This is my last post in Painting with Words. After taking a summer break, this space started to feel like autumn. The tomatoes are slowing down their globe-making, the cone flowers are turning bronze, and sycamore trees are beginning to let go of their leaves. It’s sad, but I also see that when I allow one cycle to end, another can begin.
Connecting with people through my pandemic writing has been so healing and strengthening for me. When I entered the solitude of my writing room, would all the old demons of self-doubt, procrastination, and fear return? Yes, they did.
Instead of dealing with these issues alone, I wanted to share when I floundered or flourished. So I started writing and drawing about the behind-the-scenes creative process, in the hopes that what helped me could help someone else.
Here are the first ones. You can read the super-short posts that go with them by clicking on each picture.
I’ll be sending out these postcards once a week. You’re automatically on my list, but please feel free to opt out. It’s pretty different from what I was doing before, and I understand that it won’t be for everyone.
You can also visit Tending the Creative Garden anytime on my new website. This summer I worked with a designer and illustrator to create a place to house all my writing things, and I’m really excited with the way it turned out.
Thank you for being part of my community. Your listening and kind words have given me courage and a feeling of togetherness.
Sometimes the trees can get too tall. They shoot up straight as if to poke the sun. Sometimes they get too green. They wrestle leaves into every clear space, strangling their own fruit. Sometimes they bear too much, globes weighing the branches until they break.
You pretend it’s someone else’s job to care for it, but all along you’ve known the orchard was also yours. You still want to be the child, even though you know they are tired, even though you know it’s your turn, even though you’re the only one who can do it now.
Under the pear tree, the kittens pounce on fireflies and paw at rolling apples. Loppers lean against a trunk, a saw lies on the grass, and a pair of clippers on the ladder shelf. The branches you have cut are black with death and, at first, the trees look bare.
Diseased, broken, or dead: those branches were the easiest to remove. It’s the young ones that break your heart. You must remove those that grow inward and make the tree too dark. Take the ones that grow downward, for they will not support fruit when it comes. Cut the branches that cross others, sowing disorder and conflict.
You must not be too harsh, not too delicate. You must not take too much, not too little. You must not think only of the fruit soon to be in your hand, your pie, your saucepan. You must think of next fall and the next fall and two dozen falls from today.
Don’t think you’re being kind to use a soft blade. Sharp cuts are easier to heal. Don’t think you’re being gentle by leaving some of the branch — you must take it all, for stumps invite rot and parasites.
When you have done the work, the dead wood must be gathered and cleared away. The children won’t want to help. Like you once, they just want to be free. But they need to feel the pull of their muscles and the taste of their sweat. It would be good for them to feel the rhythm and reciprocity of nature’s partnership.
If your life is to be fruitful, you cannot let your orchard go, simply because it will without any help from you. You must be a steward, deciding what lives and what dies.
Wind must be able to rush through your trees, blowing away that which festers and stagnates. Sunlight must be able to reach the inner places, drying the rain and curing the ills.
If your life is to be fruitful, you must visit your orchard in all seasons, learning the shape and habit of each tree, noticing what grows and what aches.
Above all, you must be a friend. When you walk through your orchard, listen more than you speak. Notice the tiniest unfurlings of beauty and grace. Feel how sacred the world is when you see, and the seen senses your gaze.
Underneath her white satin graduation gown, Virginia wore lavender. That morning, I had driven her through armies of dump trucks to the Navy Yard, where the building of luxury condos marches on and svelte restaurants sparkle beside gravelly lots.
Outside the D.C. United stadium, 18-year-olds emerged from blinking cars. Parents adjusted sashes and tugged at hems. Virginia slunk down into the passenger seat and said, “This is so humiliating.”
After her senior year spent entirely at home, we are being given a classic graduation ceremony. The first scheduled date was rained out, but today we would soon be gathering under an imperial sunny sky to celebrate a high school career, a lifetime in grade school, and a child ready to leave home.
