Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What Did They Know?

A lot of times my ancestors are in my head when I'm going through life. Like I think they know better than me.

But they don't. They're dead. I'm alive and coping with real life the best I can. And I think, presented with the life I'm living, they would not know any better than I how to negotiate the rough waters of reality. I don't think their religion, their persuasive Old Testament God, would help them any more than my agnostic inclinations.

Tonight, it was gin that served the day's anxieties. We had a gift certificate for Admiral Risty, a reasonably swanky restaurant perched over the cliffs in Palos Verdes at the spot where Hawthorne Blvd. dead ends at the sea. I had reserved a window table and we got there just in time for the last streaks of the post-solstice sunset. I held Ted's hand and we conducted several appropriate curse toasts for those who are attempting to torment us. Then we did it again. The sun disappeared but the forthright, deep blue ocean spreading out from Admiral Risty's windows comforted me.

Tomorrow, we'll be back in the hard-edged frigidities of the Michigan winter with which I am viscerally, primally familiar. It will be okay.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rumination from Feathered Infidelities

In writing my January EVM column, I found myself considering a 2010 bird study that makes me wonder what the shifting partnerships of Baby Boom mating has done to the kids. In true Baby Boom style, however, I end up making the rumination about me -- a Boomer on my second marriage, with no biological kids, contemplating monogamy and my place in the flock. Click here for the whole piece.

Monday, December 27, 2010

My favorite Christmas gift


...Other than the view out our San Pedro windows, which I love, but that's been a gift of my life for the last couple of years. My needs and pleasures are of a very moderate scale. Here's my favorite -- bought on sale on Christmas Eve at Crate and Barrel for less than $40: a hand crank juicer! I love it because it employs simple physics, requires no cords or electricity, makes no noise, and works perfectly. And it's shiny.

Also, note that tumbler collecting orange drips -- it's a Waterford crystal glass that cost more than the juicer. Have you ever drank out of real Waterford? It's interesting that in my old age this is one of the things that pleases me -- touches of luxury I can afford, like a single Waterford tumbler.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On the Pacific Rim Thinking About My Mother, Again

It feels important that she would have been 100 today -- that a whole century has passed by since my mother's birth. She was proud of sharing this day with Beethoven. She was a fighter of sorts when I think of her now, a tough little bird in her later years, never quite happy enough with life, often clearly disappointed by how things were.

And today I flew into the ether from ice and snow to the liquid blue of the Pacific Rim, again -- for probably about the 50th time in the last ten years. My cross-country life continuing, this time I come into it at a moment of confounding crisis and frustration, and I wonder what my mother would have made of this life of mine. I never thought much of her advice; I know she loved me, loved me with an ambivalent ache; was envious of me; found me "provoking" and loved me. When I was 40 and in a difficult relationship that was already beginning to end, I stood in my brother's large shower with my mother sitting haggard and naked in a plastic chair -- we were both naked and it was the only way we could think of to safely shower her. The blessed water streamed over our two bodies, our shared blood bodies, and in the extremity of the moment, a moment of her own extreme vulnerability, she gave me one of the most important gifts of our life together. As I washed her body gently, my own heart wrenched with her weakness, her poor bony body on its last months, she looked at me, her daughter, and called me by my name. She said, "You have a beautiful body. I hope your husband loves your body. I hope your husband appreciates your body."

We were not a physical family. Our religion made us suspicious of our bodies' mysteries, and our bodies were often problematic to us. We didn't dance. "Premarital Sex" was one of the cardinal sins -- and I grew up to both crave and suspect my body's ardors. We were not a family who called each other "honey" or "darling" or "sweetheart." My mother never used those words for me, and I sometimes wish she would have -- I needed her tender love more than I knew. But that day in the shower what my mother said touched me, and I've cherished it ever since. She, who made my body and gave me life, loved what she saw, even as I struggled into middle age. As it turned out, I needed that love, and on her 100th birthday, I need it still. And love her for loving me -- incompletely, raggedly, but always passionately. She was not an "adequate" mother -- she left me unfinished and full of doubt and lamentation. But she gave me enough, and that day in the shower, her love was perfect.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Nonpartisan Chickadees


Just filled the bird feeders for a clutch of chickadees clustering around the backyard -- they're so cheerful and plucky, with their little high-pitched chirps. And they're so courteous -- they go to the feeder one at a time, get a single seed, and then fly up to a nearby branch to eat it; the next one goes down and does the same; then the next, the next, and then starting with the first one again. It's so orderly and, well, nonpartisan.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the 100th Anniversary of My Mother's Birth, I Take on the 100 Thing Challenge. In My Junk Drawer.

Before

After

Here's my December column for East Village Magazine, examining the archeological dig that is my junk drawer:

A few years back a guy named Dave Bruno had had it with consumerism and decided to reduce his personal possessions to 100 things. He blogged about it and started a worldwide movement, The 100 Thing Challenge.

This month, just in time for the ceaseless barrages of the holidays, he’s publishing a book, The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul. I bet it will sell more than 100 copies.

I don’t trust people who make spirituality out of everything. I don’t trust “cleanliness is next to godliness,” for example; nature presumably made by God is frequently elegant but also messy—not to mention, bloody. And I don’t like hints that because I might be a little challenged, stuff-wise, I might be in mortal peril.

However, I was raised by a queen of clean, a housfrau of frugality, and this month would have been her 100th birthday. My mom would have loved the idea of the 100 Thing Challenge. So it seems that the stars are suggestively and neatly aligned for me to make a gesture of propitiation.

When I first heard something about Bruno’s new book on NPR, I muttered to my cats, “Hell, I’ve got more than 100 things in one damn drawer.” The cats stared back sadly.

I meant my junk drawer.

Doesn’t everybody have one? A drawer, usually in the kitchen, where we stash our tawdry little bits of anxious life? A cache of personal anthropology – mirror to our worries, the vault for small stuff, unsellable on EBay, that we “might use” someday? The junk drawer blends the impulse to hoard and that persistent need for security. And, as another Dave, the “happiness researcher” Dave Buettner has been pointing out, “evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired more for security than freedom.” Yikes. Maybe the junk drawer is a grown-up’s safety valve.

Unlike my mom, I am not obsessed with order. But the idea of exploring my junk drawer had a certain appeal, like going on an archeological dig. The day after Thanksgiving, still high on tryptophan and pumpkin pie, I pulled it off its squealing tracks, and heaved it, making sure to bend my knees, onto the living room floor.

Sitting crosslegged on the carpet, I eventually pulled out and listed 140 things on a legal pad.

At first, it all made sense, a logical collection of utility: stapler, scissors, cat brush, three Scotch tape dispensers, two lint rollers, three soft cloths for cleaning glasses, along with the glass cleaner to do it, 17 “forever” stamps, two Listerine pocket paks, two single-use tubes of Krazy Glue, a tube of lock de-icer – never used, a gift from my traumatized hubby after we once got stranded at midnight after a party on Calumet.

And then, all the stuff obviously there because it MIGHT be useful. Who in their right mind, really, would not understand the reason for 200 rubber bands from Flint Journals and bunches of asparagus? Who would question the need for 37 paper clips, 11 black document clips – great for bags of cereal or potato chips – 9 thumbtacks, a single push pin, a half-dozen twist ties, 15 AAA batteries, 5 AA batteries, 4 C batteries, and an extra nine-volt? There’s even 47 cents in change, in case. Just in case.

But the next layer, from the neglected, dusty back, creeped me out, yielding a succession of items of mysterious origin and way past their time.

What’s this? A fold-up hiking compass! Cool, but I haven’t been on an actual hike, in the woods, for about 20 years. Two plastic canisters with undeveloped rolls of film – anachronism – I’ve had a digital camera for years. Anyway, did I really want to see what might be revealed, what aggravating family gathering, what possibly compromising party? Ah, I remember this little battery-operated hand-held fan with a Las Vegas logo – cherished gift from a compassionate friend when I was still having hot flashes – now long unused, its batteries dead.

