30 July 2010

nothing remains the same

I recently read a book about reading—about re-reading, actually. It's Nothing Remains the Same by Wendy Lesser, and I can tell two things from the bookmark I found marking the title page: one, I got this in Lennox, Massachusetts, on a family trip out East, probably to see Garrison Keillor do his Prairie Home Companion show at Tanglewood, and two, I never made it past the title page.

No re-reading about re-reading for me, then. I bet you I got this book while I was still in college, looking for ways that literary criticism and an English degree applied to real life. I bet you I didn't read it while in college because all the essays reminded me too much of my required reading.

Now, though, six years post-college and slightly nostalgic for those days when spending a whole afternoon reading on the Quad was acceptable {and was considered “doing your job”}, I read Nothing Remains the Same with a pen in one hand. I was eager to circle and underline and write exclamation points or notes in the margin

I wanted to truncate that phrase—make it lit crit—and remember what it was like to be in a classroom that smelled of old books and young minds trying to understand old books.

I even spent a Sunday afternoon reading in the yard, sitting on my Crazy Creek chair with my Nalgene bottle right next to me. I felt so collegiate {collegiate of a very particular era, the just-into-the-new-millennium era—no Facebook, few cell phones, a lot of desktop computers, and 9.11 happened while I was in a linguistics class}.

This transformation of the reading experience is precisely the point of Nothing Remains the SameWhat you read once, no matter how much you treasured it, will not remain the same. And what was once required reading may now be appealing reading.

If you re-read a well-loved book years later, you may find that you now despise it. Or it may take you back to that time when that particular book was so important, but now you're reflecting on your life that has happened since then—and the way you read the book changes.

As Lesser says, “You cannot reread a book from your youth without perceiving it as, among other things, a mirror. Wherever you look in that novel or poem or essay, you will find a little reflected face peering out at you—the face of your own youthful self […]. [You] can sense that there are at least two readers, the older one and the younger one. You know there are two of you because you can feel them responding differently to the book. […] And this awareness of the separate readers within you makes you appreciate the essential constancy of the literary work, even in the face of your own alterations over time” (4).

{Ok, as a sidenote, you have no idea how elated it just made me to be able to work in that quote and cite it.  I mean, come on, if I was excited to read a lit crit book—oh, to be reminded of those college days!—don't you think I'd be doubly excited to be able to write a slightly analytical piece on it?!?!  But don't worry:  there won't be a Works Cited section at the end of this post.  I'm not that much of an MLA nerd.  I don't think.}

This is a fascinating premise for a book, this mix of personal reflections and literary criticism and research.

You feel like you're at coffee with a very good friend who can switch seamlessly from laughing about something that happened years ago to drawing out the lesson from the mistake. Along the way, she even sprinkles in surprising facts about, I don't know, Romanticism or history or current events. You feel like you've learned during coffee but mostly what you remember is the laughing.

I prefer to write creative non-fiction like this {I prefer to think of myself as forever sitting down to coffee with a good friend, which mostly means that I'm over-caffeinated}, and I could see elements in Nothing Remains the Same that I hope to hit in my writing:
  • Self-deprecating and revealing humor without sounding pathetic or too self-focused
  • Insightful, universal questions, asked not because you have the answers but because you've been thinking about what the answer could be
And now, in a five paragraph essay, please do a little lit crit on my post.  Include examples, with appropriate citation, of how I achieve those two goals.  You may, of course, refer to earlier posts.

Kidding.  So entirely kidding. 

I mean, I may miss college, but that doesn't mean I need to go around handing out assignments so that I can make everyone else feel like they're in college.  I never wanted to be a teacher anyway.  {Except for that time I taught gymnastics.  And theater.  And English to French kids.  And Sunday School.}

Instead, here's an insightful, universal question to ponder*:  Think about the books you so connected with when you were younger.  From the vantage point of now, why do you think you were drawn to them?

* You can merely ponder this, or you can ponder it and give me an answer.  I heart answers.  Here's an insufficient answer on my part:  Anne of Green Gables.  I first read that when I was 8, and I think I was drawn to it because Anne was an overimaginative and talkative and expressive little girl.  I saw a bit of who I wanted to be in her.

28 July 2010

an office worker takes her lunch

{Imitating the poem "Worked Late on a Tuesday Night" by Deborah Garrison}

An Office Worker Takes Her Lunch

Suburbia is ordered and driven,
crammed with the crowd and its checklist for the day.
I sidestep the leftovers-at-the-desk lunch
some eat indoors as they click aimlessly
or scroll through email—the jagged
projects, the livid to-dos, firm deadlines ablaze
in the Q3 projections as we drill down here and there
in the midst of the revenue stream.

