Gifts For a Young Mother

If I could time travel, I’d go back to when my son was born, bring a picnic lunch, and comfort my younger self. When I had my son back in 1980, I made a counter-cultural decision to stay home and raise him as a full-time mom. I can still hear the incredulous voices of my colleagues in the elementary school where I was teaching at the time. “Why do you want to waste your master’s degree staying home and taking care of a baby?”

I don’t remember exactly what I told them, but I do remember how much I looked forward to being a full-time mom. I wanted to do all the things with him that my own mother had been unable to do because of her depression. And I set impossibly high standards for myself.

I remember the insistent voices in the media telling me that if I stayed home and raised a child full-time, my brain would turn into a mush of baby trivia. Somehow, the competent woman I had been in my personal life and my career would devolve into someone who only cared about finding the best playgrounds and whether or not to put my baby on a schedule.

I was only 28 years old when I had my son, and I had not yet learned to tune out the voices telling me what to do. Instead, I embraced the do-it-all ethos of the day. And when I think of his first year, I remember that I rarely enjoyed a day at home relaxing with the new little person who made me so happy. Instead, I learned to play golf when he was about two months old. I began reading non-fiction books about politics and history. I landed a part-time job by his first birthday.
familyalbumscans1401But none of those achievements made me feel all right about staying home and raising children. I drove myself relentlessly, even after my daughter was born. I remember how I resented taking a nap every day because I just couldn’t get enough things done. It was as if my drive to achieve in the eyes of the world was more important than the secret joys I felt holding my children, reading stories to them as they book-ended me on the couch.

So as I approach my 35th Mother’s Day celebration, here are three gifts I wish I had been able to give to my younger self.

  1. Honor the Wisdom of Your Body: When you feel exhausted, take a nap. When you’re overwhelmed, decide to let go of something. Tuning in to the signals and messages of the body is one of the surest ways to take care of yourself. And it’s a valuable lesson to pass on to your children.
  2. Enjoy the Detours: Raising children is one of the best ways to learn flexibility and humility. Things rarely go as planned, especially when you are living with children who are curious and spontaneous. Instead of holding firmly to your idea of how the day should unfold, relax into the joy of the unexpected. My children have taught me that when Plan A falls apart, Plan B can often be a whole lot more fun.
  3. See Your Mistakes As Blessings: I can’t even count the things I wish I could do over if I were given the chance. More than anything, I wish I had believed in my own perceptions of my children’s gifts, rather than listening to authority figures in the schools. But because my children took different paths as learners, I’ve become a more compassionate teacher. When faced with parents of my students who are struggling in school, I am able to reassure others that their kids will turn out all right, especially if they take an unconventional path. And some of the stories about my mothering-mistakes that I share with my children have made for great memories that the three of us can laugh about. None of us would have those blessings without the mistakes.familyalbumscans1401
    Perhaps Anna Qunidlen writing in Conscious Moms places mistakes in the most helpful context when she says,“Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language – mine, not theirs… I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”Happy Mother’s Day, readers. Be kind to yourselves. Be kind to your mother.

    What do you wish you had known as a young mother? I’d love to hear your ideas, so leave a comment if you’re inspired.

I am Not What Happened to Me

Last week Aaron Henkin interviewed me about my memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, on The Signal, a radio show he produces for WYPR in Baltimore. The call came on Monday morning at 9am, and he wanted me in the studio the next day to tape the show that would air on Friday. Of course, I said an immediate “Yes!” to his generous offer, then I went to work, barely able to keep my mind on the tasks in front of me. I’d been on the radio a few times before, so it wasn’t the interview that scared me. It was the subject matter.

Depression. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Suicidal ideation. A car crash. Electro-convulsive therapy. Hospitalization for depression. Verbal abuse. The silence surrounding trauma. Keeping secrets. SchoolUniformWhy, you might ask. Why talk about all of those dark and private things? Many have told me, “They’re in the past. Let them go. Move on.”

All of those things are true. And to keep silent about them is to allow them to have power over you. In AA literature they tell you, “You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep.” Well, I’m not “sick” anymore—and now I strongly reject that label for my mother’s and my own experiences with depression, anxiety, and self-medicating. My mother and I were doing the best we could to cope with deep and painful wounds. Trying to live day after day—take care of children, cook meals, run households, even run a business (in my case). Trying to carry the awful weight of sadness that enshrouded our spirits. Trying to find some light.