Then, tectonic plates of heartbreak and abandoned hope: the brass nametag for my late cat Joey One, dead for five years, his ashes buried in the back yard; a “Women for Kerry/Edwards” campaign button: Rosie the Riveter, with her plucky “We can do it” logo. And a pillbox of folded-up notes I’d written to my parents – saved from their stuff after they died a dozen years ago – notes neither imaginative nor redeeming. “Dear Mom…thank you for all you’ve done for us. We love you.” “It was sure good to be here. P.S. I had a snack before I left.” Why on earth are these still here?

Finally, just a pile of random and marginally disgusting stuff: two clothespins, one red plastic, one wood; a chipped ceramic pentacle tile; a plastic attachment for a long-gone vacuum cleaner; a six-ounce bottle of green automotive touch-up paint; a dry erase marker; two heavy duty locks; a pack of grape Pez; a Ya-Ya’s moist towelette, two packs each of pepper and salt; a half roll of chewable papaya enzymes; eight tiny plastic bags of replacement buttons; a broken birthday candle; two triangular pieces of dry cat food. Easy calls, all – to the trash.

The drawer empty, finally I stood up and took a deep breath. The cats, unimpressed, sniffed around my desultory piles.

So, since I am at least a part-time academic, I retreat now from my dig to profess what this all means.

In summary, I don’t know.

There’s actually a discipline devoted to “things” these days, called, remarkably, “Thing Theory.” An English professor named Bill Brown wrote a book about it. And we poets know how William Carlos Williams declared, “no ideas but in things.” But what ideas in which things?

What I mined from my junk drawer was only this: there are things we accumulate, for whatever reason – out of torpor, hope, sentimentality, or practicality – that give us comfort. Or maybe that’s just me – me and my curious and incorrigibly disheveled existence.

Here’s what I can say for the condition of my soul, my act of contrition in honor of my mother: pared and purged down to about 70 things, the drawer slipped back onto its metal track a bit more lightly.

Would that my restless mind, busy accumulating the next drawerful of comforting trinkets, went along.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ernest Boyer and Scholarship Reconsidered

Belatedly, considering what happened to me last year in my department (See"So Much for My Dream of the Professoriate), I am reading Ernest L. Boyer's 1990 monograph from the Carnegie Foundation, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. In his preface, he writes, "What's really being called into question is the reward system and the key issue is this: what activities of the professoriate are most highly prized? After all, it's futile to talk about improving the quality of teaching if, in the end, faculty are not given recognition for the time they spend with students."

He continues, "...following the Second World War, the faculty reward system narrowed at the very time the mission of American higher education was expanding, and we consider how many of the nation's colleges and universities are caught in the crossfire of these competing goals."

"In the current climate," he asserts, "students all too often are the losers...The reality is that, on far too many campuses, teaching is not well rewarded, and faculty who spend too much time counseling and advising students may diminish their prospects for tenure and promotion."

Boyer's thoughts. supported by a large Carnegie Foundation-sponsored "National Survey of Faculty" led to what's often referred to as "The Boyer Model" for the work of the professoriate -- four "separate, yet overlapping functions." They were "the scholarshp of discovery," "the scholarship of integration," "the scholarship of application," and "the scholarship of teaching."
"What we urgently need today," he wrote, "is a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar -- a recognition that knowledge is acquired through research, through synthesis, through practice, and through teaching." And he called for all four of these to be equally acknowledged in promotion and tenure-granting decisions.

That was 20 years ago. If anything, it seems to me, things have gotten worse since then. In a 2006 essay in the Chronicle Review, Stanley Katz wrote:

The new environment for higher education has created a situation in which professorial worlds are multiple, complex, and conflicting. I think I am not simply being nostalgic (though I "grew up" professionally at the end of the earlier world) when I assert that we have lost something along the way. We have lost a sense of commonality as professors, the sense that we are all in this together — "this" being a dedication to undergraduate teaching and not just specialized research.

Considering all this, at least I feel less alone in the diminishment of my real value in the professoriate, which while I was denied access to the tenured ranks, has become clearer to me. Even though things have continued tightening up, especially in resistant and hide-bound departments that keep hanging on to old ways, it is heartening to sense some pressure toward a more reasonable and responsive change in higher ed. If we don't find a way to open up to a wider view of the professoriate, we may find ourselves consigned to irrelevancy, with serious consequences for our funding, for our ongoing public support, and most of all, for our students.







Monday, November 01, 2010

Pursuing a Happy Darkness

Here's my new column for East Village Magazine (eastvillagemagazine.org), the result of an evolving experience of confronting, accepting and sometimes even loving darkness.

Lately I’ve been renegotiating with the dark.

Darkness gets a bad rap, including in my own mind. Each year I dread the coming on of longer nights, culminating in the anachronistic switch to Daylight Savings Time. By then, it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I get home. This long winter darkness is so claustrophobic for me, so depressing, that anticipating it is almost as bad as actually putting up with it.

The literal darkness of winter merges, of course, with metaphorical darkness – that “dark night of the soul” that 16th Century mystic Saint John of the Cross first defined. Some of the hardest, most fearful moments of my life have coalesced at roughly 4 a.m., when the world seems most terrifying, most unpromising, most dark.

I know of course that darkness harbors danger. Evil hides in unlit corners, as our faithful neighborhood watch teams rightly point out. It’s not just nocturnal critters like possums, raccoons and bats showing up, rattling our nerves and trash cans. There are human critters all too ready to capitalize on the dark, stalkers and thieves and pyromaniacs, sneaking around with their badass intentions where we can’t quite see them.

But it’s not really the dark’s fault. Back in the day we feminists used to parade around once a year or so on “Take Back the Night” marches, including several through downtown Flint, and though our efforts only seemed to apply when there were a dozen of us or more, it did feel good to shout out that the night belongs to everybody. At the heart of that movement was a call for safety. For me, there also was a less strident song – that there’s something beautiful about the night, something primally necessary to reclaim.

We spend half our lives in darkness. Life is short -- why should I squander half of it in a state of fear and resistance? Wouldn’t it seem that nature’s effect on humans, the yin and yang of day and night, might have an up side? Why should daylight get all the good press?

Could there, in short, be such a thing as happy darkness?

This question bubbled up over friendship – a friendship built on walks and a restless baby. My neighbor Vickie figured out a stroller ride calmed newborn Frannie, and asked if I’d like to come along. We’d meet after dinner and, with a baby buggy between us, explore many streets in the neighborhood. As Frannie gaped and cooed at passing details, Vickie and I talked about everything, including the languorous sun drooping behind the silver maples of Maxine, Beard, Woodside, Lynwood, Calumet, Blanchard, Kensington. We went wherever we felt like going.

Eventually Frannie learned to go to sleep without her daily wheeling, but thanks to her daddy holding down the fort, her mom and I kept walking.

As the days shortened, we found ourselves starting out in dusk, each night noting decreasing minutes of light. When finally our whole walk was in the dark, I thought we couldn’t keep it up.

There are all kinds of logical arguments, after all, for not going out after dark. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught as women. We’ve been marooned in fear. But we enjoyed our nightly strolls so much we didn’t want to stop. So we didn’t. We take sensible precautions, but we’ve found it quite possible to feel at home, in the neighborhood that is our home, even after dark.

Spending three or four hours a week meandering into the night like we own it has been exhilarating and liberating. It is a luxury. It’s an antidote for claustrophobia. It’s a guarantee, almost always, of a better night’s sleep.

After dark, the neighborhood yields a remarkable glowing magic. This matters to my sense of our place, which so often saddens and worries me. At night the houses look calm and inviting, their rectangles and orderly panes of indoor light distinct and intriguing. We appreciate particular front porches, where porch lights frame interesting doors, brick steps, trellises, roof angles, and climbing ivy. We wouldn’t so much notice these in daylight, when many details blend together in equalizing swathes of sunbeams.

That is, we see things differently in different kinds of light. Part of the magic is it’s never really dark. Yet night light is different from the light of day: the variegated oranges, ochres and ambers of artificial light, the silvery moonlight through canopies of hardwoods – it’s elegant, nuanced, etched in mystery.

We pick blocks to stroll that have the best streetlights, and our progress from one cone of light to another is rhythmic and metered. Like a good poem, we move from dark to light to dark to light.

