Tag Archives: family

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Food and Memory

My phone rang, and I almost missed the call because my arms were buried to the elbows in a bowl of ground lamb.

My sister Parry was on the other end of the line, and I told her I was making lahmajun, a thin pizza-like dish made with lamb, onions, peppers, and tomato. Lahmajun was one of our favorite things to eat when we were kids, and we frequently begged our Nana to make them. Rolled up like skinny burritos, we’d easily scarf down three in one sitting.

Lately, I’ve been flipping through my Armenian recipes, looking for the most beloved foods of my youth. My Nana gave me her recipes to follow, but cooking her food is so much more than following the instructions. It’s remembering, thinking back to how the dish looked and felt and smelled to me as a child. I channel my grandmother’s practiced way of spreading the topping, hear her voice telling me to make the meat layer thin. Even thinner than that, my hokhis.

The recipes are a connection between my sister and me, too, because we’ve shared tips and advice for making these traditional foods. We’ve both attempted choereg, the sweet bread rolls that were our favorite snack. Nana would make a big batch and put it in the freezer. When I came home from school, I’d take the bag from the freezer, defrost one (or two or three) in the microwave, and eat it, plain, or with whatever I wanted slathered inside. I preferred them with jelly, Parry with cheese. I remember Nana braiding the dough. Parry says she knotted it.

When my kids and I made choereg recently, my daughter and I had a good laugh at our dough-knotting incompetence. Between the mixing and the rising and the shaping and the baking, it was a day-long adventure. And now we, too, have a big bag of choereg in our freezer. When my daughter comes home from school and defrosts her choereg (she takes hers with jelly), or when my kids have their first tastes of lahmajun, it makes me feel like I’ve done something good.

This food goes beyond sustenance. Cooking these dishes connects my kids and me to our Armenian heritage, especially to my Nana, who even now cooks up yalanchi and boereg when the family gathers. I love the feeling that I am carrying on her role, and sharing an important tradition with my children.

I’m giving them something that they will remember.

Lahmajum!

Lahmajun, almost like Nana makes. Yum.

 

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

My Girl

I am looking at a picture of my daughter. In this picture, we are on vacation in Mexico, and she is playing on the beach. The game she is playing is one that she made up, and she calls it “Beach Kung Fu.”

She is lying down in the sand. Her eyes are closed. Her arms are flung in opposite directions. Her legs are splayed. She looks as though she might be dancing, or practicing a swim stroke. Or simply making sure that there is sand stuck to every inch of her skin. Only she knows that what she is doing is practicing her “Kung Fu.” Though now that you know, I think you’ll agree that it’s really quite obvious.

My girl is content, and contentedly oblivious. She looks ridiculous, but she doesn’t care. She will certainly have sand lodged into the most uncomfortable places, but she doesn’t care. She will need to take a shower and people are probably looking at her. I’m not sure whether or not they were, because I didn’t care about them any more than she did.

When I read Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother, I noticed the many times that she talk about her children’s bodies. In particular, she talks about the “buttery” feel of her babies’ thighs. I thought that I probably should be annoyed, but I get it. Our children’s bodies are wonderful, wonderful things to touch and hold. I remember how Win’s body felt in my arms at every stage. The babies are buttery, all right, but I look at this picture and I know that my daughter is well past butter here. She’s steaky. Her legs are solid. Everything about the way the way her limbs look, feel, and move is confident and strong. Whether she is dancing or scooting or doing beach Kung Fu, she moves for the pleasure of the moment.

I hope she grows up with this certainty about her physical self intact, but I know that she probably will not. At some point, we all become aware of and concerned with how others perceive us. We think about the consequences of our actions, including whether or not the sand will be itchy and whether or not we’ll find it in our hair for days afterward.

But, this picture represents one of the many ways that I will remember my girl. I add it to the other memories like charms on a bracelet: the infant sleeping on her father’s chest, the toddler blowing out birthday candles, the kid going off to school for the first time, meeting her baby brother, drawing in her sketchbook, making friends. And beach Kung Fu.

