Emptiness and Buzz Lightyear Shampoo

As you know from this post and this one, I live in a neighborhood with a generous scattering of poetry poles. Yesterday, I stopped to read a poem for the third or fourth time.

My friend Kim took this picture to show what a poetry pole looks like. Thanks Kim!

My friend Kim took this picture to show what a poetry pole looks like. Thanks Kim!

I walk past this particular house regularly: a huge, red, rambling home on a corner lot, every inch of yard thoughtfully landscaped without looking stiff or effortful. Reclining chairs nestle in nooks created by open-slotted fences and furry shrubs beckoning passersby, at least this particular passerby, to  lean back and enjoy a cup of coffee and a good library book. Artwork hangs—outside—tastefully and cheerfully. A metal sun sculpture looks down from one apex of the house and a moon from the other, a painting hangs near the front door under the porch roof, and found-object sculptures decorate the trees in the strip between the street and the sidewalk.

One day when I walked by, a woman pulled some minuscule offending plant from the lush strip of green between street and sidewalk.
“Is this your house?” I asked gesturing toward the front porch.
“Yes,” she said, a tad warily.
“I love all of the art you have displayed. I appreciate it every time I walk by.”
“Thank you,” she said, and returned to her work.

The thing is, I’ve been making assumptions about the homeowner, this woman. Not only does she have well-considered taste in art and landscaping, she’s wealthy to have such a huge and well-tended old house. If she still works, it’s because she does something meaningful and her unique talent is in demand, something like fundraising for Doctors Without Borders, or managing logistics for Mercy Corp.

I’m not envious. Well, okay, a little, because I also assume she rises early each morning, well rested, brews her coffee, chooses an outdoor nook and blanket or an indoor spot near books as carefully collected as her art to sip her coffee and start her purpose-filled day, knowing she can come home in the late afternoon to her solarium—the room with the tomato plant suspended outside the window drooping heavily with shiny red fruit but somehow not splattering any on the garage roof or onto the stone path below.

But yesterday, I realized something.

The poem currently displayed, the one I’ve read three or four times, is spoken by a man who has been awake and working since 5am at something meaningless and dreary. He wonders if his life adds up to anything at all. However, at 8pm, the poem shifts to present tense, and the man describes giving his son a bath with blue battle ships floating in the water and Buzz Lightyear shampoo. The man feels his life has led him to this moment of purpose, and he thanks his son for turning a day of emptiness into this one moment of ecstasy.

The poem makes me teary-eyed each time I’ve read it. It evokes that meaningless feeling so exquisitely that you don’t realize you’ve stopped breathing as you read the poem until the smell of the shampoo and the color of the toy battleships bring a flush of oxygen back into the air. And, if you’re me at least, you look down to cast your hat brim over your face in case someone’s around to see your eyes turn red and the slightest bit of water gather at the top of your cheek.

What I realized the other day when I read the poem again is that the homeowner posted this poem.

She took the time to remove the last poem, choose this one, print it, and slip it into the display case.

If you go to the trouble to build a poetry pole, you don’t just toss in any rhymed couplet that comes across your path. You choose something that matters to you.

Besides, as natural and lush as her yard looks, this woman has not placed, pruned, or nurtured anything without deliberation and intention.

The homeowner chose this poem.

Therefore, this homeowner knows emptiness.

At some point in her life, maybe at many points, maybe at this very moment, she has felt meaningless and empty. She has questioned the value of her efforts and the purpose of her days.

She too has had doubts or fears or failures, or all three.

How else could she identify with this poem? Why else choose this poem to display?

And yet, here she is, taking good care of an old yard and home, every square inch exuding warmth, beauty, and color.

When my days weigh down on me with doubt or fear or failure or all three at once, I am quick to assume all is lost. My vision for what’s still working, for what’s beautiful in spite of my disappointment, blurs.

This house with the poetry pole shows me that of course a woman can know emptiness, know it well enough to recognize the pain in a particular poem and choose to post that poem outside her house, while also being strong enough to nurture green, compose peaceful resting spots, and quietly express her warm spirit simply by the color of her house’s trim.

I guess I’m learning the same lesson again (like this post):  difficult moments don’t have to mute the beautiful ones. They can even reside together, a woman experiencing emptiness while encouraging blades of grass to stand a little taller so their shadows deepen their particular shade of green.

