Sugar babies

Sugar babies

Dear Saint Valentine,

I’ve tried to learn about your life via a hasty scroll through Wikipedia—that’s something we humans use now (it’s 2020) to grapple with the unknown. Well, it’s something we use to review facts. It doesn’t help us know what to do, what to choose. For that, we have to look at the data and then be thoughtful about the result we want.

The facts about your life are pretty vague. Who you were, why you were killed, how that’s related to hearts and courtly love. It sounds like you had a knack for changing people’s perspectives. You healed your jailer’s daughter. You were killed for refusing to deny your beliefs, that seems clear. And there’s a creepy flower-capped skull at a church in Rome that is said to be yours. I saw a picture of your skull in a golden box. People come to see it to ask for help in love. I hope you feel okay about that.

I’m not in the habit of writing letters to people I’ve never met, or the deceased, or people who may be more than one person, but I’ve been struggling with some questions and sometimes it changes my perspective to write letters to inanimate objects. I thought it might be the same if I wrote to you (not to your skull, but to your soul). Also, I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of mail, maybe you don’t even know about all of this, maybe you’d be interested. (Hi, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.)

I wonder what you’d think, do you know, that on February 14 every year in the US (it’s on a continent you didn’t know about, south, west and across an ocean from Thule), in your name we have a tradition of exchanging $18.2 billion dollars worth of cards, candy, and flowers with friends and loved ones. It sounds like the tradition dates back to Chaucer (a poet about 700 years ago). He wrote 700 lines and referenced an imaginary day celebrating romance and the tradition we know today grew from there.

As a tiny slice of modernity, here’s an example of one Valentine’s Day, last year. My two children, my daughter and my son, had painted cards for their classmates. They had spent time thinking briefly of each friend. This one likes dolphins, this one likes blue. Based on glitter density and heart color, they had selected a card for each friend, composed a unique, if grammatically vague, sentiment for each child, and addressed envelopes to pass out during their annual classroom celebration, ostensibly of love and friendship.

I sent them off to school in the morning (girls go to school now), cards in hand. Time passed. I went to pick them up.

Saint Valentine, as I approached my children, I saw that my daughter held an envelope filled with colored sugar. To eat its contents you lick a hardened sugar wand with your spit, creating a saliva adhesive for attaching the loose sugar onto the sugar rod, thereby eating the full pouch of sugar. It’s called “Fun Dip.”

She was eating the Fun Dip quickly, as if aware she risked its imminent confiscation. Her eyes were dark pools of emptiness, she could not answer basic questions.

Each child brought home a bag of treasure collected during the day from friends and teachers. Collapsing on the floor, my daughter emptied and pawed through the contents of her bag, tossing aside the various cards in search of seatrash (we exchange miniature plastic trinkets, often themed, that break upon contact with human flesh, and are eaten by turtles or alternately formed into giant sculptures at the zoo to illustrate the plight of the oceans. I know they’re vast, we didn’t mean to). She was hunting for some undiscovered marvel in the bag, or perhaps an eraser she will never use when, in addition to a number of empty wrappers, she discovered a ziplock bag full of candy.

I asked her to eat something, to introduce a protein-based substance into her endocrine system, so that life might return to her face. She was not hungry. “Did you have something to eat at the Valentine’s Day Party?” I asked, smiling, like I was merely asking out of curiosity, feigning a casual indifference so as not to put her on guard. “Oh yes,” she replied. “I had one and a half donuts, the big kind, two cupcakes, and three iced sugar cookies. They had a cake too but I didn’t try it.” Saint Valentine, I am not exaggerating for the sake of humor. I’m talking about a 50-pound child, one-third the size of an adult woman.

In 2013, a prominent group of physicians in America (we call them the American Heart Association) recommended that grown women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar. That is the equivalent of 10 jelly beans.

And this isn’t just a one-time deal, one extreme-sugar event on the day of your decapitation. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s Halloween, Winter Holiday season which extends from late November to early January, back to school celebrations, teacher birthdays, “making it fun to count things” (a common math curriculum), what they eat in France day, celebrating sweet foods of the world day. (And birthday parties outside of school, after-soccer Oreos and Capri Sun, hey its Sunday snow cones.) Trying to find an event or venue targeted to children without freely available sugar is like searching for Atlantis.

Val, I know you never tasted sugar. It’s kind of like honey but devoid of nutrients. Two hundred years ago the average American ate 2 (TWO) pounds of sugar per year. One hundred years ago, we ate 17.5 pounds of sugar per person per year. By 2011 Americans were eating 150 pounds of sugar per person annually.

Maybe you’re thinking, well honey is delicious. Maybe people eat more now because they can, it’s cheap and available. Americans also save more lives with medicine now than we did 200 years ago and nobody is complaining about that. It’s called progress lady!

Honey IS delicious. But here’s the thing: as much as we might wish otherwise, sugar’s really not good for us. One in eight Americans is diabetic now. Diabetes is a disease you never heard of because it pretty much didn’t exist until 120 years ago. That’s a lot of people dying younger, living less healthily, being predisposed to a bunch of other health issues.

And there is mounting evidence of the harm from sugar’s ascendancy: Diets high in sugar slow down the brain and damage synaptic activity.

Consuming sugar stimulates the release of serotonin (that’s why it feels so good). Seratonin is related to our feeling of happiness. When we consistently surge our seratonin, this not only depletes our body’s supply, but it means we need more. Once a body builds up a tolerance to sugar it needs more for the same “happiness” surge.

And researchers think that teenagers might be especially vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood.

So, contrary to research funded by the sugar industry and shared with the public for many years, it looks like sugar is probably not a health food, also probably not a neutral food, at least in the quantities we are consuming now which, again, is 75 times more than our great-great-great grandmother.

But life is hard (you surely know that), and sugar is tasty, and sometimes you just need to relax, have some fun, live in the moment.

My daughter and I sat down by her treasure bag. I looked at the cards, curious. Most were the cards I remembered from childhood, a platonically encouraging phrase like “Valentine, you’re the bomb” and a picture of Spiderman jumping away from a giant explosion (I’m sure they were bad guys so it’s ok). I’d show her a card, ask who it was from. No idea. She hadn’t read any of the cards, she had separated the wheat from the chaff immediately and had no idea who had given her the Fun Dip, or that sticky plastic guy that you throw at the wall and is coated with a mystery substance that helps him to sort of hop down at least three times before becoming seatrash. She hadn’t looked at the cards, they were like the tag on a new shirt, something to cut off and dispose of, irrelevant.

I remember reading the cards as a girl, wondering when Stephen Stout gave me a card that said “Valentine, you’re outta this world” with a picture of ALF giving a thumbs-up while mysteriously floating in space. Did Stephen pick that card just for me? What could it mean?

Val, my daughter spent hours writing cards to her friends. She was so excited to share them. And she didn’t even read the cards they gave her in return. Please do not think I am painting her as callous. I am drawing a picture of the strength of this substance. And thinking about the relationship between sugar, and trinkets, and connection – maybe the heart of my question. Does the sugar, do the trinkets, support connection, the very aspect of our nature that we honor with this day?

My son, five-years-old, had not had a dessert buffet with his class. They had exchanged cards and, yes, he received a few pieces of candy and several seatrash-items. But my son, after only moderate exposure to sugar, looked at every card. Felt very excited that Thomas had given him this one and Rosie had made that one. He brought them up to his room. My friends gave these to me, these little scraps of paper with their names on them. He seemed to cherish his cards. He still has them up there and it is many months later.

***

Saint Valentine, I have wrestled with these thoughts. Wondering if I’m just trying to have control in an uncontrollable world. Wondering in the grand scheme of life on Earth and all of the struggles of all of the people, does it really matter? It’s just a few cookies, no matter that we know now that rats addicted to heroine choose sugar in preference to heroine.

