On writing as an act of generosity

I am a big fan of generosity.  I love the notion of giving, of gift as interaction and interaction as gift.  And I’m a big fan of writing.  But it has only recently occurred to me that those might be the same thing.

Naturally, there are many writers whose work felt like a gift to me — Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, and many more — but it felt private.  It was the emotional counterpart to my teenage habit of hugging a book to my chest as I snuck off somewhere to read (since I was not supposed to be reading but rather doing something “productive” like washing dishes).  I cherished the words and the stories and I felt wildly privileged that they spoke to me.  To ME!  But as I got healthier and wholer, I came to see that the larger political significance I’d always attributed to stories was perhaps the same thing as this deeply personal conversation, just on a broader scale.  As these and other writers opened my eyes and my soul to the wider world, and as I learned (ironically, well AFTER my PhD in Comparative Literature) how many other eyes and souls were out there, doors ajar, because of their writing, I came to see that this is their gift to the world.  Barbara Kingsolver, in fact, talks about this in a video she did way back when Animal Dreams was first published (which I can’t seem to find today); she says, essentially, that the most important thing she can do for this broken world is to put her butt in chair and write.  It’s true, she tends to work on the macro level, I think: witness this excerpt from a conversation with David Gergen about how stories structure and define our world, our nation, our communities:

“DAVID GERGEN: –but through your own novels to invent a new set of stories for us, is that what you’re about?

BARBARA KINGSOLVER: It is in my own little corner. That’s what I’m trying to do. I love what Joseph Campbell said about mythology. He said that our stories are what holds us together as a culture, and as long as they’re true for us, and as long as they work for us, they–we thrive. And when they cease to become true, we fall apart, and we have to reconstruct them or revitalize them. We have to come up with new myths.”

And of course that’s what she does: her stories enable us to connect to the land and the people who work it; to understand the histories of human movements and failures; to imagine ourselves into a capacity for managing heart-wrenching, world-churning change that right now seems certainly fatal.  But what’s brilliant about Kingsolver is that she works on the micro level as well.  Her characters and her language are so compelling, so utterly moving and hilarious and desperate and comforting, that we can’t help but be drawn in.  As a reader, I’m in awe of that.

But now I find myself thinking, for the first times in my life, as a WRITER too.  It feels like hubris, and perhaps it is. But I’m slowly, slowly catching up to the notion that when we have a gift to give and we believe in generosity, then we have to give it.  Even if it is our writing.  Even if it is a painful exposure or a risk or an embarrassment, or whatever it turns out to be.  Maybe we have to do it.  (I’ve had little angels tell me this before — angels in the sense of folks who show up to say wise things or be there when you need them — the most memorable of which was a guy at a conference in San Francisco years ago who came up to me after I’d spoken in a seminar to ask what my book was called.  I said I hadn’t written one, and he asked why not, and then he held my eyes while I squirmed.  “This isn’t about ego,” he said.  “The world needs to hear what you have to say.  You have to get out of the way.”)

So here I am, trying to get out of the way, though a little confused by the whole thing and unsure of what comes next.  I am grateful for the readers I have and hopeful for more; I am grateful for the extraordinary writers (novelists, bloggers, poets, and authors of all stripes) who inspire me every day with their bravery and their brilliance.  I am grateful, I suppose, for the gift I’m perceiving and for those of you who are out there to give it right back by receiving.



You know how when you get sick and worn down, nothing seems significant anymore?  And that which does is mostly depressing?  Yeah.  That’s been the past week.  But we’re all starting to get better now, which gave rise to a fit of afternoon food production around here: lentil-sausage-pesto soup and citrus olive-oil cake and even some bread dough.  Recipes are offered below.  But I just wanted to register not only this fine achievement but also an important realization: when we’re low and off-kilter and sick, we consume.  When we’re grounded and whole and healthy, we produce.  Perhaps this is not the most important thing I’ve ever noticed, but then again, perhaps it is.  Resurfacing does more than let us gasp for air — it reminds us how to swim.