One night Vickie said when you walk the neighborhood after dark, it looks like every family is happy. The quality of inside light, enjoyed from our outsiders’ view, is serene. It’s possible to imagine that lovely light means lovely life – it’s possible to imagine, a cozy, hopeful visual illusion. When we walk by the lit-up houses, in other words, they make us happy. That’s a kind of truth, a trick of the darkness and the light we all provide to counter it.

Saint John of the Cross’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul” describes a journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. It’s instructive that that trip of the spirit takes place at night. Saint John’s pilgrimage involves the “purification of the senses,” a step the darkness accommodates very well. We rest our bodies, at night, from the daylight stimulations of eyes and ears, the way in yoga class we sometimes roll soft eyewraps around our heads to give the brain a break. People need a rest from daylight. What we find at night can be a journey rich with gifts. Even in Flint, there can be a happy darkness.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wow! I'm back, with Roget and Daddy


Here I am again, believe it or not, after four months' silence.

Of course I haven't been silent elsewhere, but for whatever reason, I didn't feel drawn to the ruminative presence of this space. There, just in that sentence, I paused after "ruminative," because I couldn't quite come up with the word I wanted. I love the moment of trying to find the right word.

Sitting cross-legged on the brown couch -- the couch I bought when I lived in Sylvester Manor, one of the first actual pieces of furniture I acquired on my own, a semblance and reclamation of adult life after leaving my first marriage -- I breathed and sat back this Friday night and considered what would be just the right word for that sentence. I stretched one leg out onto the coffee table and looked up, letting my body and mind meander...I considered the word "posture," but that sounded too stiff. I considered the word "stance," but that sounded too rhetorical, too political.

And so I lifted the laptop off my lap and went to the bookshelf looking for my thesaurus. I considered the word "attitude," but it sounded too common, too collegiate rah-rah. But "attitude" was a good place to begin. So I looked up "attitude" in the back half, where the words are listed alphabetically in four columns per page. "attitude" is on p. 689, the page which goes from "attainment" to "auditory canal." Under "attitude" I had five choices: posture, 183.4; viewpoint, 438.7; opinion 500.4; mental ~ 523.1; and in tiny capital letters, "TAKE THE ATTITUDE, 523.6 -- that last a strange little phrase that seems alien, foreign, quaint, strange.

Now, interestingly, I find myself slipping into present tense. I select the first one, which was, after all, one of my original choices. And I'm delighted to find that 183 is labeled LOCATION....this really touches me, for reasons I'll explain later: the nouns under point one in "LOCATION" include situation, place, placement, emplacement, position, hole, stead, region, locaility, locale, locus, site, situs, spot, point, bearings latitude and longitude.

Point 2 includes where, whereabouts, here, there.

And Point 4 includes a fascinating mix, which offers many interesting angles of connection: posture, pose, position, lay, lie, set, attitude, aspect, bearing, port, carriage, air, mien, demeanor, presence, exposure, frontage...

It is the word "presence", there in the middle between "demeanor" and "exposure", that captures what I want.

To write, after all, requires presence. To write one must be present. Sometimes when I am not writing it is because I am unable to be present to the degree required; or, as in the case of my recent life, I am so fully present in some other part of life that I cannot be present enough for the rumination of language, of thought.

But coming back to it tonight, I remember with a rush the pleasure of this presence, this being present with words. Tonight, this is my whereabouts -- to be present in these quiet moments with words.

I suspect, too, that my readiness for this presence was kicked off by the startling convergence with another powerful location -- I find myself wanting to say echo-location, because when my hometown of Canton, Ohio appeared on the PBS NewsHour tonight I was jarred and touched by melancholy and nostalgia. My old hometown, where six years of my childhood in particular rolled out in a beautiful brick parsonage surrounded by leafy maples that I still write about and dream about, that old hometown is now decrepit and struggling, just like Flint. "In the Fifties, a manufacturing powerhouse," the reporter said -- those were MY Fifties, when the town was a great place for families to raise kids, the schools were great, we roller skated and sold lemonade on the sidewalks, the adults dressed up for church, tended roses on white trellises. There was a vigorous adult life there that I only observed through a child's naive lens, but something about it stuck with me -- something about the adult life I sense my parents and others were living -- that formed what I imagined my own grown up life would be.

Now the PBS New Hour featured a haunted house in an abandoned warehouse, where 84 people make scant but cherished money 20 days a year dressing up like monsters and scaring other people, who pay for the fright. And then the reporter moved out to interview struggling families, and when I saw them standing in the streets with October light behind them, I thought I recognized that light, the light of my childhood, and it made me sad. Finally, there was a shot of a shorn corn field with a bank of stiff milkweed, cracked and empty of its fluffy seeds, in the foreground, and that was a field my body understands and remembers.

Finally, I love my thesaurus. As you can see below, it was given to me by my father on my 13th birthday. And as I see his inscription, I also see the seeds of my whole life to come, where he writes: "To help you find words with which to express the thoughts of a very fine mind." What a remarkable thing for a girl to be told by her father. I feel smitten, lucky, and loved in language from my powerful past.
See my father's inscription -- My thesaurus was my 13th birthday present

Monday, June 21, 2010

Chinese Bell for the Summer Solstice

Never published, this poem continues to nettle, to agitate in my craw. What better day to dig it out and air it in the longest light?


Chinese Bell for the Summer Solstice

1.

Long ago, when he was maybe 50,

my father took a solitary walkabout

by Greyhound bus, across the West,

across the Golden Gate, chasing something

he had missed. From a fish shack

on the wharf he called and said, “It’s still light here.”

It shocked me: time zones something startling, new.

(On the only part of turning earth I knew

Ohio was already dark as it would often be,

Perhaps it was that Midwest night

that drove my dad to Chinatown.)

Outside the screen door, a hundred fireflies sparked,

I barely noticed, not yet knowing how

Exotic they were.

. I wanted more

Of California, hugged the black receiver

and heard from far away a gull.

I tried to see my father there, taking in the cobalt sea,

swooping birds, California sun like heaven

in his eyes. Then: “There’s a prison out there,” he

said., “and sharks would eat you if you tried to get away.”

2.

Back home

he gave my mother

turquoise rings and in a narrow box

wrapped in newsprint with Shanghai script,

a simple cone of solid brass from Chinatown.

For years she rang it, calling guests to dinner,

They signed her leather guest book by the dozens,

An inventory of the Mister and Missus

Christians of Ohio, sipping homemade

Tomato juice from heirloom crystal on paper

Doilies and complimenting my mother’s rhubarb pie.

When we closed up their house,

surprised by melancholy memory

of my father’s midlife pilgrimage,

my mother’s hostess rites when he got back, I grabbed

the bell from a black bag bulging and

all ready for Goodwill.

I wonder if she found him changed,

At peace with her and finally satisfied.

3.

Now every summer solstice,

my days in need of ritual

I wait for darkness with

the bell from Chinatown.

I don’t know how the bell got

Mixed up with it,

Proof my father lit out

Against his rampant heart?

Silvery clang against sorrow?

I love the give and take of light

at this, my native latitude,

a daily shifting truth the earth still owns.

I claim this bell, its perfect “ting,” a token

of my father’s restlessness but

also love: he went somewhere

for happiness, and he came home.

4.

I seem to see things best at fading light,

when sharp black birds at bright 9:30

soar out of elms to shifting blue.

At 10 the cherry tree demolished

by a winter storm bares what I hadn’t seen:

dead branches bent like crones on what will be

the tree’s last sun before the chainsaw.

I’m glad I caught its last two blooms:

the one before the gale, when flowers

rushed our weathered fence, then mournful pinks

of this year’s brave but meager encore.

5.

It’s not quite dark but tough times anyway,

Today, in fact, in floods of Iowa, a farmer

had to kill his pigs. A few survivors

screamed when roped and lifted

from the bilge. They’re all that’s left , he said,

but who would want to eat them now,

soaked with diesel fuel and shit?

What misery – saved, then euthanized

by what was in the flood. This solstice poem ,

at first a song to days, now seems to want

a hymn to night: why do those doomed and salvaged

pigs want in this poem, a poem that’s struggling

with the light?

6.

At 10:15 three fireflies flash the purple yard

And I recall that childhood night

my father’s voice a promise

from the glamour of the bay

but I wonder if when summer dawns

less light may come as a relief.

I ring my father’s bell -- And now

begin invoking myths

for those who followed light

and disappeared.

