just gratitude

Inlaid woodwork of the choir of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, by Giovan Francesco Capoferri design by Lorenzo Lotto. wikimedia

Chaos: Inlaid woodwork of the choir of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, by Giovan Francesco Capoferri design by Lorenzo Lotto. wikimedia

Reader, I know it’s Hermit Monday but there’s something I have to tell you. It’s this: just gratitude

Last week, in addition to winter contagion those of us who live in the Wee Small House experienced several other — ahem — inconvenient occurrences.

I could make a list but, seriously, you.would.not.believe.me.

The Spanish language has a way of expressing the concept of a thing than which no (insert adjective here)-er thing can be imagined.

For example, Spanish speakers would call a man than which no shorter man can be imagined el corto.

I like to think of last week as semana la loca — the week than which no crazier week can be imagined.

[I hope I am remembering all this Spanish correctly — it has been one million years since my last cláse del Español].

But through it all, one thing kept me going: just gratitude.

Gratitude that all that laundry I did was done on automatic washing and drying machines that are right outside my kitchen door. Gratitude that I will be able to pay the water and gas bill. Gratitude for remedies that comforted the afflicted — for example, thank you, Universe, for Advil and for Benadryl. And for triptans — thank you, thank you for triptans. Gratitude that no one was still in diapers for all the fun we had last week (not that I don’t lurve little people in diapers, but… y’know).

Gratitude for friends and family who cheered me on and held me up. I get by…

Gratitude for art and beauty — the small bits of each that I’ve stashed around the Wee, Small House and the big bits I could see out my windows: clouds, sun, a night-black crow.

Gratitude for words, and books, and blank pieces of paper — even though I didn’t encounter any of these things until Saturday, I knew they would wait for me.

And then also the reminder that there is no such thing as a normal week, and no such thing as ideal conditions.

And guess what. I now have a writing studio. Do you want to see it?

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Do you see it there perched on the edge of the glass vase? I call it the Wee, Small Hermitage.

Hermitage meaning “the dwelling of a hermit, especially when small and remote.” From the Greek erêmos “uninhabited.”

Except by me, that is.

Yes now it’s Hermit Monday. I’m going to unlink myself from the Interwebs and enter the Wee, Small Hermitage (figuratively, of course). I’m going to give thanks for the empty, quiet, healthy (fingers crossed) house; the words; the blank white page; the uninhabited space that’s waiting for me to fill it. Amen.

at forty…

Heron Tree 1 with partial map of Michigan stamped in copper

Heron Tree 1 with partial map of Michigan stamped in copper

… you realize holy smokes that went fast, so

… you stop worrying about a lot of things, not least of which is that your bed hasn’t been made in a week, and

… you start doing the things you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get to “someday,” and

… you stop spending time with people who drain you, and

… you decline to make clam chowder for 5th grade colonial days regardless of the social fallout, and

… you know how lucky you are to still have your kids and your parents around, and

… you remember her, that girl you were back then, before anything ever happened to you.

I’m 41 now, but I’m very thrilled to join the lineup at a great new journal, Heron Tree, where my poem “At Forty I Remember Her” appears this week. This poem began on a borrowed line (which I eventually revised my way out of) from my friend Cintia Santana, who wrote a draft called, “At Forty I Dream of Home.” So, a big thanks to Cintia for the inspiration, and to the editors at Heron Tree for selecting this poem.

Heron Tree‘s tagline is “poetry online & bound annually.” They post a poem each week on their website, then produce a print journal that includes all the poems posted online for that year. I just received my print copies of Heron Tree 1, and it’s a beautiful journal: spare but elegant, and full of poems I’m ready to read and study again and again. They’re open for submissions now: submit here.

