Mad joy

Until moving to northeast Ohio, I never really understood why people got so religious about their perennials. Why plant so many? The blooming season is short, sometimes only a day if a late frost descends. The remaining thick leaves are kind of waxy and stiff, gone brown in streaks if it gets too hot or they get too much sun. I’m more of a wild garden lover. Overgrown, wispy plants and flowers. Wildflowers and the like.

In Kansas we certainly have cold weather and bad storms. Biting wind. But a cold snap is almost always followed by a warm snap, or at least a day of sunshine. The winter in Colorado is long, but heck, I lived at the foot of remote almost 14,000 foot mountains. Missouri is greyer, but muggy spring (even sometimes muggy winter) days and the long growing season make it feel like winter is just a visitor.

Which is to say that after this very long Ohio winter, I’m a perennial convert. I’m already thinking toward fall (that’s when you plant bulbs, right?) and the colors of tulips I will plant around our front yard tree, where a vestige of flowers still straggly bloom—eight red tulips and one yellow—planted by a previous homeowner gone by. Two tulips even survived John’s landscaping dig-out below our front room picture window. One red, one yellow with red streaks (or is it red with yellow streaks?). One snowdrop found a way through the tarp covered, gravel laded patio he constructed. I admire it’s will.

So after what feels like half a year of wet cold, what in actuality has been six months of wet cold, the flowers are riotous. When spring finally does come to Ohio, it lets out all the stops. The color is a presence. As much as I have yearned for sunny days, the light is almost too bright shining off of the reds, corals, purples, yellows, pinks, whites, blues, oranges, and a dozen variations on green. They are (dare I admit it?) easier to take in when a fog rolls in or a misty rain hangs on everything.

The novelist/philosopher Iris Murdoch—irises being my favorite perennial fragrance, an enticing mix of spice and honey—says this about the energy flowers emanate:

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

tulip snowdrop garden

Not unlike watching a three-year-old on a tricycle. The mad joy in G’s legs (and face) is intoxicating.

mad joy g

Dandelions having a similar effect.

dandy joy



A few small repairs

Shawn Colvin’s fourth album, A Few Small Repairs, is currently on rotation in our car. Albums tend to receive a three to four week continual play schedule because one or the other of the boys (usually G) latch on to a particular song or two, asking for it by name. The trick is getting an entire album I really like and waiting for them to space out a little so that I can listen to the other songs on the album besides the two they are repeatedly requesting.

For weeks—nay, months—it was the Indigo Girls’ album RaritiesI finally had to tell Gabriel that they wouldn’t let us check it out from the library anymore (I lied). A Few Small Repairs is replete with declarative choruses and recognizable images, both of which are right up three-year-old G’s alley. The first song—Sunny Came Home—satisfyingly begins,

Sunny came home to her favorite room
And Sunny sat down in the kitchen
She opened a book and a box of tools
Sunny came home with a mission

That’s what G likes: physical realities. He knows kitchens, he loves books. Tools are his favorite and his best. The kid was born with a mission. And it’s hilarious to listen to his three-year-old mind try to make sense of the songs. But the first song that caught his fancy was Get Out of This House. He requested it by name. He walked around the house sing-shouting, “Get Out of This House! Get Out of This House!”

Now he’s come around to the sixth track, I Want It Back. The chorus has the same commanding, repetitive tone as Get Out of This House, but G is perplexed. In the car he muses, somewhat rhetorically, “I don’t know how to figure it out what them want back…” The connections he and Jonah make in their brains are astounding to me.

I shared this short animation a few posts back, but HERE it is again. Especially notice the difference between the representations of the adult and child-sized brains. The rate at which child’s mind makes associations and connections far outpaces the adult mind (habitually committed to our thought highways as we are).

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” comes to mind. I love that I just found it on a Children’s Poetry Archive site, because poetry is for everyone. [Another recent find: HBO’s A Child’s Garden of Poetry. Here is a clip of Liam Neeson reading “When You Are Old” by Yeats and of Carrie Fisher reading “Brother” by Mary Ann Hoberman.]

Here is the last stanza of “What Are Years?” —but please click through to read the thing entire.
Or listen instead.

       So he who strongly feels
behaves. The very bird,
       grown taller as he sings, steals
his form straight up. Though he is captive
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
       This is mortality,
       this is eternity.

