Tag Archives: parenting

Write for the Burning

T2i - Fish

T2i – Fish (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

When my kids were eight and five (ish) I wanted a fish tank. Soothing gurgly water, colorful fishies swimming in mesmerizing circles around flowing green plants and hiding in adorable miniature shipwrecks. How charming and peaceful that would be.

I knew nothing about fish. Like: the most colorful ones require saltwater. Like: you need to balance the acidity of the water. Like: you have to clean the tank at least once a week. Like: fish get a disease called “ick” that kills them dramatically. Like: a dying fish wobble-swims in a desperate side-stroke that is extremely distressing to all who witness it. Except the cat, whose joy is manifest in its swishing tail.

Before I knew all those things, I made a valiant effort, investing a fair amount of money and a greater amount of time in my fledgling tank. My dearest friend at the time was a wiser-than-me mommy who had watched me flail my way through parenting infants and toddlers and was supporting my efforts with the elementary school set (I was getting better. I like to imagine I’m hitting my stride with my now-adolescent sons. By the time they’re adults I’ll be fantastic!). This good friend asked gently, after I lamented the loss of yet another delightful fishy, why I had added “fish” to my to-do list when I claimed I reallyreallyreally wanted to write.

Uh … well …

Good point. Why indeed? And why, after the fish have been long-since flushed, did I choose, this fall, to take on not one but two time-consuming volunteer roles? Have I learned NOTHING?

No and yes, I’ve decided. No: non-writing activities take time and energy. Yes: the world outside my head sparks ideas inside my head … and then the dry tinder I didn’t know I’d gathered blazes up and my writerly self is off to the races. As S.D. Simonds puts it:

[T]he author writes as a race-horse runs, for the sake of it. He feels like it, and kindles just because he enjoys burning.

(From The Living Way, edited and published by S.D. Simonds, Volume III, 1872, referring to Joaquin Miller and his poem “Isles of the Amazons”)


burn (Photo credit: donbuciak)

Write for the burning, and gather your firewood wheresoever you find it.


What’s in your creative kitchen? Eggonog? Whole grains and lean proteins?

My children are living proof that what the mom eats while pregnant influences her offspring’s taste preferences … my mommy friends and I speculated that this was so, anecdotally; then there was an Official Study that confirmed it, as reported here. Pregnant with my first child, I cut waaaay back on sugar consumption, and downed cottage cheese, broccoli, applesauce, and whole grains like there was no tomorrow. This did not prevent me from plumping up – at forty weeks I’d gained more than forty pounds! – but that first-born was 100% healthy.

With baby number two, my diet was dictated by nausea (tolerable food groups: mint chocolate chip ice cream). And my cooking was compromised because the aforementioned healthy infant had morphed into a 100% healthy toddler – healthy being a euphemism for Totally Wild and in need of lots of “large muscle group” exercise every day. All day. The couch was a launching pad for leaps into large pillows, the tiny “great room” a race track, the yard a football field (yes, he was that obsessed that early). The mother a staggering, exhausted  referee, medic, and coach.

Sugar sugar

Image by dhammza via Flickr

Son number two emerged just as healthy, but canNOT seem to consume enough sugar to satisfy himself. Now, admittedly, he will also eat roasted cabbage, sushi, and Indian-spiced chicken – all foods son number one will sample only a molecule of  – but the sugar! Oh, my lord, the sugar! He collected eight pounds of candy on Halloween. At our house, the rule is, eat as much as you want Halloween night, leave the rest out for the “switch witch,” who replaces the candy  by a modest kid-desired item.  Son number two ate THREE POUNDS OF CANDY in one evening and suffered no immediate ill effects. The story of his health over the coming decades of his life may tell a different tale; my strategy is to try to fill him up with as much healthy food as possible, educate him about how many grams of sugar are “ok” and limit the treats we have in the house.

Which is a relatively effective strategy. Unless it’s Christmas. At which point this mama indulges in her passion for baking and tasting and dipping everything in chocolate and nibbling … you get the picture. My kids are too old to believe all the biscotti was given away. So we enjoy more desserts than usual, and talk about it how it’s a bad habit more than my kids would like.

