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Summer Reading

There are so many good children’s books that come through our doors, and it’s a great joy to watch our children delight in them. I love everything about reading with our kids: going to the library alone or with them to fill up our book bag; bringing the bag home and dumping it out on the floor where they sit happily turning the pages; discovering which books captivate them most (always a surprise); and reading them together again and again. And then, because our four-year-old loves to look forward to things, there’s the anticipation of returning to the library to start the whole process over again. Every week, she asks me, “Did you get me new books? Is today a library day?”

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of our library’s summer reading program.

I love the different theme the library organizes each year ( space-themed “Explore a World of Stories,” for 2019), and the sweet little game boards each kid gets to take home, which we tape to our wall near the kitchen table. I love the free themed activities throughout the summer. I love the prizes my kids earn, like tickets to the Children’s Museum, OMSI, or a dip in a Parks & Rec pool. I love, most of all, the opportunity to notice and celebrate reading, a habit that has become central to our home and family life.

For now, our kids are little enough that they don’t really understand the game boards. When asked to, Sky likes to color in the squares for each day we read for 15 minutes, but we usually forget. We read all day long. The kids bring books into our bed first thing in the morning, and demand that we read to them on the potty or in the tub or at meals or before bed. Sometimes I find myself actually saying, “No,” (and fighting off the associated mom guilt) because my voice gets tired! So it’s more a matter of remembering to color in the squares and bring the boards to the library on the days when we can pick out prizes. I have to say, I get really excited about the T-shirts. I like collecting them each year, and I wear all of them regularly and proudly.

Here are some of our fave picks from this summer.

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Sky, 4 years old

One of Sky’s surprise favorites was Hansel & Gretel, by Bethan Woollvin, which imagines the story in reverse, as if the children were wicked and the witch good. The illustrations are bright and nostalgic and the narrative is fun to read. We both loved Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli, by Kyo Maclear, with its “shocking pink” end-papers and floral illustrations. I’ve been enjoying the plethora of new children’s books on female heroines and might make a list post about them. Sky liked the part where the young Elsa tried to plant flower seeds on her face (!) and designed a hat that looked like a shoe. I loved the story of a woman turning disappointment into boldness and embracing her eccentricities. I appreciate a good message in a kids’ book– one that teaches a gentle lesson without being heavy-handed. That’s the case with Oliver: The Second-largest Living Thing on Earth, by Josh Crute, a sweet story of a giant sequoia tree who’s so focused on the fact that he’s not the biggest tree in the forest, he doesn’t notice the other amazing trees around him. I may have gotten the chills. We also found a taped-up copy of Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary, in a neighborhood “little library” box, and we’ve been reading it slowly, chapter by chapter, before bed. This is the first in a series I loved as a kid, and its author wrote many of her books while living in Portland, so it’s fun to see characters named after streets we drive through every day.  Another fun read was The Neighbors, by Einat Tsarfati, a funny story with fantastically-detailed pictures, about a little girl who lives in a building with all kinds of interesting people– circus-performers, an explorer and his pet tiger, even a pirate and his mermaid wife. She thinks her own family and their apartment are boring– but there’s a twist. You’ll have to read it to find out.

 

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Books for Both Kids

It’s been a challenge to figure out how to read to both kids. The real estate of my lap is only so big, and someone always ends up getting pinched or crying. But once we settle in, they will now often sit still together for a while and listen to one book. A Lion is a Lion, by Polly Dunbar was a big hit for several weeks. We read it so much they both memorized parts of it, and would shout together, “No, no, no!” and “Now it’s time to go, go, go!” This book is about two children who befriend a lion, who puts on the charm and seems fun and sweet for a while, but then reveals himself to be a regular old scary dangerous lion. The kids learn to shout “NO!” and tell the lion to get the hell out. A fun and yet unexpectedly serious read, with an important safety message. Another book we could read together is one I’ve mentioned before: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. I’m noticing a theme of rhythmic, easily-memorized text paired with animals. Which brings me to that standby, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, a book we now own and that gets daily attention in our house. They love to find the goldbug.

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Robin, 18 months

This busy little boy is into anything with wheels. A favorite this summer was Go, Bikes, Go! by Addie K Boswell, with a really well-done rhyme scheme and lots of fun pictures of different bikes. Robin loves to point and shout, “Bike!” any time he sees one out in the real world, so you can imagine the thrill of this book. Another book we’ve had to renew several times is Fiona’s Feelings, by John Hutton, with cute photos of the baby hippo at the Cincinnati zoo, with a surprisingly wide range of expressions. Robin loves this book about the “bippo” and it’s a nice variation on the common “how does baby feel” theme.
Libby Babbott-Klein’s Baby Feminists has lift-the-flap illustrations of famous feminists as babies, all structured on the same refrain: “Before she was a supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a…. baby!” Robin was delighted that he could always supply the right answer. He’d bring us this book, climb into our laps, and start shouting, “beebee!”

