Change, Creativity, Poetry, spirit

In Defiance of Morning

Wangechi Mutu, Riding Death in my Sleep

You catalogue the early shames,
a tattoo on the lining of your lungs.
The mural leaves its stain despite the stretch
and growth you chart first on door frames
then belt notches
then monthly statements,
each unit of measure distorting the fresco
as much as the measurement taken.
Recognizable no matter the eons intervening,
the arcs of those stories.
crime scenes,

All tales have tongues.
They scour the natal down
from your heart. They leave a taste
like pennies and char.

Continue reading “In Defiance of Morning”

Children, Creativity, Music

Sight Reading

The copy of Rise Up Singing is two decades old. On the inside cover, my maiden name is a flourish of ink penned by a girl I hardly remember. My boy and I have thumbed the spiral-bound pages thin, working our way through every song I maybe-kinda-almost know. Each time I come across another vaguely recognizable title, I begin, off-key and falling flat. Bug is the final authority on which ones can come to the party. “I do not like it,” he says of “Octopus’s Garden.” When I try Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” he blocks the page. The garden song is acceptable, “Erie Canal” gets the boot, and “Waltzing Matilda” enjoys top billing for two weeks before experiencing an abrupt demotion.
Our collection is large. We have been singing together since Bug was an infant. In truth, we have been sharing songs since before he was even a he, back when Bug’s in utero nickname was Moo Shu and the critter was just a bottomless craving for Chinese food impossible to satisfy California’s high desert. Despite our sizeable repertoire, we have almost exhausted the supply of songs I know. Some have stayed and others have been forced into retirement by the boy’s capricious tastes.
I flip through page after page crammed full of unfamiliar titles. Hand-written lyrics are accompanied by simple chord progressions that mean nothing to me. I tell myself again that I should learn more of these classics, perhaps listen to some of them on YouTube. But I won’t. I reach the end and and come back around to the tried-and-true. “Red River Valley?”
“No, Mommy.”
“Country Roads?”
He wrinkles his nose.
I don’t even suggest “Baby Beluga.” He was bored with that one before he turned three. I flip another page. “Au Clair de la Lune?” He lets out a great sigh. Clearly the world is just not sufficiently entertaining.
“Hmm. This one is about a rooster,” I say. “I should learn it. And here is one called – ”
“Sing the rooster song,” he says.
“Can’t. Don’t know it.” I turn the page. “Let’s see. Here’s ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ You like that one.”
He flips the page back. “Please? The rooster song? Please?
“I don’t know it, baby. I can’t sing it.”
He points. “Aren’t those the words right there? You don’t have to know it. You read it.”
“But I don’t know the tune,” I say. “I can’t sing it.”
Bug sags. I flip to another page.
Last week, a new-ish friend sent me an email after reading my post about housing. “Do you really want to own a home?” She asked. “Are you willing to see the world as other than limiting?”
Yes, of course I do. Isn’t that obvious? Doesn’t everyone? Yes, I want to see the world as. . .
But wait. Isn’t the answer also a little bit no? Don’t those limits feel so safe? Don’t they protect a tired brain from having to reach? Self-defined prison bars are convenient in their way. They keep us stuck, but they come in handy when a person wants to have a firm grip on something.
They also make it easier to say no when life sends Oliver Twist up to ask for an extra helping.
One morning this week as I was packing up for school, Bug asked me, “Is that a made up song?”
I paused. Had I been singing? Sure enough, a little melody had taken shape under my breath without me noticing. It is gonna rain and we need our raincoats.
He asked again. “Is that a real song?”
Made up? Real?
Which is it?
What I do every day, mindless or intentional, becomes my child’s real. For good or ill, we grownups shape the world in which our kids move, and delineate the perimeters, and create (or not) the pathways out of them. What is real but what I say? What any of us say? Aren’t the real and the make-believe simply two different lines of sight on the exact same world?
“I made it up,” I say. Like everything. This power, this amazing power. “And it is real.”
Why is this so easy to forget? I don’t know a tune, so I cannot sing? What is every song but an act of creation? What is every story, every building on the skyline, every space capsule orbiting the moon but something fashioned from spare parts and fancy? Even a whisper of love into a bending neck is nothing but an idea that was not until it was. Everything. All we have here was an absence that some act of nature or will planted with the fleeting life that now inhabits it.
We have only so much knowledge, only so much money, only so much time left. We have only a few choices, and other people’s claims and fears can deplete the imagination.
Also, a feathered, nameless thing preens just outside the window. It takes wing and streaks across the day. The magnolia drapes us with glossed leaves and heavy perfume. Also, we are magicians.
Made up. Real.
One day we will open the songbook, and the pages will be blank. The melodies will skitter from our memories, and those that stay will be all wrong for naming our hungers. No medium in existence will fit our hands. What will be left then? What is left but all the everything inside the nothing?
The whole of creation is ours, if not for the taking, then for the making.
Back in bed, my boy looks at me. I look at him. The first lesson for any apprentice alchemist is to imagine the absurd, yet I have just told my boy that I cannot sing because I do not know a tune. I laugh right out loud. “That’s just about the silliest thing Mommy’s ever said, isn’t it?”
I turn back a page and open my voice. The rooster song requires a certain amount of twang, and my throat complies. Bug giggles through until the end. I cuddle up close to him. “How about. . . “ I skim. “Maybe the one about father’s whiskers?”
“Yes!” He says. We are off. Every page blooms with lyrics to music that belongs to us.


