On "Shrinking Women"

In my corner of the universe there has been plenty said lately on feminism -- it's merits and detractions, the way it liberates and promises hope and the way it frightens and ensures contention.

Me? I'm for people. Girl people and boy people. All of them should be afforded opportunity, a voice, a room of one's own. Still, I have to admit I empathize with the girl issues -- what with being a girl in a world of men (even very nice, understanding, kind-hearted men). I love this poem by Lily Myers called "Shrinking Women," performed in 2013 at the College National Poetry Slam. The video has made the rounds a number of times, but it fell across my FB feed just the other day and I gasped in remembrance of its power and truth.

Shrinking Women

Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine that she drinks out of a measuring glass.
She says she doesn’t deprive herself,
but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.
In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate.
I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.
I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.

Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s proportional.
As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.
She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”

It was the same with his parents;
as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red round cheeks, round stomach
and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking
making space for the entrance of men into their lives
not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.

I have been taught accommodation.
My brother never thinks before he speaks.
I have been taught to filter.
“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” He asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.
I want to tell say: we come from difference, Jonas, 
you have been taught to grow out
I have been taught to grow in
you learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much
I learned to absorb
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself
I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters
and I never meant to replicate her, but
spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits

that’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.
We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit
weaving silence in between the threads
which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,
skin itching,
picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to kitchen to bedroom again, 
Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled.
Deciding how many bites is too many
How much space she deserves to occupy.

Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,
And I don’t want to do either anymore
but the burden of this house has followed me across the country
I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word “sorry”.
I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza
a circular obsession I never wanted but

inheritance is accidental
still staring at me with wine-stained lips from across the kitchen table.
              --Lily Myers

A Guide to Growing Stately Trees

In honor of Father's Day this weekend I'm sharing a gem from my very own dad--who is, himself, a gem. I've always been curious about people--especially the whys and hows of human development and the ways parents and families can support that process. Knowing this, several years ago my dad wrote down for me his own philosophy of parenting, set in the form of a poem and rooted in the imagery of growing trees. 

painting by Grant Wood

painting by Grant Wood

A Guide to Growing Stately Trees Comprised of Two Instructions and an Admonition

Instruction: Bend the Twig
If you want to grow a stately tree
You usually start with a tiny sapling,
Although some people grow their trees from seeds.
This is not an easy thing to do.

They say that as the twig is bent so grows the tree
And I think this is probably true.
So young saplings are snipped and pruned to give them shape and character
And staked out to give them rectitude.

And I think this is good and important to do,
Up to a certain point.
But who hasn’t seen and pitied dwarfed and stunted trees,
Crippled as saplings to please the grower’s sense of beauty, or ambition, or convenience.

Oh, and one more thing:
You can’t make an oak tree out of a willow sapling
No matter how much bending or binding
No matter that you desperately want an oak tree and you’ve been given a willow twig 

Instruction: Hug the Tree
And then of course at a certain point,
Which admittedly varies from species to species,
The twig cannot be bent or staked out further to any good purpose.
It has become a tree.

It has become shade to someone weary from the road,
A refuge to those seeking solace, or a place for visionary youth to pray.
It has found its own reason for its existence
Fulfilling the promise of the seed and the shaping of the sapling.

What then? What more does the tree need from you?
Well, and this is important, trees never lose their need for warmth and belonging.
They need support to brace their sagging branches from the burdens of too much to bear,
And time-tested remedies to fight the infestations and blight that will surely sap their souls.

They need to know that they are part of a forest,
That they belong to a family of trees,
These graceful willows, flamboyant maples and sturdy oaks,
And that this kinship of family extends forward and backward beyond the reckoning of time.   

Admonition: Bend the Knee
Finally, a gentle word of counsel to you who would grow trees.
Give thanks to the Lord of the Forest.
Give thanks for the seeds.
For the soil and moisture that nourish them;
For the seasons that refine them,
And for entrusting us with their care.
For the forest in its majestic splendor,
For the music of the breeze in its leaves,
Its diversity of colors and shapes that give it beauty and purpose;
And for the Sun, its eternal beckoning call to seeds and saplings
To leave the frozen ground and reach for the warmth and light of the heavens above. 

M. T. Bentley (my dad)
February 2008
Logan, Utah

My dad and me, NYC, 1971ish

My dad and me, NYC, 1971ish

A few more father gems:


Happy Father's Day weekend, US folks! Here's to the dads and the father figures who've nurtured our growth and tended to our needs. 

