Category Archives: home

The July of nonfiction and fire escape porches.

I stumbled across a poem by my hero Mary Oliver yesterday, and it’s an interesting place to begin as I think of my summer, and though it wasn’t in my mind yet, these lines encompass the theme of the past two months:

it is a serious thing /just to be alive /on this fresh morning /in the broken world.

{my people}

{my people}

When I teach reading, I tell students to pay attention to the actions of the characters–that they often speak deeply into what’s really going on or what they really need. I booked a ticket to leave New York City the day after school got out. That is exactly where I was mentally and what I needed. To go home and breathe. And, of course, to laugh, eat grilled food, and drink wine.

 

In July I realized that sometimes simply reading to escape is necessary–I disappeared into more than a dozen books and didn’t write about a single one. In a more physical sense, after spending ten days on my parents’ porch, I felt trapped just thinking about my Brooklyn apartment and its lack of one, so I threw caution {the potential $125 fine} to the wind and turned our fire escape into a porch. This mainly involved taking a beach chair out the kitchen window, staring down squirrels, ignoring the jackhammers in the front of the building, and breathing through my mouth to avoid the sour dishwashing air from the restaurant below. BUT. It was outdoor space and I happily spent almost every morning reading nonfiction on it: Long Life by Mary Oliver, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre.

{my "porch"}

{my “porch”}

The threads I began to see in these books was the value of pausing to create meaning from the world around me. I often pause to create meaning from the books I’m reading, but it was like I needed the fiction to remain an escape and to start reflecting on, interpreting, and being more. So, I unintentionally took a writing sabbatical and found myself joining my husband in making art on our coffee table, pursuing meditation, and learning how to play chess (and, let’s be real, watching Major Crimes and two seasons of The Americans). I got to the beach and to the woods with a dear friend. I wandered the city with Daniel.

Interestingly, on one of my last July mornings on the porch (August brought a week intensive class at Columbia, traveling, and now beginning to think about the school year), I found myself looking at the vine-y plants that migrated from the fence below, up the walls of my building and around the fire escape and saw that in order to climb, they shoot out these tiny arms which wrap themselves around anything nearby. I realized that my time in July was just that: reaching for the truths to sustain my spirit. Here are some of the ones that stayed with me:

“Where have these moments of reflection gone in our modern lives? Certainly not to the radio or television that we turn on as soon as we get home, or the screens that enslave us. Rather than being ways of ‘taking our minds off things,’ these actions, particularly when they become reflexes, stop our minds being rooted–the exact opposite of what reflection is all about.” (Looking at Mindfulness, page 93)

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.” (The Faraway Nearby, page 4)

[The earth’s] intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them. For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” (Long Life, page 25)

It always seems to comes back to Mary Oliver: that though the world is broken, it is certainly beautiful. And there is meaning to be made.

Feeling September-ish. Or, how Over the Rhine reinvigorated my life last weekend.

This post switched directions a number of times as I wrote it this morning.  There are just a lot of big ideas swirling in my brain this week about music and art and words.  The short version is that music and lyrics breathe life into us.  If you want to take the long way around, read on.

Perfection, to me, often involves traveling with the right kind of music.  In college, I drove on State Route 73 in southwest Ohio at least three times a week.  Most of the time it was early evening when the light softens or at night–and out there you can see so many stars because Oxford, Ohio is surrounded by farmland.  Since I was in Oxford from September-May, these drives often were accompanied by open windows and the heat on my feet.  And of course, the right kind of playlist.  My car became a sanctuary of sorts that allowed me to have time and space to think by myself and my music–the 5 inch binder of CD options–was what spoke to me.  I’m realizing looking back just how important those moments of listening to music and lyrics was to my mental and emotional health.  Those were the days when music like Over The Rhine and Ryan Adams and Patty Griffin were brand new to me.  I heard Bela Fleck’s Big Country for the first time.  The Dixie Chicks threw some attitude into my country music and Nickel Creek pulled me into bluegrass.

Since moving to New York ten years ago, my rhythms with music have changed considerably, mostly because one can’t take the subway and look out on farmland at the same time.  Ten falls ago I walked with my tea to the Hudson River at Riverside Park seeking healing from homesickness and took the music that felt like home, namely the OTR’s Ohio album.  When I moved downtown my river walks and runs changed me along with Iron and Wine and Sufjan Stevens and of course Drunkard’s Prayer.  When I moved to Brooklyn, I commuted by foot and rotated The Head and the Heart, Fleet Foxes, Alicia Keys, Miranda Lambert through the streets of my neighborhood, along with a heavy dose of The Long Surrender.

Last March I moved out of the apartment I lived in by myself into one a stone’s throw from work. It took me five months to realize that music wasn’t playing in the way it once was.  Luckily, this realization came right before a new school year started, and therefore is helping to set the tone for this new season of my life.  September is essentially my new years, after all.  I was lucky enough to escape to Cape Cod during the four days before school started and poetically, Over the Rhine just released their latest album. I knew that to appreciate it fully I needed to hear it not just while doing dishes in my apartment, but away from the city.  I had just read an article about their writing process and learned that my life-line song on their last album was inspired by one of my favorite poets, Adam Zagajewski.  I also read how one of the new songs was inspired by Anne Lamott.  It all seemed too perfect a way to start a new year of teaching reading and writing–and to be reflective and writerly along the way.

