19Mar

Calling It Art

A blogger’s job description, as I see it, is to curate life. We each set up a space reflecting our own personality and artistic or professional interests, and then we cull from our lives what we consider worthy of display. We frame moments and arrange lines of thinking just so, highlighting unique shades of relevance in the world around us and hoping to strike particular chords—humor, empathy, outrage, optimism. We notice and present and then stand in the wings surreptitiously analyzing visitors’ facial expressions (or traffic stats) for clues as to how our art is being interpreted.

I imagine that the vast majority of us blog for the same reason that every artist creates art: we are fundamentally drawn to it. Curating our own little life exhibit relaxes us or engages us or keeps us intentional or gives us community, and we glow a bit brighter as we put up each new post. Or perhaps it’s all in my imagining, this great pure-hearted blogosphere conjured from the same daydreamscape as true love in seventh grade. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I tend to romanticize things I know little about, and I prefer it that way. I don’t want to know that Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe got divorced or that The White Stripes disbanded or that Van Gogh shot himself in a haze of despair less than a year after completing The Starry Night. I want to believe in the longevity of beauty, no matter what common sense says to the contrary, and the same goes for blogging. I don’t want to notice the joy and originality slipping out of career bloggers’ writing or to read the disclaimers at the bottom of sponsored posts. I don’t want to think that the glow I feel in showing up here could be doused at any time in the soapy residue of burst illusions.

I suppose I’m most afraid of what happens when art turns into obligation. I’m feeling hints of it here today, at my kitchen table, worlds away from any true constraint to the craft. We’ve had an intense year so far with few exhibit-worthy moments, but I’m driven to write anyway, to create something relevant and aesthetic and new, so I turn up the pressure on myself to notice beauty! notice a positive insight! notice something, dammit!

I sit at my kitchen table sweeping my eyes over the calcium stains on our sink, the uneven row of spices on our mantle, and the alphabet magnets wedged like unfortunate mechanics under the fridge, trying to prod my surroundings into resonating with me even as I know that this is how it happens, how a curator turns into a busker. There is only the thinnest of lines between taking inspiration from everyday life and trying to force meaning where there is none, and I am most likely to trip over that line when writing turns into a burden.

Keeping art art—that’s the challenge, isn’t it? When all our Western Civilization instincts are demanding that we justify output with results? When our work ethic isn’t accustomed to waiting around for a flighty muse? Every day that I sit down to write, I find myself face to face with a web of conflicting motivations interspersed with the usual doubts. Should I write even if I have nothing pressing to say? On the other hand, should I let a lack of immediate inspiration keep me from writing? Should my guide be a schedule or my own fickle mind? Does everything I publish have to be profound? What would make this time and effort worth it (whatever it is)?

It’s no wonder the original joy of creating tends to slink out the door while I’m busy untangling. This isn’t the first time I write about my internal struggles with writing, and I’m positive it won’t be the last. I am well endowed in doubts and guilts and worries (and lions and tigers and bears! oh my!), and working through them again and again is a crucial part of the process for me. It allows me to create the glowing displays, the beauty. However, sometimes an honest exhibit of my life also entails showing you behind the scenes, framing the unpolished shadow side of what ends up on your screen. Sometimes curating life means opening the doors to an unfinished mess and calling it art.

~~~

What helps you to keep art art in your life? 

14Mar

Proof, Revisited

I had planned a special post for this week—a blog entry about my daughter Natalie that I originally wrote in 2009 and then reworked for submission to a potential writing gig the following year. (Yes, “potential writing gig” is just a dignity-preserving way to admit that the story was rejected, but perhaps you could indulge me by pretending it means something more glamorous, say, a prestigious job offer that I was forced to turn down because it interfered with my sparkling social life.) The document has been languishing in the Looking For New Homes folder on my hard drive ever since, so I decided to give it a home here in honor of Natalie’s eighth birthday last week.

However, every day that I’ve tried to publish it so far, my fingers have frozen on me much like a throat clamping down to stop painful words in their tracks. I couldn’t understand why at first. The story is about my honest struggle with new motherhood and the love that eventually bound me to my daughter. It’s authentic and ultimately positive, two of my highest aims in writing, so I couldn’t fathom why the post-production crew in my heart kept stalling.

