In the Face of Rejection

A few days each week, Zach watches Ramona for a chunk of hours so I can bike off to the library or Panera or Starbucks to have some solid writing and reading time. I spend much of this time reading poetry, writing and revising poetry, and occasionally blogging.

And one quick, stabbing duty I perform every single time I do work: check in on Submittable. Quite a few journals use Submittable to manage writers’ submissions to their publication. My goal is to submit my poetry at least once every three weeks, so my Submittable account is filled with many of my attempts at publishing. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my publishing attempts (Submittable, paper submission, direct email, etc.), but there’s something special about signing in to Submittable and scrolling through all those stark red “Declined” statuses. Here’s a screenshot for you:

Lovely, no? In the last twelve months, I’ve written somewhere around 50 poems, I’ve sent groupings of these poems to 14 journals, and I’ve had a total of four poems accepted for publication.

My first thought here is that I should be submitting to more places. I’m also tempted to consider my poetry’s worth on the scale of how many “Accepted” submissions I have versus how many “Declined.” But I know such thinking is foolish. Even well-known poets have to send their work out relentlessly, over and over and over, if they hope to see it published. And so I loop back around to the thought, Send out more! Send them out more frequently! Hop to it, woman!

Honestly, I don’t usually mind the rejection (though it does irk me that Wisconsin Review never updated the status of my submission from “In-Progress” to “Accepted”). What feels more important to me is the work, and I believe the work itself has value to myself, my poetry group, my family and friends, even if it’s never seen by strangers or accepted by publishers.

I have this wish that every neighborhood would have a resident poet, someone who includes a poem in a neighborhood newsletter and holds readings and poetry gatherings. Because in me, there is a need for poetry, for the way it can capture a moment or a mood, the way it can express despair and beauty, the way it carefully arranges language so that in very few words, a reader can find a deep affinity with the poet. Poetry can bring us together, and it can bring us into awareness of the lives of people unlike us. And I think the writing of poetry can be powerful in the life of the poet, too, even if their work is not critically successful.

L’Engle and the Child Still within Me

I’ve been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water with my mom, and this week, I read this passage from her chapter “A Coal in the Hand”:

Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of writing this, I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-one, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…. If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.

The way this hits me is as a call for grace–grace for ourselves, our selves, past and present.

It’s so easy to glance back and blame/condemn/scold/dismiss my past selves for their foolishness. And it’s amazingly difficult to love who I was in the midst of my biggest mistakes. But I think L’Engle is on to something: I cannot be whole if I cannot love myself with God’s love–even as time gives me the hindsight to have a thousand if-only-I-had…’s.

I must set the tearful, timid, selfish girl that I was at five upon my lap, let her rest her head upon my shoulder.

I must wrap my arms around the lonely, self-deprecating, depressed college student and hold her tight, as she so needed.

I must hold the hands of the laboring mother and look deep in her eyes and say, “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. This failure doesn’t make you a failure, doesn’t void your motherhood and womanhood.”

I must forgive myself for the things that are most difficult to let go of because all these selves are me: I am the result of them; their lessons are mine. Their thoughts and cravings and perspectives are under my care, and they flesh me out into a roundness of cold and hot and happy and sad and gut-wrenching and fist-pumping and still, slow breaths.

If I forget who I was, I truly am diminished. If I hold all of me and accept all of me and forgive all of me, I grow to fill the wholeness God intended for me.

Dear fellow woman,

When you got dressed this morning, when you took a quick look in the mirror before doing your hair or eating breakfast or changing a little one’s diaper, what did you say to your body?

Did you say, “Thank you, dear body, for being strong hands to keep my loved ones safe!”

Did you say, “You are absolutely gorgeous, you sly thing!”

Did you say, “Look at that brave and capable woman!”

Because you should have. It takes a lot of practice to see yourself as beautiful. It takes daily reminders; and you have to be willing to revel in yourself, your fat and creases and stretch marks and wrinkles and messy mop of hair.

It takes vigilance to see all those advertisements with size-zero women–selling everything from lingerie to beer to dentistry–and remember there are myriad ways to be beautiful, in every body of every shape and color.

