Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Truths #5 - Comparing

5. Someone will always be smarter, prettier, funnier, holier, and more talented than you. Don’t compare yourself to others.

I think this is particularly hard for women. We wrap up our self-worth in our appearance, our marriage, our children, our jobs. When we’re topped, we feel threatened and unworthy. It’s important to remember that the flower aboveground has a mass of life-sustaining roots belowground. Nurture the roots—the spiritual things—and the flower will always be strong, beautiful, and worthwhile.

For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.—II Corinthians 10:12

Friday, June 29, 2012

My Truths #4 - Feelings

4. My feelings are valid.

Often when we’re in relationships with strong personalities, we can be led to think that what we feel is wrong or inappropriate. We second-guess our thoughts and feelings, wondering if others will find them legitimate. It’s important to remember that this is your journey, your story, and what you feel matters. And if your thinking isn’t in line with God’s, you’ll be shown to a higher idea.

A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.Proverbs 16:9

Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Truths #3 - Struggle

3. It’s okay to struggle. (And it’s okay not to.)

We don’t need to expect rose gardens or thorns, but we might get both. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you encounter, it matters how you deal with the encounter. Will it make you bitter or wise? Will you keep opening yourself to possibility or will you close down from the pain?

…Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God’s. Ye shall not need to fight in this battle: set yourselves, stand ye still, and see the salvation of the Lord with you…II Chronicles 20:15, 17

. . . My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.II Corinthians 12:9-10

Poem 5 - Parkinson's Disease

This is a hard poem for me. I found it not long after my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It is an awful disease to watch progress. Growing up, I feel like I never really knew my father, and now, he’s losing his ability to walk and talk, his mind is going, and his eyesight is poor. He was always a quiet man, but now his voice is barely a whisper. You can’t really have a conversation with him. He recently fell and broke five ribs. My mother had to put him in a nursing home, but there was reason to believe he was being mistreated there, so he returned home shortly before Father’s Day. We went to see him on Father's Day. We ate burgers and watched baseball.

My approach to disease is different from the mainstream. Poems like this make me uneasy because they focus on the material reality instead of the spiritual reality. I know my father is the reflection of God, of love, of comfort, and soundness. He is whole now. I can’t believe anything less.

My father, taken on Father's Day.

Parkinson’s Disease
Galway Kinnell

While spoon-feeding him with one hand
she holds his hand with the other hand,
or rather lets it rest on top of his,
which is permanently clenched shut.
When he turns his head away, she reaches
around and puts in the spoonful blind.
He will not accept the next morsel
until he has completely chewed this one.
His bright squint tells her he finds
the shrimp she has just put in delicious.
Next to the voice and touch of those we love,
food may be our last pleasure on earth—
a man on death row takes his T-bone
in small bites and swishes each sip
of the jug wine around in his mouth,
tomorrow will be too late for them to jolt
this supper out of him. She stokes
his head very slowly, as if to cheer up
each separate discomfited hair sticking up
from its roots in his stricken brain.
Standing behind him, she presses her cheek
to his, kisses his jowl, and his eyes seem
to stop seeing and do nothing but emit light.
Could heaven be a time, after we are dead,
if remembering the knowledge
flesh had from flesh? The flesh
of his face is hard, perhaps
from years spent facing down others
until they fell back, and harder
from years of being himself faced down
and falling back in his turn, and harder still
from all the while frowning and beaming
and worrying and shouting and probably
letting go in rages. His face softens
into a kind of quizzical wince, as if one
of the other animals were working at
getting the knack of the human smile.
When picking up a cookie he uses
both thumbtips to grip it
and push it against an index finger
to secure it so that he can lift it.
She takes him then to the bathroom,
and when they come out, she is facing him,
walking backwards in front of him
and holding his hands, pulling him
when he stops, reminding him to step
when he forgets and starts to pitch forward.
She is leading her old father in the future
as far as they can go, and she is walking
him back into her childhood, where she stood
in bare feet on the toes of his shoes
and they foxtrotted on this same rug.
I watch them closely: she could be teaching him
the last steps that one day she may teach me.
At this moment, he glints and shines,
as if it will be only a small dislocation
for him to pass from this paradise into the next.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Truths #2 - Small Lives

2. There are no small lives. My story is important.

It’s tempting to think that your life is insignificant in the scheme of things, a mere drop in the ocean of lives. But if you think of your life—your story—as a drop, and you think of the ripples a drop sends out and how your ripples meet other ripples, you see that we all touch much more lives than we think we do. And if you have a talent for telling your story, you must tell your story.

