Good morning, Denmark



First day of classes, second year in Denmark, I’m the only parent carrying a coffee cup as we walk our two youngest daughters to their now-familiar school.

“I’m the only one,” I say, gesturing with my cup.

“It’s just not done here,” Martin says.

I know. And I’m okay with it—because how much and how often I reveal that I’m a foreigner is, these days, a little more up to me.

Years before we moved here, my mother-in-law, now retired from teaching at a Danish language school for immigrants, told me that there was a running joke among her colleagues:

“I got a new student in my class today.”

“What’s she like?”

“Brown hair and brown eyes.”

I have light skin, green eyes, and hair of various mid-brownish shades. On my first day as a student at Danish language school, as I was told later by some classmates who had become friends, they thought I was one of the teachers.

All of them: dark hair, dark eyes, skin in various lighter and darker shades of warm brown. They have lovely names, professions, and many of them, advanced degrees, but no matter how well they learn to speak Danish, they will never look Scandinavian.

I guess I’d felt something akin to that distinction already, walking down the hall during breaks. Maybe it’s that I have, in fact, been an educator for many years and carry myself that way. Maybe it’s an American thing to make eye contact as part of being aware of others. But whatever the reason, the instructors at the school greeted me with nods or verbal greetings when we passed—even the ones I hadn’t met. It took quite a while for me to notice that they passed most of the other students without doing so.

So I guess I get the brown hair joke now, but I’m not entirely sure how funny it is.

In town, at parent meetings, on the train, I still feel like a foreigner, but until I open my mouth, I don’t have to seem like one.

Nevertheless, that’s what I am.

Every morning in America, for all our years of raising children there, standing clusters and creeping car rows of parents dropped their children off for school. We were a diverse mix , some dressed for an office, some dressed just enough to be covered before returning home to work, some on their way to or from a gym, some probably with nowhere in particular to go.

We were also a mash-up of all different shapes and shades, our ancestry as diverse as the melting-pot trope, but almost all carried travel mugs or cups with various motivational or promotional messages. It was a unifying habit. We often toasted “Good morning” to each other from a distance or while we made small talk and waved goodbye to our kids.

Crossing the street this morning and walking up the school drive among zipping bicycles and happy chatter in a language I’m getting mostly used to, we see Martin’s older daughter and son-in-law dropping off their two young girls. Our girls, ponytails swinging, run to meet them and are wrapped in hugs and their second mother tongue.

The coffee in my cup has cooled some, but the familiar, smooth ceramic is still quite warm against my knuckles. Joining the others, I raise my cup in the air as a greeting and they smile back at their foreigner mom.

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being with me

In typical roots and wings fashion, my days are pulled in opposing and mutually unsupportive directions. I get messages like this from inside my head—

“Work on your poetry.” andIMG_1045

“Learn a new language.”

Then, from both inside my head and sometimes outside of it—

“What have you been writing?” and

“You need a social network. Call someone for coffee.”

These are all loving messages, but to accomplish what they ask requires generous attention of an impossible sort, the sort that can focus intensely north, shift, and focus just as intensely south, all while carrying on conversations both east and west. Oh yes, all while staying centered.

I’ve been progressing slowly, excelling at nothing, because the figuring out how to be with myself instead of being surrounded by rotations of students feels really weird. And figuring out how to calm and steady-like keep this family fed instead of the regular bursts of fast food (bad version), and playdates that turn into all the parents cooking together (good version) I was accustomed to where I knew lots more kids and parents, or (other good version) living with the spouse who did almost all the cooking that got done, well, that was easier because it was so familiar.

So I’ve done a couple of online spiritual courses that have mattered a lot and helped me, I’m sure of it, deep in my soul and my cantankerous relationship with my own personality, and have probably made me a better mate, parent, and global citizen. And I wrote that novel in November when it was a novelty for me and for everyone who supported me because it was cool to know about. And I’ve mostly been keeping up (not too many gaps in my attention) with my editorial work at River Teeth and Poets’ Quarterly. And poems I wrote before moving here have been sailing in and out of other editors’ inboxes with a couple nibbles and a lot of re-sends.

IMG_1075But most of this life these days—during the long hours between family breakfast and all the afternoon arrivals and departures from school and to other activities—is simply alone. Just me, the apartment, our stuff in it, the town, and all my innumerable partially-made projects. I got more exercise when the weather helped me feel like biking and before we had a car, but I’m still doing okay walking to this grocery to the south or that one to the east, or the green grocer to the north. And sometimes I remember that I can suit up in my cold weather gear, wrap on a cozy warm scarf, and just walk to the nowhere that becomes my just-then somewhere.

Naturally, it’s encouraging to know that others contend successfully with alone time, so here’s a video that was on today’s Brain Pickings, and it’s ever-so apt and comforting to watch. I may watch it one more time, or two, before I go out to see if anyone’s sitting on a bench knitting—to see if it may be me.

How to Be Alone” by poet and singer-songwriter Tanya Davis and filmmaker Andrea Dorfman.

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Are we all artists?

An article entitled “The Artist’s Lens: What It Means to See the World With an Eye Toward a Facebook Update” by Alan Jacobs in yesterday’s Atlantic caught my eye for a couple of reasons. One is the title. For years I have led out writing and creativity classes and workshops with the affirming idea that each and every one of us is creative. If it’s a faith-based group, this is contextualized in the notion that we are creative in the image of the Creator. If the group is assembled for other purposes, I begin with the notion of fundamental human capability that has been encouraged, discouraged, or neglected by enculturation and experience.

