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In my early adolescence, when I was busy trying to separate my meaning from my mother’s I found a church-going family who helped me in this task. They -like I- were quick to point out her sacrilege: her poverty, her politics, her single parenting (they did not know, like I did, what the alternative would have looked like). And I, like them, became spitefully critical of the church she’d taken me to when I was a child: A place marked as irreverent for its open willingness to negotiate through the beauties and follies of a number of faiths.

I borrowed the criticism of the Unitarian Church, like I borrowed the criticism of my mother. I refused her christianity, and so she made a new round of it, refashioning her faith in a new space that I did not snub at the time (though I wouldn’t put it past myself now, knowing my history).

I began looking too, sure that the “real” church could provide what I needed in a community and faith, if it was so self-assured and critical of everyone else. After years of looking around, blinking dumbfounded at congregation after congregation, often as numbed and insensitive to me as I was to them, I came to question the right for religious institutions and their spokespersons to point fingers.

It has been a long time since I’ve stepped into a church building. In my time away, I have let my imagination run wild with the grotesque possibility that all churches– indeed the buildings themselves–would represent everything I wouldn’t want a church to be: exclusive, apolitical, self-protective, anti-humanistic, gold-plated and in the clouds.

I walked in this weekend to wood. To the smell of it. To walls, darkened in places with old oak knobs and lit with the honey of split planks. There was a wooden rocking chair in the tall ceilinged meeting room– in case someone like me, wandering in, would want to keep a small child with me, rather than turn her over to strangers. And in all that crafted wood, and the murmur of forested voices, there was a whisper of worship at the pulpit- but worship, identified in working hands and good rest, in the richness of the land and the possibilities of music.

The man picked up that old book, laughing, laughing and proceeded to tell us the things in it that he found useful: A young prophet, politically radical enough to have been executed by the state. A message of peace and disarmament; the pounding of weapons into ploughshares and scythes.

This is not the first time I have realized a need to restitch myself to a history I rejected in my youth, but its the first time I’ve considered that task to be spiritual. Something in me feels deeply drawn to the idea of building a community in a place that wrestles (faithfully) with environmentalism, human rights, and peace, in ways that have been instilled in me since my childhood. I see room here, not for me to agree with everything, but to set a course down, and learn from others, in a community of people who hold on to whatever point of religiosity seems to make the most cultural sense to them, while still insisting on sharing a conviction that there’s something spiritual about the loves and joys and politics that we might live together.

When I arrived home, I called my mother, to tell her I knew something — some little thing– of what she’d lent me in life. and to apologize.


Despite my lack of time this month, the press to start writing and processing some of the harder parts of my life has been keeping me up into the night, after B and Andy have bedded down. Writing for me has always been, before other things, a tool for processing my world.

Some of the stories might be submitted for publication, if I can adequately and carefully determine how to tell stories that I do not have solitary claim to (for they are always, also, it seems, my mother’s and daughter’s story). Many of the stories are not polished- and I do not intend to make them “publishable.” They have simply been good for me to get out of my head, so that I can keep them from rattling around up there and getting in the emotional way of other things that I’d like to write. And that, so slowly, is beginning to happen: I have almost said enough about myself, to start to need to make things up. I am almost –almost– back to writing fiction.

Julianna somehow talked me in to this self portraiture project. I find it a little embarrassing, but think it’s good to have friends who talk you into your own discomfort. Here it is again:

I was out on a collection walk early this morning. It seemed like a necessary beginning to the day, after another unsettled night. For as long as I can remember I have used walks like this one to clear my head and calm my spirit. A collection walk has a simple measure: I step outside. I decide on some beautiful thing that I might find a variety of, and then I meander, green space to green space, on a quest for the irrelevant thing I am seeking. It gives me something to focus on, to appreciate, to hold in my hands. Small stones, twigs, bark varieties. Red things, grasses, seed pods, types of beetles. My mother would throw fits about all of my collections when I was younger, mostly because I would find bizarre places to keep them (for instance, spiders in the freezer). Perhaps she assumes age or time has allowed me to grow up past this need to collect little bits of the outdoors, and leave them in questionable spaces indoors.

It is not the case. Today I was out collecting summer leaves. And with a pile of them in the bathroom sink, I took on this project of the eyes. I don’t have much to say about my eyes, so I’ll let their green and the leaves speak for themselves.

