Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Artist Mother/Mother Artist

I have kind of a fetish about the subject of mothering and creativity. Not creative mothering (though that's always a good thing), but about trying to be a professional artist and a mother at the same time. Clearly I'm obsessed because it's what I'm trying to do, but also because our art and our children are such natural competitors of each other. They both demand our undivided attention and limitless amounts of time. Neither one of them pays us a lick. They demand deep attention of the kind that means you can't just sit down and draw a picture with your daughter while thinking about your story or sit down to write a story while thinking about your daughter. If you do your daughter will fall to pieces and your story will turn to shit.

They demand complete presence in the moment. Time with just you. Time when you aren't hopping up to turn off the beans (burning) or hang up the laundry (starting to sour). They demand our love. And devotion.

And what woman has enough of that to go around?

If I had more time, I would like to start a website called The Mother Artist Pages (or some such thing), featuring women artists who are also mothers. I would like to interview Sally Mann (who lugged her kids around in the back of her truck while she took pictures) and feature my grandmother, Margaret MacArthur, who lugged her kids around in the back of her Jeep while collecting field recordings. I would like to talk to my friend Beth Orton who just took her two children (ages five and one) on a four month musical tour, and Alice Munro, who wrote her first story while her newborn slept in the cradle beside her. In other words, I would like to interview/feature both the mother/artists who are in the thick of it and the ones who have made it through the other side. The ones who have found success and the ones who are hoping to someday find that elusive fruit.

Yes, there's that ubiquitous word "balance" to ask about. And house-cleaning and money and childcare. But I'd like to ask the deeper questions, too: questions about sanity and loyalty and guilt and sacrifice and failure and anger and desire and regret and transformation. Because I think every mother/artist out there thinks about these about a million times every day and could use a little solidarity on the matter. Some community and some empathy and some camaraderie.

Wouldn't that be a nice site?

And since I don't have the time to create such a thing, here are some appetizers for you:

Enjoy. And maybe someday...

Today's Menu: All the Living

Books books beautiful books! My bedside is bountiful with beautiful books!

And so, today's menu:

Reading: All the Living, by C.E. Morgan.

Drinking: Typhoo, sweet with milk and honey.

Thinking: A beautiful novel that I'm also finding immensely frustrating. I find that lyrical fiction writers often struggle to find a balance between aesthetics and character (or maybe that's my problem, so I'm extra sensitive to it). Morgan errs (to my ear) on the aesthetics side: beautiful (if strange) prose, beautiful landscapes, beautiful details, and characters that are...flat. Damn! I was so hopeful and so wanted them to step into the lovely, textured weft of the fabric with hearts and words that felt genuinely alive.

I welcome your thoughts on this...what writers get the balance just right? Louise Erdrich? Marilynn Robinson? Alistair MacLeod? What books are genuinely beautiful but real feeling at the same time?


Your house-bound, November-bound bookish friend.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

the language of insects

 In honor of my son, Owen Cricket, here is a poem by the devilishly handsome man pictured here (W.S. Merwin) about insects:

After the Alphabets 

I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can instruct the dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate 
they are never important they are everything. 


Monday, November 26, 2012


Avah and I have a new ritual: she picks up a book of poems from my nightstand and "reads" them aloud while I transcribe her words onto my computer. And so, this late November (indulgent) song to share with you.

the celing hung
with hookers

the words that I said
steaming here
and now
upon the window
it made it pretty
when I saw
the window
it was painted
with blue and white
to see
the window sill
it was easter egg
at me
the little window
yellow sill
it made it pretty
it was made with pretty lines made with
sallow wills it made
my dad’s little pots made with hand me downs
made with hand me downs
my father said
it was made with fancy ones
with silver thread
when the window sill was on the little
sallow nill it was painted
silhouette when it came on the dale
it was painted silverness when it came on
the window sill
made the father’s
made the window
on the silver dale
it was in the sill!
in the sill there was an ant who did not fail
inside the world
that he said
inside everything
that he said
and made it bonnyo
and made it
in a poem
in the night of llamas
it was made with hand me downs
I heard my father exclaim
and it was fancy hand me downs
when I spring up to play!
it was filled with hand me downs
when I saw it

