the cartography of discovery, one page at a time
i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.
the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.
certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.
my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.
i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.
and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.
this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.
but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)
so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?
Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen
How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,
and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,
so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention
that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle
the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and
who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki
Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though
your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked
up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive
that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them
before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put
on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.
“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.
simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé?
What a beautiful poem – thank you for sharing. The last stanza will be my meditation for today. (And you are partially responsible for the growing stack of books next to my bed! Just ordered this book to add to the stack.)
Ooops! Sorry to add to the teetering tower, but no apologies for adding this glorious book to it! I could have added a million of her poems. And since the power’s been out all morning (again!!!) I might spend the morning reading….
Oh bam, I so feel your heart in this. Tears fill my eyes as I immediately rush back to my own sense of purpose, my efforts at holy work, evaporating as I witnessed the inevitable, and appropriate, marching on of time, as my own role became more of a sidelines cheerleader, a far cry from the intimate bond I lived for five years as we raised our beautiful granddaughter from six months old through first grade. I mourned that bond’s lessening, even as I knew that my prayers for her eventually having an actual loving and devoted mother were answered, in the lovely young woman that became my son’s bride. Prayers answered, but mournful still, at the sweetness and purpose that filled my life as an infant moved in to our home, two weeks before our youngest left for college, and, at fifty-four, I was to claim the title of empty nester. Now that infant is eleven years old, and lives a thousand miles away, has two baby brothers, and a happy life in the Florida sunshine. Our phone calls and FaceTimes are frequent, but also illustrate how our years together, our thousands of intimate moments imagining, reading snuggled in the couch, creating puppets for impromptu puppet shows for Papa, taking nature walks, having long chats about life and God and mommies who don’t call or visit…these bonding moments are becoming dimmer in her memory, as the tween years start. I had a mourning period similar to yours, dear one. It was a time of tears, seeking, and introspection, following their journey from Indiana to faraway Saint Augustine two Octobers ago. I’m still figuring things out, as all four of my now adult chicks have flown far from the nest. I know God has plans to use me, and those will be revealed when the time is right. And for now, I enjoy my sweet times with my dear Tom, my good health, my still-childlike spirit at sixty-five, and my heart that longs to spread kindness. Sending so much love to you, dear bam.
oh, the vicissitudes of this sweet life. who would imagine the turn your life took? and how sweet sweet that it did, for those nine years (did i do the math correctly?). bless you for understanding. and for holding out the promise that the road signs will be spotted, and the uncertain path will soon be trod enough. till then i will try to be patient with my not knowing. with my unchartedness. and, like you, i am so profoundly grateful for every day, every hour, that’s been……sending a giant hug. so lovely to find you here….
I read your post first thing, and even as sunbeams danced in the morning sky, it rained in here, it rained hard… I haven’t wept over the once upon a time of my life in a long, long while…. This magnificent poem opened the door back to our first home and the bright eyes of our darling little ones. Would that I could slip back to that sweet long ago and snuggle those dear babes just once more, read a storybook, go for a walk, sing a nursery rhyme, whisper “Good night, I’ll see you in the morning…” Thank you for sharing Joyce Sutphen with us… She’s a treasure, and so are you.
Your little reading nook looks so airy and serene. May your thoughts and memories be sweet for you there as you leaf page by page through your books, while you chart this new territory called what shall come next. Sending all my love… xxxx
oh, dear dear amy of the heart! i just found this and enter right into your words, as you so poetically “would that i…”
it’s an achy place, that longing, isn’t it?
i see the bright eyes of your darling ones, all three. peeking out at you from behind the covers of books, and coverlets, and around the corner by the cookstove. aren’t we blessed that we can conjure up such crystal-clear images with our imaginations and our words. the words we burrow into as if the actual touch-me something.
i send love as i begin to wonder how we might stitch together a poetry circle, one where you keep pentameter with your needle and your thread all the while……
i’ll add more bits and trinkets from the world of Joyce Sutphen, as i dig them up over the weekend….xoxoxox
just found this, from Wendell Berry, and knew right away it belonged at the table (where comments are often the richest place at this ol’ table):
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”
All caught up with weeks and weeks and weeks of PUAC. That’s how I do it. What do they call it when it’s Netflix? Binge watching? Yes, that’s how I do it here. It happens when I get up particularly early or go to bed particularly late and feel some freedom in those quiet hours. I sink in. I catch up this way, with your writing, and with you, too, when our conversations have been sparse, or particularly short, or single focused and don’t have the wide cinematic shot of scope.
So why am I deciding to comment on a September essay when it’s already October? Random, I suppose, as there’s so much I want to respond to, most especially some of the ones about Boy 2 leaving, and about his life expanding and the secret benefits for us.
Your PUAC is always luscious, always informing, and also so often a mirror from which to examine, “…and how is that thing going in my life?”.
When my Girl 2 left, though I had been occupied with a few other endeavors, I had no idea what was next. My girls had been not only my center, I had mothered with a fervor, as most of us do. Mine included a vow to myself about doing it differently than what I had experienced, so perhaps everything that had been missing from childhood that I believed had to be there. Maybe that’s also true of many of us. In that overfocus, I missed many things, too.
On Boy 2’s expanding life, I remember Rachel taking rhetoric in her first year of college and explaining to me about Aristotle’s three artistic proofs, or modes of persuasion — ethos, logos, pathos — and how the idea simplified something that I could pass on to my clients, and I have, ever since that day four years ago when Rachel taught me. It is often the thing that makes those clients get it.
