the rolling year in equal parts*

Aztec calendar, which apparently did not actually end in 2012, wikimedia

Aztec calendar, wikimedia

*That’s a line from Ovid’s “The Rape of Propserine” (A.D. Melville, trans.) perhaps better known as the story of Persephone and Demeter, the ancient myth that explains, amongst other things, the turning of the year, the seasons, the existence of bleak winter.

November. For me, and for others I know, it’s a fraught month. Partly it’s the season and weather: If it’s not already winter where you live, winter’s coming. Not to mention the fact that it starts getting dark really early this time of year. Partly it’s the history of this month in my life (and for some others I know, in theirs) — what past Novembers have held. The year turns, and we turn with it.

Today I was thinking about how comforting it is to turn through the year with poetry, about the poems I always pull out and revisit at certain times of year. As the school year begins, I’m always thinking of “The Tortoise Survives the Fire” even though the poem takes place in January — because this mama-tortoise has just survived the summer, and those bouncing backpacks at the end of the poem. There’s “All Hallows” by Louise Gluck in October, “Feathers, Sister, Falling” by Sally Rosen Kindred for November, and “Minnesota Thanksgiving” by John Berryman (yes, he really did just say, “Yippee!”). So  many poems for the first snow (which I no longer experience first-hand, but which I pull out when my old homes wake covered in snow): Anne Sexton, Billy Collins, Thomas Hardy“For the Time Being” by Auden on the day after Christmas (“Well, so that is that. / Now we must dismantle the tree…”). For epiphany, Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” And not a poem, but a passage from Yeats’ Dubliners (the last five sentences especially) which has helped me through many a March (yes, March, the snowiest month in the upper midwest). When the rains begin (again, I’m still in the Midwestern spring in my poetry cycle — must update to California seasons soon), “The Antiphon” by Denise Levertov (which I can’t find the text of online). In the summer, William Carlos Williams and his plums. Others that I’m sure I’m forgetting.

(Yes, like this one that I’m just now adding after remembering it — it’s good for end of semester time).

These poems help me mark time. They help me reflect — what was going on the last time I lived with this poem? What have I learned / done / lost / forgotten since then? They help me refocus on the now: this season, this moment, this plum.

But I’m talking too much. Sorry. What I really wanted to share is a poem by Charles Wright, “A Short History of the Shadow.” I saw this poem for the first time only today, but it broke me open and it will be one of my November poems each year, I’m sure.

Do you have poems you return to as the year rolls? If yes, I would really love it if you’d share them in comments.

I won’t be posting for the rest of this week — I’ll be baking and boiling and mashing and saucing and candy-ing and basting and stuffing and (oh yeah, eating) and doing crosswords and hanging with family and going for long, slow walks in November. Oh, and I almost forgot!: celebrating 15 years with my sweetie on Thanksgiving Day itself.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading. May the year roll gently for you.

in which someone is wrong on the Internet, and I spout

Watch out -- thar she blows! wikimedia

Watch out — thar she blows! wikimedia

Have you seen this cartoon?

Yeah, I know. When someone is wrong on the Internet, trying to convince them (or anyone) they’re wrong is tilting at windmills. But for some issues close to my heart — like working parents, or poetry readings, or now, The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a  Mother: Have Just One Kid — I can’t help myself. I just have to pipe up.

And here’s the thing: I’m not even going to try to convince anyone (including you) that anyone’s wrong. I just want to say what I believe. So, here I go:

First, can we agree that the editors at The Atlantic probably chose a headline that was sure to get people’s hackles up? Okay, now that we’ve agreed on that:

Can we stop? Can we stop pretending there’s a secret to being a successful mother-writer? Can we also stop pretending that the secret to being a successful mother-writer is access to affordable childcare and a partner who shares equally in parenting (although I admit this would be pretty sweet)? Can we also stop pretending that being a successful mother-writer is harder than being a successful mother-anything-else? Can we also stop pretending that it’s harder to be a mother-writer than a not-a-mother writer, or a not-a-mother anything else? Can we also stop pretending that there’s a secret to being a successful writer, regardless of motherhood status?

(We will not stop pretending that generations of institutionalized and cultural ideas about women’s roles at home and in the workplace still influence women’s lives because we’re not pretending about that. That’s been pretty well-documented, and we’re working on it, and let’s not stop working on it.)

Would some examples be helpful?

Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a non-mother writer who’s caring for a chronically ill spouse or an aging parent?

Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for my friend who cares for her adult brother with severe mental illness to find time for her life’s work?

Is it harder for me — yes, still a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a writer who has the *Secret Number* — one — child, who happens to be a special-needs child?

I’m thinking no.

Is it harder for me — who just said to her children, to quote Joan Didion: Shush, I’m working. Why don’t you ride your bikes to the park. — to find writing time than a mother of one, who has no playmates on standby? I don’t know, but I kind of don’t think so.

So first off, can we agree that life is very life-like and we all have responsibilities and relationships that tug us away from our life’s work from time to time? Mother, not mother, writer, not writer. Et cetera.

Okay, moving on:

Do we all need better access to affordable childcare, eldercare, family-care? Yes.