Lentil Soup: from Smitten Kitchen (scroll down the page some to find the actual recipe amid all the hoopla and enthusiasm), but I like it best with garlic sausage instead of sweet italian; kale instead of chard; and a cup or so of pesto to keep things lively.  It’s gorgeous.  Oh, and the garlic oil they rave about?  I haven’t tried it.  I’m sure it’s brilliant.  But who has time?  This is quick, healthy, and totally delicious.

Citrus Olive-Oil Cake: sorry I can’t share it.  It’s from Rustic Fruit Desserts, about which I often rave, and I probably need permission.  Pester me if you want me to look into it.  I will mention that we used only grapefruit and orange rind and substituted lemon extract — which makes me wonder if you could use all extracts in a pinch? — and it was terrific.  I used a pretty fruity olive oil and next time will go milder.  I mean, the cake itself is GORGEOUS, but with such a strong oil, you end up with a bit of aftertaste and -feel.

Bread: this one cracks me up.  I’ve been flirting with bread-baking for, oh, fifteen years or so.  I mostly spend a lot of time to make something kind of mediocre and so I bail.  I think I really need to get a sourdough starter and try again.  But this was a last-ditch effort at ordinary yeasty hearth bread, and I tried it because it’s no-knead.  So a lot less time.  I figured it would suck, but whatever.  Here’s the thing: it’s really good! It is, so far, hands-down the best bread I’ve ever made.  The coolest part is that you make the dough, let it sit out for two hours, and then refrigerate it for as long as you want.  You cut off a chunk to make a loaf (my dough will make about three loaves, I think), shape it and set it out to rise for about 40 minutes, and then you bake it on a pizza stone.  Absolutely delicious, and with a better crumb and texture than anything else I’ve made.  Maybe bread is like garden soil: we all think we have to maul it for best results, but if we can get out of the way and let it do its own thing, it’s brilliant.  Recipe is here.

On dancing and seeds and grace

grape hyacinth budHere’s my afternoon: starting seeds with Ezra in the basement; coming upstairs to find Len and Chi home from the grocery store and provisioned with a tasty new beer (well, Len, anyway); dancing with both babies to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  Her song “Bonus 2,” which is essentially First Corinthians brought to extraordinary life, always reaches out to me — but today, as I held my small fevered Ezra in my arms and danced, it was transcendent.  To sing those ancient words of love to my son, through Lauryn’s music, to feel the rhythm move through the bones of this old white Colonial, well, I was shaken.  I was lifted up.

I don’t often write about spirituality, or at least not as such.  It’s partly because I feel those are kind of private issues, and also because I’m uncomfortable with the ways articulations of our own faith can end up looking or feeling like advocacy or pushiness to others.  I confess, I’m also tired of the self-congratulatory tone of lots of the writing out there on religion.  And also, let’s face it: I’m a seeker who was raised Quaker (more in the secular humanist end of that spectrum) in a kind of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do sort of way.  So I have no sense of authority, only a heart full of questions and gratitude.  I tend, then to use the language of mindfulness or grace, since the former is more of a practice and the latter more of an acceptance of what seems an obvious and widely accepted truth.  For me, there are lots of interchangeable words that describe what I have faith in: love, beauty, the sacred, harmony, nature, the universe, grace, providence, serendipity, the Way, the Light, truth, hope, and of course the many permutations of god.  It is clear to me that music is sacred, as are the gifts of all artists and growers and makers and seekers — all creatures, and especially those who offer up something of beauty, who uncover or create or otherwise act with generosity in this sad and broken world.

I’ve been trying to read Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home, though it’s hard, because its premise is that we cannot change the world; we can only accept our powerlessness and do our best to live whole and beautiful lives by doing the right work because it is work that needs to be done.  That living, that standing in contrast to the crazy and the broken, is itself transformative.  I buy this, mostly, because it seems smart and truer than anything else I know, but I’m not wise enough or whole enough to live within it.  I’m trying.   Most days, I’m still seeking, perhaps too anxiously, for that “right work,” unable to accept that where I am is enough.  But on a day like today, that truth rings out: of course it’s enough.  Perhaps not forever, but I don’t live in forever.  I live right here, right now, right in the middle of all this beauty, surrounded on all sides by grace.

