For Now

Maybe all the Frozen 2 has gotten to me. Our nearly-five-year-old is as Elsa-obsessed as the next little kid, and we’ve had both soundtracks on repeat since December, with accelerated listening as the pandemic has grown. Even our 2-year-old, who is barely speaking in sentences, can confidently bust out with “Let it go! Let it gooooo….”

But it’s the quiet song in the next film, “The Next Right Thing,” that I keep returning to, every day in this limbo world of the pandemic. (Is it stuck in your head now, too? Sorry/not sorry.) I’m not on social media, I check the news once in the morning and once in the evening, and I delete most of the daily deluge of “how we’re responding to COVID” emails.

Maybe it sounds cheesy but right now the most I can do is the next right thing. All I can control is how I respond right now, using my best understanding of the information that’s available in this moment.

What good will it do me to wonder what if, what’s next, how long? I’m trying to figure out how to get through the next hour without fear clamping its tight, sweaty hands around my throat. With a chronic illness I’ve just barely gotten a handle on that is triggered by stress and anxiety, it’s a matter of survival, for me, to learn how to choose not to dwell on things I can’t control.

I get that not everyone has that luxury, and I am grateful to the trained professionals who make “What if” and “How long” their daily work. As a whole, at the level of city, state, and national leadership, we do need to ask those questions in order to end the pandemic.

But as an individual, as a student and the mother of two young children, my main job is to stay healthy and sane enough to keep going, and help my family stay healthy and sane. I’ll even be as bold as to hope we might still thrive in spite of the dramatic changes to our daily lives. If “What if” has a role in my life right now, it needs to be one that serves my little family, and supports those goals.

What if we feel our fear and our sadness alongside joy at the beauty of the spring day outside, alongside our pleasure at seeing the familiar faces of preschool friends on the laptop screen? What if we notice when we’re getting grumpy and say it out loud, stomp our feet together until we’re laughing, and ask for an extra hug? What if we make it a habit to do something little and nice for someone every day, and see how it makes us feel? What if we don’t feel like getting out of bed, but we get up and get dressed anyway?

Today we begin week two of… what do we call it? Self-quarantine, sheltering in place, social-distancing? Oregon just made it official this morning, but my family’s been sheltering in place for a week now. I’m working and going to school remotely, while home with the kids, and my husband goes to work in his shop. (He runs a small manufacturing business that can thankfully still practice under the new guidelines.) Occasionally we have shouted conversations with the neighbor across the street. We take giant steps to the side when we pass people on the path at the park up the street. And we make daily Facetime, Hangouts, and Zoom dates with friends and family across the city and around the country. It’s working okay for now, but I definitely have moments of overwhelm, every day. It’s challenging sometimes to stay in touch when we mostly, of course, talk about what’s happening related to the pandemic.

Today is week two, but it’s also noon. So my kids and I check the daily schedule we taped to the wall, to give us something to anchor to, stay grounded when the bottom has dropped out from under us. It’s just a colorful piece of computer paper, with drawings my kids can “read,” and a paperclip on the side that my daughter can slide down to the next activity on the list. This morning we’ve had free play, some movement (yoga), and outdoor play (backyard sandbox digging and a walk around the block.) At noon, it’s time to clean up toys, wash hands again, and help make lunch. Then we’ll rest and do some coloring or painting, and head outside again to pull weeds or work on the snap pea trellis up in the garden.

Although this age range has its own challenges, I’m mostly grateful that my kids are young, and we’re not worried about keeping the on track academically. I am trying to keep them from asking me 10,009 times a day if it’s time to eat a snack or watch a show. I’m trying to keep myself from losing it.

There are so many ways to move through the impossible. This is what’s helping us, for now. It has been a helpful reminder when we don’t know what to do. All we can do is the next right thing.

Little Idea Bank

Art Activities, Week 1, from The Artful Parent, by Jean Van’t Hul
Monday: Paint a Song; Q-Tip pointillism
Tuesday: Draw cars and houses, mail to friends, ask them to draw people and mail back
Wednesday: Fingerpaint and cut out a banner
Thursday: Bake teddy bear bread for dinner
Friday: Make and play with homemade playdough

Movement
Ride bikes and scooters
Jazzercise on demand
Yoga Together! by Elizabeth Jouane
Good Morning yoga flow on YouTube

Stories and Reading
Fairytales on Storynory
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Audible or Libby versions)
Red House, Tree House, Itty Bitty Brown Mouse, by Jane Godwin

Free Play
Hape Quadrilla Marble run
Alphabet foam mat

 

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

 

Miscarriage, Faith, and Self-Compassion

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I recently had a miscarriage, and moving through grief with God has taught me a lot about myself– especially how much I have to learn about self-compassion.

I’m excited to be a guest blogger at Voice of Courage today, sharing a short essay about trusting God through times of change.

Trust feels a lot different than I expected, and I’m thankful for the people God has placed in my life in the past several years who have helped me deepen my faith. I’m learning that there is room in faith for all kinds of emotions, including the heavy sadness and anger that come with loss. I’m learning that there is room in my relationship with God for feeling whatever I am feeling, and that when I choose to trust God, it actually means feeling everything a lot more deeply.