In the White Room, With Black Curtains...


It's quite possible I lost my virginity to Cream's "White Room." Back then -- "then" being the late Sixties -- the melodramatic strains of "I'm so Glad," "Spoonful" and "I Freel Free" were regular accompaniments to the rebellious forays, experiments and exuberant separation adventures from our parents that kept us energized for years. I avidly pursued my independence in dorm rooms at first Miami U. of Ohio and then the much-sought after "off campus housing" (1009 Vine, true 'nuf, which you know if you read my novel) of Kent State where I drank Thunderbird, sampled skinny little rolled-up tastes of pot, and tried to get laid.

"Getting laid" sounds like the way a guy would put it. Oddly, I can't remember if those are the words I used for it then. But I know I wanted to "lose my virginity," strange erasure that that implies, well, I wanted it so badly that Mike Davison and I, both untutored in the mechanics of sex, tried for about three weekends in a row to make it happen, and stopped each time because it frankly scared us back into our bell-bottom pants. He was afraid to hurt me...I was afraid it was going to hurt. But finally that novel feeling, to be entered, to be filled -- and then all that movement, all that exertion, me "laying" there under him, paying exquisitely close attention to my body, to his body, feeling him sweat, feeling his breathing and already asking, I swear without guile, innocently, "so that's it?" -- well, we managed to get there. I was determined -- dogged, even, in a typical Scorpio fashion -- to have that experience. When Jimi Hendrix said "Are you experienced?" I wanted to be able to shout back, "Yes. Yes. Yes."

I'm remembering all this now because Saturday night Ted and Dennis and I went to Alva's Showroom on Eighth Street here in Pedro for a "Cream Tribute." It was performed with respectful exactitude in this sweet, small-scale venue by Kofi Baker, Ginger Baker's son, along with Fran Banish (fabulous name -- I looked it up to be sure I heard him right!) taking over the Clapton guitar parts and Rick Fierobracci emulating Jack Bruce's bass. They opened their two sets with "White Room," and the crowd lustily cheered. Including me.

Young Baker is a remarkable drummer himself, though far cheerier and, well, robust than his dad, who glared from album covers in the Sixties like somebody who's really, REALLY mad at "old people." Baker Junior and his mates have been making the rounds playing Cream and Blind Faith favorites, and at Alva's, the crowd, populated by folks of at least my age or older, ate it up.

And, sitting in the dark of Alva's, sipping Dennis's champagne from a plastic cup, I remembered Sixties sex.

My first lover and I worked at sex, as I remember it, in a low-ceilinged attic room in the house, which somebody rented out to about five or six Kent State "girls." I remember none of their names. It was usually messy and there were fights about food and who was supposed to clean the kitchen. My roommate for a time, a classically gorgeous blonde, had sex with her boyfriend in a single bed about three feet from me for weeks before I angled for my own room upstairs. I remember candlelight and incense burning -- I'm allergic to incense and had to bury my sneezes so as not to distract. She and her boyfriend didn't care I was trying to sleep right next to them. They were condescendingly worldly and didn't find me cool. I had a black portable stereo I'd bought from my tips busing tables at a Brown Derby Steakhouse. It sat on a bookstand at the foot of my bed. It had those two little matching speakers that attached on either side of the turntable. I had a small stash of records under an Indian scarf that covered the bookshelf: Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Janis Joplin, Cream -- my shards of worldly accomplishments. In the game. One of the "us" that crowded into the culture then, making so much noise.

It was more like "so that's IT." Quiet, satisfied that I'd made it happen. Not the more cynical, jaded, pissed-off feminist reaction of later, "So THAT's It?" of later. It didn't feel particularly good physically. It was interesting. But not particularly pleasurable.

Part of the poignance of this memory -- this set of memories -- when I think about it today, an old woman of 60 on this longest day of the year, 2010, about 42 years since I lost my virginity, is how long it took me to learn how to fully experience pleasure in this world. Back then sex was so often about misplaced revenge, getting vindication for what I felt to be the smothering sameness and boredom of my earnest parents' lives. The fresh air of my new life, my freedom at 18 and 19 and 20 was endlessly intoxicating. And also intensely consuming, not exactly relaxing. Not relaxing at all.

It's possible to make a case that I didn't learn how to relax about sex until about a year ago.

I spend time every day teaching myself, over and over again, to Be Here Now: it is easier these days, with life's limits clear and most of my big decisions behind me, to simply Be Here Now. It still takes practice.

But I am grateful nonetheless for the energy of those tense years of my late adolescence. And I feel affectionate and appreciative of the rich, marvelous backdrop that came with it: music permeated everything. Cream -- Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton -- were there, pounding out their complex symphonies, soulful accompaniment to the melodramas of my own young life. It was fun to hear these young kids play it all again, and to remember.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Taking a Breather

Back in San Pedro, and as usual I am keeping busy during the day while Ted's at work -- busy, busy, busy with my own work. I never seem to be entirely free when here...was there ever a time when I could simply sit and "create"? But who ever has such freedom? Anyway, my head is buzzing and achy from putting together my summer online creative writing class, which starts July 6. My first ever all-online class, and I'm very uneasy about it. To help me prep, I'm enrolled in UMF's "Intensive Course Development" class, an eight-week boot camp I took once before, about four years ago, but I swear this is as if I'd never done it...a new version of Blackboard is kicking in, and I'm feeling stretched to the limit technically speaking.

I've made it into Week Five...every day requiring more reading, more posting, more fighting with Blackboard. Safari doesn't like it and it keeps booting me off. Maybe I'll download Firefox finally which is supposed to work better -- it's all fight, fight, fight with various systems most of which I only minimally understand. Trial and error, cussing, making it work...I've been a noisy complainer about all this on the ICD discussion board -- so loudly yesterday I finally felt the need to apologize.

The requirements for clear "learning objectives" has been a rigorous exercise for my left brain, while my right brain is chomping at the bit to invest the class with the "fun stuff." Yet to make the "fun stuff" work online, I'm having to wrangle with set-up -- endlessly detailed, front-loaded...I wish I knew HTML other than my little bits and pieces of it, carried over from this blog, actually. The ICD teachers, headed by a terse math Ph.D., are relentless about "outcomes." This consciousness, this conscious insistence on knowing what we are about, what we want our students to do, how to set up and measure "mastery," is at the heart of responsible teaching, of course.

But it's making my head hurt.

I just want to sit here looking out at the harbor, where the morning's cool marine layer hasn't yet lifted, and watch a barge slide into the harbor. I know I've got a poem in me somewhere. Some new poem waiting to be written. With only a gray legal pad and a pen. Not HTML. No power source. Just paper, pen, and my wandering, restless mind.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Scrub Brush: "This is It"

Tools of Rage and Poetry, With Cat


A new era...is how it feels, continually adjusting to life events. I'm struggling in my own quotidian rhythms to embrace and accommodate to and balance among my particularities -- the personal wrestling of my individual circumstances -- and a concept of "greater good" -- the ways in which the community -- my community or communities -- and in fact the natural world go on with or without me. What is my role in this? How do I keep my individual body going, my mysterious individual consciousness, the consciousness that inhabits me and in which I am trapped for the duration -- as are we all, of course, humans moving around in these limited containers held together by our sturdy skins.

Saturday night's reading (see below) was a fine moment -- four readers, as it turned out, an audience of 50, double-digits of wine bottles, red and white, flowing along with the concertos of voice and word. Connections with my history; I was present at the opening of Buckham close to 30 years ago; I was present when Alan Ginsberg performed there; I have reviewed many art shows staged there; I have read there myself a number of times over the decades.

Waiting for people to show up the other night, I stood in the open window at the back wall and looked down at the Torch parking lot, the brick law offices, the southbound traffic on Beach Street; it was a mild lovely evening and downtown Flint smelled like a city, delicious, evocative -- a mix of asphalt and exhaust with a bit of stubborn spring green mixed in. Framed in the window, that swatch of Flint on a spring Saturday night seemed romantic and melancholy, my own history and desires and sadnesses inescapably in the air. I went to the gallery's bathroom where I've retreated for solitary earthy functions uncountable times during uncountable art openings. There's a full-length mirror in there, and I inevitably looked at myself, my whole self, before going back out into the world of the life I've made. Hmm: yes, that's me, I had to say. Still me. I recognized myself, still there. In that one specific moment. As Sheldon Kopp says in Item One of his Eschatological Laundry List: This Is It.