Diana carried lavender hydrangeas. With only 3 seats for each family, Mark and Luke had to stay home. Jumbotrons emblazoned with “Wilson High School: 2021 Commencement” were flanked by the school’s mascot, roaring cartoon tigers. As we climbed one of the staircases in the 20,000-seat stadium, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over and over. We walked past families we knew and didn’t know, pods sprinkled among empty aisles for social distancing, and I felt a massive gratitude for the institutions and people that made this happen. Thank you for paying for this stadium. Thank you for knowing this was important.
One by one, each of the 412 students in Virginia’s graduating class were called to the stage to receive their high school diploma. Black and White, Asian and Latino, with names from cultures that span the world. All wearing white satin, all receiving the same blessing, a rite both affirming and breaking a tie.
After the photos and the lunching, the hugging and the squinting, I felt dazzled and disjointed, as if I had been holding an armful of stained glass. Yellow, blue, teal, magenta: sun shimmered through the colors, but there were pieces missing. The glass clanked, the edges bit. And I couldn’t see what design it was all making.
Grandiose ceremonies. I always want more than they can give. What is it that I seek —certainty, completion, wholeness?
No ritual could resolve the paradoxes of this year. How the pandemic broke us apart and brought us together. How some were shunted into homelessness and others into luxe vacation homes. Some were lost, some were found, and no one emerged unscathed.
Rising like a miracle after the city was leveled, this commencement was for me a celebration and a mourning of our return to society. Knowing that we must be different, and walking with trepidation and desire into the bold bright world again.
This summer for the first time, I’m co-hosting an expressive writing circle for women with Pleasance Silicki, founder of Lil Omm Yoga and the LOLA Community.
Expressive writing is personal and emotional writing that is not concerned with craft, structure, or even punctuation. It simply expresses what is inside our heart and mind.
The act of translating our experiences into words helps release pent-up feelings, giving us valuable insights in our selves and opening the flow of creativity inherent in every one of us.
The circle will take place Monday mornings from July 12 to August 16 at 6:30am to 7:15am EST on Zoom. (This is soul time — sometimes you have to get up a little early to make space for it!)
Sessions will involve a meditation, music, one or two writing prompts, and optional sharing about your experience of the process. Make this time delicious and sacred by getting as comfortable as you can — stay in pajamas, brew some coffee or tea, or bring a pet, plant, or special touchstone.
In later sessions, after we get more comfortable with the process and each other, we will have the option of sharing favorite parts of our writing (with positive-only feedback, of course!) The main intention is to hold space for ourselves as we listen deeply and allow our inner wisdom to arise.
No experience in writing, no desire to publish anything needed — simply an interest in exploring self-expression in a safe and supportive community!
To find out more or tell us you’re coming, click here.
Questions? Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lunch was still clinging to the corners of our mouths when we said goodbye with a long hug, the kind you give to an old friend you haven’t seen in years.
We only had two hours together in this public garden somewhere between the two cities where we live. We didn’t have time to take pictures in front of the trumpet trees or stop to watch bees disappearing into penstemon flowers. The space between us was more important.
The first time my friend and I met, we were 18 and 19, sitting in folding desk chairs around an Italian language classroom. We didn’t know the next year we would be sharing an apartment on via Bellombra, hungry to find a self we had lost, or had never really known.
As I take the drive home, a gust of wind shakes a beech tree, loosing a handful of green leaves over the highway. I love this solitude, where all I can do is listen to music and daydream. Just me and an 18-wheeler. We travel together until he slows down and arcs away.
It was too short. How could I have made it last longer? My mind wants to press on the wound of leaving my friend.
If you try to hold onto something, says a Buddhist proverb, you lose it.
What does it feel like to let go? The time with my friend is over. There is no bringing it back. It was. It was. It was so sweet.
When I stop resuscitating what has already collapsed, I see the sweetness of her face, the stories we told, the long thread that ties us together.
Thirty years after we spent that year in Italy, I went back. It was all still there — the church steps where we learned not to sit alone writing postcards, the cafe’ where I could only point because I was embarrassed to speak, the dusty square I’d walk through on the way home from class. It was all a beautiful graveyard.
Maybe places come to life through us. It’s the glow inside our souls that lights the world. In our searching, our longing, our loving and our fearing, we give meaning to everything there is.
This highway is soaked with my friend’s eyes, her now-white hair bubbling around her face.
