Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

“[Mystery] can hold truth, compassion, and open possibility in relationship. This relationship could redeem our otherwise hopelessly literalistic, triumphalist civic and religious debates. We could disagree passionately with each other and also better remember the limits of our own knowledge. If mystery is real, even more real than what we can touch with our own five senses, uncertainty and ambiguity are blessed. We have to live with that, and struggle with its implications together. Mystery acknowledged is, paradoxically, humanizing ... Introduce mystery into any conversation and the conversation gentles; reality doesn’t lose its sharp edges, but the sharp edges are not all, not the end.”
-Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith

Our plans to spend a few days before Christmas with Brett’s family in North Carolina were quickly altered when we found ourselves spending eight hours stuck on an interstate tangled up in the mountains of West Virginia with hundreds of other motorists, all of us watching helplessly as the snow, 18 or more inches of it, accumulated on and around us. Though the “bright side” isn’t necessarily our initial point of view in such conditions, we eventually opted to seize the opportunity that had presented itself to finally start working on that yearly ritual of a thing called the Christmas letter.

Sitting together as a family in a cold, dark van in the middle of what feels like nowhere, the question of “what’s new” seems irrelevant. Perhaps it would have been easier to answer at the beginning of the traffic jam, when we were preparing ourselves for a 30 minute wait, but when that turns into three hours and then four, we begin to wonder about our dropping gas needle, the freezing temperatures outside, the well-being of our two little girls in the backseat, and how many blankets, jackets, sweaters we could pull out of the luggage. When six hours turns into seven, we accept our circumstances as indefinite in length, resolve to get the girls to sleep, and decide to keep our car turned off until there is movement up ahead. It’s eerie to experience the silence and witness the pitch-blackness of a major interstate packed with vehicles fast turning into igloos. The feeling of complete helplessness is very real; the harsh reality of the circumstances is clear enough, but there’s a strange relief in knowing that everyone is in it together. There is mystery here, and it is comforting. Different questions rise to the surface. Who exactly are all these people? What are their stories? Who are they becoming? What are they bringing to the moment?

We can only speak for our van. Olivia, now asleep on the floorboard and covered in a pile of coats, has become our family prophet, poet, and sage. She’s fascinated by everything from outer space, to idioms, to alarms, to human behavior. She is a student of the everyday, exploring, investigating, asking questions, and processing all that she takes in. Mae, strapped in her car seat and not quite ready to give up wakefulness if it means I’ll quit tickling her face, is now 14 months old. She reveals a bit more of herself to us everyday. I think she enjoys shocking us with glimpses of what she seems to have known all along. She takes every chance we give her to communicate that she gets our family-ness and is ready to join in. Brett, in the driver’s seat (wearing his daughter’s scarf, I must note), is bringing his calm wisdom and perfectly timed humor to the situation. When he’s not stranded on the top of a mountain, he enjoys the normalcy that comes with being in the 2nd year of a good job, and this past one has been particularly rewarding as the days of dissertation pressure are long over and a number of exciting, professional development opportunities have come his way. I’m the one climbing over the seats to retrieve dropped binkies, dig out more sweaters, or tickle arms and faces. I have taken great pleasure in creating a home in Mount Vernon this past year. I have also enjoyed working on a few writing projects both in our community and at our church, and this fall I had the opportunity to teach an English/Education methods class at the university. It’s been refreshing to be back in the classroom, particularly with such an ideal course load (one) and class size (nine).

Those are some of our stories. I don’t know the stories of the people in the vehicles around me. I know later we’ll select some favorites to share with one another in the warmth of our hotel lobby. But how exactly did we all get ourselves into this current mess? What possible solution could get us out of it? And how can we dare to hold out hope that this story could have a happy ending?

It’s somewhere between the 7th or 8th hour that Christ’s birth finally comes to mind. As sleep proves elusive, I determine to take captive my runaway thoughts—the ones that would have me frantically reaching in the back to unwrap and search for advice in my niece’s Christmas present, the Worst Case Scenario Handbook, and instead, ponder what is perhaps the most mysterious entry on our timeline universal. God became a baby. Or, as Annie Dillard describes it, he became “helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.” Why did He do that? I can give a “nice” answer with as much ease as I can answer “what’s new.” And I believe it, as much as I possibly can, but that doesn’t remove the mystery. It’s a mystery “more real than what we can touch with our own five senses.” It’s more real than the actual details of our past year, more real than our current predicament, thank God. And I pray we continue living in and hoping in the paradox it brings for the rest of this journey; the one in front of us tonight as well as the one we’ll be on tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Merry Christmas.
Elizabeth, Brett, Olivia, and Mae Wiley

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A manuscript

Here are a few of the pages from Charles Dickens' original manuscript for A Christmas Carol. Original manuscripts are fascinating. Seeing the penmanship, noting the revisions and stray markings offers us some insight into the mind of the writer. And today, thanks to the New York Times' little interactive exercise, Dickens' manuscript is helping me avoid the stack of papers on the table-- the stack containing my students' work, in all of it's Times New Roman, 12-point font, spell-checked glory. And if you're interested, here is another article about the manuscript and it's history at the Morgan Library and Museum. Meanwhile, I'm going to search and discover with what ease or difficulty Dickens' brain conversed with his hand to express this one:
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Best Way to Start Any December