Never thought you'd be one of them,
did you, little writer?
Little Miss I Love Jane Austen,
with your bookshelves of alphabetized
classics, reading all day for as long as we both shall
live! Can't you see?
The smart career girl turns inward,
soul-ward, humming the hum of cared-for creativity
all 9 to 5 long, sitting for a lunch hour

outside. So at 2:00 PM
you're lying in the grass
with a book in your hand,
hot but too absorbed to pull your blanket
into the shade by the parking lot's one tree, forgetting
the afternoon's tasks as though they were
not your job. It's delectable,
and nobody can fault you for
wanting your own life both ways. Now

the grown-up,
buttoned-up white collar.
Career, career, but still with a soul-gaping desire.
I've had my lunch late; I'm just about
what I meant to be.
Among other things, a writer
who scratches beauty. And ready, this afternoon,
to face again the computer.

27 July 2010

post-it notes and stealing

My dad sent me a link to an article about writing that was in the Los Angeles Times recently.

He sent it from my mom's iPad, which I know he bought for himself under the guise of “Oh, honey, we were going to get you a new computer anyway...and now can you hang on to my old computer for a second while I set up your iPad?”

“He set it up so I can read the Wall Street Journal on there,” my mom told me over the phone two weeks after she/he got the iPad.

“But you don't read the Journal; he does and then he tells you everything he read in there. Is he using the iPad right now?”

My mother spoke loudly and clearly, so I knew she wasn't just talking to me when she said, “Yes, he is using it right now. Every time I go to look for my iPad, he has it!”

Even though I was hours away from Iowa, I knew just what this scene looked like: my parents were sitting in their matching armchairs in the living room with the wall-of-windows view of the Mississippi. They're three feet apart, separated by a custom-built end table that hides the wireless router and a charging station behind Arts and Crafts dark wood charm.

I heard my dad protest too much: “I do not always have your iPad! Sometimes I do. But I got it for you! Here, do you want it now?”

I think he has it always; he at least had it when he emailed “Janet Fitch's 10 rules for writers.” He included a short note with the link: “Thought you might enjoy this. Dad.”

That's the email equivalent of the Post-it Note on the newspaper clipping, something I'm used to getting from my mom.

Wedding announcements of girls I went to high school with.  Tips on what every good cook should have in the kitchen at all times. Once I got a clipping from the Vancouver Sun {my parents were there on vacation} about a 10k race: “We should do this sometime. Love, Mama,” the Post-it told me.

My dad's use of the technological version of the Post-it/newspaper clipping combo makes sense when you consider his surreptitious iPad use. No pen, ink, and tearsheet version for him.

Plus, he doesn't get the Los Angeles Times in Iowa, surprisingly, so it'd be hard for him to mail an actual clipping to me.

I liked the article he sent; I liked that he read something about being a writer and thought of me.

Janet Fitch teaches writing at the University of Southern California, and she's had some books published {White Oleander, for one, which I read in one sitting—one laying, to be more precise—on the beach at Rathtrevor Provincial Park on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The tide went out, but I did not move from that book all day, although I'm sure my mother made me eat something and I bet my dad encouraged me to swim}.

With a connection like that, of course I would listen to what Janet Fitch had to say about being a good writer, and of her 10 tips, I most liked the ones that push me towards being a good reader.

To tell a good story, you have to be able to write good sentences, Fitch says.

And you learn to do that by tuning into other good sentences that have already been written. “Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this […]. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky {I have no idea who that is, that Brodsky person.  Note to self:  research so that you can talk smartly about writer stuff} for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose {Note to self #2:  figure out who these people are, too.  Seriously, what was my English degree for if I can't recognize writers listed by a woman who made it into Oprah's Book Club?}. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone's writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.”

That is one writing prompt that could keep me busy for years; it could keep me typing away, even when I'm unsure of where to start and the blank page or the blank screen are making me go blank. Wordless.

And scared that wordless means worthless, which I know it doesn't but when you're a writer, those desert spells of wordlessness can sometimes make you feel like you should apologize to everyone, even inanimate objects, for everything.

You know what?  I'm going to try this prompt right now.  Well, not right right now.

Right now, I'm going to the grocery store because I'm having a friend over for dinner tomorrow night, and it's always best to actually have the ingredients on hand for your meals, even if you're only making grilled chicken, corn salad, and roasted new potatoes.

But after the grocery store {a prosaic thing of life}, I'm going to try a little poetical thing of life.  See, there's this poem I adore, one I read after a work day that makes my spine compress.  I read it to assure myself I'm not the only one who needs to decompress.

I'm going to take this poem by Deborah Garrison {I've copied it in below} and try some imitation.  Sincerest form of flattery, you know.  Or so I've heard.

Worked Late on a Tuesday Night

Midtown is blasted out and silent,
drained of the crowd and its doggy day.
I trample the scraps of deli lunches
some ate outdoors as they stared dumbly
or hooted at us career girls—the haggard
beauties, the vivid can-dos, open raincoats aflap
in the March wind as we crossed to and fro
in front of the Public Library.

