Monday, May 11, 2015


Last night, Annie Leibovitz's book, Pilgrimage, fell off the shelf in our living room.  Samantha was asleep, Tim and I were upstairs in his office.  We heard the clatter and looked at each other, puzzled.  Tim hesitated, wondering if someone was downstairs, but it had sounded so much like a picture falling off the wall, it was more reflex than actual consideration.  He headed down.  I waited before joining him.  We couldn't find the source of the noise.  Finally, I saw it, the big Niagara Falls cover on the floor by the sofa, tucked beneath its arm. 

Maybe our guests had been thumbing through the book before heading home yesterday.  Maybe it had a message for us, since we visited the Falls last week.  Maybe it was just time for me to return to this marvelous book, whose commanding, ascetic prose leaves me breathless every time. 

It was my first time visiting Niagara Falls and I can hardly wait to go back.  We were celebrating our five-year wedding anniversary.  This time we had a little munchkin in tow.

Comfort Inn restroom sign, keeping it real.

Meanwhile, the Westin's restroom is for skinny bitches only?


Tim rocking one national landmark T-shirt at a different one (and S. rocking some pjs).


On a different part of the art spectrum, I read a book called Graduates in Wonderland and really enjoyed it.  It's a memoir, of sorts, that originated in emails two grads wrote each other about their lives in various cities after school.  It reminded me of those years in my own life, how daunting and exhilarating they were.  I felt for those girls making their way through the world, parsing job interviews, grad school applications, douche-bag after douche-bag, New York, Paris, Beijing.  I recognized a little of myself in them.  It was also a relief to be on the other side of that life, to look at their quandaries with the assurance of a matron, thinking, Girls, you must ask more for yourselves! Especially when facing love.  It felt nice to have a bit of a clue. 

Not that the authors were ever far from understanding.  It was also a relief to see two young women take their lives so seriously.  Sometimes too seriously.  Sometimes they didn't seem to realize their enormous privileges and you could almost trace the amount of suffering they were experiencing at any given moment to this lack of awareness, which I find interesting.  Entitlement is not just unattractive, it is also a disease that eats away at happiness.

Well!  With that preachy little soapbox, I wish you a belated and happy Mother's Day.  Spring is here and I am soaking in all this rain.  Green grass, insects, hammocks, moss creeping across patio bricks. 

To all that nourishes you, mysterious and flowing, and free,

P.S. I have more to say about Niagara Falls but it's all swirling inside.  It was a holy place for me - too white and water-filled to hammer into form here.  Let's just say, I went quiet for a few days, soaking everything in, a dog with her nose to the wind.  You know those places?  Where is yours?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sut Nam 101 - Don't Drive Into the Lake

How To Find A Poem

Wake with a dream-filled head.
Stumble out into the morning,
barely aware of how the sun
is laying down strips of silver
after three days' rain,
of how the puddles
are singing with green.
Look up, startled
at the crackle of something large
moving through the underbrush.
Your pulse jumping,
gaze into its beautiful face.
The wary doe's body,
the soft flames of ears.
As it bounds away,
listen to the rhythm
of your own heart's disquiet.
Burn into memory
the white flag of its parting.
Before you return
to house and habit,
cast your eyes into the shadows,
where others stand waiting
on delicate hooves.

"We are so conditioned to believe we must become something before we can be happy.  This concept of always striving and becoming keeps us from being happy." (Yogic advice)

The poem above is from a new book called What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms, & Blessings, by Joyce Sidman paired with illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski.  I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be a children's book but what does that really mean?  I mean, we're all children inside.  When I forget that I become lost.

I've been writing this post for weeks in my head.  Like everything else there, it shifts from beast to beast by the hour.  Did you know my last post, the one about Alexandra Fuller, was Sut Nam Bonsai's 100th? It seemed an impossibly low number when I put it all together but then, when I thought about how many tens make up a hundred, I felt a little better about myself.  Okay, I've done something.  What a sad response to a milestone!  Did I do enough? 

I was going to write about finally reading Jonathan Franzen's essay about David Foster Wallace's suicide, Farther Away, in the book of the same title, but I just got back from AWP (a big writing conference, for you non-writer peeps) and feel like it might be tragic to discuss something so unfairly obvious as two white male narcissists, er, writers!, at a time when issues of diversity are being so elegantly raised by others.  For instance, this New York Times piece on Toni Morrison poked me in the side, peeling back just one shade of my ignorance as a writer and human being, and this analysis of systematic racism and what we can do as individuals to get better was helpful to me.

Instead of discussing Franzen, I will just tell you a few things:

1) Samantha turned one year old this week. 

