Making Bracelets

I tie tiny knots one after another, hours following patterned arrows on a chart—forward knot, backward knot, one half hitch to the right and one to the left—until the colors of the embroidery floss twine and wind into patches, rows, chevron, diamonds. I spin without clock, the pattern laid before me like the strange wheel of the orb weaver in the breezeway lamp. The spider is she who creates beauty not for its sake: the beauty is incidental to the nature of the web, a hunter’s tool. And what tool do I tie in a small band of color around the wrist of my daughter, my lover, my mother? In each knot, a prayer, a thought of the other—hands at keyboards and fingers around crayons and palms on greenware clay, age spots and caresses and the wringing out of all days. In the belly of the knots, the bracelet holds the sweat of a whole summer, soap residue of every shower in which for a moment, the shoulders relax. I tie knots to bind my fingers around the wrists of everyone I love. I hunt for the caress of cotton, for 4 a.m. fast asleep, for the yes to days’ work, inexplicable. Inexhaustible. The eye catching on the color of the banded wrist—there, my small prize of pleasure.

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.

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)

Oriole, Autumn Olive, and Cottonwood

Earlier this month, my mom and I took a weekend retreat to Christ in the Wilderness, a nearby hermitage. Below is a journal entry from my final day there:

A pair of orioles at my window. The female perches in an invasive autumn olive bush a few feet from where I sit. They fly across the valley, straight to the top of a huge cottonwood—the tallest tree, whose leaves in a wind sound like a river. I watch the oriole’s bright orange from branch to branch to branch. Breath taken. A sign from God. My favorite bird at my window then in my favorite tree. In ten minutes, Sister Julie arrives to check me out of the hermitage, and I know this visit from the birds is the most important thing that has happened to me while I have been here.
A few days later, back home, I return to thoughts of the orioles. I see the sign more clearly now. At the time, I wrote it all down, knew it was important. I just didn’t know what it meant. 
The female oriole is drawn to the autumn olive by my window. I hear her in me. She says, It is safe here. I will rest here. I will grow here. She does not know the plant she rests in is destructive, invasive—it will eat away at her world. Autumn olive is an extremely invasive and harmful bush—they fix nitrogen in the soil, disrupting native plant growth. They thrive in dry, poor soils.
I remember how when I first saw the autumn olive outside my window at the hermitage, it appeared fragrant and lovely. It grows low to the ground. It’s easy; it’s indulgent. It doesn’t seem bad when you see it—“the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.” I realize the autumn olive represents my stagnation, my desire to resist work and growth in favor of mindless leisure. I am ever battling laziness within me, that pull to sit in front of the TV with some junk food and tune out the world, tune out my heart. And though food and entertainment are not inherently bad, to rest only or mostly in these artificial, saccharine pleasures is toxic to the soul. Invasive bushes like autumn olive don’t provide the protection from predators that native plants do for birds. If I give in to the easy pleasures of the autumn olive, I endager my creative self. 
And the cottonwood? How tall it is! How far to fly! It’s imposing, but not fragrant, not easy. The reward in its branches isn’t obvious. I read up on cottonwoods and learn they flourish by water and provide shelter and food for many birds and mammals, as well as fostering a healthy fish habitat by providing shade and preventing bank erosion. The cottonwood where the orioles alight is the high place, the fruitful place. It is the place where I can find a truer restfulness as I tend to my creativity. It is a walk by the lake, a contemplative book, a journal entry. It is time spent crafting a journal or a card. The cottonwood livens me, livens not only my spirit but the spirits of those around me, in its sheltering branches and strengthening roots.
I am reminded of Psalm 1:
Oh, the joys of those who do not follow evil men’s advice, who do not hang around with sinners, scoffing at the things of God. But they delight in doing everything God wants them to, and day and night are always meditating on his laws and thinking about ways to follow him more closely.

They are like trees along a riverbank bearing luscious fruit each season without fail. Their leaves shall never wither, and all they do shall prosper. (Ps 1:1-3, Living Bible)
May I ever fly to the cottonwood’s true shelter and flee the shallow pleasure of the autumn olive.