Desire, heartbreak. A headline shrieks the momentary drift back to bloodshot vigilance.
She gazes back to now and says
Hold those eyes open. Ears too. Skin. Throat. You will find the break in thorn and bramble, the place your body fits though.
Gather. Discover. Cultivate.
Desire, heartbreak. A headline shrieks the momentary drift back to bloodshot vigilance.
She gazes back to now and says
Hold those eyes open. Ears too. Skin. Throat. You will find the break in thorn and bramble, the place your body fits though.
Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act ii, Scene 1
In case of paralysis, break glass. Out there
is here. Stairs, a whining thud, fat-bellied
cicada trapped in a breezeway
flings itself from wall to wall
until it surrenders
to defeat, so much like gravity.
Even with its trident of five eyes,
it is blind to the way through.
Corridor becomes vault. Had it been born
a bluebottle butterfly, it might stand a better chance,
its photoreceptors detecting
a million colors
more than those five eyes,
and far beyond what our feeble pair perceive
(and so believe). We are as wary of spectrometers
and their evidence of hidden hues
as we are of quantum wavefunction
and infrared snapshots of the Kuiper belt. Continue reading “Side Way”
It is frost now, still
chill blue knife and furred limb.
Moon meets sun in a garden of stars,
all visible in half-night. A red-tailed fox
skies across gunmetal dawn
feet never touching
the ground. Babies begin
in groaning belly
of robin, raccoon. A squirrel
squatting on the wrist of a high vine
scratches at the shell of last year’s seed. The bare end
of provisions before the next harvest means lean times
for a merciless brood.
The yield may suffice.
It may not.
The way to survive is to live as if both are true
at all times.
Remember: the equinox lasts
a single night. Each of us is on one side or the other
even if the lifting foot is only just clearing the line
even if the bottomless blue still saps any recollection
of fertility. By a hair each day, darkness falls away.
The crack in the ellipse
narrows, the coin tilts on its axis and slips
through. The first moon
of spring is a fat dubloon winging
across the frosted miles, casting off
as it turns the full gleam from the sun. It is only when you stand
just so and gaze just there that you can gauge its trajectory
and lift out your shirt
to collect what spills
over, such riches
only last through twilight and by dawn
you will be blind
The mist was thick on the garden this morning. I could barely see the blackbirds except for the occasional crimson flash like a splash of blood on the tall grass. The rabbits have come back this year. They are impossible to miss. Some mama decided to keep her babies here and also to invite all her sisters to move in with their broods. I have seen the small brown one at the foot of the bending oak. I can’t imagine it is very comfortable there on its young feet. The roots are knotting up through the packed soil. The acorn tops are tiny daggers hidden among stone.
I hope you make it for a visit. The house has been quiet since the little ones left. They aren’t so little, I suppose, but I can’t think of them any other way. I have yet to put away the stack of games in the living room or to arrange the sheet music in the piano bench. The clutter is a welcome noise. It makes the transition to their absence less abrupt. After a few hours of writing at my desk, it is a nice thing to come down to traces of the children.
Today, a new soup is simmering on the stove. Those dried field beans the neighbor brought by finally made it into circulation. It was fun to touch them, to soak them, and to know they grew in a little patch of soil right here. I like to think of her hands pulling the from the vines. We may not have acres, but what we have, we use well.
The thyme and rosemary are drying, hung from twine at the ceiling in the kitchen. I gave her some of the herbs last summer and so she brought the beans. Come to think of it, this might be a good winter to come up with a more contained system for the garlic and herbs. Green dust and bits of paper skin perpetually swirl on the kitchen floor. I like the aroma, though. I can’t bear to seal all this in jars just yet even if it would make a clean path. It is so nice just to reach up for a sprig of this or that and to toss it in the pan. I still love (love!) that smell of olive oil when it is heating over the flame and calling for me to begin.
I hope to share some of this with you when you come.
Know I am here and waiting for you, sweet love. You are always welcome.
With my heart,
Your Future Self
My son is standing at the kitchen counter with a handful of permanent markers and a stack of recycled paper. The brush in my hands works its way through his golden hair. The tangle in the back tightens like the fist of Christmas lights we threw into the corner after 30 minutes of trying. The smell of spruce clings to the morning.
