Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I should have learned longing from my brother's early death--he was just shy of four years old--but I learned it instead through books.  Perhaps I was just practical:  I knew that no matter how much I missed my brother and wanted him back, promised God I would not complain about babysitting if he could just return alive, it wouldn't change things. That wasn't longing because it didn't represent possibility.  Dead was dead; that much I understood from my grandparents' farm, where chickens I'd hand fed appeared on the dinner table with regularity.  I experienced grief, but not longing.

When I first read C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, however, which I followed quickly with all the chronicles of Narnia, I knew real longing. The word would not settle in my chest until decades later, but the pangs were palpable then.  A thrill drilled through me: another world existed (could it be true?) where an ordinary girl with obvious shortcomings (like Lucy's lack of faith and occasional selfishness) could not only live but be heroic. That thrill signaled transformation:  I who didn't welcome change (hadn't my parents divorced, my brother died, all against my will?) would welcome it if it could mean transport elsewhere, where my worth would be clear.

I must've felt unworthy.  Unnoticed.  I do recall feeling misunderstood, the one red thread in the blue weave of my family.  I also felt odd; my love of school and books set me apart from my mother and my sisters who, though wonderfully tender and funny people, didn't understand how I could disappear into a book. They would call me for dinner, saying my name over and over again, a cadence for their steps as they approached me; I never heard until they were right next to me.  Sheepish and a mite guilty,  I put down the book and took my place at the table.

I dislike most science fiction and fantasy (an obvious shortcoming on my part) because it takes too much mental energy to imagine an alternate world and simultaneously keep the characters straight. In other words, I would say now after years of training in reading literature, the setting tends to overpower characterization.   What I thought then about Narnia was that it was pure--a world close enough to ours to be familiar, different enough to be tempting.  The children were like many friends I knew, and I loved that their nicknames reflected their best qualities:  Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Gentle, Edmund the Just, Lucy the Valiant.  And there was something enticing about the fact that all of the natural world had character, had personality--trees had spirits, animals could talk.  It touched a truth buried in me that would grow slowly and emerge fully when I began to garden. Mr. Tumnus, the faun, was a kind-hearted old soul who tried to do the right thing even when though he gave into temptation and agreed to trap Lucy. In the end, his kind heart won out.  And I understood that his weakness was just that:  a weakness. I wept when he was turned to stone and wept again in relief when Aslan breathed him back to life.  He was a person--I didn't think of him as a character--I would be happy to know.

The books appealed to ideals I didn't realize I had. Because of that, they represented hope. I would not have said at the time that I lacked hope, but I was only eleven when I read the first book.  Fifth grade wasn't comfortable; I was not yet physically maturing, and I cringed when the boys eyed me and jeered, "Flatsie." It would be four more years before I would mature, becoming "one of them."  I was to live on the fringes for a while.   On the fringes, one wonders if one deserves the attention one is denied.

And I did--too often to admit comfortably--wonder whether I was "worth it."  That wondering sapped my confidence.  I wanted fiercely what the books represented-- a sense of purpose, a purity of thought and action, the ability to see the significance of my life.  My life seemed fairly insignificant. Reading the books and imagining a purpose ignited me.  Perhaps what I really wanted was a god-like view, the long view: the view we get as we age and can see segments and phases unfold and assign meaning to them. Narnia gave that to me; I would like to say that I understood it was fiction, but more than once I flung open the doors to closets, hoping for an end to my paltry life as the walls dissolved and I entered another world.

Ah, meaning.  Those fairy-tale novels got under my skin and gave meaning to something I couldn't articulate.  I guess literature--all good literature--does that.  But the aspect of longing I reflect on now, in the middle years of my life (I turned 50 this year) is that it must remain unfulfilled.  That's why it's so painful and so exciting. If it becomes realized, it ceases to be longing. Wanting, in other words,  keeps us living. 

I still want my own Narnia, a country where I am queen without the associated condescension  and arrogance.  More than that, I want to keep hoping for something to help me rise above my own weakness and pettiness.  I want the eyes of the world to pay attention to my lowly life--so pedestrian, so plain--and see something noble.   Is that hope a kind of faith? Maybe. And if it's false (as faith and hope may be), I will still cling to it for it scratches where I itch.  It gives me the comfort of pressure, the knowledge that pain can give way to pleasure.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Rise Above

There is a bathroom upstairs that needs my attention; yesterday I stripped off half the wallpaper border in preparation for painting, spraying vinegar and hot water on the scored surface, peeling it away painstakingly with sticky fingers and a putty knife. I have to finish the stripping, scrub the walls with TSP, tape door frames, remove outlet covers and towels before I can paint.  There is also weeding to be done, reading and writing, strawberries to pick and jam to make, with any luck.

But there's something I want to say first.   When I was separated from my husband many years ago, I offered once to babysit another couple's children; they were also in some kind of crisis but were going to tough it out.  At the time, I probably thought they were better Christians than I was, or that I was transitioning to a more livable faith that allowed me to breathe without guilt.  Chatting with Sandy, the wife, when she came to retrieve her children, I mentioned that my part-time job was working with disabled adults. She lit up and said, "It always helps our own problems when we reach out to others."  I suppose she meant that I would eventually see how foolish I was to consider divorce, to take my known life and shatter it; she also echoed a common sentiment:  don't focus on yourself too much.  Focus on others.

