all’s well: a list of toasts, blessings and wishes

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We have a tradition in my house that when one of my sons asks me What time is it? I answer with the correct time and add, and all’s well. 11:25, and all’s well. 4:48, and all’s well. 12:01, and all’s well.

All’s well.

I can’t remember when I started saying it or why or where I must have picked up the idea. It doesn’t even matter. It’s part of our family culture now. We’re so busy; our schedules are very hectic. It’s a great way to pause for a minute and breathe and check in with a precise moment. To be present. At least for a tiny instant.

I was thinking about this today: all’s well. Everyone’s reflecting on the year, and sometimes what comes to the forefront is the bad, the tragic. It can be hard to believe we’ll ever really be well.

But then a child will ask, What time is it? 3:57, and all’s well. Right here. This space we share right now. Together. We’re together. We have breath and heart and soul and each other. We have each other.

So, as it is New Year’s Eve, I started to think not only about all the love we have and need (man, oh man, do we need to meet each other with more love) but also about other habitual blessings and toasts and prayers and wishes. Lots of you are posting them on Facebook today. For example, a friend posted this quote from Neil Gaiman:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

Live as only you can. Kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful. Isn’t that lovely?

I was also thinking about one of my favorite toasts:

“Here’s to the ones we love and the ones that love us. If the ones we love don’t love us, to hell with them, and here’s to us.”

I think there’s a more colorful version of it that I love even more, but it’s not coming to mind.

Anyway! Will you help me celebrate the New Year by sharing with me your favorite toasts, wishes, blessings and prayers? Fill the comments with love and warmth and gratitude. And yes, of course, humor and hijinks welcome.

impractical reasons to get an MFA: wind chimes, tall boots and fancy cheese

I was thrilled to see D.A. Powell tweet about an MFA being impractical:

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OK, yes: in fairness, he labels his advice impractical, not the MFA (and in the article itself he calls the reasons people choose MFAs “impractical,” not the degree). He thinks they’re a good idea. I do, too, of course (and thank goodness because I’m finishing one up!).

Criticisms of MFAs are a dime a dozen. Plentiful. Not hard to find. And cheap. Yes, really. Those criticisms make me cranky, and that’s why I really love Powell’s post for AWP. Instead of jumping through hoops to argue the typical points, he tells it straight: “Wouldn’t we be better off in pharmaceutical programs? You can’t eat an MFA, and the attempt to do so is ill-advised.” In other words, “Grrrrl, don’t quit your day job.”

And (Powell, again): “Your MFA experience will be both good and bad if you’re lucky, and both are instructive.”

And: “The MFA program is like life—what you can get out of it is what you can put into it.”

So “why the hell wouldja” spend that kind of money, dedicate that many hours, travel that distance, deal with so much criticism, etc., etc.? For Powell, the allure isn’t the abilities and credentials that one may (or may not) have at the end of the course of study. The attraction is this:

The MFA program is as good a place as any to live in paltry condition and to concentrate all one’s physical energy on the conjuring of one’s senses through that most holy vessel, the written word. Isn’t that what you’re looking for, after all, in an MFA Program? Fellows of like madness.

Your teachers are on the same journey you are, although often they may seem to have figured it all out. We haven’t. I am amazed that poetry should have any instruction at all. And yet it truly helps.

The attraction is community. The attraction is commitment and dedication.

That poetry should have any instruction at all. Fellows of like madness. It’s as good a place as any.

Yes, I do know that there are other kinds of community and that they are plenty mad. I have found great opportunities for support and guidance and growth in writers’ groups, workshops and open mic scenes. But for me, I wanted an MFA community in addition.

The explanation of my decision to get an MFA has as much to do with “just because I wanna” as it does with anything else. It’s pure indulgence. Like romance. Like colored lanterns. Like wind chimes, tall boots and fancy cheese. Oh, yes: I wanna.