2) Writers are kind of a neurotic lot.  We took Samantha with us to the conference and it was wonderfully grounding to have built-in breaks between panels and readings.  As difficult as it can be to be present with another being's needs all day long, there is something great, too, about getting my head out of my bum and into the world again.  I prefer when there is a mix of the two, though, both intellectual activity and baby-wrangling, and find myself most fulfilled as a mother when I am around other people who can entertain my social child, and I get to just be around.  I know this isn't the definition of motherhood: just show up every now and then!  No no no no.  But it does happen like that sometimes, and when it does, I am happy.

I'm not saying I'm not happy at other times, but it takes a bit more spiritual Kung-fu-ery to get there at those times.  And yes, Kung-fu-ery is a word.

It's hard to believe what I'm about to tell you about originated when we only had a dog to take care of, but it's true, it did.  It happened a long time ago.  One day when Tim had been at work all day and I had been home writing, Bear had for some reason driven me bananas.  Maybe there was a thunderstorm - not his best time, zen-wise - or maybe he had not been satisfied by the amount of exercise I had given him.  Whatever it was, at the end of the day when Tim got home, he sat the dog down and told him that days like that were the reason moms drove station wagons full of children into lakes. 

Now that I have a child, even writing this down sounds impossibly morbid, like how could we joke about a thing?  It was hilarious at the time.  We used that joke a lot.  Being on the brink of a minor meltdown, like if we were simply hungry or the living room was unusually messy, we would say something like, I'm about to drive the station wagon into the lake!

We said those things when we only had ourselves to take care of, when we were really hungry but did not also have a baby pulling down the neck of our shirt, a baby who was also really hungry and being repeatedly vocal about that hunger while needing a diaper change, in public.  Now I get how some moms just drive the car into the lake.  I'm not saying I would, or that it sounds remotely like a solution to my life.  Does my life even need a solution right now?  (Where am I going with this?)  What I'm saying is, now I get how it's possible to get to the brink of terrible things.  The divide between being at the end of your rope and letting go of that rope is still, thankfully, wide enough to locate, but since becoming a parent, I've approached the end of that rope plenty of times.  The key, I think, is just to hang on?

Actually, I don't know what the key is, honestly.  That joke isn't as funny as it used to be.  We do not have a station wagon, though.  Phew!

I hate to say it, but this does link back to my original impulse to bring up Jonathan Franzen, or J. Fran as we call him in our house.  His essay about David Foster Wallace was a little controversial I guess - like everything else in that man's life.  I guess some people thought he was capitalizing on his friend's fame.  Maybe others were upset about the actual content in the essay.  I don't know have all the ins and outs, which is sloppy of me, I realize.  Without doing a whole research report on the thing, I just wanted to say that I appreciate how scathing the essay is at times, not because suicide needs to be judged harshly but because Wallace's decision affected the people who loved him in a very real way.

For those of you who haven't read Farther Away (that sounds more indicting than I mean it to! I hope you are reading books of children's poetry or The Hobbit or cd liner notes, whatever), Franzen goes on a trip to both watch birds and scatter some of Wallace's ashes, to mourn him appropriately and stop fleeing his own grief about his friend's suicide.  In the essay, he recalls how Wallace was not interested in what to Franzen had become an unexpected but life-saving passion, and that was birding. 

I have had this own experience, personally, where nature - or The Nature, as, I think it was Dave Barry, wrote - inevitably pulls me from whatever swirl of mental turmoil I have happened to cook up that day and pools my energy back in my feet, planting me back on the earth.  Wallace couldn't get there, had no interest in something as banal and spectacular as a bright little bird, and while this doesn't mean anything for you and me necessarily, I appreciated Franzen's willingness to point it out, and to be angry with his friend for what he essentially decides became an ego move: choosing Cobain-like artistic immortality over the broken, messy, and very real relationships in his life. 

That's all.  I wish I had more.  I heard some wonderful writers speak this week.  I saw old friends and wheeled my baby around Minneapolis, discovering once more how that girl adores wind.  It's like a long-lost friend.  She squeals and gasps and grins when it blows in her face.  I ate very little except peanut butter, apples, raisins, and coffee.  You can eat coffee, right?  Now that I'm home, I'm trying to correct that.  For instance, I'm eating ice cream right now.  I'm ready to sort through all the information I gathered and weed out some of the more intense and less helpful information that is inevitably offered when so many cranial-minded folks gather in one spot.  Buzz buzz buzz buzz. 

Working it out, kids!  One day at a time - no station wagons in sight.


