Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Holly Attends a Writing Conference!

The Festival of Faith and Writing is held every two years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For those three days, “faith” encompasses pretty much anyone who believes there is a world “beyond the veil”: spiritualists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.- basically all the people Richard Dawkins makes fun of. We share that thin but strong thread that ties us to one another – belief.

The entire time I was there, I had Cee Lo Green’s infamous song stuck in my head- albeit the PG version. I think I heard it playing in Wendy’s.

I didn’t take as many notes as I meant to. I’m a terrible note taker. My spiral pages are full of names of authors mentioned and short statements like, “Fiction is the art of lying! Huzzah!” and “I am trapped in the prison of my own dignity.” There are some pithy quotes: “Story is a country where you can both stand for a while,” and “Violence is a failure of the imagination.” And then, in flamboyant, swirly letters, I wrote the words of the great poet Cee Lo: “Yeah I’m sorry I can’t afford a Ferrari.”

I went to get inspired, or rather, like Billy Crystal in City Slickers, to “find my smile.” The love of my life all but pushed me out the door with the hopes that getting away would be just the thing I needed. So I left him with heaps of laundry and a teary goodbye and two brand new gel pens to listen to the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Kevin Brockmeier, and Marilynne Robinson discuss the writing process, the realm of imagination, and how, exactly, they become “inspired.” Inspiration, I’ve found, is a tricky business. It’s one of those nebulous things that I’m sure there must be some secret, probably discovered by Oprah, to attaining.

There isn’t, or if there is, it’s different for everyone.

One novelist shared that she writes early in the morning and late at night because that’s when she’s closest to dreaming.

Ann Voskamp’s husband built her a cabin at the edge of their corn field for inspiration. Good grief.

Kevin Brockmeier printed us a list of his 100 favorite books, his top ten favorites highlighted, that inspire him.

As for the sessions themselves, some writers give brilliant speeches; some do not. The lovable and brilliant Brian Doyle spoke passionately and fluently yet his hands shook the entire time. The session ended and I just wanted to give him a hug and say thank you.

Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel Incredibly Dangerous and Extremely Smelly (or something like that) I didn’t particularly love, was a brilliant speaker. Tall, dark, handsome, funny, and handsome and tall.

Marilynne Robinson, who won the Pulitzer for her novel Gilead, ended at least half of her spoken sentences with, “Ya know?” Alas, she didn’t tell a story, but gave a rather vague talk about politics and fear and how certain news conglomerates seems to despise liberal college professors, ya know? I later read that her most recent book, a series of essays, is based on speeches she has given to conservative groups. She seems to blame Fox News for the fact that people carry guns. She did not once mention the creators of that show The Walking Dead, which would give anyone reason to want to own a gun, or at least a crossbow.

Adam Schutema, author of the short story collection Freshwater Boys, gave an informational talk about fiction and place. A lot of what he said resonated with me: he compared writing without giving your fiction a strong sense of place to watching actors talk in front of a plain white screen. Thankfully, if there’s one truly good thing I carried home with me from this conference, it’s that it’s okay to scribble out a story and then go back and fill in the trees and busses in the background and birds tweeting outside the window. Everyone has their own process.

Other highlights from the festival: Jana Riess’s controversial memoir session, where she insisted that our children’s stories are not our stories to tell, and that we should leave them out of our memoirs. Or our blogs. Or our Christmas letters. A later session had three other memoir writers defending their reasons for writing about their children. I asked Caleb what he thought, and he said, “You write about me? Where? Is it embarrassing?”

Gary Schmidt, who won the Newbury twice, read letters from his incorrigible young fans. He was the festival’s first, and perhaps most poignant, plenary speaker.

Bethany Pierce, whose novel I purchased at the festival, reduced all plots to six biblical stories:

• Satan falling

• Paul on the road to Damascus

• Exodus

• The first and second coming of Christ

• David and Goliath

She challenged us to think of another plot line, and I couldn’t.

The most discouraging discussion was the one on building a writer’s platform, which entails building Twitter followers and getting speaking engagements BEFORE you get your novel published. I swear, I felt the whole room participate in a collective sigh.

I came home to sleet and rain and snow and wind. Any hopes of retaining a modicum of inspiration were dashed when I stood, this morning, in the freezing rain, encouraging Kiah to not play “chase me around the yard, you human fool!” I had a smile, but perhaps I left it in that McDonald’s outside of St. Catherine’s. I’m sure it will catch up to me.

