{these things I do}

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Years ago, when a friend of mine was in the first throes of a difficult divorce, I saw a list on her wall which read “Things I Can Do And Not Panic” or something like that, and the list was filled with simple things she was good at, which she had control over, that had nothing to do with the betrayal and drama currently going on in her life.

That …sliced me to the bone. While we both put on a brave face, I shed more private tears over that list than she ever knew. It hurt me to think that so talented and loving and competent a person was having to resort to lists to remind them of who they were. And yet. Depression – that liar – constantly tells us who we are not, and anxiety leaves us dashing about trying to prove we are better than that liar says.

So. Here I am with my lists.

This will be this administration’s legacy: lists. Lists to remind me of what I can control (nothing) and what I can do (not much, but something). Lists to act as bandages and gauze, staunching the stab wounds to my sanity Every. Single. Day. Lists. To remind me that I have to get up and keep going. Lists that remind me that there are still some thing which are…safely predictable.

I’m so impressed with what so many friends and acquaintances are doing – speaking up, speaking out, organizing efforts to raise funds and collect necessary items. I can throw money at things, when I have any (and LOL that with the writing life), but “silence, like a cancer, grows.” Anxiety and depression are some of the great stranglers, I find, and as events unfold and the national discourse goes from vicious to violent disintegration, some of us can barely think or speak. Every task takes enormous concentration to complete. We are overshadowed by a desire for unconsciousness during the day, and twitch restively with thwarted energy in the dark hours.

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And so we pull out our lists… packed with metaphors, we make our lists force sense into the world.

On my list right now are plums. There are plums on our teensy, tiny Charlie Brown tree in the backyard, and that plum tree is doing its UTMOST right now. Every day I get a couple of pounds of plums from that thing, and when all is said and done, I’m going to have forty pounds of plums or something. I go out and take pictures of my plum tree pretty much every day. The life cycle of a plum is …pretty straightforward, actually. It’s yellow-green. Then it’s green and pink. Then it’s red. Then it’s plum-purple and then it’s ready.

(As anyone with a fruit tree, I also spend a lot of time side-eying birds. There are a LOT of birds in my life right now. I name them and count them and …basically argue with them.

Hey. It’s a thing. It’s something I can do that I’m good at now: random tiny bird identification and illogical discussions with said birds re: staying out of my plums.)

Oddly, the second thing on my list is my piano. To be clear: I am a terrible pianist. Just really bad. Mainly because I was an anxious child who didn’t ever have a professional teacher, and so had to learn from an older lady who meant well, but who basically terrified me with her quavery voice and tremoring hands. Those “lessons” lasted for about six weeks before we all gave it up as a bad idea. I could play anything the lady asked me… but I never read a note. No, learning to read music was something I taught – and still teach – myself, and my playing shows it. Badly. But, right now, an anxious aadult hacking away at the mountain of Really Craptastic Playing gives me a kind of peace. Plus, when I’m not butchering Bach, I play hymns – that’s a twofer right there.

The third thing on my list is… creating. Art. Crafting. Food. Did you know Bon Appétit has videos? (Soon I’ll be fermenting kombucha in self defense. At least now I know new things to do with alllll those plums…) I may not be good at creating, but I can be relentless. That’s basically how I have to approach everything – keep trying. Which leads to …

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…the fourth thing on my list, which is, predictably, Dutch. The language is by turns impossible and then deceptively easy – and, like with piano, I am dreadful at it — but I keep hacking at it — oh, so badly, with the throat-palate-hiss sounds of g and h – and I can only hope that someday, someday I can solidly converse with a six-year-old. Someday.

Fifth is reading. Specifically, reading fairytale retellings and romances. A happily-ever-after is a requirement, a plot that isn’t too full of drama and chaos; the sure knowledge that, as in the thirty-minute sitcom, all’s well that ends. I am throwing a way a great many things which don’t fit my narrow parameters, but am happily finding a great many that do. It’s time to reread books that made me happy, where great justice prevailed over impossible odds. These are the times I reread the Discworld books, so I can listen a while to Sam Vimes.

Yes, Robin Reader. I am writing. That’s never not on my list. I am writing even though it feels like my fingers are chisels and the plot is granite. I write even though occasionally my chisel turns into a penknife and the plot is impenetrable. I hack out a few millimeters as I can. Sometimes, it’s like sand, and it all fills in the shape by the time I get back the next day. And then this beast becomes archaeology, and I take out my brushes and go dirt-diving. I find where the plot disintegrated. I carefully piece together the story’s history. And then I dig again.

These things I can do – simple, fixed things, while we do what we can. Meanwhile, the swords we beat into trowels to transplant the flowers of justice need sharpening. If you’ve turned your spear into a pruning hook, don’t forget that agricultural implements are still offensive weapons, according to Sam Vimes… what we sow, we’re going to reap, so keep planting.

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{blessed are they that sit}

One of the first poems I memorized on my own was Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays. I first read that poem during a literature test, and it stopped me so long that I feared I would not finish in the allotted time.