Another read-through today though, and I understand. I wrote the post when Natalie was four and we had been in Italy just one and a half years. Dan grew up in Italy, so he had settled back into the culture like a man coming home, but everything from the pace of life to the words on our grocery receipt was new for Natalie and I. We were one and a half years into total cultural upheaval, I was one and a half years into severe postpartum depression, and our mother-daughter relationship was at an all-time low. She was an energetic preschooler; I was struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. We clashed constantly, and I had no reserves of patience or perspective left from which to draw.

Reading back through the entry sends me traveling to a time that I would eagerly erase from our memory if I could, a time that left barbed wire imprints around my rib cage and temples. Revisiting it is painful in a way I wasn’t prepared for. We’ve spent this last week celebrating eight years of Natalie, my sweet, creative girl whose enthusiasm for books and curiosity about life fill an endless well of shared interest. Our souls have discovered their kinship, so it pains me all the more to look back on a time when I was not enough myself to appreciate all of her self. I regret the mother-I-once-was more fiercely than anything else in my experience.

However, camping out in regret is no way to live and certainly no way to move on. Grace nudges me to look back with softer eyes and recognize that at each stage of my rocky road to motherhood, I did the best I could. Even on those gray, gray days when I felt like I could not possibly go on living until the next, I still got out of bed, still made breakfast, still snuggled up for storytime, and it was for her. My love was feeble, but it was very real. It is very real. The same elemental strain pulses through my veins today, and it’s why revisiting the darkness of four years ago causes me to flinch. It’s also why I’m finally sharing the post, because proof of love is not in perfection, not defined by the glossy, Instagramable moments when the sun is shining and birthday cake on the table; it’s in the whole story, the mess and the grace, the regrets acknowledged and then gently ushered to the back row.

Here it is, home now:

Read More »

11Mar

Diagramming Pessimism

The other day at breakfast, Dan said something characteristically Dan-y, like “What great weather!” and I said something characteristically me-y, like “There’s probably a tornado hiding behind that sunbeam,” and then we spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to the girls what optimists and pessimists are and why it’s good to have one of each as a parent. (He plans camping trips in Ireland, I remember to pack the umbrellas. We work.)

Truth be told though, it’s very, very hard for me to believe my cranky pessimist personality has anything positive good to offer the world. Even as I was extolling my natural gift for predicting worst case vacation scenarios and assuring my serious older daughter that neither personality is better or worse than the other, my mind was making a liar out of me, contradicting every upbeat word that left my mouth. It rattled me as it always does to catch myself teaching what I don’t believe.

My personality has much to do with why this little corner of the Internet has been so silent lately. I’ve been sunk under three particular adjectives that have weighed down my heart and my bones as effectively as cinder blocks:

Hopeless.

Powerless.

Guilty.

I’ve been looking at different facets of my life and seeing portraits of black holes in their place. When trying to troubleshoot, I’ve been met with the overwhelming sense that there is nothing to hope for or move toward, that there is nothing I can do to change this, and that I should be ashamed of myself for wanting more, that my deep debt to happiness must now be paid in drudgery. It’s crushed me into my pillows in the morning and pricked me into tossing wakefulness at night.

And it’s untrue. I know that, even as I forget how to feel it. This lean toward depression, this willingness to lie under cinder blocks and accept a reality of cherry-picked discouragements, it is the dark side of my personality. There are other factors too, of course—stresses past and present that leech the color and gravitational pull from life—but pessimism is what turns dreary splotches into black holes. Pessimism is what turns uncertainty into hopelessness and challenge into powerlessness and restlessness into guilt.

Over the breakfast table the other day as I chirped about diversity this and beautiful-and-unique-snowflake that, I was really just thinking how f-ing tired I am of channeling Debbie Downer. Can’t a girl get a break from having to lug negativity around in her DNA? Doesn’t it qualify as a huge cosmic mistake that the thing I most often have to fight is the very thing draining the fight out of me? I would rather forget the umbrellas every single time than have my mind tuned as it is to the pulse of rain.