Never thought you'd be one of them,
did you, little Lady?
Little Miss Phi Beta Kappa,
with your closetful of pleated
skirts, twenty-nine till death do us
part! Don't you see?
The good schoolgirl turns thirty,
forty, singing the song of time management
all day long, lugging the briefcase

home. So at 10:00 PM
you're standing here
with your hand in the air,
cold but too stubborn to reach
into your pocket for a glove, cursing
the freezing rain as though it were
your difficulty. It's pathetic,
and nobody's fault but
your own. Now

the tears,
down into the collar.
Cabs, cabs, but none for hire.
I haven't had dinner; I'm not half
of what I meant to be.
Among other things, the mother
of three. Too tired, tonight,
to seduce the father.

23 July 2010

a blooming success

Look!  A flower growing!  For me! 

This makes me think of Frog and Toad.  You know, those books for kids about, quite obviously, a frog and a toad who are best friends {the best friends part maybe isn't as obvious}.

If you go back and read the stories as a grown-up—and I suggest you make a mad dash for the childrens' library right now {I don't care if you're at work; the only real impediment to this plan should be if the library is closed, and in that case, you should go to your nearest bookstore}—you realize, as with most stories for kids, Frog and Toad has simple reminders about really important things.  Just the kind of reminders grown-ups need every now and again:  what it means to be brave, how to be a good friend, and that patience is a virtue.

And so to celebrate my blooming flowers, a little excerpt from Frog and Toad Together—from the story "The Garden."


"At last," shouted Toad, "my seeds have stopped being afraid to grow!"

"And now you will have a nice garden too," said Frog.

"Yes," said Toad, "but you were right, Frog.  It was very hard work."

22 July 2010

vacation days are a hot commodity

As someone who lives in a cubicle 50 weeks a year, I treat vacation days as this all-important commodity, even more important than toilet paper on a backpacking trip. I horde my days, guard them, keep lengthy pro-and-con lists about how to use them.

By the middle of the year, I've usually taken less than half of my days. I like to save the bigger chunk for fall, when my stored up vacation energy will burst out, and I'll take that trip I have deemed worthy of my vacation days.

Last year, it was back to France for Thanksgiving in Normandy with good friends; this year, I'm thinking it'll be Prince Edward Island for a half-marathon/pretending I'm Anne of Green Gables.

And when I am on vacation, I like to make the most of every moment. Isn't that in the Bible, kind of and in a completely different context? “Make the most of every opportunity, for the days are evil.”

In my twisted version of the Bible—not to be trusted for true theological discussions and decisions—that verse is: “Make the most of every opportunity every day, especially on vacation days, for the unproductive and lazy days are evil.”

I have this issue with relaxation: it doesn't come easily to me, and dang it, isn't everything supposed to come easily to me?

When you start speaking in selfish italics in your head, you know it's time for a heart and humility check. It's time for a vacation from accomplishment as affirmation and approval, which sounds like a fun vacation to go on but is, in reality, a hard one to take.

{And oh my, I just realized that I made vacation with me sound not fun.  I am a very fun person.

Usually, if you have to stress your fun-ness, you're not really all that fun.  That is not true in my case.  I'm not an uptight, thoroughly-scheduled person all the time on vacation.  Really, as long as I can know where and when I'm eating, I'm pretty good with spontaneity.  Well, in a planned sort of way.}

21 July 2010

bring me java, bring me joy

Yesterday morning, I had a 5-minute long conversation with a woman at my gym about coffee.  She told me that since she always sees me at the coffee maker—just before she gets her first cup of coffee for the day—she's come to associate me with good-morning-perkiness.

This is the perfect association for me.  I'm the girl with a play list called Good Morning Songs.  I wake up to a different one every morning:  sometimes it's "Good Morning, Baltimore" and sometimes it's "Love Is All Around."  (You know, the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Don't tell me you didn't know that.  If you really didn't know that, I'm mad at you, slash we don't live close enough to each other.  If we lived closer, I can guarantee you that I would've made you watch Mary by now.)

I'm also the girl who loves coffee, although there are a lot of girls like that.  I'm the girl who can drink a latte at 9pm and still sleep fine.  I bet you wish you could do that.  I can also go without coffee and not be cranky.  I bet you wish everyone else at your office could do that.

I help run the coffee ministry at my church, and when you combine caffeine with Christianity, you get high energy Holy Spirit.  Not really.  That sounds sacrilegious.  I don't think Jesus needs to drink coffee, but I like to think that he enjoys it.

You can see why it was easy for me to have a 5-minute long conversation about coffee.  I'm surprised it wasn't longer.

But then it reminded me of this thing I wrote when I lived in France.  It's all about coffee and the experience of going to a cafe in Rouen, where I was teaching English at a French high school.

Obvious foreign references aside {referring to the euro and at one point, I use French, but have no fear, I give you a contextual translation}, I think that if you love coffee, you may—well, you don't have to love this, too, but maybe it could just make you a little happy about how much you like coffee, one of those simple joys in life.


