Golden Hours

I remember my dad talking about the golden hour when I was a kid. He was the photographer in our family, documenting everything we did with one of an ever-growing collection of cameras and camcorders. We lived a short freeway trip from the beach, and I understood that the golden hour was often at its finest near the water. My dad took pictures, and I wrote poems, so I tried to capture the golden hour in my notebook.

I was a quiet, shy kid who daydreamed a lot and filled ragged spiral notebooks with poems, using my special pen, a Bic wrapped in green florist’s tape with an artificial rose at the top. My mom had put a dropper of rose oil into the flower, so my notebook smelled like ink and roses. I smelled the flower and looked around me. What did the golden hour mean? To me it meant the warm-hued light spreading over the world as the sun spilled behind the ocean again. It meant butter color, velvet shadow, ladders of light leading up or down from the clouds. It meant a feeling that got trapped in my chest like a bird, because another day was ending and it was beautiful and sad at the same time.

Raising my own family, I get that bird-in-chest feeling a lot. It’s this sense of crushing gratitude, love, and wonder at my children’s innocence, their unfettered joy, the unfiltered feelings that pour from them without fear, combined with the weight of impermanence: babies don’t keep.

Golden hours in a house of three small children are more like golden minutes, and they’re sprinkled through long days full of many other qualities– frustration, fatigue, anger, worry, boredom. In our house, my husband Lyle is the family photographer. Where he once focused on landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of friends, he now turns his camera toward our family life. The gift of his photos is something I really treasure.

And, I’ve often felt intimidated to try my hand at snapping pictures myself. I’m at home with the kids most of the time, and there are so many moments I want to catch on film that often dissolve before I can grab the camera. I’ve been a stubbornly-analogue person for most of my life, but I recently got a smartphone with a good camera. I’ve been surprised by how quickly I can snap a photo that I actually like. It’s just on my phone, so it takes the pressure off.

Following some good advice from Ashlee Gadd in an Exhale Creativity resource, I started paying attention to where the light is, what time of day it’s most dramatic, and what it looks like in different parts of the house. This simple practice of noticing what the light does has been nothing short of magical. It’s become an exercise in mindfulness that feels playful and, well, light.

I can practice it in a stray moment when the soup is simmering, on my way to do a load of laundry. It draws my attention to the small and beautiful: a halo of unbrushed hair on my daughter’s head, my son’s bright blue bike making patterns with the shadows from the side gate, my husband’s silhouette as he walks the baby around to calm her in that dicey little half hour before her bedtime.

Little golden hours. A camera as a call to attention. A way to settle the wings in my chest, or maybe release them.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Illuminate”.

Going to the Library, Then and Now

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

“I’m going to the library, who wants to come?” I call into the yard, jingling the car keys.

“I do! I do!” my big kids yell, racing to climb into their carseats. 

“I want to get my noodle book!” Sky says excitedly, thinking of the next Noodlehead graphic novel waiting for her on the holds shelf.

“I want anudder race car book,” Robin adds.

I smile at my children’s excitement, even though it makes me a little sad, too. Pre-pandemic, a trip to the library was much more than a quick ten-minute drive to the curbside pickup. We used to spend hours at our local branch a few times a week, chatting with friends at story time and adding books to our bag until it overflowed. Sky loved to choose a few I Can Read books and sit on a stool in the corner by the window, looking at the pictures while I chased Robin through the stacks and retrieved my holds. 

Now they don’t even get out of the car when I park in front of the library. I pull my mask on over my eyes, turning around in my seat to ask if I’ve got it on right. They laugh but tell me to hurry and get their books. At the library window, I try to say my name as clearly as I can through the fabric, and the librarian returns with our stack– the noodle book, the race car book, some books on ballet, an Eye Spy book, and Upstream and Coming Full Circle for me. I try to smile with my eyes as I thank the librarian and say goodbye.

