Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This Is How It Is With Love


Poor Richard’s Almanac said, “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas,” but that hasn’t kept some of us from sleeping with our dogs. Here’s a poem about the pleasure of that, by Joyce Sidman, who lives and sleeps in Minnesota. Her book, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, won a 2011 Newbery Honor Award. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Dog in Bed

Nose tucked under tail,
you are a warm, furred planet
centered in my bed.
All night I orbit, tangle-limbed,
in the slim space
allotted to me.

If I accidentally
bump you from sleep,
you shift, groan,
drape your chin on my hip.

O, that languid, movie-star drape!
I can never resist it.
Digging my fingers into your fur,
kneading,
      I wonder:
How do you dream?
What do you adore?
Why should your black silk ears
feel like happiness?

This is how it is with love.
Once invited,
it steps in gently,
circles twice,
and takes up as much space
as you will give it.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Joyce Sidman, whose most recent book of poems is Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. Poem reprinted from The World According to Dog, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, by permission of Joyce Sidman and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

So. Very. Tired.


How can three days feel like a week? My son and I flew to Texas Friday for our niece/cousin’s wedding Saturday, and flew home Sunday. Whew. The wedding was at 5 p.m. with the reception and “after party” at my sister- and brother-in-law’s house lasting until much later. (I believe my son and nephew stayed up until 3…)

As usual, a trip/family milestone triggered some introspection. This go-round’s random observations

I feel lucky to get along so well with my husband’s family. I don’t have brothers and sisters so I love sharing his. All the fun without the drama!

I did more people watching. This time, I especially noticed the facial expressions of women my age and older. Some women (men, too) look like nothing pleases them, and they’re just waiting for an excuse to get mad. I don’t want to be—or to look—soured by life; I want to meet it with a smile, curiosity and optimism. How can I make my face reflect that?

It may be physically impossible not to dance to Play That Funky Music, especially after one has had a glass or two of champagne. 

An idea for after we drop our son off at college: make a bucket list on the way home in the car. My sister- and brother-in-law did this after dropping our niece (their youngest) at college. Might keep me from crying all the way home. (I said might.)

So that was my weekend. How was yours?

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

For Jen and Michael

Photo by Mary Cyrus, Mary Cyrus Photography
In honor of our niece’s wedding, some quotes on love:

“Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, translated from French by Lewis Galantière

“Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
—Robert Heinlein

“Anyone can be passionate, but it takes real lovers to be silly.”
—Rose Franken

Congratulations, Jen and Michael!

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Red Light, Green Light...Yellow Light?

Photo courtesy Balazs Szoke

Do you remember playing the game “Red Light, Green Light” when you were a child? One person is the stop light and the rest of the kids line up on the other side of the yard. When the stop light says, “green light” and turns her back, the other players advance toward her. When she turns back around and says, “red light,” anyone caught still moving is out. The stop light repeats this until either someone touches her or all the other kids are out.

It would be nice to have such clear signals in grown-up life, wouldn’t it? Someone or something to tell us “green light”—go forward, or “red light”—stop. Other than literal traffic signals, life is seldom that explicit. Occasionally, our desires and responsibilities neatly align, and we see a clear road ahead. More often, we must develop not only our own internal signaling system of red light, green light, but also a functioning “yellow light”—“use caution”—when making decisions. I want to talk about the importance of that yellow light.

When a decision looms or an exciting opportunity presents itself, yellow lights can keep us from rushing ahead too fast without thinking. Perhaps we’ve decided to focus on a specific goal, or we’ve committed to simplifying life and reducing our activities. After consideration, we may choose to stop instead of go forward. On the other hand, a yellow light might also keep us from automatically saying no when that opportunity arises. Some of us, myself included, can be too cautious—braking when we should step on the gas. Pausing at a mental yellow light, instead of slamming on the brakes, can open our cautious minds just a crack to let in new possibilities. Yellow lights keep us from saying yes or no automatically.

Just as when we approach a yellow light while driving, we must make a decision to stop or go forward. We can’t pause there indefinitely. Our internal yellow lights should be just like that: pauses while we make our decisions, not excuses not to make those decisions.

So how do we develop a healthy internal signaling system? Basically, by asking questions and paying attention to the answers. What will be the consequences of going forward or not going forward? Is this the right thing to do? The right time to do it? What are our bodies telling us (“gut feelings” are called that for a reason) while we consider our options? The more we listen, the more we can trust ourselves.

