Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Helping Others ... Or Not.

A week ago I signed up to volunteer with the Minnesota Experience Corps, helping little kids struggling to learn to read. Many come from families in poverty or families suffering some other kind of trauma. It looks like a good, solid, effective program.

Today I called to withdraw my application. I’m not ready to donate my time, and I’m not ready to “help others.” For too long, “helping others” has meant giving what I refuse to give myself.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

My Father, My Art

Sometime in my early teens, I did a pencil drawing of our first dog Duke, whom my father loved.  Duke was a boxer--ears and tail cropped in the fashion of the day. The story is that, when we were little, he let us ride on his back.

My father was living with his second wife and four stepchildren.  When I gave him the picture of Duke, he laughed: “I didn’t even know you could draw.”

I felt ashamed. How stupid of me to want praise and gratitude. Instead he told me what I already knew: He didn’t see me. He didn’t know me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

My Mother, My Art

Once, as a teen, I was rooting around behind the basement staircase. I stumbled across a set of vinyl 45s in yellowed paper sleeves. I walked across the room and opened the lid of the record player, pressed the record down on the spindle and carefully dropped the needle. It was my mothers’ voice, both distant and warm, as if were flowing down a copper tube. They were torch songs from the 30s and 40s, smoky, tremulous. I felt I had stumbled on something almost illicit, a mother I had never known. But when I mentioned the recordings to her, she shrugged. “I wasn’t very good,” she said.

Looking backwards through that long copper tube, there’s a mother I can see only dimly. When Renee and I were toddlers, she dressed us in ruffled pink dresses with tiny matching umbrellas. She staged photos of us in blue satin dresses she’d sewn herself. She baked elaborate cakes: an Easter bunny with coconut fur and a gumdrop nose. She made tiny clothes for our Barbies: a lacy wedding dress, a blue chiffon ball gown, shorts and tops for Skipper. She put wine-colored votive candles inside of cinder blocks and placed the blocks near the front window: the pink glow of the flames reflected on the snow. She played the “The Good Ship Lollipop” (we all admired Shirley Temple) on the piano as the three of us marched around the room singing. She did what women did in those days: cooking and sewing and decorating the home, elevating the children with culture.

But at some point it all stopped. Her copper colored hair went from luxurious rolls to the tight perm she would keep for the rest of her life. Her face grew angular, her body flattened rather than filled out. When did it begin? When my father proved both cruel and unable to keep a job? After my father left, when she had three teenage girls to raise on her own? Or even earlier, a result of the belief that she shared with the culture at large: that a mother’s duty is to sacrifice herself?

By the time I started playing the piano, singing in our high school chorus, taking ballet, sewing dresses for myself, she had let most of these activities go. She grew sheepish when I asked her to play the piano, though I knew her natural talent was far greater than mine. When she remarried, this time to a born-again Christian, she accompanied him on his visits to homebound church members, his volunteer work at the hospice. Her new husband encouraged her to join the church’s bell choir, so she did, her contribution relegated to a single note here and there.

Now, I struggle with my desire to do both writing and art. It feels selfish, doing what pleases only myself.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Climate Change: The End of Days?

Climate change. The news isn’t good. Drought, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. It’s nearly biblical, like the end of days. Wars and rumors of wars …

Is it the end of days? Shocking to think of the earth as a simple planet, the sun as a star burning itself out. Even worse to think we humans could annihilate life on earth by our own actions, and far sooner than we had hoped.

I once counted on the succession of seasons: fall winter spring summer. I could rely on their regular beginnings and endings, their temperature highs and lows, their snow totals and wind chills and heat indexes and pollen counts. Now it’s all mixed up. Summer came too soon, the heat soaring in early June instead of late August. My allergies acted up in August, not June. We’ve had so much rain in Minnesota that our rivers took nearly a month to subside from flood stage.

I feel vulnerable, shaky. I’ve relied on nature to anchor me. Now even the ground moves at my feet.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Self-less, Self-ish, Self-full

The money is leaking away. I have to go back to teaching. But when I imagine myself in front of the classroom, I feel empty, wordless. How will I do it?

My stepfather was a born-again Christian. But he didn’t buy the new-age platitude that one could simply wait for God to provide. No, he went to work every day for 40 years, a clerk in the US Post Office. Did he love his job? You wouldn’t think so. He was intelligent, well-read, capable. But he had a “servant’s heart.” He did whatever God told him to, he said. And he did it with joy and humility. When they wanted to promote him to supervisor, he refused. I want to stay with the men, he answered.

Is this an answer for me? To do whatever God asks, with joy and humility? Today I simply don’t know. I only know that the thought of having to do any work that distracts from my writing and art feels like a punch to the gut.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Writing, Not-Writing

Today writing feels like peering into a Magic Eight Ball: words and phrases appear and disappear. None of them stick.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Surviving the Soup

I never saw myself as a visual artist … but drawing has been the teacher that returned me to writing. It taught me to be a beginner again, to embrace not-knowing, non-competence, risk, foolishness, play, unconcern for outcome.

It also taught me to see the shapes and colors of the world with a new sensitivity to their exquisite beauty. It taught me to understand that what we think we see is only a pattern of light and shadow that we read as face or ball or box.

Maybe our other senses--like touch--trick us into experiencing a solid world that doesn’t exist.
You’d think this idea would be profoundly disturbing. But when I no longer insist that the world I perceive is “real”—when I choose to simply observe the play of images and thoughts and feelings and sensations moving across the screen of my mind, my focus shifts ever deeper, into a place of perfect joy.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019


The monarch butterfly is the classic symbol of transformation. But there’s more to the story than what we’ve been told. First, the caterpillar doesn’t just hang itself upside down and wait for metamorphosis to begin. It hangs, but curls its head upward, wriggles, heaves, pulsates with fierce muscular contractions. Its outer skin peels away from the newly forming shell of the chrysalis, like the spirit peeling off from a dying body.

Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar literally digests itself. It dissolves into a soup of its component molecules and atoms. Then, says the old story, it miraculously rearranges those disparate atoms into a newborn, fully functioning butterfly.

The reality isn’t quite so simple. Long before the caterpillar glues itself upside down to a twig, it begins life inside an egg. It’s already equipped with the information that will guide its later restructuring, stored in clusters of cells called “imaginal discs.” I love this term. It refers to the “imago,” the final, adult form in the life cycle of certain insects. But the term also suggests “imagination,” that capacity to envision something that does not yet exist.

These imaginal discs do not succumb to the soup—they persist through it and feed on it to sustain rapid and prolific cell replication. Each disc develops into a specific organ or structure, and these link to form the new butterfly body. Even more amazing: the new butterfly “remembers” its past. Scientists have designed experiments in which they teach a caterpillar an aversion to a specific stimulus—for example, attaching a mild electrical shock to the color red. They are able to demonstrate that the newly formed butterfly retains that aversion—that some parts of the caterpillar’s neural network appear to persist through the soup.

I like the idea of the persistence of memory. It’s reassuring, when I’m in the soup. I hope I too have tucked away imaginal discs, capable of building a self that does not yet exist, yet holds the memory of its former life.

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Forging the Second Self: A memoir in progress.

Forging the Second Self: Post-Teaching, Post-Mothering, Post-Midlife: Who Will I Be Now? Part I.: Who Am I Now? When I see myself a...