To Mr. Kappus and me

by Jennifer on February 15, 2010

A leaf, pale gold and curled, lifts from a branch and rises in the updraft of an easy, cold breeze. It’s the middle of February, near the end of a rough winter, and somehow that leaf had been holding tight to its branch for all these months, through several feet of snow and the hard bite of blizzard winds. Then, on a sunny morning in a halfhearted breeze, it finally lets go.

I watch it twist and roll on an invisible current, never losing altitude, until it disappears around the corner of the house.

That, I think. I want to feel like that.

By the time I left Arizona (and long before), I was exhausted from trying to hold together a life that was built on half-truths and disappointments. I made bargains, I made do and called it enough, even as I felt pieces of myself disappear and wondered if they were gone for good. And now, after holding on to so little for so long I’m trying to figure out how to ask for something better. It’s out there. I’ve seen it, I know. In the slant of light through a window, in a bit of good news, in the voice of a friend.

You’re doing all right, you know? Do you know how far you’ve come? Yes, I know. I do.


Some wounds are so deep and layered that they have to heal from the inside out. There are days when I’m overwhelmed with a sadness, out of context to anything else that might be happening, that’s hard to shake. I try sometimes to push it back with busy-ness or mindlessness, anything to break it into pieces and scatter it, but that usually just makes it last longer. There’s nothing to do, really, but to ride it out and know that it will pass. And it does.

About 11 years ago, I read Letters To a Young Poet* for the first time. The book is a collection of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke to Mr. Kappus, a student of one of Rilke’s own teachers. The letters, over a hundred years old now, are scripture to me, and I’ve turned to them over and over through the years, finding something new each time I read them.

Letter 8 is one of my favorites, and I remembered it yesterday. I hope you’ll forgive me for posting so much of it here, but I can’t paraphrase it well. You can read the whole thing if you have time.

That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate…People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they will also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us.

So you mustn’t be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? …In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like some one who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.

So, I’ll do that. I’ll wait to see what good things, what fate, emerge from this sadness.

Wait and let go.  And, weightless in the updraft, I’ll trust something I can’t see, without any idea, any idea at all, where I might land.


Snow, man

by Jennifer on February 9, 2010

This time last year, when I still lived in Arizona, I went for a drive one morning and took these photos:

(all images, click to enlarge)

Whenever it would snow in the mountains to the north of Phoenix, I would scout the house for whatever coats and gloves I could find – usually, the gloves were outgrown or even mismatched, because who needs gloves in the desert? – and I’d load the kids in the car. We’d drive up the Beeline Highway toward Payson until we  got to the  snow, then I’d pull off the road (like so many others were doing) and let the kids play in it. City folk, huh?

On the day that I took the photos above, the outlying mountains looked like this:

Yeah, now? We just look out the back door or walk out on the front porch. In fact, one of the things the kids were most excited about this winter was the snow, and I assured them over and over that they would definitely get to play in the snow this year.

My apologies to everyone in the Mid-Atlantic region. This is totally my fault.

28 inches, yall, and it was still snowing...28 inches, y’all, and it was still snowing…

And we’re supposed to get another 10-20 inches today and tomorrow. Okay, winter you bastard, I’m waving the (snowy) white flag.

UPDATE: The county just canceled school for the rest of the week (add that to yesterday and today’s school closing). Don’t even try to pretend you’re not laughing at me.


The way back

by Jennifer on February 1, 2010

I walk a few steps, turn. Walk back across this room. Turn again.

I look down as I cross this space with my steps, study it like I’m looking for a lost contact or a straight pin or one of the tiny pieces of my soul that holds the rest of it together. There are pieces like that, you know. (Yes, of course you know.) I search for the words that I’ve lost, without any belief whatsoever that I will find them. My certainty that they’re gone for good is as strong as my wild hope that they aren’t.

Off and on for these last (almost) two months, I came back here, thinking I had things to say or, alternately, not having anything to say. I paced back and forth across these floorboards, hopinghopinghoping that a few words would have fallen in the cracks between them and that maybe I could tape those together into a collage or something, anything that would make sense or look pretty or maybe sound nice if read out loud.

