reading and writing in the land of overwhelm

Welcome to lotus and rabbit, an online sanctuary for lovers of children's literature, poetry, and living simply.

of canvases, coronavirus, and cocooning at home

Tucked into a suitcase on a shelf, in the closet where I hang the coats and jackets, hides a stash of my grandmother’s needlepoint canvases.

Some of these canvases are ready for professional finishing. Some are brand new and “un-stitched.” Then there are the partially finished canvases, the ones where she began to stitch and at some point simply stopped. Evelyn Byers Miller was a skilled and creative fiber artist, so after her death it took a long time to gather the courage to pick up a canvas with the aim of finishing her work. How wonderful it would be, I imagined, if my stitches could complete her own?

Each canvas was stored in its own plastic bag with fiber and needle, ready and waiting for my hand. But here’s the thing. With each piece I picked up, I discovered a problem. Somewhere in that once-begun canvas, there was a knot. A tangle. Some kind of glitch. As I moved through the canvases I found one nearly imperceptible obstacle after another, none of which I know how to undo or fix.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a potential solution to each of these problems, with the exception of the canvas on which she apparently spilled tea. That one is a lovely floral design in blue and white. The stain is heartbreaking. I don’t blame her for not throwing it away, though. Who could bear to discard something so lovely and ruined?

If Gram was capable of overcoming the maddening quirks in these particular canvases, why didn’t she? Of the hundreds of canvases, quilts, and ornaments she finished, why did these ones end up in my hands, imperfect and incomplete? Was it a case of good intentions unfulfilled or did she simply have more pressing things to do?

I’m thinking about those canvasses as we journey through this ninth month of pandemic living. We work from home, Jane and I. We study from home. We say no to gatherings and outings and vacations. We have each other; we have our work. It is enough.

In our South Dakota city, though, much goes on as usual. People gather, some cautiously, some with abandon. Restaurants are bustling, though we haven’t sat down for a meal anywhere outside of our own kitchen or quiet park. We’ve visited one or two backyards, and we’ve dashed through the bookstore now and again. We snuck in a movie this summer, when there were six moviegoers spread throughout the theater, all of us hushed and masked. It was our one spectacular indulgence — and worth it.

I’m not particularly weary of staying home, though there are things I miss, people I miss. I’ve had family and colleagues and friends fall ill, and it’s been painful to not be there for them in any meaningful way. I’ve felt selfish at times, lost at others. Mostly I’ve embraced the clarity that comes from cocooning at home and letting the non-essential drift away.

My occasional self-righteousness is shadowed by persistent self-doubt. How long will these tiny knots of isolation be woven into the canvas of our lives? What is waiting to be finished? What has already been damaged or lost? How would we even know?

The death toll continues to rise around us. Hospitals are overwhelmed, doctors and nurses exhausted. And so we continue to do what we can to keep our community safe, even when no one seems to remember that’s what all of us are supposed to be doing. I remain grateful and patient and content, except on the days when I am restless and indignant and disgruntled. We stay home those days too.

Meanwhile, I pack away these tangles to be tended to at a later time. I suspect I may never loosen every knot of missed opportunity or unravel every relationship glitch. No matter. Most things I began before COVID are beautiful in their incompletion and imperfection. Others are lovely and ruined.

For now, I have more pressing things to do.

 

leaves, like grief, like stories

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. 

The day is cold and has decided to rain, soaking the leaves that still cling to the grass no matter how often I rake them toward piles and toss them into the oversized yard-waste bin — which is not often enough, it seems. 

When my dad was alive, he would drive over in his truck after packing the bed with leaves from his own yard. My family would awaken to the sounds of his rhythmic raking, raking, raking. By the time we raced outside, clutching our own rakes, he would almost be done clearing our humble rectangle of lawn. 

My daughter, Jane, would race out to see him, and he would toss her into the bounty with instructions to stomp those leaves down, making room for more. She did this with enthusiasm, even as he showered her with more, especially as he showered her with more. 

A child holds herself in a certain way when her grandpa is about to pick her up and place her into the leaf-filled bed of an old pickup truck. She doesn’t raise her arms high as a toddler might. She stands, straight and tall, arms slightly spaced from her body — just enough to demonstrate he can hoist her under those arms without undo squirming. She knows she is small and must be easily lifted. When airborne, she raises her knees at just the right moment to clear the edge of the truck bed. She takes the stomping seriously. If she does the job right, he will trust her with it again. 

For 16 years, I was married. My husband wasn’t much for yard work, though he embraced all forms of fitness. My dad never understood the disconnect. Why would anyone seeking a workout avoid raking leaves and shoveling snow? He kept moving, my father did, and had little respect for those who couldn’t see taking care of responsibilities as rewarding exercise. 

