balance the day

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

A book I return to again and again is How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. It was published during wartime (1942) ostensibly as a guide to cooking on a shoestring when ingredients, fuel, and time were scarce (time because so many women were entering the workforce **UPDATED to say: a faithful friend and reader points out that it was really only more white women who were entering the workforce — that women of color had always worked. And she is right!). I read it less as a guide to cooking and more as a spiritual tome. It both reinforces my sense that the wolf is ever at the door, pacing and snuffling, and somehow comforts me about it. For one thing, M.F.K. writes with a certain authority, and is all about common sense. Like me, she is a fan of double and freeze — (although I’m not sure there was such a thing as a chest freezer back then?? but it appears she put her icebox to good use). She is willing to stretch what she has and scrape together a meal. Amen (insert solemn bow here). This is why I’m inclined to follow her advice to “balance the day.” M.F.K. points out that everyone from slick magazines to scientists to the federal government have, for ages, been suggesting we serve balanced meals. Balanced as in the four food groups (if you, like me, were born a while ago), or as in the proper selections from the food pyramid (if you were born later), or… I don’t know what rubric there is now because, frankly, I have given up. M.F.K. says “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” She says,

“Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.”

Reader, she had me at “toast.” She says,

“For lunch make an enormous salad… or a heartening and ample soup… . That is all you need, if there is enough of it.”

She goes on to make similar suggestions for simple dinners (involving protein and a starch), and says:

“Try it. It’s easy, and simple, and fun, and — perhaps most important — people like it.”

Whether people like it is actually not the most important thing to my mind. The “easy” and “simple” parts are. <mothering interlude: Sister just walked by, noticed the book on my desk and said, “What!? She knows how to cook a wolf?” Second Son replies, “Not literally, Sister, metaPHORically.”</mothering interlude>. Which leads me to my point: I read the “balance the day” chapter (which is actually titled “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock”) both literally and metaphorically. This summer, I’m trying hard to balance the day, even though balance has never been a natural state for me. I think we should all get to sit down to an enormous plate of toast dripping with butter and honey — we should all get to relax and do something just because we want to every day. Sometimes I have about 5 minutes for that, but I’ve been trying to take those 5 minutes and make something of them. I’m also making sure to find that all important time for writing and other creative pursuits. Yes, this often means trading sleep for art, but I’m willing to do it, and happier and more balanced if I do. However you balance your days, I wish you luck. Remember, the M.F.K. model does  not require that each moment be balanced, or even each hour. I am often inclined to stretch her advice and attempt to balance the week. Sit down to your plate of toast sometime. Serve dinner on a shoestring. And consider these words from M.F.K. Fisher, with which I will close:

“[An unnecessary peptic goad, but a very nice one now and then, is a good soft stinky cheese, a Camembert or Liederkranz, with what is left of the bread, the wine, the hunger.]”

   

friday roundup: nash equilibrium edition

"The Pretty Housewife" by Amedeo Modigliani

“The Pretty Housewife” by Amedeo Modigliani

Friday again? What have I done all week? Oh yeah — there was the abandoned nestling (a sparrow, I think) that we nursed and delivered to wildlife rescue. There were anywhere from 3 to 5 kids in the house depending on the day and time. Many meals — mostly the scraped together kind, but one decent dinner. Swim practice. Doctor’s appointments. Laundry in there somewhere. A few early mornings at my desk revising, revising, and revising. Not as much reading as I’d like, not as much poetry time as I’d like, but there you go. Here is my humble offering for the week:

poetry and the Nash Equilibrium  Well, I never thought my economics background would come in handy in my poetry life, but just this week it did. The Nash Equilibrium is a concept from economics (specifically game theory) wherein people reach the best decision they can, taking into account other people’s preferences. In a Nash Equilibrium, it’s possible (maybe even probable) that no one ends up with their first choice, but overall utility is higher than it would be if people were not taking into account other people’s preferences. (I think this is right. It has been decades since Economics and I were in the same room together). The theory won John Forbes Nash, Jr. the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. Its real-life  implementation won Anne Sexton the Pulitzer in 1967.

Let me explain. Well, no, I’ll just let this article explain. But the bottom line is that Anne Sexton was nobody’s first choice for the Pulitzer in 1967. The jurors couldn’t come to agreement. Eventually, they settled on Anne.

What’s fascinating about this to me is that, as a mere earthling, I always assume that whoever gets the Pulitzer (or any other prize for that matter) was everyone’s first choice — that their work stood head and shoulders over everyone else’s, even the rock stars they were up against. This story tells us that, no — sometimes the jury can’t agree, sometimes they settle on nobody’s first choice, but a choice they can begrudgingly agree on. Even in poetry, even in the Pulitzer. Something to chew on.

the work of play  Summer vacation ain’t what it used to be. At least, here in the P-town it’s not. Remember going outside after breakfast, finding a pack of kids to run around with, going home for lunch, reuniting with the pack, and then going home for dinner (then reuniting with the pack until the streetlights came on or your dad’s voice drifted through the neighborhood dusk, calling you home)?