Beach Kung Fu

Things That Can’t Be Undone

My amazing mother-in-law gave me The Mother’s Almanac right before WInnie was born. It’s filled with useful advice about feeding, sleeping, diapering, playing, cooking… nuggets of wisdom that my tired eyes tried to take in during those early months. Fortunately, one item did stick to this used-up old flypaper that is my brain. Authors Kelly and Parsons suggest that mothers try to do one thing every day that “can’t be undone.”

I think of that suggestion often as I grit my teeth through another load of dishes or laundry, or another bout with the vacuum cleaner. Those dishes just get dirtied again, the clothes stained with marker and applesauce, the rugs appear – within hours, it seems – to be sprinkled with a crunchy coating of dirt and playdough. All these things come undone. And, then, so do I.

So when Winnie was about ten months old, I decided that I would spend my precious droplets of available time more conscientiously, focusing on things that couldn’t be undone. I made my peace with dirty carpets. The family acquired more socks and underwear, which doesn’t keep our clothes clean, but it allows for more time between trips to the laundromat. Here are some of the things that I’ve decided to focus on, in my little pursuit of happiness.

First and most of all, I’ve become a reader, even more so than I was before. Sometimes I can’t find the energy to do anything that requires physical activity – like, you know, standing up – so reading suits me perfectly. It rejuvenates me, gets me thinking, gives me something to look forward to, and makes me feel like I have some company on lonesome days.

I’ve committed myself to making time for yoga, even if I can only find time for one class each week. The physical and mental benefits are very real for me. However, what really gets me jazzed is when my teacher Carla demonstrates a pose that I think I could never, in a million years, not even after three weeks of daily yoga and meditation on a beach in Bali, accomplish. And, then, I try it. And I do it. (Or, at least, my body sort of flails around with my limbs going in the general direction they’re supposed to.) And then, I can’t stop smiling.

Really, learning how to do anything at all, especially something that once seemed intimidating or challenging, makes me stand up straighter and gives me something to crow about. I’ll be posting about some of these new skills I’ve got in my toolbox, from knitting hats to making croutons.

My friend Sara helped me to remember how essential and nourishing a good talk with a friend can be. The best kind of talks happen in person, over a beer, and without having to stop every few minutes to say, “Don’t touch that PLEASE!” An honest share-fest with a friend can keep me going for a long time, like a bowl of oatmeal. It’s the kind of thing that too easily gets de-prioritized. I need to remember that carving out the time is so worth it. Perhaps I should get a tattoo, to remind myself.

When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me stories of how her dad – my Dede – would take her and her brothers into the city for a lunch date and a special trip to the bookstore. “We’re making memories,” he would say, signaling them all to do just that – to notice, to make the event special. Lately, I find myself trying to do this in my life. A trip to the library, a ride on the bus… anything can be an occasion if we sit up and look around, noticing what makes it special and, even, joyful.

Some days, I don’t have time or energy to knit, or to write, or to even hold up my end of a coherent conversation. Some days feel so full of “to-dos” that I don’t feel I’m really doing anything. On those days, I challenge myself to be aware of my surroundings as I walk. Regardless of where I’m going, I wrestle my focus away from my destination and take note of the steps I’m taking. I take deep breaths of air and notice its temperature as it travels down my windpipe, as it brushes on my skin. I reach my feet out as far as I can to grab hold of the earth, then push it behind me before once again lifting each foot so that it hangs, for just one moment, in the sky. Those steps, they’re almost like leaps. At the end of those days, when I think back over what I’ve done, at least I have that.

It’s not much, but they can’t that away from me.