In the meantime, I am still processing what it was like to spend so many days with people who are far more creative and accomplished I will ever be. My favorite moments of the festival were when I was read to: whether it was from a novel, a group of poems, a memoir, or a short story. Scrawled in one corner of my spiral notebook is the question: Do you like sentences? I do. I like sentences. I like stories. I like being read to, because it’s true, a story really is a country where I can stand with people I don’t know, will possibly never see again, for a while.

It’s a beautiful while.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Daniel's Being a Worm, (and I don't mean that in a good sense.)

I was gone at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin college in Grand Rapids, Michigan from Wednesday to last evening.  I'll write about it in more detail later- today, my goal is to get the poem(s) I promised for Mondays out, and to share what's going on in my life at this very moment, which is that... 

Daniel is being so, so, so mean to me. 

So far, he has told me the following:

"Go back to Michigan so Joyce (his beloved aunt) will come over again."

"You're still here?  I thought you were going back to Michigan."

"Maybe you should just live in Michigan."

"Why do you always put my stuff away where I can't find it?  I hate that."

"Joyce makes peanut-butter-and-jellies better than you."

"Here are the people I love:  Dad and Ben and my teachers and my blue doggy and Joyce and Grandma and Grandpa and THEN you."

"Where's Michigan, anyway?" 

I'm trying to be stoic and not dissolve into a puddle of self-pity and hurt feelings. 

On the first day of the conference, I had the pleasure of hearing Aaron Belz, and I can't quite find the words to describe him.  His deadpan performance was as enjoyable as his bizarre images.  Here are two of the poems he read:


Cyclists, as a rule, think bikers are cheating,
because they have engines. Pedestrians, in turn,
think cyclists are cheating; they use wheels.
People in wheelchairs think pedestrians
have a leg up, for obvious reasons,
but pedestrians think the same thing
about people in wheelchairs; they use wheels.
What makes people in wheelchairs unique
is that they also think cyclists and bikers
are cheating. Their disdain is uniform.
The wheelchairists' hypocrisy lies,
however, in their use of automobiles.
Everyone uses automobiles except worms.
Worms think they're better than everyone.
Worms think they're more authentic than everyone.
This is why people say worms are self-righteous.
To worms' credit, however, they aren't hypocritical,
except the ones that glide down the sidewalk
on hundreds of tiny legs, blithely ignoring
their wilted, sun-blackened comrades.
Those worms are called millipedes.
Those worms are really bad apples.

--Aaron Belz

The One About the Ectoplasm and the Osteoblast

Aaron Belz

Some ectoplasm sits next to an osteoblast
at a bar. The ectoplasm asks the osteoblast,
“Why do you form bones?” And the osteoblast
responds, “Why are you the outer relatively
rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually
held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a sol?”
And the ectoplasm is like, “Wow, that is such
an awkward question.” And so the osteoblast
goes, “Seriously, why are you? I form bones
for the same reason.” The bartender, an osteoclast,
asks them what they want to drink. The ectoplasm
asks him what he recommends that’s on draft,
and he says the Dead Guy Ale, it’s a fresh keg.
They both break into fits of laughter. “Oh my gosh!”
says the osteoblast, “Dead Guy is a German-style
Maibock that’s deep honey in color with a malty
aroma, rich hearty flavor and a well balanced finish.
Now does that sound like the kind of beer we drink?”

Friday, April 13, 2012

I am the Elite?

There is a chasm between stay-at-home moms and moms who work outside the home.  I’m not so na├»ve as not to recognize it.  I’ve (wrongly) bristled when working moms insist they “could never stay at home with their kids.  How do I do it?” and have been the object of polite oh that’s so nice statements followed by awkward silences after admitting I stay home with my kids.  What topics can one discuss with the stay-at-home mom?  Coupons, perhaps?  Toilet paper choices? 

Political strategist and pundit Hilary Rosen made a rather large flub when she accused Ann Romney, a (wealthy) stay-at-home mom of five boys of “never working a day in her life.”  She then said Mitt Romney has “very old fashioned views of women.”  Later, she clarified her statements, saying she wasn’t knocking stay-at-home moms, but rather exemplifying the large financial gap between working moms and Ann Romney.  I’m not going to linger on Rosen’s ad hominem attack on Ms. Romney- instead I’m going to transition to a blog post written by Hanna Rosin for Slate magazine entitled “No Apologies Necessary Hilary.”  I feel a comma before Hilary would’ve been appropriate, but whatever.  I generally enjoy Ms. Rosin’s writing- she writes for Slate and The Atlantic.  Last evening, however, she royally pissed me off when she wrote the following:

-there is no reason why we always have to use the "acceptable" formulation “work outside the home” every time we talk about mothers. We can admit that that’s an awkward phrase, and we can also admit that at this point staying home full time with your children is not only a choice but pretty much a luxury of the elite. And almost by definition makes it hard for you to relate to the average woman.

