braiding, memory, and the landscape of a simple vacation

I took some time away.

On Friday, setting down the yoke of daily deadlines, I turned from work and toward my own vacation.

It was easier than I thought, this transition. I didn’t worry much about what would happen while away or what might be lurking in my email inbox when I returned. I slipped silently into the promise that whatever lessons awaken from this absence, I intend to receive with grace.

And now I stay home.

No travel. No adventures. No expectations.

Waiting for me is time. Time with my daughter as she prepares to shoulder the yoke of another school year. Time to sit outside and allow the trees to remind me who I am.

There are books to be read, notebooks and pens waiting to marry. There is grass I have decided to walk barefoot through rather than mow. Tasks unfold in their own time instead of wedging into an exhausted weeknight.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” comes alongside. Here is the first, luminous line:

“Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair.”

As I read the first chapter, my child, 16 years now, asks if I will brush and braid her dampened hair. She offers her locks to my palms and stands patiently before me as I twist shimmering strands into place.

In these hands I hold memories of hours of brushing and braiding. This girl has always sat without complaint as I brushed out the leaves and sticks and petals that inevitably traveled with her, clinging like offerings to the hair that tumbled to her waist.

I remind her that her hair is like spun chocolate. She reminds me that mine is spun gold. We laugh at this ritual of language that pairs with the physical ritual of braiding. She has brushed and braided my hair as well over the years, her designs growing more intricate and elaborate along with the imaginings of her remarkable mind.

I consider, for a moment, how her father enjoyed braiding her hair too — pulling firmly so the finished braid read like an accomplishment. The result mimicked a sailor’s rigging, perhaps. Or rope worthy of rappelling from a tower. He would show off his effort and declare “a nice, tight braid.”

It occurs to me that he never braided my hair, or brushed it, and I wonder if this was a harbinger of our eventual divorce. I consider briefly how his gaze was captured by other enchantments, laid upon the palm of his hand. Or perhaps it was that my hair defies tightness. It is perpetually loosening, slipping all bonds to become, again and again, undone, and therefore … unsatisfying.

These thoughts are probably unfair, and they pass quickly through my mind. Perhaps hair braiding rests firmly in the domain of women (or parents) at least in my cultural memory. No matter.

What matters is this:

I am still welcome at the ritual of braiding my child’s hair.

I can still become captivated by the first sentence of a book.

I can love my job and still drift unapologetically over a new landscape that unfurls itself before me. I slip the bonds of work and linger in this place called “time away.”

The view is lovely.

back to civilization with ben folds

my grainy photo of Ben Folds conducting the audience in three-part harmony

 

 

It’s been a week of influenza at my house now. At long last we reach the moment to throw open the windows to the cleansing breeze of February.

You get sick. With a little luck, you get better.

By Saturday night, my daughter and I feel well enough to venture into downtown, South Dakota Symphony tickets clutched in our formerly feverish hands. Ben Folds is playing with the SDSO tonight.

She doesn’t know who Ben Folds is, but I do.

And I know she’s going to love this.

As I’ve written about the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra throughout the years, Delta David Gier (SDSO’s music director and conductor) has suggested I write about my experience at concerts. They’ve never had a qualified music journalist provide reviews. That sort of feedback is not on the horizon.

Just write about what it’s like, Gier encourages, time and time again. Tell us what you think.

This, naturally, is easier said than done.

First of all, it’s intimidating. Writing about music means entering a new language. How do you describe something in words when you can’t always grasp how its making you feel? The musicians on stage bring decades of conservatory experience to every concert. What sort of arrogance attempts to critique that or even explain it?

Then there is this: Symphony concerts end late on Saturday evening. For the writing to be fresh and relevant, guess how late you have to stay up in order to deliver a suitably well-crafted piece of writing for readers to click on Sunday morning?

When everyone else is going home, floating from the endorphins of a lovely evening, you settle in with your laptop and try to make sense of it all.

It’s romantic, in a way, to be up all night scribbling while the world sleeps.