I’m sure I’m romanticizing this. But I’ve watched my kids — especially the eldest — try to find friends to hang out with this summer, and it’s rare that anyone is available. They are at this camp or that camp or this class or that class. I’m not against camps and classes as a rule, but I’m definitely for time to just be — to play (or “hang out” when they get older), to get bored, to lose oneself in the shade of a tree or the pages of a book.

Madeline Levine is a child psychologist and researcher who argues for the importance of play (amongst other things). Here’s a brief article on why it’s important. Maybe this has nothing to do with poetry, but I can’t imagine how I’d have become a poet if I hadn’t had hours upon hours to be in the world, and in my head, on my own terms. And we all know that play is a crucial ingredient of art.

between the chopping board and the stove  I haven’t read much this week, and what I’ve read is Larry Levis’s Elegy, which is a-MAZ-ing, but does not lend itself to sharing poems in a blog post. But sometimes just the right poem finds us even when we are not reading much, or reading very long poems that can’t be shared in a blog post. This happened yesterday when I was reading through the current issue of flycatcher, and came across Francesca Bell’s poem “Housewife’s Meditation.” This poem saved my life yesterday. That is all. Go read it here.

And while we’re on housewife poems and Anne Sexton, here is that glam lady-poet’s contribution to the subgenre:

*

Housewife

Some women marry houses.
It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That’s the main thing.

*

And now for me it’s back to the work that is always undoing. Happy Friday, and thanks for reading.

in which I clarify

Peasant Woman Sweeping the Floor, Vincent Van Gogh, wikimedia

Peasant Woman Sweeping the Floor, Vincent Van Gogh, wikimedia

Hello, Reader. It’s been a very mom-intensive week for me except for 20 minutes yesterday afternoon when I just had to do a quick art project. Because I have nothing else to do — no Christmas shopping or baking; no one-zillion holiday programs to attend (okay, only five); certainly no laundry. Alas, sometimes I just can’t help myself… the siren song of glue and glitter… .

Anyway, I had an interesting question from a reader after Monday’s post, in which I said I found it comforting that even a single, childless writer felt she could spend all day on housework.

This reader rightly asked what marital and/or parenting status had to do with housework? — and pointed out that really no one is immune to having to do housework.

Which is true. But the reason I found it comforting is that in a one-person, child-free household, there is much less housework. Less laundry, less dirt tracked through, less use of the lav. Fewer mouths to feed (I swear I could survive on bread, fruit, nuts, and cheese if it were just me) therefore less time spent meal-planning, and fewer and shorter trips to the store. Less stuff, therefore less stuff to find a place for and fewer friendly (ahem) reminders to people to put their stuff away. No spousal chaos-threshold to take into account. No playing Secretary of State between and amongst sibling fiefdoms. No one to run hither, tither and yon for this activity and that. No holiday classroom gift exchange gifts to buy. Just one set of dentist and doctor’s appointments. In general, fewer needs to juggle, therefore less juggling. Which — rightly or wrongly — I’m translating into more time for writing, or an easier time finding time to write. I may be wrong here.

So (this was my thinking) — if even May Sarton (childless, unmarried, therefore having less housework to do) felt she could spend all day on housework, then no wonder I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by it, and by trying to balance a writing life with family life. But believe me, I’m fully aware that this is a #firstworldproblem. And that all writers/artists have other parts of their life that they have to juggle in order to find time for their art, whether they have a family of their own or not. I’m lucky that many weeks, I have a few hours a few days a week that generally I can clear for writing.

Meanwhile… somebody please pass a match:

IMG_2263

Just kidding. Mostly. See you back here for the roundup tomorrow.

“in the changing light of a room” – specks from May Sarton

Vincent's "Bedroom in Arles." Look's pretty cozy to me.

Vincent’s “Bedroom in Arles.” Look’s pretty cozy to me.

Last week I wrote about reading the journals of May Sarton. Have I mentioned that May Sarton had a room in her house called “the cozy room”? I want to live in that room. Until then, I’ll give thanks for my cozy, four-foot stretch of wall and these specks from May Sarton…

First on suffering and creation:

[After quoting from Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu]: “It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it — and I do and always have — then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing that we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it.”

On the person behind the work:

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life — all of it — flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity … both as human being and artists, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.”

