Sunday, March 30, 2008

Good Poems, Good Riffs, Good Beans

It was a fine afternoon yesterday in Flint, where Grayce Scholt and I read to an overflow house in the Anteroom of Good Beans. Dan and Bob Gerics alternated with us, soothing our crowd with acoustic riffs, including Dan's own poignant break-up song, and taking us home with his adaptation of Will Shakespeare's "Sigh No More."

Here are a few couplets of Dan's heartbreak song, "You Keep the Bedframe":

If we go online we’ll avoid the lawyer’s fees.
We’ve both got iPods, we won’t fight over CDs.

We are being so goddamn mature.
(Man I sure let you off easy.)
I’ll go pack while you uncork and pour the wine.

I could have screamed and shouted, you could kick me out.
But in the end we’ve got a dog to think about.

Oooh, man, sweet stuff -- you should hear it with the music. Check

Another high point, for me, Grayce's powerful war poems -- dudes and dudettes, we need more of these -- and hers are available in her debut collection "Bang Go All the Porch Swings."

Between sets, I was sitting there thinking, "This is as good as anything else going on in this whole damn state today. This is as good as any poetry reading anywhere," and for some reason I had a rush of fiery....I don't know, vindication about how hard it is for something of value to be recognized. How hard it is for people outside of Flint to know what great things sometimes happen here, when nobody much on the outside is watching, like on a cold, sunny spring day when a bunch of people crowded to get into a little coffee shop on the north end for poetry at 2 in the afternoon, and, I'd like to think, weren't disappointed. Today, that feeling I had came around again and wrenched at me, and I crashed -- a combination of lingering performance endorphins and something like exhaustion from how hard we work here to accomplish our measures of redemption. My Saturday in Flint...a slice, I'm almost certain, of the human condition.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's "Spin Cycle" Day at Good Beans

If you're a Flintoid, join Grayce Scholt, Patty Warner, Dan and Bob Gerics and me at Good Beans Coffee Shop today for our performance from 2-5 p.m. We plan three "sets" -- there will be food and great company. Buy Grayce's new book or another copy of Night Blind. Stop by Steady Eddy's at the Farmer's Market first for late breakfast or lunch, and then come on by. What better thing to do on this cold spring day? Music, poetry, hanging out? This is Grayce's FIRST ever public performance -- a milestone not to be missed. Good Beans is at the corner of First Avenue and Grand Traverse.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Blogosphere Further Remembers Dewey Whitwell

I've been very touched by a series of messages from the descendents of Dewey Whitwell -- Christian, Scott and Wanda Bradford -- who saw my post about him and contacted me (See comments under "On Dewey Whitwell's Knee" below.} It's remarkable that through the Internet we have been able to tell these stories in honor of this man who touched many lives.

I was most excited by the post that began "I am your Missy" -- from Dewey's daughter. Through her, I now know that her gun actually was a 20-gauge (pretty impressive for a girl!) and that on their hunting trips, they had picnics of Vienna sausages, cheese and Fig Newtons. Wanda's son Scott, a Methodist minister in Texas, still has the gun, obviously a cherished family keepsake. Like many men of his era, Rev. Whitwell was a "jack of all trades" -- he was, for example, also a beekeeper and devoted fisherman.

Also through "my Missy," I realized again how "relative," so to speak, and interconnected life can be. While I confessed to childhood jealousy of her, her gun and her walks in the woods with her father, she confessed to some envy of me -- I got to sit on her father's lap back then, she notes, and she didn't -- he was gone so much as an evangelist. Ah, childhood is very complicated.

Thank you again, Bradford family, for your affecting memories and comments.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

4,000 Dead. For What?

Just heard the news on CNN that four U.S. soldiers were killed today, by grim irony the day of the Christian Resurrection, in Baghdad, taking the American toll officially to 4,000.

For what? For what?

May they rest in peace, despite their sacrifice to an obscene and arrogant mistake.

Solitary Easter Without the Peeps

I keep forgetting how big Easter is in Flint. The first three spots I aimed for on my early afternoon rounds were closed, the streets almost deserted. Odd to think of all the church hoopla going on in various bedecked sanctuaries as I putter along up and down Court and Center in my trusty old Honda: song, flowers and scripture ("Up from the Grave He Arose" used to be my favorite). I liked the sunrise service on Easter Sunday as well: the break in routine, the novelty of getting up before dark for various theatrical and often endearing rituals of resurrection. An exuberant day in the church, to be sure. These, for me, are memories of childhood. The way it is now: alone all day, happy to be peripheral to this Big Moment, theologically speaking. I'm at home with my longstanding retreat from zeal.

So, Adult Easter 2008: writing for several hours. A meandering walk, the crisp air and sky in late afternoon more like Thanksgiving than Easter. Quiet dinner of chicken, salad and a crisp apple. Two phone chats with my husband, who says it's 80 in LA. Long talk with my sister on the phone. The latest episode of "John Adams" on HBO -- excellent. Poor John Adams just didn't cotton to those French. Ben Franklin playing chess in a bathtub with the comtessa. Abigail, meanwhile, plowing, planting and furiously cleaning window panes at midnight, furiously lonely for John Adams. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are great, as is Tom Wilkinson as the worldly and infuriating Franklin.

A renewing day, even without the banks of lilies, chocolate rabbits and hard boiled eggs.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Old Broads in Our Creative Prime

Don't miss Grayce Scholt (in her first ever live reading, from "Bang Go All the Porch Swings") and I strutting our stuff at Flint's funky Good Beans Coffee Shop next Saturday, March 29. Irrepressible artist Patty Warner will display and sell her Tumble Dry Low Cards and Dan and Bob Gerics will make music. It'll be A Flint Scene.

Love Poem on the Second Day of Spring

The terrible waste of war goes on, it's Good Friday, that darkest day, and some parts of Michigan might be getting a foot of snow. Yet this poem, from the vernal equinox four years ago, still applies. Here's to love embattling darkness.

for Ted

Cruel worlds conspire
against my need for
ease this gloomy day, deaths
piling up on hectoring news,
a frozen rocky orb found circling
the sun beyond Pluto.
We are pecked by circumstance
beyond control; as I write this,
sleety rain swoops down
on struggling tulips, mid-morning
light curtained almost to night. Street
lights blink on again as if winter
decided not to go. In the chilly dark
my day dips down
toward deductions, floods and
rumors of more war. Yet love, you are
the daffodil blooming in snow. You
are my real spring, my lion roaring
against the universe.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Not the Reaper -- This Time

Walking my route, gloomy late afternoon, spring fog rising from the ground. Maybe it was that moody mist that got me in a spooky trance, rounding the long curve on Cadet Street especially, where the mist hovered over the drainage ditch (well, in the Wordsworthian mood I'm in, I'll call it a rivulet), and I wouldn't have been surprised to run into Sherlock Holmes stepping nimbly over potholes somewhere in the pea soup by the nine-hole.

Exactly. Coming out of the parking lot to Sunnyside, ahead of me I saw a hulking figure, all in black, black cape, a head covering (a hood?), standing still. Some sort of stick in hand. Looking at me. My fur -- or my vestigial fur, those hairs along my spine -- stood up.

When the Grim Reaper comes do people have a chance to see him in the distance? Does he stand there waiting while a woman (who as a matter of fact has quite recently and freshly declared she's in her prime) strides forward, taking in big gulps of air? I checked all my body parts. Lungs clear. No chest pain. Digestion fine. Slept well last night. Bones fine, muscles flexing. Quick communique to liver, stomach, pancreas, lymphs, cervix and cerebellum: hey -- you guys okay?

Wouldn't it just figure this would be my day, some regular Tuesday, nondescript March 18, feeling good, checks in the mail, spring on the way -- that would be the day, wouldn't it?

I drew closer, keeping up my pace so as not to appear cowardly. I squinted my nearsighted eyes and plastered on an alpha female smile, trying for "devil may care," so to speak. He looked big: maybe the drizzle exaggerated his girth. He seemed to turn away -- good sign. Then I realized his cane or walking stick or shillelagh or whatever the hell was really a thick, long leash, and at the end of it, sniffed a big loopy hound. Only one hound, not seven. Only a mournful basset, growling melodiously. And the man? A wide-faced smiling fellow with, I think, a small, endearing gap between two teeth. The Grim Reaper, I'm pretty sure, would not beam like this out of a face like a big banana cream pie. His scary cape, actually a fabulous great coat, brightened with a tartan scarf. And his hood -- not a hood, but a handsome black fedora. How stylish. How distinct.

"Her name's Daisy," the gentleman said. "Notice that her tail's wagging."

I could have said, "I'd like to stick around and chat but I thought you were My Death -- so you'll pardon me if I just move along."

Instead I shouted, "She's gorgeous!" which she was, and I trucked out of there.

"Have a nice walk," the neighborly man in the Great Coat called after me.

I'd like to imagine that I disappeared quickly into the mist -- like the reconciled victims in Cold Case -- but I don't think I did. I think he could see me clearly, almost running now, entirely vivified, for at least three blocks.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Hole in my Socks on the Ides of March

Can't think of a single betrayal tonight. Home alone, done grading, a glass of merlot after lamb chops, little red potatoes and asparagus. Feet up, a tiny hole apparent on the left big toe of my favorite socks -- the ones with dogs on them I bought with my niece on a happy day in Frankenmuth.

Ah, the pleasures of faux Bavaria. That day, as we walked by one of the chicken palaces, a guy who seemed to have had a bit too much lager checked us out and said, "Hey...mother and daughter, right?" I was deeply affected.

So maybe this entry is something about childbearing -- not childbearing. As of Jan. 15, I'm officially "post-menopausal," having had no blood for a year, and now, more. My reproductive years are over.

Of course, I never reproduced. For women like me, who've never had babies, menopause carries, I believe, a somewhat different significance. Never having had children can be a hard disappointment. I remember when I first realized I probably wouldn't ever have kids. I was in my late thirties and I'd just had a miscarriage -- as far as I ever got. I stood in front of my kitchen window, staring out at the trees at that many-paned window of another life, and I couldn't stop crying. It was the first time I faced down one of the major limits of my life. I would not experience childbirth. I would not be a mother.

Perhaps the traitor du jour is my own body.

It's the "not" of it that aches, I suppose. The words that go with it are sad and empty. Barren is one of them. A womb that has never expanded, a womb that has never experienced "quickening." I was never "blessed among women." I will not, at my deathbed, have my children around me, as I once wrongly predicted in one of my Tonga journals. I am likely to die alone, as do we all when it comes down to it. It is what it is.

But those sad years of grieving over what was not to be are mostly over. I am not unhappy. Here it is Saturday night and I'm at ease and at liberty, feeling only a little sad about that hole in my sock, the little damage that reminds me that living has results: hurts and disappointments and yes, betrayals. And the daily discovery that emptiness can be filled up with love. I've had twenty years, since that first day of mourning, to fill up the empty spaces, to cultivate the "what else."

And here is the moment, the present tense, the breath in the now. Gratitude for what is: for what still is. No knife in the back. No cramps, no blood. No kid to keep me awake, no kid to ratify or indict me. No begats to hasten my demise. Just this quiet evening, fingers on keyboard, pixels organizing themselves into various dances at my touch. This, to my retiring womb, feels very lucky indeed on an unlucky day.

Friday, March 14, 2008

On Dewey Whitwell's Knee, I Consider My Second Amendment Rights

Back then an eight-year-old girl not quite at home in a starched cotton dress with a grosgrain sash could climb into the evangelist's lap in the parsonage after the revival meeting, and nobody'd think anything of it. He had Necco wafers in his pants pocket and he handed me a couple and I took them, not my favorite candy but not bad either– such mild chocolate you had to think about it, secular host, dry powder on my tongue, tasting, before the chocolate kicked in, faintly of shoe polish and copper pennies, the stuff in his pockets. He was a robust man with red cheeks and a ready smile, a special guest, and my parents encouraged me to sit on his lap, his preacher suit pants scratching the backs of my thighs. Somehow we got it together, where I'd put my arms, shyly, one around his shoulder, and I can't remember where he put his arms, but it was proper and even a bit absent-minded. He seemed tired after his rousing sermon: being a traveling evangelist was hard work. I got the feeling my parents wanted me to be nice to him to make up for his daughter, just a year or two older than me, who was back home in Tennessee. Memory fails: let's call her Missy. Maybe he'd like to have a little girl sit on his lap to remind him of Missy, so he wouldn't feel so lonely so far away from home.

So I perched there, balanced on his shiny serge lap, and he told me about Missy, blonde curly headed Missy, and how he and Missy liked to do a lot of things together, how one thing they liked to do was go out hunting. Did you ever go hunting, honey? I think even a girl should know her way around a gun. My Missy has her own gun, he said. I gave it to her, a little .22. How he missed walking out into the woods together with her and coming back with a rabbit or two, he said, one that Missy might have shot herself, with Dewey Whitwell's help, of course. A little girl with her own gun? It astounded me. “I'm proud of that little girl,” Dewey Whitwell said as I cast my eyes downward and imagined.

Where were my parents, people horrified of the gun, not far removed from Quaker forebears who refused to have anything to do with killing? Was my mother in the kitchen regretting that gentle instinct to offer Dewey Whitwell my little substitute childlike love? “He's not like us,” she might have whispered, biting her lip, upbraiding herself for setting me up. But it was too late – there I already sat, transfixed on Dewey Whitwell's knee, imagining me in Missy's place, brandishing my own little private weaponry, placed in my pink and eager hands by Daddy Dewey, God's hearty messenger to half the Protestant Midwest. Me walking hand and hand through the Tennessee woods, the TVA booming not far away, the squirrels and rabbits dashing right into our sights. My hand in Dewey's, both of us in flannel jackets, my blue jeans rolled up...Dewey would have taught me how to walk as still as an Indian through the underbrush, and he would have whispered don't make a sound. The cinnamon air, the sweet swampy air – we'd appreciate it all together. I coveted what Missy knew.

Then the story about Missy was over and Dewey Whitwell kind of woke up and looked at who was sitting in his lap, and I was pretty sure he was disappointed to see that it was me, a poor substitute, a plain Ohio girl with straight brown hair in her scratchy church dress, a little girl who read Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins, a little girl who'd never held a gun and whose father felt really bad when he sliced through a snake with his riding mower. Oh, the glamorous Missy, whom I would never be. My embarrassment, my humiliating inadequacy stung: I didn't add up to Missy. Missy with her .22 and her daddy and hushpuppies and rabbit stew out on the porch and men playing banjos at night, Missy picking the chiggers off her blue jeans and accepting Daddy Dewey's praise for her steady hand and silent step. But most of all, I envied Missy's gun.

Fifty years later, after Malcolm X, and after Medger Evers, after Kent State and Jackson State and JFK and MLK and RFK, after Marvin Gaye and John Lennon and Vietnam and Iraq, the world and I have traveled a long, long way from Missy's gun. I'm sitting in conference with an earnest kid whose paper exhorts the government to “stop controlling guns." I listen with weary and conscious pretend dispassion as he says, “really, if teachers had guns maybe Virginia Tech never would have happened. And maybe not NIU either. If teachers just had guns.” He looks at me again as I say nothing. “It's your Second Amendment right,” he says.

I avoid eye contact, taking a breath. “Look at me, young man,” I say. “Do you really want me walking into class with, say, a holster and a six-shooter?” I quickly smile – but I really don't want to make fun of him. This is serious. He smiles wanly back, sure, I suspect, I'm about to launch into proof I'm one of those college liberals. But I don't.

What he doesn't know is that once I sat on Dewey Whitwell's knee, and wanted Missy's gun so badly I wanted out of my own life, and that back then walking in the woods and taking aim at other creatures and bringing them home for dinner was somehow tied to "God's plan" for my life, yet something wild and brave and big, something related to staying out of the eternal fires of hell. Having my own gun and walking in the woods with Dewey Whitwell, "God's plan"– it seemed to be my right, my destiny. But as I was about to learn, my mother the heretic still fretting behind the kitchen door, claiming my Second Amendment rights was one of God's plans, one of many of God's plans, that would thankfully elude me.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Metrics in Late Winter

1. Sometimes, I imagine myself swimming.

2. Crow chicks wheedle over crusty black mud.

3. Silver maples arthritic in March sun.

4. Junk mail on a table meant for feasting.

5. I want my house to be pretty again.

6. Sprouts like green dunce caps fool snow under elms.

7. Walking eyes closed to feel light: am I nuts?

8. Dust on laptop like strewn zirconium.

9. Dead goldfinch on fieldstone a bad omen.

10. Copper bandits worked fast and no one guessed.