And then you wake up with drool on your keyboard and 200 words of nonsensical drivel.

Less romantic.

But a Pops concert, you see, is by its very nature laid back. A Pops concert is the perfect place to jump into the stream of classical music (or classical music journalism). It’s how many concertgoers experience the symphony for the first time. And a Ben Folds Pops concert loans itself particularly well to attempts at anything authentic and unexpected and hopeful.

We’ve Been to the Mountain

A bearded Ben Folds ambles onto the stage and by the second song leans back and confesses he hasn’t sat in front of the piano for three months. He quips about going to the mountain to grow his beard. He forgot a little of that last song he admits, and he admits it without a hint of apology.

The first two songs are, in all fairness, a bit rough. But rough in that particular way we have lost in our society as of late. Everything must be polished and affected. Errors erased, reality minimized.

Ben Folds is the cure for this. After decades of playing, he brings a freshness and vulnerability to the stage as if he’s just starting out, as if he’s just starting to fiddle around with this genre and crack it open.

He allows you to believe you’ve just discovered him.

It’s a sold-out crowd. Judging from self-identified applause before the show, roughly 15 percent of concert-goers are experiencing the symphony for the first time. Beer cans pop and fizz around us. When Folds offers a song sans famed duet partner Regina Spektor (“she doesn’t come to all of these”) he invites the female voices in the crowd to fill in her part.

They do, with verve. The twenty-something gentlemen seated on our right join in as well, perfectly pitched.

The show builds—lyrically, musically, emotionally. Folds removes tape from his fingers to play his more technically demanding piano concerto (“Most of my songs don’t require this much accuracy. It’s all about style.”) and the SDSO season ticket holders seated on our left are particularly satisfied with this performance.

Ben Folds passes the classical muster as well.

Pops concerts are interesting creatures. Guaranteed ticket sales. A little rowdy at times (the ushers are kept busy reminding guests to remove their feet from the backs of the seats in front of them). The lady behind us in the concessions line at intermission asks her friend which instrument is the cello because she can never remember the difference.

So the moment near the end of the program when Ben Folds stands to talk to the audience about what it means for a city to have an orchestra holds particular meaning. He gets it. He gets that many here don’t know what’s seated in front of them.

This isn’t just a bauble of entertainment.

He praises the musicians. He says in no way is he putting down his own music, but you really have to come back to hear them play whatever they’re playing next. An orchestra is civilization, he says, and not everyone likes civilization, but we need it.

He goes on to toss away notions of political partisanship by saying that both parties agree we need this, even though we don’t always agree with how it should be funded. He’s played for the RNC and the DNC. Everyone’s on the same team. (This gets a cheer from about half the crowd. Partisanship might have gained a bigger burst of applause, but Ben Folds has the guts and integrity to challenge his audience to deeper thoughtfulness.)

The show rolls on to its feverish and enthusiastic conclusion, Folds banging on the keys and offering his particular dose of wit and energy. The encore includes a romantic offering for Valentine’s Day and a smoldering jazz-infused number that urges the crowd to their feet, cheering even after the lights go on.

Ben Folds returns to the stage for one more bow.

His newly minted 15-year-old fan stands next to me. She’s still too exhausted from her duet with the flu to shriek and cheer. But she claps pretty loudly just the same.

Back to Civilization 

You get sick. If you are very lucky, you get well again. You are reminded that when you throw open your window once again, February awaits, and with it, love and beauty.

My daughter and I head out of the crowd and into the rain-splattered streets of downtown. A woman sells flowers on the corner, and I considerer buying one for my girl, because I like flowers and I like women who sell flowers, but we pass by, content to carry the melodies of the night.

How many more of these concerts do we have together? She is talking now about how much it rains in Connecticut and how someday she wants to live in a place with plenty of rain.

Like here, I want to say. Like it’s raining now? I smile silently. I know what she means.

