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

 

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

 

Five Read-Aloud Books for Grown-ups

When we first started dating, Lyle and I used to read aloud to each other. Dating seems like a funny word for it. We met in a trailer park in the redwoods at UC Santa Cruz, without cell phones or wifi (this was 2004), and spent a lot of time hiking, hanging out in the community hammock (I know), looking for mushrooms, and talking for hours over tea or wine. And sometimes studying. It was pretty magical.

I think we must have started with poems– probably Robinson Jeffers, whose paperback Selected Poems we were each secretly astounded to find dog-eared on the other’s shelf.

Twelve years later, we’ve just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, and reading aloud remains one of my favorite ways to reconnect with him and to those early days, when life was a lot simpler.

Here are five of our favorite read-aloud books from over the years.

monkeywrenchgang

The Monkeywrench Gang, Edward Abbey

He had a red Tacoma truck with a lumber rack, and I still remember how my heart pounded when he picked me up for a daytrip– just us, to a beach near Pescadero, for a sandy, cold picnic that turned into sunset-watching. It’s the same truck we took a few years later up to Portland, to check out a city we both thought we’d be happy in… That was a lot of miles to cover, so I brought along a paperback of Abbey’s classic novel about a group of saboteurs in the southwest, taking apart machines that threaten environmentally vulnerable places. However you feel about that, the book is incredible as a read-aloud, with plenty of dialogue and action and intrigue. I think I read this until my voice was hoarse and I couldn’t see. Later in life we discovered audiobooks.

Into the Wild
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

We read this aloud to each other in a tent in the rain, while camping along the Canal d’Ile-et-Rance in early January 2008. I was teaching English in St Malo, France, and we were on a serious budget. We took a train to Rennes for the new year, then bought second-hand bikes and a tent and rode back to St Malo along the canal, camping along the way. Sounds great, except it’s FREEZING in northwestern France in January. (We were 24 and naive. I mean, resilient.) We parked our bikes in dark orchards after midnight, huddled in our thin sleeping bags, and ate cold bread and cheese and drank cheap cognac to feign warmth. Reading Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated decision to leave civilization for the wilds of Alaska, we were distracted from the cold in our own bodies, and transported by Krakauer’s seemingly effortless prose.

All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

We read this while I was pregnant with our daughter, taking turns reading each chapter. I was exhausted, uncomfortable, and had to pee about every ten minutes, so the short, memorable chapters were just right. This book lends itself to reading aloud because it is a novel in two voices. Set in St Malo, France during the German occupation, it tells the intertwined stories of a blind French girl and German boy through luminous language. It was interesting to imagine the story happening in a city we’d lived in and explored for the better part of a year. Doerr won the Pulitzer for this book, and it’s a must-read whether aloud or silently.

intothinairInto Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

Something about early parenting pitched us into a string of mountaineering books and movies. Maybe there are similarities: intensity, extreme discomfort, and marathon exertion on thin reserves of sleep and food. Whatever it is, Krakauer’s book got us hooked– so much so that on our first date night post-birth, we went to see Meru. Then we started watching the First Ascent series, and every Everest documentary we could find online. Most recently it was Sherpa, the story of the Everest industry from the perspective of the indigenous Nepalese, who do the bulk of the mountaineering work, face the greatest danger, and receive the least benefit. Into Thin Air tells Krakauer’s side of the 1996 Everest disaster– which he experienced first-hand– and was written in grief and shock in less than a year. We knew we wanted a read-aloud book, and we knew we loved Krakauer, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The book is gripping, informative, terrifying, controversial, and so well-written.

The Curve of Time
The Curve of Time, M. Wylie Blanchet

This is our most recent read, and I’m laughing as I realize we’ve been reading it since early June! It could be a quick read, with its short, fascinating chapters, but we are tired parents and sometimes we just want to watch Colbert and go to sleep. (ha!) It’s the story of a family’s many summers spent exploring the coast of British Columbia by boat in the 1920s and 30s. And by family, I mean a widow and her five children. And by boat, I mean a 25-foot cruiser. On days when I feel uncertain about heading out in the rain with my toddler, I think about this incredibly brave woman who taught her children to read maps, pick huckleberries, and hike to freshwater streams to wash their salt-stiff clothes. But the most refreshing part of this book is its style and voice. Blanchet focuses on action scenes, keenly observant depictions of wild places long-since settled, and detached philosophical musings on the nature of time. It’s a nice change from the more introspective, highly personal memoir we’re so used to now.

General Thoughts and Less-Successful Picks
I notice a few themes: we like books about outdoor adventure, and fast-paced novels with risk and a strong narrative voice. But I’ve learned to be wary of narratives that hit too close to home, and I try to steer clear of lush literary styles that lend themselves more to silent reading.

Doerr’s book deviates from the outdoor theme a bit, but I think it worked because of the alternating short chapters told in different voices. Picking up on this thread, we joined our county library’s Everybody Reads program last winter and tried out The Book of Unknown Americans, which also has alternating chapters. In hindsight, it’s a better book for solo reading, and because it centers around a mother’s guilt over an accident that injured her daughter, it also created a lot of extra anxiety for me as a new mom often visited by worst-case-scenario visions. Not the best choice for pre-bedtime reading, for me.

We also attempted and abandoned Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a gorgeous book that would have been a perfect read-aloud when we were younger. We tried to read it when our baby was a newborn, and we were both way too exhausted to focus on the prose. I think it’s one I’d like to read alone, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a great read-aloud for you.

What are your favorite read-aloud books for grown-ups?