She nurtures the gorgeous in her life while acknowledging the rest with a poem that turns emptiness into art.

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Erasing Beauty

“You can never assume that someone is ‘faking’ [a disability] or even that a stranger who doesn’t appear to be disabled isn’t suffering from chronic pain or something else that impairs their ability to do things that able-bodied people take for granted,” wrote Domi Shoemaker on Facebook in response to “Yes, Ableism Is Seriously a Thing.”

I’d recently been considering the something similar, how people’s pain—chronic pain—can be completely invisible. As a teacher, I’d assume that the perky, young, fashionable student showing up every day cheerfully had not yet faced any challenges in her life. Then—*WHAM*—she’d turn in a memoir draft about surviving horrific abuse, or enduring homelessness, or overcoming addiction.

People’s pain, their suffering, their heartache, do not always leave visible marks; it doesn’t mean the pain is not there, maybe even during the very moments you interact with them.

I remember one student who came to class every day with her best friend, both of them manicured, hair styled just-so, fashionable outfits, and giant cups of Starbucks coffee sipped neatly through straws. They were both good students, and I enjoyed having them in class. Because of their stylish looks and breezy attitudes, I assumed they’d had pretty smooth lives, were on their way to the careers they wanted, would buy houses next door to each other, and marry brothers or best friends.

Well, even if that does become their destiny, a cute house and white picket fence do not mean one’s past has been sunny and sweet.

One day after class, the student stayed after to talk with me. Her friend either stood by her or waited outside; I can’t remember. We’d discussed some readings in class that I no longer recall, but they prompted her to tell me her story.

Standing there, manicured hand on hip of trendy jeans, Starbucks held aloft in the other hand, dark hair straightened and smoothed into a crisp bob, she told me she’d been homeless.

After suffering all kinds of abuse at home, she ran away as a teenager. She quickly became homeless, figured out how to live on the streets, and begged for money.

She told me that the worst part of it was not when people said hateful things to her or refused to give her money, it was the people who ignored her completely, as if she were invisible, looking right past her, as if she and all of her efforts to survive did not exist.

Well, one thing led to another: selling drugs to make money to get off the streets, taking those drugs to take to make the streets bearable, numerous illegal activities to support drug habit, and then: jail.

You see what I mean by how you never know what a person has suffered or is suffering? This outgoing, funny, smart, hard-working student had lived on the streets and then behind bars.

Maybe I’m taking the point of the article Domi posted one step further. As the article argues—you often can’t see a person’s pain, physical or mental, or what burdens they shoulder as they go about their day. Similarly, when you think “inmate” or “addict” or “homeless,” some of the most delightful people you interact with in any given day, might have been one or all three of those things.

People are resilient and strong. Pain and suffering do not always erase beauty or mute cheerfulness. Thank goodness for that.

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It happened again. I went for a walk, and serendipity struck.

A few days ago, I re-read an essay I’d drafted seven years ago. After saving one paragraph to develop, I nixed the rest and put the discarded pages onto my recycling pile.

The rejected pages described a time when I felt lost and dissatisfied with myself. I’d go out for a jog, and on three occasions, I came across a poetry pole in the corner of someone’s yard. I didn’t follow a regular route when I jogged. I preferred to wander, but each time I happened by this house, the stories on display resolved my problem and lifted my spirits.

The first story described farming bamboo and the many years of tending it takes before a bamboo sprout appears. The story ended with the maxim: “You can’t reap what you sow in the same day.” The simple message gave me a rush of oxygen and relief. Without noticing it, I’d been striving to succeed at a dozen different things all at once, everything from teaching and management to writing and gardening, applying a perfectionist’s severity to all of it. The bamboo story put my life back into perspective.

This was before I had a smart phone, so I called my office and left myself a voice mail message reading the story on the pole. I listened to it numerous times that week.

A couple of weeks later, while berating myself for my slow jog because I thought I *should* be able to run faster and further than this. I came across: “No matter the circumstances, always be willing to begin again.” The saying transformed my leaden jog into the baby steps of a fresh start.

The final time I came across the pole, the saying read: “When it comes to success, extraordinary perseverance wins over talent. Keep watering the bamboo.” Which is eerily similar to the Big Profound Message I wrote about last week. At this time, however, I don’t think I knew what my “bamboo” was–teaching? Writing? Yoga? Food studies? Any number of things I was trying to do all at once.

