Sunday, December 26, 2010


Yet another sacrifice I have made for my children: wine glasses with stems. Back in the golden days, evening could find me sipping my nightly dose of red wine from an elegantly stemmed goblet which would relay no excessive heat from my fingertips to the delicately balanced alchemy within. I liked to drink while reading on the couch. I still like to drink and read on the couch, but now the book is usually something about Star Wars, Thomas the Tank Engine, or Henry and his big dog Mudge, and now my wine glass is a sturdy creature that used to hold jam from the farmers' market. We do have one wine glass leftover from the eight-year-long stemware massacre; I save it for special occasions, like when all my children are somewhere else after seven o'clock at night. It's not that they are malicious, jealous little people who insist the greater portion of my attention be on them, not my wine, but everywhere they go chaos follows and wine glasses suffer. Someone breathes weirdly in someone else's ear and the whole room erupts. Someone mutters an offending comment on the nature of someone else's artwork and battle ensues. No, my house is not conducive to stemware. Someday my lone wine glass will have friends again. But for now it holds a certain allure, a timeless grace wrought by its solitary stature. I can go on vacation just by sipping near-decent wine from a special vessel, without ever leaving my couch.

Last week in the midst of all of the end-of-school thesis chaos my husband brought me flowers at work. Not the cut bouquet type of flowers that need arranging, a water-filled vase, and will die shortly afterwards; but rather a lovely scarlet-colored cyclamen known as Tianis Fantasia. (It seemed an aptly named gift, a cycla-men from my bike-riding husband.) Wordplay aside, after taking off the plant’s protective clear wrap, I made sure to read the instructions. I went over everything at least twice so I wouldn’t screw anything up. I knew that I needed to water the plant from the bottom, and not too often. Unfortunately, I came in a few days later to discover the stems splayed everywhere, the poor plant dying of thirst. I set it in a container of water, and in a short time all was well. The first thing you notice about the plant is that the flowers are quite striking; they seem to mysteriously spring up out of the green leafy undergrowth. As the stem that holds them extends, it is bent then begins to right itself; the flowers start to unfurl, darkening as they open. The leaves appear so sturdy and the flowers so vibrant but delicate--each depending on the stems to hold them aloft. This is the part of the plant that is neither showy nor eye catching, but is necessary. A quick look outside reveals the bare stems that are sticking up out of the snow, they are a promise of the season that awaits us. A renewal, rebirth, the relief/re-leaf of Spring. Like our bones or spine, they add structure, a rigidness that defines and supports us. In a way they are like husbands who know you’d rather have a growing plant than a dying floral arrangement, sturdy and dependable with a burst of color or surprise when you need it most.

Monday, December 20, 2010


I don’t remember a December such as this. The end-of-the-years in my memory are filled with lights and festive feelings. The starkness of the snow outside has always been in sharp contrast to the warmth and luminescent atmosphere inside. This year is different. My mind has been elsewhere, focused on my studies to the exclusion of everything else. At the same time there has been a feeling of loss permeating everything like a heavy fog. I know four individuals who have lost a father this month. They range in age from 9 to 49, and yet the absence is razor sharp for each. My heart is where I felt their pain the most, it is an ache that won’t quite leave.

Finding time or inspiration for a blog entry this week seemed out of the question. In our free magazine bin at the Library I happened to glance down and spotted a book called, A Woman in Berlin. The cover was intriguing, so I took it home. Reading the introduction in bed that night I discovered that the diaries were an actual account of an anonymous woman over the course of eight weeks in 1945. I read on, interested to learn more about her. I was then rewarded with this quote: ‘My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hope begin with food.’ There it was, like the clink of a shovel when it hits buried treasure. Yet I didn’t know how I was going to use this sentiment to inspire my own work. December is a time for food: eating and relishing, tasting and savoring. Plates and stomachs are often full, at least it seems that way to me. In some ways this is our gift to others: jars of homemade granola, bags of roasted nuts and tins of cookies. We also try to extend the bounty to other families by giving to local organizations. Everyone should be full this time of year, on good cheer as much as good food.

Still I didn’t find this quote to be the inspiration I was looking for, so I kept on reading. After a few pages I found it, the connection I had been seeking: ‘My stomach was fluttering… I felt the way I had as a schoolgirl before a math exam—anxious and uneasy, wishing that everything were already over.’ This is exactly how I feel about my thesis. There are butterflies inside my tummy who have taken up permanent residence. I think they’ve made themselves at home there, with a picket fence and a cute little handpainted mailbox. At all hours of the day I am anxious and nauseous, the thought of failing has me so paralyzed my fingers can’t often find the right keys. Then I try to put it all in perspective. The narrator of the book’s introduction illuminates a bit of the woman’s writing process when he says, “When a more permanent order was restored she was able to copy the contents of her notebooks on a typewriter.” My words aren’t a matter of life and death, and I am fortunate enough to be writing at a computer where I can revise and edit to my (or my advisor’s) heart’s desire. I am so lucky in so many ways. Maybe I should be thankful for my butterflies, they mean I care about my work. Heart or stomach, I feel just as deeply with each.

