Welcome to Greenville

Already the relentless moon has pulled me five months away from Madison, and I don’t know if it feels like yesterday or forever. When I close my eyes, Ramona is in the backseat of the Rendezvous and we’re driving down Whitney Way towards Woodman’s grocery, or I’m beside Lake Mendota, cold September breeze and Norway maple’s bright yellow hands and the memory of my womb, full of life. I remember the rough carpet in our apartment and the hexagonal sandbox below, catalpa blooms along Lake Mendota Drive in June, the Lakeshore bike path all the way downtown to First United Methodist Church. I remember bao at Orient House on South Park and ming sabai at Sa-Bai Thong on University Avenue. So much life, those seven years, moving from newlywed into parent.

Now, I am more, always expanding into newness. My poetry is more central to my life than ever as Ramona goes to preschool, five full days a week. From the chilly attic of our Greenville home, I’m writing about change and reading Chen Chen and Naomi Shihab Nye and Elizabeth Bishop; I’m applying to MFA programs, lining out my 20 best poems across the tan tile floor.

Summer turns golden, and then we see frost in the morning at the school bus stop. Consistently, the days are about ten degrees warmer here than in Madison. I still check the Wisconsin weather from time to time, think about snow. I’m looking forward to winter here, wondering what it will be like. I’ve never lived so far south before, and yet still this is the midwest? The world is so large. The world is so small.

This small town grows on you, its people close-knit in the small streets around the square, stitched up Beaumont Avenue and into these few hills that look out to a land of flat. The sidewalks here remind me of my hometown, the small Illinois village of my childhood, tree roots pulling up the corner of the concrete, flowers and weeds waving from every lawn.

The trees here are better than our Madison apartment, where the west sun glared through the living room window all summer long. Here, our backyard is full to bursting with leaves and twigs, so shady that the grass barely grows. The tulip tree stretches taller than a four-story building. I am comforted by the age of the trees, this old house, the years that this place was home before it was our home. Our Madison apartment was a place of transience; grad school housing where we were limited to no more than eight years renting. Having lived there for seven, we were the longest remaining tenants in our building. But here, this house was the world for one woman, the space where she raised her children and lived into widowhood. This attic room was one of her children’s bedrooms, “E’s room,” according to the note on the breaker box in the basement. The house is heavy with her stories; it makes it a warm place to live.

As I walk Oak street past Dairy Queen and our neighbor’s wilted garden, the burning bush still vibrant with autumn red, I find Greenville a good place to be. I hardly miss my before, my large home of lakes and liberal politics. It only takes a few months to remember how lovely a small town can be, even if it doesn’t have huge public libraries and what seems to me now endless restaurant choices. What it lacks, it makes up for in friendly faces and a sort of informality, a nonchalance about keeping up the yard and having the trendiest wardrobe. I am not anonymous here, and as someone who often chooses silence yet still wants to be seen, the lack of anonymity cheers me.

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.

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.

Green Hills and Desert Valleys

For much of my life I thought myself unhappy. I thought that I’d be happy once the “next thing” happened. I tried to fight this feeling, made the tagline of my life, “Endeavoring to live in ‘now,’ not in ‘soon.'” I struggled greatly against pressing ever forward to some future place where I’d finally feel fulfilled.

This has changed in the last two years. Before Ramona was born, I believed having children would be the thing that finally completed my happy scene. It was the “next thing.” After she was born, I was, for the first time I think, legitimately unhappy. Not depressed, just miserable. I found myself finally and unavoidably confronted with my great depravity, with my insatiable desire for ever-greener pastures.

Here I was, living a dream of mine, and I was full of bitterness: giving birth had been a waking nightmare, breastfeeding was painful and stressful, and the always, always-present demands from Ramona became infinitely taxing. I had crossed over the green hill and found myself in a vast desert valley. And it was here, in this desert, that I gave up on looking forward to better days. I realized that the future holds no unbreakable promise of greater happiness—it may in fact hold greater pain. It’s a thing I always knew in my head was possible but never believed in my heart would come to pass.

As day by day I began to fall in love with Ramona (the nature of her birth did not allow for that instant connection some mothers experience after giving birth), I also experienced sorrow upon sorrow. When Ramona was a week old, there was a death in the family. Around that time breastfeeding took an awful dive and we resorted to pumping and dropper feeding. I became very nervous about Ramona’s feedings, and when she had a nursing strike a few months later, I began a hard journey through delayed letdown issues that never really resolved for as long as I was nursing her. I felt lonely and isolated from other mothers; I had a hard time figuring out how to balance mothering with my own personal needs. I wrote a whole series of heart-sore poems like this:

Eve, Fallen
Somehow—between baby showers and birthing class—
I missed that when this bewildered sea creature
wails her awakening to the world,
she will demand my breast at each hour,
creasing and blistering until, in infant’s Eucharist
she drinks blood from my nipple:
drains milk and life from me
so I shiver and fold like a dry leaf.
My eyes hollow, even my heart
hollows as I kindle
this tiny flame that was lit from the ashes
of my body. She nestles clenched, anxious,
lost in this cold world;
I am all pain and weariness. But I am also
mother, feral instinct,
fierce protector.
I pull her toward my warmth; whisper,
This is the good place. I’ll hold you tight ‘til it’s better.

But as all this was unfolding, I was also learning finally how to live in the now, how to be thankful for the beauty still present in my life, for the simple things: a glass of cool water; clean, folded diapers; a ray of light piercing through the living room curtains; blue snow glimpsed out the window during a late-night nursing session. I thought to myself, Perhaps things will get better. But maybe they won’t. I’d be a fool to not search for light and loveliness in my life right now.

And so I found the grace in all that pain. In many ways, my life is easier now. But the lesson has stayed with me: revel in whatever beauty is in this one day, this one moment, even if the big things are all going wrong, even if I’m crying in pain or screaming in frustration. Acknowledge the beauty; it’s there—and it is the only guaranteed good because tomorrow might be greener, or it might be a vaster desert.

If I can let the light in on the dark days, I will be all the more able to bask in the light of the best and brightest days.

I have let go of wistful dreaming for the future. I realize sorrow is probably lurking somewhere in my future, sorrow that may match that of the past. But I don’t dwell on that either. Instead I take the gift of today and do my best to be ever thankful.

Briefly

Sixty-seven degrees today, and it feels like maybe, finally, we’re getting some traction under our feet and spring is on its way. The wind pounds and whips the salty mud; the air feels so different on a day like today—a day of sunshine and buds. Deep beneath, there is a waking of all small, green things.

After this winter of eternal gray—the dry cold beating down the door and slithering between the sheets—it’s hard to believe in spring. And summer? Summer is a fleeting breath between deep frosts.

But when it’s 67 degrees outside and the wind nearly blows your feet from under you, there is no option but to breathe, breathe deeply this hope, this grace of light and life, however briefly.

Snowdrops
by Louise Glück

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Musings from the Mother of a One Year Old

You never noticed the peace. You only recall it now
that the child has fallen in the living room as you are getting dressed
and you run out, half naked, to make sure she is okay and
you hope the neighbors aren’t looking through the window because you weren’t really planning
on giving them a show this morning. You remember
or try to remember
what it was like before your life got so tangled in drool and poopy diapers.
Before, when Children’s Motrin commercials didn’t make you cry,
when you didn’t know any lullabies, when you thought motherhood was sort of romantic,
when you could never have fathomed the mess
would be so beautiful.