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Grown-up Books

We kicked off our summer with The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden, by Karen Newcombe, which has been a great resource as we’ve built and tended to three small plots in our neighborhood. This is the first year since our kids were born that we’ve had the bandwidth to start gardening again, and it’s been a challenge to learn how to do so, successfully, in small spaces. This book gives you layout ideas, companion planting guides, rotation plans, and an alphabetized guide to each popular vegetable. I’m singing its praises as we harvest big salads, zucchini, and greens for dinner. Lyle and I both read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter, a sobering look at how the internet, social media and video games have altered both our cultural and psychological landscapes. I’d already been leaning toward completely deleting my social media accounts, and this was the final shove I was looking for. (More on this another time.) It took me all summer, but I finally finished An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, by Matt Richtel. By far one of the best books I’ve read in a long while, this was the book I was looking for when I was researching and writing this essay. I’ve long been interested in immunity, and I appreciate science writing that tells a story, connecting the complexities of human systems to actual living humans. Now I’m on to The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, for the anti-racism book club I attend once a month. This is a book that takes a hard look at mass incarceration as the new racial caste system it is. I attempted to read this years ago, when it was first published, and I’m grateful for the chance to try again, in the company of others looking for change.

Winter Reading, 2018 + 2019

I’m re-posting a round-up from last year (on my now-obsolete blog A Patch of Earth) about winter reading with my daughter Sky. I wrote quite a few reading round-ups on that blog and had a lot of fun reflecting on the books my daughter especially liked at her current age, because there are SO many incredible children’s books. It’s a practice I’d like to do more of here on my professional website, because as writers we are truly shaped and formed by the books we read, from childhood on up.

I’ve enjoyed getting to immerse myself in reading with my kids– but it’s not always easy to find books that resonate with your child. We have a wonderful children’s librarian at our local branch who consistently chooses exceptional books to feature in the children’s section. Now that I’m wrangling a wiggly 1-year-old while keeping tabs on my 3.5 year-old as she free ranges through the stacks, I have even greater appreciation for the easy-to-grab books available on the top of the main shelves. (THANK you, Jeanie.)

But even then, books that I love for Sky aren’t necessarily the ones that she loves– especially as she gets older and more independent– so I’m happy to share her favorites here, at 2.5 (2018) and 3.5 (2019). I share my own favorite reads as well.

2018

After nearly ten years in the rainy Pacific Northwest, there is nothing I look forward to quite so much as spring. Whether because of the sharp contrast with the long gray days of winter, or because of the wide variety of flowering plants in yards and parks, spring in Portland is outrageously beautiful. Cherry trees lay down carpets of pink on city streets, and renegade daffodils and crocuses disrupt tidy lawns, even the narrow edges of used car lots. It’s warmer out and there are those lovely, sudden downpours through big shifting clouds. It comes at exactly the right time, when most of us are starting to feel blue and impatient, with just enough color and unpredictability to get us through the remaining two months of rain.

Sky and I planted some sweet peas the other day– one of those surprising days of pure sunshine. Somehow I always end up planting them several weeks too late, but they bloom anyway.

So in honor of spring and in celebration of a relatively warm, easy winter, here’s a look at some of our favorite books from last season.

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Sky (2.5 years old)

Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match, Megan Maynor
Do friends have to like exactly the same things in order to get along? Maybe not. This sweet book teaches the importance of being true to yourself in friendship, in a subtle and humorous story that preschoolers can grasp. Sky liked how the penguin wore his pants as a hat. This was a repeat request at bedtime in our house. Happily, there are several in a series about Ella and Penguin.

Fire! Fuego! Brave Bomberos, Susan Middleton Elya
A catchy rhyme with Spanish words mixed in, and a glossary in back for pronunciation. The fire crew suits up and heads out to put out a house fire and rescue a cat, with just the right blend of realism and play for little ones, so it’s not too scary. This was the perfect book for Sky, who attends a bilingual preschool and has an apparently typical preschooler obsession with firetrucks. I think these obsessions have their roots in fear. Just as with her fascination with the car wash, haircuts, and doctors, Sky is working out her fear of firetrucks through play and repetition. The sound of sirens was initially really frightening for Sky, but after we visited a fire station and talked to the firefighters, the sound became something she was excited about and interested in.