This dovetails with ideas about self-compassion from the Buddhist tradition and mindfulness practice. I believe God is Love, the ultimate ground of being. In Christ, God took on human form and knows our suffering intimately. Jesus tells us to Love one another even as you love yourself, and yet most of us– maybe especially in the Christian tradition– have a hard time loving ourselves. I know I do.

I have found a lot of help in learning how to do this through prayer and meditation, and through reading books by Buddhist authors and mindfulness practitioners. Since my daughter was born, I’ve found a mindfulness and self-compassion practice SO helpful in my mothering. A copy of Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers, a gift from my sister, sits dog-eared on my bedroom shelf. In addition to some basic information about Buddhist thought, it includes lots of practical ways to practice self-compassion and mindfulness as a mother. I don’t see this as a conflict with my Christian faith, because I believe God wants us to love ourselves– and mindfulness really works. I haven’t found many practical books on self-compassion in the Christian tradition. (If you have, let me know!)

If you are reading this post because you’ve miscarried, I am so sorry. I wrote this blog post for you. I hope you will find something helpful here, and just chuck anything you read here that doesn’t help. I am with you, sister, and I know this hurts.

Losing a baby is hard. Really, really hard. Because our culture throws a strange net of silence over miscarriage (though I think that it’s changing for the better), it can feel like there is no space where your grief is welcome. And yet miscarriage can bring on a huge, heavy grief that needs a lot of room.

So what do you do?

Self-compassion means taking care of yourself, but because grief doesn’t proceed logically or linearly, self-compassion doesn’t look the same from day to day. Sometimes you can barely pick yourself up off the floor. Sometimes you don’t eat well. Self-compassion means accepting ALL of it– and not beating yourself up because you’re not grieving or doing self-care “right.”

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Here are some things that have helped me take care of myself.

  • Talking about the loss with people who feel safe, including a professional counselor specifically trained to counsel women through miscarriage.
  • Reading about miscarriage, especially stories of personal experience. Links below.
  • Praying through a set of liturgies the Episcopal Church developed specifically for reproduction, including stillbirth, abortion, and infertility. I LOVE my church.
  • Watching Netflix while eating ice cream/ drinking wine/ in the tub. Perhaps all of the above. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to laugh and have a good day, and then wake up depressed the next day. Grief moves in unpredictable directions, and I find it helpful to give myself permission to check out for an hour or so when I need to (and have childcare).
  • Writing. I am working on an essay about losing my baby. Writing this blog post, slowly, over the course of weeks, has also helped me direct my focus outside of myself and connect to the reality that I share this experience of suffering with all humans.
  • Acupuncture, swimming, yoga, walking, massage, and anything else that brings stress relief and relaxes my body.
  • Saying no, doing less, and being really careful about who I connect with. I’ve also checked out of social media for a while.
  • Practicing meditation, especially guided self-compassion meditations with Kristin Neff. (I found the audio book at my library, and the second link has a few free ones online.)

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When you miscarry, well-meaning people can say unhelpful things, like God has a plan, It just wasn’t time for this baby, or probably worst of all, I don’t believe it’s actually a person yet. (Yes, someone I love really said that in my presence.)

Some people won’t know how to support you, and it’s okay to be pissed off about that. After you’re done feeling pissed off, you can ask for what you need, and you can keep learning how to give yourself what you need.

I am INCREDIBLY grateful for the wealth of support I have received from my family and friends through this grief. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I wanted to write down some of what I learned while grieving, in part so that I can remember how to support others, too. And in part because it might be helpful for someone out there who wants to be there for a grieving friend. I know everyone grieves differently, so these are just observations drawn from my own personal experience.

Here are some ways you can support someone grieving a miscarriage.

  • Be there. Be there, be there, be there. Send a text, make a quick phone call, spend an hour sitting on the couch beside them, take them out for tea. Just say I’m here and I’m with you. That’s it.
  • Don’t try to fix it. You can’t fix it. Please don’t give advice that isn’t asked for.
  • Listen. Ask if the person needs to talk. Ask if it would help to talk about what happened. The details of miscarriage are murky in most of our minds, and it happens so differently for each woman. Personally, it really helped me to talk about what was actually going on in my body and it helped when someone was willing to listen calmly and empathically, without pity.
  • Send a card or flowers. It really does help. It’s what people do when someone dies, and miscarriage is no different.
  • Pray with them. If you are the praying type and they are, too, offer to pray with them over the phone or in person.
  • Offer (simple) help. Get groceries, bring a meal, watch their child. They might not take you up on it, but it will probably be meaningful to know you’re there.
  • Don’t forget. When it’s been a month, or when the would-have-been due date arrives, or a year later, you can bet that the date is sitting heavy on their heart. Reach out with a text or a call and tell them you’re thinking about them, and you haven’t forgotten.

Things to Read

“Hope is what my grief is held in.” From a beautiful essay on Coffee + Crumbs.