I believe we’ll live happier lives if we live more intentional ones. Becoming more aware of our inner green, red and yellow lights is one way to do that.

How does your intuition speak to you? Do you follow your own inner signals?

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let Them Go

Photo courtesy Kent Murray
In this lovely poem by Angela Shaw, who lives in Pennsylvania, we hear a voice of wise counsel: Let the young go, let them do as they will, and admire their grace and beauty as they pass from us into the future. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Children in a Field

They don’t wade in so much as they are taken.
Deep in the day, in the deep of the field,
every current in the grasses whispers hurry
hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume
like a rumor, impelling them further on.
It is the way of girls. It is the sway
of their dresses in the summer trance-
light, their bare calves already far-gone
in green. What songs will they follow?
Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm
or harm the border promises, whatever
calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless
through the high grass and into the willow-
blur, traceless across the lean blue glint
of the river, to the long dark bodies
of the conifers, and over the welcoming
threshold of nightfall.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from Poetry,; September, 2004, Vol. 184, No. 5, by permission of the author. Poem copyright © 2004 by Angela Shaw. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

What the Heart Can't Express

Photo courtesy Melissa Anthony

“Tears are words the heart can’t express.”—Gerard Way

Tears have been on my mind lately. Though I don’t break down and sob very often (thankfully), I tear up easily. A touching commercial, passionate conversation or beautiful performance can all start the waterworks. Frankly, I should just carry a package of tissues with me at all times. I grew teary at my son’s graduation, at my stepfather’s funeral, and I’m attending our niece’s wedding in a couple of weeks where I expect multiple incidences of tearing up. The wedding will be so fraught with emotion: excitement, happiness, nostalgia (for her growing-up years and my own long-ago wedding), there’s zero chance I won’t cry at least once.

Tears are actually quite interesting. There are three basic types of tears, according to Wikipedia: basal tears (tears that lubricate the eyes), reflex tears (those caused by irritation of the eye or actions such as yawning), and psychic tears (tears caused by emotions—both positive and negative). Emotional tears are made up of different chemical compounds than those caused by eye irritants, including leucene enkephalin, a natural pain-killer, “which is suggested to be the mechanism behind the experience of crying from emotion making an individual feel better” (Wikipedia).  

Tears can be the result of sorrow, grief, wonder, admiration, pleasure, passionate feeling, even prolonged laughter. While it’s true that you can laugh till you cry, it’s also true that you can cry until you laugh! Sometimes you have to go through the suffering (instead of avoiding it or “stuffing” it) to get to the happier “other side.” Crying it out can be a therapeutic way to take a step towards those happier times. (Maybe we should buy stock in Kleenex?)

One interesting thing I’ve learned about happiness since beginning this blog is this: I need to feel and accept my feelings—all of them, not just the “happy” ones. There will be very happy times and some not so happy and they’re all a part of a happy life. There will be tears and laughter (sometimes at the same time) and that is the way it should be.

What makes you tear up?

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It's Hard to Be Happy



“Everyone wants the easy fix. They’re bewitched by the idea that there is an easy road to harmony and happiness. But the truth is, it’s hard to be happy! People are complicated, and things go wrong. We have physical frailties, restless spirits, souls to fill. We’re constantly facing physical and emotional challenges. But these challenges are karmic gifts. They give us the opportunity to master our thoughts, to understand ourselves better. Suppressing emotion is the antithesis of advancement,” she continued. “You become a prisoner of your own emotions. You won’t progress on your journey.”
—Mary T. Browne, quoted in Valerie Frankel’s It’s Hard Not to Hate You

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Monday, July 8, 2013

A Day of Gifts


Last week was a tough week. Why is it every time I schedule some down time for myself, everything seems to go wrong? Nothing major, just a series of minorly-worrying events that taken together made me feel battered by week’s end.

Finally, Saturday came—a day of noticing the gifts right under my nose and a chance to rebalance. Some of Saturday’s gifts:
  • A strong breeze and cloud cover that kept the temps in the mid-80s, practically unheard of for this time of year.
  • A truly awesome ride on Tank, after wondering if I’d be able to ride at all. I spent many hours last week dealing with a persistent skin problem on Tank’s hindquarters and back (the so delightfully-named rain rot) that left him sensitive to even fingertip touch—so sensitive that I thought there might be something more seriously wrong with him. During our ride, he was so relaxed and responsive I think he enjoyed it, too.
  • Homemade blackberry and cream scones to go with my afternoon tea, drunk from a teapot/cup set that was a gift from a friend.
  • An afternoon spent reading a library book—and isn’t the library one of the greatest gifts of all?