Busy Builders, Busy Week, Jean Reidy
This was one of those books I wasn’t particularly crazy about, but Sky absolutely LOVED. It’s a great two-for-one: lots of construction verbs (dig it, doze it, dispose it!) paired with a lesson in the days of the week. Each day, a construction crew of animals moves onto the next phase of construction on a mystery project. (Spoiler alert: it’s a whimsical animal-themed playground.) This is another story told in rhyme, and Lyle and I were both shocked when we realized Sky could recite huge portions of the book after less than a week of reading it. Little ones’  minds never cease to amaze us.

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
, Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
I discovered this book in a funny way. I had just gotten Robin down for a nap when Sky woke up from hers, so I grabbed my iPad and hunted for a short cartoon on Amazon for us to watch together, because she pretty much never uses an “indoor voice.” I was searching for Winnie the Pooh and found this beautiful little film instead. Watch the film and read the book: it’s fun to see how they animated the watercolor illustrations, and expanded on the story to give it a little more depth. We renewed this book several times and had lots of fun acting out “going on a bear hunt.” It even helped once when I needed to encourage her to keep walking. “Oh no, it’s a doorway! We can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. We’ve got to go through it!”

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Little Fires Everywhere
, Celeste Ng
I’ve had a surprising amount of time to read during this fourth trimester, mostly while Robin is nursing or napping. I loved this novel and tore through it in just a few days– a beautifully written, interlocking narrative about two families in a seemingly-perfect, manicured Ohio suburb. One of the main characters is an artist and I loved reading about her creative process, as much for the story as for the way Ng carried it off. I feel like writing about art is one of those tricky things, like writing about sex: it’s really easy to do it badly. Ng does it well. This book also explores powerful themes of race, class, and motherhood and surprised me with its emotional punch.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Got about halfway through this before I had to return it to the library, where there are about a thousand holds on the waiting list. I jumped right back on the waiting list so I can finish the rest. His essays and notes are dense and thought-provoking and well worth the time to read slowly. I appreciate how he goes to the center of the issues surrounding white supremacy in the US, then goes even further, shedding light on complexity and resisting any easy answers. His notes show his writer’s mind at work: he writes about what he thinks went well and what he didn’t quite accomplish in each essay, and that gives me hope. It means he’s not done writing yet, not for a long time I hope, and it’s refreshing to hear a writer grappling “out loud” with the struggle to master one’s craft. Especially one as gifted as Coates.

The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen
Another dense read, worthy of time and reflection– but much shorter. This book was published around the time I was born, in response to an era of “yuppies” bent on upward mobility and a level of materialism our country had never seen before. I never thought about the connection between my struggle to address consumption and materialism in my life with the year I was born. In a sense, I’ve been steeped since birth in a culture of more-more-more, and my generation is arguably the first to grow up seeing upward mobility and material wealth as natural, valid aspirations. (This is a huge assumption, but it’s my feeling that previous generations grew up with a much stronger sense of civic duty and communalism than mine did.) There’s so much to think through in this book, a look at the gospel through the lens of modern consumerism. I keep returning to the big three temptations Nouwen highlights– the temptation to be spectacular, relevant, and powerful– as drivers of consumer culture.

2019

I just discovered that we’ve read almost 900 books together since we started tracking our checkouts at the library in July 2017. That’s a lot, but it doesn’t surprise me too much since Sky tends to tear through books pretty quickly. We go to the library once or twice a week, and she checks out a lot of early readers featuring Disney characters and super heroes, while I scan the stacks for educational books on things she’s curious about, plus slower-paced picture books with beautiful illustrations. I recently implemented a 20-item limit on her card because we were having trouble keeping track of all the library books scattered around our home. Some books don’t interest Sky much; we will read them once and then set them aside for our next library trip. She tends to read and reread the early readers (either looking at the pictures or having us read them aloud to her.) I don’t push her to read them herself. If she shows an interest, I will help her sound out a word here or there, then have her be in charge of reading the word again when it shows up in the text. If she gets annoyed with it, I drop it and just read to her. To me it’s more important to nurture the great joy she takes in the experience of reading and stories. I know she will read at her own time, when she is ready.

Here are the books we returned to quite a lot this winter (and spring.) Plus two bonus books for our newest reader.

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Robin, 16 months

Robin has been a very busy guy since he started walking at 13 months. Unlike his sister, he did not show any interest in sitting to read a book until very recently. Then suddenly, it was like he “got” that reading was a special activity he could do. Now he loves to run and get his books from the shelf, bring them over, and sit in our laps to listen to the story. He always chooses the same two books: Five Little Monkeys by Eileen Christelow,  and Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. He likes to turn the pages and join in reading, as these books have a heavy, repetitive rhyme scheme. He shakes his little finger and says, “Mo-mo MUN-kee dump da DEH,” his version of “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” Or he will very insistently “Vroooom!” as we read through the story of the friendly blue truck.