Then seven years pass. Although I continued jogging around the neighborhood, I mapped out a route and stuck with it. While walking or biking, to my recollection, I never wound up coming across that poetry pole again.

And then yesterday happened.

I went out for a walk, wandering in whatever direction shady trees or fetching front yards called me, and there it was. Marveling that I’d forgotten all about this poetry pole until re-reading my old essay, I crossed the street to read the story then continued down the sidewalk toward a tall, lean man playing basketball in the street with an equally tall, lean little girl.

The basketball hoop sat between two houses, but close enough to the house with the poetry pole that I felt inspired to ask the man, “Is that your poetry pole?” gesturing back to the corner of his front yard.

“Yes,” the man said, and came over to talk.

I told him about walking by years ago and how helpful the sayings had been to me. When I told him I’d call my office and read the messages to myself in a voice mail, he said, “Oh, I’ve got to give you something,” and jogged off to his garage.

He returned with a book, which I thought might be where he got the collection of sayings he posts until he opened up the book to the title page, asked my name, and poised his pen to write.

What?!?!?  I thought, and then asked bluntly, “You write all of those sayings? You come up with them yourself?”

Turns out, the writer of the stories and the owner of the house is Greg Bell, a dad playing ball with his daughter who also founded a leadership center to teach his concepts about watering bamboo. In a TED Talk, he describes the importance of staying with something over the long term, giving it at least a few minutes every day. He uses the details about farming bamboo as a metaphor for patience and determination that pay off in the long term. His approach can be applied to writing, art, family, or career.

Talking with him on the sidewalk, however, he said only that he “gives talks” now and then and waved it off, instead telling me about his grandfather, the inspiration for his approach to life.

I thanked him and continued on my walk, when about two blocks later I laughed out loud. Turns out, this poetry pole of wisdom that felt was my own personal oasis in a vast desert, resides about five blocks from my house.  I swear I missed it completely for seven years and then bumped into it again just when I needed it. Maybe the pole only reveals itself to you when you’re receptive to what it has to say.

Meeting Greg affirmed everything I realized in my last post: writing matters, words have an impact, stories are important, writing daily is key. Whatever it is you do: stick with it stick with it stick with it stick with it, or, as Greg would say: keep watering the bamboo.




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Showing Up, Flaws and All

I had the most eerily auspicious experience today.

I listened to a TED Talk playlist called “Kickstart Your Creativity” while I walked. Although I’d heard most of the talks before, they resonated just as much the second time around. The playlist ended before I got home, but a final lesson waited for me on the sidewalk a few steps ahead.

Elizabeth Gilbert gave the first talk on the playlist and spoke persuasively about the necessity for artists to show up every day to do their work—no matter what the results.

Maybe your performance last night inspired the crowd to chant your name and call you a god.  The next day, you wake up as the same-old-you and go practice your craft. Maybe yesterday, your latest work failed so miserably critics didn’t even bother writing about it. Today, you show up to practice your craft.

Extreme successes and failures aside, I think practicing a craft every day is difficult.

It’s not just finding the time. It’s finding the motivation. How do you keep showing up when your daily work seems to be going nowhere? Why keep walking in circles?

Phil Hansen, a visual artist, spoke at TED about embracing limitations. When Hansen developed a nerve disorder that caused his hand to shake, he abandoned his intricate stipple art and used everything from hamburger grease to Starbucks cups as material for his masterworks. His physical limitation inspired him so much that he manufactures further limitations, like not letting himself spend more than one dollar on supplies for a sculpture, or giving himself only a banana and a push-pin to create a piece of art.

He, too, concluded his talk by affirming that artists must show up every day to engage in the creative process, no matter how well or terribly the current project seems to be going.

I’ve never been able to write every-single-day-without-fail. I’ve tried numerous times but have never lasted for long. Years ago, I decided the daily effort simply didn’t work for me; however, I recently looked over some of my old writing and drawings, and I discovered two things.

First, deeming what I worked on as “good” or “bad” proved either meaningless or relative. Some essays I’d thought were pretty good at the time, grate on my nerves now. Some other pieces I’d thought drab and pointless, contain a whimsical image I want to illustrate now or an insight I couldn’t see initially.