This sentiment is one version of a larger idea that we are supposed to rise above our problems, to be bigger or stronger or better than whatever gets us down--in other words, not to give in or show that we are struggling or pained. It also carries the connotation of taking the moral high ground, resisting the urge for self-pity or revenge or even anger.  It suggests triumph, though it also suggests a separation and a perspective--to literally rise above is to see the life we inhabit from a revealing height, more completely than we can see it while standing in its midst. Think of a valley, whose shape and contours you can't see while walking its spine; but if you climb a hill, you can get the bigger picture, see the whole animal.

All those years ago, Sandy's comment made me wince a little; I agreed, but I WAS in pain and angry and struggling.  My work was to make money so I could live, and though I did enjoy the work, my motive wasn't that noble.  I wanted to focus on my problems so I could decide whether it was worth it to stay married.

My childhood prepared me, however, not only to accept but to spout such sentiments as Rise Above.  My father left us, my brother died, my sister became ill; but we were admonished not to cry too much, not to let these setbacks hinder us.  I made good grades, played sports and eventually the clarinet, enjoyed my many friends. We looked happy on the surface and that counted for a lot. Never mind that I started keeping a journal when I was around 14 where my darkest thoughts and questions spilled out.  Never mind that I drank and smoked pot for a couple of years, seeking escape from emotional turmoil that I kept to myself.

My decision to keep quiet about my anguish (it really felt like that) was related to another mantra of my childhood:  don't talk about myself too much;  that's bragging, and no one wants to listen to a braggart.  Acknowledging my real feelings would have broken that cardinal rule; how could I talk about what I felt without talking about myself, admitting that I felt devastated about my father's lack of involvement in my life, that I missed my brother, that I wanted something different from what I had?

Turning 50 this year has freed me in some surprising ways.  I give myself a break, sometimes, a rarity.  I care a little less about what people think of me.  When I want something, such as the Honda Accord I am currently in the market for, I allow myself to trade up; why can't I have the car I want, rather than the one I had to buy in a hurry so my son could take the other car to college? I bought a bike, too, a brand new one, and am searching for a food processor, things I deemed luxuries before.

But there is still a niggling sense that I must Rise Above other struggles and complaints.  I want to be a writer. I am a writer. I want to publish more, and the long waits for inevitable rejections carve away at my resolve. It is discouraging.  The first book is on its way, and there is another manuscript in the works, but I don't know if it will ever be accepted.  It took so long for the first one. Some days I feel cheated, unlucky. This is not Rising Above.

I want to have a wonderful marriage and to get in shape and to have another child. But I can't have these things all at once, if at all.  The easy glow of early romance doesn't last, and my aging body resists dropping pounds.  Not only that, but injuries (plantar fasciitis) and aching joints (hips) plague me.  Working out is harder than it used to be, and my resolve to exercise more often runs headlong into my aging pains and exhaustion.

And the other child? The discussions about it were one-sided, my-sided.  And now it's too late. 

The palpable sting of these disappointments is intensified by the fact that I don't want to Rise Above.  I want to yell and complain and direct my frustration outward. I want to blame.  I want to rattle the cage, make some noise. And sometimes I just want to lie down and do nothing, which is more frightening than anger, being the underside of anger, the white belly of surrender.

That bathroom will get my attention today, eventually.  And a bike ride seems likely.  Dinner will be on the table at the appropriate time.   Productivity will accompany the stirring in my mind that probes, Why me? that wants to know when and how and at what cost.  






Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged on FB by Mary-Sherman Willis, whose book Graffiti Calculus will be out in November!! 

What is the title of your book?
Growing Big

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The book traces two journeys, a literal one from marriage and children to divorce and children, and a more personal or thematic one that explores spirituality and individuality in the context of human relationships.

What genre does the book fall under?

Where did the idea for the book come from?
When I started writing in earnest when my children were little, these poems  just came pouring out, with the help of poetry classes at The Loft in Minneapolis. Whenever I had the energy, I got a can of Coke and a bag of potato chips and sat down at my diningroom table during naptime to write. In my 20s, I guess I was really testing all the ideas I'd received and finding my own philosophy. That, and the experience of having children just blew me away. It was--and is-- like nothing else in my life. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the book?
I think it took about 4 - 5 years for the first draft, which has undergone many changes since then: additions, alterations, reorderings.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Really, the ups and downs of life with children.  I was raised Catholic and had gravitated to a more Protestant religious life then, but I was also a misfit there and found most of my joy not in a sanctuary but in the park or camping with my kids.  So I started to tell some of my stories.  Also, I would be remiss not to mention Deborah Keenan, writing teacher and friend, whose steady encouragement with these early poems made me keep writing.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The publisher is North Star Press, out of St. Cloud, MN. They are a 3rd generation family-run business that publishes around 60 books a year.  They run the business out of the family farm, so I signed the contract with a cat or two on my lap, looking out the window at the fields layered with snow.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
Not sure how to answer this question!  I do think many female poets explore family life: Deborah Keenan, for sure.  I owe much of my commitment to sound and tension to Sylvia Plath, whose poems I continue to return to because they are so hard-edged.

What actors would you choose to play the characters in your book?
I'd have Jennifer Garner play me--and I'd have my kids play themselves! 

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
Many of the poems begin with images from my life as a church-going person: characters from the bible such as Joseph and Moses' mother, ideas like heaven.  It's part of my life and I find the material rich on many levels.

Thanks for the opportunity to dilate a little about this book. In return I am tagging poets Kirsten Dierking and Kathy Weihe.