Sadly, in my mother’s case, she never seemed to be able to find her way back to the woman she was before she fell into depression. And neither she, nor my father, seemed to have any understanding about the deadly interplay of psychiatric medicines and alcohol. Neither one understood how that daily cocktail could keep my mother imprisoned in her darkness when she so wanted to escape it.

I never knew my mother as the delightful free-spirit my dad used to reminisce about when the two of us sat in the kitchen and had a few moments of vulnerability together. I never knew the woman who played tennis or designed amazing dresses. I never even saw my mother paint anything, except a room in the house.

But, as the oldest daughter, I was often privy to her pain. She confided in me. She depended on me—to cook dinner or take care of my siblings. She sobbed in my arms.

How does a young girl hold all of that pain inside and still walk into the world and do what a child, an adolescent, needs to do? How does one keep silent about the pain all around her? Sadly, the times I grew up in offered no answers. No comfort. The only thing I knew about therapy was that my mother went once a week, and we never saw any improvement.

My pain, the pain of my father, the pain of my siblings was never disclosed in such a way that we could get help. So, when I experienced my own multiple depressions, finally culminating in a major depression that lasted four years, I had a lot of pain to unpack. And a lot of shame.

Brené Brown defines the difference between shame and guilt. She says that guilt is feeling bad about what you’ve done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. I went back to the journal I kept for the duration of my depression, I found page after page filled with my own feelings of shame for experiencing depression.

And writing my book was about unpacking all of that pain. Hanging it like laundry in the warm sunshine of love. Finally realizing the truth of what Carl Jung tells us when he wrote:

“I am not what happened to me.
I am what I choose to become.”

That’s why I wrote The Altar of Innocence. That’s why I spoke on the radio. That’s why I am letting go of secrets.


Anyone or anything that does not bring you alive….

David Whyte is a modern poet whose voice is as clear and cloudless as the sky above Crater Lake. He is of English/Irish heritage, has a background in marine zoology, and uses poetry to assist people in affecting change in their personal and work lives. He calls all of us out of our routine slumber and directs our gaze to places we may fear or wish to avoid. David asks us to risk being authentic in an increasing virtual world. “Sweet Darkness” is a poem that asks the reader to enter the particular place of darkness that is calling to you now.

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

You see the world through your own particular set of eyes and your own particualr set of experiences. No one else in creation sees the world exactly as you do. Your vision is unique. But when something unexpected bumps up against us in life, then our vision is temporarily lost. We feel alone and engulfed by the surging energy of life. We cannot be found, just as we can no longer see.
Turn to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.The dark will be your womb
tonight.The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
Don’t fight the darkness, the poet seems to be whispering. Just as our eyes grow accustomed to a dark place, so the dark place will make a home for us, will see our shadow self. No matter what our particular set of circumstances and our particular reasons for being dropped into darkness, we are recognized and loved. Think of the poet’s metaphor used to describe this kind of night: your womb. A womb is a place of complete safety, a place where an innocent life can grow and be nurtured. A place to wait until you are ready to emerge, whole at last. A place of incubation, peace and rest.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.Give up all other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Here the poet tells us there is only one thing to know right now: you are meant to be free, to take your own particular place in the grand scheme of life. Have you been going through some life-changing event? Large or small, scale does not matter here. All that matters is that you realize your place in the grand design and take that place. Maybe you are called on to leave a job that is choking you. Maybe a relationship needs to shift or even to end. Maybe there is a geographical change to make or a dream that you feel has always had your name on it. Whatever that world is, it is time to take your place. Know that others have done it before, the poet seems to be saying. You can do this. Just embrace the one world that is yours for the taking, no matter how small or how grand. The time is now and everthing is telling you that.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learnanything or anyone
that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

The darkness that has enveloped you has provided a place of safety and shelter to incubate your emerging self, to nourish new growth, or to give sustenance to your will. What is it in your life that has been too small for you? That has not allowed you to grow? The other question concerns a person. Who is it in your life that has stifled you? Who has placed you in a box that you have outgrown?

Life is constantly calling us forward to take our place and to be fully alive. What is that one thing in your life that is now too small for you? Who is that person you have outgrown? Maybe it is a role you have played that no longer suits you. Maybe you need to stand alone. Maybe it’s time to become one with a partner. You hold the answer, the poet tells us. Just go into the darkness until you can hear the small voice inside and then follow its becokoning, loving hand.
Poem “Sweet Darkness from The House of Belonging, Many Rivers Press, 1998.

What Can You Do With a Metaphor?