Spring!

Yesterday was my first full day back from Spring Break (topped off by a short trip with Annie). It felt good to put the house in order, make a grocery list, and even run a few errands (normally I detest errand-running). Some of you are still in the throes of winter, so just know that my heart is with you. But here? In Houston? We had a high of 69 -- blue, blue skies and a gentle breeze. In the pool floats a thin layer of yellow pollen. Our red oak grew a whole set of new leaves in the week I was gone. Everything seemed fresh and clean and somehow . . . benevolent. In the favorable light of Spring, I threw back the sun roof, picked up a Sonic drink, and played the music loud. (And yes, I'm sure my kids were embarrassed by my Spring ardor.)

I racked my brain for a way to write SPRING and WIND IN MY HAIR and SUN WARMING MY FACE. But I failed, because I needed to make DINNER, and bake three loaves of banana bread, and get my house cleaned up for a church meeting. 

Also, I'm not Billy Collins. Do you think he has to make dinner?

Spring Fever (from TNYT, April 23, 2011)

Finally, it is time to observe the old ritual
of opening the windows, easily performed
without a shove from any hooded little druids
and no need for a circle of flaming stones.

Yes, the day has arrived to lift the panes
that kept the cold out and the warm in
and gave you a place to stand some days
to watch the snow in its silent descent.

But now a soft, fresh breeze rushes in,
no longer sharpened by the knives of winter
that lately pierced your face
and threatened to shatter your porcelain ears.

A blessing is this new sweet air --
the word zephyr springs to your lips --
that lifts the light curtains
and rejuvenates the room so persuasively

that the oil portrait of your grandfather
appears to be smiling down
from the confines of his heavy frame.
Even the goldfish turns in her round bowl

to face the light from the thrust-open window.
It is spring.
Crocuses break forth. The dogwood trembles.
Persephone touches the earth with her wand.

And there you stand in your blue robe
breathing in the season, filling your lungs
with every bud and blossom,
inhaling every spore and fleck of pollen

until the goldfish leaps into the air
at the sound of your thunderous sneeze.

~Billy Collins

 

Memory drive fail

While it has brought me a lot of joy, going back to grad school as an "older student" in my thirties (and, as it drags on, now my forties too) has definitely forced me to face my growing weaknesses. For example. When I was a younger student, I had a pretty darn good memory. In fact, I let my little-engine-that-could memory pull me out of numerous academic fixes, cramming as much information as my poor short-term memory could tolerate, only to eject it clean and empty moments after the exam. I had the audacity to think this meant I was smart. Nope; it turns out it was just the new equipment I was working with.

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Now I look at those young students and their fancy next-to-new brains with the same knowing look that I give cute bouncy teenagers on the beach, with their smooth firm figures that they seem to think they earned. My amused, slightly knowing look says "your day will come, too, sweetheart. Enjoy it while you can." 

I have this sense that every time I put something new in my brain, something else falls out. Other things I decide not to park in there at all...thank goodness for calendars and computers and other gizmos that store information for me! I always cross my fingers that what I'm putting in there-in my brain--ranks more important that what it's replacing but who knows? I leave things behind, I forget appointments, I seem flakier. (Greg makes me feel better when he reads one of his thriller-genre books and, halfway through, says "I think I've read this before." And then continues reading because he can't remember how it ends anyway. Like a whole new book! And don't even get me started on the time G and I left our car running in the parking lot for an hour while we were shopping in Costco. Sheesh.) 

The "what's-his-name" work-around descriptions and word gaps (hilariously, one of the words I can never think of is "articulate," ha!) will only increase as I get older, I'm sure. Thankfully Billy Collins has covered that exact topic and, fangirl that I am of his poetry, I couldn't resist passing it along:

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

~ Billy Collins

So...had any memory fails lately?

Reading the yield signs

Since I've gone back to school--or back to dissertation, I guess--there's been this constant, nagging nudge that haunts me through the day: you should be reading something academic, should be writing, could be researching. While, sure, it's helpful to be motivated to work, I've noticed the constant internal preoccupation ends up robbing me of enjoying other good things in my life, including being present and attentive with my family. 

This week it feels like everything I see/read/think has been urging me to snap out of it already. To show up, slow down, and pay attention. 

photo origin unknown

photo origin unknown

There was that post On Slowness I read that referenced an art history professor who requires her students to look at a painting for three hours before writing about it. Despite initial grumbling, the students come away "repeatedly astonished by the potentials this process unlocked." She proposes that such deep attention and patience needs to be structured by teachers & professors (and, I would add, parents) since it's not cultivated "in the wild" anymore.   I loved that. And also: when was the last time I looked at something for three hours?