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Two books that stand out for me from the past six months are Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings, by Francie Latour, and Under the Christmas Tree, by Nikki Grimes. Both made an impression on me because Sky fell asleep while we read them– several times. Not out of boredom, but because these books share a winning combination of beautiful illustrations and lyric, vivid language. I really enjoyed reading them aloud– can you remember the last time you said that about a children’s book, and meant it? Grimes’ book is a collection of simple, evocative poems about the Christmas season from a child’s perspective, while Latour’s in the story of a young girl’s visit to her painter aunt in Haiti, where she sits to have her portrait done and learns about her country’s history.

Similarly, Thunder Horse, by Eve Bunting combines dream-like paintings with a magical story about a tiny horse given to the speaker by her aunt, which grows up to be a mysterious, full-sized pegasus. The pegasus eventually has to go, and so it’s a story of loss told gently enough for a young reader. (Spoiler: the pegasus does eventually return to visit the little girl.)

The remaining books appealed to the classic prechooler obsession with underpants and barf. I can’t count the number of times we read and renewed Sometimes You Barf, by Nancy Carlson, and Underpants Dance, by Marlena Zapf. Sky had her first experience with the stomach flu this year, and it was a bewildering experience that left her with a lot of questions. The book is a semi-humorous explanation of what happens, and what the people around you tend to do, when you barf. Meanwhile, Underpants Dance helped us talk about why we don’t show our underpants outside the home, through the silly story of a wild 3-year-old’s stubborn dance.

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This winter, I’ve been deeply engrossed in biology, taking prerequisite courses in microbiology and anatomy and physiology as I prepare to begin my acupuncture program in September. My reading energy and time has been redirected to my textbooks, but I’ve still made time to read for pleasure. I just can’t seem to go for long without a good read. I savored the e-book Punking: The Praxis of Community Acupuncture, by Lisa Rohleder (free! but please donate to POCA!), with tons of great links to outside resources on the science, sociology, and psychology behind the effectiveness of community acupuncture for pain management and addiction.

Lisa’s book led me to a curiosity about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker in the 1940s, a radical hospitality organization in New York City that sparked a national movement, and turned the idea of charity on its head. I read Day’s grandaughter’s new memoir of her grandmother, a personal look at Day’s relationship with her daughter Tamar, and ultimately the web of relationship binding Day’s extended family to the larger Catholic Worker movement. I appreciated Hennessy’s eloquence and candor, as she took on the daunting task of humanizing a woman variously condemned or subjected to hagiographic awe– neither of which fully illuminate the remarkable legacy of a woman who was, finally, as gifted and flawed as anyone else. Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessy, was an engrossing read.

Likewise, I enjoyed The Gifts we Keep, by Kate Grindeland, the 2015 winner of Multnomah County Library’s Writer Project, for its portrait of a family wrestling loss and painful truths about themselves. Grindeland writes in the alternating perspectives of five characters, giving each a unique and moving voice. I found myself in awe of her ability to unravel the knot of tightly-held family secrets through each character’s thoughts and actions, taking her time doing so and never seeming burdened by plot. Thanks to a recent collaboration with PSU’s Ooligan Press, this book is now available in both print and e-reader editions. I’m so impressed with our library system. Love this new venue for independent publishing and fresh voices.

Finally, I’m finishing up Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter, which is confirming a lot of what I’ve felt for some time about social media. I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it up for good soon. I get that there’s benefit, but I’ve personally continued to find it more harmful than helpful. I’d like to return to more direct, simple ways of connecting with others, and reclaim my capacity to reflect and process information offline.  The final 1/3 of Alter’s book offers some simple, effective strategies to do that, though his ultimate takeaway is not to give up on social media entirely, but rather to find a balance.

Carey Taylor’s The Lure of Impermanence

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I always admire poets who paint a vivid, compelling picture of a setting or situation that seems, on its surface, to be “about” one thing– but through the smallest inflections and details, suggests something deeper.  Carey Taylor is one of these poets, and her new collection The Lure of Impermanence is full of poems like this.

In “Pomology,” we have only one line to anchor us in the unmentioned story– “morphine drips”– while the rest of the poem gives us a tender portrait of the speaker’s father’s passionate knowledge of a certain kind of apple. He is telling the nurse, in detail, about the apples’ “low disease susceptibility,/ how they are foolproof really,/ reliable, well balanced,/ and sweet,” while his wife lies in a hospital bed. He has just asked the nurse “how long before his wife can go home,” and the unanswered question hangs in the space between the lines of the poem, telling us all we need to know.