So, I was with kindred music listeners.   We put it on as soon as we got past anything that felt like city life, and my ability to breathe deeply coincided with Karin Berquist’s voice and Linford Detweiler’s piano and the rapid increase in trees outside my window.  That was when I was reminded of driving on 73 in my home state–where the music and the lyrics hit you right where they need to and your lungs can fill with air again.

So all weekend, on near empty beaches, with coffee and Bailey’s, and in a hooded sweatshirt I listened to Meet Me At the Edge of the World and felt whole and at home.

Childhood Favorites Post #1: Nostalgia in Bridge to Terabithia

All summer, I will be making my way through seven “childhood favorites” that I’m reading in preparation for my first unit in the fall. Luckily, this is the kind of work that I am more than happy to do. Bear with me, wait for adult books in between, or be inspired to pick up one of your favorites.

Bridge to Terabithia is a story about a boy with 4 sisters, a boy who feels misunderstood, a boy who wishes he were brave.  It is a story about friendship and imagination.  But most, for me, Bridge to Terabithia is a book of nostalgia.

I can’t put my finger on the moment that I couldn’t pretend anymore, but I do remember bring sixteen, baby sitting, and realizing that the magic of imagination and pretend had slipped away years before and I hadn’t even realized it.  It is a visceral realization of growing up.

As I read about Jess and Leslie creating their imaginary kingdom of Terabithia in the woods near their houses, I could think only about the worlds I created for myself in the woods across the street from my house, the places I made in our unfinished basement…and being able to physically will myself to believe it all for hours on end.  While I was reading, Jess and Leslie became kindred spirits.

They were moved by beauty, the feeling of fullness and wanting it to last forever: “They took turns swinging across the gully on the rope.  It was a glorious autumn day, and if you looked up as you swung, it gave you the feeling of floating. Jess leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky.  He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue.”

When I was younger, summer nights were the greatest.  All of the kids in my neighborhood would be running through our adjoining backyards, soaking up every last shred of daylight and catching lightning bugs into the twilight. Even though I knew there would always be another summer evening with cool grass beneath my feet and the smell of trees and creek and corn in the air, my heart broke when night finally came and we all had to go inside.  I spent many evenings after bed time with my face pressed against the screen, trying to breathe in the evening air for as long as possible.

They felt the need to create sacred spaces: “This is not an an ordinary place,” she whispered.  “Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or greatest joy.  We must strive to keep it sacred. It would not do to disturb the Spirits.”

Once in college, a few friends of mine and I found ourselves in an enormous grove of pine trees that were planted a hundred years ago in straight lines spanning for hundreds of yards.  Without even thinking, my friend Erin and I started sprinting down the aisle of trees…running and jumping seemed the only proper response to such a scene: we were so utterly joyful that merely starring at it all wasn’t enough.  My friend Matt took a picture of this pre-digital photography and caught us both in midair. It was in a frame for years and below it I pasted the quote: “Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia.”

This happened again when I went to England with two kindred and we saw true English countryside for the first time.  We just couldn’t believe that it existed in real life the same way we had pictured it in our minds in all our favorite books. I do have physical proof of our giddiness:

When the tragedy is revealed at the end and Jess’ horrid sister tells him blatantly, it literally plunged my heart like a dagger, even though I knew all along what was coming.  Jess and Leslie are just too kindred for it to not hurt like crazy.  It is the moment that the magic makes the first break: where it’s impossible to be completely immersed in imagination. But. It doesn’t mean that it no longer exists.

Bits of the magic come back to me sometimes and remind me that the world is enchanted.  Most of the time it’s when the eastern woodlands smell like Ohio.  Some of the time it’s when the sun is setting and the light is perfectly orange and the shadows purple.  Sometimes I feel again athe essence of my heart aching because of all that is beautiful and good. And real.

Soundtrack for this book for me:
Pacific Street/Hem
Why Should I Cry for You/Sting
All At Sea/Jamie Cullum
Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own/U2
Yellow/Coldplay

Finally beginning to feel at home.

Let us look for secret things
somewhere in the world,
on the blue shore of silence
or where the storm has passed,
rampaging like a train.
-Pablo Neruda, from “Forget About Me”


It’s funny how life changes affect your ordinary rhythms of life. I started selling my furniture on craigslist in mid February, and since then I have felt like a bit of a nomad. As much as I think I would sometimes like to be a wandering traveler, the truth is that the concept of home is one of my anchors in life: whether it is the house I grew up in and its Bradford Pear trees and hill in the front, or my family’s weekend rituals Saturday eggs and toast and newspaper reading, or my need to have a space carved out in my apartment that reminds me of the things I love and who I am.

It took me a full two years of living in New York City to feel ready to commit to it as home; to stop thinking about where I was going to be the next year and to let some of my newer roots reach out and grasp onto life here.  The trouble is that I’m living in my 5th apartment in New York, my second in Brooklyn.  Each time I’ve moved, I have attempted to make my new space feel like home as quickly as possible, my current studio is no different. Today is the first weekend morning where I have sat down to engage in my old rhythms that make me feel at home: making tea, listening to good music, reading and writing.  It’s funny how it makes me feel like a person again and how these small little things finally make me feel at home.

I wrote about this nearly a month ago: looking forward to when I would be able to start the rhythms that keep me sane anew.  This week I made it to Prospect Park a few times in the evening to “look for the secret things in the world,” as Neruda would say, to find the things that move my heart.   Because sometimes it feels like a storm has passed and nothing of beauty avails, but. When I open my eyes and breathe and look for the secret things, I find them. And breathe deeply.