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.—I Corinthians 12:4

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Truths #1 - My Journey

Every few years, I stumble upon a truth that changes my perspective and the way I live my life. I’ve put together a list of 19 of these truths, and I’ll share one each day for the next several weeks. I’d love to hear what your truths are. 

1. It’s my journey.
Though many will take this journey with me, no one can take this journey for me. There will be hard decisions to make and celebrations to plan. At times, the road will be smooth. At times, happiness will be hard-won. But the truth is I gain nothing by ignoring anything. My life must be fully lived.

For every man shall bear his own burden.—Galatians 6:5

Sunday, June 24, 2012

One Year Ago Today

It has been one year since we closed on our house. This is the first time either my husband or I have owned a home. I grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. Hubby grew up in a series of old houses, mostly in the Nebraska/Kansas area. When we married, Hubby was unemployed, and we incurred a good deal of credit card debt. It took us the first seven or eight years of our marriage to pay it off. The last few years, we were making payments equal to that of our rent, and forgoing a lot of extras. We spent the next couple years saving every dime we could for a down-payment. We scraped together $20,000 this way.

So, our dream home was a long time coming. We wanted to do it right, with no credit card debt, and a comfortable, earnest down-payment. We ran the numbers and figured we could afford a modest $125,000-$130,000 home (in our city, I'd say this is on the low end of an average family home). We were nervous about meeting with a loan counselor—neither of us had ever done anything like that before—would she tell us we couldn’t afford the kind of home we wanted or find a problem with our credit?

Well, everything went swimmingly. With the housing market slump and our down-payment, we were told we were in a good situation. We were relieved to learn that our credit scores were stellar. We left the loan officer with confidence—and the name of a great realtor. This was Tuesday evening. We put together a list of homes for sale in the area of our city we liked best—small, well-maintained homes, central to the university (where I work), the interstate, and our favorite stores and restaurants. We set up three appointments for Wednesday evening.

The first house we saw was sweet, but it felt small and disjointed. The second house had a miniscule kitchen and a loft master bedroom, neither of which appealed to us. The third house…well, the third house was just right. It was so perfect, in fact, we couldn’t believe it was in our price range. The kitchen and bath were new, the carpet and flooring was new, the yard was well-landscaped. It sat on a large corner lot, had a two-car garage, and the basement already had the studs and insulation and was ready for drywall.

We made an offer that night, which happened to be our ninth wedding anniversary. A counteroffer came the next day, and we accepted. We closed on June 24, and started moving in that evening.

And we moved. And we moved. And we moved. And we moved….

As I’ve stated before, we don’t always do things the easy way.

I was in the process of leaving my university job of 13 years to start a new one (still on campus). I had two weeks of vacation coming, so I took it between my jobs. And I packed for two weeks straight. When it came time to move, we only rented a U-Haul here and there. We hauled a great deal of our items just the two of us, in our Prius, from 5pm-midnight on muggy June nights. The neighbors must have thought we were nuts. For the big pieces of furniture, we had my older brother and parents come to lend a hand. We cleaned our apartment until the wee hours of the day we had to be out. I can laugh now, but that night was a rocky one for our marriage—mostly because my husband didn’t know it was rocky. Guys don’t really seem to have the same overwhelm threshold as women do. I hit the wall at about 8:00pm. Cleaning the oven at midnight put me way over the edge. But we made it through.

Here are a few photos taken before I started packing up. I didn't realize we lived like Fred Sanford, but apparently, we did.

Living room. Notice the little mountain down the center of the carpet? That's the main reason my husband wanted to move.

Hubby's recording area. Actually, I guess THIS is the main reason he wanted to move.

Kitchen. The main reason I wanted to move. You're digging the linoleum, aren't you?

Dining room. We used the table about four times in the nine years we lived there.

Bathroom. Nothing like 1970s yellow.

Back bedroom. There's a half-bath beyond the closet. We used this room for working out, for my library, and for guest sleeping. Basically, anything that didn't fit anywhere else came here. 

I neglected to take a photo of our bedroom, which is odd, since it was my favorite room.

One of the many, MANY trips we made in the U-Haul. I never did take photos of us moving in the car. I should have to, it would be great blackmail someday. "Honey, remember when you made us move nine years worth of possessions in the Prius?"

Here are some photos of our new house.

Home sweet home.
The large yard was the only thing that scared us.
The huge maple trees--and what they do in the fall--should have scared us.

Taken from the corner.