The cup waits in front of you. From above, the coffee, light brown like the Mississippi mixed with a foggy morning, is moveable punctuation, a perfectionist’s period of definition on the bleach white saucer and cup. There’s a froth on top, though, hundreds of little bubble that move as one.

Part of the ritual, maybe the most important part, is waiting to taste the first sip of your café crème. There’s built up expectancy from the moment you step in the café—or even from the moment you step out of your door.

You’re going to a café and it’s a bright afternoon, the first sunniness of spring in Normandy. You’ve bunched up your need of alone time into this idea of an afternoon at a café, any café.

Solitary but surrounded by voices you don’t have to understand if you don’t want to, laughs, babies’ cries, clinking cups and saucers. Café soundtrack, a background to your thoughts. You’ve brought cards to write, and like always, you have a journal, too. The café may make your hand itch to write—or it may not. It’s all part of the anticipation, the surprise, and a bit of the ritual.

Choosing a café is not as obvious as seeing an empty chair. You have to walk by slowly, giving your mind time to imagine yourself in that chair. It’s a feeling of ambiance and a feeling of blending in to that ambiance. All this feeling is in a split second decision and of course it is little more than a small day’s decision of where to spend an hour or two.

Small decisions of the day become big decision of life when piled together, though, and an hour or two are still hours in your life. Cafes, for you, must have an irrepressible air of reflection because they need to recognize their possible importance, even if it’s just in an ironic way, as the place where you can be alone but not lonely.

You choose a café on a side street, away from the tourist flock and the 5 euro coffee cup.

Really, though, you knew that you were coming here, to Bistrot des Carmes, as soon as you heard the apartment door latch behind you. The first afternoon you came here, a Tuesday after work, a man in a corduroy jacket and square wiry glasses played his guitar at the corner table by the window. It wasn’t a concert; it was just him at his usual café on a usual Tuesday playing his usual music.

All that made you feel that this place, Bistrot des Carmes, was unusually unique, like a movie of France showing for you alone in the cinema.

Propped up on the sheeny brown bar, smooth from use and cleaning, was a chalkboard menu: Laurent vous propose…He suggested quiche and flan, a croque monsieur and tarte aux pommes, but you wanted nothing more than a café crème.

The cup waits in front of you, and you’ve waited long enough. Picking up the cup with both hands, one scooping the bottom for warmth and the other slipping a finger through the handle, you breathe in the ritual again. Tip the cup, close your eyes, and taste part of the foreign life you’ve fought hard to create.

Drink the café crème to forget that you’re too different here and drink it to remember that you never want to be complacently the same anyway.

20 July 2010

try not to try too hard

“I have heard the birds singing, each to each. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, I have heard them singing as I sit, run, lay, swim, kayak, read. I have seen so much of nature here, or more precisely, absorbed it; it's more than seeing it. Nature is around, and my soul is happy to be around it.”
I'll probably never do this again, but that's a direct quote from my journal. I was on vacation in Ontario with four girls. My boss said it sounded like a new reality TV show: 5 Girls in the Canadian Wilderness.

That sounds too close to Girls Gone Wild for my ducks-in-a-row Midwestern sensibilities, and besides, we weren't really off in the wilderness with the moose, bears, and Royal Mounties. We were in cottage country.

Doesn't that have a pleasant, homey ring to it? Cottage country. Sounds so much more upscale than cabin land, and it flows off the tongue better than second home country.

This cottage country is near the Georgian Bay, which is part of Lake Huron. I'm hoping that's enough of a geography lesson for you, because all I want you to take away from this is: I was somewhere beautiful for a few days.

As always—as frequently—I took all of nature in and wanted to send it back out from me, fully inked and lined up. Fully described and explained and appreciated.

That push, that desire, led to journal entries like that one above, where yes, I did paraphrase T.S. Eliot.

And it led to this one particular moment on a hike, one of those moments you hope never fades. Not because it's a rollicking story you want to tell your grandchildren one day—but because it so holds together a particular time or thought or life stage for you.

We hiked at Killbear Provincial Park on the second day of vacation, and when we got to the point of the hike—a view onto Georgian Bay—I sat down on a rock to take in said view.

Clouds grew at the water's edge, just at the line where it drops off the earth, creating a waterfall to Narnia or some other imagined home. Above me, though, there weren't many clouds, as if they sky didn't want its reflection in the bay marred too much.

The water on the rocks did not crash, did not foam, did not draw attention to itself.

It whispered, lapped, rocked. I could look to the bottom; I could see the rock floor pushing up gradually, inclining a little, to meet the rock I sat on.

I could see how if you drained the bay, you'd find underneath a world that looked just like what I was sitting on: rocky but with green life growing in improbable places—as well as in all the places you'd expect to find a patch of grass, a bush, a tree.

I stared and stared and tried to make the words form—the words that would say just what I didn't know I intended.

Instead, a lot of detached openings and segues opened up before me: choppy reflections on what I saw reflected in the water below me.