I’m afraid of the sugar. And I’m afraid of the fear of the sugar. I’m afraid we’re damaging their bodies. That we are training them, physically, to need this taste at the expense of all other tastes. To dull their palettes with sweetness so that nothing else tastes good, or even edible. So many of the children around me will not eat. Food, the kind that has a nutrient, does not taste good to them. They can’t taste it. They aren’t being stubborn, their bodies are trained that way.

I’m scared for their minds. Because I know what it is like to look for the next easy surge of pleasure. We do it all the time, every day, I guess every animal does. But we are smart animals and there is so much money to be made from providing quick, cheap surges, and so many smart people figuring out ways to give them to us. Whether it is a like or a beep or a drag or a sip or a bite, it is much easier in 2020 to drift from hit to hit, from tiny buzz to tiny buzz, looking for the next one when your chemical state changes. Sugar is so powerful. It carves a deep, strong bond to the pleasure centers in your brain so that, without it, pleasure becomes harder to find. And the more you consume, the more you need to get to the same level of okay.

And I’m scared for their hearts. Surrounded by sweets and seatrash, each little object a tiny surge of chemicals, each bite another surge, the slower burn of friendship, of human warmth, has trouble competing. What does it say to them when we teach that friendship needs a dessert buffet to be pleasurable? Does it? Is that what we think?

***

I wonder what you would think. I hesitate, somewhat ashamed after what I’ve described above, to tell you that one in six children in America today, 13 million children, don’t have enough to eat. They are hungry. This is another fact. Data that we can use to guide our decisions, or not.

And then about the $18 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on love, right? In my dream of the perfect world, we show kids first that love doesn’t cost anything and that it doesn’t need to come with a trinket, it’s how you treat people, how you make them feel safe and known. How you work to take care of something. What if we spent $18 billion each year showing that love is taking care of people, of a community, of the world, together? Wouldn’t that be an amazing legacy of connection to hand down to our kids?

Val, I realize that in writing to you I have been focusing on what scares me, what I don’t want. So here’s what I do want:

I want my children to know how to feel love, to feel loved. I want them to learn to be strong, to learn to be kind, to learn to feel hope. I want that for all of the kids.

So show them love, how to love, show your strength, treat them kindly, share your hope.

Is that what you would say?

With the evidence in front of us, we make choices. As a culture, we need to eat less sugar. We need to look at our patterns. Find better ones. I think we are trying.

My earnest prayer is that in our traditions and celebrations, we show that love is not four kinds of cake or a bagful of anything. That we learn enough so there’s more to share, or less to take. But also that we don’t live in fear, that when we find ourselves in the midst of a dessert buffet, we look for the love, share our joy, our warmth, and our laughter. Breathe. Help the children find their own ways in their own world, the one we can try to influence but will never control. A beautiful world where they are free to hold different opinions, as you, Valentine, were not.

I guess that’s all for now. Thank you so much for listening, that’s something a friend does. If I ever find myself in Rome, maybe I’ll stop by and say hello to your creepy skull.

With love,
Jennifer


This piece was written as part of The Stuffed Project (One woman’s quest to re-examine our relationship to the material world). My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

How to live on a ledge

This post covers topics that I’m usually uncomfortable writing about, though I think about them frequently. I’ve recently added lines from the Tracy Chapman song “Why” to the draft of my Artist Manifesto:

The time is coming soon when the blind remove their blinders and the speechless speak the truth.

It gives me courage.


I recently received a text message, one bubble within a group conversation:

I don’t know how best to respond to this. I’m very glad that you shared it with me, and I love you! … It’s hard to process and deal with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone I’m close to.

I didn’t write back at the time. I thought some thoughts but texting has its limits. It’s been on my mind though.

Long-time readers of this blog might know that I sometimes resolve pressing philosophical queries during the quiet time between dropping the kids off at school and arriving back home. I can’t remember the soundtrack this time, I was a million miles away, but a number of things occurred to me that seemed related to the question I hear in my friend’s message, so I wanted to examine them.

Last night my son was taking a shower. It was time for the shower to be over so I went to turn off the water (he would stay in all night if I let him). He was in there, his skinny little six-year-old body, pretending to be a knight or superhero, water dripping down his face. My turning off the water didn’t disrupt the flow, he stayed in his universe, wherever that was, as he got out of the shower, took the towel. I was flooded with a joyful feeling, I get to be here, now, in the beauty of this moment with this vibrant soul, this child I love with all of my heart. The joy also mingled with a recognition that he will grow up and no longer allow me to hand him a towel someday. And then I thought of a mother who gets a phone call that her son was shot at school. That he’s gone and he’ll never come back.

I was reading yesterday about a boy with brown skin who was shot, killed, by a boy with peach skin because the brown-skinned boy would not call his playmate “mister.” I went to a gathering at my children’s school last week to discuss the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. A mother of a current student stood up and told the group that in her many years at the school it would have made such a difference if one person with skin the color of mine had made an effort to befriend her. She shared, vulnerably and without blame, that she felt that none had, that she felt sadness. And I felt sadness. I’m a person with lighter skin. I didn’t know, or I didn’t take time to know, or know how to know. And I’m not talking about a systemic situation here, I’m talking about that one person and this one person.

In this age of awareness and connectivity it is seeped into our pores, you can’t do anything, be alive, without absorbing into yourself fear, and pain, and loss, of those close to you and those you’ve never met. How can we process and deal with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone, the ones we’re close to and the ones we’re not?

Sometimes, frequently actually, I think about David Attenborough’s films. In the series Planet Earth II, there is a segment on the Nubian ibex, a little goat-like creature with giant eyes, that lives in the mountains. Please picture a very adorable animal. These things are born on sheer cliff faces, the ledge for them to stand on is like an inch wide. They have these tiny pointed feet for skipping up and down the mountain. You see, they have to have water to live. And the water is down there, with the foxes.

That is life.

When I’m feeling like life is hard I think about the Nubian ibex babies who are just thirsty. They just want a few sips of water. And they have to climb down a mountain, they slip sometimes, and then foxes eat them. But the foxes have babies too. They just want something to eat. Does that make them the bad guys? No, it makes them alive.

And that is why love is so necessary.

Because we are the ibex. And we are the fox. And we know it.

And now I’m gonna talk about Jesus.

Now before you stop reading, please know that prior to four weeks ago I had not been inside of a church, except for a Christmas service, in about seven years. And I’ve only been to a Christmas service twice in that time.

Long story: I have a number of old books, from one grandparent or another, and they are mostly falling apart. I don’t know what to do with them, which to keep or which to give away, so I started reading one (it’s a slow process) called The Greatest Thing in the World written by a Scottish man named Henry Drummond in the late 1800s when Darwin was becoming well known in the wider world and people were asking a lot of questions about evolution and how it could fit with the Christian worldview.

Drummond was a science-type who saw the evidence for evolution as pretty solid and also felt that it supported what he knew of life as a Christian person.

Before I go any further, I want to make a suggestion. Maybe you watched a lot of people drive to church in their Mercedes wearing a full-length fur coat talking about how God chose them to be blessed and that didn’t sit well with you, camels getting through eyes of needles and all of that. Maybe you learned in history about the Inquisition or the Crusades and you felt that Christianity has been used by a lot of people throughout time to hurt others and gain power. Maybe you are a science-type and you don’t see the need for any supernatural explanations of anything. Maybe you don’t care for the way Godly People twist bits of religious text, out of context, for political ends, to manipulate large groups of people for their own ungodly purposes.

My suggestion, as you read the following, is that you think of Jesus like you would think of Nelson Mandela. A teacher who had some things to say about how to behave given that we are the ibex and the fox. A guy who said some things that made some sense to some people. The fact that his words have been twisted and used for power doesn’t, on its own, make them bad words or bad advice.

Here’s what has helped me lately:

Drummond writes that, Pre-Jesus, men were working their passage to Heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments, and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them.

Jesus said, hey, there’s a better way to guide your actions: Love.

How do you love?

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is generous. Love is humble. Love is courteous. Love is unselfish. Love keeps a good temper. Love does not deceive. Love is sincere.

That’s it.