It was a long time coming, but I don't regret one moment of saving or arguing or dreaming to make it possible. (Photos of the interior to come.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Poem 4 - Geraniums

Ever run across a line in a book or poem or scripture that really sticks with you? The line “you can’t bloom that way” is one of those for me, a touchstone, a reality check. It comes to me unbidden, when I’m having a tough day, when I’m tempted to not care about something as much as I should, and especially when I need to step back from the duties of life because I’m neglecting myself. It reminds me that neglect can only lead to feelings of inadequacy and oppression. And there’s much too much at stake to work for the world and ignore the self.

Linda Hogan

Life is burning
in everything, in red flowers
abandoned in an empty house,
the leaves nearly gone,
curtains and tenants gone,
but the flowers red and fiery
are there and singing,
let us out.
Even dying they have fire.
Imprisoned, they open,
so like our own lives blooming,
exploding, wanting out,
wanting love,
And you, with your weapons and badges
and your fear about what neighbors think
and working overtime
as if the boss will reward you,
you can’t bloom that way
so open the door,
break the glass. There’s fire
in those flowers. Set off the alarm.
What’s a simple crime of property
when life, breath, and all
is at stake?

What I love about this poem:
Other than the line “you can’t bloom that way,” I love the passion of the poem, the way it builds momentum and all comes to a head. And I love the imagery. Can’t you just picture that geranium plant, abandoned and near death. I see the room, hazy with light and dust, like those Instagram photos everyone is taking these days.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gardening (aka Building Fort Knox)

Last weekend I finally got my garden planted. A couple weeks ago, we dug the 12'x8' gaden by hand. Yes, a tiller would have been easier and more efficient, but when it comes to home projects, my husband and I often shrug and say, "How bad can it be?" We should know by now, but we're slow learners.

At any rate, during a 90-degree weekend, hubby dug off the top layer of grass, and my daughter-in-law and I worked all the soil off to regain some of it for planting. My grandson walked around with a zippered bag and collected any grubs we shook loose, christening himself "Grub Control." Because of the grub problem, we wanted to treat the area, and then had to wait at least a week to plant anything we would consume. So, on this past (90-degree) weekend, I got up at 8:00am and started turning the soil, again, by hand. By noon, everything was planted.

This is the "before." (Well, actually, the grass around it is the true "before.")

(Also, I want to assure you that, yes, we do mow our yard, but with all the shade we have, the grass grows like gangbusters anyway. It was mowed right after the garden was planted.)

My helpers. Ironic, because the only tool I really used was my old, old, shovel, whom I've since nicknamed "Bully," which is not pictured. We bought it at a garage sale last summer before we'd even moved into our house. The elderly woman we bought it from said it was her uncle's. We bought the garden weasel (left) from the same couple. The women didn't want her husband to sell it. (Notice the patch of dead grass above the hoe? That's likely caused by the grubs.)

The cast of characters. This being my first garden since I was a kid, I opted to keep it small and manageable. I planted four tomato plants (a combination of cherry and regular), three hills of cucumbers (possibly my favorite food on earth), and a package of 60 gladiola bulbs.

Gladiola bulbs. (No, I actually wasn't tipsy when I planted these.)

Blisters from "Bully." I was very proud of them.


<< And now, a brief intermission to enjoy a job well done. >>

That over, on Sunday afternoon, while hanging clothes on the line, I noticed that something did not feel right. I looked over at the garden to see that most of the tomatoes had been plucked and scattered about the garden. Several sticks marking my cucumber hills were removed. And, a glad bulb was uprooted and lay by a nearby tree; it had been nibbled. SQUIRRELS!

This begins our attempt to outwit some of God's cleverer creatures.

Already 4:00pm on Sunday, and already tired from a full weekend of chores, and already nursing headache number two of the weekend, hubby and I decided we needed to act quickly. I hopped online to gather hints on keeping squirrels out of a garden. Here is a partial list of suggestions: mothballs around the perimeter of the garden, vinegar-soaked rags around the garden, marigolds planted in and around the garden, dog fur, coyote urine, motion-detector sprinklers, tin pie plates rigged to make noise, squirrel food provided outside the garden (negotiating with terrorists?) etc., etc. (If any of you have tried these or other suggestions, please let me know the results!) A fence was reported to be a must to deter, but shouldn't be thought enough to send them packing.