My first lesson in ritual masking was taught by my godmother. For the application of a base layer, she would close the door to the bedroom, and I would wait on the other side of it.   When finished,  I would hear her voice rise, “Luthe”, “”Lu-thee,” shrill, because she expected me to be downstairs. I was never downstairs.   I ran down and back up, to make the patter of sound she would expect, and then went in to see her same face, only made-up peach.

In the time it took for her to apply the mask, she would don not only a face cover, but a persona.  She became vibrant, electrically charged, and prepared for the worst. You could hear the change in the way she breathed.

She was not just putting on make-up, she would tell me. There was a spiritual preparation, bound in and up with her ritual paintings. It prepared her for the worst of days and doctor’s visits.  I was young though, and I wasn’t looking at much but her face. I made poor correlations, dismissed her comments on meditation, and understood the transformation as a power of the mask.  “Someday,” she promised “I’ll teach you about meditation.”  I have yet to get this lesson.

Now, whenever I am home, she shuts the door for long hours. I wear this weight: She has come to use the same meditation and mask to prepare herself for the every day that she once designated only for the worst of them.  Day and worst have become synonymous.

I know, only a little of what “the worst” once was, before it became systemic.  The mask was always applied before a visit to the hospital. These visits were frequent.  She’d suffered a  long medical battle to keep her only child alive. The failure of this minute-by-minute endeavor, after twelve years of hospitals, made her voice quiet to a whisper, wearied and perhaps afraid, when she spoke of doctors and hospitals. Twelve years would be enough, I’m sure, to make anyone whisper about them. But before a real breath was taken, she was back to the hospital. Scripted on her own body, a cancer grew. She was in the same strange-lit hallways, waiting, always waiting, on procedures and results and new promises from doctors eradicating her body of one carcinogen, and filling it with another: the burnt post-chemo pain that she still wears.

I knew this history, but as a child, I understood very little of what any of that pain meant. I was invincible still, little-touched by the marring and marred way this world twists us up into adults.  I’m not claiming that age lets you understand pain, it just seems, with time passing, to demand a more frequent acknowledgment.

And in this forced acknowledgment I  have come to understand the tri-part tool of a self-mask: to conceal ones own pain, to use a barrier, a protection from the next very-possible pain, and to create a persona that can negotiate these spaces of pain with some perceived holding-it-togetherness.

While I might not have fully understood, I was privy at a young age, to the seeming usefulness of a mask.  I used it sparingly in my younger years, but, in preparation for my move to college, which involved the purging of material collections that had defined my childhood, I evaluated and carefully packed the usable masking tools from my room.

I practiced the application for a week before leaving for school. I had learned in the local theater how to draw fish tails and white spots by my eyes to open them up, how to emphasize cheekbones and draw lines to appear like wrinkles. I intentionally modified my technique, to design a new face for close-up encounters. It was a mask, I assumed, that would let me start again, in a new space. I mustered up a mantra to go with the self-painting, in order to convince myself into the  modified face.   And so I very intentionally fell into the trap of women’s masking.

In a purse I had never used, I packed the stage makeup and the few compacts I had been given as gifts from well meaning family members in my earlier years. I still have this expired collection.

The first day of classes I prepared myself, shutting the bathroom door, and smearing over my more familiar face. By the second day the time spent on my ritual already seemed absurd, the daily tasks manageable. Years later, when I was new to teaching those freshman classes I once attended, I maintained the ritual of first days. I painted my face,  I focused on my breath. And by the next day, I found it unnecessary.

It was also, in the early years of my marriage, a standard practice to don the mask while I was in my mother in laws home; A place where mother and daughter refined themselves in mirrors in the morning, and I, newly part of the family, and in their space, followed suit.

Recognizing the pettiness in the way I have chosen to don the mask, it has been applied less frequently as I age. Perhaps my scale of tolerance for the world has  strengthened as the experiences that my own body has come up against have become more frightening. I am numbed, now, to the more simple fears of my youth. and their more simple concealments and solutions.

But, because this is a mask I own, I thought it appropriate for the self-portraiture project, despite its commonplace status among women.

And so, a mask:

Juliana and I swelled up, last year, in time. Our daughters were born the same month. We shared a midwife, and I was secretly apprehensive that we would go into labor on the same day, and the midwife would miss my birth. We’ve shared a few play dates and dinners since our daughters were born. The girls have aged enough at this point to acknowledge one another’s presence long enough to take each other’s things. I’m not sure we should call this playing. But we do.

Since I’ve know Juliana she’s talked about leaving. The first thing I knew about her was that she was moving to North Carolina. And for this reason, I’ve been a not very wonderful, half-committed friend.   Living in a transient space like Bloomington, I tend to warm up most to those who buy houses and plant asparagus. I don’t care for the feeling of being left.