The First Noel by Over the Rhine on Huffduffer
Over the Rhine, The First Noel

Giving Thanks in Seattle

I wish I could share all the takes that came before and after this photo-- all the result of propping the camera on a shelf, pressing the timer, and then running. Some have eyes closed, some have people squatting way lower than their actual height, others have fake smiles in denial of fatigue, my favorites have a few faces about to pop from holding in laughter. None of them are perfect, but all of them contain the faces of a delightful group that I get to call family. We live in three different regions of the country, but we were able to come together in Seattle this year. It was a very good Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Marilynne Robinson

Not long after a friend suggested I read Gilead, Marilynne Robinson became one of my favorite American authors. One day, I'd like to write about her in more detail, but for now I will direct you here, to the words of A.O. Scott who reviewed her book Home for the New York Times just a little over a year ago. It seemed an appropriate read as we prepare to enter this week of Thanksgiving.

Thanks for Thanksgiving

It's been awhile since I've included a children's book in this catalogue, but this week I've been reminded of my love for this one. We bought it 3 years ago while living on Martha's Vineyard, and though no particular setting is suggested, it might as well be the Vineyard. The rustic home, the casual dress, the free spirits, the embracing of the elements, it all could have been lifted from some home at the end of any gravel path on Lamberts Cove Road. Marke's simple statements and Barrette's rich illustrations are refreshing. I try to keep it out or on the top of Olivia's book pile so that I'm given an excuse to read it to her at least once a day.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Moans and Groans

We're down to one car this week. This has added a little craziness to our morning routine as we all bundle up, coats over PJ's, to pack in the car and deliver Brett to his work. He would bike, but our tire pump ran away after it was transformed into a robot with an air-blowing leg (as seen here).
So each morning has required at least one member of the family to wait, and it's usually Olivia. This morning she stood ready by the door, hand on knob, while I guided Mae's wriggling arms into her oversized puffy coat and Brett collected his papers.
Olivia: "I don't like to wait."
Me: "Well, it' an important skill you'll get to practice your whole life."
Olivia: "Why?"
Me: "We just have to wait a lot. Like waiting in lines, waiting for the mail, waiting for birthdays..."
Olivia: "Like waiting for heaven?"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All I Want for Christmas... one of these. Unbelievable.

Pictorial Webster's: Inspiration to Completion from John Carrera on Vimeo.

Be sure to take note of the baby. He probably gets a free copy just for putting up with the whole process. Lucky kid.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Practically Perfect In Every Way

Some of you already know this, but I was raised by Mary Poppins. It's true. And I'm so grateful that she occasionally descends upon our house to work some of her magic on my family.


My friend Jenn and I are holding each other to some blog goals for the month of November. She's writing every day, I'm getting away with just twice a week, but the first week ends in a few hours so I've got some work to do.
November welcomed us with a nice case of "The Flu Which Shall Not Be Named," or so two doctors tell us. So, with the exception of trips to the clinic, the ER, the drug store, and the university (just twice, to teach my class), we've been under a self-imposed quarantine all week.
I did make a quick trip to the library midweek, but that was a mistake. Olivia wanted a couple of DVD's and I had an election yard sign to return. It was actually our first ever election yard sign-- for a library levy. When I'd initially picked it up, the person handing them out had asked that I return it to the library after November 3rd, when the election was over. Being quarantined, I've really had no concept of days, so I pulled the sign out of our yard ON election day and then walked into the library, practically waving it and completely oblivious to the fact that I'd just walked into a voting area holding my large campaign sign. An election official kindly asked me to return the sign to my car, as I had certainly stepped well into the "no campaigning" zone. I was happy to oblige and even happier to get back to the safety of my germ-infested home.
I wish I could say I got stir crazy this past week. There were certainly times, but what the week actually did was make me want to stay home even more. I think I've become a very content home body. I love our home, even when it's wild and crazy with two sick little girls hopped up on meds. It's comfortable, it's cozy, its got some good views, and lots of live entertainment. It feels safe. After the fevers broke, I decided to give each girl 24 hours before letting them re-enter the world. Then I decided they probably could do with 24 more hours after that. Finally last night, we ventured out to a playground and then a Subway for dinner. But there was lots of sanitizing throughout the evening and a number of choppy reminders, "Liv, don't lean on the glass case- it has other people's germs."
We might venture to church tomorrow, Olivia will probably go to preschool on Monday, but each excursion will be with hesitation on my part. I don't want another afternoon spent holding my fevered child in my lap while she coughs behind a flimsy face mask, a mask that came from the same box as the 12 other face masks being adorned by sick people in the waiting room. I don't want another morning spent rocking my lethargic baby who isn't sleeping, but doesn't have the energy to open her eyes. She would have cried except that the coughing and the crying hurt her throat too much. So the warm tears from the closed eyes would just trickle onto my shirt sleeve. I don't want anything out "there" to inflict this kind of pain on my daughters ever again. I could make a fairly convincing argument that everything they need can be given to them in this house, by me and my husband, and that it's my parental duty to protect them from all those contaminants out there. It's very tempting, this kind of control, this kind of power.
But we're sick too. They probably got this most recent bug from us. We're coughing and inhaling the same germs they are. Extended isolation is a bad idea. A lot happened out there this week, and we missed it. There were elections, there was a world series, some birthdays and battles, some conflicts and conversations, lots and lots of sickness, but lots and lots of healing as well. So we've got to chance it. We have to put them out there to mingle with the world, to spread and share "germs". I'm convinced that, in the long run, they'll be healthier for it. But no doubt I'll always fight, and not always resist, the urge to impose another quarantine every now and then.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Change for Sam"