Hubby, through barely disguised resentment, and I went to the local home improvement store. We bought chicken wire and metal fence posts (and a pair of suede work gloves for Blister Girl), and by 9:00pm, we'd built this:

Our theory was: If we buy a small enough chicken wire so that the squirrel can't squeeze through, fix the bottom so that the little dickens can't burrow under, and leave a foot or so of the wire draped over the top so that if he climbed he'd reach a point at which we couldn't make it up and over the side, and combine the fence with an alternating bevy of suggestions above, we might stand a chance. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Poem 3 – Limen

Natasha Trethewey has just been named the 19th U.S. poet laureate, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce her to you. I’m not terribly familiar with her work, but I have loved “Limen” for years now.

Following is a link to an article regarding Ms. Trethewey’s assignment.

Natasha Trethewey

All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,

his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.

She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line—each one

a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else—not simply

the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.

from The Best American Poetry 2000
Rita Dove, Editor / David Lehman, Series Editor

What I love about this poem:
I love its simplicity, first off.  I love the image of the woodpecker being a hinge, a door knocker, on the tree, feet planted, his body working back and forth. I love the “heart-shaped leaves” and the last line, “making the green hearts flutter.” He’s working like a little maniac, and the whole tree is shaking. Woodpeckers are so tenacious, so unconcerned about that others think of their noise (their “industry”), so detached. This makes him the perfect metaphor for the mother in the poem hanging wet sheets between her and her child.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Man is at the Very Point of Opportunity*

Are you searching for your right job, right mission, right ministry? Do you ever feel helpless and hopeless, adrift in uncertainty? Do you ever have the feeling that you’re not doing all you should be doing, not being what you’re supposed to be? Do you ever question whether you really make a difference to anyone?

We’ve all been stuck in a life rut at one point or another. We spin our wheels and get nowhere. We sink deeper. And sometimes we seem to stay stuck a long time.

Most of us believe that ruts are temporary and God has the power to lift us out of them. We think it’s up to him to decide when and where. But in the meantime, we get impatient and try to wrench ourselves out before we’ve really relied on God. We try to prop ourselves up with material answers and dependencies, with human knowledge rather than divine wisdom. And when our human attempts don’t work (and they invariably don’t), we get frustrated. We give up and go back to wallowing.  We figure that’s where God wants us. We think we’re submitting to his plan, when really, we’re submitting to human will. 

I don’t believe God puts us anywhere but the palm of his hand. He doesn’t put us in the mud to wallow in order to for us to learn what we need to learn. Instead, he calls us out of the mud, and we rise until our last toe has been sucked from its mouth. Sometimes I forget this. But I know it’s true.

I don’t believe God knows anything about human suffering. I don’t believe God gives us pain. I don’t believe God is up there watching, waiting for us to turn away from him or turn back to him. I don’t believe God waits around to judge. I believe that God is incapable of anything but love.

So when we find ourselves in the mire of negative human thoughts, we must tap into God’s thoughts. And we must realize that man is always at the dawn of opportunity, a threshold opening to divine surprises, every one of which will fit us perfectly and comfortably.

*phrase taken from a 1938 lecture by Francis Lyster Jandron

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Poem 2 - Loading a Boar

Just as I had no doubt what my first poem post would be, I knew exactly what my second would be. David Lee’s “Loading a Boar” makes me smile—and want to write—every time I read it.

I met David Lee when I was in college. I was in Anaheim, California, reading a selection of my poems at the Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society) National Convention. I didn’t realize they gave awards at the end of the convention, so imagine my surprise when my name was called to receive the award for best original poetry. I wasn’t dressed up like everyone else, and I wasn’t even going to attend the conference, thinking I’d go sightseeing instead. Glad I went.

But anyway, I had breakfast with David Lee one morning. I don’t remember what we talked about, what I said, or anything he said, but I remember thinking, “This is just a normal guy who just happens to write poetry. Maybe I could do that.”

Loading a Boar
David Lee

We were loading a boar, a goddamn mean big sonofabitch and he
jumped out of the pickup four times and tore my stockracks and
rooted me in the stomach and I fell down and he bit John on the
knee and he thought it was broken and so did I and the boar stood
over in the far corner of the pen and watched us and John and I just
sat there tired and Jan laughed and brought us a beer and I said,
“John it ain’t worth it, nothing’s going right and I’m feeling half dead
and haven’t wrote a poem in ages and I’m ready to quit it all,” and
John said, “shit young feller, you ain’t got started yet and the reason’s
cause you trying to do it outside yourself and ain’t looking in and if
you wanna by god write pomes you gotta write pomes about what
you know and not about the rest and you can write about pigs and
that boar and Jan and you and me and the rest and there ain’t no way
you’re gonna quit,” and we drank beer and smoked, all three of us,
and finally loaded that mean bastard and drove home and unloaded
him and he bit me again and I went in the house and got out my
paper and pencils and started writing and found out John he was

What I love about this poem:
There is a phrase used more often in writing classes and workshops than any other phrase: write what you know. I don’t know how long this sage advice has been around, but it was likely first uttered by a college workshop professor who decided he couldn’t slog through one more bad made-up story. Me, I always took the advice very literally. I’ve never written fiction. Anyone can make stuff up, but only I can tell my story.