When I was about three or four months pregnant with T, I noticed that the space between my hip bones had filled out enough so that if I could tie a string across my stomach it would lie taught against my skin instead of sagging. I had always been skinny, and suddenly I wasn't. But I was pregnant, so I felt no compulsion to diet, exercise, or worry. Now I am not pregnant. I will never be pregnant again (knock wood). My non-pregnant weight is at the highest it's ever been. I'm not overweight, but I can't find myself in People magazine, or in any of the Boston Legal episodes we rent from Netflix. I can buy clothes off the sales rack at the local department store, but if I watch too many Hollywood movies featuring women who wear size two I start wondering if I'll ever attract the attention of construction workers again. Not that I enjoyed being, you know, objectified as I walked down the sidewalk, but on certain days a few pointed glances could really lift my mood. Now I make bargains in my head. If I eat salad for lunch I can have a cookie, or five, after dinner. If I manage to go for a run in the morning (back in the days when we woke to at least a balmy forty degrees) I can have a second helping of pasta. I wager, I stretch my neck in the mirror, I run up and down our stairs an extra time or two, and I misapply a virtuous patina to the physical sensation of hunger. What am I so afraid of? Other people's opinions. Embarrassment. That if I am overweight people won't think I'm smart. I know with my head that as long as I'm healthy it doesn't matter what I weigh, but my gut reaction to my current reflection is an internal grimace. I have digested the social concept of beauty: skinny. Kind've makes me want to throw up.

Ruben's women don't look like they worry about the overconsumption of ice cream and rum cake. They look delighted with their dimpled bellies and their thighs that could grip the breath out of their enemies. Botticelli's Venus - the string between her hip bones would certainly stretch to its limit. These ladies should be my vision of ideal, not the slips of girls holding their breath between the pages of glossy magazines or the leggy creatures on the screen who rely on generous cameras and a team of beautifiers for their looks. My stomach is not the enemy. Cupcakes are not the enemy. There is no enemy on the battlefield strewn with waistbands of the past. There is only perception. I always planned to grow old gracefully and cheerfully. I'm going to be one of those nutty chicks with a long gray braid who rides a motorcycle to the bingo game. To be graceful while growing out, too - that's a challenge, but one necessary to my sanity. It's bloody exhausting to mentally keep a running tally of consumed food. I've got other stuff to think about. Like the rum balls I plan to make, and eat, for Christmas dessert.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


When I was sixteen I had pneumonia and took to my bed for three weeks in a grand display of malaise. After the first novel day or two it was mostly horrible. My head hurt too much to read, my parents had to work and weren't available for daytime sympathy, and this was in the days before texting - my friends, off gallivanting at high school, were far removed. I couldn't even visit my horse. But, luckily, the Olympics were on. I discovered the rough drama of hockey. I discerned the dynamics of a salchow versus a lutz. I fell a little bit in love with and a lot in envy of a teen-aged skier from some Nordic country that must have had excellent socialized dental services. And I rooted hard for Eddie the Eagle, a ski jumper from England with no chance of placing anywhere near the top of the heap. Everyone rooted for Eddie. He got the most cheering, the most applause, and the announcers' voices changed to cheerful when they mentioned him, which they did often. His jumps were - short. And a little bit heroic. He didn't care that he came in last. He didn't care that his nickname reflected a faint blush of sarcasm. He was thrilled to be there, doing his best, representing his country. Several years later I heard that the qualifications grew more rigorous after those Olympics, and Eddie the Eagle didn't make it on the team for the next round of global games. He wasn't good enough.

One of my boys has that great natural ability required for swinging a perfect arch and making contact - bat or foot - that sends the ball at just the right spin toward whatever spot on the field he wishes. Another of my boys tends to stop mid-stride and spit out his mouth guard to make sure the player he just brushed up against isn't hurt, or upset, or sad. They are both delighted to be part of the team; neither of them is concerned about the varying abilities out there on the junior field. Yet. For their sakes, I wish the Olympics still offered athletes like Eddie, people who are there because they love the game, love the games. A certain type of inspiration is missing from the perfectly calibrated performance machines that now dominate the rink, field, slope, or ring. I miss the men and women who beamed at the crowds as they rounded a turn, who flung ice from their skate after a successful leap. I miss Eddie the Eagle and his delightful lack of talent, his obvious joy at just showing up. I spent three hacking weeks wholeheartedly involved with those winter games, and his is the only name I remember.