Hot brown cup of help

I like Jerry Seinfeld fine. I always enjoyed watching episodes with my friend Kevin especially. Watching television with a fan is so much more fun. The joy is infectious. Kevin’s joy was anyway.

But Jerry was on NPR’s Morning Edition today, doing a spiel about coffee. Seems ME did this series of stories on coffee this week called, of all things, “Coffee Week.” For all the time Seinfeld spent at the diner with George and Elaine, he never touched the coffee. He just never “got” why people were so over the moon about the stuff. When people told him they drank it because they felt groggy when they woke up, he’d respond, “Yeah, ’cause it’s morning. Just give it a minute.” He finally gave coffee a try while he was touring because it tasted good with French toast. The milk and sugar and all.

And now he drinks it for all sorts of reasons: as an excuse to meet up with friends (“My theory is 98 percent of all human endeavor is killing time. This is a great way to do it”); because coffee is his morning toy (“I don’t know what the top [the coffee lid] does. I don’t know what the plastic stick does. I don’t even really know what the sleeve does. But I want that little kit because this is my morning toy”); and simply to enjoy it for what it is (“When you go into Three Guys Coffeeshop on Columbus, don’t complain that it’s not as good as Gimme Coffee or Mudd or one of these places. Appreciate that for what that is. Know the difference, but don’t be a pain in the ass about it”).

But my favorite reason is because, as he says it,

We all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything — social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

I lay in bed last night, late to sleep, tired but not yet sleepy. Things were a little dark. I was worrying about the people I love, about money. And when I woke I flipped on my phone to check the weather and saw an email from a friend that made it possible to get out of bed. Easily possible. And then John gave me my coffee. And then I heard the Seinfeld segment. And then the man with the twinkly eyes who reminds me of the farmers I grew up around, who reads his paper at Starbucks every morning, who has a bushy Einstein mustache, who wears a seed cap and photo-grey glasses and boots, whose eyes smile as much as his mouth—he gave me a little wave on his way out for the day.

So there was help on all fronts. Even if my coffee tastes more like the paper cup it arrives in than the deliciousness it could be (John makes great coffee—I’m completely spoiled). I have my people here. I can watch the blond tottering in on her four-inch stilettos carrying a black patent leather Cadillac purse, complete with the shiny metal Cadillac hood ornament you see on the cars. The pregnant barista seems genuinely glad to see me. And who cares if she isn’t? I’m here to work. And not surprisingly, staring out at a parking lot of cars in a strip mall is a pretty good catalyst to enter the world of the mind.

coffee gnat


My children are too large to exist very long within structures. I’m not talking about a daily schedule or discipline; I mean buildings plain and simple. I am doubly reminded of this at church. This last Sunday past they were literally bouncing off of door frames, rolling under pews, flipping off of couches, scattering holy bread, in the faces of nursing mothers, slipping blueberry bagels to the floor—all by accident , mostly. And it’s not as though I wasn’t trying to reign them in or remind them of consequences for tantruming behavior. They were humming. Wild in their bodies. They needed to run or climb or just roll in the grass.

So when I say large I mean of movement and gesture. Large of intention. Boundless. And strong, so strong of will (here’s looking at you G).

There are a number of upsides to this way of being. They infect the people they meet with life. Sure, there are those who resist, shooting me or them looks of annoyance or disapproval; but mostly every one is a new friend, someone they want to invite over to their house—which is another thing.

I have been recognizing in them a need for new friends. Jonah latched on immediately to a boy at the library the other day. Gabriel calls anyone close to his age his “new friend I met the other day.” If someone mentions a playdate, they’ll bug me for weeks on end. And I get it. They should. They’re blessed and cursed with a mother who keeps her center by staying In.

Whereas John, faced with the reality of tending two boys on his own, will plan a big adventure in the world beyond, I stay close to home. Short trips to break up the days. Something special in small pieces. I’m thinking about this in particular because John leaves for Italy in a few weeks (I know, Italy), and I’d rather be readier than not for the transition of us all without him. I’m not a big plan-maker, but I have to pay special attention to my person when he goes away. I tend to close off ahead of time, as if in preparation. I tend to become a walled city because I instinctively want to protect myself (or something). Maybe it comes of being on my own for awhile before I married. No, I’ve always been like this—that whole “I am a rock, I am an island” thing.