I've been working on my first book for the past 3.5 years. Olivia finished hers, illustrations and all, in a morning. I'll note that she came up with the title before writing the book:

"Change for Sam"
by Olivia Wiley

(for Carly Haas, nursery worker at church)

Sam was a little boy, and he lived with his mother in the woods.

Sam did not know where his friends were. When he'd meet them he'd say mean things.

Armies of soldiers came all around him to block him in a deep, deep dungeon with a large cage.

Sam's mother came to rescue him. She had turned into a fairy.

Sam said, "I think I'm going to be nice now."

And now Sam has all kinds of friends. They are pink, green, pink, pink, and purple.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

today, anyway

"You don't know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word."

- Gustave Flaubert

"Language is very difficult to put into words."


Wednesday, September 9, 2009


(Painting by Kathy Farabi)

A nice and unexpected teaching gig has been occupying much of my "free" time these past few weeks, but I've been meaning to at least share this passage from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. I frequently get caught up in the issue of audience, so much so that at times it completely paralyzes me (maybe that's been the case this past month). So this was a nice reminder that the "audience" is not always mine to choose or understand:

"I was too far removed from the world. My work was too obscure, too symbolic, too intellectual. It was not available to people. Recently I had published a complex narrative essay about a moth's flying into a candle, which no one had understood but a Yale critic, and he had understood it exactly. I myself was a trained critic. I was a critic writing for critics: was this what I had in mind?
One day, full of such thoughts, I tried to work and failed. After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodlings overstepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read. I had just sunk into the couch, the bowl of popcorn beside me, when I heard footsteps outside. It was two little neighborhood boys, Brad and Brian, who were seven and six. "Smells good in here," Brian said. So we ate the bowl of popcorn on the floor and talked. They played the harmonica; they played the recorder; they played the ukulele.
Then Brian got up and stood by my desk, on which there happened to be a pen drawing of a burning candle.
Brian said, "Is that the candle the moth flew into?"
I looked at him: WHAT?
He said, and I quote exactly, "Is that the candle the moth flew into, and his abdomen got stuck, and his head caught fire?"
WHAT? I said. WHAT? These little blue-jeaned kids were in the first grade. They came up to my pockets. Brad, on the floor, piped up, "I liked that story." Why if I was sincere in anything, did it seem to console me to repeat myself, "Oh well, he's older"?
Later, before they left, Brian made certain I understood that whatever sphere of discourse I fancied I shared with any interlocutor, I was wrong. Brian said (admiringly, I thought), "Did you write that story?" I started to answer, when he continued, "Or did you type it?"

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Sunday, August 9, 2009

If I were President Barack Obama...

Rumor has it that our president will be taking a family vacation to Martha's Vineyard toward the end of August. First, I'd like to congratulate him on his choice of location. Well done. Second, I want to thank him for giving me an excuse to finally write about the place I called home for two years--certainly not long enough to be called a local, forever just a wash-ashore, but long enough to let it significantly alter my cultural imagination. And I've been away from it long enough to recognize a gap in my mental images where its landscapes used to be. I envy those year-round residents. They've got a good thing going and they know it, and they hold it close like a secret, very reluctant to share it with "mainlanders." But for two years they permitted me to "play" islander, and I think I made some progress in cracking their code. I witnessed and tried to embody their pace, their patience, their high standard for quality, and what I found had very little to do with Chappy Reds, Lilly Pulitzer patterns, or t-shirts with black dogs on them. No Vineyard Vines ties, really nothing that would suggest any exclusive connections to fame or money. Rather, I found that the code, the secret had more to do with the island mentality that keeps you from honking rudely or yelling at another driver because it's highly probable that the driver will later hold the door for you at the grocery or help you carry a large package to your car at the post office.

We went back to the island for a few days this past May, and I've been wanting to write about it ever since. Granted, most of my suggestions can only be experienced by folks able to blend in with their surroundings, probably not possible for the President of the United States. But the Obamas have been to the island before, and if they can escape the vacationers, if they can find the places where only the locals gather, they might actually be allowed some sense of normalcy. Much of my own warmth for the island comes from the relationships I made with the people who live there, but that's not something I can recreate for the First Family, so here I'll stick to the locations, the places, the establishments, the scenes where wonderful things, quality commerce, significant dialogues, or general epiphanies are likely to occur. At least they did for me.