So it is with mixed feelings I watch the rain soak the remaining leaves in the yard. My father is gone. I have no pickup truck. I pay an exorbitant price for a yard-waste container that never keeps pace with the volume of autumn. I rake and I rake, and then one day … I stop. I let whatever remains remain, let the rain soak and shrink it. I take comfort that I will have another chance to get it right, though not, this particular day reminds me, unlimited chances to get it right. 

Our leaf-clearing days end, so I have learned, and often before we are ready. 

I am unlike my father in the sense that I don’t feel compelled to pick up every leaf. I don’t feel driven to stay ever in motion. I am aware of my yard-work inadequacies, but not troubled by them. I’ve been responsible for all of it for some time; there is only so much perfection available these days. Plus, I find autumn leaves a rather pretty carpet.

Jane is so much more than the child holding in her excitement to gain entrance to the leaf pile. She is 19 now. Ivy League. She focuses on her academic and creative pursuits late into the night, stomping down the fluttering obstacles to make room for each new swirl of abundance. 

And I am still here, sitting quietly with notebook and pen, wrapped in a blanket given to me by my older brother who is freshly gone from this world. I am watching the leaves (like grief, like words, like stories) pile up before me, soaked and seasoned. 

Perhaps today I shall hold a few of them in my hands, turn them over and over again to see what’s on the other side. Raise them to my ears and listen for what, if anything,  they have to say. 

intentionally unimpressive

I host a public radio show. In that role, I juggle various expectations, one of which is to not “have an opinion.” I am a Journalist. Impartial. Serious. Trying-to-be-polished. 

I love my job. Even so, I find that over the years a certain part of me has begun to loosen and slip away. Passionate. Joyful. Artistic. 

I don’t write personal essays or stories much anymore, and when I do they tend to hesitate, buttoning themselves into tidy little envelopes so as not to offend or challenge or distress. My job is to help other people tell their stories. I have forgotten how to tell my own. 

I tell my daughter to be thoughtful about the vocation she chooses as she makes her way into the world. Every job will change you, I remind her. Choose one that changes you in a direction you want to be transformed. 

My job has made me calmer and more thoughtful. I’m a better listener to every voice, except perhaps my own. I’m a faster worker and more skeptical. I’m more careful with my words. Some of this is good, some of this is soul-draining. The worst part, by far, is that I am less wild. I used to spend most of my days in some sort of creative wilderness —even writing that now makes me cringe. What will people think of such a foolish statement?  

But it is my truth. I wandered in the world far more often. Libraries. Bookstores. Trails. I took my notebook with me and plopped myself onto blankets beside rivers. I waded into streams and stepped over piles of books to climb into bed and write in my pajamas. On a Tuesday. 

I didn’t care what anyone thought. I had opinions then, yes dozens of them: The moon is glorious. Ice cream is divine. Rain is sacred. 

Earlier this week, I interviewed a pastor for our little radio broadcast. He came here from somewhere and he came to plant a church. The church didn’t grow exactly like he expected it to. He followed the directions on the seed packet only to find something else blossoming. No matter. When he saw it wasn’t working, he simply changed his mind about what he had set out to do. 

Now, on Sunday mornings, we are “intentionally unimpressive,” he told me.

And so I have changed my mind about what I have set out to do. As it turns out, I’d like to have a little more fun. 

The blog lotus & rabbit started, for me, as a online sanctuary. Now I just want a place to goof off with words and sometimes with images. Every time I post something here, I reclaim that digital-room-of-my-own. I now allow myself to be unpolished, unedited, uncensored. If you’ve found this post, you must have, at some point, made an effort to get here. And so I hope you too have found a place you can be yourself.

How is your job/career/vocation changing you? Which part of your personal wildness do you want to reclaim? 

Maybe we can be intentionally unimpressive together. 

 

on rebellion, illusions, and reading in trees

I learned to read in the nook of a tree.

My brother and I both had reading trees of our own; his was more naturally suited to climbing and reclining, a low-slung cradle of smooth branches. My tree took effort. It was a second child’s tree; you had to work harder and accept a measure of discomfort to claim your prize.

But still, a reading tree it was. I spent hours perched perilously, knees scabbed, hair knotted, book open, thinking.

I read then as I read today, which is to say slowly and with lingering pauses. I have always been inclined to wandering. If Lindy, Tom, and Ben popped through the mulberry bushes to Whangdoodleland, then I would gaze into the nearby lilacs, scanning for an opening. When Richard Bach levitated a feather using the power of his own mind, I stared hard at a yellow pencil on the floor, just in case. This is the kind of reading you don’t do amongst company, unless your company happens to be a tree.