And it felt like that—trying to write about, wanting to write about, the clouds when all I could see was the inconsistent, moving reflection of the clouds in the water.

Nothing good came, and what did come, I wanted to laugh at because I was trying to be deep. I was trying to hit the theme of the discord of nature and modern life. The discord between the cool calm of the water and my frenzied push to do more and describe more and be more.

What did come to me as I looked at the Georgian Bay was trite. Or maybe it felt trite in the face of an exquisitely-expressed nature.

I kept staring, though. I kept listening, and I heard the birds, friends talking on a rock above me, the water below me.

The friends pulled more sharply on my soul then; I wanted to share the scene, not try to describe it. That's why I was restless, even looking at the ever-moving water and clouds, a combination that usually puts me far beyond the boundary of introspection.

I wanted to be not alone, and so I stood up from the rock and turned my back on nature, on trying too hard, on forcing depth.

I walked up to my friends, sat down between them, and said, “My gosh, it's just so pretty here, isn't it?”

18 July 2010

an open letter to my flowers

Dear Flowers,

Why do you hate me?

I realize this may be an unorthodox way to begin a letter to you, my dear, dear flowers.  You're probably used to receiving sonnets and other such things in iambic pentameter.

I don't mean to alarm you or to make you sad.  I really just want to know:  why won't you grow for me?

I love you.  I take care of you.  I give you water and sunshine.

Ok, you're right:  I don't actually give you sunshine, but I put you in places where you get sunshine.  I even kept your little cards that explain how much sun you should get every day, and I was careful to buy part shade flowers only.

You see, I was choosy with you.  I wanted you.  I spent an afternoon at Home Depot looking at you, imagining how you'd look on my balcony, thinking about color combinations for you and your friends.

I won't mention the money I spent on you because that is crass, mixing friendship and money.  But suffice it to say, I didn't steal you.

But you seem to be rejecting my kindest advances.  Please be gentle with me; I'm not used to such rejection.

I bet you think you're teaching me some sort of lesson, but all I'm learning right now:  Kamiah, you can't take care of pretty things.

Is that what you wanted to teach me?  
I can't imagine that such an ugly lesson would come from you, but your wilty petals and sagging leaves seem set on reminding me that pretty little things are not my domain.

You had one job going into this summer:  to be yourselves.  I think that sounds like a cushy job.  You don't have to attend meetings or have Outlook give you dinging reminders about something you forgot to do.

You just needed to be you.   Beautiful.  Blooming.  Colorful.

Maybe you're not aware of how you look.  I mean, I don't have a mirror out on my balcony, and I doubt that the robins are taking the time you fill you in on your appearance.  They're new parents, after all, and their time is obviously occupied with other concerns.

You have let yourselves go.  This "let yourself go" concept can be a good one.  It can bring about destressing and true relaxation and the ability to laugh at your own silliness, instead of being wrapped up in uptightness.

However, you're taking the "let yourself go" concept in the negative sense.  In the slovenly sense.  The dead leaf sense.

I took some pictures of you so that you can see just how far you've let yourself go, despite my best intentions to take care of you.  Maybe this will make you start doing your job again, which, may I remind you one more time, is simply to be beautiful and yourselves.  Your natural beauty is all I want.  I don't need made-up charm and facade in any part of my life.

I put this picture in the midst of the disappointing ones on purpose; I'm hoping to motivate you.  See how pretty the yellow flowers still look?  See how they're lifting up their beauty?  That could be you, other slackerly flowers.

My dear, dear flowers:  I expected more of you.

Sadly yours,

17 July 2010

give me something gentle / make it sentimental {or the robins' nest, Part III}

{This is Part III of a story about the robins who have built their nest on my balcony.  I'm sure you can pick up what's going on—just use those context clues skills that got you through so many standardized reading tests. But I'd also recommend reading Part I and Part II; it'll make the story so much easier to follow, I promise.  And I'm not just saying that so that you'll stay longer on my blog.  I really do want you to have a good story experience.  Really.  Now click.  And read.}


By the time I wrote a poem about the bird nest that appeared on my porch light, I had clearly absorbed several lessons from the robins and their nest: times of emptiness can quickly become times of fullness, for one.

Take time to stand in the sun and wonder at the richness around you
—that's another one.

Both of those sound like lessons that could be made into framed art, optimistic reminders of the enduring hopefulness of life, perhaps expressed in mosaic or line art featuring flowers and mountain meadows.

They'd be the kind of pieces sold at farmers' markets and craft fairs, a snippet of Americana that causes people in big cities and small towns alike to pause and wish they felt less compelled to check their email 24 times a day. To wish they could more consistently and truthfully be okay with turning off the to-do list part of their brain that’s run by a lizard: darting here, darting there, eyes darting to the next task to do do do.

Now, just a couple of weeks after writing that poem, I’m having thoughts that are less craft fair appropriate.

