Monday, July 25, 2016

In search of beauty



A couple of weeks ago the tenor in the household was ... shrill.

It was around 5 o'clock (always a challenging time of day). The girls were exhausted, but paradoxically, were racing around the house screaming at high pitches, bumping into things, crying about bumping into things, recovering, and then screaming, running, bumping and crying some more.  But then we were gifted with this tropical shower -- you know when it's sunny and the rain comes down in millions of fat drops and it seems as if diamonds are pouring from the sky. 

"Put on your shoes, girls! We're going for a walk!"

They protested because it was rainy. And because it was hot. And because it would be so boring. And the walk would take forever.

I ignored it all.

We trekked outside as the rain ebbed, I scanned the sky for magic. 

"Girls! Look! A rainbow!"

Their whines and groans transformed into oohs and ahhs. They jumped in puddles and came home better versions of themselves. We all did.

Being outside, being in the natural world (even if it's just the natural world creeping up between all the little brick ramblers and cape cods in our little neighborhood next to the interstate) – being here is transformative. 

I've been thinking about that this week – nature's ability to calm and soothe us. To minimize massive worries. To give us the chance to marvel and wonder from a very deep, primitive place.

Then, of course, we are part of nature. All things that are not human-made, are right? As much as we'd like to believe we owe our existence to ourselves, it's just not the case. We are borne from the same place as trees and butterflies and rainbows, even.

Returning to nature is going home. 

I've been ruminating on the nature of beauty, too. And the beauty of nature. How nature is always beckoning us to look closer, enticing us with these little jeweled gifts. The obvious ones like the perfect, endless symmetry of cornflowers and the ethereal grace of a swallowtail. But in less obvious places, too. The dried husk of an allium flower. The iridescent wings of a crow. or the intricate lace of the earth frozen solid.


We are desperate for this beauty, I think. 

On the ledge of the kitchen sink I keep a collection of small things I've found outside. Little pine cones, a starfish and bouquets of chicken feathers the girls and I gather at the barn. Our black-eyed susan's and coneflowers are in bloom right now and last week the girls handed me a bundles of them (roots and all), which I trimmed down and stuck in a miniature vase my mom gave me for such occasions. 

The trouble is, this new cat we have has a thing for flowers, well, and feathers for that matter. He's knocked over my bouquet at least five times. And each time I stubbornly refuse to give up on my flowers. This is their time to bloom and I want it to last as long as it can. 

"God damn cat!" I yelled at Pretzel last week as he knocked over the flowers yet again, breaking this beautiful soap dish my parents gave me yet again (thank god for Gorilla glue).

"He's not a damn cat!" Lily admonished me. 

She's right. He's just a cat being a cat. Just like me, seduced by green things. 

I told her I shouldn't have said what I said. And that damn (though used in context!) was not a particularly nice word. And that roping God into it wasn't especially kind either.

Nature and beauty are only good for us when we don't covet it. It's for all of us. Even Pretzel the cat.

I think this is why I seek out the farm. Why I never dread waking up on frigid winter mornings or hazy, humid summer mornings to pick stalls and wrangle fussy pigs. There, nature explodes. It's bunnies hopping across the lane and red-winged black birds whistling in the rain garden and barn swallows swooping around the rafters and geese splash landing in the pond. It's all varieties of fauna sprouting from the refuse of the barn. It's the smell of hay and even the smell of manure and the mumbling of chickens punctuated by the melodies of songbirds. It's all the little surprises -- tiny mushrooms sprouting outside Pete's stall and a toad holed up in the pile of sawdust. 



There's such wealth here. And it's shared wealth, you know? There's enough for all of us to partake and to celebrate.

Sometimes I feel as if humans are much too proud of how separated we are from nature. You know first we harnessed fire, then we figured out the wheel and then there was electricity down the road from that. Our frontal lobes forever solving problems that further separate us from ourselves and from the world around us.

I'm not ungrateful for all the things that have allowed us to live these comfortable lives. This week I'm especially grateful for things like central air conditioning, for Nick Jr., which allowed me to sleep in a little this morning and for the internet, even, which allows me to share my ideas and soak in the beautiful ideas of others with ease. 