A few months ago a patron came into the Library looking for a picture of an eagle. She had recently taken up painting and wanted an image that she could reproduce on her canvas. We went downstairs to find her a book that might have what she was looking for. I could tell that she was unaccustomed to being in the Children’s Room, but we found her a very detailed photograph.(It’s a little known secret, if you want to learn anything—a language, how to knit, the rules for a particular sport or card game—try a kids book.) She left feeling happy, and in fact came back in a few hours to show me her completed masterpiece. She had indeed captured the bird’s regalness and majesty. But more importantly was her sense of accomplishment, which had to do with finding the right inspiration.

I don’t know why she felt the need and sense of urgency to draw that particular bird. I myself have never seen one. I do remember a story a friend once told me about driving along and noticing an eagle soaring in the sky. She quickly pulled over so that she could see it without running the risk of an accident. She said she saw it land on the side of a rocky ledge and thought she glimpsed a nest. Home sweet home.

It’s the nests that always inspire me, made out of anything that can be found: twigs, leaves, bits of ribbon and hair. They provide shelter and warmth; a place for eggs and baby birds. Babies that spend the day peeping and chirping, awaiting the return of a parent with a worm or bug. A nest is the place for the babies to return to as they practice flying, some needing a nudge out to get started. I wish sometimes that I could fly just like that eagle. The closest I have ever been is galloping on a horse, wind streaming through my hair. If I could, I would have opened up my wings and then let go of the reins. Maybe I'm like the baby bird, crashing and crashing to the ground before I get the hang of it, trust myself, and soar.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Hard is working on your thesis to the exclusion of everything and anyone else. Hard is putting your nose to the grindstone while your family spends the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with friends. Hard is ignoring the movies that have been coming to the local theater, turning a deaf ear to the siren song of buttered popcorn. Hard is turning a blind eye to the ever-filling laundry hamper while the stash of available clothes is rapidly being depleted. Hard is typing even when your fingers hurt, or the sty in your eye is making it difficult to focus. Hard is getting up the courage to let others read your work. Hard is reading through their critiques and criticisms, then putting all that well-meaning and intentional effort into making your work better than it was originally. Hard is thinking you will never arrive at the end, or when the end comes much sooner than you were realistically expecting. Hard is putting all of your thoughts, ideas, hopes and dream into words that come to comprise the longest document you have ever created in your life and hitting the Send button. Hard is thinking it was the end, put knowing there will still be tweaks and adjustments. Hard is resisting the urge to fling the printed manuscript across the room. Hard is the agonizing wait to find out if it has been given the seal of approval. Hard is finally finishing and staring at the door that has just been opened, before stepping into unfamiliar territory wondering “Now what??!” But easy, ahhhhhh. Easy is…

These days, the hardest thing I do is yoga. Sure, raising children is hard, but it's hard in the same way digging a hole is hard: one shovelful of dirt after another, the occasional boulder that takes massive effort (and restraint) to budge. Not hard in a dangerous way. Yoga isn't dangerous either; there's pretty much zero chance of being escorted to the emergency room with broken bones, facial wounds, or bloody stumps. Yes, my hips hurt. Yes, my shoulders feel a bit tapped. But I don't feel weak and mortal upon entering the studio. I used to laugh at danger from a great height. I climbed trees to the thinnest branches, where, when the wind blew, I swayed along with the sticks that barely held my teenage weight. I used to ride a horse that thought it a joke to spring me from his back every. damn. day; I obliged with legs of vapor and never acknowledged I might die from this. I jumped out of a plane once. With a parachute, but still. Now, the swings at the playground give me pause. I rode the tea cups with L at the fair last year and nearly had to plead with the toothless attendant to stop the ride. The top of the Super Slide at the same fair - I couldn't look out, only down at my own shaky feet. I live now in a soft tunnel padded with ever-present laundry, bolstered by the conviction that I am sparing my children potential heartache by staying so safe and so alive; but it's an excuse. Really, I've just turned into a chicken. Have you heard about these woman who leave behind their babies to climb treacherous mountains in distant countries which may not have adequate emergency response times? My knee-jerk reaction is to grimace and shake my head: how selfish. But I'm hiding a deep, persistent envy. I'm not as brave as those women. I've made it a daily habit to turn away from the hard stuff. Maybe, like so many other things (lingering over morning coffee, all-day Jane Austen movie marathons, working for more than five minutes without interruption), risk will come back into my life when my children are further along the path toward adulthood. I'm not sure I'll ever leap from a perfectly good plane ever again, but at least I might get back on a horse. Or even climb to the uppermost branches of a swaying tree.