That’s what’s going on here. When you believe that loading a boar would make a good poem, and then you sit down to write that poem, you’re a writer.

Lee is also a master of using local dialect to color his poems without them becoming gimmicky. I’ll share another great example of this in the future.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Thank You to the Ambers in Life

A couple weeks ago, my husband, my 6-year-old grandson, Bo, and I were at the grocery store picking up something for supper when I thought I noticed someone trying to get my attention from across the store. She looked familiar, but working at a university with thousands of other folks, everyone looks familiar after awhile, so I didn’t think much of it. 

We got our food and headed out, when the woman and her little girls approached me and she said, “Carrie, hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but we taught together a long time ago. I just had to say hi. My girls and I were going to the park earlier today when we saw you all in your yard and I thought, oh, I’m so glad she’s so happy. Your husband was spraying him with the garden hose, and you were just radiating joy.” She made sunbeam motions around her face.

Her name was Amber, and we’d taught in a summer university program for minority and underprivileged high school students transitioning to college. We were free to make up the curriculum, so I taught research writing the first year and poetry the second year. It was exhausting, and I was planning my wedding at the same time, but I learned so much about myself.

I thanked her for approaching me, for her bravery and her sweet words. And as my husband and I marveled over the exchange, I thought how often do we get opportunities to approach someone, but it seems too odd to comment on what you see. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves or make the other person uncomfortable. But Amber approached me, someone she hadn’t seen in at least ten years, with such confidence and purpose. She’ll never know what that meant to me.

So now I’m looking for opportunities to connect this way, too. To pay it forward.

This past weekend, we had Bo over again, and it was late and he was doing something I didn’t want him to do. “Please stop doing that and be patient, sweetheart, and I’ll be done in a minute,” I said, without even taking my eyes off the task at hand.

Bo looked at me and said, “Thanks for saying that to me, Grandma.”

I wasn’t even sure what I’d said, but my words had really meant something to him. My tone, which isn’t always patient and light, was just right this time.

There are moments in life that just stand you still, that make you realize you are a good person, a happy person, and it truly matters how your life intertwines with other lives.

Thank you, Amber, and Bo, for teaching me that.

Grandpa spraying Bo in the front yard.
Note to self: next time make him take his shoes off first!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Poem 1 - Song

When I thought about presenting poetry here, I knew exactly which poem I’d start with. I don’t have a favorite poem—I simply love too many poems to ever choose. But this poem embodies everything I love in a poem. It’s quiet, it’s simple, and it portrays a mood and captures a moment in time so beautifully.
Robert Hass was poet laureate from 1995-1997. His book Poet’s Choice is a wonderful collection of his nationally syndicated newspaper columns presenting a poem each week. It’s out of print but worth picking up if you can find a copy.

Robert Hass

Afternoon cooking in the fall sun—
who is more naked
      than the man
yelling, “Hey, I’m home!”
      to an empty house?
thinking because the bay is clear,
the hills in yellow heat,
& scrub oak red in gullies
    that great crowds of family
should tumble from their rooms
      to throw their bodies on the Papa-body,

Cat sleeps in the windowgleam,
      dust motes.
     On the oak table
    filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
     slices of green pepper
    on a bone-white dish.

What I love about this poem:
This poem is so simple, but there’s so much going on. First, it’s a moment in time. It would take a man all of five or ten seconds to come in, yell “Hey, I’m home!”; wait for a response and get none; look inside, look outside; and notice the cat and the dust and the sole and peppers on the bone-white dish. It drives home the point that every moment of your life is full of poetry.

Second, it so beautifully puts its finger on the phenomena of momentary loneliness (and in the daytime, no less).  We know the family isn’t gone for long and isn’t far away, because supper is stewing on the table.

Third, I love how it makes us a part of the scene. We’re there, looking around, wondering where everyone is, too. It draws us in and lets us decide what’s going on and how to feel about it. 

Last—and this is a nerdy Englishy thing—I love the use of the word “bone” in the last line. No word could bring home the feeling of loneliness better than “bone.” Loneliness is an “at the bone” thing.

So, there you go. One of my absolute favorites. Don’t be shy, leave a comment, and let me know what you think. More favorites to come....