Impermanence– what is brief, mortal, transient, uncertain– is like that. Tricky in its hidden obviousness. There at the end of a life, a sentence, a moment, anything really. Expected– and yet always wholly unexpected.

“Arrivals and Departures” is a lament of the world continuing, cruelly, after the death of a loved one. The poem accuses “the cottonwoods in the ravine” of continuing to blossom right in the face of a friend’s quiet grief. Outrageously, “the ferry in the harbor moaned/arrivals and departures,” a loud reminder of what is both ever-changing and constant. Yet there are also markers of mortality that don’t hurt– “hope on a stem/ in the name of trillium and iris.”

This double-possibility, this tension, is the thread weaving this collection together. The poem of lament stands beside the poem of celebration and gratitude. The natural and the man-made world are full of reminders of impermanence, and they are both luminous and terrible. These are strong poems, rich in color and imagery, peopled with both the familiar– the faces of neighbors, tea kettles, socks– as well as the mysterious: gemstones, airborne observatories, earthquakes.

I loved this book for the way it offers language for holding the confusion of life’s experiences together in cupped hands, not trying to explain or deny, but not giving in to despair either.

I met Carey last summer when we both read at the Lents Farmer’s Market here in Portland, and we read together again this past January. She’s a talented reader, full of warmth and humor, and it’s wonderful to hear these poems aloud. You can hear her read from The Lure of Impermanence this Saturday at the Inland Poetry Festival in Washington, and follow her here for more of her writing and events.

 

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First Book, First Reading

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Oh, hi. It’s me again. Surfacing after months of quiet here on the blog to say, I made a book, and now it’s a real and beautiful object in the world, and I’m thrilled.

Rupture, Light is a chapbook just published by Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection touching on themes of loss, faith, and identity, often through the lens of my experience as a mother. These are poems I wrote and revised beginning in 2011, and so they reflect life experiences from graduate school all the way up through the births of my two children. For about four years, I revised and submitted the manuscript again and again as time allowed, against the backdrop of bearing and raising my kids, healing from injury and chronic illness, returning to work and redefining my purpose and identity in the wake of the upheaval of motherhood.

When I was pregnant with Robin, I felt a powerful wave of energy coaxing me to just get this book out there, one way or another, before he was born. I knew that becoming a family with two kids would be a major transition, and I wanted to sort of clear the decks– creatively and logistically. On a practical level, having already come through the babyhood of one child, I knew the level of focus and energy needed to pursue publication wouldn’t be available to me for at least a year after Robin was born. And on a creative level, which was the more powerful motivating force, I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world, honored and amplified in the way only a “real” book can.

Following Sky’s birth in 2015, I had abruptly stopped writing poems, and had begun instinctively to write long-form essays, something I’d never done with much confidence or inspiration prior to that. I’m still puzzling over the shift, which has remained. Firstly, at least for me, it that even though they are technically “shorter,” crafting poems requires a greater level of attention, presence, and quite frankly time than does crafting prose– and needless to say those things can be in short supply when you have young children. The same goes for reading poetry. Sure, you can whip through a collection of poems in a couple of hours, but it takes months, sometimes years, to really absorb a collection’s message and integrate it into what you currently think you know about the world. For me, the same is not usually true for reading and writing narrative nonfiction, and so I think I’ve naturally gravitated to a form that allows a little more flexibility during this busy season of motherhood.

All that to say, I needed to get these poems out into the world so that I could stay “current” with where the creative spirit seems to be leading me. Perhaps now that this book has arrived, and is offering me opportunities to read my poems aloud and be among Portland’s poetry community, poems will begin to come to me again.

I have dreamed of writing and publishing since I was about ten years old. This little book is a chapbook, not a full-length collection, which can be seen as a first step into publishing for an “emerging” writer, and can also be a beautiful way for an “established” writer to showcase a small group of thematic poems, or poems that don’t seem to “fit” anywhere else. This is all publishing-world stuff, and so at certain points in the process I’ve wrestled with feelings of being somehow less than a “real” writer, with this first book not being a real book. It’s a good wrestling that mirrors a theme in my personal growth these last few years, as I’ve learned to let go of old ways of thinking in order to become more fully alive.

I want to share how this experience of fruition has and hasn’t lined up with how I thought I’d feel, and what I thought was significant about publication.