This highway is imbued with the light of home, where my children are making their lunches, and where my husband, after finishing last tasks at the hospital, will soon be driving toward.
This highway is steeped with my unfinished dreams, the metaphor of a life.
As I get closer to the city, the freeway gets wider. More and more cars join, and instead of how similar, I notice how different we are. How I have to fight for space.
Does anything have meaning if not given by a human soul? A painting is simply a collection of brush strokes on cloth, a fable is a handful of letters sprinkled on paper, a symphony a jumble of pitches floating through air. It’s only when it is received by another that it becomes beautiful or wrenching, sorrowful or ecstatic — precious and alive.
The names of the places start to look familiar and, at the exit with the man selling roses, I turn off. As I get closer to home, the roads get smaller and smaller. I see the stone church where my son went to preschool, the playground where my kids used to play.
As I turn onto my street, the route gets sweeter, until I see our house. A cloud hangs around it, preventing me from feeling the goodness I thought was inside.
Around this pink farmhouse with its arbor vines and daisies spilling over the fence, a fog hangs. Visible only to me, its molecules contain all the things I was supposed to do, all the people I thought I’d be. Home seems to say, this is your final resting spot. Are you done, are you perfect, are you happy?
When you’re roaming the world, over oceans or highways, you live the unfolding, changeful way of the universe where nothing is ever over, where answers are never final, and there is always another road to take. When you know you haven’t arrived, your life is a gift that is always being unwrapped.
As you pull into the driveway, you see a little girl running away from the house.
It’s your daughter. She has something in her hands. Maybe a popsicle or a puppet she’s made.
You stop before pulling into the driveway to watch her. She looks back toward the car as if there were something she ought to do. When she looks back again, you don’t wave, because you want her to keep running. You want her to be free.
Maybe because it involved fire, maybe because they all had something to burn, they said yes.
I’d never paid much attention to the cycles of the moon, how my earthly body might be in tune with this celestial body. I come from a tradition of sun-worshippers, but other cultures use lunar cycles to set time and give meaning to the changefulness of life.
The new moon, or the moment of darkness between waning and waxing, marks the beginning of the month in the Hebrew and Chinese calendars, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac says that it’s the best time to plant vegetables that bear fruit above ground.
Burn what no longer serves you, and say a prayer for what you want to grow, wise women suggest, because this is the order of the universe. One cycle fades, another emerges.
It was raining steadily outside. Diana and I had changed out of wet clothes into pajamas. The air hung with the perfume of ginger, garlic, and broth from the soup we had for dinner.
“You’re going to burn your enemies?” Luke asked me.
My list was two pages long. I ripped it out of my journal as the kids quandaried over what to put down. “I wrote about my fears,” I told them, “and thoughts that make me feel insecure.”
The new moon is also called the dark moon, because it looks as black as the night sky.
I didn’t expect the boys, now 13 and 10, to start looking for small writing paper in the pie chest. Diana paced around the playroom, reminding us that we weren’t going to tell anyone what we wrote.
They used to say this in church: Give your worries to God. Lay them down at His feet.
How did this work? I wondered. I was too ashamed to tell God things like, “I’m not even sure you exist.”
When I was about 8 years old, my Southern Baptist grandmother gave me a daily Bible verse tear-off calendar. I peeked ahead to see what message had been selected for my birthday. It was Matthew 8:26: “Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?”
My life has been a dance of trying to hide what I was afraid had already been revealed.
Mark’s crushed paper ball made the candle flame muscle up and arc. Luke’s crumpled piece made a broad wall of light.
I scrolled my pages and touched them to the flame. They became a gray log, and I thought of fallen trees in the woods, bark peeling off in curls.
When Diana placed her squared folded sheet into the pillar candle, the schoolgirl blue lines stayed neat while frilly waves of sunset orange and night black advanced.
The earth knows how to transform, how to receive and dissolve. This beautiful merciful destroyer.
Wax came spilling down, running willy-nilly over the table. We put out the fires with splashes of water, then celebrated with rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream. Our table looked like a moonscape, or a funeral pyre. An after-party.