Heard this morning, II

Len and Ezra in the kitchen, while Len does laundry and Ezra plays with his animal habitat sticker book (which may be the biggest bang for our buck toy-wise EVER):

Ezra: I like slithery snakes.

Len: I’m not a big fan of the slithery snakes.

Ezra: Are you a big fan of eels?

Len: Not a big fan of eels either.  Or slithery snakes.

Ezra: Are you a big fan of crabs?

Len: Sure.  I don’t mind crabs.

Ezra: Are you a big fan of lobsters?

Len: I like to eat lobsters.

Ezra: Are you a big fan of frogs?

Len: Sure.  I could get behind a good frog.

Ezra: Are you a big fan of orca whales?

Len: Well, they can be kind of mean.

Ezra: Are you a big fan of humpback whales?

Len: Yes!  I’ve actually seen humpback whales from a boat.

Ezra: I’ve seen humpback whales from a castle.

Len: Really?  Where was this?

Ezra: Down in Portland.  I saw humpback whales and orca whales and dolphins and crabs and lobsters and snakes and eels and frogs all from a castle down in Portland.

Which is truly awesome.  And makes me wish there WERE such a castle and that we could go there on this blizzardy day.

Making MORE, not less, of ourselves

But, but, but...here I've been working so hard to make MORE of me!

But, but, but…here I’ve been working so hard to make MORE of me!

I know I’m not always in the best mood in the morning, but it was still a shock to see this on the cereal box.  And to realize that this is what my (mercifully pre-literate and mercifully male) kids have been staring at.  And to realize that this kind of message is everywhere.  How broken is that?

I know they mean well, that it’s a weight-loss message, but still.  Come ON, Cheerios.  Surely you’ve noticed the whole self-actualization agenda that is at least trying to keep pace with our nation’s long-term self-hatred protocol?  Maybe this is another reason why I shouldn’t eat Cheerios.

In all seriousness, though, this has started me thinking about the range of ways our culture invites us to be less than we are, and not just physically (though that encompasses not only weight issues but the whole range of gender-normative behaviors and style).  Jobs are stultifying enough that most of us have to compromise most of our selves in order to earn the paycheck and the benefits we need; educational programs force us into outdated molds of specialization; even cocktail-party conversations (I think; I can barely remember that far back) expect a short answer to the standard question: What do you do?

Here’s what I’d like to say to that, today: I raise two pretty awesome little boys in ways I hope are feminist and respectful and empowering.  I read whenever I can.  I write (academic work, poetry, this blog, articles, children’s stories) and seek to write a lot more.  I hope and plan to get paid for writing.  I serve on the board of a major community action agency and chair its committee on community impact.  I used to teach college and build community-partnership and community-based learning programs.  I have a PhD and often wonder if and how I can put that to appropriate use again.  I consider teaching options.  I lead discussion groups for our state humanities council and my local public library.  I crochet and I sew, and I especially like working with upcycled and repurposed materials.  I work on recovering from a childhood that bizarrely merged great privilege with great difficulty.  I fix things that need fixing, when I can.  I talk to my neighbors and pitch in where I can.  I hope to build a community of moms where I live.  I discovered recently that I can kind of draw.  I struggle with how to balance my type-A-ness, which I need but instinctively dislike, with my husband’s more relaxed approach to life (type L?  L for Love?), which I admire but which doesn’t privilege order as much as I need.  I like getting older.  I like lifting weights and am kind of glad that my family’s propensity for osteoporosis makes it kind of non-optional.  I chastise myself a lot for not lifting often enough, though, and I’m working on that.  There’s more, but there’s always more, and that’s the POINT.

You see my resistance to the language of “less”?

Patti Digh has a great bit in her totally fabulous book “Life is a Verb,” in which she mentions a study where a guy asks kindergartners to raise their hands if they are painters.  All the hands shoot up.  Dancers? Ditto.  Singers?  Yes.  Then he asks college students the same thing, and hardly any hands go up.  “What happens in those years,” she asks, “between five and eighteen to our sense of joy and possibility and personal command of the universe?”