That was my guiding question when I decided to create a workshop for the recent
Florida Creativity Weekend in Sarasota, Florida. How could I use metaphor to help me manage my bulging calendar and seemingly endless to-do list? My workshop, “ReIMAGINING TIME: Change your Metaphor, Change Your Story,” was born out of my own needs. Like so many, I tend to teach what I most need to learn. And let’s face it—checklists only get me so far. So when I really want to create some kind of effective change in my life, I turn to the arts.

One source of inspiration for my workshop came from reading a wonderful book called Creating Time: Using Creativity to Reinvent the Clock and Reclaim Your Life by Marney Makridakis. I love her playful approach and her inventive use of art to help people tame the time demon and turn it into a purring pet. As I began to think about what I most needed to help me, I began to doodle with a new set of watercolor pencils. I thought about a meditation I had done a few days before where the image of a small boat on a calm lake had captured my need to contain my task and try to do fewer things.

In that moment, I knew how I would begin my workshop. Here’s the opening question I posed to them: What areas of my life are calling out to me?  

Next, I invited everyone to introduce themselves with a six word memoir,  followed by a guided meditation. The last portion of the workshop, everyone used watercolor pencils to create an image of their new metaphor for time and to write a brief journal entry describing how the metaphor could guide them.

The folks in my workshop worte some funny and poignant six word memoirs. Here’s one of mine to get you thinking:

Rocks in pockets. Hard to soar.

And my metaphor? Get in the boat! Here’s my painting.    IMG_0042

I’d love to hear your metaphors or a six word memoir that describes how time feels for you. What’s your new metaphor for time? Leave a comment and let me know.

Want to Come Out and Play?

Do you ever listen to TEDTalks? Many weekends, I seek out one or two TEDTalks to inspire me in my life and to refresh my perspective on what is possible in this complex and troubled world. This past week, I posted twice about the importance of play—both for adults and children. And I often think about the value of play in relation to education, especially as we become more and more tied to high-stakes testing in grades K-12. Having worked most of my professional life as a teacher, I feel very strongly about the importance of play and creativity in education—for everyone.

I always wanted to wear a Viking hat!

I found Stuart Brown’s talk on the importance of play especially informative and inspiring. Brown, a noted psychiatrist and play researcher, has looked at play in animals and humans, especially the effects of play deprivation. This quote form his talk really struck a nerve for me, “…if you think about life without play — no humor, no flirtation, no movies, no games, no fantasy and, and, and. Try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise without play. And the thing that’s so unique about our species is that we’re really designed to play through our whole lifetime.”

In his TEDTalk, Brown quoted Brian Sutton-Smith, a noted play researcher, who had this to say: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

I’ve been pondering that thought all week as I read about teachers and students who are often deprived of joy and creativity due to the over-emphasis on standardized testing. Last week, I had a chance to put my beliefs into action in my own classroom at the University of Maryland. When I couldn’t show a video because the computer was down, my students immediately said, “Let’s have class outside.” I’m not one to fight an overwhelming wave of energy, especially when it sounds appealing to me as well as to the students.

We all trooped outside into the April sunshine and found seats at tables, benches, and on the ground. One student climbed a tree—he was so full of joy and excitement that I couldn’t ask him to lower himself, though one of the groundskeepers eventually spied him and chased him down. My students worked in small groups on a writing activity I had planned and there were smiles on everyone’s faces. We did eventually watch the video on several of the laptops students had available.

Having class outside and seeing my students be so happy and relaxed made me even more committed to keeping some element of fun in my classroom. And I began to think about the ways I want to play and what I can do for myself to make that happen. My watercolor pencils are sitting patiently for me to start. A bag of colorful fabric waits in the closet.

How do you incorporate play into your life? Please comment below and share your play story!

Sometimes The Muse Offers a Gift

Most of the time when I begin to write a poem, I jot down ideas and a few tentative lines. Sometimes, if I am really struggling, I’ll set my timer for twenty minutes and force myself to write until I fill a couple of pages. Sometimes when I go to the well, I’m afraid to even lower the bucket for fear that the water is gone. Now I know that every writer feels that way, even Liz Gilbert and David Balducci, as I learned when I heard them on the radio.

But every once in awhile, I get wIMG_0198hat I call a gift poem —an effortless, poem that flows from my pen and is interesting without any changes.

But then the doubts creep in. I tell myself the work can’t be that good because it hasn’t been revised, nor shaped . I haven’t played with word choice and metaphor, nor drafted several versions. I find it’s hard to accept a gift poem, especially because I am  committed to craft. Ninety-nine per cent of my poems need revision and numerous drafts before I imagine submitting them.