Thanks, 40, for all you teach us. Thanks, Heron Tree, for the poems you put out in the world. Thanks, Reader, for reading. Have a great week.

friday roundup on saturday, vacation edition: books, rocks, and hills

rock pickin'

rock pickin’

Well. Since the last roundup there has been one cross-country flight, a drive through the Motherland, a visit to the village-of-origin and the other village-of-origin, a beer with my BFFs, two of the best hot dogs in the world, a trip to the dunes, several glasses of wine with my mom, two cousin camp-outs, one campfire with s’mores, and one enormous steelhead.

Do you want to see the enormous steelhead? Here it is (faces have been blurred to protect the identity of the innocent):

unidentified man with enormous steelhead

unidentified man with enormous steelhead

HOLY SMOKES!

But I digress. I’m here to do a roundup, and we need to talk about books, rocks and hills:

books  I confess, since the last roundup I have not read one single poem, or book of poems, or craft essay, or section of The Art of Syntax. Instead, I’ve read fiction and cookbooks (a summer tradition for me — my mom has one-zillion awesome cookbooks). Reader, there’s a book you need to read. It’s called The Tiger’s Wife. I bought it on the night I snuck out to the bookstore on the longest day of the year, and it has become my new second-favorite novel ever (after Ahab’s Wife, which is my very favorite novel ever), relegating to third place — and I almost hate to say this — The Poisonwood Bible, which is now my third-favorite novel ever.

Oh my goodness, The Tiger’s Wife is masterful! It weaves a story of a war-torn region of the world (in this case, the Balkans), a death in the family, and the legends and folklore that persist and fade and persist again in the lives of the novel’s characters. The author does amazing things with time — the novel takes place in the course of one day, but there are many dips and swerves into the past — and with weaving several strands of the story together in a way that reveals just enough but not too much about the plot.

Please go to your library today and get on the hold list for this book.

I have now moved on to a novel that cannot hold a candle to The Tiger’s Wife. Sigh.

rocks One of the things we do in the Motherland is that we pick over rocks, looking for the good ones. I’ve learned not to list rock pickin’ as one of the things we do on vacation when people ask — they just look at you like they feel sorry for you if you mention it. But it’s something everybody does in this part of the world, because there are very cool rocks to find, and the queen of all rocks is the Petoskey stone.

The best way to pick rocks is to sit in the shallows at water’s edge where the small, smooth rocks wash up from the lake (top secret inside information: Sometimes you can even find them in the stones around Grandpa’s big garage). Petoskey stones look like any old grey rock until you get them wet, and then they look like this:

if you polish them they stay looking like this even when dry (this one is polished); photo from wikimedia

if you polish them they stay looking like this even when dry (this one is polished); photo from wikimedia

The marks are from fossilized coral from about 400 million years ago. Give or take.

I think of people as Petoskey stones sometimes — we look one way in a regular old setting, but in the right setting our true nature is revealed for better or for worse. With Petoskey stones, it’s always for the better. Also, because I’m feeling random today, here’s a photo of the President fiddling with a Petoskey stone:

identified man with Petoskey stone; wikimedia

identified man with Petoskey stone; wikimedia

And now,

hills Oh, reader, the hills in this part of the world! Here is where my body learned the words crest and trough, where swell meant something about the land, where you can see for miles and miles and miles and miles from the top of the right hill. They are something to write home about. These particular hills are called drumlins, and they were carved out of the earth when the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. While they pose certain challenges for cell phone reception, they do wonders for your soul and spirit. It wasn’t until I was driving up and down these hills — through orchards, and vineyards, and fields of corn and wheat — that it dawned on me: there is not one single hill in the Peninsula Town. Not one. There are hills nearby, and mountains not too far either — but the Peninsula Town is flat as a washboard. Come to think of it, it’s the only flat place I’ve ever lived. Ah well.

So, no poetry for you this week. But it’s good to take a break and see what else the world has to offer, don’t you think?. Every time I do I’m grateful and amazed and ready for more poetry in a whole new way.