My kids want to hold their books on the drive home, and when we get there they both hurry inside, sit on the couch, and start reading. Like so many other times in this past year of closures and absences, I find a small win to celebrate. 

Sky , age 4, in her happy spot at our local library.

They are still delighted by books. They still love the library enough to want to be in close proximity to it, even if they can’t go inside. We’ve lost the wonderful experience of wandering through the aisles and choosing whatever looks interesting that day, but we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the books we carefully choose, place on hold, and then wait for. We check out fewer books, but we keep them longer and savor them more. It makes me happy to see that books seem to matter to my kids as much as they’ve mattered to me since I was their age.

I remember my mom taking my sister and me to the library before we could read. I remember the way it smelled– a mix of the big eucalyptus trees outside, the ocean air, and that unmistakable book smell all libraries have. There was the crinkling sound of the books in their library jackets, the light pouring through the huge windows in the fiction room where my mom browsed, and the freedom she gave us to wander wherever we wanted as she chose books for herself. I loved gathering my own stack of books for the week.

Reading has always been tied up with the thingness of books, and the place where books are, but during the long stretch of time when there was no hold service, I bought an e-reader so I could check out e-books from the library or buy them from our local booksellers. It’s made it possible for me to read more during these early months with a newborn. It’s small and light enough to hold while nursing Iris or wearing her in the sling as she naps. I can even read in the bathtub. It’s also making it easier for me to take notes as I read, because I can add digital highlights and then transfer them to a word document later. 

As a child and later as a teen and young adult, I read for hours. As a mother, I probably spend more time reading to my children, but I try to make sure they see me reading my own books, too. “Are you reading in your mind, Mama?” Sky asks me. She’s not quite reading on her own yet, and I’m excited for the day when she discovers the pleasure of reading to herself. 

Reading connects me to the world outside the borders of home and children, and the person I am in addition to “Mom.” It keeps me grounded and makes me more receptive to ideas for poems and essays. I read before I could write, and I think it’s part of what made me a writer. I know it’s made me who I am today, and I can’t wait to see what role reading plays in my children’s lives as they grow.

Silver Linings and Giant Dark Clouds

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Last night I had a good long talk with a dear friend over a glass of wine and Google Hangouts. I am still savoring the warm feeling of connection, and gratitude for our friendship. Among other things, we talked about the rollercoaster of emotion we are all riding, and grappling with the challenge of feeling all of it.

She shared something writer and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg talks about in reference to another emotional rollercoaster, one that my friend and I know much better than the current virus-powered one: writing. The act of creating something can also open our hearts and bodies to the full range of human emotion. We can feel excitement, curiosity, and desire to make tangible the thing we can see in our mind’s eye. We can also feel anxiety, self-doubt, and even fear. Don’t get swept away, Goldberg says.

It’s a practical bit of advice, as well as a deeply profound, lifelong practice. It is perhaps the practice, for Buddhists and for people who practice mindfulness meditation. For writers, when our purpose is to create something, the practice is to hear the unhelpful voices of fear, anxiety, and doubt, and then gently dismiss them to focus on setting down the next word. Word by word, we make sentences and then paragraphs.

This is hard work. This is often unpleasant work. Most of the time, for me anyway, it doesn’t feel the way I think “meditative” should feel. It feels like digging away in the dark, tunneling into places I didn’t expect to find, and letting go of the places where I thought my writing was leading. For me this is the work of the creative Spirit alive in me, and I write because it is thrilling to participate with it, even though it mostly feels terrible at the time. When a piece of writing is gestating in me, I can get broody as a hen, grumpy and distracted if I don’t have or make the time to write, whether because I am afraid or just busy with the daily tasks of mothering, running a household, studying, and working on freelance projects.

Right now I am brooding over an essay that has been with me for years– as the seed of an idea, grit turned over in my thoughts over the course of weeks and months, and then smoothed into a sudden rush of words that now sit in a Word document on my computer. It is something about empathy, and fear, and not getting swept away, and how strange and difficult that becomes during certain tides of life.

