{#npm’17: time travel again}

My sister and I are on a nail odyssey, as in, we’re attempting to not bite them for an extended period of time. She got nail tips done in a shop to prevent this biting. It lasted for… a week. Mine lasted somewhat longer. Today, she’s on my mind, so I am re-posting poems about her from a couple of years ago. Enjoy.


Yesterday, my mother sent me this picture from her phone.

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These are my sister’s old braces – molded specifically for her infant-toddler-child-girl-woman legs and feet, so we can’t pass them on, only recycle them. Mom couldn’t bear to do it when she was small, so they’ve been in the attic for the past decade, a silent testament. Like the pencil marks on my friend Bean’s kitchen doorway which track the progress of her daughters, now both in their late twenties/early thirties, these are a witness to how much the years have changed the Bug. This is a record of the surgeries to correct the tiny bones, of the structuring forced on her dimpled limbs to enable her feet to lie flat, her ankles to support her weight, her back to stretch out, her body to stand tall. At nineteen and fairly petite, there aren’t dimpled elbows and knees left, and there probably won’t be too much more lengthening of those femurs, but stature from other directions – cognitively, of course, because every teen needs cunning and guile – wisdom – confidence. But what records do we keep of those? How do we know when we’ve become what we’re meant to be?

“running” your own life takes practice

stand up for yourself
don’t let them walk over you
just put your foot down

we’ve “stumbled onto” a solution

you don’t stand a chance
’til you can stand on your own
so take the first step

roll on you crazy diamond

“I’m fun-sized, not short,”
she takes this life in her stride
while finding her feet

Yep, that’s my girl.

{#npm’17: with apologies to the doggerel patrol}

rx for writer’s block

the lowered sky scowls, ushers in
another springtime squall.
restless, the wind’s spin, once again
heralds cold raindrop’s fall.
in layered wool, enwrapped in fleece
and sipping piping tea
the writer sighs at spring’s caprice —
and, writing, finds the way to peace.

should others, plying art as trade
find dull days leave their souls in pique
recall that sun, too, can invade
with sick ennui the Muse pervade —
perhaps, what’s best is this technique:
Keep Butt-In-Chair, five days a week.

{#npm’17: a writer’s annunciation}

Annunciation

Blessed, blessed

are you, for

I

will make you weep

when the light hits the grass

in the morning.

I will make you crave

conversation like red

meat, lay you

weak, at the feet

of strangers. I will open

lives like vistas

before you

that you will never

seal.

Read the rest of the poem at Read, Write, Believe

Portland 116

Some days the world will crack us open. Some days, we will write, as Sherman Alexie famously said, in blood, because we remember what it felt like to bleed. And no matter how long it takes to get a character across the kitchen floor, maybe the trick is to keep writing.

{#npm’17: borrowing from martha}

This happens almost at the end of every NPM project; I get my momentum going to get out one last novel before the summer slump hits publishing, and so I am working wildly, finishing a revision while another novel makes new rounds. Yes, I have determined that the rejection was a blessing, an opening of a door, and am going to move through it with that.

It’s deliberate, to articulate that this is a blessing, an opportunity. Yesterday a friend who has recently been eviscerated via Kirkus hung up her keyboard. Told me it was no longer worth it. We have struggled together, she and I, over the past few years in response to various crises, and it’s a bit painful to me that she’s quitting – and yet I know that our lives are not identical, and her decision is today, and maybe not forever. But, it’s just got things reverberating through my mind.

Today’s offering isn’t really a poem, more a meditation from Martha Graham, and a response. Tomorrow’s is a poem by poet and novelist Sara Lewis Holmes, who is also one of my poetry sisters. Her thoughts on art and creation have clarity and depth, and often the way they strikes me creates a reason to go forward. I will not reprint the poem here in its entirety, & encourage you all to read it on her site. It’s worth the click, though, as so many of Sara’s poems are. Onward, to today’s post, though:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.

You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

~ Martha Graham

Today I removed
Six accounts of washing hands
two descriptions of slicing
& one commentary on tying an apron from a scene
which should have taken two minutes to finish
but some days
it takes hours to get my characters across
a kitchen floor

I gave up writing this piece
the day Michael Brown gave up his life
a child bleeding to death in the streets meant
my work meant nothing. nothing meant anything
and everything was wrong

it has been a long road back

what does it take to write?
closing my eyes, and going it blind
shutting out the world
in favor of imagination?

what does it take to open myself
to this blesséd unrest?

no artist is pleased
but I must be pleased
to make all worlds mine

{#npm’17: circumference}

(x – h)2 + (y – k)2 = r2

we are all self-centered
it is said
we are all self-centered
but what matters is
how wide your circle


hearing a tale of injustice leads some to make an empathic mistake
instead of an ear, the listener becomes
a speaker whose tale overtakes
the voice of the hurting. shifting the spotlight.
demanding, asserting that they have the right
to stand in the center and speak on their feelings –
but that isn’t empathy, friends, that’s stage-stealing.


we are all self-centered
it is said
we are all self-centered
but what matters is
circumference

{#npm’17: the great outdoors}

I don’t actually know if it was an air rifle, a real rifle, or a BB gun. We were forbidden to touch it. EVER. I was terrified of my grandfather’s ancient gun in the front closet which was, to us, an instrument of death. Tech Boy, however, grew up with his family’s arsenal, so it was easy enough to go along when a friend I’ll call Irish asked if he’d be interested in testing for a gun safety certificate with him.