It takes strength to look at other women and see them as beautiful allies rather than threats or targets for your thousand judgments.

May we learn to stand together as women, to remind each other to be true to ourselves, despite cultural standards of beauty and femininity. May we sing in every harmony our brave song of beauty.

What Do You “Do”?

A couple of weeks ago, Zach and I met an older man at church, a retired pastor. He introduced himself and asked what Zach does (as most people ask us when we meet them). Zach told him he’s a PhD dissertator in literature. The man responded with the usual befuddled look and the joke, “So when you graduate, what coffee shop will you work at?”

Probably hoping for something more normal, he asked me the same question. I told him what I tell everyone these days: “I’m a poet, and I also spend a lot of time at home with Ramona.” Well, he didn’t even have a joke as a comeback for this response; a blank stare was all he could muster. When he introduced us to his wife, he told her our names and said Zach was a student. He said nothing about what I “do.”

How I choose to present myself to others may be a conversation killer, but I still feel like it’s really important. Because, while I feel called to my work as a parent, I don’t think it’s my motherhood alone that defines me. In fact, of all the labels I wear, the one I consider my primary occupation is poetry. It doesn’t make me any money, but it fulfills what I think of as my purpose.

It would be easier to just tell people I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t think that tells the real story of who I am. I also believe that words have power, and if I mislabel myself for ease of conversation or to be accepted, I won’t just be changing others’ perception of who I am. I will change my own perception of who I am, and in doing so, I will be changing who I actually am.

The are a lot of ways that I can be true to who I am: what I wear, what I spend my time doing, who I choose to be associated with, what I do with my money…and also how I talk about myself to others–not omitting parts of who I am, not belittling what I do, not treating myself with disresepect, but being truthful, wholly, even if other people don’t see the value or beauty in that truth.

Putting it into Practice

I love to buy new stuff. I love wandering thrift store racks, searching for skirts with eclectic patterns, for vintage dresses, for name-brand purses. And I love to buy shoes on Zappos. I love waiting for packages from Amazon. It’s really the best, pulling from cardboard something bright and shiny, something that still smells of warehouse and factory.

But I don’t believe in buying new stuff. Buying another thing I don’t need–duplicative purses, more skirts than days of the month, shoes in every color–it’s not healthy for me. Because no matter how many purchases I make, the hunger for unboxing never abets. I am never sated.

When I spend my time and money on new stuff, I’m encouraging and living out of my discontent. I’m also exploiting underpaid workers and feeding a system that undervalues the humanity of the targeted consumer. I’m accepting the religion of upward mobility, of upper middle class-ism, of a hierarchy that values the rich and the privileged and, at best, ignores the needy and the oppressed. What about living out of contentedness, Christianity, love, and justice?

I have been pointed to the blog Un-Fancy by several people in my life, and most recently by this mom’s post. As I read, I thought to myself, You know, you need to start acting on what you believe. You need to simplify and you need to stop buying. So I was inspired to start by raiding my closet.

I didn’t do the capsule wardrobe. Instead, I decided I’d get rid of 3/4 of my clothes. And then I wouldn’t buy anything new until something I had wore out. (My old friends will remember I did something like this sophomore year of college! I made it most of the school year before buying some pants at Gap.)

Bagging up all those clothes, many of which I still liked a lot, didn’t feel good. And now sometimes I miss some of the things I got rid of, but I still think it was the right move for me. I want to feel good about the person that I am and the things I put my time into. Putting so much emphasis on presenting myself just so through an ever-growing wardrobe was not something I wanted to spend my time doing.

Really, emptying my closet was the easy part. The hard part is not filling it again–and not just shifting my focus from clothes to other purchases. After dropping off about six packed garbage bags of clothes at St. Vinny’s, I bought a new water bottle. And a week later, I ordered a new backpack online. No good.

It was hard for me to stop spending money. It’s such an enjoyable pastime! I knew I needed to resolve myself to more than just a small wardrobe. I had to commit to a small everything–to the idea that one of something is enough, to the mindset that I am a good seamstress and I can fix what I have to work well enough. To the belief that I don’t need new to be happy–that, in fact, new will not make me happy even if I indulge in every purchase I desire.