Bug continues on a picture of a golf ball factory he began last night. His running commentary distracts us both from the small knots yanking at his scalp. “This bin is for one color, and this one for blue. They get sorted into the right boxes, and here is where they go if the wrong color is in the box. Ow!”
“I’m sorry, baby. I’ll go slow.”
He fills the page with tiny circles, long funnels, and snaking tubes. He writes the words “picker” and “golf ball tools.”
When we were decorating, I managed to pick apart one fist of lights and unfurl a string to adorn the tree. When I finished, I hooted and cheered. “Perseverance pays off!” I hoped this would make us all forget about me tossing the other strand aside and declaring it hopeless.
Bug leans close to make a thin line on the edge of the page. My hands follow his arc. I separate the twisted locks at the base of his skull one snarl at a time. The brush barely moves yet its work is relentless.
“I am going to be an engineer,” he tells me. “Not the train kind. The building kind.”
“Yes, you will, baby. You can build anything you see inside your mind.”
“I know, Mom,” he says.
Good. I lean in and kiss him on the damp head. He barely registers me. He is too focused on crafting his vision one perfect circle at a time. Let’s keep it that way.
After a conversation with the boss-lady this morning about how to avoid getting sucked into the minutiae of the job, I printed off Stephen Covey’s time management matrix and gave her a copy.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I live in Quadrant 3.”
“Don’t we all,” I sighed.
In my personal life, I am much better at staying up in the desired Quadrant 2 where leadership and quality are nourished. I choose to write every night before bed, not because this is pressing (the world will go on if I don’t post on my blog), but because I have decided it matters. The same is true for morning Zumba, the nightly walk, the ongoing tasks associated with the housing search, and immersing myself in human development literature to support my son’s growth. These projects came about not because someone demanded them of me but because I chose to make them priorities. The urgency was not there, so I had to create a sense of urgency. These practices allow meaningful activities to enrich my life. I feel closer to my purpose. Also, new possibilities keep opening up and piquing my curiosity. I feel almost no pull towards the mind-numbing stuff that populates the Quadrant of Waste.
Work looks very little like that. At least, it doesn’t anymore. The first six months at the job, I was focused and directed because I had so much to learn and only 8 hours in which to learn it. Mastery required organization, and so I created it.
Two years later, it is easy to let myself coast. I respond quickly to the immediate but trivial items that fill up a calendar. Like so many of my university’s administrators, I am excellent at managing the little realm of my position and providing a useful service to my 150-ish students and assorted faculty and staff. All of us on this team are resourceful and efficient. We keep things humming.
We live on the left, skipping between 1 and 3, the Quadrants of Necessity and Deception. We feel like we are working hard because we are. Our students, supervisors, and faculty members commend us for doing very well at keeping on top of the complex admistrivia of our programs.
The cost of all this availability is that we fail to cultivate growth and change. When do we craft vision for new ways of operating? When do we turn off the immediacy and dig ourselves down into the deeper projects? We all have those phantom items on our to-do list, those things we know would open up new doors for us in our work and improve the practices in which we engage.
The top 10 items on my wish list include the following:
This is the first time I have ever written these items down in one coherent format. I am only peripherally aware of this list and am only marginally willing to acknowledge it, even here. It is a little frightening to write into existence the bigness of all we want to create in our professional lives. Considering how much sweat the small items require, who would want to take on more?
Unless that “more” can become both manageable and fun. Having uninterrupted time as an individual or a team to play with some of these projects might even turn them into play. It won’t work unless we know that the other urgent tasks will have our full focus at some pre-determined point later. Then we can relax enough to turn the attention towards grappling with bigger ideas.
It appears that a more systematic approach to the daily schedule is called for.
For me, the first step is tracking — and then letting go of — all the ways I let myself drift into the Quadrant of Waste during a workday.
This afternoon, I gave it a go. I am lucky to have good practices at home to guide me. There, I sit down an hour or so before bed and I simply begin writing. No aimless wandering, no trolling the internet, no pausing to watch a show on TV. Everything else steps aside and I write.
I did the same at the office. I told my boss I was shutting the door.
