ghazal for my roommate at AWP, whom technically I’ve never met

Although I’ve considered wearing cute shoes, I’m sure I’ll end up in my Danskos.
This is how you’ll know me at the airport: my yellow pants, my Danskos.

Also, I am short, and middle-aged, with brown and green glasses. You’ll notice
I’ve not perfected the art of scarf-wearing, but I know how to wear Danskos:

With boot cut pants and “interesting” socks. Or with skirts (matching tights).
Don’t worry — I know better than to wear skinny jeans with Danskos.

I’ll meet you at Ground Transportation, at the hotel shuttle pickup, and if
I’m too short to be seen in the crowd, look down at the floor for Danskos.

They’ll be black. I hope you’ll realize the sacrifice I’m making here. Cordovan
with bleach stains and scuffed toes are my most comfortable Danskos.

My luggage is so big because I had to pack my fleece bathrobe, two sets of pj’s,
my slippers, a small tea pot, a flameless candle, and more than one pair of Danskos.

What can I say? The book fair alone makes the case for abandoning
the red ballet flats and the gray boots in favor of my Danskos,

and I’m high-maintenance when it comes to creature comforts.
And cups of tea. And naps. And early bedtimes. And, well, Danskos.

If at any time during the conference I disappear, I suggest searching
in the Dickinson Quiet Space, where I’ll probably have kicked off my Danskos.

You may find me rather bland as roommates go. Not much of a party girl,
mediocre fashion sense. Hi, I’m Molly Spencer, devotee of poetry and Danskos.


end-of-summer musings with carrot cake

"Gee, Wally, I'd *love* to make you a carrot cake. Let me get right on that."

“Gee, Wally, I’d *love* to make you a carrot cake. Let me get right on that.”

Well, wow, I didn’t really mean to take the summer off writing. Not that I didn’t write at all, but here it is less than two weeks before the kids start school and the truth is I’ve mostly been a mom this summer, and not much of a poet.

As summer winds down (and, conveniently, as the kids are at their one week of camp for the summer this week) my thoughts have turned to re-engaging in my writing life and becoming, once again, a working mother.

(Meanwhile, Husband is on a conference call talking about things like micro-stuffs and nano-thingies, and I wonder, is this how he feels when I say anapest or iambic?)

One thing I’ve noticed this summer, which is probably not a news flash to anyone, is that everyone is a little bit happier when I’m not writing. Everyone, that is, except me.

Why is this? Well, probably because everyone can usually find clean socks and undies, dinner tends to be early-ish instead of late-ish, and I have lots of time to color and go to the park and play Old Lady Dusting (which is what my littlest one calls Old Maid, and I haven’t the heart to correct her). Also, while not perfect, the house tends to be neater and a bit more organized; the cupboard a bit more regularly stocked.

[Dear residents of the Wee, Small House: Prepare ye! For days of deprivation await, and ye shall soon have to dig in the dryer for clean socks and undies. And ye shall wait and wait for a decent meal, and there shall be no homemade desserts not even one. For a voice cries out in the desert, make straight the path to Mom’s writing desk!]

But anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the inner work of scheduling and how to plan my writing life this school year, and also about my word for the year, which is TEND and how I can tend to myself and my poetry. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

First, that the most important thing is staying healthy. Long-time readers know that I have a chronic illness that involves arthritis and other unpleasant things that we won’t dwell on now. So I’ve learned the hard way that if you lose your health, nothing else is okay. For me, this means getting enough sleep, healthy food, and some regular exercise. It also means not “over-doing it.” Which means…

…I have to say no. I confess, from the center of my very bones I am dreading the near-constant requests for volunteers at the kids’ schools. The mere thought of it exhausts me, which tells me I need to draw more stringent boundaries about what I commit to. I’m also going to have to say no to the kids — and here’s the thing: sometimes I do it to myself, Reader. Like, somehow I’ve said yes to making a CARROT CAKE today in recognition of excellent table manners five days running. The first day all summer that I have basically open and I say yes to CARROT CAKE!?!? (that scraping sound you hear in the background is me thinking of how long I’ll spend hand-shredding carrots this afternoon). So don’t feel sorry for me. But what I’m hoping is that awareness is half the battle, and since I’m aware of saying ‘yes’ too much I’ll be able to say ‘no’ more often. Stay tuned.