The words of the poem resonated like a struck bell, speaking directly to me as I struggled with my relationship with my father, whose love, much like the love described in Hayden’s poem, was threaded through with those “chronic angers” in our house… and yet, he did for us those backbreaking tasks that too often are taken for granted as “stuff that my Dad does.”

You have to sit with poems like that, poems which challenge your perception, gently chastise, and remind you — the world is bigger and more complex than you imagined it to be. Nothing is straightforward. Black and white is in variegated shades of gray.

This past week, we’ve had to sit with things that are discomfiting – personally, perhaps, nationally, surely. Many of us are still sitting with the reminder that depression is a liar — surely a lie cut full cloth from the father of lies himself. And that lie – and these losses of good people – reminded me of another Hayden poem, which is so fitting today.

Meanwhile, Poetry Friday is hosted over at Karen Edmisten’s brilliantly named blog.


Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday

Lord’s lost Him His mockingbird,   
       His fancy warbler;
       Satan sweet-talked her,
       four bullets hushed her.
       Who would have thought
       she’d end that way?

Four bullets hushed her. And the world a-clang with evil.   
Who’s going to make old hardened sinner men tremble now   
and the righteous rock?         
Oh who and oh who will sing Jesus down
to help with struggling and doing without and being colored   
all through blue Monday?
Till way next Sunday?

       All those angels
       in their cretonne clouds and finery   
       the true believer saw
       when she rared back her head and sang,   
       all those angels are surely weeping.   
       Who would have thought
       she’d end that way?

Four holes in her heart. The gold works wrecked.   
But she looks so natural in her big bronze coffin   
among the Broken Hearts and Gates-Ajar,   
it’s as if any moment she’d lift her head
from its pillow of chill gardenias
and turn this quiet into shouting Sunday
and make folks forget what she did on Monday.

       Oh, Satan sweet-talked her,   
       and four bullets hushed her.   
       Lord’s lost Him His diva,   
       His fancy warbler’s gone.   
       Who would have thought,
       who would have thought she’d end that way?

Robert Hayden, “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday” from The Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden.

I don’t think I studied Hayden enough in school. That omission will henceforth be corrected.

For those of you sitting in grief, among the broken pots and ashes – remember, you are NOT your worst day, or even your worst moment. Always recall: this too shall pass. Don’t neglect to check which voices are telling you the truth about your life. The ones who say we’d be better off without you are lying.

{emily’s sabbath, reprise}

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no sermon, no sexton, birdsong from every direction
the quail’s quiet sageness is truth for the ages, and never is service too long.

It is rare-to-never that I think of a poem I’ve written in conjunction with a Moment I am having, but I did in this woods! It was sublime… to the point where I am studying the Dutch language and planning to emigrate. It was an AMAZING trip. Good to be home, though, and starting work on this novel again. Fingers crossed to finish by November!

{p7, pf: it’s all birds & bees}

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Where there is true winter, summertime sings.

Remember the ‘flu season? Remember how we thought it would NEVER go away? Remember how much coughing we did? Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is our reward. Hello, sunshine.

Changes

A velvet-legged bee bumbled by
While skyward, the swallows swooped by
A ricochet breeze came to ruffle the trees,
As suntime bid snowtime, “Goodbye!”

Every living thing is getting busy here in Delft, The Netherlands, where we’ve been for the past ten days. Mosquitoes are certainly active, in this balmy humidity (le sigh), but also bumblebees the size of 747’s and all manner of interesting beetles and swallows and magpies and waterfowl and oh, the swans. Nasty, hissing creatures, but such grace.

With all of this vacationing going on – and the number of guests we’ve had traipsing through our rented flat – I’ve rather overfocused on the birds and the bees, and not as much on the poetry. Fortunately, this month it’s limericks, which shouldn’t take me long at all. In theory.

My very helpful houseguests all know that I have this monthly challenge. “Oh, a limerick!” they crow. “I can help with that! There was a young lady from Delft… um….” and then they run into trying to rhyme Delft three times with ANYTHING, and finally shrug. “It’s harder than I thought.” Well, yes. Yes, it is.

So, while it is violently cloudbursting – we get a couple of these a day, and then they pass and everyone goes back out for a bike ride and gelato – I shall take a moment and flog my brain for a suitable rhyme on the theme of “the birds and the bees.” Ahem.

Pond Dancin’

A waterbug skimming along
Tried to dance to an eider duck’s song
Pirouette with a turn was all he could learn –
He got dizzy and sank before long.

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(Technically, this isn’t quite a duck; I’ve heard it called a water hen… in common parlance, this is a coot, but does anyone know why its babies have red feathers when as adults they’re b&w? They’re a mystery…)

To a Waterfowl

A duckling is made out of fluff.
If that isn’t precious enough,
Canals where they’re found with lilies abound –
(Not “awww”-ing is actually quite tough.)

Marktplaat

The warm air says ‘Springtime!’ – so sweet
In the market square, played on repeat
Are hand-clasps and hallos, a cheerful buzz grows
As neighbors meet friends on the street.

Invariably, limericks will wander off-topic… but, hey, jogging. Exercise. That’s seasonal, right? Right.