Finishing Line Press accepted my manuscript Rupture, Light in April of last year, right around Easter. A few weeks later, I had a major flare-up from a previous car accident that sent me spiraling into the worst pain of my life– constant, chronic neck and arm pain that didn’t relent until around mid-July and didn’t fully clear until late August. As I went to multiple appointments, managed medications, and struggled to keep up with my children, I was simultaneously putting together materials for producing the book, including trying to finalize cover art. I couldn’t read, write, or spend more than ten minutes at the computer without excruciating pain, so this was challenging and confusing. It was strange to be pulling the book toward reality at the same time that my body was pulling me toward a future I didn’t yet recognize– one I wasn’t sure would even include writing, which was terrifying. I lost my grant-writing clients and began to seriously consider other career options, as desk work was suddenly cast in a different light by the diagnosis of a bulging cervical disc and severe foramenal stenosis.

Minute by minute, day by day, I inched closer to healing and the book moved closer to completion and my old narratives about who I am continued to disintegrate. It was a surreal, disorienting time.

Fast-forward to last week, January 17th, when a nondescript cardboard box arrived on my front porch. I had told my 3-year-old daughter that my books would be arriving soon. My daughter is just getting old enough to understand that I am a writer, and she is as curious and passionate as I am about books and learning. So she was as excited about the books’ arrival as she might have been about Christmas.

That day, I had just learned about the death of Mary Oliver when Sky raced into my room yelling, “Mama!!! Your books are here!!” Together we sat on the living room floor and opened the box, and there was my real book, my first book of poems, right there in my hands, and meanwhile Mary Oliver was dead. The poet of my childhood and adolescence– the poet who had inspired me at a young age to pursue poetry as a vocation– had slipped from the world. It was again a strange and surreal mix of emotion.

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Last Saturday, January 12, I had the great pleasure of reading from Rupture, Light, at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop here in Portland, alongside two talented and funny and warm women and poets: Kristin Berger (Echolocation, Cirque Press) and Carey Taylor (The Lure of Impermanence, Cirque Press.) I had read with Carey in the summer as part of the poetry series Kristin organizes at our local farmer’s market. It was fun to read with both of them on the opposite side of the year, to go from wide blue summer skies to the insular world of a bookshop on a dark winter’s night.

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Kristin’s work is stunning– it’s direct, urgent, unapologetic while also speaking the language of the body, weaving in strands of the everydayness of human experience, with the necessary dry humor that requires nowadays. Echolocation floored me. It’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a while. Granted, I’ve definitely not been reading nearly as much poetry lately as I used to, but I think that further emphasizes the success of this book: it was human enough to overcome my strange resistance to reading poetry (“I’m so tired. Can I focus enough to read poems right now?”) and passionate enough to sustain my interest from page one. It was a pleasure to hear Kristin read from her book.

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The Lure of Impermanence, Carey Taylor’s first book, is on my bedside table right now. I’m enjoying its irreverence and momentum. Carey does some really amazing things with imagery in her work, especially color, and I loved listening to her read. She’s a former teacher, and so she has an easy yet authoritative presence, a way of inviting listeners right into her poems that makes you feel like you’re there with the poem’s speaker. She is just as warm and welcoming in person, and meeting her has been one of the great gifts of this new experience of publication for me.

I really loved getting to share my own poems with the people who showed up that night. The room was packed, and there was an energy of deep listening that really touched me. I met a fellow poet named Phil, who wore a broad-brimmed hat and sat listening in the front row with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face. My parents and my sister were in town for my son’s birthday, also the 12th, and my husband and four of my close writer friends were there. I’m not sure you could ask for a more affirming space to read. I felt relaxed and happy and like I could speak from my heart as I talked about the origins of each poem.

I’m deeply grateful for the chance to do this in my lifetime– to make poems, to make books, and to read with and for others. I hope I get to write many more poems (and essays and maybe even fiction) and bring many more books into the world.

Slow Summer Reading: A Review of Relief Journal

Summer went by quickly for me this year.

With a wiggly baby and active preschooler, I spent a lot of time running back and forth from the park to swim class, back home for the baby’s nap, and out again for another fun summer activity from our bucket list.

By day’s end I was tired, but I’d try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading before falling asleep. Reading has been a huge part of summer for me since I was a kid, and I’m continuing that tradition with my own children. We all participated in our library’s summer reading program. While my kids and I tore through almost 100 picture books, it took me all summer to finish my small stack of non-fiction books.

I felt energized by all of this activity, and engaged in my reading, and I also had to consciously create time to slow down– to plan days with nothing on the schedule, put away all screens for a few days here and there, go barefoot in the backyard grass and dirt with my preschooler, and just sit on the back porch with my husband after the kids’ bedtime.

