Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Good News

It's been a wonderful week, visiting three different groups of friends, catching up on news, reviewing the year, enjoying nature. From northern Pennsylvania we went to the Finger Lakes, to the clear, cold waters of Skaneateles (pronounced Skinny-atlas). I only mustered the courage to go swimming twice. (Ice water is not my favorite habitat.) My children, of course, felt differently. They have plunged into everything with gusto. My vegetarian, animal-rights-supporting daughter even caught an impressive bass when I wasn't looking. My son has ventured further in the kayak this year, confirming what I wrote last week about the importance of giving them freedom in nature.

I had to push out of my mind the fact that I would have a long To-do list when I arrived home for a day before leaving for FGC Gathering. But so far that is going smoothly. Our Prius arrived as we were driving home yesterday, and the pickup went smoothly. The salesman tells me there is now a six to nine month wait for them, so although ours came a month after it was promised, I guess our timing worked out after all.

Friday, June 20, 2008


It’s our first full day of vacation away on an old estate that includes an overgrown orchard, a straw bale greenhouse with a grass roof, and a pond. We’re visiting the family we hung out when the girls were babies, and my friend Melissa and I traded a few hours of babysitting so we could each get some writing time. Now, Melissa lives in the country, and between chats and cups of teas, she and I can write simultaneously as our eleven year-old-girls and nine-year-old boys invent skits and plays to amuse themselves. I had to prevent a jousting match, but otherwise they seem quite safe with minimal supervision. The kids even slept alone in a tent last night, while the adults took the house.

In addition to the fun of catching up with an old friend, it’s great to be in a place where I feel safe to let the children roam more freely than they do in a big city with a high crime rate. I’ve been thinking lately of all the things I did alone at eleven and how important that time was in building my confidence and independence. My daughter wouldn’t even consider walking as far alone as I did then, and I wonder if that is my fault, or just a sign of a different time, with twenty-four-hour news to remind us of the risks. My first job as a parent is to protect my children enough so they make it to adulthood, but I’m becoming increasingly aware (as I’ve said before) of my responsibility to prepare them for adulthood. They need freedom, I’m quite sure, to grow into themselves, but they don’t seem to have much of it in our scheduled, urban lives. Yesterday they took a long walk in the woods with their companions, and it wasn’t until bed time that I remembered there were bears.

Part of the joy of being here is the connection with nature. There are frogs out the back door and a blooming dogwood out the front. Our pancakes this morning were made with the eggs the children collected from the chickens last night. My friend’s house is full of plants, pets, and old wood floors, so the inside and the outside don’t seem to be strangers. This morning I sat in a splintered Adirondack chair overlooking the mountains and tried my hand at a poem. Melissa is co-ordinating an art/poetry show, the theme of which is music, so I was given the assignment of writing a poem related to music:

The Dimock Orchestra on a June Morning

The symphony begins with two house wrens,
a bugle duet,
soon joined by the robins
and the yellow throated warbler,
in polyphonic counterpoint,
punctuated by the occasional cat bird
and a distant, unidentifiable piccolo.

The soft wind in the orchard comes in,
a cello,
in a long phrase soon overshadowed
by a bass truck on Rt. 29
that rumbles through four stanzas
while a crow blasts four staccato notes,
waits three measures, then blows again.

In the third movement the French horn enters,
a hen named Jesse,
and the steady drum roll of the tractor up the hill.
As the sun lifts over the dogwood,
it conducts a crescendo,
dynamite in the distant quarry,
the occasional bass drum.

A choir of children’s voices burst onto the lawn,
and upstage the instruments
which continue in relentless harmony,
indifferent to applause.

Friday, June 13, 2008


As someone who writes about spirituality, I often find myself telling a story that involves someone else, either because they did or said something illustrative or because my own experience was shaped by them. There are times when I choose not to tell stories that would be funny or interesting because I think to do so might harm a relationship I value. For example, my children got wind of the fact that I was writing about them on this blog and asked me not to say anything that might be embarrassing. Rather than checking with them every time I blog, I find myself avoiding the parenting stories more than I used to. We’re heading into the pre-teen phase, and nearly everything has the potential to be embarrassing, so I just steer clear. I want to keep their trust in the years to come. Still, I continue to write about my own experience as a parent, which is a slightly different topic. Having children continues to challenge me to be a more generous and patient person. Can I speak this truth without infringing on their desire not to be embarrassed by their mother? Is there a conflict between my need to speak my truth and their need to be protected by me?

