after Madonna on a Crescent Moon in Hortus Conclusus
by unknown Master, German, 1450’s
When my mother was but a bud
of five weeks inside her mother, Rose,
Mom’s millions of microscopic eggs
were already intact, long before she bloomed
into Shirley. So you, too, were carried
by your grandmother first,
cradled in your mama’s calyx.
Grandma Rose almost survived
the bloodiest century,
transplanted from the Old World
to the New, where she’s scattered
in a rose garden by a lake,
fertilizing the hybrids. And now
I move through rows and rows
of roses—Memoriam, Comanche, Moonlight,Montezuma—
bounded by a low stone wall.
The egg is in the woman
as the woman in the garden
the garden in the world
world in the galaxy
galaxy in universe
universe in the Unnamable
as the Unnamable is in the egg.
Barbara Ungar has published four books of poetry, most recently Immortal Medusa and Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, both Hilary Tham selections from The Word Works. Her prior books are Thrift and The Origin of the Milky Way, which won the Gival Press Poetry Award, a silver Independent Publishers award, a Hoffer award, and the Adirondack Center for Writing poetry award. She is also the author of several chapbooks and Haiku in English. She has published poems in Salmagundi, Rattle, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other journals. A professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, she coordinates their new MFA program.
A native of Worcester, MA, she grew up in Minneapolis, MN, where she began writing poems at the age of six. She has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford, an M.A. from City College, and a Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center of CUNY. She lived in Dublin, Ireland for a year, and on the Greek island of Symi for a summer. She spent several years traveling around the world, ending in Italy. She lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.
What if you didn’t have to wait until your kids leave the house to answer the feverish yearning you feel every single day, or at least when your mind is free enough for a thought not about survival, school lunches or the insurance bill?
Your creative fire is not a luxury.
Your creative fire is necessary for your health and well-being.
Your creative fire needs no apology.
You may look at people who work in what we generally call creative work with envy. Why do they get to do this while I am standing behind a cash register at Wal-Mart?
Truly, we are all at different points in the engagement of our creative muscles.
But we are never more than a breath away from assuring ourselves that our fire burns and though it may look like we’ve forgotten this blaze while sunk in the mire of active parenting, maintaining careers and family life, we have not.
I do not doubt this at all.
I spent the first 14 years of my mothering career madly knitting while soup simmered and wash hung on the line to dry. I wrote avidly, briefly and early on days when I could haul myself out of bed quietly enough so as not to wake one of the hungry small beasts in my lair. I doodled. I gardened. I did things that kept my tiny fire burning that were manageable while mothering.
Did I think, “Oh this is going to stoke my fire?” or “Oh just this last little row and my self-esteem will be boosted for the next run of stomach flu and attendant laundry requirements for such a mess?”
I just moved my hands because I knew that doing those small things felt really good to me. I knew that making things made me a more centered, resilient person. I knew I did not get so entirely frayed by the frustrations of being a mother if I kept a pair of socks on the needles and wrote for fifteen minutes without interruptions.
Now my kids are big. This morning, I overslept, which is rare for me. I was in such a great dream I missed the early cues to rise, light a candle, meditate, read and write before making my daughter’s lunch.
She left the house with only fresh juice in her bag and an apology from me.
I wrestle with this part of my mothering journey. I am still needed and necessary, but it is a darn good thing I have other stuff to do because the bulky caring muscle mass I have built up has to be used for something.
The life of a woman has been wired for care.
With or without children, we nurture.
Women today are waking up to caring for our selves first and noticing the change that occurs in this reordering. Just as those fifteen minutes of solitude sewed up my sanity before I entered the fray, those small moves to answer what you yearn for build resilience and activate your capacity for joy.
And isn’t that what carries us through the difficult, the lonely, the exhausted?
Almost every morning, I go to what I call my deepest place.
When my kids were little, I had no idea this place could be readily accessed. I thought I had to escape home life to locate it. Domestic life, domesticated life does not readily burble with invitations to dwell in deep quiet, so I had to find my ways in. Early morning writing was first. And all that knitting, every single knitted loop led me along a path; as if those slim knots were hand holds to a different state of mind. That state of mind was where I felt less reactive, not alone, and part of a solution to a nameless problem whose only medicine was joy.