“Are you calling your realtor?” She asked.
“No! I’m going into Quadrant 2!”
“Oooh,” she grinned. “Good luck!”
And I did it. Two solid hours of reading, research, writing. I left the email for the end of the day when I knew my brain would not be on the bigger tasks anyway. By 4:00, I had completed the following:
I’m fired up for all the little seeds now germinating. Tomorrow and after the holiday break, it will be fun to start giving clearer shape to my work day so that I can water and weed as necessary.
Quadrant 2, baby! It’s my new home away from home!
More on Steven Covey’s ideas here.
One day the thing you wished and wished for finally flits down from the clouds and comes close enough to grab. So you reach and you see it wasn’t Icarus after all or a shooting star or anything. It was just a gnat, and it really wasn’t so far off, it was just an inch away all along. And now it is your hand, and so what? You let it go. And then what? Maybe stop making shapes from the clouds. Maybe your savior is not going to emerge backwards through the vanishing point on the horizon. You do not need to squint to see what is coming. Let it settle around you like the way the November frost does whether you asked for it or not. Bundle up. Make your own warmth and notice the way your breath stays close for a beat or two before it leaves you forever.
Tear it Down
by Jack Gilbert
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.
The poet Jack Gilbert passed away earlier this week. Read more of his work here.
“Mommy, did you know shapes are everywhere?”
I am half listening as I pack up our water bottles and snacks for a trip into town. “Uh huh? Shapes?”
“Yes, shapes. Like that light is a circle.”
I see he is staring up at the ceiling. I pause. “Huh. You’re right. It is a circle.” I look around for a minute. “I see rectangles.”
I point. He smiles. “The laundry doors!”
“Can you find a diamond?” I heft our bags and remind him for the third time to put on his shoes. He looks around, sees the slats of the wine rack. “Diamonds!”
Soon, we are in the car and driving on the freeway. The dentist has squeezed me so we have no time to lose. Bug is drifting into a half-nap in the back seat. I whisper that the drive is long and that he should rest. He is almost under, but as soon as we exit into the business district, he rouses himself.
“It’s okay to sleep, kiddo. We still have a ways to go.”
“But I want to look around at everything,” he says. He is quiet for a minute. “I see rectangles and circles,” he says. “The stoplights. And that sign.”
Right now, I am trying to navigate traffic. Still, I can’t help but look.
“What about a crescent? I wonder if we can find any.”
“What’s a crescent again?”
“It’s that half moon shape, sort of like a C.”
We find the letter C on trucks and buildings, but no proper crescent. We have no luck with triangles until we spy the architectural flourish on the roof of an office building. We see a half-circle dome on another. Bug sees more diamonds (pedestrian crossing) and arrows (one way). He sees traffic cones. Octagon stop signs. Stars on the American flag. Square windows in buildings.
This neighborhood houses my office and my daily walks. Tee and I once lived in an apartment here. I cover these same blocks every day on my commute. I have never once noticed this simple fact: Shapes are everywhere.
In the back seat, Bug is making a chart of all the shapes he notices. The catalog grows to 13, then 14, then 15. We park, pay, and head across the plaza. We pass storefronts. “I smell Thai food!” Bug cries. A Thai restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a hair salon, a gourmet grocer. On one of the doors, the brass handle catches my eye.
“Bug! Do you see what I see?”
He looks then his face lights up. “Crescents!”
Every store in the plaza has half-moon door pulls on the glass panes. “Before, when we were driving, we could see big shapes but we weren’t close enough to see the little ones,” I say. “So we didn’t see any crescents at all.”
“Now we see so many crescents, we can’t even count them all!” Bug hops over the bricks, holding my hand tight.
In the dentist’s waiting room, Bug and I spot one of those plastic shape-sorters babies use. “Isn’t that silly?” I laugh. This is what we have we been doing all day, and here is this toy, right here!”
We turn it over. No crescent. We disagree about the rhombus. Bug insists it is a half-octagon, and we argue about how many sides an octagon cut in half would have. We decide that whatever the shape, we will try to find one outside sometime. I figure this might be tough, but it’s worth a shot. I’m sure western architects abhor the rhombus as much as they, apparently, dislike the crescent.