I have few memories of reading in school, which is not to say that I didn’t. But I don’t remember those books, mostly because I was required to do things with them like turn pages and write summaries. (Thus fell Johnny Tremain.)

I read quickly now, usually because I must, but sometimes because I might not get another chance. Go, go, before they find you, read before the light fades and the leaves cool and you no longer see the ground beneath the branches.

But when you learned to read inside the pit of a giant peach, on the porch at Villa Villa Kula, thumbing your nose at Bokonon, “reading fast” tends to fade. Increasingly, defiantly, I am reading slowly again. Outside. In the company of trees.

Maybe that’s what reading has always been for those of us who love it: A quiet rebellion against a world determined to call us inside, too soon, for supper.

writing through grief with laura geringer bass

Laura Geringer Bass carries a stack of printed cards in her bag — writing prompts inspired by her middle grade novel “The Girl With More Than One Heart.”

“Hurricane”

“You are my Rock”

“Breathe Blue”

Each card stands on its own, but each one also references a theme or scene from the book in which fourteen-year-old Briana’s father has died. Suddenly Briana has two hearts — her own and her “Dad heart,” which speaks to her in her grief.

It’s a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the unexpected power of those writing prompts.

After listening to the gentle brilliance of Laura Geringer Bass at the South Dakota Festival of Books, it means something that she wants to give you a writing prompt. She understands “The Girl With More Than One Heart” has opened a door within you and beyond that door, your own story is waiting to be told.

She wants to help you tell it.

The author joined me on “In the Moment” for a radio interview. I visited her again at the festival in Brookings, where I heard her speak about mentors in her life.

By the end of our time together, Laura had gifted me two cards — two writing prompts to take home.

“You Are My Rock” and “Breathe Blue.”

What she couldn’t have known, was that I had a secret: There was one card in the pile I didn’t want to look at. I was afraid of it.

“I Miss My Dad.”

Of course, as is the way of these things, this became the card that stayed with me, even though I didn’t physically possess it.

I miss my Dad I miss my Dad I miss my Dad.

Just as Briana is surprised by the presence of her Dad heart, I am often surprised by the ways in which grief sneaks up on me. He’s been gone four years now. He never heard me on the radio. I’d like to think he would have listened, but I’m honestly not sure.

You see my father, more than anyone in my life, could get irritated with my relentless desire to ask just one more question. Maybe he would have found the idea of asking questions for a living amusing.

I like to think he’d also be proud of the work we do on public radio. But one of the consistent surprises of grief is how often I don’t know what he would have thought and how painful that can be.

Like most of us, my dad was always changing. New information and new relationships would inform his opinions and ideas, sometimes drastically.

He changed. Our relationship changed. And then it didn’t because one of us was gone.

Laura Geringer Bass reminded me that writing about grief can have enormous value. I don’t have a “Dad heart,” but I do have a writing prompt.

I sit down with my notebook and begin. “I miss my Dad …”

The next words appear in my journal without the realization that I have written them:

“I miss you too.”

We write back and forth like this, my father and I, for some time.

Perhaps I have a Dad heart after all, waiting in my notebook all this time.

Thank you, Laura. You are my rock.

Here’s my conversation with Laura Geringer Bass on “In the Moment” on SDPB Radio.

For your own copy of writing prompts from “The Girl With More Than One Heart,” click here. 

For more about Laura Geringer Bass, click here. 

 

 

has writing become a luxury?

I haven’t “updated” my blog substantially for more than year now. A new job and slightly revised life has turned my focus elsewhere, often for the best.

And yet.

There was a time when I called myself a writer, mostly because I could. When people ask these days (they rarely do, it’s a question that seems to have gone out of style) I tell them I’m a radio host and journalist. Sometimes, through the flow of conversation, I reveal I used to be a writer. And lately I’ve been troubled by what that mini-confession says about the condition of my soul.

“I used to be a writer” is a fairly straight-forward way to express my transition from writer-paycheck to public-broadcasting-paycheck. It’s not a transition I regret or plan to undo. I adore hosting “In the Moment” on SDPB Radio. I love the deep conversations. I love the rhythm of thoughtful pursuit of truth and connection. I love the moment when the headphones block out the rest of the world and it’s just me and a guest and the listener, unseen. Magic.

But I admit there are days when I feel I am slowly relinquishing one of the finest parts of myself — the part willing to spend a few blissful hours crafting a more beautiful sentence.