So I’m trying to remember the Emily Rapp quote I posted the other day, about have a soft front and a hard back. About responding defensively and resisting compassion. The world and us in it are always a mix of shaky vulnerability and strength. Which is what I particularly love about the boys, and about children in general.

[The following pictures were taken at the park upon meeting a new friend. She and J really hit it off. Especially fun was their twin hanging spins off the baby bucket swings. Click HERE for video. The slide-jump game was also rather thrilling.]

vanessa jump slideG V slidejonah jump slidetwin spin



on Strength and Vulnerability

To be fully present for a person who is dying you must have a strong back and a soft front. Most of us…live with the reverse. We are outwardly defensive, and because we resist compassion we are actually weaker. A broken heart is an open heart, and there exists great strength in a shaky vulnerability.

from The Still Point of the Turning World, by Emily Rapp

red cross


I love the way an egg rises, beaten a pillowy white. This morning as NPR reported on manhunt and capture—stories of violence and prejudice and division—as the boys bickered and Jonah shouted “get off me Gabriel!” from the breakfast table, I just sort of lost myself in an egg white. And it didn’t feel like escape, it felt like presence. Just beating an egg, wholly aware of the complications and fine with it.

Simone Weil certainly has something to do with my lapse into the ineffable. A friend recommended I read Weil’s short meditation, “Concerning the Our Father,” and in the relative leisure of this Saturday morning I finally picked up the book (at the bottom of the stack by my bed) and started in. On “Hallowed be Thy name,” Weil writes:

Man’s only possibility of gaining access to [God] is through his name. It is the Mediator. Man has access to this name, although it also is transcendent. It shines in the beauty and order of the world and it shines in the interior light of the human soul. This name is holiness itself; there is no holiness outside it; it does not therefore have to be hallowed. In asking for its hallowing we are asking for something that exists eternally, with full and complete reality…

That “full and complete reality” is what I’m trying to get at with the egg white. A hallowing of a moment, thick with reality, but light with it too. Earlier Weil writes, “There is nothing real in us which does not come from him.”  And then later, turning the idea of prayer upside, “To ask for that which exists, that which exists really, infallibly, eternally, quite independently of our prayer, that is the perfect petition.” Which is what makes the Jesus Prayer so powerful and essential.

Time to step away from all this heady thought (heady, but alarmingly simple). We’ll see what happens when I do the dishes.

(But not before I quote Weil on desire—that most innate of human drives I’ll always be trying to make sense of. Her rendering here summarizes the entire point of Great Lent.)

We cannot prevent ourselves from desiring; we are made of desire; but the desire that nails us down to what is imaginary, temporal, selfish, can, if we make it pass wholly into this petition, become a lever to tear us from the imaginary into the real and from time into eternity, to lift us right out of the prison of self.

[all quotes taken from Simone Weil’s “Concerning the Our Father,” published in Waiting for God]


Poem in Your Pocket

As yesterday was Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of the annual festivities associated with National Poetry Month, I am delighted to share a little something. Rather than sifting through my inbox folder of poems I read online or picking up a favorite poet’s work (Julia Kasdorf Spicher, Elizabeth Bishop, William Stafford, Wisława Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Jane Kenyon and Lisel Mueller all come to mind, if you’re interested), I’m going to share the poesy of Jonah Caedmon Estes.

Sure, he’s not trying to make poems, but the way that language comes out of him often borders on the poetic, if not the profound. To be faithful to our day-to-day experience, just as often his vocal trippings approach inanity and outright annoyance (in terms of my ability to tolerate the repetition and pitching of words and voice), but as with any being human, what he says is worth paying attention to.

This is way too much build-up. It’s just that I write down the things that he says, and this particular sentence astonishes me. He was trying to get some idea or plan across to John; I don’t remember the context. I just heard the words come out of his mouth and trotted off to my computer to get them down before I forgot. Reading it now, I see I should probably tattoo it on my arm.

You act that you don’t
know what I am but I am
what I’m trying to be.

Jonah Caedmon Estes
(line breaks by Jennifer Jantz Estes)

jonah sad face crop

[Click HERE to see some amazing and unique animation that visually renders “my Jonah”,
as Gabriel likes to say. Jonah loves talking about his brain.]