An Erstwhile Knitter Returns to the Needle

My paternal grandmother was my first knitting teacher. The lesson came as a surprise, since I had never seen my grandma knitting before that day, nor did I again. There were no gifts of hand-made sweaters or hats. Despite her apparent lack of regular practice, the stitches she showed me that day were decisive and sure. Grandma cast on a needleful of stitches and knit the first couple of rows for me. Armfuls of silver c-shaped bangles – the kind that you had to twist onto your wrist, mindful not to dig the end into the soft tendons on the underside of your arm – clinked softly while she worked. An uncharacteristically fancy sapphire bracelet sparkled among the chunky silver. My grandfather had given the sapphires to her one Christmas. Grandma had cried when she opened it, but the bracelet did not receive any special treatment or status. Maybe she didn’t believe in saving nice jewelry for special occasions. Maybe, at her age, she didn’t believe in saving things, period.

My dad has three brothers and one sister, so I have lots of cousins. We are not a matching set. My siblings and I are sleek and dark, while our cousins have fair hair and skin, light eyes that twinkle. When the families got together at the holidays, we cousins jangled and sparkled like those bracelets. We played and shouted, delighted by the sheer volume that we could create. We were awed and intimidated by our grandmother, the woman at the helm of it all. We could almost always find grandma installed in her upholstered armchair. A teetering pile of crosswords and pens sat within her reach. She frequently buried her nose in one, taking advantage of a few moments of idleness in the midst of the day.

The day of the knitting lesson, Grandma came to my house for a visit, an occurrence so unusual that I only remember it happening that one time. In the absence of any cousins, all of her attention was on me. Well, on me and the knitting. Maybe that was why she brought the needles out that day; it gave us something to focus on that was not each other, as unaccustomed as we would have been to that. We talked about shoes. Grandma eyed my feet – already a size 7 at nine years old – and said she hoped I hadn’t inherited hers, because finding shoes for a size nine and a half was a real pain in the neck.

At some point, she surrendered the needles to me, and I suppose I knit a bit, although I don’t remember it much. I didn’t knit again for many years, not until I was an adult and living in New York.

It was the Mets that got me knitting again, not sentimental feelings about that lesson with my Grandma. One summer, I watched almost every ball game, and needed something to do with my hands (baseball isn’t so much something one watches with complete attention as it is something one has in the background). So, I bought Knitting for Dummies and a pair of size eight needles. I planned a few ambitious projects, and even finished one or two. There was a bib and hat for a friend’s new baby, a scarf, a pair of fingerless gloves (a real coup!), and the back of a sweater for me that was doomed to a life without its corresponding parts. A t that point, my skill level reached a plateau. Making scarves bored me, but anything more advanced required time and effort I did not have. I stuffed my knitting bag onto a shelf, and left it for dead while I went on to other things.

I always told myself that I would pick it up again. So, now, years after abandoning that last project, I am starting a new one: a hat for Win. I’m not quite sure why I find the process of knitting so alluring. It’s an old-fashioned hobby, and the quaintness appeals to me, but it’s not a particularly thrifty way to obtain head wear, especially when you factor the cost of the yarn, the cost of my time, and the distinct possibility that the project won’t ever be completed. Or, at least, not while Win’s head still fits in the thing. My finished projects look quite rough (not beautiful like my sister Parry’s work). So, why don’t I give up the ghost and just buy Winnie a hat for $5 at Old Navy?

I don’t exactly know the answer to that question. While I ponder it, I’m going to keep knitting. The hat I’m making has – or, will have – purple and navy stripes and a pom-pom on the end. It’s ridiculously long, like an elf hat, and I’m fairly certain that none of the other kids on the playground will have one like it. Experience would indicate that this project won’t end well. Most of my projects don’t. But, I’m hopeful about this one, and I look forward to seeing Winnie wearing it. I think my knitting reflects substantial optimism on my part, actually. The odds are good that my effort will be in vain, but I still sit and work, needles clicking, while I talk, listen to music, think, watch tv, and even play board games. I enjoy the possibility that I might surprise myself.

Yes, that’s the important bit, I think: I might surprise myself. But, if I hold back from doing something that runs the risk of wasting my precious time, I won’t. After all, time’s not really precious, not any more than a string of sapphires. Certainly not too precious to spend on something a little frivolous. Maybe I inherited more than my feet from my grandma. I also have a decisive stitch, and the desire to use what I’ve got when I’ve got it.