Irish didn’t grow up with guns quite like Tech Boy, but as he’s hiking the United States portion of the Pacific Crest Trail solo this summer, he’s had a niggling suspicion he should carry protection, especially since the election. As part of a “relocate your Zen” movement, long hikes are trending with new populations, and some hikers in the Bay Area have experienced the great outdoors in new and troubling ways since the new administration, and have felt unsafe. And yet: my seventy year old father hikes his solo eight miles, daily. A (white) teacher of mine solo hiked the Crest Trail every summer, from turning fifty until her retirement, with never an uneasy moment except from stepping too close to the odd rattlesnake or finding herself across a stream from a bear. It’s troubling how a simple walk in open space trails near the Golden Gate Bridge is suddenly fraught with conflict from the human species. It’s no longer negotiating the simple incivilities of the obstreperously backwards; it seems like an entirely new population has emerged from beneath Jim Crow’s graveyard rocks, dragging outdated and putrefying attitudes like a reek of decomposing flesh.

For Irish, it was the bizarre and dreadful incident on the United flight which steeply pitched the thought of taking protection on this hike from amorphous idea to an urgent determination. Raised in a typical Midwestern family, he’d identified as Michigander first, ethnicity second. But, realized that no longer mattered, if it ever did, not to racists. Irish was an infant adoption from Asia, and no longer feels invisible, American, safe.

Now there will be a gun, in a conflict on an isolated trail. A gun will certainly change things, in a stretch of deep woods, on a lonely piece of high desert scrub. But, I’m not sure I know how a gun will help. The whole thing is, honestly, troubling me.

a part of the walk

*with apologies to Henry Reed

today we have the naming of parts
yesterday was the naming of fears
tomorrow we shall have what to do
what to do if we are still afraid
but today, we have
the naming of parts
lock
stock
barrel


today, it is twenty-one hundred miles,
solo, but for the soundless steps
of bears, of birds; of catamount, crouching
tomorrow we shall meet those beasts
of whom we should be most afraid,
but today, we have the trail, the trees,
a man against nature
cartridge
shells
trigger

today it is five foot six, size nine boots hiking
twelve hours a day, seven days a week
can three thousand calories a meal
weigh in on a hiking human’s worth?
on a single heartbeat
the world turns
sulphur
charcoal
saltpetre

count back to when
we reached a time past turning
tomorrow, we shall have regret
today, we have only this
ready

aim

fire

{#npm’17: from books, with love}

Paisley Abbey 22

One of my favorite stories of an infectious book – pardon the really bad pun – happened in a Sunday School Room turned dressing room of Paisley Abbey a few years ago. Our chorus was doing an afternoon performance in this gorgeous venue which was also a bit short on private space, so our soloist for the Stabat Mater, a lovely Irish mezzo called Una McMahon, was crammed in with us regular singers, up a very, very narrow and treacherous spiral slate staircase in a long narrow attic room. She was sitting alone, as the other singers were giving her space, but I thought she was just a ringer from another choir, so I settled in at the otherwise empty table with her, my book in hand… whereupon she leaned across the table and grabbed my arm. “Have you read this book?” she asked, holding up THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot. “Um, no,” I began, intending to tell her my mother’s book club was reading it – but I never got in another word. She was off, so grateful that someone had breached her isolation so she could tell them… It was THE BEST book she had ever READ and I had to go to Waterstones at the tea break and get it IMMEDIATELY and what they did to this POOR WOMAN’S REMAINS was absolutely CRIMINAL, but she had SAVED so many PEOPLE and there was this total ethical stew about it, and people ought to really THINK before they do this type of thing, and… and…

I wanted to hug her delight. I wanted to go trekking across the city (and it was pouring down buckets, so let me tell you about how committed I was feeling) to find a bookstore and get it, right away. When was the last time you felt like grabbing a virtual stranger and pressing a book into their hands? I loved her enthusiasm so very much, and it’s stuck with me these years later.

And as Oprah Winfrey has finally finished her seven-year project to bring this story to film, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks is on my mind again. They stole the cells from her body before it was returned to the family. The lab people nonchalantly went on, working from “material” they had to produce life-saving cells to test Jonas Salk’s virus on. It wasn’t illegal, necessarily. But to keep her family from knowing her contribution to science – because she was the “unimportant” bit – was a bit unfeeling, to say the least.