Thanks for reading, happy Independence Day two days late, and enjoy your weekend!

in which, actually, you *can* go home again

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home n. 1. a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household; 2. the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered; 3.an institution for the homeless, sick, etc.: a nursing home; 4. the dwelling place or retreat of an animal; 5. the place or region where something is native (ding, ding, ding! we have a winner!) or most common.

Reader, I’ve been home. And I know They say you can’t go home again, but I’ve discovered that, actually, you can. And no, it’s not exactly the same and you’re not exactly the same, but you can go home. And if you do, here’s what might happen… .

You might find yourself driving the same country roads you drove to the home of your first love, who — after several years, degrees, and cities apart — you ended up marrying. And you might find that you still know the way between your old house and his old house in your bones.

And you might have forgotten the topography of the sky in a place near so much water. You might have forgotten the way clouds build and shift, the way they seem to roll and tumble. You might look up into mountainous layers of clouds to find that this kind of sky is at once utterly familiar and utterly amazing.

You might laugh with your husband when you both instinctively look behind your left shoulders as you drive by the turnout where the police always parked to watch for speeders. You might be surprised about the way your body knew what to do before you thought about why.

You might go back to the house your BFF grew up in and her kids might call you Auntie and let you put bug spray on them even though they hardly know you. You might hug your BFF’s mom, who’s your second mom, and sit on her porch. You might get to hug your other BFF and hold her brand new baby. You might miss the 4th BFF of your group in a whole new way since she’s not there. And you might see a pillow painted with the words, If these walls could talk, and think, That’s the perfect pillow for this house.

You might drive by the house you grew up in and see that, yes, it looks smaller and, yes, a little worse for the wear — but look: there’s the willow on the hill where you’d sit and watch storms roll in, and there’s the tree your dad planted when you were seven, and there’s the rose of sharon in the front yard, still blooming.

Later you might drive north a bit — no need of a GPS — up and down hills, through the orchards, saying to your children, Those are tarts. Those are sweets. Those are apples. You might even get to use the word espalier and not mean it metaphorically.

You might come up over the crest of one particular hill and see the blend of blue and green you know by heart. You might get to listen to the voices of your children arguing over who saw it first, when you know the truth: You saw it first. Of course. The Lake.

When you walk in the door you might let years of missing home fall away. And then — and this is one of the best parts — your dad might bring you a glass of wine, and you might get to have a glass of wine with your mom in her kitchen. And believe me, you will realize how lucky you are to still have them both, in the flesh, in the very room where you yourself are standing.

You might wonder briefly where the children are — out in the blackberry patch? in the “big garage” pulling out the bikes? down on the lower level dipping their feet in the lake? Then again, you might not.

Later you might go downstairs to plop down your bags and see that your mom has set up a card table in your room with a cupful of pens and a few literary journals. It might do for Writing Studio 5.1. One morning after you arrive — after again briefly wondering where the children are — you might sit down at the table and think about going home again, and feel exceedingly grateful for the place you come from. Amen.

on being away

I sat by this window for hours. Hours!

I sat by this window for hours. Hours!

away (adv.) 1. to or at a distance 2. towards a lower level 3. into an appropriate place for storage or safe keeping 4. towards or into non-existence. From Old English aweg and (about 725, in Beowulf) on weg (on on + weg way). The sense of the original compound is “to another place.”

I have been away, at a distance, into an appropriate place for safe keeping (of the soul, that is). Every time I go away, I realize that I don’t go away often enough. It wasn’t far away and it wasn’t for long (24 hours), but I felt unanchored and rested in the most delightful way.

I didn’t write, other than a few jotted thoughts in my notebook. I read, but mostly fiction: this book, which is one of my all-time favorites. I drank my coffee. Hot. I soaked in the tub (also hot) and no one pounded on the door calling, “Mooo-ooom!” I ate food that was not prepared by me. I settled not a single argument. 🙂

Here is the view from the hill above my little attic room:

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Reader, I did not rush home.