I wake up in the morning. I walk into the kitchen. I light a candle on the counter. I call it the “peace candle.” When the kids start to bicker, when I start to feel rushed, I try to look at the candle. Love is patient. Love is kind.

It helps. A lot.

You will observe that all [the qualities of love] are in relation to men, in relation to life, in relation to the known today and the near tomorrow, and not to the unknown eternity. We hear much of love to God; Christ spoke much of love to man. We make a great deal of peace with heaven; Christ made much of peace on earth.

The most obvious lesson in Christ’s teaching is that there is no happiness in having and getting anything, but only in giving…And half the world is on the wrong scent in the pursuit of happiness. They think it consists in having and getting, and in being served by others. It consists in giving and serving others. He that would be great among you, said Christ, let him serve. He that would be happy, let him remember that there is but one way – it is more blessed, it is more happy, to give than to receive.

Christ did not come into the world to give men religion. He never mentioned the word religion. Religion was in the world before Christ came, and it lives today in a million souls who have never heard His name. What God does all day is not to sit waiting in churches for people to come and worship Him. It is true that God is in churches and in all kinds of churches, and is found by many in churches more immediately than anywhere else. It is also true that while Christ did not give men religion He gave a new direction to the religious aspiration bursting forth then and now and always from the whole world’s heart. But it was His purpose to enlist these aspirations on behalf of some definite practical good. The religious people of those days did nothing with their religion except to attend to its observances. Even the priest, after he had been to the temple, thought his work was done; when he met the wounded man he passed by on the other side. Christ reversed all this – tried to reverse it… The tendency of the religions of all time has been to care more for religion than for humanity; Christ cared more for humanity than for religion – rather His care for humanity was the chief expression of His religion.

And more from First Corinthians:

Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love is the opposite of abstract. It isn’t thinking about hungry people and wishing that everyone had enough to eat. It isn’t feeling sad or scared on behalf of someone close or far. It isn’t the act of making a donation, or campaigning for something, or fighting climate change, or becoming a martyr. It is separate from belief and from knowing. Love requires interaction, connection. It is between you and another person, one real person, right there (or an animal, or a tree, or a mountain, or maybe even a teacup). It is how you encounter others, how you try to encounter others, how you work, the nature of the effort you are willing to put in, to encounter others, real others, others as imperfect as you, in a way that creates heaven on Earth.


We are all born on the cliff, though some are born with much wider ledges.

We are the ibex and we are the fox.

And we are conscious of this. Our consciousness is what searches for understanding, and a way to be okay with the truths of living, of your children living, of everyone you love living, of everyone on Earth, of everything on Earth living on a sheer cliff.

I don’t think you have to define it, though I long to be in community with others who share a spiritual perspective. Who orient themselves not to the ever-after or to following rules or to belonging or not belonging. But who, when they don’t know what to do, how to act, they choose to love, here, now, today, the person next to them, the person across the street, the person at the store, the inconsiderate driver.

I was at the grocery on Tuesday, the store had just opened and I was checking out. All of the staff members were gathered at the front for a team meeting. There are some staff who work at the registers and I know them, we are friendly with each other. But there are people at the store who work behind the scenes. Generalizing I would say they may not speak English as well as the folks at the registers, I have not seen them and I don’t interact with them when I go to the store. But they were there at the meeting. There was one woman standing by the door as I was walking out to leave. I looked at her face, at her eyes. I smiled. The smile she returned to me has stayed with me all week. You would have thought I gave her a one thousand-dollar bill. All I did was to see her and to smile.

Last night there was a performance at my children’s school. During intermission I saw another mother there alone, like me. I don’t know her well but our children are in the same class. I stood up and walked over. This one person and that one person in this one moment. Right now, it’s my way of dealing with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone. And sometimes it can feel pretty good.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Authorhood

Hello again!

School is in full swing, the sky is September blue, it’s time for an update, and so I shall.

I have submitted four pieces of writing for publication since beginning the 100 Rejections Project. Well under the two-per-month hoped for, but four more than I’d ever submitted before. As of Friday, August 16th, I’ve received four rejections. Yes, I chose to submit to publications that were very unlikely to accept my work. Those first submissions were more like a signal to the universe that I wanted to try and that I had aspirations. OK universe, I sent the signal. Now it’s time to find some more likely homes for my work.

Well what do you know, I already made a home for some of my work! Right here! I haven’t shared any poems so far because a posted poem (even on a little-read blog) is considered published and can no longer be submitted. Ah, but you can post a draft. So that’s what I’ve done. Details below.

As usual, a variety of circumstances or events have thrown my equilibrium (if you’ve been reading this blog you may find it funny to see the word “my” and “equilibrium” in close proximity. I think I’m more like a game of Jenga. And sometimes the pieces fall. And if you know that the whole point is to enjoy playing, when the pieces fall you can throw your hands up in the air, make some kind of loud noise, gather the blocks back into order, and start again): there is publishing the book, there is the experience of playing music with and for others, there was summer break, and there are home repairs and (thankfully) paid work.

I’ve been playing music as much as I can and writing more songs. I’m going to share some of them on the blog. I know that wasn’t the plan. I don’t know if it is a distraction. But I do know that when I feel like doing something that isn’t so good for me (mindless iPad games, for example) if instead I allow myself to sit down at the piano, when that hour passes I am in a way better place. It’s a healthier way to deal with wanting to change your feelings.

Change your feelings? Why would you need to do that? Publishing an unplanned and very personal book about yourself and sharing it with everyone you know, in case you are considering this option, is emotionally a little rough. Terrifying might not be too strong a word.

But time has passed, two beautiful friends have arranged for me to read from my book in front of groups of people, that has been very encouraging and helped me to feel more peaceful about the whole thing. Many people have been encouraging. And now it is time to keep working.

“Find the comfort in the rhythm of commitment.” I wrote this down from my 2019 Danielle Laporte “Desire Map” Weekly Planner and it has lately been useful to me. I said I was going to write Stuffed so I’m going to finish it. It might take a while and I’m not going to turn off the faucet when a poem shows up and I’m going to play music and write songs and share those too. And there is (thankfully) my paid work and being a mom/wife/friend/sister/daughter. So as usual I will write when I can and I will try to keep the blocks balanced and not have to start again, as life and my own nature allow.

I’m writing an artist manifesto. I will share it when it is done. In the meantime, two passages from my manifesto notes:

May the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality beyond his or her solitary powers.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and land.

Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me,
For after we start we never lie by again.

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

I have read three amazing books lately. After I received the letter, in August, indicating that my two poems, while appreciated, had not yet found a home, I went to the library and checked out Red Bird by Mary Oliver which I read in one sitting and then twice more over the course of a week (it is a thin book of poetry, in case you are not familiar with Mary Oliver). Reading her words, I felt so un-alone and so much awe for the human spirit. While reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates I did not come to all of the same conclusions as Mr. Coates, but I found his writing to be beautiful and moving and challenging. I learned from and appreciated the stories he shared and I think it is a helpful, an important, book to read and consider dealing with race in America. It certainly expanded my perspective and I feel has changed my thinking and behavior. Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg I think will change/has changed my life. If you aspire to write, to communicate, I think it is worth the two hours it will take to read. I also started reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman for the first time ever. I don’t know how this can be true, but it is. Something I loved:

TO A CERTAIN CANTATRICE

Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

— Walt Whitman, “Inscriptions,” Leaves of Grass

Some “big news” is that the Adventures with Jenny Goodguts blog will soon be no more. What? How will you handle not getting a sporadic blog post from me whenever I feel like it?? Not to worry. I am moving the whole she-bang over to a soon-to-be newly designed site at jenniferhole.com. I’m torn about it. I love Jenny Goodguts. But functionally for me this will be better, and I think it will make it easier to share more frequently, easier to organize, more appealing to read, and so on. I don’t know. It is what I’m doing and it will be great. SO, I’ll be adding some poems to that site and they can be found here (there are two there now, somewhat randomly selected but one is related to The Stuffed Project).

