Monday, June 30, 2008

the cave - an allegory entirely unlike Plato's

We're back from our jaunt to Bear Lake. Yes, I had an intense, week-long writer's conference followed immediately by a family trip and now I'm faced with the laundry and teaching-issues backlog to prove it. I have a whole list of things to write about and wish I had more time today to devote to such lovely tasks as writing, but in the meantime, here's one simple thought I had this weekend while spelunking (or rather walking up and down conveniently widened corridors and metal stairs) in the Minnetonka cave near St. Charles Idaho.

You know when you go on a tour to a commercialized cave and the guide has this memorized speech to give you about the different formations? You know how she tells you that this rock is Kermit the Frog and over here is Miss Piggy's tail and if you shine the light just right on this huge slab over here you can make out the face of Abraham Lincoln? I was thinking about how we go along with this scenario so willingly. How we wait for her to tell us exactly what we're supposed to see in the limestone because someone before us has decided what it all means and heaven forbid we decide that we don't think that looks at all like a pig's tail and in fact we're sure it is one of those curly fries you can get at Arby's only without the extra dusting of paprika?

This is the challenge I face with some of my students. They're waiting for me to be the tour guide. They're used to being told what art means by someone who's been there before and knows where to shine the flashlight. They have a hard time accepting the fact that we're looking at independent objects, things that have no absolute labels stamped on them in a secret code that only the fully trained park rangers/teachers can decode. Sure, each work of art is a reflection of the artist who produced it and the cultural values behind that artist, but it can also be about a million things more. It's my job to convince my students that I can only teach them how to study art, I can't (or at least I shouldn't) compound the myth that they have to wait for the proper interpretation before they can make their own judgments. I can (and should) let them experience that liberating feeling you get when you realize that the artist is not the only creative force in the life of an artwork. It takes creativity to decide for yourself what you see in the stalactites. Or maybe, you can even just see the stalactites for what they are: art for art's sake. They serve no real purpose, no practical function. They don't have to mean anything. They are simply beautiful--surprising twists of life and color and texture in an otherwise ordinary slice of earth.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What the living do

Another day. Another assignment from the writers' conference. This one was sparked by a poem by Marie Howe called "What the living do."

What the living do
By Julie Q.

Each year on his birthday, for the first part of his life, Vincent Van Gogh visited the grave of his dead older brother. I picture Vincent—wild-eyed and serious, even as a young child—facing the grave stone and staring long and pointedly at the letters and dates carved into it. I picture him watching his mother cry for the stillborn baby, the baby who shared Vincent’s own first name, shared his birthday, shared his rust-colored hair. Did he see his mother’s coldness towards himself and her tortured grief for the first child as a sign of her preference for the dead over the living? Did he ask the ghost of this first Vincent to walk beside him for all of those 37 years? Did he, as some suggest, paint this dead brother numerous times? Give him what he lacked: adult form and textured presence?

Each year on the Sunday closest to my birthday (which happens to fall near Memorial day) I visit the graves of my two dead brothers. This is what the living do. I help my sisters clean off the headstones with paintbrushes and water collected in a plastic cup from the nearest spigot. My mother brings a pair of gardening shears and trims the grass away from the edges. In the months between our visits, the grass always encroaches. It covers the lips of the stone and must be trimmed and pushed back, like nail cuticles. My father stands next to the boulder, the one the cemetery agreed to roll next to my brother’s grave after a careless driver let a tire stray too far off the gravel roadway and crack the headstone.

When I was younger, I would help more with the tending of my brothers’ graves. Now I have to keep an eye on my own children, remind them to stop running in the cemetery, pull them away from the water, keep them off the road, tell them again the stories about why my brothers died, the one with the backwards heart, the other—the one I remember only as a gush of fluid on the stone entry-way floor and as a tranquil baby in an orange sleeper, resting in a coffin the size of my dollhouse—the other, I was told, who was born too perfect for this world. And I watch my mother—my beautiful mother—who was not cold and who was not crazy except maybe a little crazy to have had so many children and to have not cried every single day for the rest of her life for the loss of these two alone. I watch her. And I marvel. This is what the living do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This was not what I asked for

Each day of our morning workshop at the writer’s conference, our instructor (the fabulous Abigail Thomas) gives us an assignment. Yesterday, she read a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly that began with the line “It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish.” Our follow-up assignment was to write something with this line for our title: “It was not a ______ I asked for. I asked for a _______.”

I fully intended to write something worthy of the task—to compose a little gem as lyrical as the original poem. But my life is not conducive to poetry. It lends itself more to prose. Silly prose at that. Oh well. They always say you have to write about what you know. Here's what I know.

It was not a swim in pool of sludge I asked for. I asked for a bath.
by Julie Q.