Before the reading I was in a foul and volatile mood. Trying to load paper into the empty printer, I couldn't get the packaging on the ream open and in a sudden fury, slammed the whole pack down onto the floor. Ripped off my glasses and threw them on the floor too, violently swearing. The symbolism isn't lost on me. Language, my beloved, trusted soul tool, so often resists. The world so often resists our words, or doesn't care. And what I see, sometimes clearly, the evidence of my senses, often leads to pain and disappointment.

So I abandoned the upstairs and, in the spirit of Gaston Bachelard, stomped down to the basement. To clean the cat litter. In the pungent cool darkness. Still in a fury. The place smelled so strongly of ammonia my eyes watered. Back from Pedro, we had somehow forgotten to check: forgotten our duty. Three litter boxes overflowing, the cats had peed on the concrete floor and pooped in cool corners. I took over the basement with dangerous energy. Ted came with me. That fact. The man who loves me: In the basement, holding the bag for cat shit, holding the dustpan for piles of scattered litter. I filled a bucket with bleach and water and got down on my knees, slopping the mix onto concrete; me in a teeshirt, old socks, raggedy shorts and rubber gloves, daring Ted to laugh at my flaggellating getup. He refrained. He simply held the bag. I scrubbed down the stink and my rage with an old scrub brush. I like that word "scrub brush." My scrub brush helped.

The basement smells clean now. The floor is soothing and cool and free of crud.

The eight poems I read Saturday night were, as my new literary pal Matt Falk said, a "set" encompassing a range of emotion. On the whole, indeed, I felt them as a sequence, a cri de coeur from my whole Flint life -- one poem I first drafted in the 80s, several others I wrote within the past few months. It felt good to cry them out, to declaim. I am at cusp these days and the act of witness, of saying my life, of working the sounds of my life -- all of it was gratifying. I slept well that night.

See, I am taking this as a serious occasion in my life, even though my current poetry manuscript has been rejected at least ten times since September. I am taking this as an act of scrubbing into my life, doing what I can do. On my knees in the cool basement, taking it in, taking it in, making my life whatever it will be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ink Takes a Village: and that village is FLINT

Nic Custer, Alan Matthews, Kelsey Ronan, Grayce Scholt, Jan Worth-Nelson

Join in to hear and see a dynamic lineup for a memorable night in Flint-Town -- the East Village Magazine writers.

Those of us who have lived here for years have powerful stories to tell. AND there will be wine from D'Vine Wines and hors d'oeuvres from Oliver T's. This is a literary event not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words for Flying High and Coming Down

Hawk over Angels Gate, closest I can come to a flying image at the moment

This is a first for me -- a blog from 30,000 feet. In seat 22C on a Delta flight east, coming back to Flint from LA on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday. It's my first time to encounter WiFi in a jet. As I noted on FaceBook, I'm not sure if this is good or bad...usually, being free from email and other electronica for four hours in the air means that these trips, my many commutes, are times when I've started new writing projects and read books I'd long neglected. Another zone of solitude changed. Instead, I'm cramped up in my teensy seat, my elbows scrunched back against the inadequate cushion, the laptop on the tray table. Not an empty seat. They've finished beverage service and most people are asleep including, blessedly, the infant two rows up in 20F who bawled the whole way over the Rockies. I'd bawl too, actually -- tough way for a baby to spend four hours, not to mention her harried mommy and daddy.

And beverage service: let's see. Now we are told via not so kindly intercom that we can only have ONE packet -- peanuts, pretzels or cookies -- and we should be thinking about it ahead of time. We still get free juice, water or coffee, but the booze is $7. I learned long ago I'm better off not drinking up here in the high clouds, so I save myself that expense. But I studiously select a package of peanuts, issuing my decision quite responsibly when the old ladies (they're all close to my age these days) rumble the cart down the aisle. I buy a sandwich for $8 -- turkey, provolone and greens of some sort in an oversized bun. I shouldn't eat all of it, but I feel sorry for myself, trapped up here. No cash anymore: credit card only...so I have to twist myself around the tray table, dig my backpack out from under my seat with my feet, do a perverted yoga bend to unzip the outside pocket, pry out my wallet, get the ELGA debit card, and hand it over...the flight attendant slices it through a little holstered box and declares me paid. I ask for a couple of extra napkins to sop up the bad balsamic vinaigrette dressing and that is what I get -- exactly two flimsy leafs of napkin, as insubstantial as onion skin.

Oh, did I mention Ted got upgraded to First Class? So he's up there enjoying free everything, the bastid, stretched out in his capacious seat, wiping off the angst and sweat spreading like a cloud of Agent Orange from back here in steerage. Oh, no, the kid just woke up. She's not happy. I know why. My ears are telling me -- we're coming down. Coming down indeed.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wide Open Roses: In Memoriam

Sunset through the Wall at Pt. Fermin

So sad that another apparent suicide victim has been identified at the foot of the cliffs in Pt. Fermin Park. Here's what I wrote several years ago, after another suicide there, when Ted and I lived on Almeria Street:

Wide Open Roses

Wide open roses tumbling over fences
start this peaceful morning,
wild dill trembling in the ocean breeze,
the air so pure I am breathing in blue.
I feel my blood get redder, my hotspur
skin tip its cells up to the sun. This day
I almost take my happiness for granted,
walking my sprung senses serenely along
the sea, where grasses bend and stand up, where
bougainvillea spills down every wall and eave.

But I am walking with a reason -- to see
where a woman jumped or fell, they didn’t
know which, on Tuesday. It happened
close to noon, they said – so cruel, full sun.
They found her body at three in the clackety stones
of low tide. I am here to try to know, I think,
how my new joy collides and cleaves
to what might have been her despair.
The truth in my heart like a sprig of sage:
how those tough cousins, our
hope and hopelessness, can be such
rivals, sometimes depending on
the curve of the rose that morning, the kiss
or the missing kiss of one azure day.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Forty Years Later with two Old Testament Dudes

The earbuds are locked in and I've got old Neil Young cranked up loud; it's one of those weird mornings at the harbor where the fog still hangs over the docks but the hillside is bright, and for that matter, so is the fog, so white in the sun it hurts the eyes. And since that blinding fog a quarter mile or so down there still is thick, the ships are plying their horns, deep bass honks like bull moose, as I said this morning on FB. I can hear that even over Neil Young crying out "I've seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone."

It's a strange combination of mournful opacity and troubling brilliance, suitable to my reflections on this anniversary of the Kent State killings. Just finished "Down by the River", then "Cowgirl in the Sand"; now "Cinnamon Girl". Today, can't get enough of these old songs, so lavish with elegiac doubt and love for all that surrounds us, a sense that it is all ending: "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the Nineteen-Seventies." Neil Young always seemed so morosely hip to what was happening, more than hunky Steven Stills or the prematurely avuncular David Crosby -- even when he was a kid, Neil Young was a sort of Old Testament dude, his yearnings reassuringly dark, the anger burning off in those gorgeous chords, cathartic minor melodies, poignant steel guitar and pounding rhythms that served as liturgy for me, the kid running away as fast as I could from my father and mother's religion, but with a taste for ritual rhythms imprinted irrevocably in my DNA. Even now, the swinging dirge of "Helpless" pulls at my deepest heart.

And of course, "Ohio" -- ..."four dead in Ohio..."

I'm back 40 years ago, a sunny Monday much like this bright one; then, though, I'd never yet been west of the Mississippi, much less to California, where I now ply half my life through elucidating fogs. That day as the news of the shootings hit, my father, another Old Testament dude, raced across country roads and came and got me, shouting his way through the barricades; as he saw it, he rescued me. He needed to take me home. Now, at 60, very well aware of the dangers of the world and the primal qualities of family love, I understand that, and I am crying a little bit as I remember it, and him. I admit the scared kid in me re-emerged, and briefly, I wanted to go home. In the face of all that blood, it was permissible to want his protection. It was okay to accept it. And when he and I sat at the table together after dinner that night, there was something different between us than there had been for several years. There was sweetness.