 

Take a Creative Leap & Receive a Gift

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Take a risk or leap with your creativity and tell me about it in the comments below. If your story grabs me, I’ll give you a one-year subscription to my favorite magazine.

Yesterday I received Issue 40 of Ruminate Magazine, in which my poem “Yellow” appears, winner of the Janet B. McCabe poetry contest. Entering the contest felt like a leap, after a hiatus from writing and submissions following my daughter’s birth.

It felt like recommitting to my dreams, and receiving the prize has been affirming and supportive. It’s helping me pay for childcare to work on my book. I’m grateful for a magazine that pays its contributors and runs contests like this one, because they’re committed to fostering and supporting a dynamic community of writers, artists, and readers.

To celebrate, I’d like to give the gift of a one-year subscription to a new reader.

Interested?

Comment below with a few words about your creative leap by October 4th, 2016. I’ll pick my favorite story and give a one-year gift subscription to this beautiful journal of art and faith.

Be bold. Submit your writing to a journal on your reach list. Apply for a grant or a fellowship. Undertake a new project. Reach out to a fellow artist and ask them to collaborate with you. Paint a big canvas when you usually work small, or a small canvas when you usually go big. Whatever feels like a risk or a long shot, try it.

I can’t wait to hear about it.

Photo via Unsplash.

***10/5/2016 UPDATE: Congratulations to Janaya Martin and D. Allen, who will both receive one-year subscriptions to Ruminate Magazine. I loved both of your stories and am excited to share this journal with you. Thanks to everyone who responded via email and social media, as well. Congratulations on all of your creative leaping. Keep it up.***

 

 

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

Writing Log # 3: Taking off

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It has been a big month!

The anthology I’ve been editing over the past year is finally finished, printed, and waiting in boxes in my living room for this week’s first mailing session and book launch party. It’s beautiful. I love it so much and I can’t wait to get it into the hands of many, many readers.

I launched my Indiegogo campaign and in a matter of weeks, my friends and family launched ME on the road to New Mexico. I leave next Friday morning for a weekend writing workshop with Tupelo Press, one big step toward finishing by first collection of poems. I’m amazed and so grateful.

And yesterday I found out that I was accepted into this year’s Teaching Artists Studio, run by Young Audiences of Oregon and SW Washington. I’m beyond excited for this series of intensive weekend professional development workshops for practicing artists who teach young people. It’s going to be incredible, and it starts in just a few weeks.

With all of this excitement (and more…), I’ve been sleeping less and thinking a lot about details. Wine cups for the event, mailers for book distribution, renting a mini-van in Albuquerque so I can carpool to the Truchas workshop with other poets. Emails and press releases and even an interview.

In between, I’ve managed a few naps, some hasty notes for poems, and sneaky bits of new reading (Mark Doty’s memoir Firebird, strange and beautiful; Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, because I still haven’t read it; Denise Levertov’s Light up the Cave, a favorite.) There’s a sinkful of dirty dishes in the kitchen, and a pile of rebar and pvc pipe in the garden, waiting to be turned back into a hoophouse for our winter bed. The ants are making inroads and the romaine lettuces are shivering, but they’ll have to wait.

I’ve been elbow deep in the pre-conference assigned writing, which is challenging and engaging– and hard to make time for during the week. I just find myself with so little energy left after commuting, teaching, prepping, commuting again, and catching up on the aforementioned details. But I’m trying.

I logged a pretty weak three hours this week. I had plans for some good writing time today, but insomnia last night and a power outage at the grocery store midday had other plans. So here I am, catching up and hoping to park myself at my desk after church tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I keep looking for moments to dip into this well of gratitude, and it brings me energy. I’m thankful for the support I feel all around me, including the community of writers I met in my MFA program. After a year apart from them, I was delighted when one plucky poet wrangled a few of us together for what I hope is a monthly Skype workshop, preceded by an exchange of our current poems in progress. That’s this Wednesday and I’m looking forward to seeing their sweet faces and connecting about our work.

 

on fear and middles and writing

When I was younger, I did my writing on the edges, in early morning and early evening. On the porch step outside my house.  At the top of a trail under an oak tree. My time was largely unclaimed, and I read and wrote with greater abandon. There were fewer anxious thoughts clamoring for my attention, penning in the pastureland my mind needed to ruminate and wander and pause.

What happens when you can’t wait for unclaimed hours?

Lately, I am writing in the middle of things. In the middle of the summer. In the middle of a long to-do list. In the middle of a messy house. In the middle of working on Winged. In the middle of full-time teaching. In the middle of anxiety. In the middle of an endless middle of grief.

Prayer happens like this, too. I read bits of Matthew and Mark on my MAX ride downtown. I close my eyes and pray silently, beside the Thai woman on her cellphone and the big man snoring across the aisle. This week I’m reading passages from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book of sermons, God in Pain. She writes:  “God is stronger than death. Way past where we can see how it works, God is able to take our weakness, our fear, our trembling, and turn it into fullness of life.”

I am focusing on this, in the middle of painful questions about my own fear and sadness. What if I never have a child? I am trying to focus on God’s strength, not my own weariness, when I feel the weight of others’ sadness. For drought and women walking miles for water. For my Japanese student’s friends hit by typhoon Neoguri. For the 80 children who died on that shot down plane. For my friend grieving the loss of a dynamic father-in-law. For the single women in my life, and for the apprehensive mothers-to-be and the weary mothers of young children.

Way past where we can see. I imagine the fullness of the ocean and the mystery of horizon. I speak my fears into that unfolding wideness. I speak my sorrow there. I tell everything I want. I try to look back on this place with God’s eyes, from a place where this is all understood.