They are: Shut up. Stop flying in front of my face. You’re ugly. Can you chirp in a pitch that isn’t a scream? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you have a bit of worm stuck in your beak.

Who has such bitter thoughts towards robins, of all creatures? Skunks, maybe, or raccoons, I could understand, but robins—they lay Tiffany blue eggs, and every spring, seeing the first robin makes me want to wear a flowery skirt, even if there’s still snow on the ground. Robins are a cause for celebration, not targets of my darkest thoughts because I can’t control their chirping.

But isn’t that the way life sometimes is? Something new lands in your daily life, and suddenly, you’re writing poems about watering cans and being full to overflowing.

Then the novelty wears off, and what was once energizing becomes a normal grate on you, even though you don't want it to. It becomes this accepted part of your life, and you can become blasé about it, take it for granted, treat it badly.

Tell the robins to shut up when all they want to do is sing to and protect their Tiffany blue eggs.

I wanted these birds to come. I wanted to love nature, right here on my doorstep—or actually, on my porch light. I wanted—I still want—more watering can moments.

But I also want to sit on my balcony without feeling that I’m going to be in a modern-day take on Hitchcock’s The Birds. I’ve gotten a very up-close look at the sharp beak of the robin, and let me tell you, you don’t want that thing anywhere near your eyes.

The stand-off between the robins and me is, I’ve decided, an example of expectations not matching reality—and how you can veer off the path into a swamp when you start to demand too much of your expectations.


{Wow, doesn't it seem like I just opened up a whole new topic?  The whole expectations vs. reality thing?  I'm so not writing about a bird feeder anymore, and that's what I enjoy so much about writing.  The surprises you find yourself stumbling upon.  The turns your writing can take.  I thought I wanted to vent about those dang birds, but those dang birds have led me here, to this twist of a statement about expectations and reality.

And yes, I'm going to end there for now.  If you have any deep, revelatory thoughts about this, you should let me know; I'm still sorting it out in my own head.}

16 July 2010

you should get a bird feeder

I started this bird nest story yesterday.  To get the full picture of my transformation {from someone with dreams of birds serenading me to a person who actually says to a robin, "Shut up! You're ugly!"}, you should read that first part.


I imagined birds flying up to my feeder, landing gracefully and lightly, nibbling gracefully and lightly, all the while serenading me.

Please note that my dream view of how birds act may be slightly influenced by that scene in Disney's Cinderella when the birds help her get dressed.  Working together, they tie her sash into a bow that would make a beauty queen in the South jealous:  so even, so flouncy, so flattering.

I didn't want the birds to help me get dressed; I can tie a rather flouncy bow all on my own, a skill I developed in cheerleading that has yet to translate into a useful life skill, unless you count dressing up American Girls dolls as a life skill.  Not that I still dress up my Samantha and Kirsten dolls.

Anyway, we should return to the birds and my bird feeder.  It doesn't have your typical birdseed in it, nor is it a hummingbird feeder to draw in the blurry fast ones.

I use cut fruit in my feeder—oranges and apples, mostly—stuck on a skewer.

Ok, that makes it sound like I have the cheapest, shoddiest bird feeder ever, and I'm trying to pass it off as unique.  Contrary to what it sounds like, I did not take some popsicle sticks and shove rotting fruit on them, hoping for the best and duct taping them to the balcony railing.

This is an actual bird feeder; there's even a ceramic bird resting on top, like a decoy.  It's yellow and its beak is curved into a smile beyond normal levels of bird joy.  This is so the other birds know that a) it's safe on my balcony, and b) the only way to ever look as happy as this is to come visit this fruity, fun-filled feeder.

The decoy is a sign to birds that this balcony—full of flowers in various stages of dying because gardening is not a gift of mine—is bird-friendly.  I will welcome them, feed them, encourage their singing, and give them a place to rest.

Not long after I put up the feeder, a robin couple moved in. 

They might've decided that this is the right neighborhood for them because it's been quiet out on my balcony for the last few weeks.  I've been travelling a lot for work, and then there was the vacation to a cottage on a lake in Canada.

Except for the friend coming every few days to check on my plants, this has been a calm place, the bird version of the suburbs and just the spot to raise a family, or at least get them past the egg stage.  After they leave the nest, you know, all you can do is cross your wings and hope that they'll be okay.

I first noticed the nest when I was home for less than 24 hours between work trips.  After realizing that I didn't need to bother unpacking—and could, in fact, re-wear the same outfits on Business Trip #2—I stepped onto the balcony to appreciate nature, a gentle moment to sit somewhere that wasn't an airplane or a board room.

A robin zoomed by just as I opened the door, and I looked to see where she'd come from:  the porch light, where she was building a nest.

I was instantly taken with this idea, this way I was integrating with nature without even realizing it.  This bird and her bird husband {I assume they are married, but you never know these days and it's okay if they aren't} had chosen my balcony out of all the balconies around.