It is 9 pm and after a busy afternoon and evening, I finally have a few free moments to spare for writing. I pop open my laptop on the kitchen table. Gabie and Nora are a few feet away, across the hall in the bathtub. They splash and giggle. I think deep writerly thoughts and wait for inspiration to strike. It strikes with a vengeance.

A cry comes from the bathroom. Two cries. I’m in there in a split second but it takes a moment for my brain to process the scene. The bathwater is filled with floating chunks of shredded cardboard. No, it is not cardboard. “Aaaah!” Gabie wails, “Nora pooped in the tub!” Nora is equally indignant. “Poo Tub” she cries, accusingly, as if the stuff has appeared out of nowhere.

I don’t have a clue where to start. I assume I should rescue the children first. But where do I put them while I decontaminate the tub so I can load them back in it to clean them off? What tools am I going to need? I suspect my box of baby wipes—the Swiss Army knife of the American housewife—just isn’t going to cut it this time. How is it possible that a 2-year old child could even produce so much waste at once? I have been a mother for more than a decade. Over the years I have cleaned up all manner of children’s bodily fluids from every surface imaginable including my own clothing and hair. When I recently read an author’s blurb bragging that she had used more than 27 different terms for vomit in her parenting book, I found myself nodding in total understanding. But we may have reached a new low in grossness.

Just so you know, I would never make it a point to use 27 different terms for vomit in my writing. I don’t even want to write about vomit. Or toilet training. Or disasters of the pee and poo variety. I am not Erma Bombeck. I am not a 9-year old boy who thinks every sentence is better if it somehow incorporates the word “underwear.” I’m not even the type of writer who considers the use of 27 different terms for vomit praiseworthy. It’s just a frank reality that a large part of parenthood involves dealing with bodily fluids. I once calculated it at about 80%. (Of course, this was the year my oldest son had acquired the world’s most sensitive gag reflex and rarely made it through a day without incident, so the statistic may be skewed.) This is not something I knew about motherhood before I began. I did not ask to become an expert on the containment and removal of urine, vomit, diarrhea, blood, and tears. Childhood is a wet, sticky, oozy place.

One winter while I was in graduate school in Pennsylvania, we took a trip to New York to visit the Museum of Modern Art. We spent hours in the museum, but I can only specifically recall seeing two works. I remember standing in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. And I remember walking past—in a baffled state—a row of large metallic jugs presumably filled with liquids and labeled pus, vomit, saliva, urine, semen, blood, etc. I was a student of the arts. I had been exposed to post-modern absurdities before, but even I was mystified.


The fact that I remember this work 15 year later instead of the dozens of other masterpieces I saw that day speaks for itself. This artist (Kiki Smith) was a genius. Her ideas are transcendent and universal, not to mention memorable. It doesn’t even matter that her work expressed entirely different ideas to her than it did to me. She was likely inspired by the AIDS crisis. I find myself thinking of these jugs from a different perspective, the perspective of a woman who has learned intimately how vital and natural and common these fluids are. I have gained a whole new appreciation for why the medieval philosophers believed that we are kept in balance only by the ebb and flow of bodily humours. I have carried children in amniotic fluid. I have produced milk from my own breasts to feed them. I have tended to their wounds—their pus and blood. And yes I have cleaned up their wastes. And then I have bathed them and rinsed them clean and toweled them dry and held them against my beating heart.

Monday, June 23, 2008

on being a brave writer

My dear blog readers: (I’m hoping there’s maybe 3 or 4 of you still left after my past several weeks of neglect, but maybe I’m just talking to my mother at this point. Hi Mom.). I feel like apologizing for not writing on my blog more faithfully, but I won’t. I won’t apologize because I think I’ve been in this position before and I worry about it becoming a bad pattern (post lots, post less, post hardly at all, beg for forgiveness, promise to do better, post lots, and so forth. Sound familiar?). I also won’t apologize because it was all for a good cause. I’ve been busy with other writing projects and I’m feeling good about how things are going. I also plan to blog more, starting today. (Okay, so maybe I’ll do the “promise to do better” thing after all. I can’t help it). I will admit that I won’t have time to polish everything I want to say or even come up with snazzy connections to art every day, but my blog is my incubator for my writing and—if nothing else—I need to keep it plugged in. Gotta let those little chicks hatch.

Today was day one of my writer’s conference. I’ve been looking forward to this conference for weeks. And so far, it does not disappoint. In the morning workshop, we discussed three manuscripts and one of them was mine. Can I just say I’m eternally grateful we got mine over with on the first day? I was a nervous wreck. I felt like bursting into tears just from the sheer terror of it all. But the really amazing thing was everyone seemed to like my writing. The feedback was encouraging and I got some good ideas of things I need to work on. Mostly, I walked away with a renewed sense of confidence. I’m not a total joke of a writer. I can finish my book. I will finish it.