So I was grateful when the most recent issue of Relief Journal landed on my porch, smack in the middle of a heat wave in the middle of July. It had been a while since I’d made the time to sit down with this or any other print journal and just enjoy reading new work from a range of writers. I really loved this issue (spring 2018) and I wanted to share my reflections on some of my favorite pieces.

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Susanna Childress’s essay “Age Appropriate” absolutely floored me. I’ve shared it with a number of friends and I continue to think about not just its content, but the way in which Childress weaves together political commentary, personal narrative, and even a bit of nature writing, all with a poet’s ear for rhythm and eye for image.

She writes about the challenge of talking about difficult subjects with her young son. How should she tell him about the loss of babies who would have been his younger siblings? How does she explain police brutality, and the shooting of black parishioners during a bible study, and why his black friend’s mom has to have completely different conversations with her son about playing outside? In some ways, there is no “age appropriate” language for the territories of grief and injustice. Childress does a breathtaking job of taking the reader with her through a maze of questions– her own and her son’s– that ultimately have no easy answer.

I admired the clarity and directness of Chris Anderson’s poems “Transfigurations” and “You Never Know,” which tackle mystery in different but complimentary ways. What really happens to the bread and the wine in communion? How do we comprehend the paradox of Christ? What happens when we die? I liked how conversational these poems were, how apparently simple because of ordinary syntax, ordinary diction. This is the kind of poetry that really get to me, the kind that is able to say something essential yet utterly new, in language that feels as worn and familiar as a kitchen cutting board.

I love Marjorie Stelmach’s work, and her poem “Salt” in this issue is no exception, with its cascade of vivid imagery and precise sound spilling into sudden revelations like, “Somedays, it feels right to be weathered,” and “I know/ I’ve taken safety for granted, as if it were earned.” In “Vinegar,” she writes about Christ’s death on the cross and the mystery of faith as reflections of our own reality– we are spiritual and physical beings, needing both the concrete goodness of earth and confirmation that this isn’t all we are. I love how this poem begins with “If it’s true,” which seems to me is the ongoing dialogue of faith.

Then there’s Laura Arciniega’s strange speculative world in “The Shell,” which made me deeply uncomfortable in a good way. A mother is baking bread for her young son, and later a young couple visits the family, and they walk on the beach. It’s a seemingly simple story. But there is something different about the mother, the bread, the son, and the beach. The father tells the son a story: “Far away, there is a place where the day passes so slowly that a hen knows she’s about to lay an egg before she lays it…” We learn that in this world, a lifetime takes only a few weeks. To me, this story is about the strange weight and flexibility of time, which is so relevant to me in this phase of early motherhood.

There are many, many other poems, essays, stories, and even a comic diary in this issue that challenged me and got me thinking. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Relief, this issue would be a wonderful introduction.

Overall, I was left with deep gratitude when I finished this issue. It took some time– a month and a half!– to read and absorb each piece in here. Yes, part of that is because I’m the mother of two small children. And another part is that this is a carefully, lovingly crafted journal, filled with work that does not shy away from the full range of human experience. I read and thoroughly enjoyed each piece in this issue, and that’s something I don’t often experience in a literary journal.

I felt impressed by the work of this work, the generosity of time and effort the writers poured into these essays and poems, so that I as a reader could be changed. I felt impressed by the work of the students at Taylor University who put this journal together under the leadership of editor Dan Bowman, a fellow SPU MFA alum.

It was an encouragement to me as a writer to continue my own work, and a reminder that good writing takes time, in the making and in the receiving. In the end, it is so worth it.

 

Writing in the Margins Again

Hello out there. My baby boy is three months old, the fourth trimester has come to an end, and I’ve been slowly returning to my writing practice. In a few weeks, I’ll finish maternity leave and return to preparing grant proposals.

With my first child, I didn’t feel the need or have the energy to write creatively until my daughter was over a year old. At that point, I gathered a few friends and formed a monthly writing group, to help one another achieve our writing dreams by taking small steps— writing, revising, and providing feedback, one essay at a time.

This time around is different. I began writing creatively much earlier postpartum, and I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because the tasks of mothering a baby feel more familiar now. Maybe it’s because my identity isn’t going through as much of an earthquake, now that I’m already a mother. Maybe it’s because I’m better able to recognize the restlessness building up in me when I don’t make the time to write.

In any case, I’m writing in short bursts here and there— during nap times, after the kids are asleep, and on weekends when Lyle takes both kids to the park, the baby napping in his stroller or carrier. I’m revising essays I wrote while pregnant, gathering notes for new essays, working on blog posts, and even making time for some fun freewrites.