First on the agenda, ditch the airplane and take the ferry. To my mind, the only way to go to and from the island is on the ferry. It never got old for me. I'd actually look forward to going to my off-island dentist because it would give me a chance to ride the ferry. Forty-five minutes of floating, thinking, reading. The best way to commute. I'm sure it gets old for the folks who have to do it everyday, but for me it's the epitome of island life. Experience your distance from the mainland in real time. Come and go by ferry.

And when you arrive, don't rush off to your motorcade, find a waterfront bench and sit for a bit. Have someone bring you a coffee from Black Dog or Beetlebung, and soak in your surroundings. It's a different perspective when you can separate yourself from the scene. Watch the travelers, note the activity on the docked boats, hear the maritime sounds, smell and feel the briny breeze. Then after 15 or 20 minutes, proceed to your temporary home, and enjoy it. But don't spend much time there. That's not the island experience. Very little "island experience" can penetrate the walls of a carefully decorated, well-secured vacation spot. Get out and experience at least some of the following:

Ocean Park (or "Goose Poop Park," if you ask my niece Dorothy)-- located in Oak Bluffs, this is the perfect place to sit some more. Fly a kite, take a picnic, lay down and read. This is an essential spot. This is where Olivia first perfected her walking skills, it's where we spent a lovely August evening with friends watching fireworks and listening to the Vineyard Haven Band, and it's where we've spent countless hours just enjoying the surroundings. It's also within walking distance to the Gingerbread Houses and our favorite date night destination, Slice of Life (I strongly recommend the Slice Salad).

Also, if you're in Oak Bluffs late at night, go to Back Door Donuts. Go around to the back door of the Gourmet Cafe and Bakery between 9-12PM and score a hot, delicious donut. By far the best I've ever had.

Also in Oak Bluffs, you'll find the Book Den (East), a rare and used book store located in a garage behind a house on New York Avenue. It keeps strange hours, and as President you might be tempted to make special arrangements to assure you get in, but resist. Just go. And if it's closed, accept the circumstances as another indication that you are experiencing one of the many idiosyncracies of real island life. If I could, I'd place you at the Book Den in the dead of winter, where the hours are even stranger, and the majority of the rooms are without heat. You'd keep your mittens, hats, and scarves on while you perused, and you'd see your breath while flipping through the pages of a potential find.

I'll mention a couple of other places to peruse the pages, both in Vineyard Haven.

Bunch of Grapes-- Last summer, a large fire from a neighboring business forced this independent bookstore to spend the last year operating out of a tiny room off the beaten path. But now it's back in its original location on Main Street. Regular island patrons include the likes of Geraldine Brooks, David McCullough, Judy Bloom, or, as was the case during my May visit to the temporary location, Carly Simon. And I understand the Clintons stop in when they can. You need to leave your presidential presence here as well. Everything about this place is appealing, from its architectural details to the carefully selected inventory which, I think, speaks to the well-read island customers who support it so faithfully. And please note the stained glass wagon wheel window, with its red, blue, and yellow pie pieces, still prominently located on the landing of the double set of stairs leading up to my daughter's favorite stacks, the children's section. She can still recall this particular window in great detail.

Riley's Reads- Apply all the charm your mind can muster when I say "tucked away in a corner off main," and you might come close to imagining a portion of the good spewing out of this children's bookstore. Malia and Sasha could certainly find a book or two for their personal libraries in this place. The owner, Zoe Pechter, has done a phenomenal job creating a warm space brimming with excellent displays and the best selection of children's books I have ever come across. I felt I'd found a kindred spirit when I noted all the Charlie and Lola books she had in stock, and then later she introduced me to Mo Willems and his amazing characters; Knufflebunny, the Pigeon, and Piggy and Elephant. Remember Meg Ryan's character's bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner in You've Got Mail? This is it, but in real life.

Even with a number of bookstores to support with a few purchases, make sure you spend some time at the West Tisbury Public Library. Though the Vineyard is fairly small, it supports six public libraries, one in each town. Especially during the cold, dreary winter months we often frequented three different libraries a week, but none as regularly as West Tisbury's. And once I was able to convince them I really was a permanent resident, not just a tourist, they permitted me to have a library card. I will keep it longer than my Black Dog t-shirt. Their periodical section is nice, their biography section is fantastic, but make sure to spend some time in their two-story kids' section. I'm remembering all the treasures Olivia first discovered there. That's also where she first grasped the concept of puzzles. And if you don't know what you're looking for, ask for Nelia. She's phenomenal and so good at remembering kids' names.

Before you leave, let Sasha and Malia have some time in the field and playhouse back behind the library. There's lots of room for the imagination to run wild. Back there, in our imaginary world, we opened a flower shop, ran a successful bank, built any number of restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops, and prepared Thanksgiving dinners. It's also a nice, private place to have a picnic. I didn't even realize this area was back there until our second year of living on the island. If the front porch swing at Alley's General Store is occupied, this is the place to have a snack break.

