29 March 2012

dear trees that flower in the spring

Dear Trees that Flower in the Spring,

I love you so much.

My, such a bold way to begin this letter to you, but I cannot contain my joy and abounding love when I see you every spring.

If I could hug you without crushing your blossoms, I would. Instead, I'll just stand under you and look straight up. From that angle, it looks like the whole world has become spring.

And standing under you and looking up, I'm sure I look a little odd to the rest of the world, but you know what, Trees that Flower in the Spring? Just being near you makes me feel like Anne of Green Gables when she's driving through the White Way of Delight with Matthew for the first time, even though you come in more colors than white.

You come in pink and purple and mauve and a kind of magenta, but I still feel like Anne when I'm near you. Thank you, dear Trees, for reminding me that I don't always have to act like a grown-up. I can be a wide-eyed girl taking in all the world has to offer.

I do, however, have two little requests for you.

One, could you arrange it to always be outside my bedroom window, no matter where I live? When I lived in Normandy, if you recall, there was a the sweetest tree outside my window that blossomed pink in the spring. After surviving a rainy Normandy winter, being able to wake up every morning to a pink tree made up for those months of lonely shivering. If I could always have a Tree that Flowers in the Spring outside my window, I would always remember that I can survive soul-scratching kinds of times.

Two, could you flower all the time and not just in spring? Or maybe you could just flower all the time until the fall and then presto magic, you could flip out your glorious and rich autumn colors.

I realize I'm really messing with nature here, and I also know that if you were here all the time, I wouldn't appreciate you as much. You'd become like grass, which is a deep, beautiful color {assuming there isn't a drought} and always feels so cool on the feet. But by about April 15, when it's greened up for the season, I stop seeing it and appreciating it: it's just another thing in the world.

And I guess I don't want you to become another thing, Trees that Flower in the Spring. Thanks for being such a special thing.

Ever pretending to be Anne of Green Gables,

21 March 2012

to be of use {a poem, not by me}

At lunch today, I sat outside on a bench and tried to resist the urge to get in my car and drive far, far away from the office.

To a park or a forest preserve or a lake of some kind.

With spring here in full—and early—bloom, sitting a cubicle all day can be heart-wrenching. You notice the bush outside your window taking on an almost-chartreuse green as the leaves grow, and you know that it probably smells just right—of newness, growth, and possibilities.

I mean, really, don't things just feel more possible in the spring? Sure, there's that moment at New Year's when you want to make big goals of reading big books and cooking big meals. And there's that moment in the fall when your brain wants to go back to school, even if you haven't been there in years.

But in the spring, it's as if everyone you meet is a new friend, and stepping out your door in the morning is an adventure.

But sitting in front of a computer is not an adventure; it's what you did through the gray doldrums of winter. You'd much rather be out by that bush, smelling possibilities.

However, I've learned a few things from a few years of office-dwelling:
  • Being inside all day only makes you appreciate outside all the more.
  • You were given a lunch break for a reason. Use it for more than eating at your desk.
  • Hard work is its own reward. Okay, I didn't learn that one from my years in a cubicle; that sounds more like something picked up from years of living in Iowa or from Aesop's Fables or perhaps from both places. But it's true: it can feel good to work hard, contribute something of quality, and have somewhere to go every day where you get free coffee and the chance to use your brain.
To remind me of the importance of that last point, I read a poem as I sat outside at lunch today, one that always makes me thankful to have work to do. I guess this is another thing I've learned from office-dwelling: poetry can get you through days when you'd rather be elsewhere because they bring you a smidge of beauty, right there at your office.

To be of use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

17 March 2012

chicken stock {a poem}

What you put into chicken stock is not nearly as important as why you're making it

Use leeks or not
Use the woody ends of last night's asparagus or not
Whole garlic, peeled garlic
Thyme, rosemary
A clove-studded onion
or cloves tied in cheesecloth.

With each dull clunk in the stock pot
as you drop in what you have on hand

With each resounding thwack of the knife
as you crack apart the chicken bones

You'll come to know that making stock
brings a calm you didn't know you needed
a connection to an agrarian past you didn't know you were missing.
100 years ago, in a snug white-washed house
sitting on the corner of a small field,
a woman in a blue-flowered dress
looks out the window at the prairie sunrise—
a defiant, burning orange,
the promise of a clear, full day.

She thinks not of
the onions and carrots and herbs
dropping from her hands and into the pot,

but thinks instead of
the soup this chicken stock will become

and of the people who will noisily eat it at her table

and of how she likes the sun but wishes it would rain.

The stock simmers and
she's drawing the richness out of every joint
without even
thinking about it.
So use leeks or not
Asparagus, garlic, celery, onions:
whatever you do, find the flavor of life
and draw,
draw deep from the marrow.