Monday, March 23, 2015


We were at another lake this weekend, this time for the same reason every literary person goes on holiday: a basketball tournament.  That's right, I attended a March Madness gathering.  I was once invited to this gathering with the promise of movies and yoga but since the town we were in didn't even have a coffee shop, I wasn't holding out for any Bikram studios.  Not that I do Bikram!  I have attended two Bikram classes in my life.  During the middle of the first class the instructor answered his cellphone.  He stood in those strange underwear-pants Bikram instructors wear, in front of all those Jazzercise mirrors, and coached his wife through disconnecting their house alarm.  I returned the next morning because it was part of a free package and, also, because the instructor complimented my yoga skillz.  (I am not immune to compliments.)

I finished reading Alexandra Fuller's new book this week.  It's called Leaving Before the Rains Come and is about her divorce from the man she married as a young woman living on her family's farm in southern Africa.  If you haven't yet read Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight, you must!  It is drenched in beauty.  It also has quite a bit of sadness, but if you can take it, it will honestly make your heart bigger.  Oh life!  Why so large and crushing sometimes?  Sighhhhhhhh.  

I really do love Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight.  More importantly, as I rediscovered in the new book, I love Fuller's prose.  I found myself nibbling at Leaving Before the Rains Come like a delicate dessert, moving slowly, leafing back and forth between sections, wanting to taste every word.  The book moves between the progress of her marriage and some of her family's personal history in southern Africa.  The sections about her family were my favorite, a delightful reminder that no matter what genre I read, I hunger for character.  If you do it right, some family members make wonderful characters.  I'm thinking here of David Sedaris, obviously, who sort of takes the cake for this sort of trick.  On a different part of the memoir spectrum, the less beguiling Molly Wizenberg crafts a loving portrait of her larger-than-life dad in her first book.  And though Bill Bryson is, it seems, a bit of a controversial figure in both wilderness and literary circles, who can forget his outrageous send up of his longtime friend Katz in A Walk in the Woods

Some decisions are easier than others
If I'm being honest, I think the real reason I did not move quickly through Fuller's newest book was not just because I savored every word.  It was because I could feel the long slow car-crash of her marriage and was not ready for the bloody end.  The author herself took sweet time getting to her point and, in that slow, circling-in-on-itself way of the book, I knew I was in trouble.  There was not a huge story, or rather, there were plenty of dramatic events, but the way Fuller told them, I desired as much time to process the information as she herself had clearly been doing for decades.  No matter how resolved the writer tried to appear, I simply did not want to see one of my heroes go through the slaughter of divorce. 

Speaking of slaughter, we made the mistake of going to a brewery on St. Patty's Day.  I don't really go to bars, period, so to wade into one on an official drinking holiday, with a baby strapped to my back, was one of my dumber moves of 2015. But we were meeting new friends and I'm so glad we made it.  The conversation was lovely.  We discussed writing, reading, and how stressful a room full of drunk people is to all of us, not just to my young child.  Don't worry - no babies were harmed in the making of this celebration, only our vocal chords as we shouted over patrons arm-wrestling nearby.  For better or worse, our daughter is emerging as the social butterfly of the family and seems genuinely entertained by rooms full of buzzing activity. 

During barroom conversation, I was reminded of a novel I read in the fall.  One-third of the way through it, two of the main characters divorced.  I did not see it coming and it sort of undid me, as a reader.  I was Just So Sad.  I never really recovered.

Divorce is a super tender subject.  I haven't gone through it personally but something about it really slays me, and not for any of that silly judgmental religious business.  Obviously there are times when it is necessary and important, but it must be hard to find an example where it is not a heart-wrenching trial.  My response to it may be as simple as understanding what it means to lose your footing, your foundation, your trust in the world.  I could cry just thinking about people having to go through this in addition to all the other pain-in-the-rear things adults have to go through, and when kids are part of the mix, just hand me the whole box of Kleenex, please. 

Wading into Alexandra Fuller's account of her divorce was, I suppose, not too different from clasping a woman's hand you have known a long time, going to that difficult place with her when she unpacks bad news.  Even though she isn't really my longtime friend, what are books if not an opportunity to know another life, to sit with another being, watch them grow and change and reveal and share and dance themselves into being, out from sadness, into light, right in front of your eyes?

Tender.  All of it.  The story of loss, the grief of divorce, the pressures of life no matter who stays together and who doesn't.  All of us in this big stew at once maybe, just maybe, comforting one another through the darkness. 