I am also going to add new songs here. The song I have already shared (the Dear God song), as well as the mom opera which I am frankly embarrassed to mention, and the first ever video from five years ago are all up on that site. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I was hoping you wouldn’t find them but they exist and they are, for the time being, still there.

That feels like enough updating for one day. I am committed to finding my way as an artiste. I feel that the universe is looking favorably upon my effort and that friends and ideas appear to help me on my way. At least I feel that way today.

It can strike me as insincere when some email blast from a smiling, perfectly coiffed blogista is signed “love,” but that’s how I feel so…

with love from my little desk,
Jennifer

A “brief” meditation

I have never known a world without Underoos. When I was born in late 1975 Underoos did not exist, but by the time I was old enough to say “mama I dropped my eggs” (reported to be my first sentence) or even something as simple as “I want,” superhero-themed underpants were being sold in grocery stores across America.

I imagine it, a world free from cartoon characters smiling or glowering from the surface of any product large enough to be so emblazoned. No Fred Flintstone on a box of cereal. No sultry tween, hands on her hips, pouting from the corner of a pair of cheap sunglasses. No plastic bits of crap that break immediately upon exposure to human flesh (TOA: Trash On Arrival) but were purchased because they happened to have a sticker of a Paw Patrol somewhere on their useless petrochemical body.

But such a world did once exist, and not so long ago. A world of solid colored, functional children’s underpants.

In 1977, it was calculated that children in the US wore out 250 million pairs of underwear each year. Sold at $2.25 a pair, this made for a $600 million dollar annual market. Wanting to increase their market share in children’s skivvies, the Union Underwear Company licensed the use of various comic-book characters. Images related to the characters were printed on underwear which was packaged as “Underoos” and sold for $4.79 per pair (more than double the going price for standard-issue drawers).

Philip Dougherty, in a column about advertising that he regularly wrote for the New York Times,discussed Underoos in 1978:

“There has never been a product like this before,” exclaimed Mr. [James W.] Johnston [Union’s marketing vice president], who noted that not only would it deliver higher profit margins than conservative underwear, but it would also react better to advertising and “for the first time add children’s influence to the purchasing decision…” Mr. Johnston … was later to say, “Advertising is not necessary to sell the product, because it’s a powerful product, but advertising is necessary to establish it as a permanent part of the children’s culture.”

Hey! That’s me he’s talking about! My culture!

Several years ago, after I had become a mom, I read the book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a story of the daughter of Jacob and Leah (from the Bible) that explores the traditions, and the brutality, of ancient womanhood. I remember a scene where the main character, Dinah, as a girl, sits in the lap of her aunt. As is common in the book there has been some kind of gory trauma that day. The aunt is brushing or braiding the girl’s hair to soothe her and singing songs that tell stories. The stories are about life, often using metaphor to explain the world and how to find meaning and what has value and what is beautiful. I remember being moved. I remember wondering, then, about the stories we use to teach children these same things in my world.

So back to Mr. Johnston’s quote, which I must acknowledge gives me a bit of a sick taste in my throat each time I read it, Underoos was a permanent part of my culture. So were Strawberry Shortcake and G.I. Joe and He-Man. All had TV shows that I guess were developed to sell products to me. I don’t know what came first, the characters and the shows or the plastic empire? Somebody made these things to sell them to my parents, via my brainwaves, my imagination, my myths, the ones that I would internalize as the stories of what had value, how we act, how we make decisions. My stories, the ones I spent the most time with, were thought up by people like this underwear guy who used advertising to make his product, his story, a permanent part of my culture.

I had a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos. I think my brother had Superman, maybe Spiderman too. Incredible Hulk? I don’t know, that kid loved to dress up like superheroes. In seeing the word, and trying to remember us at that age, all of my brain synapses in relation to the term “Underoos” are firing “happiness,” “joy,” “fun,” “love.”

Lewis Hyde discusses Underoos in his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, noting that the company seeks to market not an improved product but an image, in particular images of superheroes. Hyde writes: 

“The profit depends on this formula: an innocent and imaginative child plus a parent with money plus an affectionate tie between the two. The people who marketed Underoos sold them in supermarkets rather than clothing stores because children more often accompany their mothers to the market and the whole promotional strategy would fall apart if this third thing, the bond between the parent and the child, was missing at the moment of the sale.”

In The Gift, Hyde defines a true gift as something very different from an exchange, it is not transactional. A gift is a movement of value, it is a transfer from have to need, and it has a liveliness to it, it is an offer of creative, life energy from one being to another and it flows in a circular way, giving when you have an abundance, receiving when you do not.

And the problem we begin to encounter with Underoos is that the marketers know that the relationship between a parent and child is an emotional bond. There is a life force and a willingness to give, to let energy and resource flow to a genuine, heartfelt desire. And then the marketer takes the emotional, imaginative life of the child, his desire to be strong and powerful, an age-old, beautiful, vital, vibrant part of being a child. And Underoos rolls that into a transaction. In Underoos we see the love, the gift urge, the imagination, recombined into a new dynamic.

In my experience, in the world we live in with cartoons on boxes of food, notebooks, shoes, crappy plastic rulers, this new dynamic often breeds a sort of horridness. Where, instead of gifts as defined by Hyde, we deal in transactions. And frequently in demands that are either met or not met. The innocence and imagination are still part of the equation, they still underpin the exchange, but there is such a weight of transactions in the life of my children. I imagine, from everything they have seen, from their lived experience, these products seem to be a rite of childhood, a given, an obligation. If I meet the demands, we lose. If I don’t meet the demands, we lose.

CHILD: Mom, can we get a box of Choco-Syrup-Stars? The one with the picture of iPhoneX Man on it?

MOM: Sweetheart, the picture has nothing to do with the taste of the cereal and those look really disgusting and also they are not food. There is not one food ingredient on the list. Look.

CHILD: But there are games on the back. You can help IPhoneX man find his missing charger and then there are instructions for how to take selfies and post them on a special site that will draw a phone right in your hand.

MOM: We’re not buying this cereal. We come to the grocery store to buy food. Not pictures of fake phones and a box full of corn syrup and glyphosate.

CHILD: When am I going to get a phone? Ella has a phone already. And she gets to eat this cereal. Her mom buys it.

MOM: I’m pretty sure we’ve gone over this before but I’m not Ella’s mom.

CHILD: We never get anything good. I wish I lived at Ella’s house.

(Mom silently pushes cart along, thinks about Caroline, mother to Laura Ingalls Wilder, thinks back to Underoos, shrugs).

More from The Gift:

But what is the fate of affection and imagination if, whenever we are drawn in their direction, we must pass a stranger collecting tolls?

Once goodwill has been separated from its vehicles, matter will increase without spirit. Objects will begin to appear that carry no social or spiritual feeling, though they are the products of human hands.

I hear friends say things like “Susie won’t wear [such-and-such].” But there was a world, not so long ago, where all these decisions weren’t up to Susie. There were functional things that a person needed and was provided with. Except for Nellie Olsen and we all know that she didn’t turn out well. A world full of trashy junk covered with stickers and logos, the one that needs Marie Kondo to help us all declutter, and that accepts the use of the word “clutter” as a way to remove us from the responsibility of all of the stuff we have somehow accumulated, it’s not the only path.

And it isn’t a satisfying path. It has taken what was love and imagination and it has created a transaction that almost always ends in dissatisfaction. Matter has increased. Spirit has diminished.

I’m curious about what it does to the relationships. The saying yes or the saying no. What it does to the experience of getting, of having, of valuing, of appreciating.

I’ve read about ads making us feel worse about ourselves. How marketers use the tension of our wanting to be or feel something different to get us to take some action. Occasionally the action taken leads to an improvement of some sort or a different feeling, at least momentarily. But often we are paying to feel the hopefulness in the gap between wanting and having, we are paying for the imagination of things being different. And then we have the thing in our hands and nothing is different and we still have to look at the thing, organize the thing, somewhat embarrassed to have spent the money and that it didn’t actually fix us by magic, life is still the same, and we’re determined to get some use out of this “matter” that is sucking the life force out of us.