The crowd thins, and we reach our car, but we’re not really ready to go home. Are you cold, I ask? Can we keep walking? She’s excited by this, as if I’m taking her somewhere adventurous and exciting. I am, I suppose—the city at night.

We pass dark alleys soaked in rain and vibrant bars soaked in jazz and laughter. We peer into the windows of the State Theater and the display cases of a jewelry shop. I learn that my child has an eye for jewels shaped as teardrops.

I remember this for the future.

on whangdoodles, leadership, and putting oneself in the way of love

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My daughter was given a PEZ dispenser.

Plastic. Delightfully silly. A small piece of novelty to contain and release tiny bits of candy.

I remember PEZ, the girl wonder muses. It reminds me of the Whangdoodle.

The memory is this: Her on the couch, snuggled up next to me. She is eating chocolate PEZ, because chocolate PEZ is her favorite, and she is savoring each individual piece, because that’s the kind of girl she has always been.

She is one-who-lingers, even with candy.

Central to this moment, this vivid sensation of chocolate and warmth, is the memory of me reading to her. I am reading “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles” on the couch, while she savors the sweetness of sugar and story.

I remember this too, of course, though I had forgotten the PEZ.

If there is anything I did right as a mother, if I can admit that now, it was reading aloud. I read to her as an infant, for hours. I read to her whatever I was reading at the time.

Poetry. Novels. Newspapers.

I read to her as she grew up, whatever she was into at the time.

Poetry. Novels. Newspapers.

I think I read the Whangdoodle book three or four times. And “James and the Giant Peach.” And every single “Jenny and the Cat Club” book. We stayed up late many nights, sometimes to one in the morning in order to follow a story to its thrilling and sweetly satisfying conclusion.

We read outside, under the canopy of backyard trees. We read in bed, propped up on pillows. But most often we read on the couch, her gazing out the picture window. She folded her body next to mine. We cried, when the books invited us to cry. We laughed far more often than we spilled tears.

One time, I remember she looked up and noticed a female finch dangling by her neck from our bird feeder outside. We dropped the book to curl the bird’s delicateness into our hands, ease her to freedom, release her again to the lightness of the air.

If we hadn’t been reading right then, we told each other … and we shook our heads, too shaken to finish the sentence.

When we read, we let the phone drop to voicemail. We didn’t answer the door. Lunch was whatever we could eat from bowls in our laps as we read and turned pages. Dinner went unplanned. Work, undone.

Maybe this reading habit bordered on irresponsible. I have been told I was irresponsible, for what it’s worth. I don’t agree with this assessment, but I’m willing to let others have their opinions about parenting and about earning and about housekeeping and about life.

To be fair, I didn’t know what I was doing — I had no goal, no master plan. I read because I wanted to know what happened next. I read because I love books. I read because I love my daughter.

There didn’t seem to be any harm in all that loving.

When we went to see my Gram, I would sit with my child on the powder blue couch and read, and Gram would come and make sure the fire was going well. Then she would sit down and listen as I read, no matter where I was in the book. She might stitch a little or she might just sit with her hands folded in her lap.

Listening.

The dog would sneak onto the furniture and nuzzle Gram’s hand. Gram would pet her head.

I’m calling this an inheritance.

I still read aloud, though these days, most often to the dog. This does not sadden me (it is only my current season of life after all) but it does make me joyously happy that my child, now 14, would recall fondly those long days of reading.

What am I doing for her now though, I wonder — now that her evenings are filled with homework and music, play rehearsals and her own quiet moments of reading and drawing, writing and thinking?

I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m leading her now, as a mother. I am only loving her, fiercely and clearly and, more often than not, quietly.

There doesn’t seem to be any harm in all that loving.

The other day I scribbled a note on the chalkboard that hangs in our hallway.

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” I wrote. I pulled those words from a book. I wanted to see them every morning when I woke up.

On Saturday, I went to work. My daughter stayed home. It rained that day. November rain.

She texted me, asking if she could open the windows, sit by the picture window, listen to the rain, and read.