Personal command of the universe might be a bit much to ask, but the SENSE of it is glorious.  It’s the sense of our largeness, our infinite capacity, our minds and hearts as generous and accepting and brilliant as they were born to be.  Mindfulness practitioners often say that when we try to meditate, it’s like sitting inside a closet crammed with the detritus of our lives.  And as we practice more, the disappointment is that the same crap never really goes away.  But the closet gets bigger and bigger, becoming a room, a cathedral, an airplane hangar, and soon the wide blue sky.  A few old pairs of cleats and some back tax files don’t bother us nearly as much under those circumstances.

I find it’s the same thing with our general sense of self.  Bad hair, bad skin, an achy shoulder, a snide remark — all these things can fester if we keep ourselves small (ironically, often the same thing as keeping ourselves “secure”).  But if we admit our largeness, our GREATNESS — in the sense of our participation in the grand drama of human events, not some weird ego trip — then who really cares?  We are who we are, and we deserve to surround ourselves with people who love us and things that give us joy.  We deserve to celebrate exactly who and where we are.  More grains, Cheerios, by all means.  But please don’t try to make less of us.

On Nemo, of course


It’s not like we can write about anything else today.  At least, not those of us who live in the 3-foot zone.  But it does help to remember a few things:

1. This is one of the few winters where a storm like this wouldn’t make it impossible to see out our driveway.  Some years, it’s been like a cavern, with snow banks eight feet high on either side.  This, all things considered, is not all that severe.

2. We haven’t lost power!  Hurrah!  Celebrations!  Naturally, I kept expecting us to, so we had the woodstove on all night (including a 2:30 am run to reboot).  And then we had to do some emergency baking — Mimi’s German Apple Cake, from Rustic Fruit Desserts (the best such cookbook I’ve found).  These are not awful things.

3. Kind neighbors are glorious: one such just snowblowed (snowblew?) out the worst of our four- and five-foot drifts.  I heap blessings upon him and his family.

4. There were brownies.  From the day before.  All chewy.  And Len was too sick to really compete for them (yes, I will make this up to him, but for Nemo, well, it was what it was).

5. The beauty of all this snow is astonishing, and if you catch me at the right moment, I am even capable of seeing that.  Witness.

6. And we are, after all, heading inexorably toward spring.  See?

Bulbs in pot

Pinterest as spiritual practice

The Pinterest craze has provided many of us with new ways to kill time.  And I mean, kill it dead.  The unbelievable depth and breadth of resources available present an enormous challenge to those of us with a passion for, well, anything.  Because it’s all on there – the whole world of hobbies, ideas, design, innovation, crafts, houses, book ideas, every possible manifestation of human interest.  It’s easy to start, hard to put down, and even harder to catch up on sleep after your first week.  Which is why all kinds of folks are including Pinterest in their media fasts, their unplugging, their general efforts to return to sane and local living.  (Patti Digh has a great little piece on that here.)

The real challenge, I think, is in moderation, in judicious use of the resources with a discerning eye, so that you a) aren’t constantly on there, and b) you only pin what you want to use, for feeding you in some important way.  (Here, my pastor mother-in-law would smile and say: “As it so often is in our spiritual lives.”)  Indeed, one friend asked (on facebook, amusingly): “does Pinterest provide beauty or value, or does it just give us more information? Because I have enough information.”  I answered yes, beauty and value indeed, because of how it enables us to keep contact (distanced, sorted, organized contact) with information, with good ideas and beautiful, inspirational images.