Want to read more about the defense of the MFA? My own honest reasons:

where i am and other false notions

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Since I haven’t been blogging, I haven’t talked here about my most recent move: in August, I left Lark Street and moved back to the rural town where my sons go to school. I miss downtown Albany something awful, but as the boys have been getting older (funny how that happens! LOL), it started getting too complicated for them to enjoy being there as much as I did. It’s much easier for them to have both parents (and both of their households) in the same community right now. As I was coming to that realization, an opportunity to rent a gorgeous farm house fell into my lap. It all happened very quickly. It was impossible to say no.

Still, lovely as it is, it’s quite an adjustment for me. We’d lived on a brightly lit city block busy with traffic and pedestrians day and night. Now, it’s so dark and quiet out in here the country, it’s feels like a vacuum in contrast. I don’t quite know what to do with it.

But one of the things I know how to do is dive into a place. In fact, I really don’t know how *not* to dive in and find all the things to love. If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram (@carolee26), you’ve seen some of the photos of my current obsessions: geese, cornfield, cows, porch, distant mountains. Downtown was sexy and lively; this new place has a different kind of beauty. It’s a beauty I’m still figuring out, but it seems to be the beauty of breath and light, the beauty that snags your attention not to pull you along but to leave you right where you are: standing still and seeing.

One of the difficult things about returning to the town where I lived when I was married and saying it’s best for the boys is the fear that I’d done the wrong thing moving them in the first place. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think I’ve made the right decisions in the right moments. I’ve even written about the country vs. city choice before this: place can meet need and fulfill desire just like any lover. We go where we are called. I needed downtown to get me launched and explore who I wanted to be as a woman and a mother, and right now, that same woman and mother needs the country — this particular swath of it at least.

There’s not only lots here that I need to give my boys, but I’m certain there’s something here for me, as well. The farm house and property feel like a writer’s retreat. They’ve come to me just as I’m preparing for the last semester of my MFA program, which means I’ll need to finish the poetry manuscript I’ve been working on the last couple of years. In addition, while for the longest time I’ve felt the need to remain on-the-go and surrounded by people, I’m now feeling the need to be still and listen.

Of course, it’s a false notion that those needs can only be met here: I wrote a lot in the city, and I found many quiet moments there. The slowing down? That might just be winter, a season that forces a different energy. It’s also a false notion that I can guess at this moment that the country is going to be about writing and stillness for me. Places do shape us but not always how we think.

And so this is where I am: paying attention, taking it all in, noticing the stunning details. Do that in your place, too. Let’s see how much we can learn to love.

response to @notajournal’s poetry prompt #1

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As you may have heard, I’ve started a new prompt-site/poetry journal, and I’m planning (when possible) to write along with the community of poets that evolves there. This is my response to the site’s first prompt: write a poem about the first animal you see today (using 14 lines and not mentioning the animal). I cheated on my own prompt and went just a bit beyond 14 lines. It’s one of those early drafts where the images conflict… and not in a good way. Still – happy to be generating new work!

Specimen

It sometimes goes like this: She sees me before
I see her, and we both pause, share
the breath between the instant four
eyes lock and two look toward
escape in the field of tall corn.
It is the distance of no more
than a few of her strides, the far
side of the road her place of shelter

from what we have just torn open. Vision
isn’t always evisceration, a gash in the dam,
a birth, slick release of what has been
held so long. But when it is, then
do not dread the hunter’s knife that reaches in
through the fog after an arrow, the pin
that attaches us to the ground, here, even

while the body is still warm.

Artwork from DinamiteSplash, used via Creative Commons; click here for full view.

blog tour on the writing process

I’ve been tagged for the blog tour on writing process by one of my favorite poet friends: Poet Mom January O’Neil. I’m lucky enough to know January in real life (here we are pictured, a little blurry, at a reading earlier this year with the always inspired – and inspiring – Jillypoet). January is one of the hardest working writers I know, so how could I say no? Besides, it’s perfect timing as I have been formulating lots of blog posts in my head instead of writing them; this seems like a good time to get back to it.