Does vision exist at the place where classification and determination meet? Perhaps the taxonomy of experience is up to each of us. How you decide to sort will inform the gaze.
Shapes are everywhere. A lot of _________ are everywhere. Fill the blank with your abundance of choice.
I haven’t even taxied down the runway yet and this home-buying mission is making me queasy. The loves ones say, “What fun!” and then tell me fifteen things to bear in mind when I start to look. The other loved ones say, “Oh, gracious, it’s so hard,” and then tell me fifteen entirely different things that could make me crash and burn. Meanwhile, the sweet little home I had tagged to see this weekend went under contract yesterday, and the two properties still open are even junkier than I had feared.
“Keep picturing the perfect place,” one friend says. “If you can see it, you’ll make it happen.”
Okay. Good advice. So, I peek out the windows and down through the clouds, whispering reminders to myself when the turbulence starts to make me panic. A small living room where I can move the furniture and dance. A nook for Bug to do crafts and make a mess. Plants in hand-painted pots drinking in the light from the windows.
This week, I made the command decision to shut all this off when I am at work. If I am not careful, it can seep in under the door and choke off the air supply. No looking at home listings, no checking emails from the realtor when I am at the office. My job is what makes all this possible, so I have to be here when I am here.
The phone rings. It is the nice lady from the free Mover’s Advantage program. Again. I ignore it. I am in the throes of preparing for the information session for the January qualifying exam for the students. This is the job, and this is where I direct my focus.
The qualifying exam is the threshold assessment the doctoral hopefuls take after they have finished their core courses. Those whirlwind four days in January will be the litmus test for whether or not they have the right stuff to continue in the program. At the info session, the PhD program director and I offer up a few pre-exam details to calm their jittery nerves and let them know exactly what will happen starting at noon on January 3. Our school has honed a system to a sharp(ish) edge over the years, and we try to keep it straight and clean for the students. The double-blind exam is administered in two parts, with a quantitative in-class portion and a written take-home essay. I proctor. Anonymous faculty members grade. Students sweat. Most pass.
Before Day One of Semester One in the program, temperatures begin to rise. At the orientation in August, the incoming cohort is already abuzz with questions about the exam. You can’t blame them. They don’t want to get a year or two and $20,000 in, only to discover they don’t have the combination of brains and stamina to seal the deal. This is why we try to make the expectations crystal-clear. The students can take care of their studies. We’ll make sure the test is fair and the packets are in order.
My colleague and I touch base a few minutes before the info session to divvy up the tasks. I make the fatal error of popping back into my office to check my email. A long-ago friend who used to work in affordable housing in Vermont has read my blog from wherever he is in the world now. He has shot me an email from across the miles, illuminating yet another fifteen points for me to bear in mind as I begin my quest for a home.
This is a welcome gesture, of course. But, wow, is it terrifying. The ink is barely dry on the loan approval, and the dark clouds of these new tasks are gathering on the horizon. Time-of-sale ordinances. Buyer’s attorney. PMI. Contract review. Closing costs. Home inspectors.
This friend is one among many who clearly has no idea what an amateur I am. The bankers seem equally clueless about the extent of my ignorance. Maybe I have bamboozled the lot of them, or maybe they are banking on the folly of the neophyte. How should I know? I can’t tell where to begin. I feel out of my depth and stupid to boot. Find the place first and ask about ordinances later? Learn about PMI before looking for a place? A home inspector before attorney? When is — no, what is — contract review?
A first-time homebuying course would be a great place to begin, but the county’s classes are full full full. One is available at the end of November (!) but until then, I have to figure it out on my own. More questions. Are the online courses reputable? Whom do I ask? Do I check out a library book? Which one?
I print out the lengthy (and so generous — thank you, dear friend!) email to take home. I will read it when I have attention for it and can look up these strange terms I should probably already know. (Escrow? Short sale? Lord have mercy.) Then I head over to the qualifying exam info session to do the job that will pay the someday-mortgage.