Juliana is leaving. And she is leaving to do a lot of the things I say I would love to: to build a yurt in the woods and write her demons away and her pleasures into being. I haven’t figured out how she manages to write at all with a child the same age as mine, but its what she’s got planned for the year, and I can’t help but be envious of the way she sees possibility in her approaching time.

Juliana is also someone I respect for her commitment to writing in community, something I tried once, but felt disheartened by and have not done again. She attends and leads workshops in town, and sets up writing prompts in her public journal to encourage her more distant writing community together. Just now, she has posted a self-portraiture prompt at her journal.

I’ve always been both too proud and too puzzled to do much with writing prompts and I almost snubbed my nose to this too.  But I got to thinking about how many photographs I’ve taken this year in which I am a prop, a balance. Here a child leans against my leg, here I hold her at her waist. You can see my arm in this one. It feels indicative of my year. My body has become secondary to hers, acknowledged only for the fragmented ways it maintains her: It feeds a child, holds a child, puts a child to sleep, cleans, dries, guides, protects, changes a child.

I wonder what an intentional movement from the blurred background to the center of a photograph would do for my sense of self.  I wonder what making time to reflect on a body, a little less small and round, and a little more my own, would allow me to discover.

I am afraid to find either a poor unnecessary pride or a violent shame. Or worse than both, perhaps, nothing at all of the self that was before her.  This project, if I’m honest, is a crying out. The sort of call you make to mountains, waiting for an echo. And I wait for this: I need a reconfirmation, be it only a hallow reverberation of the hullabaloo I make,  that something about the self I knew before was not forced to be forever buried now that someone else’s needs dictate mine.

And so, I’ll be taking this snapshot project up. I’ve impregnating the undertaking with a little too much planned self discovery. And I’m apprehensive for reasons it seems, a little different than the other women who are also committing to self-photograph. They seem afraid of their beauty value, I am afraid that the photographs will be a sham, an imposter’s depiction of a re-centered self. Because what I am really after is not the image, but the centering.

On the rare occasion that we come upon a holiday with a good history I firmly believe that we should refuse the halmarkization and do something productive with it. We, of course, had little time for any great rallying around mother’s day. We had a potluck brunch today with neighbors, and I shared this moving piece, the original “Mother’s Day Proclamation” By Julia Ward Howe:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace. 

I hope to make time to approach and participate in a mother’s day modeled on this proclamation. It has been 140 years since this was published, and to my knowledge, no such international meeting of women has taken place. nor any such commemoration of the dead.  Yet we are still riddled and run by international wars. and I’m puzzling over how we might celebrate –truly celebrate– mother’s day in the midst of this. As our family learns how we want to engage American cultural traditions we can recognize that there is something here to be held on to, pressed, and pursued. While I snub my nose to the  slew of commercialized holidays our country prizes, I would like to think about ways to reawaken holidays such as may day and mother’s day, to rally up, to think about what we stand for and how we celebrate and reclaim these convictions and days.

There is one old tree left at the end of the driveway. Not one stretch of space on our plot of land is otherwise the same as it was four years ago. I feel myself slipping, sometimes, dizzy with how fast this bit of time is passing and place is changing.

Four years. We were impulsive, but not unmindful of the weight of our decisions. We opted to skip a wedding with all its extravagance and expense and we settled instead on a court-house marriage and a mortgage. We found the perfect house- 600 square feet of roofed-over space on a large-enough wooded lot that also had an adequately sunned quarter acre for a garden. It was on a dead end, and saw no traffic. The small wild field next door attracted summer fireflies that twinkled over it in our earliest nights here, and it felt like the something new of childhood all over again, but lacking the cliché that this sentence conveys. I suppose that’s about as close as I can get to saying much about early love.

There were more trees, beyond the field. This was a city space, but one that I could always qualify with the idea that there were “more trees.” It was a mile from the university where I taught and worked on my PhD- we could walk to work, bike to the summer market. The house was in disrepair, which made it affordable- and allowed us a frame in which we could learn, plan, and actualize our first joint fixing-up of a space we would come to know as “ours”. We gutted it, and we’ve worked the four years to salvage and harvest and collect the materials needed to smother this little house with our color schemes and organizational bents. We dug beds into the clay soil in that well-sunned patch. We did our share of making things “ours”, but we anticipated some things- the things we bought the land for- to stay as they were.