So many of you write your way through your own hard times or uncertainty, and I admire you so much for that. You still manage to shape your words into loss and ache and joy somehow salvaged, paragraphs that melt and linger in the mouth like bittersweet chocolate. But when I needed them the most, my words were off somewhere playing a mean-spirited game of hide and seek. Thing was, I couldn’t even summon the energy to care all that much. Until I did. And then it started to bug the hell outta me.

Somewhere in there were the holidays and a long drive across states and states so that the kids could spend time with their father and so that we could  visit my family in Michigan and Missouri. Then January tripped over the threshold with its snowy boots and cold and it was time to get back to work on some things in my life that needed my attention.

I took myself offline for the most part so that, among other things, I would have more time to work on a new business.*

As the weeks unspooled, it became easier and easier to think of this place as something that used to be, a place where I used to come to write and get to know all of you. I wasn’t sure if I would come back and unlock the door and turn the sign from Back Soon to Open. In fact, the longer I stayed gone, the more I wondered if it was just better that way. But the more I thought about leaving, the less I wanted to go. Apparently, just the idea of absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Over these two years since I began writing here, this blog has been many things to me. Blank page, confessional, touchstone, morning, midnight, warm blanket, dive bar, mirror, road trip, juke box, soapbox, backward glance, a pair of chairs and a view of the ocean, bridge, front porch, back fence, path, quiet room.

I’ve had the best company along the way, and in this time away, I’ve missed you. Sorry for staying away so long. Look, I brought cookies. (Okay, I didn’t, but I really should have…)

So these words are breadcrumbs. A little picked over by some winter birds maybe, and maybe without much substance. But even so, I think I can find my way back.


(Really excited about the new business, doing hand addressing for wedding and event invitations, place cards, menu cards, and more… It’s called  J. K. Lettersmith,  and I’d love it if you stopped by!)



by Jennifer on December 11, 2009

photo credit: Lilya Wagner

photo credit: Lilya Wagner

One minute it isn’t snowing, and the next it is.

Elle, still in her pajamas, throws open the front door and calls to us. Come look, it’s snowing! All week long, she had said it was going to snow on Saturday and was sure of it. A girl in her class had told her so, and I – in my adult certainty that it was too early for snow and not cold enough – had dismissed her prediction with an Oh, really? Wouldn’t that be fun? I didn’t check the forecast, and I sure as hell didn’t buy them any boots. (That’ll show me.)

We all stand in it, the three of us, faces upturned, eyes wide and blinking against the clumps of snow that catch in our lashes. Except for a harrowing drive through a blizzard two years ago, on our way home to Arizona from Missouri, it’s been six years since we’ve watched the snow come down.

The wonder.

The kids are beside themselves, hastily bundled into coats and hats and gloves and excitement. Me, I’m quiet. Except for feeding their excitement and laughing at their goofy awe, I become something still as I watch everything go white and clean.

In all ways, I let the snow fall on me as it falls on everything else, let it cover me over. Let it fall onto the parts of me that lie like soil plowed deep and left exposed, all the stones (even the biggest) turned now, pulled from places dark and deep.

It’s easy enough, when something comes apart, to put the blame on another person, where you’re sure it belongs. And maybe it even does, or most of it. It’s a harder thing to take your share (my share) of the responsibility and carry it until you know the weight of it. Until you know how much hurt you caused, too.

The snow falls and I stand in it, taking it for what it feels like. Blessing, benediction, benevolence.

The thing is, I’m not sure I deserve these mercies. The root of a fault can be buried deep, and so I’ve been working, digging with bare hands to pull to the surface and toss mine aside where they can’t survive. The dirty little secret of all that lies beneath is that the darkness feeds the root and lets it take hold. But the light of day always takes measure, given the chance. The sun dries and bleaches. The wind carries away. Exposed, the things that could tangle you up inside lose their power.

And whether something rests above the ground, or grows beneath the surface, some things never change. A compass will read the same in the bright of summer or the deep of winter.

North is north, true is true.

And as long as a life goes on, as long as there’s another day, there are more chances to get my bearings and set myself on a path to something better. I owe myself that, I owe that to my children, I owe it to all the people I love. To be as constant as that, as true.

So what I’ve had to make myself accept is that even if I don’t deserve this absolution, I can’t afford not to accept it, either. None of us can. Some lessons, when it’s time to learn them, take all you’ve got . Take more than you were ever willing to give up, if you’d thought it through, if you’d taken a hard look at things before instead of after. If you’d made the right choice, instead of  having to make up for the wrong one.