In thinking about Underoos I’m wondering about the shift in our relationship to our things when this transactionality is introduced into what used to be a different kind of relationship. When the best parts of us, our love and our imagination are monetized. When what existed more in the space of a gift is intentionally manipulated to become a transaction, what is spiritually lost in that change? And does that have anything to do with how we feel about all of the things that surround us? Have they lost the energy to ‘spark joy’ because the transaction somehow depletes the life force, the goodwill has evaporated with the commodification of love and imagination?

I’m not going to come to any conclusions today. We loved our Underoos. We spent hours playing GI Joe, possibly with mixed psychological results. I probably have a screwed up body image but there are so many possible culprits, I don’t dare blame Barbie (or Three’s Company which we always watched after He-Man and GI Joe even though my mom doesn’t remember it that way).

It seems relevant to The Stuffed Project (one woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world) to consider the story of Underoos. To recognize the change that has occurred during my lifetime. To think about the nature of how a thing comes to be in your space, the intent behind it, by whom, and if that changes in any way your relationship to the thing. And if that changed relationship is in some way linked to less soul, more stuff. Just a lot of thoughts. Jotted down. Shared with you.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Lost and found

Dear readers,

A number of new folks (a proportionally significant number though in absolute terms not especially large) have joined our ranks in the past couple of weeks. My plan was to welcome them (welcome! I’m so glad you’re here!), to write something explaining how we do things around here. But, as an introduction, what follows is probably the most appropriate because this is how we do things around here — life, my life, seems to dictate that certain things be written at a certain time. Often abetted by a friend or reader, life shouts: today you must write this! I try to follow suit when life’s agenda becomes plain. So without further ado…

One year ago from tomorrow, June 25, 2018, it was a Monday. I had last worked on my novel on May 14 when it had reached 78,858 words. In the time between May 14 and June 25, I had written three blog posts that had felt significant to me: Eating and other problems, 365 days, and the beginning. I had taken a break from the novel to write these, I had been to my 20-year college reunion, I had spent a week in Vermont with my family, and I had completed some paid contract work, editing a technical document about sustainability in forestry. It had been a longer break from the novel than I had wanted, it was Monday morning, the kids were in camp, I was sitting at my desk which by that time had moved to its present location looking out at the ravine and all of the trees. I can’t remember what brought it about, but I had an idea, I knew how the novel would end.

Not how the story would end exactly. But I knew that the heroine would receive a gift, a gift that any reader of the book would know was not the kind of gift she would have chosen. A gift that wasn’t what she wanted. Not only different from what she would ask for, but something that if you asked her in advance “would you like to receive such-and-such a gift?” — she would definitely say “no. that is not something I would like.”

She was going to receive this gift. And she was going to feel content, feel love. Not because of what the gift was at all. But, maybe, because what the gift was didn’t really matter. Because in looking at life and how messy it is and can feel she thought, this is good, or this is life and I accept. What mattered was the giving and the givers and the life all around her and somehow between where I was at 78,858 words and wherever this book would end, which had originally been imagined at 80,000 words but certainly, on June 25 of 2018, felt like it would take many more words, somehow she was going to learn to be part of the flow of life.

I wrote a note to myself about the ending. It is still there, at the bottom of the only saved version of the novel that remains. I can open the document now and see the note. I could tell you exactly what it says. But thinking about doing that, about opening that document, and seeing again what is not there, is so uncomfortable.

Last night my friend was sharing a story about an outing she took with her parents and her kids to the Spy Museum. She was talking about the tendency of grandparents to want to purchase stuff — any kind of stuff — for their grandkids when I remembered a forgotten scene from the novel. The grandparents tell the mother (the heroine) that they are taking the children to the library but instead they go to the bookstore and let the children choose one book each to purchase. One child chooses something like Spiderman and the other something like a book about Barbie, or maybe about volcanoes. I can’t remember. And then there is a conversation afterwards between the heroine and her mother, a sort of funny and exasperated conversation. It wasn’t a great scene. It would probably have been cut in the end. But I can’t read it again. Remembering that, last night, I felt sad. I wished that I could read it again.

So there it was, Monday morning, June 25, 2018. I had the idea about the ending. I was so excited. I opened the file where I was writing the novel, I scrolled to the bottom to write notes about the idea. And as I was typing the note, and after I was finished, I kept waiting for the tally of the total number of words, the word count at the bottom of the screen, to update. To move above 30,006. And it kept not changing.

Have you ever been at an outdoor movie, you are sitting on a blanket talking to a friend, your child is playing on the playground a little ways away? There are a lot of people, there’s movement and commotion. You realize it has been about seven minutes and you haven’t seen your son, haven’t checked for him. Okay, you think, I’ll just make brief visual confirmation that he has not wandered off into the wide world and then continue my pleasant conversation. Your eyes scan, relaxed. But his yellow shirt is nowhere to be seen. It’s bright yellow though, should be easy to spot. And then, a feeling comes into your chest and even if he were standing right in front of you you probably wouldn’t see him because you aren’t looking anymore, you are panicking, you are thinking of all of the possibilities, your eyes are searching everywhere at once and nowhere carefully, and you can’t quite breathe and you stand up and walk quickly over to the playground. He must be here, he knows not to leave, but no… You feel totally desperate and then, eventually, after probably just 200 super uncomfortable seconds, you find him right outside of the fence pretending to sword fight with three other six-year-olds.

It was like that on that Monday morning.

But I didn’t find it. 

Most people reading this already know the story but, just in case, my novel was deleted, or at least 50,000 words of it. The version from May was gone. Unrecoverable. The only remaining version was from February. I thought the cloud was a treasure chest, a safety deposit box. It’s not.

What I understood, within days, was that I had not recognized what the novel meant to me. I had not understood how proud I was of what I was creating or how the act of focused creation was changing me. I hadn’t acknowledged this to myself, let alone to anyone else. I had not valued my work, not treasured it, not protected it. The loss taught me how much I cared. Maybe that I cared enough that I was ready to be vulnerable. Ready to say out loud that I wanted this and that I was going to do it, not on the side, not prioritizing everything else.

It’s been a year. Instead of a finished novel, I’ve published a different book, an unplanned book. I’m in a band now. I’m singing and I’m writing songs again. I started writing poetry in October. I’ve submitted several poems for publication and so far had no response, but I know it can take awhile, and I know I will keep trying. I have an idea for a new novel, or for a new direction for the old novel — and I’m really excited about the idea. I have new people in my life who talk about new things. I have old friends in my life who talk about new things, or help to remind me. I have opportunities for different kinds of work. I have people asking me to write for their blogs. I had someone invite me to speak at her bookclub, an acquaintance who heard about my book from someone other than me. I did a book reading over the weekend, reading my words aloud to a group of people who have supported me and encouraged me to keep going.

I was curious enough to be uncomfortable. I opened, just now, the file that holds what remains of the novel. I scrolled quickly down to the end, past the ghosts of all of those missing words. And now I’m going to share with you the note that I left for myself about the ending of the novel, the last words I jotted down, quickly, on Monday morning, June 25, 2018 before learning that the majority of the novel was gone:

It is totally broken, it is not what she wants, it comes together in a weird way from different unexpected sources, and it is magic and she feels love and that’s life – that’s the conclusion. She gets something that she didn’t want, from a weird unexpected source, there are conflicting emotions of joy and sadness and guilt and despair, and she feels love and connection and life.

I’m not where I planned to be. I didn’t want this gift. But this is life with its vast ocean of possibility, with its love and connection, if you choose to look for it, and I accept. With a thankful heart.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

A letter to my first 35 readers

Dear Sarah Lu, Libby, Kelli, Mom, Robert, Jen G, Mahlette, Laura, and Leigh

Dear Amy, Dave, Dad, Gareth, Ms. Furse, Claire F, Patricia, Aunt Shirley, Colleen, Mari, Nina, Katrin, Martha, Lani, Claire M, Becky, Aunt Lynn, Jen T, Lina, Adam, Stacy, Sarah E, Jessica, Andy, Angie, and Joan

I’m writing because last weekend (on May 11), I published my book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts. The dedication in the book reads as follows:

dedicated to the vast ocean of possibility
and to my first 35 readers,
thank you for the gift of your time, and for your encouragement

I wanted you to know that you are one of the people that I’m talking about, one of the 35 people to whom I dedicated my book.