But like those times when friends or a partner or my children decide to surprise me with an unexpected gift, so, too does my personal Muse. I’ve learned that when the gift poem appears, I simply say “thank you” and see it as an affirmation to keep writing.

Here’s a “gift poem” that made its way into my memoir in verse, “The Altar of Innocence.” The poem got nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I hope you enjoy it!

Mrs. S

No one ever tells the story
of Mrs. Sisyphus
perhaps because she
endures at the bottom
of the hill
with all the little boulders
tumbling from above.
In between the spinning of cloth
and the baking of bread,
she rolls the children out the door
to play and rolls the food
home from the market.
Day after day
she jostles the water jugs
from well to home
and back .
She nudges and cajoles the
bigger boulders of animals
from pasture to barn
and finally to slaughter.
Preparing feasts
for all the Baby Sisiphi
who gather around the table
whining When is Daddy coming home? 

Every Poet Needs a Great Tool Kit



A couple of weeks ago I posted a link to an Tweetspeak article discussing a toolkit to help poets when they are stuck. The article explored five online tools –rhyming dictionary, reverse dictionary, thesaurus, dictionary, and Google—and discussed the merits of each. This week I want to talk about my favorite tool for charging up my writing and it’s about as low-tech as you can imagine. Yes, I still use a paper dictionary, paper thesaurus, and paper rhyming dictionary. For me, there’s something comforting in the heft of the book and the chance to find words next to words that might lead to a new place…like sorting through old buttons and finding unexpected treasures.

This tool is simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, and my friend Grace Cavalieri shared it with me as one of her go-to tips. She calls it “points in space” and I just call it the ten word game. Collect ten words from anywhere-a newspaper article, a novel, a label, a poem. Use them to write a brand new poem or to help you revise a poem that isn’t working. I actually wrote one of the poems in my new book using the ten word technique to shift me into the right space.

There’s something about the limit of the ten words and the idea of forced association, a creativity tool widely used in problem solving that really helps to get me moving. I usually write the ten words on slips of paper or notecards and actually move them around until some kind of an association forms. Other times, if I’m blocked and just don’t feel like anything is working, I set a timer and write whatever comes to me with the ten words.

Here’s one I wrote last summer using the words habit, banal, sliver, outhouse, weep, crazed, plead, insanity, fading. I managed to use seven from this bunch.

You’re a Habit
impossible to break, no matter how I plead
insanity or dance crazed as a dervish in a hurricane.
Lock me in the outhouse
put the bell out of reach
hide the Precious –I’ll fight my way
back to you like an Iron Girl in a triathalon
water, roads, rusty bicycles
just to see the silver of your fading smile.
No more banal weeping
over what might have been.

Try using the same ten words above or select ten of your own at random. Give the technique a try and see if it helps you with either rewriting a poem or coming up with a fresh idea. I’d love to hear about your experiences

Sometimes You Just Need the Right Container

modern-vasesI have a lovely collection of vases., some are tall and wide at the top, perfect to hold large bouquets of blue hydrangeas, a flower that always reminds me of my grandmother. Some are shorter and fluted, to hold cradle a few select roses. I even have a flat Japanese vase where I can arrange the last few blooms that survive a special arrangement. So many women I admired in my childhood taught me this lesson as they arranged flowers moving them to different vases until they found the perfect fit—sometimes you just need to find the right container.

It’s the same way with poetry. I usually write narrative poems in free verse, like my poem “Adultery.” But when I consider a poem about a difficult topic, I often freeze. I avoid writing because the memories are painful and to write about them, I have to revisit them. Is there laundry to do? Bills to pay? A lawn to rake? I’ll wander around doing anything but writing that difficult poem. So when it came time to describe what it was like deciding to get Electroconvulsive therapy treatments (ECT), the best way for me to process my feelings and get the job done required me to find the right “container.” I wrote “The Shock Machine” using a pantoum poetry format.

To write a pantoum, you repeat certain lines from one stanza to the next, changing the order in which they appear. The second and fourth lines from one stanza repeat in the next stanza as lines one and three and so on throughout the poem from stanza to stanza.)