Even knitting at the side of a sickbed.
Or in a nursing home.
Or in a meeting.
Or on a dark night waiting for someone to pull in the driveway.
All that making paved a path to what I know now is the deepest place within me where the sacred holy dwells, where what is kindled by that certain kind of quiet instills a tincture of calm to my frazzled nerves, where what is many named and nameless offers comfort and possibility. Saint Teresa of Avila called this place your inner castle where the Beloved awaits. You can call it what you want, but finding your way in to your deepest place will succor your ache. It will fuel your faith.
In winter where I live, and much like where I grew up, the weather drives me inside. When I am daring and warm it drives me to ice skate or snowshoe. Early in the morning, I light my candle and begin my day.
I hold this time as a buffer before I completely enter my family life with full on presence. I hold myself in jammies, sage and candlelit, as a way to keep myself from overoverwhelm.
Overoverwhelm, I type and I mean it.
This is my Hygge time.
“It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one.”
Hygge time is what the Norse do to help get them through deep winter.
I consider my morning time alone as my Hygge time.
It is a time for inner collection, as if I could do within me what I do around this house and family: picking up, sorting, rearranging, hauling out trash and outgrown clothes, tucking fresh juice in to backpacks and setting things in to motion.
What I do on the outside, I am doing on the inside.
I create intimacy.
When I allow myself to pull back, light a sage bundle, drink strong herbal tea, and glue what is at once random, a secret message is revealed. What I do in this hour is create an inner dictionary for future reference. I am filling my well.
My deepest place is the shelter I provide for myself.
It is where I allow my listening to be as slow as necessary.
It is where I stop cramming and open my palms to receive.
It is where random meets intentional and becomes message.
Hygge time, being intimate with myself in the company of my family.
All is well. All is deeply well.
This is how I keep my fire burning. In winter. And within family life.
It has become more necessary than ever.
I wonder how you find Hygge time for yourself?
I would love to hear.
Your comments are manna.
PS Here are some posts that might give you a bit of fuel.
This coming season has excitement for Laundry Line Divine.
February 22, 2015 is the Powder Keg Sessions public reading at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge, MA.
That day also opens an exhibit in the No. Six Depot café gallery of my hand bound journals, which runs through March 2015.
Then on Saturday March 7, 2015, the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and Laundry Line Divine present Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others. We have a new theme going for the event and the blog series. Find the submission details here. And a wave a new readers will join some of the familiar faces on stage at Dewey Memorial Hall in Sheffield, MA. Stay tuned for news!
Your hand is already reaching for the phone and you don’t quite know how you knew, but you did, you picked up the metal box of minerals, glass and plastic that connects you by cellular something or other, to your people, your medical support, the school, the nursing home, the police, the neighbors.
You, there, ear to ear with them, get a wake-up call.
“Mom, can you pick me up? I am not up for driving myself home from the party.”
“You got the job.”
“You didn’t get the job.”
“Brownies next time, not pizza.”
“Mom, I don’t want to stay for this sleep-over, can I come home now?”
“Suzi, you need to come home now. These could be her last days.”
“Honey, I need to have surgery.”
“Suz? The baby and I are flying home. Will you come, please?”
“Suzi, the tests are clear. All is well.”
I venture to guess you’ve gotten one or two of these calls.
Five years ago, I was having my normal yearly OB-GYN exam when my doctor looked at me over my knees and said, “There is something here that is not right. It was not here last year. We need to get you to a specialist. Today.”
The story of my hysterectomy is a complete lesson in being present and asking for what I need. Five years ago, when my son was about to complete his eight years in a Waldorf grade school, a journey that is celebrated with ceremonies and open houses and parties and a moving graduation ceremony at which my husband was the speaker, I was having surgery.
There was no time to plan around this complication.
It just had to happen.
The complete story is in my book-in-progress, Laundry Line Divine: A Wild Soul Book for Mothers. The wild tale of my becoming who I am today was fired by that experience of being terrified and vulnerable, strung between my mother fading in a nursing home and my son’s bursting forth with life. I had no idea what this surgery would reveal.
So, I called in the support of my family and friends.
I wrote. I made art in to my fear and mourning. I traveled to see my mother with my girl. I celebrated my uterus and ovaries and named my reproductive system my Golden Chamber of Angels. This was in stark contrast to some of the medical world wanting to characterize my uterus as a nasty worn old tire ready for the dump.