After all, the center of my existence is not my investment in capitalist America. It’s my belief in a Jesus who loves and accepts us (everyone!) along with our crazy, my faith in a God who has set in my heart passions for words and for the craft of my hands. The center of my existence should be spreading love and justice, writing poetry, creating beautiful things. (And here I think, Ah, if only money didn’t make the world go round….)

I want to start a new pattern, to recommit to truth and beauty and justice. To meditate on this Bible verse: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8-9, The Message)

A Feminist in Skirts

Over the last several years, my wardrobe has shifted from about half skirts to mainly skirts to, now, almost exclusively skirts. Sometimes this makes me feel a bit sheepish because I worry what people might think of me. After all, it’s not all that normal for a 21st century American woman to wear only skirts.

What if people think I’m that Christian–the one who feels called to wear only skirts as a religious practice, and who probably also feels called to cover her head at church and submit in all things to her husband? Well, if you follow this blog or know me personally, you know that’s not me (if this is you, let me say, I respect your decision and your convictions, especially as they require you to go against the grain of the culture, which takes strength and self-assurance).

It’s silly, really, that I should worry what acquaintances might think this of me. But at the same time, I do desire my outward appearance to reflect my inner beliefs. That’s part of why I choose not to shave my legs or armpits–it’s my physical rebellion against the rigid, arbitrary, and often hurtful restrictions that our male-centric culture puts on women’s bodies, as if the culture at large has some right to dictate what women do with their own bodies. I hate shaving, and I don’t think I should feel “required” to, so I don’t.

And I wear skirts for some of the same reasons–comfort and personal preference–though wearing skirts doesn’t pack the political punch that not shaving does. I find it ironic that trousers for women were originally part of the feminist movement in America as well as a practicality for working women in some professions, but now, so many of the trousers made for women are so uncomfortable and impractical. I mean, skinny jeans? Seriously, if I try to cross my legs in those, my leg falls asleep from the knee down. And I hate that thing where every time you bend over in low-rise jeans, your butt  half falls out of your pants and your underwear shows and when you stand back up, you have to tug on the back of your jeans to get re-situated. And wedgies. And tight waistbands that restrict movement and cause muffin tops, which I’m not against aesthetically, but it’s just not comfortable for me to have my fat pushed out and over my pants like that. I’m not willing to allow fashion to make me uncomfortable in my clothes, and I’m not one to choose sweatpants or leggings every day (if you are, more power to you!), so I choose skirts, which I find absolutely comfortable.

And you know what else? This is true for some men’s fashions, too, and though I think fashion-conscious men probably have more comfortable choices than women, I think that men should be able to wear skirts, too, if they want. I mean, I love the way skirts feel, and I bet if it were socially acceptable, some men would also choose skirts over trousers. So that’s part of my stance, too: skirts for all!

Rite of Passage

Ramona was sick last week. Tuesday night, as I was singing her bedtime song to her, I caught a look of surprise in her eyes; then, vomit. And then, hours spent sitting by her bed with a bucket. Around 1:30 a.m., she was finished for the night, though she threw up again the next afternoon around nap time.

This was her first stomach bug, and that night as I sat by her bed, as 8:00 turned to 10:00, as I laid out a pallet to sleep on, as I held out the bucket in the dark at 11:45, I saw myself being inducted once again into motherhood. Honestly, it wasn’t so bad, just gross. Still though, it was a moment of change, a time when I realized I have a young child, no longer a baby. Which somehow surprised me and also made me feel satisfied. Knowing I’ll probably not have any other children helps me to be mindful even in the yucky, tiring moments of motherhood.

The most surprising part to me is that I didn’t get sick. My husband got sick, my mother got sick, both my mother-in-law and my father-in-law got sick (sorry, all, for spreading the bug). But somehow, I stayed well. This seems inexplicable, but I’ll take it, knowing full well there may be another time when I’m not so lucky!