striving versus contentment

July

Today I worked on my book, whipped up a cheesecake with my daughter, read the New Yorker profile on Martha Nussbaum, and wondered if I need to run ninety minutes a day and sing opera for an hour and get botox and only eat the small slivers of cake to have a effectual voice in the world.

I think I missed the point.

When it comes to striving versus contentment, I am never sure where I stand. And I never know whether it’s better to travel or stay still. Contentment can be delicious, an awareness of all the good things that are already there. And it can also have this overarching hollowness, like nothing out there is worth the effort.  It’s the same with striving. It can be generous, too, knowing there are all these things out there if you can reach it. And it can be hallow inside.

I am overthinking it. Often. But what I want to say is: the best part of my week was this moment I sat down on the ground outside with a bowl of popcorn and my children ran around me. And what I love are the trays of tulsi grown in Styrofoam cups outside the Indian grocery and the women that stand behind the counter and pack curry leaves and smile at my daughter.

And I want it all. And it might be too much, but it’s what I am going to ask for, again and again. And again and again, I am going to remind myself to be faithful to both. To the big and the small. To sit down with a bowl of popcorn. To listen. To hone my craft. To clarify my voice.

starting summer

Back home!

Back home!

We were away long enough that everything was fresh, again. The colors delighted me (the tan of dry grass, the dark green of oak and pine) and so did the smells and the character of the air. The strawberries in the garden did not die from lack of water. I went to the market carried home fruits and brought home some more pots of herbs for the garden.

We’re settling into our summer routine, so simple and quiet during a week that in the wider world has been big and important and full of conversation. Right now, I’m mostly listening. After lunch, the sun at its hottest, Reed and Helen draw, Margot builds, I write. The Hobbit plays in the background. It is good to be home. It is good to see the rest of summer stretching easily out before us, full of time that belongs to no one and nothing but each other.

There are books to read, songs to hear, bushes of tomatoes ready to ripen. There are things to be said. The days are long. Summer is still just beginning.

A Note from Vacation

Summer in Wisconsin
There is the cheerful running back and forth, seeing this person and that, that fills most days. And I get to be a guest, over and over- fed, offered coffee. I fall asleep to the loose-banjo croak of the green frog and wake up to the sun on the lake; it’s not my own bed I look forward to, but my own kitchen. And it’s not for the things I eat. It’s for the turning a scoop from the tub of masa in to a stack of warm tortillas, the going to the market, bringing something home, and turning it into supper.

At the beginning of our stay, N. said he was a creator, only satisfied to be making something. And I said aren’t we all? But of course we aren’t. We talked about the other things people were, the non-creator things, but I don’t remember. I’m often wishing I had written something down.

For now Reed sits across from me working on his book (subject: Pokemon) while I work on mine, and I think one of the girls just woke up. It will be another good day. And tomorrow will be good, and the next day. We all need a break sometimes, especially a good long one. And then Adam will pick us up at the airport and ask if I am tired and if I want to get a pizza for dinner. And I will say no.

how we spend our days

Cucumbers at the table

Some days I have something to hold onto. People can ask what I did, and I can say, “We went to the beach!” “We went to the city!” and we can all be satisfied. Other days pass through with just pieces you try to catch: your daughter’s hand in yours walking to the store for cucumbers, a neighbor waving through the window, the Goodyear blimp, the failed waffles, the blender of mango lassi. Were we laughing at the table?

 

Today was one of those days, and the sort of day I have a hearty hunger for- tangled noodles, songs I can’t remember: the cadence of conversation, cherries at the table, cups of tea, laughter. Maybe that’s why we care about writing, those scraps that are always getting lost.

 

lizards everywhere

We found a lizard in Margot’s room, and now I see lizards everywhere. I always forget to shut the door.

I don’t notice the alligator lizards until they are right in front of me. Earlier this week, I did yoga outside and found myself nose to nose with one. He looked at me, and I looked at him. And then all at once, he slipped away. I couldn’t hear a thing.

In the house, they aren’t so quiet. After he escaped into the living room, I opened the back door, hid in the kitchen, and heard the trip trap of lizard feet on the wood floor. I think the lizard found his way home.

(But still, I nearly spill my coffee when I see the tassel of a rug in the shape of a tail.)

excellence

checking the olives

I have friends who read parenting books, which is fortunate, because I don’t. You would think that as a writer, I would remember that books (including parenting books) expand our experience. But I forget.

So it is fortunate that I have friends that don’t forget. Yesterday, one told me about a book on teaching children to read that talked about modeling excellence. It talked about this beyond reading, modeling excellence in setting the table. Complimenting excellence when things were done excellently. Etc.

This seemed like a great idea for at least two hours, until I tried it, and felt like a total ass.

Maybe it’s just this week, maybe I’m in a laissez-faire sort of mood (I am). But really, I don’t care in the least about excellence*. Not in myself. Not in my children. And I know this is a weakness, because I see those who value excellence and the things they are capable of. My husband values excellence. Thank goodness.