So that was it. May 4, 1970, last day of my childhood.

And the first day of a shared adulthood. My father raged against "state violence"; I was impressed; it launched the possibility of the two of us connecting as mutually skeptical and watchful citizens of the world. We still had a lot of fight ahead of us, some of it bitter, corrosive and hurtful...but that day opened a door.

That semester I was taking a black and white photography course, and when offered the chance to finish it on my own after the shootings shut the campus down, I set up a smelly darkroom in my parents' bathroom. My quality control stunk -- may I say, nothing, really, was black or white: the images I'm left with are murky and naive -- the patterns of a concrete black wall on the boring parsonage patio, my mom sitting in cloudy focus, unposed, in the kitchen -- it was clear I was trying to see her anew, but it was a condescending lens...see this poor middle-aged Ohio woman, unglamorous and doing her best, quaintly still believing in God and craving whatever little crumbs of intellectual life she could extract from The Upper Room and Guideposts. I know that's how I thought about it then. She made me sad and wildly restless.

Man, I wanted out of Ohio so badly. Kent State gave me a necessary kick: I was out of there within a year, and from then on, I only came back to walk around my father's garden, sit impatiently on the infuriatingly familiar hard pews and sometimes cry at the old hymns, relishing and chafing at the lurid words. My parents were the only reason to be there; eventually I came back to bury them.

The Kent State killings were a first wake up call about the "real world," for me, and also, importantly, a first thrilling moment of first-person witness. That has not been insignificant in my life. When I've found myself unintentionally at several other similarly epic moments -- the murder of Debbie Gardner in Tonga in 1976 where it seemed that the America I had sought to escape followed me into one of the most remote outposts in the South Pacific, and then a huge earthquake the next year, and then the melodramatic and infamous collapse of an emblematic American town -- my response has always been to simply try to describe what it is like.

Well, I've written about that day at Kent and thought about that day a lot over the years, as have so many others who were there, but today, overall, I find myself wanting simply to blanket myself in Neil Young's plaintive voice, "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun."

I'm not sure what all this means, except that here I am again, writing things down.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Specifically, Pat Endings: A Post Pretending to Sound Like I'm Tenure-Track at least at the Beginning, While Obsessed with Revision

Windblown Coastal Grasses
I was reading Robert Lee Brewer's "Poetic Asides" interview in Writers Digest with H_NGM_N Press impresario Nate Pritts while revising my ms. this week. One paragraph stood out. Pritts, one of the golden boys of the Warren Wilson MFA program, who's since become a Doctor, was describing how he used comic books as "ekphrastic" triggers for his book Sensational/Spectacular. (Throwing around words like "ekphrastic" is how we know Dr. Pritts might qualify for a tenure-track job some day; pairing"ekphrastic" with comic books, smart aleck that this young Doctor is, is how we know he's STILL SO COOL). Anyway, this is what he said:

First, the project was a reaction to the fact that there seemed to be an accepted language for poetry, or at least an accepted diction, that I found stifling. In some ways, I was developing a voice in my poems that was coming from the poems I was reading and not coming from me. At the time I was reading a lot of poems that were incredibly reverential and too serious, pious poems that seemed to be simultaneously thrilled with and in awe of their precious ability to turn the quotidian into something messianic. There’s a teenage version of me inside me still that calls bullshit on my poems sometimes – why is Nate writing about arias or “a cacophony of larkspur” or, in short, relying on images and experiences that are not him to tell things that are?


Ouch. That tiresome turn from the quotidian to the messianic. Eeek. Oh how many times have I slid messily down that inviting mossy rock? And now Pritts has me picking at another hangnail (h_ngn__l?) the notion, that the "accepted language for poetry, or at least an accepted diction" might be stifling. Oh jeez. Especially since I've never written a poem from a comic book, now I feel all old and, well, rusted. But that's not really what I wanted to say.

What I want to say is that I'm newly examining how my love of the language I see as available to me means that I'm limiting myself and my poems' vivifications. I started my professional writing life as a journalist, and I've always doggedly sought clarity, coherence, what I think of as architectural or structural integrity. My poems have a beginning, a middle and an end. As I've looked at the poems in my current ms., they seemed designed, like a sequence of yoga poses that should be executed in a particular order, or a dance designed to fill a particular stage, or a piece of music that I can follow, like Miles Davis's "Blues for Pablo" or Lyle Lovett's grand collage "I will rise up/Ain't No More Cane" with swoops and transitions that on repeated listening, I've learned to cherish and anticipate. I wonder if I should bust them up -- the poems, that is. And I think it's likely I should.

I'm thinking of Pritts's poem "Endless Summer" in which his repeated use of the "f-bomb" propels the poem's exaggerated anger and hyperbolized regret, and in which the syntax begins to drop off, twist and fall apart. Or Pritts' buddy Matt Hart's poem "Broken Foot Effusion," in the latest H_ngm_n, in which he writes,

"I use the word flamingo,
my one leg gleaming as I stand for something
resonant: beauty in the face as the sun cracks
up. Truly, I have used the word flamingo
maybe ninety-five hundred times in an attempt

to achieve some kind of devastating balance"

and then he throws the poem open into an exuberant, stream-of-consciousness list of all the people who love him. I heard Pritts perform "Endless Summer" and Hart perform "Broken Foot" a month or so ago at the Court Street Gallery in Saginaw, and they were riveting; the effect these two poems had on me, spoken aloud, was to wake me up from a lugubrious rut. I drove home as fast as I could. I couldn't wait to write some more myself. Anyway...

In another interview, on Elizabeth Hildreth's raucous blog "Bookslut," Pritts said, "...maybe I’m worried about the word “narrative” as it implies a starting point, a stopping point & that, in between, something happens."

And that's exactly what's bothering me about my poems these days, and so I'm looking to these young scalawags of verse for triggering and transformative energy. Maybe their audacity will help me pry apart the resolving declarations that seem to conclude almost every damn poem in my manuscript. Here are a couple examples:

from "Missiles, October 1962"

There was going to be
plenty of time for me, to revel in
my vivid hurts, my lucky changes,
my charmed survival after
my mother and father were history.

from "The Blissfield Parsonage," (this is really embarrassing)

"Something grew, spring came."

from "Begonias Then and Now":

To my relief
I see that they are just begonias –
they stand for nothing.

Okay, and there are a lot more where those came from. I'm not sure what else I want to be reaching for, but it'ssomething -- something more: surprise, uncertainty -- or something less, ending before it's over...whatever. I'm looking forward...to different endings. Now that's damn existential, ain't it, for a Saturday night?

And for the next post, comes the question, what is the function of the poem? For me, as I'm free associating and/or balancing on at least one leg of my reflections, I think the poem is for comfort. Damn, I can't believe I just said that. Well, it's a complicated matter. I want my poem to be, as I wrote in one of my explicitly architectural poems, "Message to my Neighbors on Seventh Street," (look it up in MQR about a million years ago), a "fist of order thrusting up between your opulent oaks." Yikes. Put away that Freud, asshole.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Revising at a Table Set for One

Self Portrait at the Korean Bell

Settling in to my hillside LA life, I've been working on my poetry manuscript this week, a joy in many ways. It was a challenging and tempestuous winter, during which I was thrown into questioning my own role and value in the world and during which I felt confronted (thornily, nettlesomely) by others' judgments of my life's work and obsessions. At the same time, I was operating at full bore as a writing teacher, reading and judging the works of 80 other writers -- 45 freshmen, 20 intro creative writers, 10 advanced poetry students, 5 graduate students/poets.

So, interestingly, even though the winter's tumults could have set me up for a period of deep doubts about myself -- and certainly I did descend, for a time, giving in to the perils of the frazzling darknesses of February and March -- on this glistening hillside, 2500 miles from Flint's turmoils, I'm experiencing in contrast a self-healing impulse to turn inward, back to my "material" -- the material of my life as a writer that has always sustained me. In a way it's not really a choice. It's just there -- like my blood type (A+, vainly pleasing to an old teacher's pet like me). It's a relief to return to my own work, to plunge into the trance that is revision. I believe what "they" say about writing being one of the activities that takes the brain into its most salutary brain waves. After a few hours of working, rewriting, rearranging and rethinking, my brain feels deeply massaged and gratified.