But don't let that keep you from going to Alley's. It's the island's oldest operating retail business, and it's located just across the street from the library. If you do get a spot in the coveted swing on the front porch, linger there for awhile. Sip their coffee, and try to catch pieces of conversation coming from the locals standing around their cars just out front. They'll pop in and out just to get their mail (there's a post office inside) or grab a coffee, maybe a couple of groceries. And more than likely, they'll run into another local, and that's where you'll hear what's really happening on the island.

You should also bring the family for a Saturday morning stroll through the Farmers' Market at West Tisbury's Grange Hall, just down the street from Alley's. The set up is great, each stand representing a family or business with a fascinating story to tell. And the produce is divine, but what I remember most are the flowers. Buy a bouquet or two, and watch as they remove your flowers from the recycled tomato cans and secure them in newspaper for you to carry home. Also look for Daniel Water's stand. He has some beautiful linoleum-block prints, many inspired by scenes from the island.

Morning Glory Farm will have a stand at the Farmers' Market, but you really need to plan a family trip to their store, located in Edgartown, to know what they're about. They have great produce, but I'm most fond of their baked goods, especially their muffins and quiche. Upon our last visit we discovered that the family who started the farm put together a book: Morning Glory Farm and the family that feeds an island. The book also includes a number of yummy, seasonal recipes. And the photos, by an island photographer, Alison Shaw, are fantastic. Yes, you can buy it on Amazon, but I'd suggest purchasing it at the farm.

Another "sweet" stop off the beaten path is Chilmark Chocolates on State Road. This tiny chocolate shop, located in a converted barn, employs a number of people with disabilities and trains them to create quality chocolate that will leave you wishing you'd bought a few more boxes before your island departure. I have to confess that, on more than one occasion, I bought boxes to give as gifts which never made it to the intended recipients.

Also on State Road, back in West Tisbury, look for a little sign reading "Eileen Blake's Pies and Otherwise." This little roadside gazebo is where I found my favorite pies of all time. In fact, I wasn't a pie eater until I tried Eileen's. I was sorry to find out that Eileen passed away last summer, but I'm hoping her husband and her well-trained staff is still there, making those delicious pies in her home located just off the road behind the gazebo.

While in West Tisbury, take a little hike to Lambert's Cove Beach. To me it beats South Beach, hands down. But honestly that speaks more to my memories there than the actual quality or popularity of either beach. Lambert's Cove Beach is a private beach for residents only. We never needed the coveted car sticker to indicate legal access because we could walk there from our home. For me, this was the location for many a Melville moment, "Meditation and water are wedded forever." And I think I can safely guarantee that your girls are much more likely to find some pretty pieces of sea glass here than on South Beach, particularly if you plan your short hike to the beach early in the morning.

I'm getting long winded, and you're a busy man, so I'll just highlight a few more island treasures.

Art Cliff Diner (Vineyard Haven)-- In my opinion, it's the best place for breakfast on the island. It's small, so you'll probably have to wave your presidential wand to make sure there's room for your family and your necessary entourage. Of course, the wait might allow you some time with the other customers, some handshaking, some photo-ops, easily wrapped up when your tables are ready.

Net Result (Vineyard Haven)-- This is my favorite place to take visitors for fresh seafood. I believe it's supposed to be more like a seafood market, but we would always buy lunch and eat outside. My favorite meal there (as seen below): a fish dog, a cup of clam chowder, and a Nantucket Nectar (Half and Half).

Scottish Bakehouse (on State Rd between Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury)-- Get at least three sesame cookies for every family member. They also have great sandwiches.

Rainy Day (Vineyard Haven)-- So pleasing to the eye. The perfect spot to pick up some gifts. This is where I did most of my gift shopping for the ladies in my life, also where I would frequently splurge on myself.

Mocha Mott's (Vineyard Haven, though I think the Oak Bluffs location was the first)-- Go early in the morning and listen to the scruffy fishermen's conversations. This (along with the post offices) is one of those places where real island politics are being discussed everyday. This is also where I've occasionally spotted Willy Mason, a singer/songwriter who quickly became our favorite, local, island musician. In my opinion, his songs and lyrics flow right along with that "cultural imagination" that could only be cultivated through a lifetime of island dwelling.

One last suggestion. I'd encourage a somber stroll through a few island graveyards, my favorite being the one located just up from and behind downtown Vineyard Haven. I never visited with any kind of notable frequency, but I will always remember one visit just a few weeks before we moved away. My husband and daughter were playing at the nearby school playground, and I'd wandered away to have a few moments alone. We were expecting our second daughter, and I was searching the tombstones for a nice name. I found "Adel" early on, and continued the walk, wondering if future daughter could ever really appreciate that she was named after an unknown deceased, that her name for life was discovered etched on a tombstone marking another's death. I decided the idea was just a little too morbid (we eventually settled on "Martha"). But I was also moved by the sheer volume of islanders around me, family lines that went far back in the island's history. Long before this was a famous vacation spot for the famous, the rich, and the powerful, it was their home. Where they toiled and labored, loved and lost, where they also sat, listened, smelled, felt, watched. So sit with the powerful, visit the obvious, but don't miss this other layer of the island: the real, the worn, the weathered, because it's this deeper, thicker layer that holds the island's essence, and once it's gotten inside of you, you'll want it to stay with you long after your return to the mainland.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pete and Repeat

This was possibly the first joke I ever learned. My Granddaddy Sharp taught it to me. It might have been one of my earliest lessons in accepting that sometimes the joke's on me. But once I learned it, I was always frustrated that there wasn't a way out, neither for the joker nor the joked upon.