Friday, March 13, 2015


What is that saying - Denial ain't just a river in Egypt?  Well, when the temperature breaks the freeze mark all week and the sidewalks flood with snowmelt and my houseplants unfurl with luxurious green sighs, I have to admit it: spring is nice.  There is a tick in me, a broken stubborn knot that insists always on being a little contrary.  It's not conscious, and I like to blame it on being the last-born in the family, but it is true that when anyone declares something ugly, I will search reflexively for the beauty in it.  Don't you tell me what to see! is my gut internal reaction.

I've been reticent to declare winter difficult, to admit that grating cold might do more than make our house pop and groan.  It might just be doing the same thing to my cranky heart, and all the people around me moaning about the weather might not be so crazy after all. 

We went to Lake Michigan last weekend.  I felt pretty cool picking my way across the frozen lake among fellow pilgrims, as if we were in the know somehow and had meant to stumble on such a sight.  There were just a few pockets of ice that opened straight to the lake. I couldn't believe how cavalier some people were near those ledges.  Then again, I was wearing the baby, so I was extra-special careful and superstitious. 

In yoga class this week, the instructor - someone I had never met before - asked if everything was okay.  Before that, a woman approached, put her hand on my knee, and said she was sending good intentions my way.  It took me a minute to put it all together. I guess they interpreted the somewhat langorous way I have of stretching, and one particular forward bow I like to do for, like, ever, as signs of defeat.  It made me laugh but also humbled me, like, I really need that lady's good intentions, you know?  Whatever it is people are offering as help, I'll take it. 

When I first discovered yin yoga, a style where you hold poses gently for extended amounts of time, letting the body unfurl at its own pace, I was pretty blown away.  Sometimes I feel like a little elbow grease is called for to accomplish my goals, but lately, I find my life asking me to slow down, to cross six things off my to-do list and go to bed early with my baby.  I'm still blown away by this, that no matter how much my mind thinks it can muscle its way to whatever it wants, what I really need is to take a breather. 

Tim once drew a pie chart that filled in 80% with school and friends and walking the dog, and left 20% completely blank as a way to illustrate how I was overloading my days.  This might sound condescending but it was perfect for our house and went up on the fridge at the time.  We even passed it on to someone who dubbed it "The legacy of 80%." 

There are Sanskrit names for this dance and Jason Crandell, a columnist at Yoga Journal, has an excellent article about ease and effort that I'm basically too lazy to quote right now, but there were several petite miracles this week involving me giving up and then seeing exactly what I dreamed of unfold beautifully later, without any force of my own.  Huh.

All right, that's all.  I just wanted you to see these pretty pictures of the lake!  


P.S. This post was written in a velour bathrobe.  I just thought you should know how serious I take this yin stuff.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Here We Go

Well, here we are.  My birthday has passed. The lovely roses Tim bought me are melting into a sea of white ruffles.  The cake has all been eaten, the wine drunk, the babysitter paid - in baby kisses - and sent away.  Two days ago, I swear, the fridge was packed.  Now my mom is gone, we are out of everything but spinach, milk, and jelly, and I don't know which end is up again.

I really resist talking about some things because I feel like one of the perks of this blog is that it bucks the mundane and reaches for a sense of peace in a chaotic world.  Barring that, it reaches for the absurdity that nourishes us all.  But lately, all I feel is the chaos of life and it's making me uncomfortable. 

This post by Joy Cho, whose addiction to color is one of which I highly approve, discusses how little balance she feels between her creative work and her role as a mother and a wife.  Amelia and I talk about this subject (and talk and talk about it!) and Elizabeth Gilbert says that a belief in balance is just one more way to sabotage yourself, one more way to stand between yourself and your dreams.  I can't say what has tipped the scales for me, whether it is all the changes I've sustained in the last year with a baby, a move, career changes, and an icy, wind-lashing Michigan winter, but something has tipped and I find myself with far more questions than answers this season, severely humbled.

On the plus side, it became clear to me this week how much my mom understands the language of babies.  Samantha is blossoming and squawking and banging and exploring in ways she was not just a week before, and I love watching - or rather, hearing - the transition.  It's like the girl has finally found her voice, and I'm so happy for her.  I'm also inspired: it's possibly no accident that the daughter of two writers has been on the quiet side for most of her life.

In that vein, for a number of reasons, I want to post here more frequently.  Sometimes the most appropriate response to confusion is stillness, but I always find my way out of muck with words, the light thread of gossamer promises I am both following and also weaving myself.  In fact, writing is my way of finding stillness, so here we go.  I hope to see you here more often.  Maybe together we can squawk and bang and explore life in all its wild and wooly ways, or you can just watch me slip and slide my way along this season's muddy slope.