Before you remind me (and oh, how people love to remind me) I do write for work. Every day. But at work I write quickly, fervently even, in order to dodge the tumbling boulders of daily deadlines. Stand still and you are crushed. At work I become the writerly waterbug, skipping along the surface, never pausing long enough to descend into the cold abyss.

I’ve created some good work this way, and it’s taught me much about focus. But I find that no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, something is missing.

And then, earlier this week, I found myself puzzling over a decision. I received an email reminding me to update the annual payment for my blog before deactivation.

Update or delete?

Refocus or allow this online presence to fade into the Internet oblivion graveyard?

Write or wither?

As you may have surmised by now … I have decided to write.

(No, I’m not changing anything about my actual job. My “In the Moment” focus is stronger than ever. I’m just refocusing my personal time to include more writing.)

There are days I look at this blog and realize there isn’t much here. A few scattered thoughts on a life well lived. A middling online scrapbook. It could be so much more than it already is. It needs to be so much more than it already is.

Other days I discover, in previous posts, glimpses of the person I was sending messages to the person I am today. I am deeply grateful for her. Perhaps today I am writing for my future self. Perhaps I’m writing for you. Perhaps this correspondence is enough.

We don’t need our creative expectations to be set even higher than our professional expectations. Expectations are already too high. What we need — what I need, at least — is simply the time and the permission to slow down and enjoy the scratching of pen on paper, the swooshing of paint on canvas, the clicking of a camera shutter.

Permission granted, if only for a little while longer.

 

raising a child with Ursula LeGuin

We discovered Ursula LeGuin’s “Catwings” when my daughter, Jane, was quite young. She was drawn to the book’s cover with its detailed art that hinted winged cats were the most natural creatures in the world. Since one of the books in the series featured a black cat named Jane, we wanted to read them all.

That realism mattered a great deal. You held “Catwings” in your hand and entered the story before turning the cover. The color palette was melancholy, promising delicate stories about delicate lives. On the other hand, as delightful as cats with wings might be, there was part of you that didn’t want them to exist. You knew — even children knew — such creatures were at risk in a world such as ours.

It’s a classic anthropomorphic motif: Small animals make their way in the world, encountering cruelty and stumbling upon protection, struggling through misunderstanding and learning to accept affection. This is what it means to be a child, of course. Every adult you meet has the potential to harm you or heal you in ways you have yet to imagine.

While it is true that children identify with the vulnerable, shy-yet-adventurous cats (All the better that these cats are unique and misunderstood; so is the reader!) it is also true that children see the cats (simultaneously, this is no contradiction) as “other.”

The Catwings do not inhabit a fantasy place. They pad and flutter about in our place — a place with car exhaust and barking dogs and honking horns and stomping feet. Readers recognize what we have created and see it as it is, especially to those encountering it for the first time.

Noisy. Confusing. Dangerous.

Ursula LeGuin isn’t writing about wonder and adventure, though there is plenty of both tucked into the pages of “Catwings.” Ursula LeGuin is writing about empathy.

When cats Thelma, Harriet, James, and Roger at last meet the children, the author lays out an eloquently structured mirroring of thought, word, and action. Cats begin to trust humans and humans process how to be worthy of trust. The children speak to each other about their own responsibility and the importance of secrecy. They are not only inclined toward kindness, they are determined to be kind.

And then, the deeply satisfying final lines:

“Oh Hank,” Susan whispered, “Their wings are furry.”

“Oh James,” Harriet whispered, “Their hands are kind.”

When I read “Catwings” (again and again) to my daughter (she was maybe three or four when we first discovered it) she identified with the cats. She intuitively knew the world beyond our reading chair was a broad, complex place filled with mother owls and rainstorms, as well as shelter from mother owls and rainstorms. She pretended to be a cat — one who could flit away from danger with a flick of feathers.

And yet she knew she was also a child, and so she became watchful. She navigated the world with an eye to the sky in hopes of sighting a flying cat. Her hands were kind — to kittens and to mice, to delicate flowers, to pages of books.

I read “Catwings” aloud to Jane recently, after we heard of LeGuin’s death. At 16, Jane saw an additional allegory, one of refugees and border crossings and the power of compassion. Is that what the book was always about, she wondered. Was that always hiding within the pages?

The best children’s literature features the most sumptuous syntax, the most memorable characters, and the most essential stories of who we are and who we are capable of becoming.

Before she learned Calculus, before she learned Rhetoric, my child curled herself into a ball, leaning in as close to me as she could reasonably get. With this task in hand, she leaned in to every word, and that is how she learned empathy from Ursula LeGuin — one of many children’s authors who do the important work of raising us all.

When this child flies away, she carries this with her.

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

IMG_4314

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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