Apparently this has bothered Olivia as well. We taught the joke to her yesterday, and this morning, she had this to offer me:

Olivia: Hey Mom, Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?

Me: Repeat

Olivia: Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. Repeat fell off. Who was left?

Me: Well, that would be Pete.

Olivia: Nope. I tricked ya. There were two Repeats.

May the shades of gray continue to sweeten the deal.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer Reading

"What we're reading, or listening to, or rather, what we're getting into lately is in some sense the most profound question we can ask each other. It's all seamlessly related to the question of how we're doing, and what it is that has hold of us, and how our passions might be channeled in a redemptive direction (and be good for something) rather than being tossed to and fro by the powers of passionate distraction."
-David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

I'm borrowing this idea from my friend Katie's blog. And it seemed to fit nicely with the above quote I grabbed from my brother David's book.

So here they are, the books I'm spending some time with these days:

1. Coming to You from the Blue Room by Loranne Marsh Temple- this is the thin one on the top. And sadly, it's the only fiction in my bunch. I always wish I was more drawn to fiction. This one was written by my neighbor who lives three doors down. We're getting to know each other.

2. Standing By Words by Wendell Berry- we just bought this one on our trip to Michigan. I haven't opened it yet except to look at the contents, but I try to always have some Berry flowing into my brain.

3.The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark- my brother's latest. Possibly my favorite of his thus far. It's completely engaging, but I'm taking my time--sort of my way of making it last as long as possible.

4. Spinning Straw Into Gold by Joan Gould- I finished this one a few years ago. It explores how women's connections with certain fairy tales can point to particular transformations in their own lives. I'm addressing a few of her observations in some of my own writing, so currently this book has a constant presence on my desk.

5. Through the Children's Gate by Adam Gopnik- I'm a fan of Gopnik's. One of the essays in here, Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli, played a large part in helping me think through my current, and thus far most consistent, writing project.

6. Even In Quiet Places by William Stafford- My most recent attempt to prime the poetry pump. I actually bought this to give to some friends but thought I'd read through it first. My favorite Stafford poem thus far, A Ritual To Read To Each Other, is not in this collection but would be worth a "look up" in your spare time.

7. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn- Another purchase from our recent trip to Michigan. I actually wanted to purchase a different book of hers, Talking the Walk: Letting the Christian Language Live Again, but it wasn't on sale. So I grabbed this one. I really like Marva Dawn. Her book, Is It A Lost Cause: Having the Heart of God for the Church's Children, had a tremendous impact on me a number of years back.

8. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard- my daily devotional for writing. Chicken soup for the writing soul. It will always have a place in my reading cycle of books by writers about writing.

So? What have you been reading lately?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Excellent Orchestration

Following directions can often lead to good things...
(found through Amanda Maciel Antunes)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Work Ice Cream

Our summer has been a bit too busy thus far. It's all good stuff--good trips to see good people and enjoy good places, but it's not quite the schedule of lazy days with lots of writing time that I'd pictured. Hopefully, these next two weeks at home will provide a little bit of that.
As of today I'm back to my morning writing routine, so that's something.
We started this schedule earlier in the year, and it was picturesque. I'd rise early, sneak downstairs, start the coffee and get the breakfast items ready for Brett and the girls, then I'd hide away in the basement to get in a couple of hours of work before the rest of the house began to stir.
If I look up to the ceiling from my desk in the basement I see an old air vent that leads into our dining room. Many years ago I'm sure it was functional, but now it serves as my muffled speaker, giving me a nice muted version of the family show happening just above my head.
The morning program would usually start with Olivia's energetic footsteps hitting the bottom of the upstairs steps in the entrance hallway and then running over to the vent.
"Hi Mom. How's it going down there?"
I'd look up and see her little fingers clinging to the vent's grate and then her mess of morning hair falling all around her face.
"Good Liv. How'd you sleep?"
"Good. Well, bye Mom, I gotta eat."
What would usually follow was a perfect melody: sweet A.M. conversations between Olivia and Brett, delightful babbling from Mae, drawers and cabinet doors closing, cereal hitting the bowls, spoons clanking ceramic-- general morning pleasantries and silliness. And it was the perfect viewpoint for me, an onlistener, as I tried to stream together the words of an onlooker for various scenes on paper.
But now Olivia is rising earlier, and she knows I'm down here. In her little 4-year-old mind, there is nothing wrong with her being down here with me, as long as she stays in her "playing" area and doesn't bother me in my "office" area. And in my idealistic morning mind, this should work. We do have a really big basement. But even with the best of intentions coming from the both of us, interruptions happen, and frequently.
Just within my first hour of writing this morning, I've also built a spaceship out of a cardboard box, purchased two ice cream treats from a musical push toy turned ice cream truck, and I've helped decorate for a princess wedding with wrapping paper scraps. And all the while, I was putting my "foot down," really.
Finally, the vent began broadcasting the morning show with Brett and Mae, and Olivia went up to join them. I was sure the interruptions were over. But soon I heard the clankle-de-clink of the ice cream truck making another detour down the basement steps.
"Olivia, really. I have to write."
"But Mom, I have something special just for you."
"No, Olivia. I'll enjoy it later. I have to get some work done now."
"But it will help with your work."
"Later Olivia. Go eat breakfast."
"But Mom, it's a special work ice cream!"
"Yes! It has paper, pencils, and words mixed in. And I put it in a cup, just the way you like it. And it's free!"
"... wow... Thanks Liv, I really need this..."
"I know, Mom. I love you. Bye."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