Second, I noticed a trend. When I quit working steadily on writing or art, either because I got busy, used that as an excuse, or got frustrated, I was sometimes on the verge of good work.  I can see it years later.  What I thought was failing was actually emerging, not terrible at all, and in some cases, better than what I can do now that I’m less “in shape.”

The TED Talks concluded, and as I finished my walk, I thought about what flaws I could embrace the way Hansen described. Listing flaws came easily, but seeing them as a creative asset proved harder.

Just minutes later, I passed a house with a poetry pole in the yard. Instead of a poem, the page displayed three thick paragraphs of prose which made me curious enough to back up and read the story, which proved to be serendipitous timing to put it lightly:

Every day, a man carried two pots to the river to fill with water for his master. One pot was perfect and stayed full of water. The other had a crack that leaked and left the pot only half full by the time the man returned to the master’s house.

After two years, the flawed pot felt so ashamed by its failure to hold all of the water that it managed to speak to the man. It apologized, but the man asked, “What for?” After the pot explained, the man told the pot to look around on the walk back to the master’s house. The pot noticed the landscape and flowers along its side of the path. “So?” asks the pot. The man asked, “Did you notice there are no flowers on the other side of the path?”

The man had planted seeds and let the flawed pot water them on the way back from the river every day. Without the pot’s flaw, the flowers would not have existed.

The pot thought it had only one purpose, at which it had failed. Instead, the pot’s flaw made beauty possible. The flaw created art, and the pot achieved more than it had imagined for itself.

And now I get it. I get why I’m supposed to practice my craft every day. I may or may not achieve beauty, but the only way to find out is to slog along one day after the next, accepting my flaws and embracing my limitations.

Maybe whatever we practice in our daily lives—showing up to work every day without a scowl, raising kids or gardens or pets, tending to neighbors and friends—will yield something even better than what we’ve imagined, if only we can stick with it every day and trust that our efforts add up over time, whether or not we notice the results.

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Magic Telephones & “the stark disappoinment of words”

I used to have a wooden telephone. I made it out of scrap wood my dad gave me when I was maybe seven years old. I used my wooden phone to play a game I never bothered to name. Recently, I wished to have that phone back.

Here’s how it worked. One of us called the phone–this was the client. The other answered the phone–this was the artist. The client would order a picture. Once the call concluded, the one playing “client” changed roles and joined as artist and we worked diligently to complete the picture just ordered.

Lucky for us, clients trended heavily toward cats and rainbows.

I want this phone back, along with the pretend client and the not-so-pretend assignment and deadline (Clients always demanded their rainbows immediately!). I want the pretend phone to ring; I want to answer it, and I want to be told what to write (or draw) today (and every day) because I’m really good at coming up with ideas for stories and articles, making lists of ideas, tucking notes in the margins along these ideas. But I somehow rarely manage to choose one of those ideas and begin to bring it out on the page, never mind actually finish it, and heaven forbid I send it out for possible publication.

I used to wonder why.

Thanks to Ann Patchett, now I know:

“Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.”

Not that it breaks my heart, but it IS disheartening when glittering (and admittedly vague but full-of-potential) ideas must start with one sentence, and then another, until it’s a flat, simplistic scaffolding of the multidimensional Thing in my imagination.

So, I want my wooden phone back. I want the demanding clients who just happened to need exactly what I liked to create. And I want my hop-to-it creative self to return.


“Hello, Trista’s writing and drawing services, how may I help you?”

“I need an essay. About box turtles. 500 words. By tomorrow.”

“That will be 25¢.”

“Illustrated by Monday.”

“Not a problem. Good bye; I must get to work now.”


Patchett’s insight comes from her essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.


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The List

In fourth grade, I made a list to simplify my life—which had started to feel complicated.

I think my anxiety was caused by the questions adults ask kids in an effort to make conversation. They are always asking about kids’ favorites—forcing them to rank their few life experiences.

In fact, I did it today.

My friend asked Henry, age seven, “What was your favorite thing at the farmers’ market?”

“Ummmm …” he replied, “ummmm … .” After a long while he said, “It would be easier if you asked me …” but the rest of his sentence got whisked away by the open window as the car sped up.

“I missed that.  What was your favorite thing?” she prompted again.