May Sarton, housekeeper (somehow it’s very comforting to know that even she — who lived alone, unmarried, no children — fought against housework):

“I could spend the whole day housekeeping, but I won’t, as long as total chaos is kept at bay and what my eyes rest on is beauty and order. Only now and then the appalling state of a cupboard disturbs my mind enough so that it is worth tidying–… .”

 

(“As long as total chaos is kept at bay…” — I see May and I have at least that in common.)

May Sarton, wanderer:

“I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything… .  The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”

 

Sounds good to me, although today is not that day for me. More likely, this month is not that month. Still, at a minimum, I’ll be looking for a few empty moments to wander about in. I hope you find some, too.

not-so-wordless wednesday: Mrs. Williams responds…

Mrs. Williams RespondsIMG_2263
to His Note About the Plums

This is just to say
I burned your laundry
that was piled on the floor
and which you were probably

expecting me
to wash and dry
and fold
and put away.

Forgive me
the pile was high
so rank
and so daunting.

friday roundup: why apply?, “to make the world strange,” and eating well

What's wrong with this picture (also, please don't look too closely -- my towels are an embarrassment)

What’s wrong with this picture? (also, please don’t look too closely — my towels are an embarrassment)

Reader, it’s been a week of minimum days. And next week is also a week of minimum days. Because, conferences. [I pause here to NOT get on my soap box about how unusual and inconvenient this schedule is. Ahem.] I’ve been breathing deep about all the writing I’m not doing, setting tiny goals for myself, and enjoying long afternoons with my kids. Also, folding towels. Now let’s do the roundup before school lets out for the day:

why apply?  If you’ve been reading along, you know I’ve been applying for a few writerly gigs. There’s nothing like working on applications to encourage Spiteful Gillian, my inner critic, to come sniffing around. She’d like to know why I’m even applying? Do I know how slim the chances are of actually getting one of these gigs? Please indulge me as I write an open letter to Spiteful Gillian:

Dear Spiteful Gillian,

You are so freakin’ spiteful! But that’s not the point of this letter. The point of this letter is to tell you why I’m applying for writing gigs I might not get. Here’s why:

  1. It’s what writers do. Besides write, revise, submit, read, and champion the work of other writers.
  2. It gives me a better picture of what I’m working on — the themes, directions, and impulses of my work.
  3. Assembling a manuscript for an application is a really good way into revision. Bonus: afterwards, I have a few mini-manuscripts to send out to journals.
  4. Just to piss you off.

Lots of love,

M.

Reader, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of my application season (woohoo!), and I’m really itching to get back to creating some new work. After everything’s signed, sealed, and delivered I’ll write more about what I learned in the hopes that it might be useful to you.

“to make the world strange” At my writing group this week, we talked a bit about surprise in poetry. Surprise is a word that often gets bandied about in classes, workshop, and submissions guidelines (surprise us!).

But what is surprise really? Dictionary definition: surprise: a feeling of mild astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected. What about a poetry definition? I think I found one this morning as I read a Poetry Foundation interview with Lyn Hejinian. She says,

Techniques of defamiliarization are precisely intended to revivify the familiar, animate the ordinary, and make the world strange so that it’s visible — even amazing — again.

I really love this idea of making the world strange so that it becomes visible again. I’m tucking it away into my “poetic surprise” pocket. If you’d like to read the whole interview, which is not actually about poetic surprise, here it is.

eating well  I have an admittedly conflicted relationship with cooking. On the one hand, I love it because 1. yum, 2. it connects me to people I love, and 3. healthy, nourishing meals are so important. On the other hand — Oh my goodness, three meals a day every day!? As I write this I’m cooking beans in the crock pot so that later I can make a pot of chili so that we can have an easy, early dinner then head out for my reading tonight. Cooking beans made me think of this poem by Louise Gluck (pretend there’s an umlaut over that ‘u’).

*

Firstborn by Louise Gluck

The weeks go by. I shelve them,
They are all the same, like peeled soup cans…
Beans sour in the pot. I watch the lone onion
Floating like Ophelia, caked with grease:
You listless, fidget with the spoon.
What now? You miss my care? Your yard ripens
To a ward of roses, like a year ago when staff nuns
Wheeled me down the aisle…
You couldn’t look. I saw
Converted love, your son,
Drooling under glass, starving…

We are eating well.
Today my meantman turns his trained knife
On veal, your favorite. I pay with my life.

*

Louise Gluck, the X-acto Knife of poets.

And now, reader, it’s time for me to check the beans, then practice some more for my reading tonight. I hope you have a happy Friday and a relaxing weekend. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: first day of summer edition

photo from wikimedia

photo from wikimedia

Reader, is it the last day of school or the first day of summer? The kids get out at noon, and sometimes I like to look at things in their most positive light, so let’s call it the first day of summer.