These simple pleasures helped me remember how many gifts I really have—good health, a family I love, precious friends, amazing animals, and resources for entertainment and education through the library. So many gifts, if I stop to notice them.

What gifts have you noticed lately?

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bits of Night

Photo courtesy Kerem Yucel

One of the privileges of being U.S. Poet Laureate was to choose two poets each year to receive a $10,000 fellowship, funded by the Witter Bynner Foundation. Joseph Stroud, who lives in California, was one of my choices. This poem is representative of his clear-eyed, imaginative poetry. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Night in Day

The night never wants to end, to give itself over   
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.   
Even on summer solstice, the day of light’s great   
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun—   
we break open the watermelon and spit out   
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Joseph Stroud, and reprinted from his recent book of poems, “Of This World: New and Selected Poems 1966-2006,” Copper Canyon Press, 2009, by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Summer Rerun: Do Less in More Time

Note: I'm taking a more relaxed approach to blogging this summer, so occasionally I'm going to rerun a previous post. I hope you enjoy this one, from 2010. 

It's not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?--Henry David Thoreau

Some time ago, I was reading one of those magazines that try to help you simplify your life, and I came across an article touting the benefits of exercising during “downtimes.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m waiting for the spaghetti water to boil, I’m emptying the dishwasher or putting the Goldfish crackers back in the pantry. I’m already multitasking, and when I pick up a magazine that touts The Simple Life, I want that life to be simpler than the one I already lead, thank you. I think multitasking and efficiency have gone too far when I can’t make dinner or ride an elevator without being expected to tone my thighs.

Our culture seems to be obsessed with doing more, more, more. Anyone who doesn’t hold down a job and fill their leisure hours with “worthwhile activity” is a slacker. Among my friends and acquaintances, our most common complaint is how busy we are, or how behind we feel. In order to achieve all our goals (make dinner, get in shape…), we’re forced to multitask.

And where is all this multitasking getting us anyway? Are we finding great chunks of time to do things we really love? Or are we just making it possible to do two or 10 more unfulfilling, maybe even unnecessary tasks? I ask myself, do I really need to alphabetize my herbs and spices? Wash the laundry room shelves? Shave the dog?

Please don't shave me...

When you think about it, is multitasking really so great? Who hasn’t been irritated—if not endangered—by the classic multitasker: the driver talking on his/her cell phone?

But here’s the clincher. A study published in 2009 by Stanford researchers found that multitaskers are more distractible and have more trouble focusing than non-multitaskers. (And this is a surprise?) In short, according to those researchers, multitaskers are incompetent.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Perhaps our busyness and multitasking are defense mechanisms, meant to keep us from seeing the empty places in our lives. If we fill every minute with activity—sometimes with more than one—we won’t feel the loneliness, anger or anxiety we’re so afraid of.

Or maybe we’re afraid that others will think less of us if we don’t have a long list of activities and achievements to rattle off when we’re asked what’s new. What would happen, I wonder, if we told a co-worker we spent the previous evening playing board games with our kids? Would we lose his or her respect because we didn’t work late, shuttle the kids to gymnastics practice and pick up the dry cleaning? We’ve seen a certain smugness some of those busy people exude—and we don’t want to lose face in front of them. If we’re not as busy as they are, maybe we’re not as important?

Philosophical questions aside, we’re still faced with ever-increasing demands on our time and the same old 24 hours to meet those demands. Now we find out that one of our techniques for managing our lives is actually making them more difficult. Maybe what we need instead of a magazine article that encourages us to exercise during downtimes is a series of articles that give us permission simply to be in the moment, to appreciate the ambiance of a restaurant without doing ankle rotations while waiting for our salads to arrive. The first article could be “Do Less in More Time—a Guide to the Slow Life.” Other articles could include:

--“The Joy of Daydreaming”
--“Put Those Bills Away!” (How to watch TV without doing something else at the same time.)
--“Ten Ways to Say No to Unwanted Activities”

Come to think of it, we don’t really need permission from anyone. We have the right—the need even—to slow our lives down to a livable pace. Let’s give our poor overworked brains and bodies a chance to focus on one thing at a time. And occasionally, let’s make that one thing stopping to smell the roses.

...or watch the sunset

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