...bent as double as the living body can be bent...

My friend lost her nine-year-old son Michael just before this past Easter weekend. She'd kissed him good bye, gone to work, and then received the call from his school.
I do not know what all transpires in the human body after a call like that. I don't know how the hand remembers to put the phone down and grab the car keys or how the feet know to move faster than has ever been required of them before. But I do know that the heart breaks, the soul cries out, and the brain goes to an even deeper, more intricate level of comprehension. New processing mechanisms expand and old filters completely disappear. And somehow this new, different understanding of reality has to interact with the old, the day to day, the common.
This can't be right.
Life's rudest interruption.
All things normal now held in contempt.
Daily planning now replaced with attempts at remembering.
Remembering correctly, adequately, responsibly, desperately.
What are we supposed to do with our commitment, our relationship with a person when they are gone? It certainly doesn't go away. It's significance is the most focused picture our minds can muster. And how long will we be allowed to keep everything else blurry?
How can we begin to comprehend what grief may require of us?
I turn to stories. For good or bad, they frequently become my coping mechanism of choice. And here I'll include two places for such stories:
The first is Anton Chekhov's story, Misery. It follows a man and his interactions with strangers the week after his son has unexpectedly passed away. I've spent a few weeks thinking through different passages to include here, but as grief is one of those things that should not be interrupted, I don't want to interrupt the story's flow or remove any details.
It's not long. I'd suggest you read it all at least once.
And the second is my friend's blog. Since her son's death, she has been faithfully remembering his life as well as her honest struggles to cope with his absence. The moments she shares with us are deeper than beautiful-- his library books she can't bring herself to return, the articles of clothing now absent from her laundry, attempts at normalcy with trips to the grocery or trying to laugh at funny movies. Her commitment to capturing his life and sharing it with everyone is a challenge toward reverence for all of us to accept. I'd suggest you read it frequently.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Allegro con brio

(Please note the aforementioned lilac-- I really have put it everywhere)
When I was a teenager I thought like a teenager, and so my piano teachers selected my pieces for me. Left to my own devices, I would have only played Bach and Debussy, and never very well. My repertoire would have consisted of technical pieces played with no emotion or dramatic pieces that seeped of "woes is me, nobody understands."
Fortunately, my teachers knew that and were more committed than me to the piano becoming a life-long companion of mine, ready and able to help me further express and make sense of whatever was going on in my life/head at various times.

After a fifteen year period without a piano in my life, I was finally able to purchase one a couple of months ago. It's acquisition is a story that delights me to no end, but that's for another day.
It's been fulfilling to introduce my now family to the sounds and mistakes that were pounded into the ears of my original family members. And it has been extremely satisfying to find that the technique which was lying dormant for so many years is still there. For the first few weeks, every sit down at the bench was a practice in remembering. But now, with the exception of a few fingering patterns I've yet to nail, it's all back.
And I'm venturing out to select new pieces on my own. I've never really done that before. There's no one around to play the first few measures for me, so I fumble my way through, trying to decide if the particular piece is something I want to devote hours to mastering. But for any number of reasons, one being my limited time at the bench before someone under 3 feet tall is calling me away or wanting my attention, I usually choose to go back to the old pieces. It has become interesting to note which ones I choose to play. Unless there is a spoken request-- Olivia's current favorite is Scott Joplin's Cascades, which she insists on calling Cattails-- I select pieces that reflect my general state-of-being at that moment in time.

And so this past week the piece that I've found to best express my most frequent mode or tempo is Haydn's Sonata in D Major. Specifically the first movement.

In the mornings, if I awaken before everyone else, there is silence, a blank sheet of composition paper. If there are any notes on my page they are in the tempo of those found in the piece's second movement, Largo e sostenuto. I will be intentionally slow for as long as I'm allowed because as soon as Olivia bursts onto the scene, there's no ritardando, no diminuendo. She's allegro con brio from the get go. 6 requests, 5 questions, 4 observations, 3 songs, 2 activities, all occurring in 1 tempo. My largo e sostenuto has a choice to make. I can squelch her and insist on my pace, or I can join in, skip in, hop in, spin in. It might take a cup of coffee, or three, but I eventually acknowledge that there's only one way to go. For these particular days, while the opportunity still presents itself, we'll play together, allegro con brio.