In October of 2014, I went to Mexico to sea kayak with seven other women, five of whom I had never met before. I remember riding in the van on the way to the ocean I felt this tightness inside my chest. This wall inside blocking me from something. I wondered if it would ever melt, dissolve. I don’t know what happened on that trip. I spent a lot of time in the same wet clothes. I sang three songs with two old friends with cactuses in the background. We talked about life. We slept outside. We saw a sunrise. And when I came back to my real life, I wanted something to change. So I started a blog. I sent a few written thoughts, nothing fancy or special, to the women from the trip. They encouraged me, you encouraged me. Time passed, life happened, and I kept writing things down. Not many people read the words I wrote for the first couple of years, I didn’t share much of it. I thought I needed to find some way to start a business — I had to find some way to write words and share thoughts that would pay the bills. I couldn’t see a path and I was trying to bend myself to the world, to look at the way the world seems to work and figure out how to have everything I thought I was supposed to have via “doing what I love.”

When I started the second blog, Adventures with Jenny Goodguts, in April 2017, I picked up a few more readers, and I started to send every post automatically to subscribers. This automation meant that I didn’t have to consider, each time, whether any particular piece was something I felt comfortable sharing. Of course I didn’t feel comfortable. I never feel comfortable. I always wonder. Did the words that I put down, in that particular order, signify to those other souls / hearts / minds what I was hoping to signify? I can’t just take a tube and connect my heart directly to yours, so that you can know what is in there, words are one of the only ways to try to build a bridge, and the more you practice, maybe the more skilled you can get, but there are limits. And your understanding of one word, if it is different to mine, means that you will take something different away. And maybe my heart is silly anyway. Who is to say that if you could know exactly what is in it, even if I could convey it perfectly each time, maybe you would think that my heart is too privileged, too narrow, too open, too closed.

If there were no readers, I would not write. But one reader is enough. One heart that I can wave to — hi, I’m over here, are you over there? When I write, and imagine you reading, I am more honest than if you were not there. When I’m writing I don’t feel afraid. I’m reaching, in faith, believing that connection is possible. The fear comes when the writing part is finished.

I look around the world, at the Instaphotos and the plastic faces of the newscasters and the kinds of things people talk about on morning television (only when I am forced to while having my car windshield replaced). I see myself, I see people around me, living out these scripts, these heart-silencing, life-deadening scripts full of shoulds. Feeling bad because we aren’t enough and why can’t we be more like the pictures we see every day.

Screw the pictures.

You’re not a freaking picture.

You are a heart that needs filling and being spoken to.

I was listening to a song in my car. It doesn’t matter which song because I misunderstood the lyrics. The lyric that I thought I heard was:
Tame my flesh.

I immediately grabbed my phone to leave myself a voice memo.
Tame my flesh.

This was my problem. This is what I had done. This is what I thought I was supposed to do.

Don’t want what you want. Don’t listen to your body. Subjugate it to mind, to logic, to reason, to marketers, to fear. The body is the source of wrong-doing, of evil desire, for whatever: peanut butter, whiskey, a lazy Sunday, slow dancing, sunshine, an ocean breeze, being still, breathing.  

There are rules. There are ways we have to be. For safety, for security, for community. And this is true.

But where is the limit?

How tame do you have to be? How much of your essential nature are you willing to set aside? To turn off? And for what? And when you have children, and you are trying to help them learn how to be in this world, how much of their essential nature shall you ask them to set aside? What will you show them about what a heart is for? What parts of themselves will you ask them to turn off? Or will you allow the world to ask them to turn off? For what? 

I thought it was right to turn off my lights to “save the planet”. There were spreadsheets to make, meetings to organize, reports to be written. But turning off my lights won’t save the planet. The planet, the universe, God, they want the lights on. They need the lights on. Or else we’re all going to be sitting, most of us hungry, and a handful of us empty and rocking in our perfectly manicured Instalives.

I don’t have any answers. But I can feel a fire inside. In my body. In my hands as I type these words, in my fingers when I play music, coursing through me when I make music with other people. I can feel a hum and a buzz inside myself that tells me that the candle is lit. When my heart thinks about writing to your heart, I feel energy, like a beam pouring out from me, into life. Filling me. And when I’m filled, the energy runs over, out of me, maybe to you. Maybe not, and that’s okay too.

Your heart was open. It invited me in. And now I am a writer. My body sits at the keyboard and the universe connects to me through my hands. I listen. I learn. I share. I hope. I want to help. I want to love. I would not be here without you. I am so glad to be here.

Thank you.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

It’s alive!! (aka, the book is here)

The culmination of four years, two blogs, a few songs, a blonde wig, a virtual farming habit, some spreadsheets, many things I said I would do and didn’t, some things I started and didn’t finish or lost, zero recipes, and many, many, many questions, I am delighted and terrified to announce the publication of my first book (an actual book, you can hold it in your hands, or eventually download it to your device): The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts.

Initially I started compiling this book after I lost 50,000 words of my 80,000 word novel-to-be. It was a thing to finish, to have something real that I had made out in the world. But I think it turned out even better than I had imagined. I really love it, a handful of other people (admittedly who know me well) have loved it, and I think you might too.

A FEW RAQS (RARELY ASKED QUESTIONS)

What is this book about?
I’m glad you asked. Thank you. Here’s my letter to the reader.

Where can I get a copy?
Currently, paperback copies are available via Amazon. It will be available as an ebook shortly and through other merchants as soon as I can figure it all out.

WANT TO HELP?

Wow. I would surely appreciate that. There are a few ways you can help get this book to people who might enjoy it and support my ongoing work.*

1. Buy the book.

2. Share the book. If you enjoy it, tell someone, share your copy, buy someone a copy. Tag the book as #jennygoodguts on any social platform so I can follow along once I learn how.

3. Review the book. Currently I have no reviews. I did not send the book out in advance to a lot of people to write nice things. But if you have something nice to say, which is not a given, but certainly a hope, I would love for you to share your thoughts with strangers who might be looking for something to read.

4. Sign up to receive Letters and Lovesongs (working title), my sometimes weekly explorations of how to live authentically, occasional spreadsheets or games, hopefully a song or two with more regularity in the future. Letters come straight to your inbox and I treat your subscription like a gift — no spam, no ads, just my best effort to send you something that helps you to feel better about real life. (If you are subscribed to the blog, you already get this.)

Thank you, thank you, thank you to every living human who is reading or has read these many words that I type and send out into the unknown. It has been an amazing ride getting from there to here. As I’ve said before, I’m afraid to share my book, and proud to have finished it, and looking forward to learning more, sharing more, writing more, and hopefully helping more. From the deepest bottom of my heart, I appreciate all of the support and encouragement that has gotten me this far. I hope you enjoy the book. But if you don’t, it won’t be the last.

** My ongoing work is my right-brain revolution — the transition to becoming a full-time, working artiste.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

The trouble with marrying an artiste

I was standing in my kitchen. It was a Friday or Saturday night. My husband and I were having a pre-dinner hangout while the kids were happily occupied. We were chatting, we were relaxed. I burped. It was loud. Deliberately loud. With gusto. And he made a joke. He was about to leave on a work trip to Colombia and he said something about Colombia being home to some of the most beautiful women on Earth. We laughed. I laughed. But it must have upset me, or made me think. I know it must have because I woke up early and wrote a poem about it the next morning. At first the poem was a little bit angry, and then, a few days later, it softened. I didn’t share it with anyone, it sat on the shelf. A few months passed and I read it again and thought it was good. I thought it was helpful and something that many people might identify with. I felt like I wanted to share it, but I wanted to know what my husband would think.