However, in the days since that falsely cheerful conversation, I’ve begun to realize that I don’t actually not-believe what I told my girls about personality neutrality. That is, I have trouble believing it when it comes to myself and the little black raincloud hanging over my head, but I cherish the difference in my daughters’ outlooks. I love the one’s habitual seriousness and the other’s innate silliness. I see how they form a beautiful Venn diagram of sisterhood, their personalities complementing and coloring each other’s, and I wouldn’t wish sameness on them for the world.

And perhaps the fact that I’m seeing it this way is proof of other Venn diagrams, ones forming behind the scenes of my marriage and my friendships, each one drawing my personality a little closer to balance. I’m never going to be Susie Sunshine; that would require complete genetic mutation and possibly narcotics. However, I’m seeing the Hopeless and Powerless and Guilty through more objective eyes this week—eyes that have spotted their reflection in my daughters’ beautiful faces, eyes that are noticing color again—and it seems that a girl can get the occasional break from channeling Debbie Downer after all.

4Mar

Tracking Heat

 FB Status

The flu is unconcerned with timing, with the fact that you are in an all-out race against a translating deadline or that your husband’s schedule is triple-booked or that your daughter has been looking forward to celebrating her eighth birthday since the day she turned seven. The flu cares not that you are desperate to write again, so desperate that innocuous phrases snag on barbed wire somewhere in your throat and you lash out at loved ones for inching too close to your restlessness. The flu doesn’t mind that you will worry to the point of dizziness over your husband’s blanked-out face and your children’s griddle-hot skin or that you will lose yourself entirely in the tides of disinfectant and chicken soup and acetaminophen rising through the house.

At some point around the two-week mark, you will feel your own head start to close in heavy around you, and you will say Enough. You win. You will stare sickness right in the face, unblinking, as you cancel your classes for the day; though the flu doesn’t care any more than it did before, you do. You will put on your favorite flare-leg jeans with the tattered hems and the superglue splotches and sit down on your daughters’ floor to build a LEGO village with them. You will take their temperature 537 times over the course of the morning and administer Gatorade with a straw and read aloud about dragons and forget to do your makeup. You will not succumb, even though you said you would.

Later, as your children sweat through fevered naptime dreams, you will fling open windows to the afternoon light. You will leave clean socks to await rescue on the laundry line and bread crumbs to be fruitful and multiply on the kitchen floor. You will sit down to reclaim yourself, though at first, the restlessness will act as saboteur. The tea is too hot, the deadline too pressing, that Alicia Keys’ video still making you cry with the satin and the toddlers and the late night bills. The flu doesn’t care about artist-souls on fire, only about blazing skin and resignation. After two weeks of ‘round-the-clock work, it’s hard to imagine anything more.

But you are more. You are more than your actions—the swish of a toilet bowl brush, the clack of foreign keys—and more than your worries. You are more than your body, its molecules spread too thin over a swath of too many days. You are more than this stage of mama-life or its million smaller stages, the illnesses and growing pains that keep you on your toes in every sense of the phrase. You are more than what you do to pay the bills.

So you put on your reading glasses and follow the tremulous glow in your veins that indicates that somewhere, somehow, some part of you is still on fire. You won’t find the flame instantly; your children are due to wake up soon, and you may have to sniff the trail back out by moonlight. Or perhaps the flu will finally catch up with you, and the only heat you’ll comprehend is the viral surge in your belly. There is sure to be something, some inconsiderate upset of life that will leave you doubting again if you are anything more than the on-duty vomit scooper.

But at least until the afternoon light dwindles and responsibility calls, you will focus on the truth that you are more, that losing yourself implies having a self to re-find… and it will be grace enough for the night shift.

20Feb

Zumba vs. Shame

(My five-year-old, author and perfecter of the gratuitous shimmy.)

It happened the moment I saw her—somebody’s petite grandmamà, her hair precision-curled into ringlets and her tank top neatly pressed, shaking her booty without inhibition or anything close to synchronization with the sweaty salsa tune thumping over the speakers. I watched her through the studio window for no more than two seconds before the joy of her giddy soul-groove accomplished what months of considering and researching and YouTube tutorial browsing had been unable to give me: a transfusion of fearlessness.