I was sure there must be a sign, some message from God about living simply but purposefully.  I spent several moments watching the nest, breathing deeply, and trying to cultivate one of those “awareness of nature” moments. 

The next afternoon on a plane to Minnesota, I wrote that poem about my nest {I clearly really want you to read that poem, and if you haven't by now, I don't know if you're a very careful reader, but I can say that you're a discerning link-clicker}.

I was already thinking of my nest a little territorially.  My birds.  My nest.  My opportunity to be deep and reflective about nature and then be rejuvenated by that pondering, even though my body and mind were worn down to nubs.

My poem{Oh my gosh, another link to it.  Please tell me you've read the poem by now.}

{And let me tell you, it didn't take long for me to go from pretending to be Cinderella, serenaded by birds, to a rage-rage-against-the-chirping-of-the-robin.  Coming up tomorrow, or perhaps Sunday:  I am transformed from the girl who can tie a perfect bow into someone unrecognizable, someone who yells at birds, someone who has Very Bitter Thoughts about God's creatures.  You know, someone normal. You can read about that transition here, in Part III of the Robin Saga.}

15 July 2010

the robins' nest

I wrote a poem not too long ago about the bird nest on my balcony.  I wrote another poem earlier in the spring about a bird waking me up.  I laughed a little at my slowly developing theme.  Perhaps I wanted to fly far, far away?  Perhaps I just think birds are adorable?  Perhaps I should write a whole series on birds, and then go all multi-art forms and do paintings of birds?  I could make my own bird book!  I could...

You see how my mind easily gets away from me.

Below is the beginning of an update on my bird nest situation.  It's turned ugly.  Brace yourself.  Although this little snippet of the story isn't too bad.  And I do still like birds, but I've scaled back plans for the bird book.


The robins on my balcony are deliberately pecking away at my patience and love of quiet order.  Chirp.  Chirp-chirp.  CHIRP.  They never stop their communicating and singing and being so—birdy.

Every time I step out the balcony door—no, it's worse than that.

Even if I'm just sitting in my reading nook, tucked into the corner of my living room by the windows onto the balcony, even then, the robins who have built their nest on my balcony are chirping.  If I stand up, they both fly to the railing, facing me in the windows, and have this look that makes me think that maybe they're concealing little pistols under their wings.

Are they worried I will, in one unpredictable motion, rise from my book and nook, burst through the window and terrorize their nest?  Why must they chirp like they don't trust me to behave?

I realize that I've invited them here.  I'm the one who went into spring with rhapsodic dreams of birds singing to me in the early morning.  Can you blame me, though?  I live in the Chicago suburbs; winter is quiet except for the scrape of snow plows and that muffled hush you can kind of hear when snow is falling.  

Birds singing—a part of nature being so dazzlingly loud and chipper—is an appealing idea every spring.  And with that idea in mind, I bought a pretty, unique bird feeder because I wanted to bring the birds to me.

{And they came, which you can read about in Part II. I'm like the Field of Dreams, right here in Illinois, only with birds and no baseball because I'm not all that into baseball.}

14 July 2010

the age of angstiness

I was cleaning my computer recently {no, not with a Q-tip; I just mean re-organizing my files, a completely normal thing to do, especially if you're pretty big on order and yet your sense of order keeps evolving}.  I found this piece called Iowa Humidity.

I have no idea when I wrote this because whenever that was, my sense of order clearly had not yet evolved to marking the date on everything I write, which I do now.  And if I revise, I save it as a new file and mark the revision date.  My computer is stuffed with a hierarchy of dates, folders, sub-folders, revised writing, original drafts {you may at some point decide to use a phrase or paragraph you deleted; you never know}.

From re-reading this thing about humidity, though, I can narrow down when I wrote this to the Age of Angstiness, which lasted from approximately age 15 to 23.  It's like the Age of Innocence but with more existential crises that threaten to bring down your life on a daily basis.

Later, when the Age of Angstiness has passed and you're in the Age of Well-Adjustedness with Only the Occasional Forays into Angstiness, you look back on anything you wrote then {a journal, a book report, a note slipped to your best friend during passing time your sophomore year} and you immediately want to look away.

But you can't.  It's like tripping across a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime {television for women; I can never say Lifetime without hearing their tag echoing after} about a high school cheerleader who really likes kittens and happiness but somehow gets tangled up with drugs and ends up homeless.  Then her mom and dad come to find her on the streets and they hug a lot, and then the last scene is her as the Homecoming queen, riding in a convertible and waving in the parade.

I don't think that movie's actually been made, but doesn't it sound like something you'd get sucked into watching on a Saturday night when you're really tired?  And no matter how much you want to stop watching, you find yourself truly concerned for how this girl got in with the wrong crowd.  How did she let it get that bad?

So that's how it is with re-discovering your own writing:  you're concerned about how you let your angst get this bad.

I am not looking away from this.  And I'm making you look at it, not that I can force you to do anything on the Internet.  Or in real life.