Wednesday, November 21, 2012



one another
pumpkins and the women and fields who grow them
milk and the women and cows who make it
milky necks
children (and the men and women who birthed them)
greens (& the long-legged deer who cross the garden to eat them)
that we are not hungry
that we are not cold
record players
the stick figure drawings of four-year-olds
that i am here
that you are here
 to keep each other warm through the long winter

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The poem Avah "read" to me last night while turning the pages of a Robert Frost book:

We are grey
and the trees are grey
and the sea lions lie on the waves
as we go in
as we go in
and we are grey
and the trees are grey
and it is grey
and we are grey
and the trees are grey, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

how does one

Today's Menu: Scott Russell Sanders' A Private History of Awe. 

Drinking: Typhoo, Typhoo, and more Tyhpoo

Thinking: I just finished the last pages of this memoir (thank you, Emily Brisse for guiding me there). Memoir, yes, but also a beautiful and quiet and immensely earnest meditation (entwined with a personal narrative) on love and faith and nature and wonder and fatherhood and literature and war and peace and the question my beloved Christianity professor asked us on the last day of class: "How does one live a good life?"

That beloved teacher nearly whispered the words because she was choking back tears. Looking out across at our young faces she continued (still whispering), "You are so young. You have no idea how hard it will be to find the answer to that question."

Which just might have been the most potent and terrifying and educational moment of my four-year education.

Which is why I love every occasion (or book) that leads me back to it. As this one certainly did. And what a thoughtful and humble and mild-mannered man to do the asking, and in such perfectly inscribed sentences. Thank you, Scotty (and Emily, too).

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


It's looking pretty silver and frosted outside the door this morning. At six the thermometer read sixteen, which means: winter. Which will okay with me if Obama wins (which I think he will!), and not if he does not. If he does not win it will take some serious linguistic acrobatics to convince myself that all is okay in the world and that we have what it takes to face this long winter. But why go there now (when I'm sure, in my heart of hearts, the right man will win)? All I can say is this: if the wrong man wins, and you are spinning in a vortex of disgust and despair, go get yourself the most recent copy of The Sun. It has three things in it you should read: an interview with Parker J. Palmer on politics, faith and what we can learn by listening to each other; an essay by Gillian Kendal on first loves; and an amazing story by my dear friend Miciah Bay Gualt. Remember that story I raved about a month ago? Well this is the one!  And you can now all read it and feel its beauty and sing its praises on your own. And, if the worse-case scenario unfolds, feel a little warmth still emanating from the silver-brushed world.


Saturday, November 3, 2012


November. If I were to choose one month to describe the place I live or the songs I sing or the stories I write it would be November: the trees bare, the ground gray and tawny and umber, the sky at last visible through the branches. In other words: stark. Like Stark Road, which joins MacArthur a quarter-mile uphill, named after Molly Stark, the revolutionary war hero. And like Route 9, the federal highway at the foot of our road also known as “The Molly Stark Trail” because it is the route Molly walked two-hundred-plus years ago when it was no more than a trail. And so MacArthur—this road I live on, named after my grandparents and their determined hubris to make a home out of an abandoned homestead up an otherwise empty logging road—is a bridge between The Molly Stark Trail and Stark Road. A bridge, then, between Stark’s staccato sounds: sharp-pointed t’s and k’s like the whetstones, used for sharpening knives, that line the brook our road runs along. But Molly? What muted loveliness is in that name! M and l’s and rolling vowels.  And November? It has my favorite letter in it—v—and my favorite vowel—o. It’s thus the bare trees and the cold ground but the woodstove, too.  It’s the wool sweater and the leather boots and the crunch of leaves and the walk through them. It’s deer in the garden and hunting season’s rifles and the last stray geese. And that three-syllable lilting song-ness of it—No-vem-ber? Is the muted lullaby, the quiet, still, clarity this month allows before the bright frenzy of December with its soft c and all the glittering s’s of “Christmas lights.” And so, November: the great window, in all my favorite colors. Through which the light—gray and clear and luminous—makes its way through the dark (stark) branches above.