Also in the saying no department is a not-100%-pleasant intuition that I even need to cut back on some of my writerly commitments in order to spend more time heads-down at my desk. This I will hate to do, but I’ve learned over the years to trust my intuition even when it’s telling me something I’m not thrilled about.

Next on the list is what I’ll call my This I Believe statements. I’ve been walking around saying to myself over and over again, I believe that a reasonably well-functioning household is good for the soul, and, I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. So yes, I’m thinking about balance, and my motto 2.0:


(I swear, Reader, my problem is the whole “rotating basis” thing — it’s much easier to leave everything else up in the air indefinitely, don’t you think?)

And then lastly, I’m thinking about flexibility. Last year, I had my writing life all planned out. I was going to do this, and that, and also this other thing. I blocked off my calendar. I found babysitters when needed. I even said no to some volunteer “opportunities” at school ;). I had a plan. And then, kidney abscess, which I said in this post was “nothing too scary” but actually it was too scary and took a lot of time, energy, babysitters, etc. So, I’m reminding myself: You are a human being. Human beings live interdependently with and amongst other human beings. Sometimes things happen that require one to shift one’s plans.

So, yeah, somewhere around September 15 (and October 15, and November 15, and December 15, and… well, you get the idea), someone remind me:

  • first, health
  • say no early and often
  • cut back–>heads down
  • aim for balance
  • be flexible


a word for the year: 2013 edition


from the visual thesaurus (which I highly recommend as a writing tool)

Last year I wrote about choosing a word for the year. Actually, I’ve found that it’s more a process of the word choosing me, than the other way around. Last year the word ‘persist’ chose me, and I have to say it was helpful to have that word in the back of my mind throughout the year. It kept me going a few times when I needed a nudge.

A few weeks ago, I started thinking about what word might choose me for 2013. Nothing came knocking on my door right away.

Then, out of nowhere came the word tend.

And I was PIST! (PIST is like ‘pissed,’ but moreso).

I said out loud, No!

I was, I told the word tend, sick of tending! I’m always tending! Things cannot need more tending that they already get! That can’t be my word! I refused to discuss it further.

[Here, several days pass].

Gently, quietly, after several days, came this thought: maybe its you that needs tending, that needs to tend.

Gently, quietly, I considered this possibility.

I looked up the word ‘tend.’ Its first definition is “frequently behave in a particular way, tend toward; be liable to possess (a particular characteristic); go or move in a particular direction.” Its second definition is “care for or look after; direct or manage.” It’s roots are in the Latin via Old French tendere: to aim, stretch, extend.

I felt better already. Go or move in a particular direction? Aim, stretch, extend? I’m good with that! I can tend poem-ward, poet-ward! And although I can also persist and work hard, I can also simply tend… lean toward, move toward, reach gently, quietly, naturally.

And as for caring for, looking after: I came back to the gentle, quiet thought that maybe it’s me that needs tending. Long-time readers know that I have an autoimmune condition. It’s only really in the last year or so that my disease has been well-managed. My dear mom reminded me recently that this is the first year in the last 11 years that I’ve had the strength and energy to do my own Christmas shopping and cooking (Oh, Mom, thank you so much for doing that for me all those years!). When I look at things through this lens, I see that, of course I need some tending. Over the last 11 years, I’ve done a great job of tending to my children (less so, the house, but….); like many women, I haven’t done the greatest job of tending to myself.

So, I’ve come around to the word ‘tend.’ I can see why it chose me. It will go up on the wall in front of my writing desk. I might forget it some days or some weeks, but it will come back ’round. I’m not PIST anymore, or even pissed. I’m going to try hard to live the word tend this year, and to learn from it.

What word has chosen you for 2013? Whatever it is, I wish you the very best of living that word, and learning from it. Happy almost-New Year, Reader.

happy flex day

a tirling pin

Hi, Reader. Today my computer seems to be mostly cooperating, so I’m going to take this opportunity to be less wordless than usual for a Wednesday. I also want to wish you a happy flex day, which is a day when you throw your schedule to the wind and do what needs doing.

Today, I really needed to buy new pajamas. Actually, three years ago I really needed to buy new pajamas, but I tend to procrastinate about such things. Then I realized that, because some of the accommodations are shared at the conference I’m going to this weekend, it was possible that someone, besides the dwellers of the Wee, Small House, might actually see my pajamas. The very thought made me cringe. I briefly considered cancelling my plans, but then I accepted the fact that it would be better to just go buy some new pajamas (this is how much I dread shopping in actual stores except for book stores).