I resurrected my creative life in the process of releasing my organs for the benefit of my well-being. I released my Golden Chamber and I gained an expansion of my creative work that has not ceased since then. It was in November of 2009 that this website came to be.
Today, the Out of the Mouths of Babes blog series rolls on with a post by a dear friend and a writer in my Powder Keg Sunday Sessions writing workshops. Serene Mastriani, the creator of Radio2Women, writes about her own wake-up call. She boldly sets forth her response to “What do mothers make?” with a ton of courage and her characteristic wry perspective. Read Serene here.
This week I am preparing for my Writing Motherhood workshop at Edith Wharton’s Berkshire summer cottage. Edith did not have children of her own. She published a loved book titled The Children in 1928 about the adventures of a 46-year-old bachelor with a family of children. Edith was a champion of writers and her home now provides us with space to give words to our own adventures.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
– Edith Wharton
Today I remind myself that being a candle is a gift.
And that being a mirror to your candle is the very best I can offer.
All my love,
PS Woven between the threads of this post, with Edith, Serene, money, my uterus, Out of the Mouths of Babes, motherhood or not, the question of whether or not to have children, what impact raising a family has on your wild life, there exists a very important discussion about choice, being chosen, choosing not to, choosing to party where you are, choosing to mother others, being mothered by your women of choice or the person who birthed you. When I propose Writing Motherhood, I don’t AT ALL envision a nice little circle of neat homemakers scribbling about teething or testy feminists declaring independence. This dance is dense. I have found my way in to this tangle by writing and making art. I invite you to join me. Details are below.
Thank you for reading Laundry Line Divine.
If you are intrigued to know what would happen if you began Writing Motherhood, please join me June 9-10 at 6:00 PM at Edith Wharton’s summer home in the Berkshires. Yes, Edith has a room for us, with a door, behind which we will write and share.
For more writing from inside motherhood by Suzi and 35 other women, find yourself a copy of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. In a recent review posted on Amazon and Good Reads, a reader said:
“This book is filled with little gems, golden nuggets of words and illustrations, emotions and dreams, vulnerabilities and expressions of deep pride, humor, poetry, and prose that’s visceral.”
You can give a gift to a friend that has the power to grace women’s lives. Proceeds from the sale of An Anthology of Babes benefit two organizations in Berkshire County that provide free and low cost health care for women and families locally. Make a difference in one woman’s life that ripples out in to the world.
“One of these things is not like the other”- do you remember that song from Sesame Street?
While interactions on social media are never the same, there is a common thread that runs through what happens on Laundry Line Divine and on the other platforms I participate in, like Twitter and Instagram. I am fascinated with connections. I am intrigued by the stories of mothering. I am intrigued by the patterns we make in our lives, what we return to again and again and when and what we learn new and relish, a new vista, a new flavor, a new photography app.
There are things that happen on Face book that I never imagined enjoying.
This month the building I lived in for six years in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan was demolished. As the nymphs of social media would have it, a woman who was in my Powder Keg Sessions, who happens to live in Portland, Oregon but was in the Berkshires on a certain Sunday last fall, got wind of this small factoid as it scrolled by on my news feed. Well, this woman, Margaret, has a good friend, who lives opposite my old apartment building. While she was in Manhattan this week, Margaret snapped a photo of the space that was the building in which I lived with my former beau. There has been quite a funny banter on Facebook including this man, who I love being connected to in the Face book way we are- loosely but within a distance to enjoy his humor. Now, the place where we once made Thanksgiving dinners and fed cats and organized a rent strike is a pile of rubble.
Without Face book, this connection would not have been made, linking my former life on 25th Street and 8th Avenue with a new writing student who has a penchant for laundry lines and vintage stamps and sends me little missives full of gifts. Nor would I have found a comfortable social relationship with my former partner. Aside from a funeral for a common friend perhaps, I don’t know where we would have connected.
I have met many amazing women on social media. Many of the contributors to An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice and the Out of the Mouths of Babesblog series are women I met through Twitter or on other blogs, or on Huffington Post. One such author, Amanda Magee, who lives with her family in the Adirondacks and worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival for several seasons, writes today’s Out blog post. She and her husband have a set of Huff-Po blog posts written together that are cause to get up off the couch and go hug your partner. You can read Amanda’s response to “What do mothers make?”post here. I will include links to her Huffington Post pieces there.