At the start of the very next Zumba class, I was there, on the other side of the glass this time, shaking in my Reeboks and wondering how many seconds I had left with my dignity before it fled the premises in shame.

See, this white girl can’t dance. I took classical ballet for seven years, during which I heard constant variations on “You’re too uptight!” That’s right. Too uptight for ballet, which is pretty much like being too smart for Mensa or too brave for Red Bull space-jumping. My brief encounter with a hip-hop choreographer made her cry. I have rhythm, sure, but it’s the kind that leads to careers in metronome programming and dictatorship, not to truth-telling Shakira hips.

It goes deeper than that too. My shocking inability to get a groove on has every last one of its roots coiled around a philosophy of body image that I would like to call The Shamemonger.

You’re not going to hear the word “shame” directly from The Shamemonger’s lips unless she’s reading from the King James Bible. No, you’re much more likely to hear the terms “modesty” and “purity” and “stumbling block” and “inciting lust,” each one spoken with a pulpit-wagging finger. You will never hear her directly instruct you to hate your body, but she will urge you with every persuasive tool in her arsenal to hide it and repress it and blame it. The Shamemonger markets to females alone, teaching us from as early an age as possible that our bodies are corruptors. If our shapes or our movements or the very skin on our bones attract notice, we have instigated sexual sin, and the responsibility for that sin rests on our souls.

The result is that young girls under The Shamemonger’s tutelage grow up, as I did, with all of that weight pushing back against our natural development. We hunch over to smudge our silhouettes. We mechanize our walking patterns and restrict the confident flair out of our movements. We view all men as weak-minded and predatory and sexuality as a dangerous, shameful thing to possess. We hate our bodies like we hate nothing else on God’s green earth and then wonder why marital intimacy is such a struggle.

God have mercy. Like Brené Brown pointed out in her TED Talk last year, guilt is understanding that you have made a mistake while shame is believing that you are a mistake, and the philosophy I grew up with falls squarely into the latter category. The idea that my body is inherently bad leaves no room for resolution or redemption; the only possible outcome is self-loathing… Unless, of course, I decide that The Shamemonger has it all wrong—that her lens of fear and insecurity have warped the truth of our bodies’ precious value into something unrecognizable and grotesque and wrong as wrong can be—and decide to start pushing back.

Enter Zumba.

The music starts, and it’s like thunder. It’s like sassy, syncopated thunder, and gravity jumps out of its way as it rolls through the room. The instructor is already Merengue-marching, and my feet join in even though I don’t know the first thing about Merengue, even though I won’t know it’s called Merengue until I look up the moves at home. It can’t be helped; the rhythm has me now.

The dance studio is packed to the gills, its walls expanding with each collective breath just to contain our energy. At least a hundred pairs of hips are scooping figure-eights out of the air, and we’re so far beyond personal space restraints, so thoroughly inside each other’s orbits that I’m able to catch the stocky middle-aged mom next to me singing under her breath, “I’m sexy an’ I know it.” This makes me happy in a way that can only be expressed through a gratuitous shimmy.

Every single shape, size, color, and age group is represented in the room, from the 70-year-old gentleman wobbling to the beat to the group of third-graders in karate uniforms bouncing along on the other side of the glass, and everyone is grinning and sweating and cheering and grooving, and it’s a little bit of heaven right here in the gym. Propriety? Well, it went packing when gravity did, but dignity is in its element here.

And that’s the thing—there is no shame in this room, no time for self-consciousness, no room for criticism. We are dancing in unabashed celebration of these strong and strange and uniquely wonderful bodies we were born with, and is dignity anything less than this very recognition of our worth?

I know what The Shamemonger would say about Zumba—if she were able to articulate much of anything through compulsive gasps of horror, that is—but I don’t care to challenge her on it. She’s held my focus for too many years as it is. True, her lens of fear and insecurity isn’t going to dissolve from my vision overnight any more than I’m going to become the newest salsa superstar, but these twice-weekly forays into sweat and joy and fearlessness are pushing back more powerfully than any other argument I could make.

