Turns out I didn’t need a one-year sabbatical. All I had to do was open my dresser drawer and read the message printed on a ten-year-old tank top:
Do what you love Do what
you love Do what you love Do
what you love Do what you
love Do what you love
Do what you love Do what you love
I bought it from the same yoga studio where I first read this line written by Rumi: “Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.” Lucky for me, some old soul wrote this on the chalkboard before sweating off ten pounds in vinyasa.
A few of you have asked, “What was the most important thing you learned from your sabbatical?” Rumi wrote my answer: Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love. Actually, I’d like to make one minor revision: Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pulls of all that you truly love. It’s not as poetic, but Rumi wasn’t a mother. I have lots of loves: my family, my friends, writing, learning, feminism, exercise, and art. For the last year, I’ve enjoyed the luxury of letting myself be drawn by all my pulls. What happened? The skies didn’t part. There was no lightning bolt. There was no grand vision. No earth-shattering moment. It was better than all of that: I woke up every morning feeling happy, excited and grateful. For three-hundred and sixty-five days, I woke up feeling lighter. I don’t know how else to describe it. So what happens now? I’ve started the next chapter. I’m exploring a new kind of work, in a new field. I have another set of New Year’s Resolutions. I have my health, my family, and my friends. But I don’t have all the answers. I screw up daily. I make mistakes. I fumble. But I’m on the path.
Last night, as I was falling asleep, I was staring at my husband, who was by then in his third REM cycle. I was thinking, God, I love that man — that quirky, brilliant, flawed and funny man. Then I was thinking of how our years together have uncovered our idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Not that I’m counting, but I have at least five or six more than he does. I considered waking him up and asking him, “Do you love me this much, even with the self-absorption and the brutal morning breath? Really?“ I thought of how I am (mostly) still amazed that I get to share my life with him. I even got to make babies with him. We made two people and brought them into the world. All because we went out for Chinese one night, fourteen years ago.
Isn’t dating bizarre? You date (sometimes) because you are looking for a life-long companion. And you think this search should start with the 7pm showing of American Pie 2, followed by dinner at The Cheesecake Factory? Couldn’t we find more appropriate material for the audition? When my husband and I were dating, we drove to Chicago for a night and crashed on his buddy’s couch (now I’m the one in charge of making hotel reservations). Upon arrival at his friend’s apartment, we parked our car on the street. The next morning, we returned to find a towing notice and a phone number. While I stood in the empty parking spot with my mouth open, my husband took out his Palm Pilot flip phone, got the address of the towing company, and ordered a cab. He didn’t get mad or impatient. He stayed calm and took care of business. Before I knew it, we were reunited with our car and making our way home. That was the first time I thought he might be the guy for me. Of course, if the same incident occurred today, I would probably hiss, “I TOLD you we shouldn’t park there!” And then I would growl at him. A few hours later, we would laugh about it. The week before we would have done something equally stupid, like pay a guy $150 to open the garage door by flipping a light switch in the living room.
Marriage is like a game of strip poker. As time passes, you reveal more of yourself, until you are completely naked and exposed. Every dimple and wrinkle are on display. At the end of the game, you count yourself lucky to have a partner who’s still holding his cards and making jokes. And best of all, the jokes make you laugh.
I have this phrase I sometimes say to myself: find grace. It’s a simple reminder to do the right thing in any given moment. Most of the time, I fail to find grace. When my daughter has a fit, instead of taking a deep breath and walking away, I stomp my foot and yell. Instead of quieting the ugly voice in my head, I let it shake me down. Instead of waiting patiently in line at Starbuck’s, I exhale loudly and tap my foot. But every once in a while, I do the right thing. Instead of blowing up, I take a deep breath. Instead of texting in line at the grocery store, I smile at the cashier and ask about her day. I have to admit, it feels great to act like a grown-up. So why is it so hard to find grace?
It’s easier to witness another person’s moment of grace than produce my own. In fact, I just saw one in a crowded Starbuck’s. A little boy spilled his drink on the young man at the next table. It was a tense moment. The little boy’s mother immediately offered the young man an apology and brought him napkins. She even offered to pay his cleaning bill. Instead of shaking it off, the young man looked frustrated and said it was the second time he’d been spilled on that day. I could see in his face that he was teetering on the edge of a meltdown. He was quiet for a few minutes, while the mother offered a second apology. Finally, he exhaled, cleaned up his pants, and told the mother and son not to worry about it. The moment of tension passed and was soon forgotten. But not by me. I was moved by that moment of grace. Our lives are fast-paced and stressful. We don’t often have time to stop and consider how our actions can change the course of another person’s day. When faced with something unpleasant, we can choose to do the right thing, even if it takes a little work, a little control, a little self-soothing. We can choose to do the right thing, even when it’s the hardest thing to do. It’s in the tough moments when finding grace matters most. The next time my daughter screams or a stranger cuts me in line at the deli counter, I’ll think of this Starbuck’s encounter. I hope it inspires me to find grace.
Sitting at a traffic light the other day, I was staring into the window of a local record store. Studying the posters in the window, I found the band names so odd they sounded like practical jokes. One of the band names was printed on a pattern that looked just like a Laura Ashley dress I wore in the eighties. Now it’s hipster retro. Suddenly it dawned on me that I am retro (minus hipster).