But I don’t. My children will have to learn about it from someone else, at least until I am more inclined to fight my nature. I think that’s okay.

This morning walking home from Reed’s school, we stopped and sat a while to watch a swarm of ants and let them crawl on our fingers. The sun was already hot. Maybe this mood will pass, and next week I will feel entirely different. But today I feel like there is enough excellence in the world. I think there is plenty.

 

*I do care about good habits, and will happily keep my closet neat if I am reminded that putting things back carefully folded is a tidy habit. But telling myself to have an excellent closet only ends in retaliation. I don’t know why little shifts in posture and language matter so much, but somehow they always do.

caught up

Afternoon at the beach

Earlier this week, I read Anthony Bourdain’s tribute to Jim Harrison. Since then, it has stayed in my mind.

To the very end, ate like a champion, smoked like a chimney, lusted (at least in his heart) after nearly every woman he saw, drank wine in quantities that would be considered injudicious in a man half his age, and most importantly, got up and wrote each and every day — brilliant, incisive, thrilling sentences and verses that will live forever. He died, I am told, with pen in hand.

 

Our neighbors dug up their lawn, and in the dry dirt, five small house sparrows washed themselves with dust. When they flew, their were little indentations where their bodies had been. I don’t know where they are now.

Today I got up and bought eggs at the market. And a chicken and a bag of strawberries and all the stone fruits I can’t bear to say no to. Today I made strawberry ice cream. Today I got up and talked with my son and held my daughter and smiled at my husband. Today I wrote sentences neither incisive nor thrilling. And today I read, again, the poem that Jim Harrison wrote, that Bourdain closes with:

BARKING
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.

theory #62

Untitled

In writing, they say there are plotters and pantsers.

Or they say, for some writers, writing is primarily an act of creation. For other writers, it is foremost an act of discovery.

And that’s more interesting.

But no one wants to hear about writers. And if they do, they don’t want to hear about the act of writing.* It’s only interesting when you think that maybe everything is either  primarily an act of creation or discovery. We all are creators or discoverers. Of our lives. And days. And dinners. Not one-or-the-other, click this box or that, but a sliding scale, more here than there or somewhere in between.

Last month I tried to write a children’s book. I couldn’t finish; I already knew the ending. And I sat at a table in high school with a girl who knew she wanted to be a nurse and get married when she was 28 and have her start her family when she was thirty, and then she did.

And maybe none of this means anything at all. But maybe we all are primarily either creators or discoverers. Maybe we plan. Maybe we go with the flow. And maybe it’s not because we are “Type A” or “Type B,” or a “J” or a “P.” Maybe it’s just because we love to create. Maybe it’s just because we love to discover.

*This interview with Louis C.K. may be an exception, if you can handle rough content (and there is a lot).

 

the beginning of summer

Holding a stone, watching the kids
It’s muesli season again, every night a big covered bowl is set in the fridge for tomorrow’s breakfast. It’s nice to wake to, cool and good. The morning air is cool and good, too, and the kids get the breakfast themselves, and I hear the birds outside our open window in my dreams. But California summers are changeless and dry. It’s a long time til October.

We’ve been eating muesli. And I’ve been making yogurt like a fiend. Yesterday, I biked to the store for (again) more milk, biked without the children. I rarely shop without them, and it was strange to be at my ease, lovely. I got to look around at people, let people in front of me in line, say things like “You go first.”

A woman was buying dozens of tomatoes. She had an aging face, tired eyes, and the body of a fifteen-year-old. She flipped through Self magazine with Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover: assured gaze, toned, hairless belly. She put the magazine back.

The woman looked tired that afternoon, and maybe I looked tired, too. And around her lips were the scars of some old augmentation. I have been thinking about her. I have been thinking about the scars. None of us come out unscathed, but we’re all together, here, too.

It feels good to bike home when it’s hot, when the air is dry, and the sun isn’t too high. When you have a trailer loaded down with groceries to feed yourself and your children. There’s another batch of yogurt to make, another night of children talking and playing in their bedroom instead of going to sleep. Another night. Thank goodness. Another night.

ordinary

IMG_20160318_203709

Today I had to have the conversation, “How would you feel if when you asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, I started scratching your face?” and then walked home from the school playground with three kids crying about various things (someone stepped on someone’s jacket, someone didn’t want someone else holding my hand, so on and so forth).

But I also got to run, laughing, on that playground playing tag with the kids that stayed after school to play. And we went off for coffee, and the kids were lovely, and the sun was lovely, and we bought a jar of pickles on the walk home and as many apples as we could hold in our hands.

You win some you lose some.

(But it’s spring! The air is warm and blows around smelling like roses and jasmine (everywhere! always!).  And mostly it feels like we’re all just winning. All of us. All the time.)