An Image

I've been thinking a good bit about my blog this week, what it should look like, what I should include, how I should organize it, etc. And more than figuring out what I want it to be, I've figured out what I don't want it to be....

Below, you see some clippings from one of our backyard lilac trees.
Until a friend suggested the obvious, it did not even occur to me that I could bring their sweet scent indoors. Now these little vases of lilacs are scattered throughout our rooms, making much of the mundane a little more enjoyable.

But this picture is deceiving you. I laughed at myself as soon as I'd taken it. I went to great lengths (and probably ten or so takes) to suggest that these lilacs hold a prominent place in my sparsely and tastefully decorated dining room.

Here is what I didn't include in the picture:

And this is actually neater than usual because we had people over last night, but please notice:
-Mae's high chair that you can't really see, but it's cushion was removed because she "had an accident" in it yesterday
-Mae's ridiculously large and very pink bouncy seat with lots of gadgetry-- we refer to it as the "space station"
- two piles of neglected mail with a dirty pacifier between them
- a drawing of a bunch of hearts that Olivia pulls out anytime she sees me doing paperwork so she can claim to be doing the same--there's a dirty burp cloth on top of it
- assorted plastic ware I didn't put away after last night's gathering, and apparently I'd rather put my laptop at risk of falling off the table than move the plastic ware even an inch
- the remains of my lunch- leftover chicken salad-- I didn't take the time to spread it on some yummy bread, I just ate it out of the plastic bowl
- a teether on top of an insurance card on top of my billfold on top of a notebook on top of my calendar

While I'm sure I'll continue to clean things up a little here (editing is generally a very good and considerate idea), I promise I'll always try to stay as honest as possible.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Olivia-isms of the week

"My (imaginary) friend Dee Dee has square pupils."

"Nothing doesn't exist."

"I have a couple of things to say to Chuck E. Cheese."

"The things you remember are important."

"I'll let you sleep in my room in heaven....but first I'll have to ask Jesus."

"Mom, I believe louder than you do."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fight the Inner Once-ler

Happy Earth Day.
Enjoy, and feel free to follow instructions to see the other segments. Also, check out The Lorax at your local library.
An aside, Ted Geisel's (Dr. Seuss's) nephew was one of my Sociology professors in college. Unfortunately, he rarely spoke with as much rhyme or rhythm.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Long Distance Relationships

I constantly agonize over how to make it all work, and Olivia solves it in a matter of seconds.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Resurrection Body

Seven Stanzas at Easter
By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

An unapologetic advertisement for my brother's new book. You know you're interested. Don't resist. Check it out and pre-order here, or maybe here, or somewhere else.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Olivia never runs out of things to say.

She's creating new worlds the moment she wakes up.

She's singing new songs until her eyes shut at night.

But when her father walked in with a flower for her,

she was speechless.

She wandered around the house aimlessly

with flower in hand, her mouth shut.

Finally she came back to her father and said,

"Thanks Dad. I've never had my own bouquet before."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Design by the Book

A nice visual narrative on finding inspiration.
These folks paired some Brooklyn artists with a research librarian at the New York Public Library. If you like the idea of old, forgotten sources being remembered and used to create something new, here ya go.
This video is one of four, I think. You can find the other ones if you follow the links on youtube.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Beauty is in the eye...

Both girls are finally asleep for their afternoon naps, I'm indulging in the moment with a cup of hot chocolate bubbling over with marshmallows, I'm sitting down for "just 5 minutes" on the internet which I know will turn into half an hour if I'm not interrupted, and I find this from the Image Journal blog page. Short, edifying, perfect. My favorite line,"But there’s something, still, about that willingness to offer the imperfect body as an enveloping source of comfort."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Niebur and Love

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Reinhld Niebur, from The Irony of American History

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On This Day...

On the day Barack H. Obama was inaugurated as our 44th president, I:
- made monkey muffins for Olivia to take to her preschool's summer birthdays celebration.
- bought a cup of coffee before dropping Olivia off at preschool.
- took Mae to the health clinic to get her shots.
- left the TV on CNN in the den and the radio on NPR in the kitchen pretty much all day.
- beamed when I picked Olivia up from preschool. She was wearing a half-birthday crown and carrying a coloring sheet of Barack Obama. She'd colored him blue.
- lunched on potato soup with Olivia while we watched Obama take his oath of office. Mae patiently sat in her car seat for most of the time.
- took pictures of the TV and made some videos of Olivia and Mae watching the Inauguration. I felt pretty dumb while doing it, but figured they might thank me one day.
- only wore one earring for most of the day.
- had some friends over for a playdate with Olivia. Kelly and I watched more Inauguration coverage most of the time.
- ran for the 1st time since Mae was born.
- smiled as Brett prayed for our new president before dinner.

(I promise I don't usually let her stand this close to the TV. It was just for the photo op.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009