Mind the Gap

The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them.

Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

The bike was the key. It was liberation. It was the only way to get to the shopping centers with all their pre-teen allure: Montgomery Donuts, the movie theater, dark alcoves and roaming packs of boys. By way of the broad and quiet neighborhood streets, I could meander up to the busy stretch of what passed as “town,” spend a few bucks on comic books and Twix, and feel like I had really gone somewhere.

I have never been very good at riding a bike. I wobble widely. When another rider calls, “On your left,” I throw a gaze over my left shoulder and end up veering directly into her path. This is still the case, despite several decades of practice.

At 11, I was as already a full-grown klutz. For some reason on this one particular day, my sister and I chose to take the more direct yet less forgiving route to the edge of our neighborhood. We turned ourselves out along a roaring stretch of Old Georgetown Road. Six lanes of frenzied traffic whipped past as we made our way to Wildwood Shopping Center for our sanitized version of adolescent mayhem. We rode on the narrow sidewalks, confident in our immortality and in the protective capacity of those three inches of curb.

At every intersection, a handy little dip in the curb for folks on axles – strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards and the like – ferried us smoothly down to the road and back up again. I am sure the sidewalk engineering choice was not intended for cyclists, but considering how few pedestrians actually frequented those loud and dangerous thoroughfares, we made happy use of them. I could zoom down the sidewalk, slowing just enough to make sure no one was turning off the main road onto a neighborhood street, and buzz right through the intersection up onto the opposite path. I was too poor a cyclist to learn how to “pop a wheelie,” as it was called. The sidewalk design saved me slowing to a stop, walking, and lifting my bike up over the curb.

I was zipping joyously along, picking up speed as I became more confident in my ten-speed prowess. I looked ahead. One of the intersections neared. My stomach leapt into my throat. An enormous telephone pole was rammed right into the sidewalk just beyond the opposite ramp. I saw it. I could not slow. I took its measure, and I knew I had enough room to veer around it. I watched it and I locked my gaze on it, calculating the distance, determined to miss it.


My bike flew out from under me. I body-slammed into the pole, face pressed against the splintered wood and old staples. My arms wrapped around its girth as my poor bicycle wobbled and fell into the gutter. My sister screeched to a halt, whipped around, and burst out laughing. “You are so weird! How could you not see that pole?”

I slid down and did my best not to burst into tears. We rescued my bike and made the rest of our limping way to the strip mall.

How could I not see that pole? That was the wrong question. I did see the pole. I was looking right at the pole! My question was this: how could I crash into something I was working so hard to avoid?

Anyone who has put a kid on training wheels or taught a teenager to drive knows the answer. You do not look at where you do not want to go. The gaze is more powerful than any of us really understands. Look, and your mind, posture, and even behavior will veer in the direction of your vision. For this reason, any student of the road learns to look at where she intends to go. She looks ahead.

My sister, with her natural physical aptitude and addiction to speed, had learned this without knowing how to articulate it. She focused on the gap and squeezed herself through it. I fixed on the obstacle and met it.

Today, in the face of several mounting so-called problems at work and at home, I needed a reminder of how to direct my gaze at the open road instead of the flashing lights and gaping potholes. I dipped back into Appreciative Inquiry’s fount of refreshing thinking.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a tool that has gained its foothold in the worlds of Organizational Development and leadership practice, offers up practical approaches for drawing upon the power and possibility in people and systems. Work, love, parenting, friendships – hell, life itself – all are riddled challenges. This is especially true if they are seen as such. Pulling from AI’s handy toolbox is a great way to training the mind away from problems and towards capacity when trying to build a way forward.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. . . AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this “positive change core”—and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.

David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change

Through a series of questions about the system when it is at its best, AI allows participants to give voice to stories that generate power and animate dormant resources for building towards a vision. Instead of a problem to be solved, the task at hand is a mystery to be explored full of opportunities to be discovered. The people involved are rich sources of insight. It is a choice to perceive of things this way.

Today, I began again to wean myself from panic, and returned to the practice of asking the generative question. Little by little, the answers offer up source material for telling a new kind of story. Learning how to do this takes intention. I am as much a klutz here as I am on two wheels, but, as ever, learning is exhilarating. (More on the specifics of AI and the questions can be found here.)

Dissect a fear and watch it thrive. Describe despair and feel it spill out of its container. Delineate the barriers to your greatness, and notice how quickly they harden into cinder-block and razor wire.

In the inverse lies solace: You can make real the very thing to which you attend. Ask the right sorts of questions, and watch the future bloom.

Be careful where you set your sights. Yours is an awesome power. That telephone pole is there, for sure. But so is the gap. The open path has been there all along. Hop back on the bike. No matter how you wobble, the way ahead is waiting to meet you.