Friday, July 31, 2009

Speaking in tongues

This summer my husband and I celebrated our 15th anniversary. Tony and I met at Providence College in 1991. My second year, we led the Communications committee together; I was the school paper editor, he the poster designer. I soon became interested in helping create posters, and Tony started hanging out more in the library. Thus began what the drama professor called "communications collaboration."

Our first year of dating was therefore, creative, playful, and highly entertaining. The intervening years have introduced some darker colours to the mix: unemployment, miscarriage, depression, and parenting stress. And the most exciting things we paint now are baseboards. But we take stubborn pride in sticking together, knowing that, while the mischievous smirks and longing glances are fewer and farther between, we're still the same editor/painter team that fell in love under the glowing light of the microfiche and first kissed amid the heady smell of tempura.

In Acedia and Me: A marriage, monks and a writer's life, Kathleen Norris cites a recent study that "monitored the daily habits of couples in order to determine what produced good and stable marriages." It revealed that "only one activity made a consistent different, and that was the embracing of one's spouse at the beginning and end of each day."

"Most surprising to Paul Bosch, who wrote an article about the study, was that 'it didn't seem to matter whether or not in that moment the partners were fully engaged or even sincere. Just a perfunctory peck on the cheek was enough to make a difference in the quality of the relationship.' Bosch concluded that this 'should not surprise churchgoers. Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into different person.'"

Norris comments, "So there...Let's hear it for insincere, hurried kisses, and prayers made with a yawn. I may be dwelling on the fact that my feet hurt, or nursing some petty slight. As for the words that I am dutifully saying - 'Love you' or 'Dear God' - I might as well be speaking in tongues, and maybe I am...Every day and every night, whether I 'get it' or not, these 'meaningless' words and actions signify more than I know."

Here's to many more years of hurried kisses!

Old colour photos by Ted Yee. Black and white wedding photo by Rudolf Klassen.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The devil I know

Last week I was in a frenzy to prepare a sermon, create a course outline, and arrange an interview. This week I don't even feel like opening a doc file. Someone once described me as a "rabbit driving stick shift." I'm either racing ahead or lurching to a stop and hiding in the grass. I used to think I was crazy; I've realized, no: I'm just a writer!

I've begun reading famous writers' thoughts on their careers. (Why didn't I do this sooner?) It's so good to know, for example, that Annie Dillard writes one page a day and says that's success. Or that she sees the thought that her work in progress is terrible or the thought that it is wonderful as mosquitoes to be swatted. But the biggest revelation came about the writing life came from Kathleen Norris:

"I am both an extrovert and an introvert, energized by other people, even crowds of people, but also content to keep to myself for days on end...My energy levels are set on high or low: I can happily juggle any number of activities or do very little. At my most sluggish, I experience a mild agoraphobia, which makes it hard for me to meet outside obligations, even to shop for bread or a quart of milk."

Oh boy, does that ever sound familiar! I'm not sure if writing attracts extremists, or drives sane people to extremes, but there you have it: they go together like long ears and cottontails. It makes sense: you go from the stress of the deadline to the exhaustion that follows, from the elation of being published to worrying whether you'll ever have another story idea as good as the last one. Write and cut, write and lose to a computer crash. One page forward, ten pages back. Up. Down. Up.

"Were I to approach an abba or amma asking for a 'word' to help me cope with the assaults of acedia [despair] on my soul," writes Norris, "I would likely be reminded that if I am especially susceptible to acedia, it is because I harbor within myself the virtue of zeal. That comes as a relief. It helps explain the extremism that lies beneath my more or less sane facade."

There's something freeing about making peace with your internal yo-yo. On the other hand, God may have something slightly less jerky in mind for my life:

Norris says, "One of my mantras is a plea from Psalm 51: 'Put a steadfast spirit within me.' I pray it, but I must admit that I don't always mean it. Would a more steadfast spirit deaden me somehow, or dampen the writer in me? This up-and-down, unsteadfast person is who I am; this is the devil I know."

We prefer the devil we know to the one we don't. But, when you think about it, there's only one of him; both devils are the same guy, and I prefer door number three. I've had the same fear of dampening the writer in me, but like Norris, I have to say a steadfast spirit sounds really good.

"To Edmund Bergler, the twentieth-century analyst who coined the term 'writer's block,' and once remarked that he had 'never seen a "normal'' writer,'" Norris says, "I can honestly reply: That's all right. I am not certain I have ever seen a 'normal' psychoanalyst."

I have no idea what sort of transmission their inner animal drives...but I'll bet the upholstery is nicer.

(Photo: Rabbit in the Dryer by Tim Moore)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The magic of tea

I had a little tea party this afternoon at three.
It was very small - three friends in all - just I, myself, and me.
Myself ate up the sandwiches, while I drank down the tea.
T'was also I who ate the pie, and pass the cake to me!

When I was a little girl I would set up tea parties with tiny plastic dishes. My dad (who was home all winter while his fields lay under snow and my mom worked as a nurse), or an unsuspecting uncle, or a collection of teddy bears would be invited to sip imaginary tea and "oooh" about its delicate aroma.

Last week I had my first tea party with tea and cakes made out of more than air and fairy dust (a less economical choice to be sure). For the first time I laid out the tablecloth and tea cups I inherited from my grandma this winter. (Oh, how I wish I could ask her who gave them to her and why! Did they remind her of a special occasion? Did she ever use them?)

I invited 7 women who have prayed for me, supported me, and laughed and cried with me through my difficult last pregnancy, Kieran's diagnosis, and my grandma's passing. This list of super models include:

My pastor's wife, who for the past 11 years has given me a weekly hug and the reassurance that I'm not as crazy as I feel, and a lot more beautiful.

My accountability partner from 6 years ago, who still meets me at Second Cup every couple months to talk about things I don't tell anyone else. So many times one of us has said something off the top of our heads that turned out to be a gift from heaven.

The friend who happened to be pregnant exactly the same times I was; she moved an hour away and still showed up at my door after my grandma passed away - just to give me a hug.

The mom who shares my love of cheesecake, ice cream, and strong coffee, and the experience of having a child intent on discovering a record number of ways to endanger life by the age of 2. Actually 3 out of 7 of the women I invited have a child with ADHD, meaning you can tell them all sorts of strange parenting stories and they don't flinch.

The single girlfriend who disagrees with me on almost everything, but has stuck with me for the past decade through thick and thin. I'll never forget the day I was too sick and pregnant to take care of Kieran or myself; she appeared at my door with white bread and real butter to make us grilled cheese sandwiches.

The mom who takes me for coffee, laughs, nods and totally gets it. She said once, I don't have a sister, but I have friends like you. And I say "ditto."

The prayer warrior who told me she woke in the middle of the night to pray for me. She sensed I wasn't sleeping sleeping well either; she felt God telling her to sing me to sleep. The only song she could think of was "O Canada" so she sang that!

Only four of my friends were able to come, but we had a lovely time. There's something about the atmosphere when you're sipping tea from real china cups and eating cakes sprinkled with flower petals and arranged on tiered, etched glass trays that makes every moment feel weightier, yet lighter.

Since I was turning "thirty-something else" they asked for my wisdom (even though they're all older) and when I couldn't produce any off the top of my head, they proceeded to share all the gifts they had received from me in the past: the encouraging words or smiles that came at just the right time.

I blessed them with loose leaf tea, homemade lemon cupcakes, and fine jelly; they blessed me with sweet words. I can't decide what was in my throat: one lump or two? I waited thirty-some years for my first teddy bear-less tea party and now I'm addicted.

Tea, anyone?