It's when we allow our ability to create all these amazing machines to justify our dominion and superiority over nature and each other, that I feel wary. I'd much rather be a steward to this place, you know? 

Yesterday, I drove up to State College for a lovely day with friends. Route 322 west of Harrisburg takes you between these tall ridges near the Susquehanna and Juanita rivers. It's a beautiful drive, and one that makes you feel a little slight. I started thinking about how small I felt, and then I thought about how on the scale of Pennsylvania, a little two-hour road trip through some tired old mountains wasn't all that significant. And that on the scale of the U.S. stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic with much larger mountains in between, it was even less significant. And that on the scale of the Earth ranging from Everest to the Marianas Trench, well, I was kind of like an ant trying to scale a modest-sized rock. Here I was, this little speck swallowed by this massive planet.

Before I started mentally spinning out into the cosmos, I grounded myself. "You are part of all of this," I told myself. Because we are. And we all serve and Earthly purpose. And also, I think, a universal purpose. 

We are both significant and insignificant at once. Both the ant and the colossus at any given moment.

My Dad and I were emailing back and forth a bit about our mutual fascination with the universe. Dad's a kinda retired aerospace engineer who enjoys reading up on particle physics, dark matter and quantum mechanics in his spare times. So his understanding of the universe is a bit more expansive than my own. I love his explanation for why he is so passionate about the topic:
"My interest in the universe is that I think understanding it allows us to understand more of the creator. The amazing attention to the tiniest detail when working in such large dimensions is far beyond our capacity so I think that the more we slowly learn about it we come closer to looking into the eye of the Lord. (Compare the elaborate detail of the DNA structure in cells to the massive planets that orbit the sun - the large and small are finished to elaborate detail and perfection in order to work as they do)."
I heard something recently about how beauty is a core moral value in Islam. ... OK, OK, yes, it was something else from "On Being." (Yes, I'm obsessed.) In an interview shortly after 9/11, Muslim jurist and author Khaled Abou El Fadl shared his thoughts:
"Beauty is to fall in love with God, to fall in love with the Word of God, with the Qur'an, to read it and to feel that it peels away layers of obfuscation that I have spent numerous times building around myself. Beauty is to look around me and fully understand and feel, therein is God, in all that I see around me — and to understand my place in this, that I am integral as God's viceroy, as God's agent on this Earth, like everyone else. And at the same time, that I am wonderfully irrelevant."
So here we are in this place today. So desperately in need of the beauty that is right here in front of us if we only look up from our screens and outside of our own experience. The beauty that will bring us closer to our creator (or Creator) and closer to each other. 

Look up. Look up. 

You will find rainbows.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Finding the Light One Weird Moment at a Time

Photo courtesy of Nigel Howe/Flickr

So, I don't know if you've stopped by the internet recently, but man. It's not pretty.

And it's not so pretty, it seems, outside the confines of pixels and bytes. The real world  feels as if it's caught on fire. Or maybe it's that the embers of old aches have been stirred and stoked into a growing inferno.

It's been a rough week for black Americans (you know, relatively speaking). And a rough week for law enforcement (also relatively speaking). A rough week all around for America.

I've felt this pall of hopelessness blanketing my shoulders. In conversations with friends and family, there's this sense of paralysis. Like we hate what's happening, we yearn for change. But we have no idea where to begin.

Where do we begin with this mess?

I circle around this question multiple times a day. Every time I read the next piece of commentary. Hear the next piece of bad news. 

How can I help clean up this mess? 

I come back to the idea of healing the world that touches me.

And I come back to love.

The problems feel massive. And the solutions. What are the solutions? There seem too many or too few to count.

In order to avoid getting poisoned by the venom of despair and lulled into depression and inaction. I cling to this idea that what I can do doesn't have to be huge. It doesn't have to change the world in one sitting. 

Healing the world is like raising children. It's ongoing. It's unending. It's all the time. 

You invest your heart and energy tackling these menial, sometimes infuriating tasks day in and day out. Repeating the same lessons and the same lines over and over again for  years and years  "We must be kind to one another." "We must treat people who we want to be treated." "

We must be kind." 

"We must be kind."

And the fruits of your labor come in the smallest of moments. When your daughter insists we pick up an extra cookie for her sister at home or when your kids start picking up trash in the park unbidden, acting as if they're on the world's greatest treasure hunt.