And I am grateful for that.

Some of the poems in my current manuscript go back, in a couple of cases, 25 years -- a realization that astonishes me -- and some of them were written as recently as three months ago. Yet putting them together, I see connections, and some fairly consistent tendencies in style and method. Some of this hits me anew -- some sort of understanding of "who I am" as a poet, something I'm able to see because of how long I've been at this, how many poems I've written and rewritten, what I chose to throw out, what I dug into old files to reclaim. I'm not comfortable with all that I see there, but doubt is a necessary condiment for this work.

I'm not sure I've found the "right readers" for this poetry collection, or for my body of work in general. I'm not sure I ever will. Recently, somebody I've never met emailed me that one of my old poems is one of her favorites, and that she's been using it as an example in her own creative writing classes for years. She wanted to know which collection of mine it appears in, and I had to tell her it appears in no collection, because no collection of mine, other than my three self-generated chapbooks, has ever made it into the mainstream.

But that doesn't change what's happening to me, in my brain and recouping spirit, as I work and rework the words of a lifetime. Some gifts are like that -- self-generating, self-healing and always there, inviting tender and scrupulous attention. In a way, it's a table for one, set up with nice cloth napkins and a candle. A dinner for one. I could be there awhile.

Another Self Portrait at the Korean Bell

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Next New Thing at Airport Security: Palms Up

The two men in blue gloves, sort of kindly jocular but serious too, pull me off the line and say, “excuse me, ma’am, we have to check your hands.” “This is new,” I say, curious but there can’t be any joking, not even an evident curiosity, not even the slightest question, so I quickly divert my eyes and fix my face not to reveal itself, its interest in the notion of putting my hands out, palms up, to strangers. I think about how I think I look – clearly a 60-year-old woman, with gray hair at the roots, my hair pulled back; I’m wearing my black tunic with rainbow embroidery on it and my black yoga pants underneath; I’ve dressed for comfort in coach, but I’ve also picked my clothes to feel like “me,” like this woman who travels, who’s kind of interesting. I’ve got my favorite California necklace on, a circle of reassuring polished stones, with earrings to match, and I feel earthy and seasoned. Anyway, they make me reach my hands out, palms up, and one of the men brushes a brush over the soft pads at the base of the fingers, the crease of my lifeline, a brush attached to a tube attached to a machine. For just a moment there’s a weird intimacy, the palms of my hands, the two men, the machine – and I stand there and they turn their back and look at the machine. “It just takes seven seconds,” they say, like when you get a mammogram, like when the kind woman ducks off out of the room to avoid the radiation and you have to hold your breath and you wonder if there’s something dark and scary inside your most beloved part, the part that never got to suckle a child but that your husband loves and says so often, and then the machine stops and she says, okay, and comes back in and takes off the plates to see what’s there, to see if you moved and your breast left its mark or if you maybe moved and there’s the slightest blur, the blur of your body saying, no, no, don’t know this thing about me. Anyway, the seven seconds go by and I’m standing there with my arms still raised, my palms still up, and I'm balancing on my whole feet, the way I practice in yoga, feeling my toe mounds and my heels solid against the floor, grounding themselves and my chi or whatever you call it right down into the earth's core, and then the men say, "Okay, you’re okay," and I put my palms down, wondering what it would be like to have a bitter explosive on my skin, sabotaging crystals, instead of just the anxious pink airport soap and the knowing epidermis of my whole beloved life of touching and holding things and I head to Gate 2 and my next short-term escape.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Here's the Thing

Art is not nice. This is a place to be angry. Tonight, while we were trying to have an "open mic" poetry reading at Churchhill's, a drunk guy barged in, loudly asking where was his "wagon." Then he slurringly demanded a cigarette from one of the young women there, who gave one to him, and then he begged money off of her, which she gave him. It was an annoying and frightening moment. After he finally left, having disrupted most of a performance by one of the hardy readers, a Flint cop showed up and sat down among us, in full uniform. It was reassuring, especially in these tight budget times. If cops are stretched thin in Flint, it was nice that one of them was devoted to us, the Saturday night poets of downtown.

And art is not nice. There are times when we need to be angry, rude, intrusive...noisy.

Charred Remains

Feeling somewhat violent myself, I took Ted on a small tour today of some of the burned out hulks. I wanted to capture one of the signs that said "Do Not Burn Down." Here is what we found:

Oak Street

Oak Street, next to the "Do Not Burn Down" house

W. Court Street

Stockton Street

MLive reports today there were nine more fires last night -- only one actually sounded like an "abandoned house" M.O., but that one actually had been on the city's demolition list. Having just come from a writing conference at L.C.C., my mind and heart are full of this material, and I feel myself drawn into these charred remains.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Wrath and Headstands for Surviving Life in Flint

Here's my April column for East Village Magazine. I'll be reading with Grayce Scholt and Kelsey Ronan at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 13 at Flint's Longway Planetarium in the final "Poetry Under the Stars" reading, and then with four other EVM writers -- Grayce, Kelsey, Alan Mathews and Nic Custer -- at Buckham Gallery on Saturday night, May 22.

This morning, as an experiment, I said the word “wrath” out loud to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It’s an interesting word. I noticed how in saying it, the mouth has to open, pushing out to the left and right, and the teeth show. “Wrath” on a face looks primitive and a bit scary.

And primitive, indeed, is the flavor of the arsonists who are torching houses in downtown Flint as I write this. And primitive indeed are the people yelling “baby killer” at Bart Stupak , and primitive indeed are those yelling “faggot” and “n***r” at supporters of the health care reform bill.

I’ve been considering anger a lot lately, having recently experienced a personal tsunami of this most fiery of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Lately, in a discussion about legalizing pot, Bill Maher said something like, “This is a tense world. It’s stressful to be alive. We need something to mellow us out once in awhile.”

Aside from Maher’s specific campaign, I found his comments touching and true. It’s tough being a human being. And the price of mounting tension seems to be wrath and more wrath, increasingly less modulated, increasingly mean.

I must admit that things don’t seem as clear-cut to me now as they once did.

Wrath, for instance, isn’t always purely primitive. There’s a mature kind of anger, the result of real injustice, that demands action, as in the abuse of children, women and animals, and the visceral energies of rage help us carry out what needs to be done, the way people in Carriage Town have united to try to stop the house-burnings.

For me, though, the hardest kind of anger to manage is the “helpless” kind, when I experience the results of something that seem outside of my control. A body in the throes of that kind of wrath, untended and misunderstood, causes so much havoc.
That’s how I’ve been feeling some of the time lately, and I have been exploring what to do. Obviously, some things that make me angry are so big that I don’t know where to start. But within the life of my individual body, I’m finding some intelligence, and a few surprises.

For example, almost every day since last fall, I’ve been standing on my head.

As often as possible, I roll out a blue mat, take off my rings, pile a soft pillow against the wall, cradle my head in my entwined fingers, and kick up my legs.

It’s part of my relatively new life as a yoga student, and I’m immensely grateful. Things look different when I’m upside down.
I’ve brought the headstand home from my yoga class at the UM – Flint, where with about ten other people I show up twice a week, seeking deep relaxation and meditation.

It starts at the moment of arrival, when we leave our shoes on a mat outside a nondescript door.

Inside, in a windowless room with bright murals of green trees, sky and water painted on the concrete block wall, it’s so quiet. And quieting. It’s a gentle and respectful group, everybody sensitive to others’ space as we adjust from whatever happened that day. Some people lie on their mats, legs up against the wall, eyes closed, arms relaxed at their sides. Others sit cross-legged, backs straight, breathing. When our teacher, Rachelle, comes in, we settle down, facing her as she begins in her melodic voice.

She says “sit tall,” suggesting that we unfocus our eyes, close our lids, and bring our palms together at our hearts. We inhale. We exhale. We chant slowly, beginning with a full-throated trio of “ommms.”

I love the chants. I don’t know what the words mean, and to be honest, I don’t always get them right, so I just mumble along. I’ve thought of asking Rachelle for translation. Since I’m a writer and college teacher, you’d think I’d need to know what everything means.