The reason I stopped on this essay to say hello, come to think of it, was about what’s not on your resume, and yes, Joyce Sutphen captured that so well in the title and body of her poem, that thing that you’ve explored in some of your essays here, as in that crush you had on the new boy in the newsroom with whom you are alone again but there’s a lifetime and a couple of lives created between then and now.
It reminded me that so many of us both stayed the same (you still have the crush) and changed (would you have considered some of the choices you’re looking at?) in those years in between, as I first really understood when I sat on an almost-empty Metra train and did that thing that I sometimes do — talk to strangers — this time on St. Patrick’s Day right after Rachel went to college.
My temporary friends were a lovely couple from Winnetka, he a Coca-Cola executive very proud of she, an engineer who stopped working somewhere along the timeline of three sons. She loved engineering, she explained, and always assumed she would go back, but then she mothered, and to have something of her own in those years of three boys and a man, had discovered, and fallen in love with, painting. So now the last one was leaving and who was she now, with all those years of what she could not put on her resume? Was she engineer, artist, or something else?
I thought about my own resume many times in my on-site child-rearing years when I had no idea how to have valuable work in the world, or work at all, because I was not a something like an engineer, but an observer of what has always been called (and I chafe at it) the soft skills. What does a single mom who’s been poking around as an untrained, self-appointed freelance writer do as real work that pays the real money she needs?
Julia, my version of your Boy 1, who logged in so much time with yours over a quarter of a century ago, made a suggestion one day some years back, as she visited from her city digs and we sat in the living room unwinding something that was challenging her.
“Just do this for a living,” she said, “this thing you do…what you just did with me, what you always do.”
What’s the thing, I asked her? “I don’t know. When I think the world is ending, you make me get it, what’s really happening, and I feel clearer as you help me know what to do and then I go back into the world better, with self understanding and always language to express it, to others, to me. Do that thing.”
But it wasn’t anything I could put on my resume, and the way I saw myself was so very different, as very challenged and compromised — captain of a ship always sinking in those years…single motherhood, with all the destabilizing forces around us and too many bad life choices.
And yet somehow we do put something together in the years after our last one leaves or we must make a late-breaking career or life change for another reason. And often the thing we figure out is something about which we also discover we have a fervor, for all sorts of reasons, that’s been brewing in us. It’s hidden in all those things we couldn’t put on our resume as well as the things we wouldn’t want to.
I see it all over with my friends in their 50s and 60s. It’s scary and impossible-seeming, but they…we…do it. We explore, we learn new things, we sometimes retrain, and we put together all those disparate dots that didn’t at first seem to connect.
It doesn’t tend to happen with one epiphany but with many encounters over time, things we experience and things people say to us, and way too many wrong turns for my taste.
I have a fervor again, it almost feels like a movement…my little piece of the world, about how we talk to each other and the life-changing almost magic of doing it differently. We know from being here, hanging with you, that people change us and we can change them. As Krista Tippett from On Being says, (something to the tune of) when we speak together differently, we live together differently.
I thought about all this as I sat last week in the office of a vice president in another state to which I was flown courtesy of his very large company, one that touches our lives every day. The VP, who is now my client, has done much good making health care clearer, more accessible and more affordable to people, while saving his company millions of dollars.
But he, like all of us, is a union of opposites, as Carl Jung put it, and though brilliant, he is challenged to tell the story that needs to be told, of what he does and how he does it. It’s information that others in the company and outside need from him so they can do more of it, whether he’s on stage in front of many or in one-to-one conversation. As dazzling a subject matter expert as he is, he can’t explain it so resorts to insider speak and lingo and labored monologues with no path to understanding nor invitation to be in the conversation. We all have some version of this person in our lives.
There were exclamations throughout the day last week that this was all new to him, this how to talk to others better, and how to tell the right story to have others understand. He said at the end of the day that this work we’re doing is “probably even going to help my marriage” — particularly poignant words to a woman who couldn’t help her own.
All day was a revelation as I thought about that old resume of mine which for many years had “captained a sinking ship” at the top, with no clear way out. But now this. It was really cool.
I was doing that thing, I understood that day, the one Julia had told me to do. Out of the mouths of babes, eh?
It made me wish I had gotten the number of my train friend, the engineer/artist/mom who lived in Winnetka in a house of three boys and a man and was not sure what next.
As I read the wonderful responses you’ve gotten to your essay here, I want to know about her, too.
And now I’ve responded to two months of your posts. I always promise myself that I’ll do better, read more regularly, and respond smaller and in real time. But we are who we are, and I suppose this is the way I do things. Part of the post-onsite mom life is to live well with that, too.
Beautiful and provocative reading. Thank you, my friend.
oh, dear glory! what a heavenly and sumptuous response! almost longer than the original post. and, as all the table can see, the reasons for our long-lasting friendship are the nooks and crannies you so brilliantly and heart fully explore. i just found this wonderful long post about the evolution of who we are as i sit here waiting for my sweet sweet college boy to pull up to the curb and pile out of the van of friends carrying him! the pies are in the fridge, the pantry is stocked, the welcome sign is hanging on the front door. and for today i am more than anything a mom reveling in her beloved child’s first homecoming.
i love that you’ve found your way, and that your beautiful firstborn was one of your keenest pathfinders.
i found yesterday, Yom Kippur, the day of deepest atonement, a wonderful sanctuary of time and space in which to consider all these monumental questions: how will you live your one astonishing life?
i love the nooks and crannies of your mind and your soul. and am so grateful for the long chapters of friendship that keep us close no matter the length of the silence between….xoxoxo