Here’s January’s post on her writing process, and here comes mine:

1. What are you working on?

I am working on revising poems and writing new ones for a manuscript that will wrap up my MFA studies at Ashland University. I have the fall semester “off,” though I’m going to use it to make sure I’m thoroughly ready for the spring semester, which is my final and thesis semester.

At my residency this summer, I printed out all the poems I’ve written since starting the program. I struggled initially to see what held them together, but I think I’ve landed on something that works. And so in front of me — between now and next summer when I defend my thesis — is the task of selecting, writing, overhauling, polishing, ordering, reordering and reordering again.

2. How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

I don’t know how to answer that. It bothered me at first that I don’t know. However, I think ultimately what separates poets from one another is that each has her own combination of voice, subject, language, images, musicality and line. We borrow and imitate in varying degrees while refining with our own sensibilities as we go. It’s fluid… and hard to pin down.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Many of my poems are rooted in relationships (often the romantic relationship, but not always) and in place because they have so much energy for me. With those roots and the randomness of prompts (sometimes actual writing prompts, other times an image or phrase that catches me), I launch into a free write. At that point, I don’t know why I write what I write. I follow the images and the language. I go where they go. I allow myself to be surprised. In revision, as hard as it is, I try then to get the poem to go where I’d like it to go, but I rely heavily on the gifts the first draft has given me. I think about them that way, as gifts.

In January’s response, she mentioned taking risks, and I like to think that I push myself to do the same, though I talk about it as “being unafraid.” It can be hard to tell your truth because it’s just “a” truth, one version, and an artful version at that. It can be true to your experience of the world while in opposition to the experiences of others. That tension is real and problematic.

I try to write as one who is unafraid. And even as I revise, I try to resist the urge to go to a safer, less exposing place and instead push harder, go deeper. A poet is best served by worrying less about how a poem makes her look (and the others present in a poem look) and more about what the poem accomplishes for its own sake. What does the poem need to be a piece of art on its own, absent the poet’s ego, absent the ego of others? That’s quite an exercise, right? It is likely impossible in its purest form, but think of the attempt. And we might as well. I think a reader recognizes it when a poet is holding back.

4. How does your writing process work?

In my fantasy, I have a regularly scheduled and daily appointment with the page. But alas! It’s just a fantasy. I write in fits and spurts — primarily in poem-a-day challenges. Write a poem a day for 30 days. Write a poem a day for a week. Sit down with a poet friend and write to 5 prompts in an afternoon. In between, I write when I have a deadline or an assignment. I worry that it makes me unreliable and irresponsible, given my own habits. But I respond well to accountability. And my muse is best under pressure because then she is stronger than my monkey mind that says I have other things to do and nothing important or interesting to say.

Next up I’m going to ask Jillypoet to write for us. I will let you know what she says!

why i said “no” to the new york times & “yes” to the albany times union

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content sharing and discovery on the internet really works! LOL. in addition to all the amazing friendships and other connections i’ve made blogging, i’ve stumbled into some great opportunities over the last decade.

most recently, i received inquiries from the new york times (fun!) and the albany times union, for example. i turned down the nyt request and said “yes” to the tu. why’d i do that?

well, the nyt inquiry was related to being *in* a story focusing on couples who’ve gone through divorce. that writer found me here at “good universe” through my radical divorce interview with sage cohen. the interest was me as the subject of the column… and in connection to a topic i’m allowing to fade into the background. in contrast, the tu inquiry was about my writing. the opportunity is to join the fun group of writers who volunteer to blog for the paper. so, i said yes. i’ll be blogging there very, very shortly, and i’ll be sure to share the link with you.

i’m still going to be here blogging, as well, and maybe it gives me a chance to sharpen the focus here some. we’ll see what develops. i’m not going to force it but let it evolve organically and see what happens.