Yes, I replied. Yes. A thousand times yes.

Neither of us said it, but I suspect we both longed to be together that day, under a blanket, reading in the rain.

When I came home, I found a message, chalked underneath my words in her handwriting.

“I’ll just follow you mum.”

Today I have no goal, no master plan.

I am only loving.

I love because I want to know what happens next.

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on brokenness and soup

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On October 5th, I broke myself.

What happened was this: I went running.

Actually, I’d been running injury free since July, and things had been going well. Three miles turned into four, and the splits on the clock began to look promising. Everything seemed possible with my running shoes laced.

I felt good.

I felt so good that I started remembering my days of running across the state. I remembered long runs on the bike trails and how after I passed the “Happy Face Bridge”  (my father called it that) I always knew that six miles had fallen away and my brain could finally turn off.

I could relax and just be.

Maybe I could get back to those long runs, I told myself. Maybe I could do another half marathon — a goal for springtime even. Maybe I could run long and well enough to finally call myself a real runner.

An athlete.

Long ago I used to train with a lot of people faster than I. They’d say — not entirely unkindly — that it hurt their knees to run at my pace, so they’d sprint ahead and I’d push to keep them in sight. Frankly, this didn’t used to bother me, but all of a sudden it does and so this year I decided to push my pace. All at once I needed to eradicate the memory of girl outpaced, girl left behind.

I decided to run faster.

You can probably guess what happened next. My shin started to ache. I took a few days of rest paired with a few doses of Advil and then got back on track. It hurt again. I rested it again.

I ran again. It hurt again.

And then I got sick of it. I got sick of waiting and I repeated to myself what I have been told countless times over the years: Sometimes you just have to push through the pain, no matter the consequence.

Listen: They are wrong, the people who tell you such things. It turns out there are precious few times when you should push through physical pain. I once walked around with a ruptured appendix for three days before admitting I needed a doctor. This experience almost killed me, so I should know better by now.

Why does it take me so long to learn my lessons?

On Monday, I ran until I could no longer walk. On Tuesday, I limped into the doctor’s office. I hobbled out on crutches.

For an added dose of idiocy, I didn’t tell anyone I was so badly hurt because I was afraid my friends would show up at my doorstep clutching containers of autumn soup in their hands.

This secrecy makes no sense whatsoever because the good people of South Dakota make excellent soup, and why would anyone decline the opportunity to have such delicacies delivered to your door by people who care about both you and soup?

Anyway.

I am broken. Limping. Aching.

Humbled.

Healing.

This beautiful fall week has been lived mostly in bed. When I drop my daughter off at school, at orchestra, at play rehearsal, I don’t get out of the car.

I wave and I smile. Waving and smiling is enough.

The world rushes by swiftly when you can’t walk, I have noticed. During this week of mandatory rest, I have also noticed that my dog can no longer leap off the bed particularly well. Sunset fades more quickly in the fall compared with the lingering of summer. It’s been a long time since I dusted the ceramic birds perched on my windowsill that once belonged to my gram.

I have been unfocused, it seems. Distracted. I wonder what else I have missed.

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Most significantly, I noticed that my hiking shoes are beaten and worn and faded and repaired, but they held their own on the trails this summer … unfaltering. My running shoes, on the other hand, are obnoxiously bright and new-ish, but will need to be replaced in a few months all the same.

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And so I made a decision.

I put the running shoes in the closet.

I set the hiking shoes by the front door.

My shin will heal. And when it does, however long it takes, I know what my feet need this season. I know what my soul needs this season.

In the meantime, I probably ought to figure out how to make soup.

in the company of bees

First, this …

My father used to say you could tell when summer was ending because the bees were out looking for new homes.

Then, this …

A friend texted this morning to remind me:  Today is the final day of summer. Enjoy it.

And so, this …

I take my work outside and flop onto a blanket under the trees. I wish my dad was sitting beside me. I wish my friend was sitting beside me.

Instead, I find myself in the company of bees.