“—The raspberries,” he said with a conceding nod.

And even though I’d already started drafting this blog post and knew better, I followed up with, “Are raspberries your favorite fruit?”

Again, he paused for contemplation.  “One of them,” he replied, softening my binary proposition and allowing for the possibility of more than one favorite.

I, however, was not this wise in fourth grade. When adults asked about my favorites, I assumed I needed to have favorites. So, I made my list and planned to carry it with me at all times. When asked about a favorite thing, I’d pull out my list to find the answer and avoid the tension-causing contemplation.

Favorite color:  green
Favorite animal: cat
Favorite thing to do: read
Favorite food: pizza
Favorite ice cream: blueberry cheesecake

My list—written on typing paper, glued to green construction paper, and folded into quarters—fit in my back pocket and gave me peace of mind.

Shortly after constructing this list, I found myself at an ice cream shop.  I remember strutting into the store, hanging out with my mom while the other kids pawed the display case trying to choose their scoop flavor. I already knew what I wanted without even pulling out my list, but then the cashier said, “We don’t have that flavor.”

I think I actually took a step toward the door to return to the car and add a column to my list for “second favorites” in case my “favorite-favorites” didn’t resolve the question or fit the situation. But there wasn’t time for that now, and I really wanted some ice cream.

“We have strawberry cheesecake ice cream,” the cashier said. Fine, yes, okay, I’ll have that. And it was good.  It had the same gooey pie crust and creamy bits my favorite flavor had, but it wasn’t as rich or pretty to look at as the blueberry cheesecake.

I’m pretty sure I abandoned my list after that experience because when it failed in that moment, I also had to admit that the list had not simplified my life like I’d expected it to.  I’d found myself fretting about whether I’d made the right choice.  I mean, green seemed like my favorite color, but there’s also that puke-toned olive green; whereas I always liked blue, any blue.  Then again, my favorite color to wear was purple.

I think of this fourth-grade list often because I still feel drawn by its allure.  Maybe I have a good day, and I’ll think, “Ah, this is it!  I’ve finally got it figured out.  This is how I’m going to live my life,” as if tomorrow’s going to roll out exactly as today did.  But, of course, it never does.

Even though I haven’t eaten dairy for over a decade, any time I end up in an ice cream shop, I scan for blueberry cheesecake.  It still exists but is just as difficult to find as it ever was.  I like knowing I had such a particular preference.  Had rocky road been my favorite, I might still be carrying around that list.  I’d be forever known as the kid who likes cats and rocky road.

Instead, I wake up to question marks most days.  The core of my identity settles into place while all kinds of electrons shift about and reveal whether today I will prefer quiet or company, activity or stillness, chocolate Coconut Bliss ice cream or chocolate chips by the handful.

Life’s a little more complicated and less  convenient this way, but rarely predictable and always interesting.

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Frugal Abundance

You know how as soon as you say you’re not going to do something, like eat chocolate, all you can think about is doing that very thing?  Like every time I say “No more take-out,” we end up eating take-out five days in a row!

While texting with my husband this morning about saving up for some projects, I wrote:  “I am determined to be frugal in a creative and abundant way.”

It’s only been few minutes, but so far, I’ve not yet thought of twelve things I need to buy, and I think it’s because of the phrase “creative and abundant way.” It feels like a project rather than a restriction.

My husband wrote back that chapter six of my (purely hypothetical) memoir should be:  “Abundantly Frugal and Other Potential Oxymorons Shattered by Creativity and Persistence.”

I loved that!  With creativity and persistence, we can be frugal while also enjoying abundance.

So, rather than focusing on what we can’t or shouldn’t do, we’re working together on a project, our self-imposed limitations challenging us to think outside of the box and find  inspiration.

We’re quite thrilled with ourselves, for example, when we “iron chef it” for dinner, when we manage to turn a mish-mash of bits and scraps into something savory.  The instant satisfaction of take-out entices, but we end up appreciating the creativity and adventure of “iron chef-ing it” just as much.

In my twenties, I lived on very little, and this kind of blog post would have had me rolling my eyes!  But coming from a more stable and comfortable place today, I love the idea of “frugal abundance” because it’s about noticing what we already have and finding happiness in that rather than seeking to acquire more.

What ways have you practiced “frugal abundance,” where a restriction has led to the creation of something great?

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