I am one of those people who struggles to live in the present because I am always trying to bear (“to carry”) in mind too many kinds of information: the location of that recipe I want to cook for dinner; the directions for that fun activity I want to try with my kids tomorrow; the pattern for the hat I will crochet my niece for Christmas; the paint color I saw in someone’s bathroom that I want to try in ours.  And that’s just the domestic sphere!  What of the brilliant “slow money” article I keep losing track of? The book on radical homemaking that offers new ways of imagining barter? The website that’s a useful model for my consulting practice? My head is constantly moving on several levels at once, which is an advantage in terms of getting things done but a distinct disadvantage in the peace-of-mind category.  It took me until a few months into my Pinterest love-affair to realize the enormous gift it offered me: to be here and now without ceding my hold on the future.  It offers us what is essentially a spiritual opportunity, previously available (perhaps) only to those writers and contemplatives who kept and used tiny portable notebooks.  By pinning (in our portable phones, even?) the next great family activity or the last painting that made us gasp, we can store our cherished visions without giving them up; we can live our lives AND remember where and how those visions are; we can revisit them in all their detail and promise, erasing what no longer fits or reorganizing to accommodate new dreams; we can share these visions, when we choose to, with friends; and most of all we can do all this without fear of spending our lives away from center, from the here and now.  We can set down the dream, or pin it up, and not have to live in its shadow for fear of failure or forgetting.  That way we can be here, now, with our lived realities, and still honor the hopes we have for other, better, fuller lives.  Because we do have those hopes, and yet we only fulfill them through living, here and now, rather than dreaming in the ether.

On gardening, or planning to garden

Most awesome seed source ever.

Most awesome seed source ever.

Is this what happens when we grow up?  Do we finally get clear about what matters and just root down?  I just sent my seed order in (only to discover the empty packet of my favorite lettuce: Winter Density…argh!).  It feels late, as it always does, and a few things are on back-order.  But mostly this year I feel a seismic change in the whole process.  Every year I pull together all my zip-lock bags of seeds and corral them into one huge basket, and then I go through and inventory what I have.  It’s a process I’ve loved over the years, as it fills me with a sense of abundance (look at all these gorgeous seeds!  Think of all the gorgeous PLANTS!) and with that delicious anticipation of ordering more.  Plus, when you feel like you’ve really gone overboard, ordering like 25 packets, you realize you’re only out $35.  Which is a lot of shopping bliss for your buck.  The big change this year, though, is in me rather than in the process: for the first time in history, I’m not all that interested in growing lots of different kinds of each vegetable.  (Flowers, yes.  Still.  Always.)  But I used to want six kinds of carrots, for example, to see which were best. I wanted to compare all the kinds of peas so I could know what I preferred and have some good variety in type and time to harvest.  Now, I’m realizing, I’m becoming a much more grounded gardener.  I want delicious; I want easy; I want staggered harvests and enough variety to keep cooking and eating interesting.  But I am more than happy to stick with tried-and-true, and my appreciation of new discoveries seems happy to stay in the realm of the theoretical.  I do not need to buy new varietals.  (There, Len, it’s in writing.  To your massive surprise, I know.  Mine too.)

I suspect this change is not really about the garden.  I suspect it’s about my life.  You see, gardening used to be a hobby – and now it’s one feature of my busy life with my family.  It has always saved us money, but now we count on that.  It has always kept us healthy, but now it teaches my children a lifelong love of healthy food.  It has always been a way for me to get grounded, to come back to my most basic self, and now it does that for two much smaller souls as well.  Nine kinds of peppers seems beside the point – though I am quick to defend the obvious point that there are roasters and jalapenos and Hungarian paprikas and bells, and there’s nothing wrong with a few of each.  But will I spend time reading about the fifty other kinds I don’t have?  Not this year.  No time, and my energy and curiosity are turned elsewhere: to people, large and small; to fiber and fabric; to writing and ideas and hope.

The next step, of course, in the process is cleaning off the seed-starting mats and shelves, checking the grow-lights and the soilless mix supply, investing in more wooden plant labels and a new, sharp Sharpie.  I’ve always loved these midwinter pilgrimages, but now they seem even more special, now that they are prompted by Ezra’s impatience.  Can we start seeds, Mama?  Yes, my son.  Yes, we can.  And all throughout the summer and fall, we can point to those plants and remember the smallness of their seeds in his palm, his chubby carrot fingers working to grasp and maneuver their tiny promise.