It's not as if I don't have designs for grander gestures, for making bigger impacts. I look at changing the world as building muscle mass. Right now is about strength training. How many times can I connect with people – friends, neighbors or strangers – in a meaningful, genuine way?

Even if it's just eye contact and a smile at the checkout. 

Even if it's just making sure to say hi (or at least smile) to everyone (and I do mean everyone) I pass in a day. 

Even if it's finding more opportunities for silliness in the world – letting the girls ride the cursed car cart at the Home Depot and racing it through the parking lot making engine noises, dancing and singing at the top of my lungs while we're stuck in traffic on the Baltimore beltway. 

It's not much. Not really. But I've always appreciated public displays of goofiness. It reminds me of the lightness of life. The joys of being a living, sentient being on this beautiful Earth. It reminds me to be lighter. To be light. When I witness this in other people it helps my soul float. And it makes me want to be more glow-y in turn. To spread the light. 

I know how all this sounds. It's a little, let's be honest, hokey. A little Kumbaya. I don't mean to make trivialize anything. 

I know just being nice and a little weirder than normal, won't be the thing that solves the issues plaguing us today. I'm not naive.

But it's something I can do now in the life I'm living. And by doing it I don't feel so powerless. By doing it I feel as if I'm becoming stronger.

In "Big Magic," Elizabeth Gilbert shares this story:

"I have a friend who's a nun who has spent her entire life working to help the homeless of Philadelphia. She is something close to a living saint. She is a tireless advocate for the poor and the suffering and the lost and the abandoned. And do you know why her charitable outreach is so effective? Because she likes doing it. Because it's enjoyable for her. Otherwise it wouldn't work. Otherwise it would just be hard duty and grim martyrdom. But Sister Mary Scullion is no martyr. She's a cheerful soul who's having a wonderful time living out the existence that best suits her nature and most brings her to life. It just so happens she takes care of a lot of other people in the process – but everyone can see her genuine enjoyment behind the mission, which is ultimately why her presence is so healing."

So what is it that you enjoy doing? And how can you share that light without feeling like a martyr to your cause. Without feeling overwhelmed by what you haven't done?


***

A month or so ago I was taking a walk with the girls down my street.

One of my neighbors drove passed, turned around in their driveway and came back to us.

They told me there was a shady looking man wandering around on the next block. They wanted to give me a heads up in case I wanted to change direction.

We'd never really interacted with these neighbors other than to wave or say, "Trick or treat."

They live on the opposite side of the street from us, a few doors down.

I was so touched by their gesture.

How they looked out for the girls and me. Strangers, really.

I thought I'd bake cookies for them to say thank you. But then I thought it might be weird. 

This weekend I thought about my neighbors again. They're one of the only black families living on my block. Which feels like a funny thing to type ... because, well, we're supposed to be colorblind or something? I guess that isn't really working out for us anyway ... but there you have it. 

They have a son, Harold, who's 17. I met him one day while he was walking to his job at the grocery store near our house. I offered him a ride because I was heading over there. He was soft spoken (or maybe he just thought I was weird ... and too chatty. Both of which are true). 

I thought about how terrifying it must be to be Harold's parents  – Harold's mother – with the siege of headlines today. 

I decided to bake some cookies. I told Brad I was going to drop them off at the neighbors with a thank you note. And he gave me this knowing smile.

I pressed him on it. And he gently suggested that I keep the interaction simple.

See, because he could sense the monologue I would've delivered to this family about how sorry I was about the past week. About how, while I couldn't understand what it was like to be black in America today, I did understand what it was like to be a parent and worry about the safety of your children. How I wanted to help things get better. 

It would've been too much. My nice neighbors didn't need to be burdened by my guilt, my worry I think. 

So I just wrote a simple note thanking them for their kindness ... apologizing for the delay ... and dropped it off with their daughter. Chocolate chip cookies probably taste better with gratitude than with awkward interactions with that weird neighbor down the street.

I hope, anyway, that the door was opened for more conversations down the road.


***
Finally, this week, I kind of felt like I wanted to add some silliness to the internet. 

First, the funniest book I've read in a long time, "The day The Crayons Came Home," by Drew Dawalt and Oliver Jeffers. 