I walk on shaky legs out of my office, trying ease my mind back to a more manageable altitude. In the hallway, a first-year student flags me down. “I have a question about qualifying exam,” he says, a little breathless. “I saw the form online, and it says this thing about having grades for all the core courses, and I think I should be taking the exam at the end of this year, right? But I will still be in the classes that need the grades when the form is due. . .”
“You’re ahead of the game,” I say with a smile. “You’ll be taking 804 and 805 in the spring, right? You don’t have prerequisites?”
“No,” he says. “I’ll be done with the core in May.”
“Okay. So, after the winter break, I will schedule another info session for the folks taking the May exam. We’ll go over the details then. You don’t have to come to this one today, and anyway, some of the information will be different in the spring.” I go on to give him a brief review of the steps. I watch his shoulders ease down.
“Okay,” he breathes. “I’m on track.”
“Right on track.” I nod. “And thank you for being so conscientious. It’ll serve you well in this program.” I keep telling these student to picture themselves walking across that stage at graduation. Everything between here and there is just details and determination.
I turn the corner to the meeting room where the first few students mill around, big-eyed and jumpy.
At the end of the session when they ask about failure rates (as they always do), I answer like a true politician. “Every one of you has the capacity to pass this exam.” The program director reminds them that all they have to do is put their analytical skills and and writing abilities to work. They already have what it takes to finish this program and write a dissertation, so they have what it takes to pass the exam. We would not have admitted them otherwise.
This is true, to an extent. They have the right stuff when we admit them. The big unknown is how they use it once they are here. They will make it if. . . If they sharpen their research skills. If they build strong, collegial relationships with their mentors. If they organize their time, accept criticism, improve their writing, and make tough choices. If they keep their eyes on the prize. If they do these things and take care of themselves along the way, they will have done all they can and more to walk across that stage and go home with a degree.
They have to take it one semester at a time. One course, one qualifying exam, one field statement at a time.
Once again, I learn to swallow my own medicine.
As I walk out into the late afternoon light to head home, I let my mind lift off again and find myself dizzy with the possibility of a home. I picture myself standing on the doorstep of my new place, fitting the key into the lock. Lush vines spill from a hanging plant by the door. Shoes litter the foyer. Afternoon light from the back window greets me. A crock pot on the counter bubbles with cumin and garlic. Bug and I sweep aside the mess of paper scraps, scissors, and tape on the table so we can share our dinner and talk over homework.
In my job, I can stand before the group of incoming students and see clearly what they cannot. They wobble under the weight of the program requirements, the student handbook, the course textbooks, the research expectations, the administrative paperwork, and the 90 new colleagues to whom they have just been introduced, while I am picturing how they will progress from Day One to graduation. This is my small area of expertise, such as it is. “All this material is a lot at once,” I tell them on that first day. “Take it one step at a time. Remember that my job is to stay on top of the details of this program. I will send you reminders and updates all along the way. When you get lost — no, before you get lost — come to me. I will help you find the answers to any questions you have.”
Just because they (I) can’t see the way forward (yet) doesn’t mean the sky is not open and waiting.
And just because they (I) are not experts on this process (yet) does not mean expertise is not here for the taking.
How am I any less a student than my own students? I have what it takes to fly this thing to its destination. The only unknown is what I choose to do with the questions, talents, and momentum I bring. Will I engage my skills as a researcher? Will I organize my inquiries and build my vocabulary? Will I keep clinging to the misconception that I have to (or even can) go it alone? Like my students, I must seek the help of professionals and enthusiasts. Those smart, experienced friends who understand housing dynamics are offering their guidance. They are mentors. I bet if I ask, they will help me stay on track. They don’t want me to get two years and $200,000 in only to discover I am saddled with a junk heap.
Also like those students, this undertaking was all just an abstract idea about two months ago. First comes the impulse, then a little investigating, then an application, then the acceptance. One mile, then another. Refer to the flight manual. Follow the itinerary. The clouds will part. The destination will make itself known.
I lay with Bug in his bed, reading three books and singing three songs. After he drifts off, I walk out onto the back deck and take in the sky, the light from the neighbors’ windows, the hum of traffic. I stretch my neck and then my toes, letting the full weight of myself settle into place.
If you can see it, you’ll make it happen.
There it is, right there, just on the horizon line.
Ten Steps Closer to Home: