Life advice from my successes and failures (in no particular order)

Learn to cook.

Do the math before you specify numbers applying for student loans, and only borrow what you need (even a bit less if you know you can get some income from working during the semester). And stay away from private loans if you possibly can.

Ask for help when you need it so you can get stronger and help yourself.

Eat vegetables.

Run if you are running late. It might be the only exercise you get that day, you get a glorious moment of caring about your life rather than what people think, and you can feel the wind flowing through your hair.

If distressing thoughts and emotions are so overwhelming that you feel like you can’t get out of bed in the morning, focus on work, or feel comfortable in your relationships, see a psychologist and get tested for mental health conditions.

Don’t give your heart away to just anyone. Guard it. It’s not worth it to run after shallow emotional thrills when it comes to love.

Find something fun to do with your hands, like fixing things or making things.

Resist the urge to buy lots of stuff, and after a while it will get easier to buy things strategically.

Practice giving – listen actively, make handmade gifts, text Happy Birthday messages instead of writing them on Facebook.

Get rid of Facebook (permanently). Trust me. My brain rewired itself, and I started having more meaningful conversations in person about politics and religion without feeling like I had to explain my ideas and feelings on Facebook.

Work to forgive yourself for past mistakes.

Realize you were the toxic person sometimes, and let relationships (even friendships go) if someone needs distance from you. Everyone (including you) has the right to their own emotional and mental space without feeling obligated to another person’s emotions.

Listen when people talk about racism and sexism and homophobia, rather than say something defensive right away. Realize that they are talking about their experiences, they are usually talking about their pain.

Look up at the sky and the trees whenever you can.

Buy clothes from thrift shops. It’s cheaper, it’s like a treasure hunt, you can easily find fashionable things if you learn to spot them, and it’s less stress on the environment.

Don’t ever trust before and after photos.

Pray. Pray with reverence, humility, gratitude and honesty.

Read the gospels with an open heart.

Don’t be afraid of ideas or faiths you don’t agree with. Respect them, even if you believe they are flawed or wrong.

Don’t let go of spiritual principles you learned because social media has hashtagged them out of the cultural conversation.

Don’t let societal or spiritual truths be reduced to mere memes.

Have a drink now and then, but don’t drink to feel better about yourself.

Find ways to laugh as often and as sincerely as you can.

Talk about religion and politics with your friends. Enjoy the conversations, and be respectful. Conversations like that are precious, and they don’t have to be nasty like they are on TV shows like The View.

Stop and make eye contact with squirrels.

Recipes, Stopwatches and Scales

I’m wrapping up my first semester of teaching basic composition at Iowa State. I enjoy teaching, but like most teachers I hate grading. Watching these people begin life on their own and navigate the higher ed system, I keep thinking about how I hope they don’t remember their grade (unless they want to). I hope they remember that they have inherent worth. Writing can make them strong, that’s all. That’s all college is (if you look at the good side of it): an experience that is supposed to make someone stronger, more capable of taking on challenges and asserting themselves in the world of work and ideas. It’s a tool. No tool – not even writing, which I hope they now see as relevant – matters as much as they do as people. Their worth is not measurable, even though this system measures them all the time.

 Recipes, Stopwatches, and Scales 
By Ginnia Kovach 
 
Measure out the sugar and the chocolate chips 
Measure minutes for the race you run 
Measure time for boiling eggs, measure the hem of your pants 
Measure how many earths fit in the sun 
 
Measure miles between your house and Paris or Milan 
Measure gas to fuel your car or bike 
Measure emissions, measure waste, measure money spent 
Measure the costs of what you’re told to like 
 
Measure all you need to measure to live from day to day 
But no matter what you weigh or watch accrue 
Remember that no partner, politician, or professor 
Can quantify the value that’s in you 

The sunflowers of 2019

I wrote a poem last October called “Petals” (it’s posted on this blog) which was an articulation of some things I have been wrestling with as an artist (worth, trade, dignity, and flowers). It was a lightning strike piece of work – one in which I realized I could create art that did exactly what I wanted, art that broke past the filter artists face between concept and execution.

That experience prompted me to do something I never thought I would do: apply to grad school for the second time in my life (I did that seven years ago, was accepted, uprooted my life and moved to Colorado, then had a depressive breakdown before my first major assignments were even due and moved home). I have debt that is impossible – so impossible it has made me wonder about suicide and whether or not killing myself would be worth the mess of pain I left behind. The answer to that was always no, by the way…and even if I had fewer to no people in my life to hurt by killing myself, I would be cutting short the crystal blue sky that shows up some days and the laughter and flowers that show up some days too.

I digress. The point of saying all that was just that taking out any more loans to try grad school again seemed pretty stupid.

But the Creative Writing and Environment program is fully funded, so I decided it was worth the cost of a GRE test (actually, my dad paid for that) and application fee to give it a gamble…and I got in! Which has brought me here, at the latter end of my first semester, which has been both beautiful and extremely challenging.

Between the acceptance in March and the start of classes in August, I took pictures of sunflowers when I saw them in honor of the poem I wrote that changed my life.

Collage inspired by “Petals”
Processing new sunflowers (whose petals need reviving) at Hy-Vee Floral
Pricing bunches of sunflowers
The sunflowers our downstairs neighbors planted when our backyard garden was well-tended
A sunflower across the sidewalk from my neighbor’s house around the block, planted alone by a whimsical person or a whimsical wind
Sunflowers and daisies I used in an arrangement on my last day at Hy-Vee in August
Designing…
Designed!
Sunflowers for sale in the boutique flower shop across the street from a cafe where my husband and I had lunch in Iowa City on a rare weekend getaway
Research plot at Iowa State University
Random fallen sunflower at the research plot

I realize

that everyone else has had or can have a breakdown, that people are fragile. It isn’t just me.

I often wish I was sure about God (who God is, what God wants, if God is really loving, whether or not God is cruel and impossible about things like sex and doubt).

I’m not sure. I’m not sure enough or brave enough or true enough inside to evangelize or “share the gospel” like I used to think I should.

I’m not sure, but Jesus said to people that God sees every sparrow, and if God sees every sparrow, how much more does God see each of us, for we are worth more than sparrows.

There are conversations and articles I have encountered that give me reasons to disregard that, or even find it offensive. How could Jesus say that about a God who doesn’t stop genocides and sex offenders? Was Jesus even God’s Son? Did he even say that? Was he even real? Is it ridiculous to say people are more valuable than birds when we are all life forms and what makes one creature higher up on the hierarchy than others? What about the rest of the Bible and its more restrictive or oppressive passages – what kind of loving God would define sexuality in such a restrictive way or send people to hell (and let’s not forget the questions within those questions too: does God actually do those things according to the rest of the Bible?)

And there are conversations and articles that give me reason to believe that finding comfort in the words of an ancient rabbi (who died at the hands of a merciless mob on purpose) is reasonable…that historical documentation of Jesus’ existence is relatively strong for a religious figure, and that somehow these passages of love undergird and justify and overcome every other thing that makes me want to run from this religion into the arms of something like Art or Science. I don’t think Art and Science are actually as incompatible with religion as many people say…all three are valued and respected in the hearts and minds of many of my friends. But many of my friends see the conflicts between those things, and they find the underlying philosophies of Science more reasonable or the exploratory philosophies of Art more liberating, and sometimes I think they might be right.

But in my experience, the conversations I have had in my religious life have usually been shot through with love, and the love is fierce and it stares right at the darkest parts of me and offers hope and forgiveness. And those are things I am sure I need. Which I guess makes me inclined to believe the conversations and articles and books and sermons that have defended the realness (the spiritual resonance and historicity) of Jesus.

I took these pictures of sunflowers a while ago – it is a research plot at Iowa State we almost drove past one day. I have had a recent poetic obsession with sunflowers, so we stopped.

Most of the other sunflower pictures I have been collecting have been cheerier – sunflowers in the flower shop where I worked, a sunflower growing on my neighbor’s yard. But these seemed haunting to me. They were not grown for their beauty (there’s nothing wrong with that. But they struck me as sad somehow).

At the moment, I am reflecting on what supports my soul when I am aware of my fragility and heartbroken or anxious or ashamed or doubting my worth. I’m always wrestling over these spiritual questions because I want to lean on the comfort I have been told to see in Jesus.

Coming around to the title of this entry, I realized – not for the first time, really, but it usually feels like the first time – that everyone has this capacity for fragility and need for love.