Should we all have partners who share equally in parenting and household-running? Probably. Personally, I’m not waiting around for that (although I am trying to influence the next generation in my very own family). My husband, though very supportive in many ways, works a job that requires many hours and lots of travel — he is simply not here to do half of the child-rearing or household-running. Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to be the way upwardly mobile jobs are going in this economy, and I can’t change it in time for it to be different in my near future.

Can we now get back to the question of The Secret to Being a Successful Anything?

Friends, there is no secret. Not for being a successful writer or anything else. There are only two things:

The first is to define success for yourself. If I define success as winning the Yale Younger and then directing the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, I’ll never be successful — I’m too old for the Yale Younger and I haven’t the credentials for academia. Lucky for me, I have my own idea for what it means for me to be a successful writer. Would that success be obtained more easily or quickly if the particulars of my family situation were different? Possibly, but I will never know. We all have one life. This is mine. I’ve never believed that you can have it all — especially not all at the same time — so I’m doing the best I can to have the most important things as I go along.

The second is to be bound and determined. No matter how many kids. No matter if your house just burned down. No matter if your cats are sick, or your spouse is sick, or your job is requiring extra hours right now. Find a way to do your life’s work, whatever it is that you feel called to. There will be bleak seasons, there will be long slogs. There might even be months or years where you’re just only keeping your foot in the door. Yes, you will have to sacrifice. Yes, this requires discipline. No, it is not worth losing your health (physical or mental) over. But find a way.

End of spout. Forgive me. Amen.

how to write when there’s no time to write

Have poems and pain reliever, will travel (public domain).

  1. Write while watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl. Interrupt writing while watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl only to go fetch ice cream. Resume writing, while watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl, while eating ice cream.
  2. Keep writing supplies everywhere: kitchen, bathroom, bedside table, laundry shelf, purse, dining room table. Realize you aren’t using the writing supplies. Keep them everywhere anyway.
  3. Consider writing on son’s gauze-wrapped arm when an idea comes suddenly during PICC line maintenance. Think twice. Tell child: DON’T MOVE I have to go get a post-it note. DON’T MOVE. And DON’T TOUCH IT. !!DON’T!! Then remember: there are writing supplies on the bedside table. Feel yourself washed in relief. Use them.
  4. Leave the house on Sunday afternoon for some writing time. Worry the whole time about said child, said PICC line, and whether or not Husband is losing his mind. Write a little bit anyway. Come home and apologize for leaving the house for some writing time. Ask husband if he lost his mind. Realize he did not. Retract apology.
  5. Wake up at 5 a.m. for some writing time. Realize said child with said PICC line is already awake. Regret waking up at 5 a.m. for some writing time.
  6. Realize you have way more writing time than people trying to survive in the dust bowl.

But seriously. Here’s how I’ve staked my claim as a writer during trips to doctors offices and ERs, during said child’s hospital stay, and during the last week of learning how to be a part-time nurse and teacher:

have an emergency kit  The moment I realized we were heading to the hospital, I grabbed my Emergency Kit. We all have our own Emergency Kits, right? Mine includes ibuprofen and Emily Dickinson (well, not Emily herself, but her poems). I know if I have those two things I can manage almost anything. I would also recommend snacks. Yeah, I wish I would’ve thought of that.

have one project  When it became clear that said child’s treatment and recovery could take a while, I immediately let go of all writing goals and projects. Except one. I’m working on a fellowship application that’s due December 1. This has become my only writing priority. Amazing how times of trial can help us to prioritize.

work in scraps  I’ve been grabbing what time I can: 5 minutes here, 10 there. During one “writing session” I decided the ordering of the first four poems in the manuscript for the fellowship application. During another, I wrote down a couple phrases that were ringing in my ear. Yet another: the other day I paged through an art book and wrote down whatever came to mind. None of it is really writing per se, but I’m taking what I can get.

read READ, I say, READ! Did you know that reading is basically writing? In that it seeds all writing? So, read. And if you are super-motivated and have an extra 10 seconds, take notes: words you like, ideas, anything that strikes you.

it’s all the work  Any creative life has its bleak seasons, either because the well is running a bit dry, or because of, ahem, circumstances. I’ve been reminding myself that all of life, plus paying good attention, prepares the ground for writing (or any creative act).

And now, Reader, the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl is over and it’s past my bed time. May you always have time to write, even when there’s no time to write.

when a sports fan marries a poet

Apparently there was this big football game on Saturday and the San Francisco 49ers won. Husband and I were listening to the game as we drove over to the east bay for a party. Imagine this scene:

[radio in the background, the radio announcer says,”and WHAT an AMAZING thing to do and feel for Alex Smith to have JOE MONTANA here to witness this win!” (or somesuch, and p.s. Alex Smith is the 49ers quarterback)]

me: Why does it matter if Joe Montana’s there to see it?

Husband (incredulous): Because, he’s Joe Montana, the best quarterback of all time, and he was a 49er.

me: I know, I know, but why does it matter so much that he was there?

Husband, incredulous and speechless, says nothing, keeps driving

me: Would it be kind of like if Seamus Heaney came to somebody’s poetry reading?

husband: Who?

me (incredulous): Seamus Heaney

husband (looks at me like I just sprouted a third eye; mumbles): Uh, yeah, I dunno.