I had never lived in the city before this. And I, quite ignorantly, did not recognize immediately that the place did not share the same logic as the woods I grew up in. In the city, trees are not respected, and they are not yours. Fields are not left alone. They are sold off. Roads are extended. As neighborhoods “improve” the majority of the “more trees” are replaced with tall wooden fences.

A house, twice as tall as ours looms now where the fireflies used to light. By the logic of this place it is “beautiful.” The bit of field land that could have been left, or at very least, allowed to remain green in their front yard was shot over with a thick layer of gravel. The stones pierced our old wood siding like shrapnel as they laid it out. They buried our fruit bushes, and now, even as a new fence has been erected between the gravel and our plot of earth- the stones seep under. The neighbors are kind, but they believe in big houses and gravel, and I have difficulty reconciling our difference, because I have always lived before this, in the privileged of the woods. I draw the curtains to the west, and I do what I can to remember the trees and the field. To forget the siding.

While construction for the big house was still underway the city, who owned the halves and quarters of the trees that sprawled across our property and city property on the east side of our house decided a new drainage system and a fence would better serve the borders between our land and theirs. And we didn’t have much say in the matter, as the “city” who owns “city land” dictates the rules and zoning. And trees, I learned, are unsafe to have in the city. It is a real concern here that, if left alone, they could fall over on someone’s house. I petitioned them to leave us a single old maple in the front yard- far from any structures. It stands alone now, with fences in most of the places where it used to find its brethren.

It is a city maple, unlike the trees you see in the forest. There is an old metal post at the northern side of the trunk, that the tree has folded its bark around. Its limbs are awkwardly unbalanced, as a primary branch was loped off early to prevent the tree from getting in the way of the power lines. But it is the last old thing on this plot, and I fought to keep it because I had this sense that we needed a relic. a bit of something that binds us to the past, and shows us that the world can grow old, and does not always need early replacement. Something to remind us, that there was a before, and that we probably could have left well enough alone. We do not, of course, listen well to this old unsymmetrical prophet: everything else has been removed or strategically covered over. And it is not, of course, all the fault of the city and the new neighbors. We have made it “ours,” remember? We have repainted the wood siding and replaced the windows. We changed the front door. We covered every internal surface with wood, tile, paint, cabinets, fixtures. I dug out the slew of pink flowers that covered the front yard and gave them away to neighbors, because I find the color repulsive. I covered the grass with mulch, and set up an irrigation system that directs the water down from our new metal roof.

And we planted. First, to settle in and make the claim that we were staying put– but then, we planted to make up for all of the loss. I planted berry bushes and native wildflowers. We put in trees. We ceremoniously twisted together a pair of young ash to celebrate our marriage. We scattered young heirloom fruit trees through the back plot. They may set fruit this year. but it will be a long time before they rival the old maple.

But rival, or no rival, our time is passing in plants. We impatiently await the harvest of the asparagus, put in four years ago. This will be the first year that we will be able to cut shoots. A peach tree went in this August, planted over the placenta from our first child. She was born here, in our home, in a summer of cicadas. I labored in a water trough in our yard amid all the late season growth — and for all my bitterness about the changing landscape, I must also at least mention, that the land we have left is beautiful. And while trees typically fall more gradually than is true in our city, without the shade cast from the high branches, the ground bears anew. And we have changed the cycle, yes, but we have not aborted the fecundity of the land. It is re-seeding and sending up shoots. This starting over, while it appears new, is actually very old. The land, the earth under all of our covers, also, is our relic.

And all I can do about it, really, is try to catch it and pen it down. Here it is, I suppose, connecting, and passing. And I try to keep up by translating it into a recombination of old words. These too, I suppose are our relics, made new, re-seeding. When I was younger I found some sanity in trying to make sense of time passing, and it’s high time that I learn something from my youth. And it was youth that gave me the time and motivation to keep record–I would document the raging emotions that came with being young and aware that I could touch the world, and that it, too, was touching me. The page was my creative and constant forum- and I rambled across it, blind and self confident and messy as hell. and here i am again.


it has been too long since I’ve written anything. and of course, I am aware that I am falling back to the lofty and useless poetics that separate me from authentic life while I’m trying so hard to just get at it. I’m not choosing the right words, and I lack a deep sense of what needs to be said. I’m more self-conscious than I used to be, and I do not trust words like I used to. But I have this sense, perhaps, that if I keep at it, I’ll get there. And the belief that there is a trajectory is what I need right now. And so I’m writing to find it. I’m seeking out relics for meaning. I’m slowing the dizzy down. Which is the best I can do right now.


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The Small Is Beautiful Manifesto

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