Social media has it gifts. This past Monday I got to have a real live visit with a dear friend and collaborator, Lori Landau. Familiar to readers of the Anthology and the Out blog series, Lori lives with her family in northern New Jersey. I was passing through her area and stopped for a whole afternoon of slow wandering through a park near her home. Long walk and talk, sharing book forms and parenting thoughts. Her daughter is just south of mine in age and her challenges are ones I have lived with for a year or so. We dove right in to conversation, relying heavily on all the threads we have woven in to friendship through social media, emails, texts, real live mail and art sent back and forth, as if all those lines of intersection weave something tangible. Looking in to Lori’s eyes, I would say very tangible.
Writing about being a mother is dicey. You write, freely I hope, with no editor on your shoulder, just letting the stories flow. Later, when you look over your writing, you decide whether you have told yours or someoneelse’s story. That is how I decide whether what I have written is mine to share. When I publish something that includes my kids I always run it past them.
So, last night, I had a surprise. In my Powder Keg Ramsdell Sessions we have been experimenting with the blazon, a form of poem that is a list of attributes of another. I learned about it from Monica Devine. In its medieval roots, it was a roster of praise for a woman, starting from the top down. Over time and with a dose of irreverence from William Shakespeare and many others, the form retains is roster of attributes aspect but has come to include wry pathos and revelation.
I wrote one last week that has been simmering in my writing mind. I was itching to share it with you all, as I prepare for teaching a Writing Motherhood writing workshop in June. So, while my girl was preparing to go for a run last evening, I read it to her. I just blasted open whatever reticence I had about exposing my tender heart to her and a potentially personal moment in her abundantly sweet life.
She stood in the doorway to this studio listening. I picked my way through the lines I thought she might take issue with and cruised to the end, expecting her standard, “Oh god Mom, you can’t say that”. But, because she is not standard in any way, her response was a deep flush of pleasure and she beamed at me.
And without asking, she said I was free to share it.
In honor of this week and loving daughters, every single girl, each of us, daughters and sons, and the loving gaze that mothers hold us each in, no matter which realm those gazes issue from, I give you my Blazon for Catherine.
Please be tender with yourselves these days.
Find a live person to go hug and share an appreciation with.
Social media brings us together but what glues us takes breath and skin and the mingling of fingers in to a grip that is unforgettable.
Blazon for Catherine
Catherine the Great.
Catherine the girl.
Catherine my Fluffy Angel who leaves teabags drying into
crispy dead bats in the bottoms of long ago supped tea cups,
her rosebud lips with a staining pale birthmark over the
upper left petal,
drew comment from a very opinionated neighbor, that
oval of color rises when she is furious or
when she is flushed with pleasure as she was
one summer night, arriving after her curfew, confessing to
making out in the parking lot of the appointed place where
she was to meet her older brother and be safely transported home,
he, who texted and paced and prowled looking for his little sister,
Catherine, Cath, Cat, is the little sister, a strong beautiful
quiet storm of a sister, who, that night,
stretched in to the arms of a tall boy
who kissed her til that mark raged red and
here she, Catherine, the young woman flushed at the
foot of our bed apologizing and fearful we will take
away her new found, enpinkening freedom.
Catherine who works harder than most to
overcome what she sees as a lack.
Whose “tiny writing” fills pages of her little books but now,
whose writing, big words typed by long fingers
Catherine the smart, the able, the curious,
the persistent as a raccoon in the trash,
ass over head with her nose in a book
or baking vegan zucchini bread
or sussing out a social conundrum.
This girl is a sucker for a thrift shop.
Catherine is a seller of squash and a bagger of lettuce,
rows of community supported lettuce, spun neatly in to a plastic sack
and sold on sunny summer Saturday mornings.
Catherine is market-fresh, this girl and she is mine.
May 1, 2014
Suzi Banks Baum
Powder Keg Ramsdell Sessions
Love your friends.
Love your mothers.
Love those kids, Nigerian, Amanda’s, Lori’s, Margaret’s, yours and my own.