But now here I am, home, and facing the reality that this likely will be a week away from my desk. Speaking of away.

A household to set back to rights. Last week of school. Third grade school play. Two minimum days. No less than 4 separate events for 5th grade graduation (Don’t get me started on 5th grade graduation; I’d be the one advocating for a box of popsicles at the last bell. And you’re done.).

But time away — whether from home or from writing — can be restorative, can loosen things up and sift them down, can bring things forth unexpectedly. As a po-friend says, “It’s all the work.”

I wish you a very happy week!

end of year miscellany

Still Life: The Handout with Corn Flakes and Unfolded Laundry

Still Life: The Handout with Corn Flakes and Unfolded Laundry. Also with Fingerprints on the Chair and Someone Drinking Juice Out of a Wine Glass. #goodenoughmother

Reader, I’m procrastinating again. I really need to go to the grocery store with all the other crazy, procrastinating people who go to the grocery store on New Year’s Eve. Grooooaaaannnn.

But first, I wanted to tell you that, for those of you who requested it, The Handout is going in the mail today (by the skin of my teeth! and with the help of a small person known in these parts as Sister). By the way, I did get a comment from a reader who wanted a The Handout, but did not send me name and address information; if you’re that reader, drop me an e-mail at: mollycspencer@gmail.com. And, if you want to receive the next issue of The Handout, do the same.

This morning, I woke early after a night of restless sleep punctuated with thoughts of polar explorers meeting their fates and east-bay anxiety dreams (these are dreams where I get lost in the east-bay and can’t find my way home — don’t ask me…??). I started writing a list of things I’m thankful for in my journal, and after a half-hour or so, decided I could write until the journal was full and still have more gratitude to express. Life is so good.

One thing I’m grateful for is you, Reader, and all the fun I’ve had, and learning I’ve done, writing here at the stanza. So thank you for reading and joining the conversation from time to time. I wish you and yours every good thing in 2013.

true story

I feel how this paper looks… in a good way.

We spent yesterday at the hospital clinics — more followup for Said Child. Sister was with us; sore throat and cough. Rain coming down sideways. Me, a headache. At least the car started.

As we waited for the docs, the timer I’d set to remind me to take more meds for my headache rang. I looked around the exam room for a cup. No cups.

No problem, I said. I learned how to make a cup out of paper when I was Girl Scout.

Why did they teach you that? asked Said Child.

I paused. I wanted to think about my answer. I had a feeling my answer would be important.

Because, I said, they knew that someday you might be waiting in an exam room with your children and need to take some medicine, and there might not be any cups.

**

The paper you see in the photo is the paper I folded into a cup and drank from. It also happens to be the first scribblings of my thoughts on the fellowship application I’ve been working on (which, yes, I’ve been carrying back and forth to the hospital and working on in 3 minute spurts for weeks). There’s a pleasing full-circle-ness (new word) to that, isn’t there?

The fellowship application is finished and submitted. My favorite moment: the message at the very end of the process: “Successful Logout!” Really? That’s the best they can do? Successful logout!? Anyhoo, the victory is not in whether I will win it (probably not); the victory is having applied. I’m so grateful to the friends who kicked me in the pants, lovingly, so I’d finish it. And for all the support from you, Reader. Feeling supported makes a difference, no?

**

This morning I had a vague memory of something called make up. I had a feeling I might even own some, so I poked around. Yep. Put a little on, and wow, I can see why someone invented this stuff.

I threw on my favorite wardrobe item, old broken-in jeans, and my most comfortable Danskos (why do I find the phrase “most comfortable Danskos” inherently depressing?).

I spied the fellowship thoughts/paper cup paper on my desk and thought, “That paper looks how I feel, but in a good way.”

Sometimes life folds and creases us, uses us in ways we didn’t expect, and scribbles in sloppy handwriting across our foreheads. Sometimes the ink runs, and we don’t know what the writing says anymore, or what the notation “K” was supposed to mean. But we know somehow the experience was important, so we file it away in a folder called Persistence, or maybe Small Victories. We give thanks for being wrinkled and worn out, but in a good way.