We are like these sunflowers, standing in a plot, unbeautiful and beautiful and interesting and awkward and worthy of careful study.

The sunflowers can’t comfort one another, but they stand side by side.

I can’t comfort my husband or my family or my friends when everything breaks for them and they feel like nothing. This world is awesome at making people feel like nothing if one of the things we think makes us valuable crumbles (work, relationships, ability).

At the end of the day, we all bite the dust – maybe after the world has used us for what it wanted, or maybe by some freak accident where we fall prematurely like this crushed and rotting sunflower I saw on the ground when I walked to the plot:

Life, and people, and religion, and art, and what I know of science all tell me in some way that we are all the same. And religion tells me why we have worth…and all those other things can explain that too, in a way, but I’m reflecting on the spiritual concept of worth. Having more worth than sparrows.

It’s something I return to again and again, this idea of worth.

I know I am using two analogies at the same time, which is usually a bad thing. To clarify, Jesus compared us to sparrows, and He seemed to emphasize the worth of the individual in doing so.

I am comparing us to sunflowers, which are also pretty life forms with short life spans. He was talking about worth. I am too, but I am also talking about solidarity.

My experiences have caused me to lean into the Christian idea of worth – that all humans have the same worth, and God cares about all of them. I’m in a position of cautious faith that this idea of common worth, which is found elsewhere in the Bible, is true. I’m in a position of cautious faith that God actually sees and understands us, and every ounce of pain and confusion and anger at him or society has an answer…and the answer is love. I haven’t settled on the questions that keep challenging that which I mentioned above, but I’m in a position of cautious faith that the questions have answers.

My experiences have caused me to lean into this idea of worth because I realize all the time that everyone else’s self-worth is threatened all the time by many things.

We stand together, fragile, in this fleeting life.

We have these things in common.

I struggle to believe and grasp the foundation for my worth, but I lean into it, and it has something to do with the kindness of the thought that we are more valuable than sparrows.

What I do not struggle with is believing that we are all fragile and need an internal, unshakable foundation for knowing our worth in the face of heartache and failure. I know that is true.

So through faith, I believe we are like Jesus’s sparrows.

Through consistent observation, I know we are helpless sunflowers too.

The haunted sunflowers I photographed were being measured in many ways, I am sure – measured to maximize their worth in some way (yield, strength to withstand bugs and fungi).

I stand with you, my friends, helpless against the way the world measures me too. I stand with you as one who will bite the dust too.

I know I have worth that transcends the measuring…because if this analogy breaks down, I know another one about sparrows that could work.

And if that one breaks down too, I still know we are the same. And for a combination of spiritual or psychological reasons, I want to emphasize my solidarity with you right now.

Worthless

“I am worthless” I heard you say
Your eyes were empty and
your body was heavy
Oh, I wanted to banish that evil spirit who
whispered that in your ear or maybe
hug you until I wore the lie away

I forgot that moment
as I lay in bed this morning,
thinking about my LinkedIn profile and saying to myself:“You are worthless.”

But then I remembered
that it wasn’t true

Some doctor or lawyer was probably
at that very moment thinking the same thing
and maybe some man was tightening a noose, his mouth so full
of those worthless words he was going to choke

We need Someone to hold us to wear the lies away

This breath in our lungs,
this light in our eyes,
this pain in our backs must bring us
to a point where we can see
Our worth does not lie in anything we do, but in everything we are:
crazy,
impossible,
lovely,
fragile vessels that can be filled with so many things
but are meant for love.

the stem, the potato, and us

On the Internet I read
that you can take a rose,
slather the stem in honey,
stick it in a potato,
plant the potato in dirt
and wait


The Internet told me I
could expect a new rose
in time


Now, my husband and I work
(it just so happens) at a grocery store —
in floral and produce, respectively
we discard rose stems and
fading potatoes every day, so
I told him with a wink that even
though we couldn’t have kids,
we could make a baby this way


and in our eyes I felt the objection
what if this silly thing from the Internet
doesn’t work, and our potato rose baby
doesn’t live, and what does that mean?


But I planted it anyway,
and soon the bad potato smelled
so bad I had to set the pot
on the fire escape, but

I watered it, and watched,
and the stem remained a stem until
one day it was gone,


the pot tipped over, the potato eaten through by
some squirrel with low standards


I guess I am not going to read into that