For those of you who don't know, I hate peas. It's not just that I hate them, they make me vomit if I eat too many. So I try not to eat too many. It felt like a major victory when I read this part and found that I'm not alone:





And then Lily. Who is wonderful and ridiculous and who has been known to steal my phone and take numerous selfies.



Embrace your weird, goofy selves. The world will be better for it.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Diving back in



Children in the water are such happy, ridiculous little things. Splashing and spitting and sputtering all slippery and floppy. Their teeth chatter as they insist they aren't cold, because they suspect that if they get out there's a chance they might not be allowed to get back in again. And that would be the absolute worst. So the only solution is to stay in forever. Practicing flips and suffering the stinging, wavy vision of water-logged goggles that pull at their hair and make that bone behind their ears ache. 

There are so few things I would tolerate as an adult that children tolerate for the love of swimming. They'll put up with all manners of discomfort in order to remain buoyant and wet. It's kind of like parenthood, in a way. Accepting all the minor annoyances – the ears filled with water, the snot trails, the goosebumps, the hair that's impossible to comb – dealing with all these things for the opportunity to experience childhood all over again. It's always surprising. Always evolving. The joys here and gone like the tiny, blinking fireflies you chase after you've dried off.

I used to be the person who jumped in first. Not worrying about the cold or how terrible the bathing suit looks or that I'm the sole mom in the water because at some point it was decided that only dads got in the pool. 

How did that become the normal? 

I want to be brave enough to be the mom flipping and splashing and flopping around in the water. 

The last day at the beach when the waves were so big, Lily begged me to dive into one. 

"Do a flip in a wave, Mom!" Her eyes were so big and glittering – like if I did that one thing I would be her hero. The mermaid mom. I did it for her that one time. And because the waves were coming so fast again and again -- I got worried I might not be able to get back to the beach just yards away -- so the adventure became more about the return than the moment.

I just started reading Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic: Creating Living Beyond Fear." I've been avoiding creative living for this precise reason. Fear. And I have to say it's been really nice not having the pressure of "that novel I'm working on" crashing down on me wave after wave. Of course, it's also rather empty and kind of disappointing, too. I'm letting myself down. 

But not letting myself down and addressing my right brain all over again feels so daunting. Like releasing a box of butterflies into your home and marveling at how beautiful your living room looks until you remember that butterflies don't belong in living rooms and all the sudden you have to gather them all up for fear that they'll die or that you'll wake up in the middle of the night, your face covered in butterflies and somehow it's not nearly so charming anymore.

This metaphor might need some work.

The point is, allowing my creative mind to fly free also means I have new responsibilities, too. The caring and feeding of all the little ideas that flutter forth. 

Last time I did this with the hope that one of them would end up being, like, a champion Monarch when, really it ended up just being a Viceroy. A pale imitation. Well, at least according to the (OK rather limited) response I got from literary agents. 

It stung. Like, a lot. If I may introduce some more insect comparisons here, it felt like the time the wheel bug I was rescuing from a spider's web bit my index finger. I will now proceed with great caution (if at all) for any future wheel bug extractions. 

I do miss the magic though. The spark of an idea. The power of epiphany and those cathartic moments that are allowed to exist because they're finally given words and space. This creative void probably should never have been called a void. The stuff of creation is still swarming around in me, I suppose. The void was really the sadness of rejection. The feeling that I wasn't of this community that I'd hungered to be a part of. 

That it was all a dream.

But what are dreams anyway? Sometimes, they're the place where ideas attempt to break through the monotony of every day. And there is so much of that right now – monotony  Treadmilling. No space for dreaming. Though I have allowed plenty of space for excuses. Like the one that I'm getting older and should've already achieved a certain amount of success in order to make it as a writer. 

I just finished reading "Becoming Wise" (so much wisdom). And one piece of wisdom I gleaned from it is that in order to become wise, you can't talk yourself out of embarking on a new adventure. It's about accepting the journey will be both painful and joyful (potentially in equal amounts). But that the joy will help you forget the pain of it and that you will come out on the other side stronger, wiser and truer to yourself.

Like jumping into cold water. 

Where is the little girl who swam until her toes were prunes? 

Better yet, how can I get mermaid mom to dive into some more waves?