“Such a Thing.” By Kaitlin Barker Davis.

“I was pregnant, and then I wasn’t.” By Laura Ortberg Turner.

glow in the woods. This site is about baby loss of all kinds. Be cautious here if your grief is fresh, because many of these essays can be extremely hard to read.

Coming to Term.  A book about a couple’s experience with repeat miscarriages, including a lot of personal accounts from other people.

Come and Gone: A Miscarriage Remembrance.” An essay by the author of The Science of Mom.

ALL PHOTOS VIA UNSPLASH

On Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem “More Strange” at Image Journal

Angel_StatueI just started writing short introductions for Image Journal‘s weekly online feature Poetry Friday.

I love these assignments because they introduce me to new work and new poets, they get me engaged with a journal I love, and they get me thinking– not just about my craft but about my faith.

Especially the poem I recently read and wrote about.

Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem “More Strange” is a compact powerhouse of emotion and complexity. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past few weeks, moving through some heavy sadness over the brokenness of our world, while simultaneously beginning to wean my 14-month-old. I’ve been feeling weighed down by the violence in the news and grappling with my vulnerability, wanting to protect my child from what I have so little control over. It’s easy to forget God’s sovereignty and providence. It’s all too easy to imagine that grief and pain have the last word.

So this poem has helped, and I’m so grateful when poems help. To me, this too feels like a small sign of God’s living presence– that art heals, that humans can be conduits through which healing can flow. It makes me grateful that I write, that God planted the seeds of an abiding interest in poetry when I was very young. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Bagdanov’s poem is about the most intense grief I can fathom– Mary’s loss of her son– which becomes so much more than human grief, through the mystery of God’s saving grace.

Read Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem at Image Journal here.

Image: By MarcusObal (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

antler on walking poets

I love this post on Antler about “Walking Poets.”

Adele Konyndyk writes about several poems that explore the experience of the solitary walk, including Raymond Carver’s poem “This Morning.” As a poet who walks– heck, as a human being who walks– I relate to the lines she quotes from Carver, who writes of that paradox of contemplative walking: how the body’s movement generates stillness for the restless mind. Being outside stills the walker’s mind, and he’s grateful for even just the briefest freedom from “All the things/ I hoped would go away this morning.”

For me, writing is as much escape from “all the things” as it is an entrance into them. When I walk, my thoughts have wider horizons to stretch out in. I’m not trapped in their spiral, in the hurry of the clock and the press toward efficiency. I am separate from my thoughts. I can walk them out.

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When I lived in St Malo for a winter, I used to take daily evening walks– they felt like flights– around the wild, walled perimeter of the city. I liked walking into the furious wind that blew in off the waves. I liked the way the sun squeezed through the closing doors of the clouds, bruise-colored and alive. And when I got back to my little apartment, I liked the way my cheeks stung red and my head still roared with the echo of the wind.

Lines for poems have come to me on walks. Sometimes, drafts that I wrestle with at my desk seem to untangle themselves when I take them on the road.

This fall, I’ve had the pleasure of leading 52 high school freshman in a 10-week creative writing course. Together, we looked at a variety of different ways in which poets have documented a particular place through writing. And walking was central to several of these pieces. Among many shorter works, we read Alice Oswald’s Dart, Erik Anderson’s The Poetics of Trespass, Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave, and Haryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed.

One of my favorite exercises, which I borrowed from writer and teacher Jay Ponteri, was taking a tanka walk through the high school building. It’s based on Urban Tumbleweed, 365 tanka poems recording Mullen’s daily walks through Los Angeles, where she lives. The students and I carried scraps of paper and scribbled notes about what we saw, heard, thought, and felt during our 15-minute journey. Then we practiced writing a group tanka on the board, loosening the form’s traditional rules (a la Mullen) and allowing the poems to be simply 31-syllable poems, broken into three lines as we saw fit. The students wrote some astonishing poems: compressed, detailed, imaginative.

Walk

I think it’s movement that does this. Movement gets the rhythm of feet and heart into our thoughts, smoothing their disorder into pattern. It helps us make great leaps between inner and outer experience. It puts us back together again, by connecting the world of the mind to the world outside.

Kodyndyk writes:

I also see reading poetry as (to borrow an Antler phrase) a devotional practice for spiritual formation. Like poet Peggy Rosenthal, I believe that the very act of reading poetry is very much like taking a walk—that “its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.” Both walking and poetry are, to me, a kind of prayer.

I often pray when I walk, when for whatever reason I just can’t calm my mind enough to stit still. Walking is sometimes the best way to listen deeply, to “be still and know that I am God.” In the same way, writing poetry outside can be centering, quieting the mind’s chatter by focusing on language’s rhythms.

Carolyn Kizer writes: “Poetry is not prayer, but it is not not prayer.” I’m often hesitant to equate the two, because for me, they are very different, separate things. And yet, not so different. Not so separate. Perhaps walking is the best metaphor for the mystery at the center of these practices, for the moving Spirit that breathes through and animates everything.