(Speaking of pajamas, I was trying to find an image of old-fashioned pajamas or Wee Willie Winkie or something for this post. Didn’t have much luck there, so I went with this photo of a tirling pin. A tirling pin is a precursor to the doorbell. It was moved up and down to alert the people at home of someone at their door. It is memorialized in the original version of Wee Willie Winkie: “Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toun, Up stairs and doon stairs in his nicht-goun, Tirlin’ at the window, cryin’ at the lock, ‘Are the weans in their bed, for it’s noo ten o’clock?'” File this under: you learn something new every day).

At any rate, this morning I called “flex day!” and did a bit of preparing for the conference, including, but not limited to, procuring some new pajamas. My first stop was my friendly neighborhood independent bookseller. I bought The Hare with the Amber Eyes to read on the plane and before bed while I’m away, and an itty bitty book light (again, just in case of shared accommodations). I’m looking forward to reading something a little different (i.e., not poetry). But, because I thought it would be a good idea to have something exciting waiting for me upon my return, I also bought Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke. Also, when you see a book like that at your friendly neighborhood independent bookseller you just have to buy it in the hopes that they’ll continue to stock living poets who are not Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, or Mary Oliver (nothing against Messrs. Collins and Heaney or Ms. Oliver).

Next I came home and had lunch, rested with a guided meditation, and journaled about travel anxiety. Which I have. Leaving the kids for the longest time ever (not that I’m proud of that — it’s long overdue; and I know they’ll be fine). Sharing my work with “real” poets who I don’t know (as if I’m not a “real” poet). Traveling by myself (as if I have not done this hundreds of times — but it’s been a while, and traveling is hard on me physcially because of my chronic illness). All that stuff. My po-friend C-1 (there’s also a po-friend C-2), who just came back from Thailand, promises me that travel anxiety is normal. Anyway, it helped just to write it all down.

So, yeah, sometimes the schedule goes and we do what we need to do. I’m feeling more ready and relaxed for my trip. My printer connection is up and running again, so I have all my stuff printed out and ready to go. Huge relief after the sore throats and technical difficulties of the last several days.I still have a few last minute things to do (buy treats and pack my bag, for example), but they feel manageable.

And I haven’t forgotten about organdizing, but at this point I think it’s going to have to wait until next week, although I’ll try to squeeze out a post tomorrow if I can. I won’t be blogging from the conference (in fact I’m not even taking my computer), but I promise to tell you all about it when I come home. See you back here tomorrow, maybe. Otherwise, next week. Have a wonderful weekend in the mean time, and take a flex day if you need one! It can make all the difference.

day 4: Self-Designed Part-Time 7-Day From Scratch With a Little Bit of Crazy Mixed In Writing Residency

St. Genevieve, patroness of Paris, fevers, and disasters. From wikimedia.

I’m starting to wonder if I really can do this for 7 days. The early mornings are starting to wear on me, although I’ve always done my best work in the early morning. I shall persevere.

Today’s draft used the “Five Easy Pieces” prompt from The Practice of Poetry (prompt by Richard Jackson). This prompt asks us to invent or remember a person you know well, and then to create a setting in which the poem’s speaker observes this person. In the poem, the poet should:

1. describe the person’s hands
2. describe something s/he is doing with the hands
3. use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place
4. mention what you want to ask the person in the context of 2 and 3 above
5. have the person look up or toward the poem’s speaker and answers in a way that suggests s/he only understands part of what is asked

I decided to imagine my mother’s hands performing some task of care for one of my children, which she did so often when I was too sick to do it myself. I wanted to explore the feeling of helplessness and relief I so often felt during those years of illness and small children. Helplessness at not being able to care for them myself; relief that someone else was there to do it.

The draft, called “Fever,” begins:

“When you re-read this story you’ll skip
the midnight chapter of your mother’s hands
webbed into cradle over the kitchen sink, holding

a baby taut with fever…”

I had to work at this one. It came slowly. I used a wordbank from Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart (I wrote about this book here): plead, blindfold, tremble, taut, brim, geography. The question I wanted to ask (#4) in the poem is: Who is the patron saint of fevers? The answer in the draft is not comforting, but in real life the patron saint of fevers is St. Genevieve, in case you’re wondering.