Sometimes, instead of avoiding a story that involves someone else, I write a draft and then run it by the person, giving them the chance to edit. This is particularly true of people whom I love and want to remain on good terms with, though it obviously won’t work with my mother, who died two years ago. I admit I am less cautious about people I am no longer in touch with, partly because it seems less likely they will be associated with what I write. In these cases, I try to be really vague about the details so that the person is unidentifiable. I know the vague reference has its hazards, though. Once I vaguely mentioned an ex-boyfriend in something that was published. I later learned that someone I know read that paragraph, assumed that I was talking about a friend of hers, and got really offended on his behalf because what I said didn’t seem true to her. Of course it didn’t; it was about someone else! That was a reminder that you can’t help people reading into things. Who knows how many other times someone has misinterpreted something I wrote, and I never heard about it or got the chance to correct their misinterpretation.

Many other writers have grappled with how to write about real people who are part of their lives. Frank McCourt says that he couldn’t write Angela’s Ashes until after his mother Angela had died (and if you read this wonderful book, you’ll understand why). Annie Dillard says she doesn’t say anything about anyone who could possibly sue, which is maybe why she writes so much about turtles and dead deer. Anne Lamont says you can say anything you want about a man, as long as you describe him as having a really small penis so that he won’t want to come forward and claim to recognize himself, though this advice doesn’t do me much good in my two main dilemmas, writing about my children and my Quaker meeting, which I also want to protect, though less fiercely.

I have sometimes read blogs that mention conflicts with other Quakers and wonder how the blog post will affect the relationship. It’s not that I think we should bite our tongues, necessarily. There are struggles within Quakerism that should be written about and behaviors in our meetings that should be challenged. I’m just not sure how fair it is to be specific in a blog post that the subject may or may not read, when what is really needed is a frank conversation. Sometimes when I read a Quaker blogger complain about another Friend’s behavior, I wonder if the person followed “gospel order” and first brought their complaint to the one who caused offense. On the other hand, Friends sharing their dilemmas across yearly meetings can help us see larger patterns that need to be recognized. Those stories about people experiencing racism and classism in our midst seem really important. This morning I’m wondering how other bloggers and writers draw the boundaries for themselves.

I should say that what got me started on this was the recent arrival of my Pendle Hill Pamphlet on parenting, which is mostly about my experience, but which mentions my children. Although I had specifically told them what stories I was telling about them, and they gave their permission for them to be in the pamphlet, one of my children became very upset upon actually seeing it, fearing that one of the stories was too embarrassing. It made me very grateful that I never found a publisher for Imperfect Serenity, the memoir I wrote about parenting young children, and for which this blog was named. I believe I was led to write it—I certainly was compelled to write it, recording my experiences as a parent in scraps of time over several years. But as I started getting rejection letters from publishers it occurred to me that when I started the writing, I couldn’t conceive that the children would ever learn to read. I noticed that the book included many stories about the children that they might find embarrassing, though the real purpose of it was to reflect on the spiritual lessons I was learning as a parent. About two years after I let go of the idea of publishing it, I realized that if I cut out all the quirky stories about them and focused on my spiritual experience, it would be about the size of a Pendle Hill pamphlet. Some other things occurred that made me feel I really was led to write a pamphlet on this topic, and when I did, way opened with remarkable ease.

So, here I was the other day with my upset child, remembering that writing this pamphlet felt like a leading, and yet feeling guilty about the pain I had caused, as well as slightly frustrated because I really had asked permission. After twenty-four hours of processing this, what I’ve decided is not to take down the link to the pamphlet (as I initially considered), but to ask people who read it and who also know us in person to not mention the pamphlet in front of my children. I really don’t think there is anything in there that is harmful to them, but they are at the easily embarrassed age, and I need to recognize that.

If you happen to read it and think you can guess what part upset whom, please don’t. Like the woman who guessed the wrong ex-boyfriend, it’s probably not what you think.