My mother did the same thing: lots of conversation about nutrition. Her story about food is in my head and I am living it out. Eggnog notwithstanding, I’ve found recipes for roasted cabbage and pan-seared kale that would make her proud.

When I realized this (which sounds simple, but was epiphany-ic for me), I was also dipping into the essays in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb. My simple epiphany plus those essays has led me to contemplate the role of story in life, and Life.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Stories in life are partly to entertain, partly to educate – Grimm’s Fairy Tales are as, uh, grim, as they are in part because a scant hundred years ago, children who strayed might well be eaten by a bear or wolf – if not literally, then figuratively.

And stories about Life are also the voices we hear in our heads thirteen years after our mothers have died, reminding us that eating fruit before gobbling a cookie (or the entire TIN of cookies) will help us feel better.

Telling stories is the first step in manifesting their reality, as highlighted by Susan Griffin’s essay, “To Love the Marigold,” in Loeb’s book. The surrealist poet Robert Desnos was imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. When he was taken to the gas chambers, he jumps into the line and asks to see the hand of one of the condemned behind him. “Oh, you have a very long lifeline,” he says. “And many children yet to be born.” He did this, enthusiastically, for all the would-be gasees in the truck. The guards didn’t march them into the chambers. They returned them to the camp, where at least one of them lived to tell the tale. (Desnos died of typhoid shortly after the camps were liberated.)

The power of story-telling accounts in large part, I believe, for the effectiveness of affirmations. Although, as I write “I, Lesley Fay Howard, am a brilliant and prolific writer,” there is a part of my brain muttering in the corner, “Jane Austen didn’t do this sh*t.” Though of course I have no idea what Austen told herself to persevere in writing. Because no doubt about it, writing – creating art of any sort – requires a semi-insane sort of doggedness possible only in a self-generated, alternative reality.

When I manage to fill my proverbial “womb” with good nutrition for my creative soul, I do better. I write more when I go into my office and sit down. I write more thoughtfully when I’m reading poetry (seared kale!) than when I’m reading plot-boilers (thick slabs of yule log cake).

Jane Austen's House, Chawton, Hampshire

Jane Austen's house: she didn't manage this without servants! Image by randomduck via Flickr

So why is it a daily challenge to practice the better habits I know make me feel better, make me more productive? I want to note that my mommy hat is large during the holidays: “I can’t possibly go to my office and write with both boys home. I need to cook, clean, set a gorgeous table, etcetera. I don’t have servants! Did Austen have to do all this work?! No, her holiday work was done for her! If I had servants, this mommy hat wouldn’t interfere with my writing!”

That, dear reader, is writerly dodging of the first, and deepest, degree. The good-ish news is that I recognize my dodges more speedily, and correct my course accordingly. I’ve learned to set my alarm half an hour earlier so I can sit my butt at my desk and do some writing before the late-dawning winter sunshine wakes the kids. I call it “better than nothing” writing, and altho’ my time constraints are real, I need to sit and ponder and scribble without someone asking me whether they can download an app that will make their online character look like a pig. (Really? Really. Good gawd.)

Thus far, better-than-nothing writing satisfies me enough to reduce the otherwise-appealing distraction of setting the prettiest table, and that in turn enables me to re-align my mommy hat such that its brim doesn’t obscure my writer’s desk. And if some ten year old reallyreallyreally wants that pig-skin app after leaving mama alone, I have the wherewithal to download said app without distracting my despairing muse with an online order of my own (candles! Napkins! I need these for the prettiest table!). As if she’d be truly satisfied with the superficialities in the long run. I’ve tried buying her off. She has yet to accept such trickery, clobbering me with mild depression, general angst, and the exploding head I’ve referred to in earlier posts. But if I can grant her sixty minutes, my writing maintains a steady albeit slower-than-I’d-like pace during the times when the mommy hat is large.

English: Cowboy Hat

The large brim of the mommy hat carries a lot of debris ... Image via Wikipedia

“Steady on”  is the story I’m going to tell myself in  2012. I’ll keep up with the affirmations, too, sarcastic muttering in the dark corners of my brain notwithstanding.