But yoga class is a place outside the analytic brain, and my body, which isn’t so much of an intellectual, gets what it needs. My body likes rhythms and the humming voices of others in the room, a lovely vibration, a loving energy.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word for “union” – combining breathing, stretching, balancing, and meditating as an integration of mind, body and spirit.

The poses are often hard and sometimes hurt. My hamstrings are a mess: tight and feisty. I get cramps. I fall over almost every time I try to do a shoulder stand. Rachelle says instead of calling it pain, we might say, “that’s interesting” and just keep breathing. She’s re-introduced me to my feet, their clever metatarsals and their horseshoe heels – all meant to anchor me solidly in the world.

Sometimes, at the end of the class when we lie recovering in the darkened room, I feel tears of relief well up.
It’s all quite un-Protestant, and I like that. In my anxiously fundamentalist childhood, the body was, of course, described as the “Temple of God,” but I didn’t get much help on how to make it so. The adults in my life were ill at ease with their own bodies, startled and discomfited when the body’s instincts – lust, let’s say, or especially wrath – outed them as actual humans, earthlings to the core.

To be human back then was to struggle with the body, an exhausting wrestling match with guilt, shame and defeat. To love the body, then, was to sin.

It is a lifelong journey, of course, to learn another way – to know that loving one’s whole self is in fact a key to getting through this bumpy life. I am grateful for practices such as yoga which ground and soothe me, open me to others and help me face adversity. I am grateful to Rachelle and my gentle yoga classmates.

If I am to survive in this raggedy world, in short, I need to learn to unite my disparate parts. Among other gifts, that helps me with my wrath, which really serves a purpose. It is not in fact, a deadly sin, unless it curdles into something unexpressed, misdirected and stuck in fear. I’ve come to respect my wrath and even welcome its abundant energies.
So now, to the wall, to upend myself into love and energy once again.

Easter Sunday

My father died many years ago, but every Easter Sunday, I remember the one that prompted this poem below.

And the Scilla are Blooming Today, Too

Easter Sunday

“Crocus” is just another one
of the words my father can no longer
remember. He asks my mother,
“What are the colors of those
little flowers by the house?”
He is bald from surgery;
seven metal clamps shine
at the back of his skull. My
mother says seven is the number
of perfection Every time
he whispers we lean in,
hoping for grace. Once he says,
“cranberries.” He whispers,
“I am glad I have two grandmas.”
He whispers, “It is good to be in
out of the cold.” He is given
communion at his hospital bed,
the paster remarking on my father’s
strong grip as he takes his hand
for the benediction.

The scilla are blooming on the
hillside. At my desk, I order
sage and tarragon for another
summer. It is the first night
of daylight savings and the
sunset is rampant. “Who is
this happening to?” he asked me
today. “Is it happening to you?”
“No, it is happening to you,”
I answered gently. He patted
his hand to his chest and said
knowingly, “It is happening to you.”

I seal the envelope to the seed company,
stamp it, prop it on my old bronze
lamp for mailing. Then the cry comes:
Recognize me, Father,
Call me by my name.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Mother and the Farmers' Market

Here's my March East Village Magazine column. Whenever I'm going through periods where wrestling toward happiness becomes an issue, she comes to mind. Of course. It's all so primal.

Flint Farmers Market at harvest season, September, 2009

In the last few years of her life my mother ate almost nothing. She had had colon cancer and for a tortuous few months bore a colostomy bag. Then they unhooked it and reconnected her digestive tubes and she lived another couple of years. But food was a problem the rest of her life, and eating deteriorated into a thorny, bedeviling process, a lifelong pleasure lost .

But not before she left her mark on me. This is an essay about food. That is why it begins with Mom. Born exactly a hundred years ago this year, she grew up in a family that assumed itself upper middle-class -- white, Protestant -- morosely inhabiting a big, drafty Victorian house in Findlay, Ohio.

Their status wobbled in the difficult Twenties. My traveling evangelist grandpa, by some accounts a brilliant but erratic man, usually spent most of the take from his intineracy before he made it home to the Painted Lady on North Corey Street.

My grandmother took in roomers and fed her five kids Sunday night -- my mother remembered with a mix of melancholy and wounded nostalgia -- suppers of stale bread softened in warm milk, green onions poked in like swizzle sticks.

From then on, my mother cared deeply about making sure there was enough nutritious food on any table over which she presided. In college, she majored in that quaint, painfully proto-feminist curriculum, Home Economics. She could talk, not that anybody usually wanted to listen, about the chemistries of canning and rising bread dough.

In the Tara-like nursing home where she lived her last four years, she clung to some of her cherished food rituals. She held court at the head of the table in the dining room when we came to visit, folding and unfolding her cloth napkin and taking in tiny spoonfuls of creamed spinach, or pureed sweet potatoes, maybe a microgram of butterscotch pudding.

As always, she admonished her children, children’s children and various hangers-on to eat slowly, use our silverware properly, orchestrate reasonably small bites and chew discreetly with our mouths shut, one hand in the lap.

More important, even, we were supposed to converse. We were supposed to smile and be grateful, attentive to the sensory gifts of the table, and we were supposed to report on our lives and say interesting things. Nobody was excused before it was over. That concept -- children being cut loose for other, more entertaining activities -- struck her as uncalled for and indulgent. Everybody was required to stick it out for the whole shebang. That was The Way People Behaved.

She was a passionate gardener and food aesthete, often declaring upon hailing her guests to table with a little Chinese bell, that the meal was based on “good concomitants,” and pointing out her often ingenious selections of color and taste: sweet corn with Kentucky Wonder beans and pickled beets, eggplant with the carnelian tomatoes, the gooseberry with the rhubarb.

These days I think, what a waste, that her talents weren’t more noted and praised. She was an intelligent woman who never found an audience quite worthy of her devotions.

Yet I am healthier today, as my own old age sets in, because of my first 18 years, those daily “three squares,” of wonderful food she conscientiously and even joyfully provided.

And that leads me, all these decades later, to a sweet little miracle of downtown Flint, the Farmers Market.

This is what I'm talkin' about

Entering my sixties, it is more important than ever to me to find the corners of the world where I can be happy, where I can pursue the sanguine concept my mother never called “wellness,” where I can find both audience and stage for the goodness of life and share it with others.

And there is Dick Ramsdell, the market manager, up on a ladder in the middle of the big aisle, counting patrons. And there’s the Hills kid at the cheese counter, helping me decide between the English and French cheddar. He offers me an aromatic slice of the latest Stilton on a square of parchment and announces my favorite butter, wrapped in blue and white checked paper and tucked in a miniature straw basket, is in from Vermont.

And there are piles of glowing gold butternut squash and red potatoes, tangerines and pears, feasts of carrots, cauliflower and cabbage gathered by the Penziens and Coykendalls. And the fresh-cut chicken, whole roasters and Rubenesque ducks at Ron and Linda Howard’s stall.

At the bakery, Nancy & Costa Anagostopoulos bustle around behind glass-covered pastry cases. My nose flares at the fragrant yeastiness, and my husband buys his favorite lemon croissants.

At D’Vine Wines, I stock up on Leese-Fitch Cabernet and Protocolo, greeting Karen and Maria, and my husband picks up fresh milk in glass bottles. On the way back down the aisle, we buy hummus and tabbouli from David and Ani Jawhari, say hello to Todd the book guy, buy some Patty Warner cards, and pick up another pair of colorful hand-made socks from Soozie Q’s.

We culminate our Farmers Market visit by climbing the stairs to Steady Eddy’s, where Ted devours the BLT and I have the South of the Border omelet, mild.

I’m longtime buddies of Kim, Lisa and Chris, who serve me espresso in my favorite blue cup, and I am extravagantly smitten that “Daddy,” Lisa’s late father Mike Lord, overlooks the cafĂ©’s goings on from a squat urn on a shelf behind the take-out counter.

My mother would approve of the Flint Farmers Market, where we take our time, selecting “good concomitants” for our week and chatting amiably at our Steady Eddy’s meals.

Like the spirit of the irrepressible Lord, a friend whose life I celebrate with every sip of thick espresso, my mother’s plucky ghost goes with me when I act in my own behalf, like when I linger contentedly over the good life of the Farmers Market.

“It’s about time to get happy,” I imagine her – or my dream mother -- saying. “Life is fleeting – savor it all.”