Why does choosing a form poem, or container poem, as it is sometimes called, help one to write about difficult feelings? For one thing, as a poet, you have to observe the rules of the form, similar to the way you have to follow a recipe for a cake to turn out successfully. You can’t just dump everything in the bowl and swirl it around if you want chocolate cake. First you cream the butter and the sugar, then you beat in the eggs one by one. And so it is with difficult feelings. If you dump everything on the page, it’s messy to deal with. You also need to consider the reader. If your feelings overwhelm you, they may surely swamp your readers. Form poems provide that space of safety. They’re a way of being a trusty guide into dark places.

How does the form help the reader and writer to deal with difficult feelings?

As a writer, I know the experience I want to convey and I know the details. Writing in a specified form not only provides me with safety, it forces me to pay attention to something other than my feelings. Structure matters. So in a way, my attention is split. I still talk about the feelings, but only in such a way as is appropriate for the form.

As a reader, if a poet wants you to experience something difficult, the poet offers you some kind of lifelinein the form of repetition of lines from stanza to stanza in a pantoum, which guides you step by step into unfamiliar territory. You know what to expect as you venture deeper and deeper into the experience. All the while, familiar repetition breaks the tension every so often allowing you catch your breath. You’re willing to keep reading.

Here’s the beginning of my poem, “The Shock Machine” found in my recently released book, The Altar of Innocence.

First they take away your shoes
when you come seeking life.
Like a child you cling to your red quilt
inside a heavy fog of fear.

When you come seeking life
the doctors don’t know the self you were.
Inside a heavy fog of fear
you whisper pleas of hope.

The first pantoum I ever read was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. In the poem, Bishop takes the reader on a journey into the land of losing things, from your keys to names to cities and beyond. One of my favorite poems. I hope you enjoy it.

“One Art”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Unstuck, On the Edge, Just as I Planned

  When I give expressive arts workshops, one of the main themes I hear over and over again is that people have something they really want to do—write a memoir, change careers, finish a project they began years ago — but they stop when they get stuck. Below are a few tips that I reach for again and again to keep myself moving when I am stuck or stymied.

  1. Set a goal and stick with your plan. Adjust as you move along the path.


At first my goals were simple, like writing a few poems about incidents in my childhood. But after getting a few poems published, which was great for my wobbly confidence, there were several rejections. I was a little discouraged, but I knew that the rejections were inevitable, so I used them as fuel. I knew I needed help, so my new objective involved working on my craft, finding critique partners, and taking classes with a mentor. I reworked my poems until they reached new levels. All the while, I moved forward as long as I kept writing.

  1. Slow the process down.

Several years ago, I worked with a coach who helped me to launch a very short-lived business. He often engaged me in role-playing, where we would practice my pitch to prospective clients. One day I came to him with a very promising offer that I needed to develop in a few days in order to submit a proposal by a deadline less than a week away. Over and over, he advised me to slow the process down. Now I use that slogan all the time. I used to be very impulsive and would jump as soon as I got enthusiastic about an idea. Over the years, I’ve realized that I need time to reflect and I do better in giving and asking for feedback if I have at least 24 hours to think about something. In this day of real-time communication, asking for 24 hours to consider an idea or an edit may seem like a luxury, but doing so has saved me endless apologies for things that may have sounded good, but just needed more time to germinate.

  1. Believe in yourself enough to take risks.

I can’t even tell you how many times I heard David Whyte, a renowned poet and conference leader, talk about walking on the edge and overcoming fear. His stories involve cantilevered bridges over deep valleys in the Himalayas and bicycling into the fierce winds of the Ayran Islands so you can stand on the sliver of a cliff overlooking the Irish Sea. I may never see those kinds of wild, physical edges, but after hearing his stories about twenty times, I realized that that very act of writing from your heart and submitting your work to a stranger constituted an edge experience. As does trying a new lesson in the classroom. You risk failure, just as surely as the hiker staring at the wobbly bridge. And I could hear David’s description of Beowulf as he sat on the edge of the lake contemplating diving into the dark waters to go after Grendel’s mother, and I’m paraphrasing, “Men have died on that shore because ordinary courage will not take them to the depths.” And that spunky, fearless little girl who thought she could sing like Haley Mills would push me into the light so that over and over, I was willing to risk rejection for the sake of my doing something I believe in.

As plan your week ahead, consider these three tips to enhance your creativity. Let me know what you’ve done to get unstuck and slow things down. While you’re at it, take a little walk along an edge that scares you a little. Maybe that means submitting your work. Or providing honest feedback to a critique partner. Writing about a difficult subject, which you’ve been avoiding. Forcing yourself to be savage with your word choices. Have you tried any of these tips? Let me know what. worked for you and how you tweaked things to suit your needs. We can all help each other!