I, personally, had no idea that staying home with my kids was a sign of “elitism” on par with carrying a Prada purse and wearing Gucci sunglasses.  In my own experience, which I realize stands for nothing, many stay-at-home moms are lower-middle to middle class women who forgo higher-middle class status and “luxuries” in order to stay home with their kids.  They live in average neighborhoods, their husbands or partners earn average salaries, and they budget and buy from consignment shops and garage sales in order to save money. 

But since my personal experiences are generally worthless, let’s look at scientific data provided by the 2010 census:

Compared with other moms, stay-at-home moms in 2007 were more likely to be:

  • Younger (44% were under 35 compared with 38% of mothers in the labor force).
  • Hispanic  (27% compared with 16% in the labor force.)
  • Foreign-born (34% compared with 19% of mothers in the labor force).
  • Without a high-school diploma (19% versus 8% of mothers in the labor force).
Uneducated, young, foreign-born or Hispanic stay-at-home moms: the new definition of “elite.”  There you have it.

I can only guess that Rosin is implying that anyone who is not working-class, i.e. the lower-middle class to the uber-rich, is now a part of the “elite.”  And here I thought the middle-class families were the ones who were crumbling, the ones the presidential candidates are ardently promising to save. 

Truthfully, even if I wanted to work, the cost of daycare would not make that choice financially prudent.  Though my husband makes a lovely salary, when you take into account taxes and those pesky school loan payments, we are right smack dab in the middle of the middle class.  It’s still my choice not to work outside the home (I work part-time inside the home)- and that may very well change next year when the four rugrats are in school- but let me tell you what.  Having kids is expensive and emotionally taxing, whether or not you are a working mom or a stay at home mom.  We each wipe butts, worry about paying for college educations, stay up late nights when our kids are sick or have had a nightmare- we each have hopes and dreams for our kids, and none of us wants our daughters to become middle-aged divorcees struggling to make ends meet while raising three teenagers.  We are moms.  Why, Rosin, do you exacerbate the unnecessary rift between us?  Why do you make it sound like staying home is akin to yachting up and down the Mediterranean? 

For many middle-class moms, staying at home is a choice.  For others it is not.  Some days, staying at home with a cooing infant is a luxury.

Mostly, it’s just really hard work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Life is Like a Baseball Game

Life at our house is much like a baseball game.  Most of the time, it's a bit slow with occasional and sudden moments of intense frenzy and running around like looney-birds.  Also, at any given moment my kids scream out things like "POPCORN!,"  while John screams out, "BEER!"  And I am prone to blurting out "The Star Spangled Banner" at least once a day.  So, yes, our life is much like a baseball game.

We took Danny and Caleb to the season opener of the Red Wings on Saturday.  On Sunday, we enjoyed a musical and convicting service at our church, and then had a lovely dinner with family in Lockport, where I offended everyone by calling Jesus "the ultimate zombie."  Personally, I believe Jesus MUST have a sense of humor; otherwise, how do you explain the platypus? 

Some photos from the weekend:

I bought the twins sunglasses when March tricked me into believing sunny days would reign well into next November.

Oversized sunglasses are in.

Ella loves to pose.

My mom and sister arranged an Easter egg hunt. 

Not too old to search for candy.

Someone's mouth is full.

We decorated cookies.
Ben insisted my mom get out red sprinkles because red is his favorite color. This poor rabbit looks like it's been slaughtered.

Amazing blue skies.

We went to the Red Wings opening day on Saturday.
This is Daniel without a hot dog.

This is Danny with a hot dog.
You can draw your own conclusion. 
All right, I'll tell you.
Life is better with a hot dog. 
The kids are on spring break for the week, and let me tell you, I am going nuts.  Wherever I am, there's a child underfoot, begging me for a snack or tattling on Daniel. Poor Daniel is always the one who gets tattled on.  Caleb retreats into his own room to read or play by himself a lot of the time.

When you get Caleb alone, he is conversely really talkative and will share things on his mind.  He told John, "Dad?  I'm happiest at home.  I'd rather just stay home than go anywhere else."

Often, I give myself a hard time for not having a more organized life, a neater home, a stricter schedule.  But my kids- they don't seem to care.  They revel in the chaos and rest in the peaceful moments in between.

Life is like a baseball game.  It's dirty, hard, sometimes horribly predictable, sometimes full of surprises, the players always striving to get home. 

I'm glad my kids are home. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Longing and Hope in "A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country."