I was still licking my wounds on the night I began a poetry class. Did I really expect to fit in on a college campus? I was the only one without a tattoo. When did tattoos become as common as t-shirts? Also I was the only one with a small green alligator on my shirt. A pink Izod (I just spelled it iZod!) is not cutting edge fashion for Gen Y. Did I mention that I’m the only one who brushed my hair that day? Last but not least, I do not have a Nalgene bottle. Cradling my Starbuck’s cup in my hand, I might as well have painted “I don’t give a shit about the environment” on my forehead.
Am I a lost cause? Should I surrender to my emerging gray hairs, and schedule my first cut-and-color appointment? Is my enrollment in a poetry class the epitome of a mid-life crisis? Probably. It’s surprise how getting older creeps up on you and then – BAM! – smacks you over the head one day when you’re sitting at a traffic light. I plan to have a sense of humor about it. Just this morning, the darling, young instructor at Dailey Method was horrified by a playlist full of eighties songs. She practically vomited a few bars into a Paula Abdul song. You can’t really blame her, can you? I’m sure I never put a Paula Abdul song on a mixed tape. It’s okay, Gen Xers. Let’s own our curled bangs and our leg warmers. Let’s reminisce about the Milli Vanilli scandal. Might as well make our crow’s feet dance.
I never bothered to enter the contest for Mother of the Year. The competition is too stiff. But I have set some low-level hurdles for my children. The first one is this: try not to be the worst-behaved kid in class. My daughter has stumbled already, and we’ve only completed two days of school. In her first hour — yes, hour — of preschool, she was sent to time out. When her teacher asked her to clean up her toys, she pitched a fit and refused to help. All of this just forty-four minutes into the new school year. Later in the day, when I asked my daughter what happened at school, she said, “I don’t wanna talk about it, Mama.” When Daddy admonished her that evening, she again exercised her right to remain silent.
Whatever happened to sugar and spice and everything nice? Since my daughter turned three, I’ve started sprouting grey hairs like nobody’s business. She’s already criticizing my wardrobe — “Mama, you can’t wear that purple scarf every day” — and my dietary habits — “Mama, you can’t eat peanut butter every day”. I can only imagine what she’ll say to me when she’s thirteen.
Of course there is a silver lining. I don’t worry about anyone pushing my daughter around. She’s no doormat. And she certainly has no problem expressing herself. I can cross those worries off the list. There’s a silver lining for you too, dear reader. If you are the parent of a pre-schooler, chances are my kid is worse behaved than yours. My kid’s the one making your kid look like a saint. Worried your kid will be the naughty one? Don’t sweat it. My daughter has already claimed the title. So relax and enjoy the week. And don’t forget to enroll yourself in the contest for Parent of the Year. I think I’ll sit this one out.
I’ve never felt the desire to memorize a poem. I haven’t memorized a piece since I was a freshman in high school, when I had to deliver a speech from Julius Caesar in English class.
Nor have I ever felt the urge to copy a poem, word for word, to see what makes it work. I know writers often do this to get under a poem’s skin, to discover what makes it successful, and to study another poet’s style. I’ve just preferred to spend my time struggling to write something of my own. That’s difficult enough.
Then I heard Lucille Clifton read her poem, “What the Mirror Said”. Here it is:
What the Mirror Said
by Lucille Clifton
you a wonder.
you a city
of a woman.
you got a geography
of your own.
somebody need a map
to understand you.
somebody need directions
to move around you.
you not a noplace
mister with his hand on you
he got his hands on
When I heard it, I was in the car, listening to a recorded reading by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks. When Clifton introduced the poem, she said she wrote it to get herself through a day when she didn’t feel like leaving the house. It just so happened I was having one of those days. I was feeling a little down, a little lost. When Clifton began reading the poem, I sat up straight. And then I smiled and played it again. I played that poem ten more times, until I was sitting in my driveway and had to turn off the car. Later that night, I copied it down, word for word. Just for the sheer pleasure of seeing it on the screen. Even now, I have the urge to stand up in this dark kitchen and deliver it to the morning larks. I adore this poem, and I don’t even wish I’d written it myself. I’ve certainly felt that way about other poems. But not this one. This one is like a gift you would never give yourself. It makes you feel special, even treasured. This one is a present I’ll unwrap over and over again. Today I’m tying it in a big red bow, and I’m offering it to you. I hope it makes you sit up a little straighter and smile.
My writing process used to consist of the following: (1) cough up some words on paper; (2) format them into something that looks like a poem; (3) feel pretty excited about the poem; and (4) show it to no one. Thanks to my poetry workshop, my process now includes a few more steps: (1) free write without worrying about form, line breaks, diction, or anything else that actually makes a piece a poem; (2) find the most compelling pieces of your free writing, put them at the top of the page, and start writing from there; (3) once you’ve got it all down, focus on form, line breaks, diction, musicality — the poetic elements; (4) when you can’t do any more revising on your own, share it with someone who can give you specific feedback; (5) digest the feedback and revise; (6) revise; (7) repeat steps five and six in perpetuity. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Actually, it is fun. You just need time, tenacity and thick skin.
So here’s my butterfly poem, after its eighth revision. Go ahead, take a whack at it. I’m still on step seven.
In the Live Butterfly Exhibit
Hirst arranged hundreds of butterfly Wings
in the form of a stained-glass cathedral window.
Suspended a tiger shark in formaldehyde.
He released delicate Klimts and Monets, floating canvases.
They pulsed through warm air, like sea horses.
If only they had sprouted legs,
descended to the streets
of London, pushed through the crowd,
to the river bank. Or spun second
cocoons and emerged, painted
and patterned, with wings of peacock feathers.
The only butterfly in the room
with a mint-green stripe painted
over black wings lies
dead on the radiator.