To suggest that social media has helped to bring out previously overlooked artist-ness plugs right into my notes for the next presentation.

Another reason my antennae perked up is my tendency toward obsession with Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” as a paradigm, or at least an outline, for a romanticized notion of my own existence as an artist, a poet, a maker.  Jacobs suggests that,

Perhaps Facebook and Twitter and Instagram incline more and more of us to respond to our experiences as only artists once did — perhaps in that sense the optimistic view that all of us are becoming creators is really true.

And in some generous teacherly way I want to be on board with that possibility, but in another want-to-be-special sort of emotional hoarding I really don’t want everyone (to channel Stevens) walking along the beach with me singing at the ocean, my voice mystically merged with its sounds, the maker of the world I’m singing, while particularly astute onlookers admire my solitary (but kind of on-stage) endeavor.

The third reason I keep circling this article is Jacobs’ use of the word kludge not once (which would drive me to sometime later today), not twice (which would have been sloppy writing), but three times (forcing me to look it up NOW or risk missing his big finish).  Although it’s a phonetically inelegant word to wield, it turns out to be useful in the spirit of my other two points and in the spirit of unifying our species under some of my other favorite principles: that everything’s a process, and that almost anything can be adapted to accomplish almost anything else.

So we may or may not all be artists, but having an “artist’s lens” is one good step toward producing rather than merely consuming, and that’s a good step for anyone to take.

Will the result of every process and adaptation be equally good?  Quality’s a different argument.  One needs a few unobstructed months with Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to get started with that one.

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lump in my throat

There’s a groundhog in the garden again. This morning it chopped down a sunflower and a small stand of broccoli plants already struggling in heat and drought. We’d eliminated five small groundhogs earlier this season, but this is a big one. I’m still haunted by the perverse depth of despair I hit two summers ago when one decimated an entire crop of broccoli, lettuce, and parsley. I hate mindless destruction. I hate to lose something I’ve worked for. I hate to feel helpless. I hate the clash between this creature’s instinct for survival (a good thing) and those other things I hate. The general discouragement is almost overwhelming. My throat feels clogged.

So I’m sitting at a window facing away from the garden and thinking specifically of motivation. Years of evidence has convinced me that I have a gift for motivating others. Happy students score first publications, workshop attendees are shining and grateful, friends get over obstacles and forge on with fresh vision. But motivating me? That, apparently, comes from a different place more difficult to access. Why can a burrowing rodent make me feel like a failure as a writer?

Makes no sense.

So I’ll go with that irrationality. A brilliant writer friend (and by “brilliant” I mean, in part, that she writes regularly and well) posted this fantastic performance piece on Facebook. Its exuberance transcends any language I’ve heard so far—total commitment to a performance usually does. Watching it put a lump in my throat about the same size as the groundhog one, but of a very different composition. Great performers release palatable joy, energy, and flow with communal effects.

Yeah. Most of the day’s still ahead. I think I’ll go do something.

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do the math

I had a friend named John who graduated with me from college and moved on the same year I did to graduate school at Ohio State, so we knew each other for several years before losing touch.  From all those years, I remember only one conversation with him, and I remember it for two reasons.  One, I hadn’t realized until then that he’d been a double major in English and Math—a blend I still consider bizarre.  Two, he, having chosen Math for grad school, told me that numbers get way more interesting when you study them at higher levels and offered as an example the Fibonacci sequence.  Sitting on a low concrete wall behind Denney Hall, he explained about pine cones and seashells and swirling rectangles.  I fell in love.  Not with John, mind you—I haven’t seen him since—but with theoretical mathematics.

I’d always loved science at least as much as poetry and fiction, but because my word-inclined mind was so slow to grasp theorems and proofs—not to mention that my personality has always been geared for intuitive leaps rather than pages and pages of stepwise-moving problems—my math grades were usually low to the point of scraping by with credit hours and a slightly dented GPA.  But for a person most often reading, writing, teaching, or talking about words, one who self identifies as a Writer, I remain massively geeked out about numbers and read extensively though sporadically about them, their history, their luminaries, and their power.

That’s why, when another friend of mine, one the same numerical age as me, began to bemoan his age during a sunny visit last night, I rushed to offer comfort in the form of numbers.  I myself had run into trouble several years ago when the age I felt, inexplicably and very suddenly caught up with my age in years.  Prior to that, I’d been frozen somewhere around 26 for quite a while—never really feeling older, and on good days not looking a whole lot older.  But several birthdays ago, there was an odd whir in my self-awareness, and I aged more than a decade in just a couple days.  This is not a gap I’d hoped to close.

The crisis (of being my own age) finally peaked last month in one full evening of misery over realizing that my current age is a prime number.  Odd-numbered years and ages have always been a little harder for me, but the whole prime number thing was just too much.  I needed an escape, so sought balance where else: Wikipedia.

Starting with the entry about prime numbers, within a few clicks I had looked up my pending age (yes, Wikipedia has entries on individual numbers) and discovered that it is a very busy number indeed.   It’s a natural number, a highly composite number, and the second digit is double the first.  It’s the number of Ptolemaic constellations, has ten divisors, is the number of Jewish prophets and the number of days Siddhartha Gautama sat under the bodhi tree, will route your call to Poland, and is the New General Catalogue number for a barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Andromeda—a regular number hub.  It’s absolutely nothing like the prime oddness I’m stuck with now, thankfully for just a few more days.

This knowledge I offered to my age-afflicted friend as cheery consolation, and while I may not end up feeling younger nor making headlines like the Mayans, at least the next year will be dressed up in a number that can hold my attention.

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