. . . 

A book I was reading ended with this quote: "I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride" (William James) 

. . . 

Finally, the ever-fantastic Billy Collins just released a new book of poems and this one captures this well:

AIMLESS LOVE

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

 - Billy Collins

Okay, universe. Aye-aye. Message received. (Of course, the irony is that I'm writing this as my kids get ready to head to bed and G just got home from a business trip...so I'll sign off now.)

 


A transcript of Billy Collins's recent conversation with Diane Rehm. 
 - A copy of Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems would make a great gift, by the way.
 - G and I went to the movie About Time last weekend. It's funny and sweet and sentimental (some might find it overly so but not me! bring on the sentiment!) and I came away inspired to relish & fall in love with the wonderfully mundane moments that make up our lives. The music was really good, too, so I made a playlist.   This song is especially lovely. And this one

 

Climbed a mountain and I turned around

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How to Climb a Mountain

Make no mistake. This will be an exercise in staying vertical. 
 
Yes, there will be a view, later, a wide swath of open sky,
 
but in the meantime: tree and stone. If you're lucky, a hawk will
 
coast overhead, scanning the forest floor. If you're lucky,
 
a set of wildflowers will keep you cheerful. Mostly, though,
 
a steady sweat, your heart fluttering indelicately, a solid ache
 
perforating your calves. This is called work, what you will come to know,
 
eventually and simply, as movement, as all the evidence you need to make
 
your way. Forget where you were. That story is no longer true.
 
Level your gaze to the trail you're on, and even the dark won't stop you.

Maya Stein

 . . .

Over the last few months I've fallen in love with hiking. Who knew? I love the solitary climb, the burn as I push myself up the hill, the crunch of gravel underfoot. My barnacled thoughts loosen as I go and I can leave my unnecessary, unhelpful worries up on the trail as an offering at the altar of the day. Up there at the peak of a strenuous climb I feel clearer, my brain scrubbed clean, ready for what matters. 

Another truth follows, though: then I come down.  

Ugh. Yes, sometimes the summit clarity stays with me and holds me over until next time. But often the buzz wears off quickly. After recently launching Lauren on her mission--the latest big figurative mountain I climbed--I've been feeling it this week, the inevitable, predictable post-summit valley. (As I did after our moves. And when L. left for university the first time. And after the holidays every year. And after back-to-school rush. And after the thrill of a fun vacation.) The thing about launching is--if you do it right, then they're gone. (Come on, sing with me now...climbed a mountain and I turned around...then the landside brought me down.  I'm pretty much the poster girl for that song these days. That and the Fiddler on the Roof song about sunrises and sunsets.)

Then I remember this wisdom, discovered a couple of years ago and put to good use ever since:

"You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know"  (Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue).

I'm still figuring out what that means for me, exactly, and how to conduct myself in the valleys. Remembering and knowing is a good start. And new mountains. But first I think I'll take a long bath and indulge in some cinema therapy.

Here's to you and your mountains--to the grit and vistas and the descent and even the occasional landslides.

. . . 

p.s. Speaking of hiking:  In praise of America's parklands and encouraging Congress take a hike.

Bring it on, Mother's Day

Gird yourself, ladies, Mother's Day is upon us! Do you love the hullaballoo? Does it cause some pangs? I know for many it's a day fraught with an undercurrent of emotions: guilt about not quite measuring up to the grand pedestal of it all, disappointment in the sometimes meager gestures, sadness about mothers who are no longer here to celebrate (or never were), awkwardness about the fuss. It's taken me time but over the years I've tinkered with my approach to the day enough to know what works for me: (a) keep my expectations low enough so that any gesture will happily surpass them and (b) concentrate on celebrating the mothers and mother figures in my own life.

When it comes down to it, though, how can any celebration or token adequately repay the fact of the creation and delivery and nurture of a new human being, let alone whatever the next decades brought? One of my favorite poems about motherhood, The Lanyard by Billy Collins, perfectly captures the sentiment. I can't resist sharing it every year.

Here's to you, each and all, and the many lanyard-like offerings the weekend may bring:

Mother daughter vintage photobooth photo  via

Mother daughter vintage photobooth photo via

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

- Billy Collins, from his collection The Trouble with Poetry
Or, here, treat yourself to listening to him read this himself.