I walked in to the kitchen, paper in hand. It was a different Saturday, my husband had just come back from the store with the groceries he had bought to make dinner. We were going to have bratwurst while the kids watched a movie and I knew he was looking forward to relaxing, to having a drink together, to a night where there is no work in the morning, no focus on obligations, just some time to be companionable, together. I knew the timing wasn’t great, but he was about to leave for another trip out of town, and what other time was there? It wasn’t a weeknight discussion. So I walked in, hesitatingly, apologetically, and asked if I could read aloud a poem that I had written because I wanted to talk to him about it.

I think I can imagine the dread that coursed through his body when he heard these words from me. I felt bad, he felt bad, before the poem was even read. Please don’t ruin Bratwurst night we both pleaded silently before I began. But I read it. And I ruined Bratwurst night. Why do you have to write these things down, he asked. Because that’s what I do, I responded. That’s how I learn, that’s how I understand, I said. But I always sound like such a jerk. Not always, I offered but I did have to admit that it was more frequently when I had a negative feeling that he crept into my writing, or that for whatever reason I didn’t feel it necessary or appropriate to write about the good feelings, with regard to him.

As a writer what I like to do, or even need to do, is to examine life, to look at real life and wonder about it and try to represent it and understand it, for myself, and sometimes to share with others. He did not volunteer to be the public subject of my ponderings, he didn’t even know there was an artist inside me when he signed up for this gig. He married the left side of my brain and then the right side went and started a revolution. So what now?

For the record, I think the man I married is one of the most beautiful souls I have ever known. His exterior is rather handsome which initially confused me until I learned that the real beauty of his person is his kindness and his capacity for giving. Animals love this man, his quiet steadiness, his knowledge of all the best spots to scratch. I don’t know anyone who works harder than he does. Like everyone, he has his challenges, but even these, to hear him speak of them, to follow the thoughtful path of his logic, is so refreshing, such a pleasure. 

He helps me. In every way. He cooks healthy food for me, he digs holes for me so I can plant things, he risks his life to access our attic, he teaches our children to love nature and to listen for birdsong, he is so kind to my mother. When I told him I wanted to leave my job, right after we had signed our mortgage, I know he was nervous. But he agreed that I should. When I told him I wanted to stop earning money for a while, use our savings, retirement, to see about becoming a writer, he supported me.

I was standing in our kitchen, another Saturday, this was about a year ago. I had a different piece of paper in hand. It was a list I had written with my mom, about 20 years prior, in her handwriting. I can’t tell you what was on the list anymore. But as a summary, it was a kind of brainstorm of things I could do to become ‘realized’ as a person, habits to take on, things to learn, ways to get myself to a happy, productive version of me. I found it when going through an old folder and I read it and my stomach fell down lower than my feet. This list looked just like the list I was still writing. Nothing had changed in twenty years. I was still struggling with all of the same things. I wanted to do something and I wasn’t able to do it. I had failed to make anything real in the world, just a bunch of half-attempts that were never completed, always abandoned.

I brought the piece of paper into the kitchen. I showed it to Dave. What if I can never do it? I asked. I have been failing for 20 years to be different, to follow through, what if I can’t do it?

He looked at the piece of paper. He looked at me. Maybe you never will, he said. Maybe, sometimes, there are things you can’t change, some things you aren’t able to overcome. He hugged me.

It sounds like a hard thing to hear, but it was a brave, honest, loving thing to say. It was a real thing to say. And it changed everything. I ripped that paper up into a million pieces.

I will never look at this list again.

I will never write this list again.

I can.

I will.

***

I am publishing my book today. My first book.

That is what love can do for you. Real love.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Book one is done

Hello friends — happy springtime!!

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted and there is news to report:

A1 TOP PIECE OF NEWS: I have finished the book. Not the novel, but the other book (The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts). It has a gorgeous cover that I will share any day now. I predict it will be available for purchase in two weeks. TWO WEEKS! First I have to review a proof copy, so it is possible that could slow things down a tiny bit, but not much. I feel terrified and excited and proud.

SECOND MOST EXCITING NEWS: I am in a band! We are discussing our name tonight. We have a two-hour show on April 24th at the Evening Star. Our first one. I’ll be performing music live for an audience for the first time since before the kids were born (and long before that). It feels amazing to make live music with other people. I’ve missed it so much.

Local wildlife report: There are two pairs of goldfinches sitting outside of my window right now, hanging out in the blooming dogwood. We also have a resident fox who sits on a log outside my window.

100 Rejections: I have received my first rejection (the first one within the scope of this project, that is). It was from The Sun, not The New Yorker. I am very glad they rejected the piece as now I have had the chance to significantly improve it. I haven’t submitted anything else recently because of trying to finish the book so I’m sitting at 4 total submissions, 1 rejection, no publication.

I’ve started a separate list to track the things I ask for where rejection is possible but that are not a submission of writing for publication. I sent a letter to the literary estate of E.B. White asking to include a quote of his in my book. And I also applied to join The Author’s Guild as an “Emerging Writer.” There was an actual application and you had to answer questions about your plans and publications. You pay a fee to join, so I imagine they are somewhat lenient in expectations in my particular category, but I got in! I’m officially, as of March 7, 2019, a member of The Authors Guild. I have a membership card and everything.

It’s official!

The Stuffed Project is still underway with numerous almost shareable thoughts particularly about Valentine’s Day and the various cultural practices by which we commemorate the births of our children.

Last thing for today, below is the conclusion or final chapter of the upcoming book:

The end of book the first

April 2, 2019

Four years ago I walked outside to buy a sandwich to eat at my desk in my windowless office. Not pregnant, I was wearing maternity pants although my son, my youngest child, was almost two years old. When I arrived back to my desk, I wrote a few paragraphs, my own thoughts that, for once, insisted on taking form.

Today, I’m sitting at home. I ate lunch, some reheated leftovers, hastily at my desk where I can see the buds on the dogwood outside of my window, almost ready to open. I’m wearing my hoody sweatshirt and sweatpants, the same ones depicted on the front cover of this book. The sun is shining.

Nothing has changed. 

I’m not a published author. I haven’t finished a novel. I haven’t figured out a master plan, I haven’t found a pot of money, I still feel scared every time I share my words.

Everything has changed. 

I have allowed space, I have listened, I have asked for help, I have studied, I have done what scares me anyway, I have sat uncomfortably and waited, I have practiced, and I have learned. 

Later this month I am singing, I have a two-hour show at a local bar with a band. We practice every week on Tuesdays after the kids are in bed. 

I’ve submitted my writing and received my first rejection. I am practicing every day. 

I’m trying to love the world that is. I’m trying not to hide.

I see that I was confused by the certificates. I thought I needed permission. I thought approval provided some guarantee.

This book, the one you are reading that is now at its end, was not the plan. Having read this far, you won’t be surprised to know that there wasn’t a plan. But compiling and publishing all of this introspection was not what I would have imagined as my first big splash (or tiny ripple) into the world of letters. 

If I had not lost (most of) the novel, things would be different. But I did lose it. And that led me to a sad but resolute place. And that led to a conversation with my husband about finishing things. And that led to a decision to finish something. And that led to telling a lot of people I was going to publish this book. And that led to revisiting all of these words, and considering them as a whole. And that led to a few minor revelations. And that led to more conversations and questions about why I had not yet taken action to share my writing in the usual ways. And that led to exploring the usual ways to share writing, and to submitting my work for publication, and to more writing, and reading, and waiting, and learning. I believe the novel will be better for all of this. I hope, one day, to say many useful things beautifully and with humor.

But now here I am, with a book all about myself, ready to share with any living human who decides to open the cover.

I can tell you, that’s a scary place to be. 

This is why people write novels. And fiction. And non-fiction about things other than themselves. This is why diaries are published when people are dead and why memoirs are told in hindsight, sharing what you want to share, rather than your often tortured and sometimes embarrassing inner thoughts.

But its done. This is what I have made, what I’ve finished. So now it is time to share it. Time to place my intention in the vast ocean of possibility and allow the universe to work through me.