18Feb

Sacred to Silence

I’m sitting in the gym café while the girls hip and hop their funky little hearts out upstairs. Behind me, espresso cups clatter their way to the dishwasher, which swishes steadily behind the occasional train-blast of the milk steamer. All around me, voices upon voices—soccer buddies jostling for sandwiches to fill the bottomless void of their teenage stomachs, trainers discussing workout plans with seat-shifting clients, children playing Rabid Banshee Tag while their mothers chat and pretend not to notice the other patrons huffing in their direction, P!nk expressing her punchy brand of heartache over the speakers. One hour ago, I was teaching English to a room full of first- and second-graders whose speaking voices, as any elementary teacher knows, are approximately the same volume and pitch as rioting cats, and before that, there was the unsuccessful attempt to nap to the groove of our friendly neighborhood jackhammer.

Folks, I’m all noised out.

I think that this, more than anything, explains why I was so supportive of Dan’s plan to give up television shows for the month. Here’s the truth of things—we’re work-from-homers and small-child-wranglers, and there is nothing as mind-numbingly delicious at the end of a day as sinking into the sofa cushions and zoning out to a good murder mystery, or two… or three… But that was where the problem was, because no number of charmingly predictable plot-lines was sufficient to empty our minds of the day’s noise. The television just piled on top of it, muffling rather than quieting, and reasonable bedtimes would come and go without us ever quite managing to zone our way into tranquility.

So we gave up the numbing agent that never actually numbed, and that first evening, after corralling the kids into bed, Dan and I stood looking at each other like strangers on Mars. What was he doing there? What was I doing there? What is proper etiquette on Mars anyway? Does this other life-form even speak English? In the end, the only thing we knew to do with our tired selves was to put them to bed.

Let me tell you, it doesn’t take many evenings of awkward alien stare-downs with one’s own spouse to realize how desperately your habits need a facelift. There has been so much noise in our life, so much self-inflicted distraction, that we haven’t noticed the other’s voice was missing. And now, with the silence stretching between us like a foreign sandscape, we have to relearn what to do with it. How to shape our brainwaves and heartbeats into words. How to hear, really hear, the other’s meaning. How to be companionably silent together again.

In fact, I’m having to relearn how to be companionably silent with myself as well. My mind has been startling into retreat, doe-like, from the auditory clutter around me, and there has been no space for the gentle osmosis of grace. God and I have been communicating like we’re on opposite sides of a train yard. My heart’s ears are ringing as if this clattering, steaming, banshee-ing café were my whole wide world, and as much as I’d like to drown out the ringing, to muffle it with noise of my own choosing and numb every tired molecule of my being into oblivion, I know I need something different.

I need deliberate quiet, at least for now, at least until the ringing stops. I need to arrest my finger on its way to the play button and let running dishwater be the only soundtrack to my thoughts. I need to stand under the sky at least once a day and breathe it in, like I did as a child, until I’m spinning from my own smallness. I need to resurrect the art of question-asking and practice listening to hear. I need to combat tiredness with sleep (novel concept, I know) and loneliness with intention and all the many, many inescapable noises of everyday life with moments held sacred to silence.

Honestly, I don’t know that a month without television shows is going to be enough.

8Feb

What I Know to be True

The sky shifts and stretches, and sunlight spills through the elongated gaps. It’s still too hazy to see the mountains, but light is reflecting off a hundred smoking chimneys and dancing on a million silvered olive leaves, and I think I might take my coffee—a regrettable but necessary second cup—out into the joy of it. I make it nearly two steps onto the balcony before my Texas bones start shaking in protest. Sunny or not, this is still the crux of winter, and I in my morning zombie trance am no match for the cold.* I retreat to the kitchen table, backhand a swath of crumbs out of my way, and sigh long and deep.

* Disclaimer: I realize that my calling a sunny Mediterranean winter “cold” is causing some of you to smash your heads repeatedly into your desks right now. I apologize for any resulting trauma and invite you to come sunbathe on our balcony at your convenience.

