Category Archives: other people’s poetry

Feeling alive. Or, thank you Gwen Frostic and Mary Oliver (yet again).

I’ve been wanting to write about one of my favorite parts of summer, and since I just finished making my way through Mary Oliver‘s New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, I figured it was the perfect time. One of the conclusions I’ve come to about maintaining sanity while busy is how necessary it is to slow down and connect with the things that make us feel alive. I’ve written a lot about the stress of my last year (school-year time, not calendar) and the different ways my summer helped me crawl out of that anxiety-ridden time.

In the middle of August I drove some friends to northern Michigan to where one of them has spent time every summer since childhood. The five days of our trip were spent doing all the things I love: driving on country roads with good music, buying copious amounts of produce and cider donuts from road side stands, the sounds of the woods, starring at water, riding in a boat, cooking and drinking wine, and being amazed at nature.

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The Cottage Book Shop, Anna’s boat, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Cherry Republic

One of the highlights was going to the studio of local artist Gwen Frostic, who passed away in 2001, but whose studio has been kept up and running. She created woodblock prints inspired by the landscape around her, and their stunning simplicity was a perfect pairing for my love affair with the words of Mary Oliver; both are inspired by not just nature, but nature’s capacity for healing and reflection.

From “Morning Poem” 

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn't walk away without.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn’t walk away without.

From “Starfish”:

It never grew easy,

but at last I grew peaceful:

all summer

my fear diminished

as they bloomed through the water

like flowers, like flecks

of an uncertain dream,

while I lay on the rocks, reaching

into the darkness, learning

little by little to love

our only world.

A few weeks later, I drove upstate to Windflower Farm for their CSA campout with a dear friend and along the way we ate at my favorite restaurant of all time, dropped in on a show by the inspiring artist Lisa Congdon, and drank up the farmlands around the Hudson River Valley. We spent so much time talking about how it was worth it to go out of our way to see Lisa’s show, and to talk to Maggie at her cafe, and to be with Farmer Ted on his land: being around people who create inspires creation.

Maggie's Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Insert school and grad school starting right after the farm trip. Needless to say, I rareIy had time to slow down and create. I’m tired of this being my story of a school year. When I felt tired, I sat on the couch and tried to catch up on The Good Wife in the name of “relaxation”. Nothing against The Good Wife (you know I love my shows), but even though I was technically relaxing, my soul didn’t feel alive. Thankfully, Daniel and I went on a walk to Prospect Park this morning and talked almost the whole time about art (please look at his work) and cultivating a life that helps create it. I found myself snapping pictures of leaves and trees I wanted to draw. It’s amazing how if I do the things I truly love, my desire to create increases. And in turn, I feel more full. And relaxed. And alive.

So, my goal for this favorite season of my life is to choose to spend time walking to the park or to the river. To not let tiredness or busyness be an excuse for the kind of relaxation that doesn’t really relax in the end. I’ve been reading a lot about the art of attention: being present and noticing the beauty of life around me. Hopefully that will weave its way into it all, too.

Your place in the family of things: picture books and poetry

artist Brian Rea for NYT

artist Brian Rea for NYT, February 26, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning, I read last week’s the Modern Love column in the New York Times and it was one of the most beautiful essays I’ve read in a long time. It is about a mother with an aching teenage daughter, and how she starts putting poems in her shoes from authors (including Mary Oliver, my favorite) who have “been in pain before and struggled to find hope” and put it into words.

This season-semester has been one that feels long and difficult mostly because I signed up for too many graduate school classes at a time where my daily work feels its most challenging.  And because, winter. But I was reminded this week of the difference a good story can make when I read Fox, basically the most poignant picture book ever made, by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks to my 8th graders. They were anxiously, nervously, crazily awaiting the arrival of their high school admittance letters (which are shamefully delivered to school and not home), but we took a period to read this story aloud, talk about developing themes, and in turn talk about life, of course. It was incredible how silent and absorbed and responsive they were to this story about a dog with a missing eye and a bird with a burnt wing.

Last night a dear friend and I were discussing the paralyzing feeling of working with teenagers whose lives feel harder than anything we can imagine (she helps run a mentoring program), and knowing that there’s not a formula or behavior pattern we can teach them that can fix all that’s on their plate. We started thinking of what we can really offer, and I found myself basically reciting Fox to her as we talked over tacos. As my students and I discussed this week, it’s a story of friendship and loyalty, of betrayal and shame, of hope and the courage to face what lies ahead. And as we escaped into the story, our class discussions landed on some beautiful truths about processing hardship, facing mistakes, and building friendships that are rooted for storms. And my friend and I, avid readers with bleeding hearts, were reminded again of the power of story and words.