16 March 2012

in celebration of my irish catholic roots

My family on my grandma's side was so very Irish Catholic.

Irish Catholic as in when you look at the family tree, it's a mess of Katherines and Annas and Bridgets.

Irish Catholic as in there are nuns in those branches of my family tree, and when you think about it, it's funny to imagine a nun in her habit climbing a tree. Or even just hanging out on one of the branches.

Irish Catholic as in farmers from County Waterford who were not quite rich enough to afford that lovely Waterford crystal.

Irish Catholic as in go to Mass every day and say the rosary and keep a crucifix next to your bed.

But I am not a nun {climbing a tree or otherwise},
nor do I go to Mass every day {although I do go past a Catholic church every morning on my walk with Little Pug},
nor do I own any Waterford crystal {so I guess my ancestors and I have that in common},
and next to my bed is a stack of books and a lamp shaped like the Eiffel Tower {not at all like Jesus}.

Here I am, just two generations down from my grandma, and we are so far from our roots. Our roots have now crossed with the Protestants, which makes some sort of hybrid tree.

I don't know much about trees, but I do know a little bit about wine, and when you create hybrids of vines, it can make for a complex, wonderful, drink-this-with-soft-cheeses kind of wine.

I assume this crossing makes us more complex and wonderful, but a newspaper story I found about my great-grandmother makes me think she wouldn't be so enamored of our complex and wonderful hybrid of a family tree.

My hometown newspaper, The Hawk Eye, did a profile of my great-grandma because she had taken to knitting mittens and socks and scarves for the less fortunate.

{When you come from a small-ish town, these are the kinds of things you get in the paper for. I was once in that very same paper because, as an 8-year-old, I started attending the Des Moines County Historical Society meetings. I loved history—still do—but I remember being rather disappointed that there weren't more meetings where we got to talk about porcelain dolls and how fun it was to dress them up in historical clothes.}

So Anna Anderson took to knitting, and she said the kind of things you'd expect a hardworking, no nonsense Iowan to say: "If you keep busy doing worthwhile things for others, you will have no time for self-pity."

Even though I never met my great-grandmother, I can safely say that attitude of hers has trickled down through the family.

Unlike her Catholicism. No, that has not trickled so much as gotten diverted and then run dry.

She also said in the article:
I laugh a lot when I am working with orange yarn, for I recall how my father [Hugh Brady] detested that color. He was Irish Catholic. Orange always reminded him of the Orangemen [the Protestants] of his country. Not one speck of orange was allowed in our home and that meant, too, that we couldn't have even one single orange flower growing in our gardens
So Hugh Brady didn't allow any orange in his house, but when my parents re-did their living room a couple of years ago, they chose this very warm, very rich shade of orange.

How very Orangemen of them, not that they were thinking in terms of Catholic and Protestant at that point; the decision was more swayed, I think, by what would look best in that sunny room overlooking the Mississippi.

And no orange flowers? Please keep this in mind when you—any of you—buy me a bouquet. {Unsubtle message: Would someone please buy me flowers?}

Oh, yes, how far we've come from our Irish Catholic roots—in a complex and wonderful way that allows me to celebrate my Irish Catholic roots on Saturday and go to an Anglican church on Sunday.

Maybe I'll wear orange.

12 March 2012

the promise of spring

I woke up this morning to the smell of hyacinths and rain.

I opened my eyes this morning to see daffodils almost ready to burst forth.

And I thought: what beauty, such an almost scandalous level of beauty, to be in the midst of as I start my day.

How can a day go wrong when it starts with unblemished sweetness?

When it starts with the promise of spring?

10 March 2012

waking up before the sun

I saw my sister a couple of weeks ago on a business trip to Palm Springs, California.

I was there to make a video series with some doctors, which is a part of my job I never envisioned.

Actually, when you have a degree in British literature and you've spent your college days reading Wordsworth and Katherine Mansfield and TS Eliot, you rarely envision your job involving studio lights and a two-camera set-up and making decisions on what color the backdrop should be.

A degree in British literature makes you think you'll spend your days writing in a cottage in Devon. You'll have a wooden desk that's been used as a place to set Deep True Things down on paper for so long that it will have a patina of literary zeal. Of course the desk will be next to an open window, and there will be sheer curtains that flutter in the breeze.

But Palm Springs is not like Devon at all, and a couple of weeks ago, I was not next to an open window but in a windowless conference room that had become a makeshift studio.

To get over the slight road bump that I had very little idea of what I was doing, I pretended to be Mary Richards.

That statement makes sense if:
  • You've seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show and know that Mary Richards is MTM's character and that she's the associate producer of a news program in Minneapolis.
  • You buy into the concept of "Fake it till you make it."
I was pretending to be Mary Richards, charming producer in a newsroom full of men, a sweet 30-something who knows she's going to make it after all.