These are important things I need to say to myself. Writing is a natural thing. Most of us can write. It’s not that scary. But trying to write well. . . this is another thing entirely. To write well, you have to take risks. You have to dislocate language from its comfort zones—the clich├ęs and turns of phrase that are always the first to pop into your head and that are poison to any sincere attempts at saying something truly creative and new. I’m not typically a risk taker. I’m a wimp. I go into a panic when I have to stick my neck out. There’s always the chance that I’ll say something utterly stupid or too melodramatic or over-reaching. I could just play it safe and say things that sound familiar. But the problem is, they sound familiar because they’ve been said a million times before. To write well, it takes courage and a willingness to make a total fool of myself along the way.

So tonight, I am relieved. It’s always a huge relief when it feels like my occasional bursts of bravery might get me somewhere worth going.

Friday, June 13, 2008

sadists with brushes

It's the end of the term, so I'm in the thick of a grading marathon (plus the mommython continues as always) but I just had to post my nomination for the typo of the year. My student here was writing about Impressionism, so I think the word he was going for was "paint." But at midnight, I appreciated this version so much more...

"Art during this era was particularly fond of heavy doses of pain."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Exploiting the workers

I spent the summer after my sophomore year at BYU working at my uncle Randy’s cookie factory in California. It may sound like a dream job (and yes, the cookies were amazingly good, and no, I never got sick of eating them for every meal—and I really mean for every meal not with every meal) but I worked mostly in the business office, sorting through invoices and dealing with boring accounting paperwork. A few weeks into the summer, my little brother Steve joined me and my uncle put him to work in the factory. Steve had just graduated from high school and has always been a smart kid, but for some reason his assignment turned out to be doing menial tasks: fixing broken things, cleaning stuff, climbing up inside the drop ceiling to dust off the tiles.

A few days before it was time for Steve to head back home, Uncle Randy and the other factory owners were having trouble with their computer system. Steve suggested that he could fix if for them and they finally discovered what a brilliant little brother I have. Even though he was young, Steve had been programming computers for years and had (still does have) a real gift. My uncle was amazed. He also totally regretted not taking advantage of Steve’s skills before. For weeks, Steve had been dealing with ceiling dust when all along he could have been a great help in the office.

I’ve been thinking about this story lately because I have made a similar discovery. My kids are far more capable than I have given them credit for. They’ve always had chores—simple things like cleaning their room and unloading the dishwasher (and they have always whined about how said chores are a huge pain). But honestly, looking back, I see they’ve had it pretty easy. They worked for a few minutes a day; I did all the rest. No wonder I always felt overwhelmed.

Lately, thanks to the amazing influence of Lara (the Lazy Organizer) and a great book by Debbie Bowen, I have turned over a new dustpan. The kids make most of the messes around here. They can certainly contribute more to household maintenance. They also need to learn how to do things (for their own good and for the good of their future roommates and spouses). I just had to start delegating and firming up the resolve to exploit my built-in underage working class.

Courbet, Stonebreakers (1849)

Step one was establishing a new after-dinner policy. No one leaves the kitchen until it’s clean. No exceptions. I offered an incentive (a special excursion when we had 50 stars on the calendar, one for each night of a clean kitchen) and enlisted the help of my husband who is always willing to wash the dishes. Did you know that a 12-year old boy is fully capable of sweeping the floor, even if it’s a really nasty tile floor with deep grout joints? That a 9-year old can clear the table and wipe off all the counters and only has to be called back a few times to catch the spots he missed before he’ll learn to do it right the first time? That a 6-year old will insist that unloading the silverware is “way too hard” but is more than willing to scrub off the stovetop and clean all the knives because he got to pick these jobs himself? That as long as the kitchen is full of happy workers, a 2-year old will stay in her high chair forever? Maybe the rest of the parenting world has already figured this out years ago, but I was totally underestimating the beauty of child labor.

Step two has been to increase the daily assignments and realign Saturday chores. With the start of summer and a sudden surge in free time, this has been relatively easy. We may have to reevaluate things when school starts again, but for now, I think the workload is totally fair. The kids are cleaning the bathroom, dealing with the garbages, vacuuming, mopping the kitchen floor, and straightening the living room. On Monday of this week—and I swear this is the truth—McKay told me he wanted to be in charge of all the laundry from now on. After picking my jaw off the floor and smothering him with kisses, I said “Okay, if you twist my arm.” I supervised him a bit and gave him some instructions but he got the hang of things pretty quickly. He did 6 full batches on Monday alone. If this continues, I’m going to be out of a job soon. What on earth will I do with myself?

The next step is to follow Lara’s tutelage and get my kids cooking dinner. I may have to set out some guidelines or it will be Ramen noodles every night.

Maybe I should give my Uncle Randy a call and get a few of his cookie recipes.