A few hours later when the last sunlight had leaked from the sky, Diana came downstairs, eyes blinking in the kitchen glare where Mark was making a poster on the Roman military. She said she was hot, but she pulled me close.
I climbed into bed with her, and she clutched my shirt with one hand, burying her head into my chest. “I said I wanted to give up being scared of the dark but I’m still scared,” she whispered. “Even more than before.”
“When you look something in the eye,” I said, “it can be more scary than when you were running away.” And I told myself as I spoke to her, “Sometimes we need to give it more time. Trust that it’s working even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.”
Faith is hard to hold in a place where magic isn’t real if it can’t be proven with test tubes and microscopes. When we can’t see all that is unfolding: the seeds that are growing underearth, the ghosts collapsing into the night.
“You should go,” Diana said when we heard my husband unlocking the front door and looking for me.
Dov’è la Mamma? he called up the stairs.
“He’s missing you,” she said. “I’ll be okay with the light on.”
My new moon prayer:
Take away my doubt and my shame, and replace it with compassion and trust as steady as the sun.
Show me how to stand in my own light, even when the world is bright and actionful.
Open my perception to the signs and symbols that are always here, pointing me where I need to go.
Rain-damp hair on the pillow. Warm knees that have traversed the sidewalks to and from the elementary school twice today. The cicadas are churning the air with dazzle, a mass seduction outside my window.
One hour after midday: this is when I rest my bones, my eyes, my overworld persona, and sink into oblivion — even just for a swirl. Soon it will be time to go back to the school, buy the bread, pick up the car, prepare another dinner, play a board game — but now I let myself pool.
The cat meows at the door. “You want to be with me?” I think as I open the door, as if there is no one else, and here — here is the single soul.
The cat kneads, purring and pressing my muscles with his paws. Does he think I’m his mother, his mate … both?
The silver shimmer of cicada song rises and falls like waves. It spills as soon as I try to collect it.
When I wake past 2:00, my dreams evaporate as I try to fix them on a page. Before I brew the afternoon coffee, I bury my nose in the cat’s jowl and drink deep of his fur.
Thank you for loving me. Thank you for not caring whether I win or lose. Thank you for keeping an eye on me, even when you are sleeping.
In early June, small fruits and the first greens of the garden are overflowing at the farm stand, in the produce aisles, and around our garden — blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb. Snap peas, lettuce, and kale. Arugula so mature it fades right after it’s cut. Soon it will be time to pick the peaches and blackberries that are blushing in the sun.
With long leather gloves, I wrap climbing roses around the arbor. Plastic water guns are slung on the driveway, while the kids climb ladders to pick cherries. Tart and translucent with a shade of bitterness, perfect for folding inside a deep buttery crust.
The best way to pit a cherry is to wedge a spoon into where it was separated from the tree and scoop out the heart. My helper Luke wanders off and leaves me alone with my work.
I feel content when I’m making a pie. Pressing the cracked ball of pastry dough with a rolling pin, it expands into round puffs. A cloud of cosmic dust spreading on the counter.
Half a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, and some cornstarch so the juice will globe around the fruit.
“The universe is expanding faster than a spaceship can go and it’s getting faster and faster,” Luke told me the other day as I dropped him off to one of his last days of 5th grade.
Over and under, I weave thick strips of salty dough into a framework that melts in the warmth of my hands.
When the pie is in the oven, it’s time to get lunch on the table. Looking at the bounty in the fridge, I love seeing what must be eaten, what can wait, what needs rescuing.
The tomatoes are on the edge, so I throw a few moldy ones in the compost bin, then toss the rest in oil and salt and roast them along with the pie. Mint green kohlrabi gets cleaned and cut into half moons for an appetizer.
The strawberries are turning wine-red, so I throw them in a pot with some rhubarb and sugar to make a sauce for ice cream when all the pie is gone.
Arugula is washed and tossed with matchstick carrots, lemon balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, and piled on 6 plates. And the honeydew can be sliced and arranged on a platter, making room in the fridge.
As I set down paper-thin slices of coppa and a wedge of caciotta sent via DHL from Milan, the oven begins to sigh the curled perfume of fruit pectin and flour.