And now, coming at you straight from the late 90s {or more likely from the early 2000s...aughts?  turn of the century? Is it symbolic that the formative years of my generation don't have an easy-to-spit-out name?}, my take on Iowa Humidity.

{an especially appropriate topic today, when the heat index in Des Moines is 115, I hear.}


The air was almost too heavy to admit because once you admitted the humidity, two things happened:  the air became more oppressive, and you turned into a dull person who has nothing to say but some small comment on the weather.  {Editor's note:  I'm quoting Jewel here.  This must be late high school.}

She avoided saying anything then because she didn’t want to seem dull.  Or inevitable.

Humidity in Iowa in July is inevitable, just like people talking about it, thinking that this time perhaps they will come up with a new and witty way to describe the heaviness.

But the humidity saps out what creativity Iowans did have and leaves them with their farmer tans and too tight clothing, looking less-than-normal and like they deserve to be in the middle of the country.

“It’s so hot the air’s like a blanket, huh?”

She smiles at the predictableness of the old man’s comment and tries to ignore the pull to respond in a way that would mark her as a normal Iowan.

She wasn’t like the rest of them—just having these over-analytical thoughts about the vocabulary of humidity made her not like them, doesn’t it?  More than anything,
she wanted—and had wanted since she was at least since she was 15— to be more, do more, see more, live more than the normal Iowan she’d been born as.  Or did she?

“Yeah, it just takes the energy right out of you.”

Her shoulders slump after she speaks.  The old man assumes it’s because of the heat, and he gives her a small smile of empathy.  There's a drip of sweat making its way down from his temple and his John Deere hat.

Really, though, she slumps because she knows she can’t escape who she is by trying so hard not to fit in.

03 July 2010

my patriotism

My family laughs at me because I cry at two things {and, for the most part, just these two things}:  sports movies and patriotism.

I do have emotions.  I do get upset and sad and hurt and disappointed and angry and frustrated; I do also have all the positive emotions.

But I don't cry too often in reaction to all those emotions.  Or to express those emotions.  Please stop looking at me like I'm Data from Star Trek.

Now please stop looking at me like that because I just revealed I'm a Trekkie.

Sometimes, I have to force myself to cry {because even when you don't cry all that much, you do come to a point where crying is a necessity, like water:  an obvious statement}.  

To get the tears to come, I watch Rudy.  The football movie.  The one about the underdog triumphing and getting to play in a Notre Dame game.  The one where the entire stadium starts chanting, "Rudy!  Rudy!  Rudy!" as he runs onto the field.

Even writing that makes me a little teary.  I said a little.

Patriotism will also make me cry, a trait I developed after living in Europe.  I've always liked America:  let me stress that.  But living away from here, away from Iowa, away from my family, away from belonging changed me into someone who has to breathe very deeply and concentrate very hard on not crying when that song "Proud to Be an American" plays.

I know.  

Schmaltzy patriotism gets me just as much as "Stars and Stripes Forever" or Judy Garland singing "God Bless America."  

I get the same amount of quivering tears for the "Armed Forces Salute" as I do for that Toby Keith song that talks about the Statue of Liberty shakin' her fist.

I wish I didn't react like that to Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue"; nothing in his song lines up with my version of America, which is what makes it so puzzling for me, these tears reacting to his ethnocentric anger.

Let's pretend from now on they're tears of sadness at his ugly American attitude and his belief that fighting is the best thing America offers the rest of the world.  Let's move on from his American way.

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday.

Every year I can, I spend it in Morning Sun, Iowa, where my mama grew up and where my grandma and some other family still live.

My version of America is wrapped up in Morning Sun--in the name that sounds like aprons and cross-stitching and victory gardens and a strong belief in "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

My version of America is hard work and community--and getting together to celebrate that hard work with good food.

It's tradition and small talk, as well as being in a place with roads like School Street and Church Street {because that's what's on those streets}.

My version of America is about belonging and being known, and it's that version of--and vision for--America that'll make me cry.

Just a little.

01 July 2010


A bird is building her nest on my balcony.
I saw it today for the first time when I stood,
empty watering can in hand,
for a few extra moments
in the sun.

Right in front of me,
water dripped from a hanging basket of yellow petunias.
I wanted to
gulp in simple nutrients like my flowers,
to be full to overflowing:
my cup runneth over.

That's when I saw her nest.
A hideout of a home on top of my porch light.

She is building her nest with my hanging baskets,
strands she steals from me—
although I've never seen this, it must be true—
but I do not mean to accuse: she isn't stealing.
She's naturally resourceful.

I watched her nest,
empty watering can in hand,
willing her to come back,
to pull another piece of her home from my hanging basket,
to show me how she builds with only a sharp beak.

I stood a few extra moments
in the sun
wondering what makes a home

before turning
passing through the door to my home
to re-fill my watering can
that now runneth over:
with stray strands of home, simple nutrients I gulp in.


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