I’m still finding it hard to resist the temptation of peeking at the four drafts I have so far. Four down, three to go, *hot weather forecasted and a busy weekend coming up. Oh, Poetry, if I didn’t love you so much I’d leave you flat and sleep more :).

See you tomorrow for day 5 of this adventure.

*P.S. “Hot” weather here is anything above 80 degrees, so don’t feel too sorry for us.

no ephs or cays

It’s so good to have po-friends. One of my po-friends gave me a copy of this:

from the Ann Arbor courier 2/23/1887; I found the image here

In my time, I’ve done plenty of thinking about limits. I think there’s something in the American psyche that says limits are to be fought. And some limits do ask to be fought: racism, sexism, injustice, and the like.

But other limits can’t be fought. Those who have been reading for a while know that I have a chronic illness that involves, amongst other things, arthritis and fatigue. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “You have to fight it. You can’t let it keep you from living your life,” … . When, in fact, there’s no fighting it. It is part of my life. It’s not going away. Living well within the constraints of my condition is the only option.

But this post isn’t about me; it’s about no ephs and cays and a little boy I’ll call C. The story with no ephs and cays is that a long-ago newspaper’s printing press lacked the Ff and Kk. They went to press anyway. They worked within their limits.

Now, onto C. He’s a little guy in our neighborhood with developmental and physical delays, and severe autism. He’s swimming on the same swim team as my kids this summer (Sidebar: I call it the hippie swim team. Meets are optional. Practices are optional. It’s all about having fun.). I think this is C.’s first year on the team, and he’s just learning to swim. Nonetheless, C. raced in the 50-freestyle yesterday at our meet against the Sharks. Every stroke was slow and painful to watch. Many times I thought he wasn’t going to be able to finish the race. But he kept going, and going, and going, slow and sputtering, but on he went. By the time he made the turn after his first 25, every single person at the meet was cheering for him. Half-way through the second 25, he slowed to a snails pace, and we all sat on the edge of our seats, hoping and cheering. By the time he finally finished, I was weeping and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

The Roccay Mountain Cyclone went to press with no ephs and cays. C. swam that race even though, by most standards, he wasn’t race-ready. Both are a reminder to me that we can all work within our limits, whatever they are. In writing and in life, we can start before we’re “ready.”

the world needs you: on passions, life, and bleak seasons

oops - busted

We interrupt our regularly scheduled wordless wednesday programming to give hope to the hopeless and to comfort those in despair.

Yesterday, Bernadette Geyer blogged over at She Writes on writing after kids — how it teaches one to write when the chance presents itself, how becoming a parent made her a more vigilant writer, how it forced her to make time. To all this I say “Yes!” I agree with everything Bernadette said, but I am here today to give hope and comfort to those of us who find/found writing after children (or after fill-in-the-blank) to be a bit more challenging.

The title of Bernadette’s piece is “What? It’s Possible to Keep Writing After a Kid?” But I know there are people out there thinking, Yeah, but what about two kids, or three? What about if your dog goes suddenly neurotic? What if the baby hasn’t slept through the night yet and won’t nap? Hey, what about rotavirus!? What if your husband comes home and says he’s been transferred to Shanghai? What if you’re the primary caregiver to an ill family member? What if you are the ill family member?

Life can be wild and crazy and downright difficult. Truth is stranger than fiction. The writing time you thought you’d have might evaporate before your very eyes for all sorts of reasons. The neurotic dog? Didn’t happen to me, but I know someone it happened to and it was a huge time-suck!

This year, for the first time in ten years, I have reliable writing time because all three of my children are in school. During the previous ten years, despite my very best efforts, there were many short and long stretches during which writing time was hard to come by. If I got up at 5:00 to write, you can bet one of the children woke up crying with a fever. If I tried to write during nap time one day, a Certain Someone would stage a nap time protest. If I put them in front of the boob tube to try to get a half-hour at my desk, they would quickly lose interest and wonder, Whatcha doin Mommy? Can I help? I wanna help! Mommy let me help! I wrote whenever I could, yes. I took advantage of small pockets. I stepped over piles of laundry, and even (literally) of children, to get a few minutes at my desk. But it wasn’t easy or reliable.

And then there are the bigger challenges. Those of you who’ve been reading for a while know that when my children were tiny I was very ill with a chronic autoimmune condition. For a while I couldn’t hold a pen in my hand, and it was painful to press on the keys of a keyboard. Not to mention the fact that every ounce of my dwindling energy was needed to make it through each day with pain, fatigue, and three young children. There were long stretches of not writing. There were no poems for months at a time. I thought I would never write again.