Long live the immortal cells, and the work that scientists do – and long live the human contribution. May we tenaciously cling to our humane-ity.

epigraph on an immortal life

a theft before her body cooled, fair game in laboratory hands
those bold, immortal cells a boon each scientists could understand

with no permission sought, unknown this treasured life bloomed, undeterred,
her DNA a cornerstone and life to others has conferred.

{#npm’17: still life with linens}

Not having been raised in a family that really “did” Easter (the fourth Thursday in November being the only demonstrably non-pagan holiday prompted our family’s all-out celebration of it, though believing gratitude to be a directive from on high helped, as well firmly believing gratitude has nothing whatsoever to do with America, its fabled friendships with the disenfranchised people it later murdered wholesale, nor with those whose extreme piety created odd sartorial choices that excluded jewelry, but included ginormous buckles), my Sunday was spent listening to Berlioz’s Te Deum and ironing table linens. A very hot iron, flattening wrinkles, a hiss of the spray bottle, the drum of rain against the skylight – and briefly, a sense of order, of peace. All very fleeting and imaginary, yes. But, for a moment, all was right in the world.

& the crooked made straight

control from chaos
order, in a puff of steam
imposed perfection

{#npm’17: eliot among the rocks}

Glasgow Botanic Gardens T 11

Today is as good a day as any to re-post a sub from 2011. It was just at the beginning of March, and I was reading T.S. Eliot. His body of work is vast and deep, and I hadn’t read this one in a long while. So. Let’s time travel back to pre-Easter 2011:


Lent, whatever your religious stripe, really is a good reminder to us that we shall not surely die without our Cherished Things. It’s an exercise in self-discovery to realize how much we suffer when we deviate from the little streambed of our usual haunts and activities. How like ants we are, only traveling along our same little lines, doing the same things the same way, whether they’re good for us or not. Lent gives people the excuse to jump out of their ruts.

Glasgow Botanic Gardens D 05

So, too, the Lenten season.

Every year around this time, I ATTEMPT to read and fully understand T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, and every year, I realize I have to settle on a single section of it, and go with that. The entire poem is rife with subtle references, both Biblical and otherwise, and there’s a lot there to miss.

Sometimes, I feel like I have to read Eliot with annotations and a dictionary on hand, but because I love his sonorous voice (I have heard recordings, people, I am not THAT old. Listen to it for yourself, or read it in its entirety here.) and can just imagine him speaking these circuitous, profound and allegorical lines, I keep knocking my head against this one. Today I read this portion aloud:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
Glasgow Botanic Gardens T 01
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Excerpted from ASH WEDNESDAY, by Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1930

This is a poem is about doubt, about coming two steps forward in belief, and perhaps moving three steps back. It is a poem about difficulty, and faith. It is hard — very, very, very hard. In more ways than one.

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I think I actually enjoy the difficulty of this poem, in a weird way. Every once in awhile, it’s okay to be challenged. It’s okay to give things up. It’s okay to try, and try, and see the edges of where we fail and fall apart.

And pick up again next year. And try again. Even among these rocks…


Do you ever read back over your old blog posts? For some reason, I was searching for the title to a book someone had told me about years ago, and ended up just reading through some of the bleakest months of late winter-spring, and finding how much I was clinging to hope in dark places sometimes — and finding food, again, in those things which fed me back then. A good practice, sometimes, this looking back, to see where we’ve been led in the past…

{#npm’17: a tender shoot}

Hayford Mills 026

My play-cousin, Mary Lee, has been posting all about Pete Seeger’s lyricist, Malvina Reynolds, this past month, and Reynolds’ song about failing fell in a good spot for me. But I didn’t want to admit to Mary Lee that I’d never heard, um, of Malvina Reynolds, and I couldn’t identify more than one Pete Seeger song if paid. (*cough* I know. Sorry. “This Land Is Your Land?” that’s all I’ve got.) Protest songs weren’t necessarily my era, and our household was all about the religious music, except for illicit Manilow and the odd easy-listening in the car on the way to the grocery store. (My mother, the maverick.)

So, I thought Mary Lee’s favorite Seeger lyrics was a good thing to post today, for my Christian peeps, and for my Jewish, Muslim, and Generally Not Into It peeps as well. It spins well off of Tupac’s “The Rose that Grew From Concrete:

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

Water drills stone. Roots shift concrete. Grass covers all. Whether your rose or grass is HaShem, Jesus, the Prophet, or sheer granite determination to get through these next few days, months, and weeks, may your sneaky, rooted self find all the cracks, and may your push never falter, that the concrete which stifles us might buckle, and a necessary growth take place.

God Bless the Grass

God bless the grass that grows through the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.
God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.
God bless the grass that breaks through cement,
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent,
But after a while it lifts up it’s head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead.
And God bless the grass.
God bless the grass that’s gentle and low
Its roots they are deep and it’s will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man’s door,
And God bless the grass.

~ Malvina Reynolds

Hayford Mills 330

Pax.