I’ll end with one of the poems referenced in the Modern Love essay, Wild Geese, one that I happened to listen to Mary Oliver read and discuss in a podcast last week. In what feels like a dreadfully long winter, today I am grateful for writers who remind us we are not alone.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are,

no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

 

 

Reading the Lyrics: Thoughts on a Perfect Concert

In the fall, I wrote about Over the Rhine’s latest album and the way their work has influenced me as a person since college.  In December, my dad sent me an email with a link to a concert: Mary Chapin Carpenter, my first singer-songwriter love, was going to play a selection of songs from her throughout her career with the New York Philharmonic.  I bought tickets immediately and began revisiting all of the songs that have spoken deeply into my understanding of the world since I was twelve.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t experience the ache of beauty and have vivid memories of laying on the brown carpet of my childhood bedroom listening to music for hours, often rewinding the same song repeatedly.  Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t on my radar, though, until I was about 12–the stage when I began to try to really make sense of the world around me.  I had recently started listening to country music (which was where she was initially marketed).  While my future husband was an hour and a half away the exploring the early nineties rap he would later perform for me, I was requesting Trisha Yearwood and Blackhawk CDs for my birthday, and of course expanding my collections member of BMG music club.  Somehow Come On, Come On made its way into my collection and I don’t think I ever fully recovered–and as I sat last Saturday at Lincoln Center I was simply stunned by the beauty of hearing the most important songs of my adolescence played with a full orchestra.  And this is what Carpenter is able to do: craft lyrics that tap into what it feels to be human that can layer within memory and experience and take on new meaning as the years go by.

Unfortunately I was not given a singing voice, but what  listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs and poring over the beautifully crafted lyrics did for me was make me want to write.  I was lucky enough to have the same amazing ELA teacher for all three years of middle school and she pushed me to pursue writing stories and poems, which I did with the kind of adolescent passion I wish I could conjure up now.  I dreamed of crafting lyrics that told the kinds of stories she did–ones that noticed the details other people skipped over like in “Only a Dream” and like John Doe #24, which she wrote after reading a newspaper article about a young black man who was deaf, mute, and later blind who ended up in the Illinois mental health care system in the 1940s.  She made me want to look at the world in a different way, and she still does.

My dad and I have always shared a love a music and my childhood weekend memories are colored by the music he played from the room below my bedroom.  I was obsessed with and fascinated by his record collection that spanned at least ten feet across one of our closets, convinced that each album had some kind of story attached to it.  In third grade I got my own stereo for my bedroom, the first of my friends, and got into the habit of leaving it on when I left.  It drove him crazy, so he would always change the station to country when he passed as my consequence (you remember how hard it was to get the station exactly right before everything went digital, right?).  Unfortunately for him, that tactic stopped working when I was in middle school, but it opened the door to our shared love of country and his ongoing claim that he “was country when country wasn’t cool.” This is true, and in fact Gene Autry was one of his childhood heroes (and one of my and my brother’s favorite Christmas albums).  As Mary Chapin Carpenter became a mainstay in my music rotation, my dad grew to love her work as well, especially 1994’s Stones in the Road.  Listening closely to the lyrics, he said the title song captured his demographic’s generation.  We went to see her at Wright State’s Nutter Center that spring and one of his hero moments was when he talked the guard into letting us sit in two second or third row seats, which remained open during the opening act.  That was twenty years ago. It was magical.

Sitting at Lincoln Center last Saturday, that is exactly how her music felt, and even more so.  In all of the songs she played I saw roots of the ideas and philosophies I still hold dear.  In the  “Notes on the Program,” Rebecca Winzenried writes that the songs played (which were recorded on her latest album Songs from the Movie) included “titles culled from the span of Carpenter’s career, rather than being limited to her better-known hits, and presents those lyrics that demand a listener’s attention.” The entire show was curated like a journey.  Vince Mendoza arranged the orchestral music and said “the key to this project was finding the meaning of the song and “painting” it with the orchestra…I had to deconstruct Mary Chapin’s lyrics to find the underlying emotional thread that opened up a whole world of dramatic possibilities with the orchestra. Nature. Love. Loss.  Remembering. Dreams. Summer in our hometown. Pure humanity.”

So, again, I am left with the reminder that the right words and music are one of the best guides for the road.  I am so thankful for writers (and parents and teachers) who narrate the way for me and push me into my own writing and reflecting.

The magic of paying attention: Mary Oliver’s "A Thousand Mornings"

{photoshop image, The Octopus Garden}
wrote about my favorite album of the year, Over the Rhine’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World, back in September, which became an anchor for my soul this fall: an album I returned to countless times to be reminded of beauty and truth and the way I wanted to live. I also shared a link to an article I loved about their writing process.  In it, I found we shared a few common inspirations, which led me to check out some of the writers they mentioned, including Mary Oliver.
Oliver’s work is rooted in observing nature and cultivating a sense of place and in a quest to feel more grounded and aware, I took to reading her poetry collection A Thousand Mornings one poem at a time each day with my breakfast throughout October and November.  What I found while reading her work was that I began to look at the world around me in a different way.  Even though I live in a city, my eyes were sharpened and my breath deepened as I watched the rhythms of autumn and early winter around me.  I found myself staring at the patterns of leaf veins, and letting falling snow calm me down.
I came across the image I included above while researching Oliver, and it has become a guide for me in pursuing a watchful spirit and a creative life.  Looking for reasons to be amazed, and living a life filled with wonder–especially when they don’t cost a dime–is a game changer.

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.