This writing project and its questions have resurfaced with the pandemic. I find myself reflecting, during the day, on the shape and edges of empathy and compassion. I’m wondering how to witness my own and others’ emotions as we adjust each day to a new layer of information and questioning over all that remains unknown. How can I do this without getting swept away? Maybe the practice is to notice when I am getting swept away, and then clamber back to shore again.

There’s a lot of writing out there right now about grief, and how we are each allowed to be in this time in our own way, and how grief is a nonlinear and cyclical experience. I am no stranger to grief, and one thing I know about it is that it can become all-consuming. It can become difficult to recognize yourself within its grasp. It can start to feel as if grief is all there is, and all there ever will be.

What I know of grief is how it moves in me, and that is necessarily different from the way it moves in others. There is no “right way” to do it. I am trying to remember how I wanted to be spoken to when lost in grief. I think the words I needed were very few. Maybe no more than, I hear you, I am with you, I love you, You are strong even in your fear and your pain. I am not sure I even needed to hear I am sorry for your pain, or This too shall pass.

My friend and I went on to discuss what it was about the phrase silver linings that so grates on the senses, and we decided it was more than just its overuse. It’s the subtle forcefulness of the image, the way it requires focus on only the beauty of the possibility of light. The language itself asks us to entirely ignore the big dark cloud between us and the light.

Right now it feels like many of us are asking if it is okay to see and feel both, particularly those of us who hold more privilege, live in wealthier countries, and find ourselves spending a lot of time at home managing anxiety and fear, our own and that of the people we love. Can we appreciate the moments of light that shift through this oppressive dark cloud, without denying the cloud’s existence– the reality of the virus, all the lives it has taken, and all we still don’t know? Can we accept that in some ways light and darkness require each other, give each other shape– without suggesting that the darkness is good? How can we hold all of these contradictory emotions in our hearts and bodies?

In the wake of the sudden shift, in my state, from monitoring the virus elsewhere to the sweeping changes of a stay-at-home order, I’ve struggled to find the capacity to witness others’ grief and fear, for fear of getting swept into it. Perhaps because the virus’s arrival stateside came on the heels of a major mental health emergency in the life of one of my loved ones, I found myself with almost nothing in reserve. To heap more worry over things I could not control, onto the already mountainous pile in my life, threatened to break me, and I could not risk breaking, because I have children to care for. As a result, I feel I am failing some of my friends in their time of need for compassionate witness, because I often feel I don’t have the strength.

I’m working to find that strength, in a way that feels healthy. Maybe it’s finding a deeper, wider strength that doesn’t live in my body– the strength of faith, for lack of a more precise word. I will admit to fear about feeling fear, that Depression-era relic, which is somewhat new to me. While ordinarily I don’t shy away from heavier emotions, these days I find myself clinging more tightly to the light. Where I once felt shame for finding joy during hard times (and it’s always hard times, for someone, somewhere,) right now I am treasuring those moments, even seeking them– whether that’s in the mundane beauty of daily life with small children, or while taking in news from the global community, looking for stories that detail the unexpected and the resiliently human.

My son recently discovered dandelions, and his big sister has been teaching him how to blow the tiny seeds, attached to their parachutes of fluff, into the air. His whole face lights up when he spots one in the grass, during our walks to the park when there’s a break in the rain. (While playgrounds are closed, public parks are still open, for now, in Oregon.) His joy over the flowers makes me smile, and his sister’s tenderness with him. Meanwhile, the empty streets remind me that this is no ordinary day, and the dandelion seeds make me think of how the virus spreads, carried on breath and air.

Both are real, the light and the dark. When we get swept away again, I want to practice saying to you and to myself:

I hear you.
I am with you.
I love you.
You are strong even in your fear and your pain
.

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A few stories:

The 50-year-old hermit who knows a thing or two about social distancing
How the U.S. fought tuberculosis using community-based public health strategies
Rebecca Solnit on how disaster shakes loose old power structures