I stand in the snow, think all of this, and feel grateful for a snow that’s come at the end of a hard week, at the end of some hard years.

I stand in the snow and try to find the words for the need it fills in me. Something a friend says to me explains it, “Winter does that, strips everything bare to make it new again, and the snow comes to cover everything over and make it all clean.” The words start to sink in.  “And you haven’t had a winter in a very long time.” Yes.

One minute it isn’t snowing, and the next it is.


I had never heard this song until a couple of days ago, and it knocked me over with how much it’s what I feel right now.


If it comes to that

by Jennifer on November 17, 2009

Before breakfast on a school day. We stand side by side at the window, looking out, son and mother.  A stream runs behind the house, fast and full when it rains or quiet and slow, like now. Beyond the stream, the woods. The forest floor is an endless brown and orange sea, and the bare trees look like the masts of half-sunken ships.

Easier to see it that way when you’re standing next to a ten year old.

When we moved here, the leaves were just starting to change. In these weeks while we’ve settled in, they blushed to bright colors and let the come-ons of wind and rain and winter’s siren call lure them to the ground. A few holdouts still cling like small flags to bare branches. If they’re unsure of the landing, I can’t really blame them. It’s a long way to fall.

Hunter and I watch two squirrels chase each other from one tree to another, far on the other side of the creek, a view we couldn’t have seen a few weeks ago before the leaves came down.

“There’s a lot of open space out there,” he says.

It’s enough at his age, to say a thing like that, and not attach some kind of meaning to it. Me, I can’t help myself. If a metaphor isn’t obvious, just give me a week or two and I’ll find it.

But he’s said what he means. There’s a lot of open space out there. It’s appreciation. I know how much he loves that space.

The woods are his, he’s claimed them. When we lived in the desert, I would have to talk him into going outside to play sometimes, even in the milder months. Now, exploring the creek is his first order of business when he comes home from school. New ways to cross it, if the big log and stepping stones won’t do. Sticks and leaves to float down the stream. Merrily, merrily.

More times than not, he comes to the house wet up to his knees. We have it down to a routine now. Shoes and socks off outside the door, then straight to the laundry room to take off the pants. And so he goes, shivering. Shivering and all-boy happy.

I love seeing him like this. Rushing headlong toward something so pure and elemental, something that fills this old need in him, a need I know because at least in part, I gave it to him. That want for what’s undiscovered and new and ancient and out of the earth. What can be found around a bend in the creek or a bend in the road.

Even though I’m the one borrowing from him these days.

Now that I’m here, now that I’ve made this huge change, I’m at a loss. There’s so much for me to figure out  – things there wasn’t time to sort out before the move – that some days I feel paralyzed. It’s embarrassing to admit, because shouldn’t I have it all worked out by now? It’s not as though I don’t have plans – I do, and they’re good – but there are days when it’s all I can do to make just a little bit of progress.

The reality is – and it breathes down my neck every single day – that it’s now or never. I can’t afford to wait or hedge or shake in my boots. I’ve got two people counting on me to follow through and sort it all out. I’ve got no business hanging on to that high branch, worried about the fall. Paralyzed by fear?  Yep, know how it feels. But it’s useless, letting that fear have its way, and I know it, know it in my head and in my gut.

So when I see my son, all squishy sneakers and big smile, walking up the hill from the creek, I wish I could borrow his enthusiasm, his curiosity to find a way to the other side, his willingness to fall into the creek, by golly, if it comes to that.

I’ve got to find a way to scoop up some of that and use it as fuel for the plans I have. Plans that aren’t so complicated, really, and boy do they need to come to something. I need to hear yes, and not just from voices on the phone, but from a deep place inside of me. Not a timid yes, either, with a question mark on the end. Just yes.

And I realize, I do, that no one these days, in this economy, has any right to expect good things to happen. All I can do is ask, and hope somehow to find a way across or around or through. And then work for it, and to be willing to fall if it comes to that, and start over again. Which is what I’m going to do, the work. Because maybe there’s enough room in the world some good things to happen still.

Because this really smart guy told me something, and I think it might be important.

There’s a lot of open space out there.