I’m in so many mental ruts right now, ruts within ruts, that it’s hard to distinguish which one is suddenly closing the walls of our kitchen around me. My eyes wince across the trail of soup pots and mixing bowls waiting to be washed. In the next room, laundry is draped over radiators to dry; another load sloshes in the washer, and my lungs feel like they’re wrapped in damp socks. Chores multiply like rabbits around here in the winter, and beating them off with a broom could be my full-time job. I wonder if it is. Last week while reading a picture dictionary to Sophie, I asked her if she knew any janitors, and she answered brightly, “Yes, you!” And yet our floors still feel like syrup and sand and one has to use parkour to navigate the guest room and mealtimes feel like punishment.

This is a doozy of a rut, this resentment of my domestic life and its endless repetitions of damage control. Home should feel like sanctuary, so I try to distract myself from the messes spawning like video game villains across my universe. However, distraction turns out to be its own form of rut; my mind wanders and flits until I realize with a jolt that I haven’t felt my own soul’s pulse in weeks.

I should have picked up on it earlier, the very minute that the dust congregating on our windowsills became a universe to me. Even as I say that though, I recognize that I have no easy answers for how to push back at the shinkwrap, how to keep filling my lungs with the air of a wide wide world while the four walls of our house clamor so loudly and the cold seals them shut.

Yesterday, I read a bit from two women whose words light fires inside of me, and for those ten minutes, my heart remembered how to move again. It pumped away my zombie fog and stretched out, out, beyond our sleepy Italian valley and the mountains standing guard, out across oceans, out past the stars. My universe expanded to make room for eternity, and the only thing I could ask beyond that is the strength to hold onto it more than ten minutes at a time.

I’m writing now from the bittersweet place of awareness without answers, trapped in a rut with eyes full of stars. I know who I am—the true me, the eyes-wide-open me who isn’t afraid her life’s work will boil down to laundry—but I’ve never worked out just how to keep those fires lit. One of Shame’s favorite adjectives for me is “selfish,” and I hear it now in the clacking of the keys while the soup pots go unwashed. I hear it in the turning pages of a book and in the stillness of attempted meditation, in any pursuit of my own personal peace. The clock becomes a rushing sound in my ears, and I scramble to get back to the duties that pile around my vision like blinders.

Or… I write, because Shame is not going to stop advancing any sooner than the laundry pile is, and if I’m willing to hinge my worth on damage control, why not start with the soul-damage? Why not battle to climb out of the rut instead of battling to keep it mess-free?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I know the answer, and the answer is Shame itself. Shame is the bully pinning us down while taunting, “Why don’t you just get up?” Shame is the dictator citing himself as the source of truth. Shame is the fear profiteer. Shame is what makes us feel unworthy to fight the burden of unworthiness, and how do you pull yourself up from that if not by looking the bully square in the eye, saying his name out loud—S C R E A M I N G it if necessary!—and informing him that he no longer calls the shots?

Here is what I know to be true:

  1. No one will die if the dishes go unwashed until tomorrow (although I reserve the right to boycott the kitchen in the meantime). Repeat: No one will die.
  2. My soul will die, slow and purpling like frostbite, if I don’t allow her the unhurried time she needs to connect with God, refresh her focus, and do what her heart is nudging her to do.
  3. Sometimes that will mean half an hour; sometimes it will mean the entire day.
  4. That is not selfish.
  5. It’s not selfish because a whole and peaceful me brings direct good to the world around me, even the little one within our walls, while a resentful and distracted me spreads negativity.
  6. It is much easier to keep eternity in my perspective when I’m prioritizing the eternal things—soul-ties, relationships, art, justice, kindness—and letting Mount Laundry take whatever energy I have left over. Not the other way around.
  7. Shame has no redeeming characteristics. Not a one. I will gain nothing by listening to it, ever. That voice sneering at me that I’m selfish and worthless and a big fat failure? deserves no acknowledgement other than a big fat ass-kicking.
  8. Shame might masquerade as a bully or a dictator, but I can always recognize Truth; it’s the one shifting and stretching my mind, spilling light through the elongated cracks, lighting fires, imparting courage.

~~~

What do you know to be true despite Shame telling you otherwise? 

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