Amen.

gratitude journal: pot of oatmeal edition

(Oops, just wrote “poet of oatmeal edition.” That’s me: the poet laureate of oatmeal.)

public domain

Well, Reader, like so many people, I’m counting blessings today and sending best wishes to everyone in Sandy’s path.

No Frankenstorm here but we did have a Frankenfever that sent us to the ER last night. The feverish one is better today, thank goodness.

And so once again I’ve been thinking of the obstacle in the path becoming the path. Last night in the ER, I started listing in my head all the ways Frankenfever was wrecking my plans for the week. I caught myself, gave thanks for Tylenol, Advil, IVs, and being able to rule things out (albeit very slowly because the hospital’s computer system was down — their servers are housed in New Jersey. Sandy’s reach is long, indeed). I started just paying attention. To the quiet but active hum of the doctors and nurses. To the almost soothing bell choir of beeping monitors. To the exact slope of the feverish one’s forehead as he slept. I started thinking of all the poems I could write out of my many experiences with the medical establishment (as mother and patient): side effects, the humphrey visual field test, history, excerpts from the chart — these and more all came to me as possible titles.

Late last night (early this morning, really), when we were finally home again I relaxed with a cup of tea and a wee, small bit of chocolate, and checked the New York Times coverage of Sandy. It’s enough to leave anyone speechless.

This morning I woke up and thought a hot breakfast sounded like just the thing. Moments of gratitude and awe: turning on the faucet, turning on the stove, the first sip of hot coffee, the moment the oatmeal began to bubble gently. The feverish one, tired but awake, and even a little bit hungry. An embarrassment of riches. Amen.

sometimes it’s good to leave the house

a ship leaving the Golden Gate at dusk

Reader, we have been away. Briefly. But sometimes briefly is long enough.

We went camping with some friends in the most lovely and secluded little spot just north of the Golden Gate. On Saturday, we packed like mad, drove up through the summer fog in the city, pitched our camp in the chilly morning air, then camped fast and furious. The kids melded into a roving pack that played capture the flag on a WWII bunker, swam in the frigid Pacific, buried eachother in the sand, made war against some very bold raccoons, and devoured untold numbers of s’mores. The adults swapped it’s-a-small-world stories around the campfire, shared the joys and challenges of family life, applied multiple coats of sunscreen to myriad limbs, cheeks, and noses, and took turns feeding the faces of the roving pack of children.

It was sheer bliss, even the sleeping on the ground part. Although, I do seem to have a camping hangover, despite the strongest drink having been instant coffee. I’m told we arrived home again yesterday afternoon, at which point I began working through a large hillock of laundry. I’m told we all showered to scrub the sand and the campfire out of our hair. I have some memory of scrambling around the house this morning and dragging the kids along to a poetry date (which was, for the benefit of the kids, at a park). I have barely stumbled back to my desk, where it has come to my attention that the Mail Order Bride rides again.

Actually, I was expecting her sometime soon, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. But, I’m so happy to share with you a few more Mail Order Bride poems, and one other poem, that are up at Escape Into Life. Escape Into Life is an exciting online venue for literature and visual art. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you spend some time browsing and taking it all in — it’s a really wonderful site. I’m so honored to have my work there, paired with evocative photographs by Jennifer Zwick. Thank you to poetry editor Kathleen Kirk for selecting my work for publication at EIL.

And now, I’m going to try splashing some cold water on my face to see if I can emerge from my camping brain-fog. Something tells me there’s still some laundry in need of attention, and I know for a fact certain people will be expecting dinner in a few hours. Which I will cook with a smile on my face, giving thanks for all that’s beautiful in the world — fog and cargo ships, parks and poetry, small upturned faces brown from the sun — all of that and more.