Here’s something I wrote as part of Coffee + Crumbs’ Instagram freewrite challenge. It’s a micro essay in response to the prompt “grow your hope,” about finding the strength to grow during the season of small children, with their own impressive will to grow. Like tiny seeds, children seem so small and powerless, yet within is a blueprint for the massive potential that lies in each of us, unfurling with breathtaking speed and power.

I wrote this one while nursing Robin, letting him fall asleep in my arms as I typed one-handed at the computer. My own will to grow is pretty fierce, I guess, and writing is part of that.

Here’s to more growth and more writing this spring and beyond.

Where I’ve Been

Awfully quiet around here lately!

In the fall, I was busy preparing a bundle of grant proposals for a client in advance of my maternity leave. I also had the pleasure of writing several articles for Red Tricycle, an online parenting magazine. It was fun getting to research and write about kid-centered activities in my city. I learned a ton and I just enjoy the work.

Some of my favorites were this roundup of affordable or free indoor play spaces, an in-depth look at where to donate used kids gear BESIDES the Goodwill, and a profile of a brand new indoor play space designed for children with sensory-processing disorders.

But the best part of my recent absence? We welcomed our son Robin into our family in early January and I’ve been soaking up time with my children since then.

I also started a little parenting blog of my own over here at A Patch of Earth. Please feel free to follow along on our adventures as a family of four. (7/29/18 Updated to add: I deleted this blog in July in favor of focusing my writing energy in one place.) I’ll be back here with more updates on my professional writing when I’m back at my desk this summer.

Happy spring everyone!

Love,

Melissa

Poetry Friday Series: Cellar Door

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Here’s my latest intro for Image Journal‘s Poetry Friday column. I’m writing about Marjorie Stelmach’s poem “Cellar Door,” from Issue 79.

I share these short intros here with you because it’s such a joy to write them, and an honor to be invited by Image to do so monthly, as it’s a journal I read regularly and really respect.

During busy weeks spent teaching and playing with my energetic toddler– days that start at 5 am and don’t stop until I sink into bed around 10– along with the more technical writing I do as a grant writer, it’s a great pleasure to pause and really take in a poem. I usually read the selected poem over the course of a few weeks, highlighting and underlining the phrases that draw me in, looking up unfamiliar references, researching context. And then I get to tackle the challenge of describing as plainly as possible how the poem works its magic on me.

Every time I write for Image, I think about Tania Runyan’s lovely little book How to Read a Poem— a poet and a book I discovered, in turn, through writing reviews for Image Update, the journal’s awesome newsletter. I run through Runyan’s tips for unlocking a poem’s mysteries: listen to consonants and rhythm, notice the images, check out how the lines are shaped, focus on the moments of surprise or discovery, and most of all, just let the poem be.

I hope you’ll join me and the other poets who “introduce” poems every Friday over at Image, and maybe even contribute your own thoughts on what makes a poem sing to you.

Image: Via Image Journal

 

When You See the Heartbeat at Coffee + Crumbs 

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In early June, my essay about waiting to miscarry appeared on Coffee + Crumbs.

“When You See The Heartbeat” is a short essay describing the two weeks between an unpromising first ultrasound just before Christmas, when the heartbeat was detectable but weak, and a second scan after the new year. Writing this essay helped me process the swirl of hope and fear I felt as I waited.

In January, we lost our hoped-for baby at 9.5 weeks, in the middle of one of the coldest, wettest, iciest winters in a city wholly unprepared for snow. It was a long and difficult winter. Spring’s arrival never filled me with as much hope and relief as this year.

On June 2nd, when this essay went up on the site, I had my first ultrasound for the baby I’m now carrying. This time, baby measured right on track with a strong heartbeat. I sobbed through that ultrasound, thinking of the baby we lost and this new little one we are so hopeful for. We are praising God that we’re at 14 weeks now, and praying this baby will be born healthy and full of life in early January of 2018.

I share this essay for anyone who is waiting, anyone who is grieving the loss of even the tiniest life. I share it in hope and with an outstretched hand if you are feeling alone in the middle of your own dark winter– even in high summer.

Photo via Coffee + Crumbs.

Creative Lives: In Conversation with Julie L. Moore at Ruminate Magazine

clem-onojeghuo-205193-unsplashLast fall, I received the enormous gift of an extended conversation with poet Julie L. Moore, facilitated by Ruminate Magazine.

Here is Part 1 of the series “Creative Lives,” a slightly edited version of our email exchange in which we discuss the highs and lows of pursuing a life in poetry.

In Part 2, we discuss writing community and the poets and writers who have shaped us. And in Parts 3 and 4, we talk about the process of building a collection of poems, and how we respond as poets to the aching, changing world around us.

I hope you enjoy this conversation on poetry and the creative process.

Photo via Unsplash