When the pie is done, we’ll go look for camping equipment. Maybe Luke will want to join Scouts again. My husband used to camp in the summers on the beaches of Greece. “I don’t know how to set up a tent,” Luke grumbles, and Mark predicts, “We’re going to get lost a thousand times.” Diana grimaces and says, “I have to go camping too?”
Maybe the plan won’t work, maybe the sleeping bags will gather guilty dust in our garage, but I can picture a new version of our family unfolding as our daughters leave the nest. With just a quarter turn of the kaleidoscope, I see the 5 of us disappearing into a wilderness. I wouldn’t mind getting lost.
The depth of my life takes place, not on billboards or headlines, concert halls or stadiums, but in the sorting of hand-me-downs and the soothing of a child. Moments that add up to a life neither extraordinary nor ordinary, but one that keeps circling deeper into something I do not know how to name.
When I’m tending roses or children, I’m not looking in the mirror, deciding that something is missing. When I’m tending, I’m not thinking, Is this important?
This is uncomplicated, this is true. This is a pie coming out of the oven, red syrup bubbling over the lattice crust, smelling of flowers and rain.
The final battle with the coronavirus is being fought inside my body. I got my second Moderna vaccine yesterday, and as I lie in bed today, I can feel the struggle inside. Pressing against the backs of my eyes, the skin of my lips, the nodes of my knees.
From my bed upstairs, I hear the family discussing lunch. It’s Virginia’s turn to prepare, and Enrico doesn’t want the usual vegan bowl veggie melange.
“But I don’t want pasta!” Virginia says.
“What about tuna salad?” Luke suggests.
“I can’t eat tuna!”
Eventually the discordant notes relax into a kind of rhythm, even though there are still flares (“Mark, what are you doing to help?”) and the sound of Kanye West singing “Through the Wire” jumbles through it all.
Eventually the music gets turned off and everyone sits down. I hear the deep voice of my husband, this man who has taken care of me and our children for 20 years now, and I am not sure who I am without him.
By the time I got this second shot, they were practically begging people to come in. No more pre-registering on mysterious waiting lists, no more listserv messages that the MedStar in Georgetown or the Six Flags parking lot had extra doses. The D.C. Health Department was even giving away beers if you’d get a J&J shot in the arm.
After dropping off Diana at a playdate, I stopped at the CVS on the corner. Before public schools went virtual, this store used to be swarmed with teens trolling for chips and candy and pop, but a renovation during the pandemic transformed it into an urgent care clinic with a convenience store on the side. The only one there, I received my shot in the new immunization suite, and then after walking past the rows of gummy vitamins and bandaids, I walked home by myself.
Now as I lie in bed with wool blankets wrapped around me and a cup of tea by my side, my joints are scarlet iron, my muscles bend as easily as metal sheeting, and my skull is lined with aluminum, registering the slightest electrical current.
The battle with this disease was once fought outside, with masks and distancing, sterilizing and shuttering. As I lie in bed while my cells are learning how to fight it, this feels like a private showdown. But I know it is a victory at the end a long war fought by others. Scientists and lab techs, doctors and nurses, pharmacists and trial volunteers, and all the people who told us with their lives: take care of each other. This is serious.
To be part of the human race is to be both gloriously soft and open to attack as well as inventive enough to outsmart the attacker. Every day I am supported by human beings I’ll never meet, who smooth the sidewalks under my feet, who hang the telephone wires above my head. Those who have come before me, and those who will carry on.
The morning after my convalescence, I am up for yoga. I feel my strength again, the beauty of a body that is alive and working. It feels like I have made it through a ring of fire.
It’s so strange to move through a normal world again, to hug friends, to feel the wind against my face, to go inside people’s houses. And yet I know, even if it looks the same, we are different.
I now know I am stronger when I take off my armor and stand here, small and bare. Underneath all the colors, the shapes, and various patterns of human beings, we are all the same.
Denying that pain and death are as much a part of life as joy and birth, as I once did, is to live halfway. When I open my heart to all that life brings — the suffering and the love, the anguish and the tenderness — I am wondrous at how it feels to be whole, and thankful to all the beings who have conspired to keep me alive.