I was finishing a grant proposal, teaching, thinking about the elections (and voting early, of course). So when D and Stella and Zoë and I arrived in Providenciales, tired and sleepy on Saturday night, I peeled off layers of clothes, took a deep breath of humid air, and thought, oh my God, we’re in the tropics. We’re on vacation.

I’ve always wanted to swim in the Caribbean, to step into water that color, clear and light. When I was in junior high, I searched magazines for photos of tropical islands and taped them to the wall above my bed. I loved the contrast of sky, sand, water. I positioned my favorite island photo, which I had snipped from a calendar, so that as the sun set in frigid Minnesota, it would hit the photo just so, illuminating it. And I would imagine stepping into it, disappearing into that deserted beach.

Sunday morning, when Zoë woke us all bright and early, I walked out onto the balcony of the huge villa my sister and her fiancé had rented for the week, and it was as if I was stepping into the photo from my adolescence. I stood there, looking down at the pool and the ocean, and I thought, this is it, the photo. I am here.

On Sunday, we got settled and swam. Stella was in and out of the pool and ocean a dozen times. We also went grocery shopping. The islands don’t grow anything to speak off, so groceries are exorbitant. My sister warned us that food was expensive, but I was thinking expensive in the way organic vegetables are expensive compared to conventional vegetables. No. Food there is three times as much as it is here. A box of Cheerios was nine dollars. A cantaloupe eight. I know that most of the world spends a much larger percentage of their income on food than we do here in the United States, but this was mind-blowing. And as we returned to our luxurious villa, I couldn’t help feel guilty thinking of all the people who live and work on the island—the construction workers and maids and waitresses. How do they afford to eat?

There are problems with these islands—there is a great deal of corruption and very little environmental protection. They have some of the worlds most beautiful corral reefs, which they will destroy quickly if they don’t take measures to protect them. Instead of gifts, my sister and her fiancé asked that donations be made to an organization that works to protect Turks and Caicos’ natural resources.

I felt uncomfortable at times even being there, knowing that fast growth with little regulation due to tourism is part of the problem. But I couldn’t help enjoy myself. We split our time between the villa on one side of the island, and the resort on the other side where my mom and step-dad were staying. We went for a sunset cruise on a huge sailboat. We went snorkeling, floating above parrot fish and barracuda and long fingers of purple and orange corral. (Some of our snorkeling group even saw a shark.) We went kayaking around the small islands near the villa. I felt the need to keep stopping in the middle of whatever amazing thing we were doing and acknowledge how amazing it was: I can’t believe this. We’re kayaking in the Caribbean. I can’t believe it. I just saw a barracuda.

Sara had her computer with her and offered it up if I wanted to check e-mail, but I refused. I needed a break so badly, from my phone and e-mail. I needed a real break, to be renewed and refreshed. I was.

Tuesday, CNN was on all day, of course, and between swims and naps and eating, we watched the long lines of people here at home, waiting to vote. I was a little sad not to be here on election day, not to wait in line and feel that energy, but it was also nice to be able to put it out of our minds for an hour at a time as we floated in the ocean. Tuesday night, we ordered pizza and sat glued to the television, watching as states turned blue or red. I went to sleep about 10:30 because I didn’t think the election would be called early, so I missed hearing Obama’s speech live. The next morning I jumped out of bed and, when I heard that he won, I screamed and screamed, and then was overcome by such immense relief that I felt dizzy and had to sit down. Wherever we went in the following days, people congratulated us. Everyone we met assumed we were thrilled, which, of course, we were. I was amazed by how relieved and excited they also were. On the Cuban radio station, people from all over the Americas were weighing in, hopeful: Obama Obama Obama.

I don’t know what the wedding on Friday would have felt like if Obama had lost. We would have still celebrated their marriage, of course, but we would have felt heavy.

As it was, the wedding was amazing, right at edge of the ocean in front of the villa. Sara was gorgeous. My dad, who had been nervous all week, performed the ceremony, as he had for Rachel and for me, and he did great. The ceremony was followed by champagne and appetizers and then a dinner at a restaurant on the other side of the island: Conch spring rolls, an Asian-inspired salad, and fresh grouper over fried gnocchi. I ate until I almost exploded.

The travel was long, but overall, Stella and Zoë did really well. We are home now, and the leaves have fallen, there is snow on the ground, and the sky is gray. But I still feel refreshed, and those pictures from my childhood bedroom walls have been replaced by a real picture: I am floating in the teal ocean, watching Stella laugh as she cannonballs into the pool a few yards away.