This little clip may help you relate to me in Palm Springs:

It did not hurt that I was wearing an outfit that always makes me feel like Mary Richards: pencil skirt, silk shirt, and heels.

Let's ignore for a moment that the heels were causing a blister as I scurried after the hotel banquet manager to make sure our lunch arrived on time and as I stood making polite small talk with the doctors who were waiting for the shoot to begin and as I offered condfident-sounding opinions on what portions of the video needed to be re-shot.

For the day, which began long before the sun came up, I was Mary Richards, and that worked very well for me.

But the next day when my sister arrived—she lives in LA, so it was just a two-hour jaunt out of the smog and into the desert—I got to be just Kami, my little sister self.

I don't mean to imply that I have this split version of myself: fracturing away into who I am with my family, who I am at work {and how I pretend to be Mary Richards sometimes at work}, who I am with my friends.

But I think most everyone can agree with this: there is something about being with your family, with these people who have known you since you couldn't talk, that makes you realize you don't always have to talk to be understood.

Now, of course sometimes with family, you have to talk more to be understood; family dynamics tend to get etched in the heart before you even get to your first day of school, so we spend part of our lives reminding these people we used to eat dinner with every night that we are not still the tattletale or the spoiled princess or the self-absorbed kid who spent too much time in her room.

That dynamic, though, is not what I want to talk about: I want to talk about how when you're with your family, especially siblings, you can quickly dip into the family shorthand of experience.

07 March 2012

late hours {a poem, not by me}

This morning, for the first time since last year, I cracked open a window in my bedroom. I have been resisting this, not because I don't want fresh air—and with the wind blowing as it has been the last few days, there is much fresh air around—but because I winter-proofed all my windows. Cracking them open for the first time would, in my mind, ruin my work.

It's a convoluted logic I use sometimes because in reality, that winter-proofing has done its job and now it's time to let the fresh air in. It's time to breathe air that has a hint of spring in it, which is a kind of air that makes me feel particularly poetry-ish.

After cracking open the window this morning, I found myself in the vet's office, waiting for Little Pug to have some x-rays taken {a story I can tell you another time}. As I sat and tried not to worry, I quickly realized I needed a distraction if this not worrying thing was going to be successful.

And so I pulled out my poetry book, the one I carry around when I feel particularly poetry-ish.

I opened to this poem—"Late Hours," and reading it both calmed me and made me realize that it was the right poem for today.

It's about windows and seasons, and here we are, in a transition season: I'm simultaneously longing for more open windows and thinking longingly of those cozy winter nights.

March is a confused time, for me at least, but this poem makes me glad for open window times and thankful that I've made it through another closed window time.

Late Hours
Lisel Mueller

On summer nights the world
moves within earshot
on the interstate with its swish
and growl, an occasional siren
that sends chills through us.
Sometimes, on clear, still nights,
voices float into our bedroom,
lunar and fragmented,
as if the sky had let them go
long before our birth.

In winter we close the windows
and read Chekhov,
nearly weeping for his world.

What luxury, to be so happy
that we can grieve
over imaginary lives.

02 March 2012

blue nights

Every now and again, you come across prose so perfectly on point that you can't stop reading.

This is how I feel with Joan Didion.

This is how I felt when I opened Blue Nights and read:
In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long an blue. [...] You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming—in fact, not at all a warming—yet suddenly summer seems near a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour of so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximately finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day "l'heure bleue." To the English, it was "the gloaming." The word "gloaming" reverberates, echoes—the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitters, the glisten, the glamour—carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you thing the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.
Two hours later, I stopped reading, and it was the latest I had stayed up since...since who knows when. That a book about grief and love and life and aging can keep me awake says quite a lot about the book. {Similarly, that I keep falling asleep reading Margaret Thatcher's autobiography may say quite a lot about that book.}

The book is not on an easy topic, a fact that was brought home when someone in my office, after listening to me praise its wonders, asked for a summary.

"Well, you see, Joan Didion had a rather traumatic 20 months; she lost her husband suddenly {and subsequently wrote The Year of Magical Thinking about that journey of grief}, and then her daughter died. So Blue Nights is about her loss but also about her life with her daughter. It's about memory and how it can get muddled. It's about love and how it can get muddled. Did I mention the prose that makes you long to sit with Joan Didion over a cup of strong black coffee—and just listen?"

Blue Nights isn't easy, but it's honest. Real. Scathing. Introspective {at times, you feel like you're reading her journal, and you think perhaps you should close the cover and put it back where you found it}. Emotionally dizzying.

But oh, it's achingly beautiful.

Please go get Blue Nights now, should you be in need of a little pretty prose in your life. I know I generally am.


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