And then I will be ready to make what is next.

Making promises, letting go

Hello readers. A quick update on the book: it is inching closer to life. The cover is looking like a real book cover for a real book. I purchased the ISBN numbers that will allow the book to be sold in a bookstore, if any bookseller should be so inclined (I’m planning to publish a paperback and ebook, and also to record as an audiobook, but that will come later). The interior layout is complete. Mostly now I just have to be brave. I’m sure there will be more final changes and decisions, especially since this is my first book. But it is getting there.

One reason I chose the word Finishing as my 2019 word was that, in reading through the past four years of my blog posts, I saw over and over the same ideas, or the same vague statements of intent regarding things I would do in the future, things I would write about. I started to make a complete list of everything I said I would do in the pages of the book that I have not yet done, or the things I started and didn’t finish. I looked at the list. It felt overwhelming. Not exciting. Heavy.

Time passed. And then I changed the plan. Now, I am going to list the things I said I would do that I am still committed to doing and I’m going to tell you what I said I would do that I’m not planning to do anymore. If you’ve been waiting for something I said I would do four years ago, let me know.

I’m trying to learn how to find the right balance of making promises and finishing what I start. This is a concept that I’m thinking about within The Stuffed Project. I’m not sure that a parenthetical mention of something I planned or hoped to write more about someday is a promise so much as it is an idea. Maybe what I’m doing here is clarifying my language so that I am clear on what is a promise and what is an idea, so that I don’t allow the quantity of the latter to keep me from following through on the former.

Things I said I would do that I am doing: Current Projects

The Stuffed Project

Related to what I called project:defrag in the book, I rolled out The Stuffed Project in December 2018. Right now it is mostly a group of letters written from me to various inanimate objects. I will make no commitments in terms of the content of these wonderings (though birthday party favors are likely to be addressed), but I am committed to this project and to putting the thoughts into the form of a book, when a book emerges from the thinking. My current working title is Stuffed: One woman’s odyssey to reimagine our relationship to the material world.

The 100 Rejections Project

The 100 Rejections Project is also underway and I’m sharing updates on the blog (4 submissions, 0 rejections, 0 accepted). Until October 2018, I had never submitted my writing for publication anywhere. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where. And I was afraid. I don’t think I was afraid of rejection, exactly. I think I was afraid of being known (yes, I do see some inconsistency in light of the contents of my upcoming book), not sure if it was safe or okay or acceptable to share my words, or if anyone, that is, anyone who did not already care about me for other reasons, would take an interest in my thoughts. It does hurt or it can hurt to be rejected, but it is embarrassing to be known to be rejected. And even those aren’t quite the right words. I feel hesitant to put others in the position of knowing that I’ve been rejected and needing to say something to me about it. That specific uncomfortableness is something I have worked to avoid. 

I write to write. And I would love to share and I would love to be known to other writers, I would have loved to sit down with Ursula Le Guin. I would love to have corresponded with E.B. White. But if an editor sends me a note that my poem or essay or story isn’t for her at that time, I don’t know, it hasn’t happened yet, I’ll have to tell you later. But I feel good to be submitting. To be learning how to submit and where to submit. To be imagining sharing my words with more than my nearest and dearest. I believe that I will find some outlet, and I am curious enough, interested enough, and free enough—I am free—to try.

Things I said I would do that I could complete in a day or two, at some future point, not too distant 

Sawyer book

This is a book (something like an iMac photobook) about my soul mate Sawyer, the 14-year-old golden retriever who went to Doggie Heaven the year before my daughter was born, from whom, I believe, she received her copper hair (a spiritual, rather than biological inheritance). I have all of the text and photos, I will be buried with this book. I’ll let you have a look too, if you want. There’s a lot of love in that essay.

French food challenge 

I’ve written about this on the blog, maybe only once. It’s a game, of sorts, that we played with our kids that resulted in their willingness to try many new foods and to eat, without complaint, a number of others. It’s another spreadsheet, super basic, already made. It will take me 45 minutes to briefly describe and share. So I will.

Things I’ve made that are potentially useful and require additional thought to be most helpfully shared but that are not as exciting as other things I am doing right now but that I started so I should… (hmmm, I don’t like the word should)… I prefer not to use the word “promise” in relation to the following. But I am not crossing them off of the list.

Star chart

This is something I made that was fun and helpful and currently is not shared, in any form, anywhere. I don’t know whether I will improve or add to what is already written, the original system and notes, but I can take all of what I’ve done so far and share for folks to use.

Happy Atmosphere Challenge

Ah, here she is, buried at the back like a tiny footnote. What ever happened, you might have wondered, to the Happy Atmosphere Challenge? You can access the complete challenge via the blog (it is a list of activities, a scoresheet, and a rationale explaining the basis for the activities chosen). I implemented some of what I learned while writing it but I never followed through, all the way. I wrote it, but I never did it, and I hardly shared it. I learned a lot in putting it together (about motivation, about overwhelm), but I want to revisit, I need to modify it based on what I’ve learned in the interim, and then I would like to follow through.

Do More Good

Groan. Another promise? So…. many…. Yet I’m sure that this is an important part of what I want to share moving forward. I have mentioned it numerous times in the book, it warrants more explanation, I will provide one, in some form, at some point.

What I am not going to do 

aka, letting go (feels so good)

Climate change and snakes

I mentioned my intention to write this piece in my very first blog post four+ years ago. I also mention, later in the book, that a draft exists. If it did, it is long gone. Here’s the basic premise: scientists have found that one unexpected consequence of a changing climate is increased predation of ground-dwelling bird eggs. The culprit? “Active, hungry snakes.” For me, this alone was enough to fully ramp up my commitment to living off the grid. I feel that all of the environmental orgs and activists have their messaging all wrong. They should just show us lots of pictures of active, hungry snakes. That alone could drive sales of electric cars through the roof. Now you know. Check. Done.

Smoothie recipe

To make a smoothie, I use water (about 2 cups) because it is free, some chia seeds, about a tablespoon, that I try to soak in the water for at least five minutes, usually a banana, maybe three leaves of kale or sometimes some spinach which is sweeter. I add about two tablespoons of raw pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, sometimes some raw cacao, or avocado if there is some that needs using up, then I add whatever kind of fruit I have. If I have something fresh that is close to going bad, I use that. If not, I use whatever is in my freezer and I try to keep that stocked. We do pick-your-own and freeze (I like a peach/blackberry combo) and I buy frozen fruit at Trader Joe’s. I fill the blender up all the way (leaving about an inch or so of air at the top), blend, add more water if I need to, and pour a quart of the resulting chunky, greenish sludge into a mason jar and drink a glass a day for about three days and then start again. Done.

Basic Training modules

Probably not. It’s possible, but the whole superhero terminology is not working for me so the exercises are likely to pop up somewhere, but not in this format.

What about the novel? And the songs?

I am committed to finishing the novel, and I know that I have more than one inside me. I am torn (pulled, uneasy) about starting another project, one that is not the novel, first.

Toni Morrison wrote Beloved as a single mother, waking up at 4 am, before taking care of kids, before work, to write the words. It is possible to fit a novel around other things, around life. Then again, there are always trade-offs and you have to decide which you are willing to make.

If I were still at 80,000 words I would finish the novel now. But I need to do something that gets my work out into the world of other people. I need to have an outlet for sharing something now and I need to have a map for myself to guide what that sharing is organized around. My hope is that I can launch the book, then turn my main focus to the two projects, and develop a rhythm and routine, and maybe some relationships or some kind of reputation, that will help create the conditions to allow concentrated time to move forward with the novel. 

Maybe you can tell that I don’t know what I’m saying exactly. I’m going to finish Stuffed, I’m going to submit my other writings, and I’m going to finish the novel. I’m just not sure about the order. I want to finish the Jenny Goodguts book first, and then I want to be open to life happening.

Someone advised me once that my writing is better than my songs. I don’t know if that is true. Maybe so far. I think they are two ways of doing the same thing and I love them both. I’m not giving up on the music part. I promise myself that.