Other things can happen: parents die, a spouse gets ill, and on and on and on. There are bleak seasons. Life might keep you from your desk for longer than you ever imagined. You might think that grief or illness or whatever challenging episode you’re going through will silence you forever.

And I’d like to say that this can happen for non-parents, too! We hear a lot about balancing writing and parenthood, but Real Life happens for all of us. Just because there are no children pulling all the T.P. off the roll in the upstairs bathroom, doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes challenging for a writer to find his/her desk and wide open spaces of time. And all this applies to everyone, not just writers. Maybe your passion is mountain biking, or quilting, or throwing dinner parties. Maybe there has been precious little time for your passion lately.

I just want to say: Don’t despair. Don’t despair even if you haven’t written a poem in months. Don’t despair if you can’t see a way to write this week because the children have the flu. Don’t despair if you think grief has stolen all your creativity forever.

Things change. Bleak seasons end. Keep reading. Keep trying. Write a little note to yourself and stick it on your mirror: “I am still a writer.” Or, “I am still a quilter,” or whatever. Your poems and stories will wait for you; the open road will wait for you; the dinner party featuring beef wellington will wait for you.

It may not be easy. It may not be easy for weeks or months or years. But you will get back to doing what you love and what you are called to do. Because you wouldn’t be you without it. And the world needs you.

wendy in print

"Aunt Pearl's Watermelon, #1" by April Dobbins

calyx (n.) the sepals of a flower, typically forming a whorl that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud; a cup-like cavity or structure; a journal of art and literature by women produced in Corvalis, OR, and now celebrating its 35th year.

Reader, last week this journal appeared in my mailbox. On page 39 is a poem I wrote about motherhood called “A Wendy House.”

I wrote “Wendy House” when I was in the thick of it — three very small children and in poor health from my chronic autoimmune condition, living far from family, winter. I had been reading Peter Pan to the children (or to the 2/3 of the children who were old enough to listen at that point), and came to the passage about the Darling children’s arrival at the island of Neverland. Do you remember that Wendy was struck by an arrow (Tink’s) and came down from her flight dead, or nearly dead? Then the lost boys built a house around and over her, hoping to protect her, or maybe hoping only to revive her. They wanted a mother.

This passage in the Peter Pan story made me think about life — the way we think our life is going to unfold versus the way it actually does unfold. The “island of make-believe and the same island come true,” as I quote in the epigraph to the poem. And also about motherhood, and the great needs of children, and how all mothers start out as “only / a girl. With no experience.”

This poem was an idea that brewed for a while. Then one day I said to myself, “It’s time to write the Wendy House poem.” I sat down and wrote it, worked on it for a few months, then began sending it out. It was rejected severally (as usual), but this fall I had a note from CALYX saying they’d like to publish it.

I am honored to have my work in the same volume as pieces containing these lines:

“… so slack / are the strings between my bones, so lucky / is my electric blood to be inside my skin.” — from “Reading Whitman in the Chemo Room” by Rochelle Hurt

“Tang was laughing a jellyfish laugh, with his hands on his stomach as it swelled and shriveled.” –from “The Vestige” by Rita Chang

“That’s all there was, it wasn’t much but joy is like that, / joy surprises: the scent of mint, a baby’s wrist, a woman / in a white truck, driving.” — from “Woman in a White Truck, Driving” by Sarah Rossiter

and, this bit from “The Apple Orchard” by Bethany Reid, winner of the 2011 Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize:

“Spring mornings / it was a regular whorehouse / of an orchard, the trees / frowsy and bedraggled, / in nightgowns and slippers, / hair tangled, lipstick askew, / straps slipping from their shoulders.”

!!!!! a regular whorehouse / of an orchard !!!!! Reader, that line alone is worth the cover price.

And speaking of the cover, I find the cover photograph to be absolutely stunning. I think it’s my favorite journal cover ever. Have I  mentioned how much I love the cover?

If you haven’t read CALYX, let me recommend it. I’ve read it for years, either borrowing it from friends or subscribing. It never disappoints, is always full of good poetry, fiction, essays, art, and book reviews. It’s thick and varied enough that you can keep it on your nightstand and read through it for months. Happy 35th birthday to CALYX. And thank you for finding a home for Wendy in your pages.