Today, I have the privilege of bringing to your attention a small book of exquisite poetry by Daniel Bowman Jr, a graduate of my alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan College.  Dan is currently a professor of English at Taylor University in Indiana, where he lives with his beautiful wife (whose own writing talent ought to be mentioned) and two children.  I also happen to know that Dan has a lovely singing voice.

I am not a poetry critic nor do I pretend to be.  I do not often sit down with a book of poetry and just read; I read fiction for the story- I turn to poetry when I want to revel in the beauty of language.  Nonetheless, here are my humble and completely unbiased thoughts on “A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking County.”

Dan’s poetry is accessible in its simplicity yet full of mystery, depth, and a feeling of longing.  The poems have an especially strong sense of place, whether they transport the reader to middle America or the pastoral countryside, or gritty realities of big city life. 

He speaks of Rochester:

This place is a longing,
Downtown its lonely form,
The great lake my only body.

And baseball:

The Yankees lost but it’s only July and we’re thirsty, we flee the Bronx, switch trains at midtown, take the Q all the way to Sheepshead Bay, wander into the bar closest to the stop which seems to be some kind of cosmic tennis club for models who speak only Russian. 

And the Mohawk region of New York:

Ashes bring hard faith:
In my vision, only the late nigrescence
The symphony at Stanqix,
And always the open field.

And waiting:

November straddles plum-black fields.
November waits for me,
Its shadows like dreams in the dry stubble. 

English majors at Roberts Wesleyan College were fortunate to take classes from two fantastic professors: Judd Decker and Dr. Harold Hurley.  Whether you liked Hemingway or not, you could not help but become excited by Dr. Hurley’s love of Papa’s sparse language and baseball imagery. Jud Decker, whose voice was sleepy yet droll, was in love with two Tess’s- Tess Gallagher, noted poet and fiction writer, and of course, Tess of the D’urbervilles, Hardy’s most tragic literary figure.  Professor Decker opened his students’ eyes to beauty of language:  from Emily Bronte’s depictions of foggy English moors in England to Anne Tyler’s quirky characters and haunting prose in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.”  Every single class, Professor Decker was drunk on words, and those of us just beginning to understand that books would become an important facet of our own histories felt privileged to view literature through his lovesick eyes. 

I see Wuthering Heights and Anne Tyler and Thomas Hardy in Dan’s poetry.  I see Tennyson and Frederick Buechner and Emily Dickinson.  Thumbing through a copy of Buechner’s “A Room Called Remember,” a collection of essays assigned in Professor Decker’s “Contemporary Lit” class, I noticed I’d underlined one sentence in the entire book.  Just one!  I don’t know why.  Anyway, it reads: These are the moments that in the depths of whatever our dimness and sadness and lostness are, give us an echo of a wild and bidding voice that calls us from deeper still.

These words capture the essence of Dan’s poems:  while there’s an underlying feeling of longing, sadness, and fogginess, beyond the dreamlike nature of each verse hope resounds.

If you’ve never been into poetry, this slim volume of wonder is an excellent place to start.

April Poem
by Daniel Bowman, Jr.

Every year about this time
I bury my mother’s bones
And in May
They spring up as lilacs
And in June they float softly

On the Irondequoit Creek
And in July they march down
Columbia Street
And end with smoke.
In August they become

Poison Ivy creeping
Along the trail where I walk
With my daughter.
Soon they’ll be hidden
Under dead leaves and snow.

The thaw will have its say
Again next year
And I’ll reach for the shovel,
Happy for moonlight
And a grasshopper’s song.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Being Batman

Pinned Image

“Nooo! Don’t hit me! Pleeease! HELP! HELP!”

These were the sounds coming out of my house last night. The door was wide open, the night air carrying the noise across backyards and driveways and into people’s homes.

We have to feign domestic abuse in order to get Kiah into the house at the end of the night.

I’m serious. It’s the only thing that works. We make a ruckus and Kiah bounds inside, eyes burning coldly, her black fur shining like justice. We have a canine Batman. She stares John down like nobody’s business. One of us rushes and closes the sliding glass door so she doesn’t escape again.

Somehow, we failed miserably when it came to dog-obedience training.

On the other hand, it’s nice to have canine Batman on my side. (I’m thinking of getting her a cape.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Twins in School: To Separate or Not to Separate?

I’m a little nervous about the fall.

Daniel and Ella will be attending full-day kindergarten.

It’s going to be weird, to suddenly be without any of my kids for seven hours every day. Not that I’m complaining. I’m sure I’ll find something to do. There are soap operas to watch, clothes to be purchased, snacks to consume, and people to gab on the phone with. That’s not where my concern is at all.