I confess, I’ve not been much of a poet this week. Some weeks require all-mama-all-the-time, and this was one of them. It was comforting to learn (well, to re-learn actually) that even when I’m not trying to balance family life with writing life things pile up: laundry, books, dust, discarded shoes in the front hall (Ha, ha! “front hall…” Here at the Wee, Small House we use the term loosely). All the more reason not to drive oneself crazy trying to keep up. Let there be art!

a net for catching days  Next week I’ll re-commence my efforts at a summer writing schedule. Today on Brain Pickings there’s a great Annie Dillard quote about schedules. Here it is:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

Yes… “a net for catching days,” “a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time.” This is just how a writing schedule feels to me, and it’s why I feel a bit off-balanced and fading around the edges when I’m not writing.

The Act of Creation  Yesterday, through the semi-secret super duper library nerd lending program, I picked up Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. I’ve just begun reading it, and already I’m hooked (Still, I’m not without a little bit of reader-ly dread: I think a semester-long graduate-level course could be taught on this book. Add it to the syllabus for the Emily Dickinson MFA).

Sometimes I feel like just reading a particular poet’s work helps me get to a new place in my writing. Although I often spend time pulling poems apart, looking at how the poet uses the tools of the trade, it still feels as if getting to a new place can happen without that — that the reading itself has shifted things around inside me and helped me to make a breakthrough. I’ve often been curious about why, and Koestler has something to say about that: “Everybody can ride a bicycle, but nobody knows how it is done. Not even the engineers and bicycle manufacturers know the formula… . The cyclist obeys a code of rules which is specifiable, but which he cannot specify… .” Or, he says, to put it more abstractly:

“The controls of a skilled activity generally function below the level of consciousness on which that activity takes place.”

This is not (I repeat IS NOT) to say that we can’t become better writers by studying craft, by tearing a piece of writing apart and looking at how it’s built, by practicing, practicing, practicing. But it does help explain, for me, why the mere fact of having read something seems to bring forth growth in my writing. I’ll share more of Koestler’s insights as I read.

a summer poem  Is there a poem in your life that, for you, just says “Summer?” Share in comments, if you like. For me, it’s this poem by Anne Sexton:

*

I Remember by Anne Sexton

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color — no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

*

Whenever your summer begins, I hope you have lots of time to wear your bare feet bare and watch the sun blow out of sight. Happy weekend and thanks for reading!

true confessions: leftovers edition

mmm... meatloaf (photo credit)

mmm… meatloaf (photo credit)

I confess, I hate leftovers. Not in and of themselves, but because every time I declare a leftover night, we always end up with leftovers of the leftovers. I know you know what I’m talking about.

I confess, the only leftovers I like to have leftovers of are meatloaf sandwiches.

I confess, I once wrote a poem about leftover night, in which meatloaf makes an appearance. That poem recently came out in Grist Issue 6. I confess, I was thrilled to see a meatloaf/leftovers poem in print.

I confess, the poem, which is called “The Fall of Woman” is not really about leftovers, but more about (1) the fact that there are no longer as many female images of divinity as there were in ancient times, and (2) that women still have lots of (god-like?) power because of our role in raising children and tending the hearth. Disclaimer: Not that all power wielded by women derives from these roles, and also not that men don’t also raise children and tend hearths, but, y’know.

I confess, I am loving Christina Cook‘s poem “Summer Requiem” also in Grist 6, and poems by Sandy Longhorn and Helen Vitoria in the online companion, along with many others.

I confess, I have been terrible, terrible (I mean terrible!) about submissions this spring. I have been really good about giving TLC to the feverish and those recovering from surgery, but terrible about submissions. Still, I’m happy to have placed a handful of poems from the handful of submissions I did send out. I’m determined to do some submitting over the summer, and also to gear up for next fall’s submissions season. But…

…I confess, I think my focus for the summer will be revisions. Despite the craziness of the past several months, I’ve ended up with a reasonable stack of new work. These new poems need lots of TLC, though, and probably some major surgery (insert sound of chainsaw starting here).

I confess, I’m finally starting to accept and enjoy the fact that the creative life has its seasons — some time for new work, some time for refining what exists, some time for getting it out there in the world. And let’s not forget one of the most important seasons: composting. There may even be a season for doing all these things at once, but so far I haven’t encountered it… although, I confess, I live in hope.

I confess, my plans for a summer writing schedule have fallen flat thus far. But *technically* it’s not summer yet — so I still have hope for my early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise approach once school’s out.

I confess, I love summer. It makes me think of a very blue lake, and all kinds of fruit, and drinking diet cherry 7-up with my BFF on the town beach. It makes me think of camping as a kid, and (less dreamy-eyed, I admit) camping as an adult. It makes me think of long, lazy afternoons at the library and playing go-fish with my kids. I confess, I’m looking forward to it. I hope you are, too.