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We are never truly alone, are we? I lie here in the grass, sun warming the soles of my feet, because someone who cares about me turned my gaze to the gentle passage of another season. I lie here in the grass, a handful of leisurely bees hovering about (and I, hoping they find what they’re looking for) because someone who cares about me taught me how to be in the world.

They are both with me now. My father. My friend. More so because I have scribbled their names into my notebook. I close my eyes and my blanket overflows with beautiful company.

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This morning I took a walk with my dog. Her paw is infected, I’m nursing a shin splint. We explored slowly, gingerly.

The neighborhood was wrapped in fog … a parcel bundled in damp gray paper. I half expected to stumble upon a white loop of string binding us all together. Yet each time I glanced at my dog, fur graying, limping slightly, she appeared as if inside a bubble of clarity — no fog pressing upon her at all.

She stops for every smell — this dog who knows her purpose — every taste, every texture. She turns to look at me, check up on me, smell me, as if to say, “Are you still here? Are you still yourself? Are we still on this journey together?”

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This is what we do for those we love.

We walk with them. We share their stories and their sunsets and we hold their hands on the last day of summer. We love their gray hair and worn away hairs,  their slightly battered bodies, their lines and their scars.

We close our eyes and hope they are capable of knowing us this much in return —  that this unconditionality will somehow continue to make us real.

It’s been almost a year since I had to say goodbye to my father. I haven’t seen my friend in more than two decades. My dog is graying, yet I have not yet begun to gray. Sometimes I swear she notices this injustice, notices this inconsistent aging process between human and canine and it bothers her as much as it bothers me.

And so it goes.

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At my dad’s funeral, one of his friends told me: “How you feel about your dad  — the way you looked up to him, the man you knew he was — that’s how your own child feels about you.”

I replied, simply, “I find that hard to believe.”

I am not my father. I am not that resilient, that indomitable. In some ways, however, his friend was right (of course).

And so I am left to wonder. Will my own child remember, long after she is grown and living on her own terms, to sink into a blanket in the grass with a journal and an afternoon stretched before her?

Will this girl, born on the vernal equinox, remember to pause and see, really see, the nuanced changing of a Dakota season?

Will she close her eyes and wonder, “Are you still with me?”

“Are we still on this journey together?”

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today, we had rain

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Years ago, I read an essay by Anna Quindlen, where the author’s daughters headed into the woods for an explore and Quindlen casually mentioned that her own place was on the porch, watching her children follow their wanderlust.

Though I liked the essay, I disagreed with Quindlen about sitting on the porch, even to write. If there is exploring to be done, I, as a general rule, like to be in the middle of it. My daughter was four (or so) at the time, and we had already done a good deal of forest work together — building fairy houses, examining toadstools, pretending to get lost among the trees and refusing to find our way out again.

In some ways, I couldn’t imagine doing those things without my child — or her without me.

She is 14 now, this wonder girl. Today, when a light sprinkle began, she collapsed her weary body onto the grass and faced the sky. I, tucked into a deck chair, knees folded to my chest, smiled for a moment and prepared to join her.

All at once the seam in the sky split and the firmament loosened its flood onto her face, her t-shirt, her bare feet.

She laughed.

Even the rain has nothing on that laugh.

It was at that moment — the moment I hesitated — when I understood what Quindlen had been talking about. This girl didn’t need a playmate. She needed rain. And lots of it.

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She moved through it. Drank it. Swam through rushing rivers of it in the gutters.

Screen doors slammed and other girls came dashing into the deluge. The dads across the street, bare chested and tattooed, beer cans in their hands this Sunday afternoon, sauntered down the street side by side, supervising and ignoring their kids at the same time … the way only fathers can do.

Today there was mud and flooded streets and long tangled hair flecked with leaves and seeds from the air.

I stood under the awning, hugging myself. Soon the dad next door launched his three-year-old into the storm and stood next to me, both of us dry. We talked about politics and forgiveness and what it means to raise girls.