There are two things I’m worried about. First, Ella on the school bus. Have you seen this child? She’s five, but she looks and talks like a three-year old. And she throws fits. Tantrums of grand proportions. Screaming and caterwauling and lying upon the floor, belly down, in protest of what she perceives to be some indignity done against her. Like I didn’t have apple juice in the fridge. Or I deigned to suggest she not wear pajama bottoms to school. Things like that.

I feel that these fits pose a problem if they happen in the den of iniquities, i.e. the bus. Then again, Caleb, Ben, and Daniel would be there, too- I’m so conflicted. Yay bus or nay bus?

Second, the school district is putting significant pressure on me to separate the twins. I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach about this. First off, I don’t want to go from juggling two different teachers and two curriculums to suddenly juggling four different teachers and four curriculums. I’m not that organized.  And, come on, this really is all about me.  I’d love for the twins to have the same homework, same field trips, same class parties, etc.

The CSE director, who directs Ella’s IEP, strongly encouraged me to separate them. “Speaking as a twin…” she said.

Speaking as a twin? That’s not being objective, right? Of course she'd be a twin.  Poop.  Her points were valid, I admit. All the reasons I want them to stay together- they like being together, they understand one another better than anyone else, they don’t like being apart for longs periods of time- are “bad,” signs of “codependency,” and “perceiving two individuals as one unit.”


They are only five. Is encouraging them to be apart at such a young age truly healthy? Unlike identical twins or even same-sex twins, even though they have a strong bond, they are not joined at the hip. They have separate interests, different friends at school, and now, separate bedrooms.

I’d like to keep them together for kindergarten. This is going to make that “that mom” in the eyes of the district.

Poop again.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday Hodgepodge With a Poem

1. I April fooled my kids. I told them I wasn’t making their traditional Sunday evening pancake dinner, but would be serving liver and onions instead. There were some tears. April Fools! I shouted. They were nonplussed. I would say that overall it was not a successful April Fools joke.

2. It’s National Poetry Month! It’s also International Guitar Month, National Frog Month, and Stress Awareness Month, which of course means that all of my posts will be written in syllabic verse from the perspective of a guitar-playing frog under a lot of stress. He wears a sombrero and his name is Bruce.

(I will be substituting Monday songs for poems, just for the month of April. Please look for next week’s review of my friend Daniel Bowman’s Jr.’s book of poetry A Plum in Leatherstocking Country, published this past January.)

Some thoughts on poetry:

“A poet's work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Salman Rushdie.

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision- a faith, to use an old fashioned term. Yes indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Mary Oliver.

“A Poem begins with a lump in the throat.” Robert Frost.

“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” W.H. Auden.

“A poet is a professional maker of verbal objects.” W.H. Auden.

I’m a little bit in love with Auden. If he was alive, not gay, and I was unmarried, I would totally pursue him, even though (and these were also his words) he has a face that looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.

Unfortunately, these are not minor obstacles.

3. Sometimes you have to dig a grave and bury your dreams. My dream of being a lounge singer is dead. I realize this is a strange dream, but I’ve always wanted to be the one wearing a slinky dress singing smoke songs in a non-smoky establishment where the tinkling of martini glasses and sporadic laughter is the back-up band to my back-up band. Alas, it is not meant to be.

I blame my father entirely.

If YOU had a dad who played the piano ten times better than you can sing, but who says he doesn’t FEEL like playing at events or weddings anymore because he’s getting OLDER, wouldn’t you blame him too? I don’t have time to find a piano player, a bass player, and a drummer! I’m a 34-year old mother of four! What would you do if your dad would rather play Bach than Gershwin?

Am I singing “Embraceable You” right now? Yes, yes I am.

4. It’s also National Humor Month! See, there’s some sort of a theme to this post? Except for the awful sadness of the death of my lounge-singing dream. Of course.

And so I'm adding one more Auden quote for good measure: “Among those I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” (This is why I keep Ella around, actually.)

Your Laughter

Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the lance flower that you pluck,
the water that suddenly
bursts forth in joy,
the sudden wave
of silver born in you.

My struggle is harsh and I come back
with eyes tired
at times from having seen
the unchanging earth,
but when your laughter enters
it rises to the sky seeking me
and it opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the darkest
hour your laughter
opens, and if suddenly
you see my blood staining
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

Next to the sea in the autumn,
your laughter must raise
its foamy cascade,
and in the spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my echoing country.

Laugh at the night,
at the day, at the moon,
laugh at the twisted
streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me bread, air,
light, spring,
but never your laughter
for I would die.

Pablo Neruda