Monday, June 09, 2008


After years of plodding along with my writing, there are suddenly bits of exciting news. My goal had been to complete a draft of my book by the time school got out, and I am happy to report that I did that and mailed it off Saturday! I’m also happy to say that the Pendle Hill Pamphlet I wrote on parenting as a spiritual journey just came out. It’s so new I haven’t actually seen it yet, but people at Pendle Hill say they have, and I found the picture on the web. Anyone who is interested can buy it for $5 from Pendle Hill. (Chestnut Hillers: You can spare the shipping. I plan to bring some to meeting and part of the proceeds to the meeting). So this is all very exciting, right when my writing time is about to dry up for the summer.

The other big news is that the Prius we ordered is supposedly in Newark, NJ, which is certainly closer than Japan. The thing is, we were told we would have it by the end of May, and it has apparently been stuck in New Jersey since then. The one week delay wasn’t that big of a deal last week. It really has been a lovely five weeks to be without a car. I stayed home more and focused on my writing, didn’t do errands during my writing time, and saved gas. It was also perfect timing since play practice was over (which required some driving on my part). We are in baseball season instead, and we can all walk to baseball. Most days, the kids have been taking the school bus, a habit I think I’d like them to continue next year, and on piano lesson days, they learned to transfer on the public bus. So, there have been many good fruits. But here’s the thing: school just got out Friday, I really hurt my foot, and the gorgeous spring days have turned brutally hot--105 with the heat index today. So suddenly I am stuck with two kids in a house with no air conditioning when it’s too hot to walk far, and my foot hurts anyway. The local public pool isn’t open yet, and it would take us two buses and a hot walk to get there. So what seemed like God’s perfect timing is starting to try my patience. It seems like a good time to remember all those other times when I got impatient with God’s timing, and things worked out for the best after all (which is kind of the story with the Pendle Hill pamphlet, now that I think of it).

Sunday, June 01, 2008


I’ve been coming to appreciate beauty as a spiritual path, as something that brings people joy and an appreciation of God. However you define feeling “spiritual”—I think of it as the realization of being connected to something greater than ourselves—people find that feeling in different places. I don’t just mean that some people find it in church, while others find it in the meetinghouse or the mosque, though that is also true. I mean that even within traditions people are touched most deeply by different things: scripture, service, solitude, community, silence, music… I’m belatedly realizing that for some people beauty is an important path to transcendence, no matter what their faith background.

Part of what sparked this line of thinking was listening to a friend, an art history major in college, who has a great eye for the visual, like her mother who died recently. My friend talked about how much it meant to her that her mother’s hospice was lovely with beautiful light, because she knew that meant much to her mother, despite her Alzheimer’s. There have been other recent incidents, too, that make me realize that a beautiful room means more to some people than it does to me, so I’m just trying to notice that and be more appreciative.

It’s not that I’ve been against beauty in the past, although I guess I have been against extravagance. I remember nearly twenty years ago, sitting in a Spanish church that seemed to be bursting with gold and expensive decorations and feeling angry that there was so much wealth on display in the this little church while there were so many people hungry in the world. I was on my way home from the Peace Corps in Africa, and Spain was my European stop on the way back to the US. I was newly converted to the cause of social justice and probably a bit too self-righteous. Today I hope I could appreciate the beauty of that little church and the way it has fed many souls, without necessarily forgetting the people who need to be fed literally. Seeing beauty need not blind us to other realities, though it can be a problem if we spend all our money on gold candle sticks.

Speaking of money and beauty, last week we went to the Barnes Foundation to see a collection of art that I’ve been told is valued around six billion dollars. The Barnes collection is in danger of being moved (mostly because of politics and money), so I made an extra effort to soak up the eclectic combinations of color and form that Mr. Barnes put together himself. I especially enjoyed the Cezanne landscapes, though the Renoirs were lovely, too. Still, looking at art is not my most natural act. I have to make a little effort, unlike my friend the art history major who just soaks it up. I realized this when we went outside and walked around the beautiful rose garden and down a small path to an old tea house nestled among the trees and next to a large fish pond. There my heart soared. Even more than the arranged garden, I loved the rocks around the water and the fern amid the trees. Nature is my route to spirituality, I know, though I sometimes forget to spend enough time in such places. I can appreciate the beauty of Renoir’s perfect roses, but in my book, they’ve got nothin’ on the real, imperfect thing.

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