And as we settled into the quiet, I thought, for the first time in a long time, of my mother.

I was 18 years old and leaving home. It was June. Raining. I went outside and made ‘rain angels’ in the middle of the flooded street.

She stood inside and smiled at me from behind the screen door.

I loved her. I would miss her. But I didn’t need her at that moment.

I needed to believe that I had invented this — rain angels, abandon, delight.

I needed to explore, alone and with friends, the outer reaches of joy and love and heartbreak.

Today, we had rain.

Today we had rain … and I stayed dry.

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into the woods

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Sometimes, it’s essential to get away.

For my second retreat at Pointers Ridge,

I again bunked in the Writer’s Cabin.

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Though I had planned to write fiction,

I ended up writing an essay.

Not here …

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but here …

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…  because I craved space for the unexpected.

The gift, this time, was not inspiration …

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but clarity.

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I was welcomed.

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I was without time.

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I wrote late into the night,

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but drank the sunrise as well.

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Things didn’t go as planned. I drove to town for

emergency car repairs and <sigh> for work.

I was occasionally lazy. I took naps.

I made a mess.

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But in the mornings, the river kept pushing

the fog to the sky in smoky columns, which makes

more sense than some things in the world.

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Great writers have penned inspirations about

solitude and nature and time. I brought none

of those writers with me.

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Instead, I taped the words of

Hunter S. Thompson

above my laptop as I wrote:

“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”

 

 

 

 

imagine you are the sky

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Meditation

 

Imagine

you are

the sky,

 

You are not

the clouds, thoughts

billowed.

You transcend

the clouds.

You are

the sky,

Imagine

 

the clouds—

billowed thoughts,

you are

not.

The clouds,

you transcend.

 

The sky.

You are.

Imagine.

 

You

transcend billowed

thoughts, healing

rain, cleansing

breeze, wash of

gray drifting

by,

remember.

 

Remember

you are

the sky.

 

(photo by Jeff Paul. Poem inspired by a meditation practice detailed in the book Way of the Winding Path by Eve Eschner Hogan)

retreat … well, I just got here

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I went into the woods to write

a story about going into the woods.

When I got there (The Retreat at Pointers Ridge)

I realized I didn’t want to write the story,

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which is to say, I didn’t want to write the story

just yet.

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What I wanted to write, it turns out, was

poetry.

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I’ve been writing poems since I was ten years old.

Or before.

The first one I memorized (of my own creation) was

about a snowflake. The snowflake, to be clear,

was not my creation. The poem, delightfully, was.

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No one tells you, when you are young,

that you can journey well as a poet.

No one tells you, when you are in the middle of life,

that you can journey well as a poet.

What will they say when I am old …

or will I simply no

longer hear them?

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I joined the Marines, once,

long ago. I learned the language

of conflict. I learned love.

Hope. Fear.

I went to college. I learned

the same things, only

from books.

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It was in the woods where I

remembered: I speak

more than one tongue.

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I know

more than one path.

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I am

from more than one home.

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I am more

than one woman.

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I contain multitudes

still, I contain

multitudes I

contain still

multitudes

multitudes I

contain.

 

Still.

 

(All photo poems are from The Retreat at Pointers Ridge, South Dakota. The painted door is a creation by artist Jennifer White. Don’t know her work yet? Wait. The photo of the sky out the window of the Writer’s Cabin was inspired by a different photo, made by Jeff Paul. One moment after the other, I tried to see the world as Jeff sees the world, as Jennifer sees the world, as I see the world. I am better for the experience.)

in front of josephine’s

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in front of josephine’s

flowers like prayer

flags breathing

coaxing intention

from the breeze

yes

you wish only

for light

light shall be

yours and

light you

shall be

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Note: yesterday, I went downtown to talk photography with a group of women, some strangers, some friends. Emily spoke eloquently of light. Walking home later, I happened upon dangling flowers in front of a shop. They reminded me, equally, of Tibetan prayer flags and poetry. And so I was blessed. And so I was healed.

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