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Delft has a Thursday market and a Saturday market, and you can get bakery goods and sundries and produce at them both, and flowers on Thursday and antiques on Saturday. It is …wow. The best combination of a farmer’s market and a flea market. I could hang out and just stall-shop all day. I bought some random soaps that look like limes – enough so that I could put them on the table and someone would try to slice them. They smell amazing.

Pitfalls

On holiday, meals are sublime
and missing a treat seems a crime.
but, a girl can mistake her longing for cake
for desire to jog all the time…

And now, back on topic…

Duty

Mosquitoes play tag in the rain.
Well, young ones do – old ones abstain.
There’s duty to do – tourists to pursue,
Before they end up as bloodstains.

(Well, one can hope, anyway.)


So, how did the rest of my Sisters deal with the birds and the bees and the limericks? Here’s Laura swooping in, Tricia fluttering over, and Sara buzzing by. We’ll zoom over to Liz, and Kelly. Andi is in the garden, trying to keep ahead of the weeds!

Poetry Friday this week is hosted at Buffy Silverman’s Blog.

{a gentleman and a scholar}

Ah, Mr. Peck, your memory is a blessing.

There are few people in the children’s lit industry whom I respected more. He was so active on behalf of his readers, and on behalf of we feckless new writers who were trying to break into the industry. I will always be grateful that I took one of his mini-writing courses at SCBWI years ago, and kept all the worksheets he handed out (He was ever an English teacher. He had a suggested reading list). I will always be grateful for the smiles he kept giving me, the encouraging twinkle in his eye, and even though I was my usual ridiculous self and mostly sputtered instead of speaking like A Reasonable Adult, he squeezed my shoulder and complimented my work. I hoarded his kind words like emeralds.

A true gentleman and a scholar. We will not see his like again.


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Now, if children’s lit would stop having things happen whilst I was vacationing, I’d appreciate that… I am having a Twitter recess and mostly read the news by titles in my blogroll that I dismiss. Nothing stops the news cycle, but it is an untold relief to be able to legitimately ignore it, though. Sorry, cannot engage, am on my holiday… (Why can’t I manage that when I’m at home?)

We’d PLANNED to go on somewhere in August, but here we are in the Netherlands for three weeks and some change right now. We found an apartment (up 39 spiral, attic-style stairs, thankyouverymuch; that was a joy with two hard-sided suitcases) and we’ve settled in the little city/big town of Delft as a base for our wanderings. Since it’s not tulip season, it was cheap to be here now; high season starts a bit later in the year.

Today’s plan is to run away from home and move here.

It is surprisingly balmy weather – warmer than at home in California – and we are enjoying ourselves in this land of bakeries and water and bicycles. It is an idyll I didn’t know I needed. Wish you were here, friends.

{remember when we thought we’d be throwing down a Tubman $20?}

And remember when this annoying man decided that wasn’t necessary? *sigh* I’m going to repub this blog post from 2016 because I LOVE Harriet Tubman, and our chamber group is singing the song Harriet Tubman for our concert this month, and we should remind ourselves of who she was, so we remember who we could be.


“Come with me if you want to live!”

harriet_tubman

Doesn’t that seem like what that cover says? The gun, the hand reaching back. The utter seriousness on her face. It’s the quintessential Terminator-style scene — a savior arrives, guns blazing, demanding exact obedience in return for leading the underdog to safety, and then melting away into the sunset. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; it’s a story we’re practically demanded to love.

People who have looked at the paper money of other countries realize that American paper money loses points in the category of “interesting.” Not only does it hardly have any color but green, there are absolutely zero women on it of any shade. And now to discover that our first paper money woman (making sure to give Sacagawea her due) is to be African American, too? Wow. (Jury’s still out on how ridiculous it is that it won’t be for another twenty years, but xkcd said it best: C’mon, Treasury Dept.; this is a minor problem you could solve. Really.)

Ann Petry cover twenty

(Though I searched, I can’t give credit to the artist who put these two mediums together, but full props to them, and please let me know if you find them.) I was commenting that if the cover to the 2007 Ann Petry Harper Trophy book was made part of the design for our cash, we’d all hoard twenties, like the Sacagawea dollar coins got snapped up and mostly reside out of circulation. Tobias Bucknell tweeted back that he’d spend nothing but twenties. Which made me laugh. $.50 library fine? No, let me drop you a Tubman on that. No, no, a whole jar of change is fine. It’s fine…

Of course, not everyone is a fan of Harriet Tubman stepping out of history into contemporary life. People have been screeching that she was a METHODIST! (Oh, dear Lord, no! Not a religious person! We’re post-religious!), and that, additionally, she carried a pistol AND a sword. (ON HER PERSON! Whaaaaaaaat?)

Displayed at Florida A&M on loan from 5th generation of her family

Oddly, you’d think fans of history would know that there’s a lot of tradition surrounding religion in America; especially back in 1860, after all, as the country had only recently descended from Puritans who left England for what? Religious reasons, and five points to you. Ms. Tubman’s owners had been Methodists, and it was what she knew. Surely we cannot fault her for that. Also: many abolitionists before or during the Civil War were not necessarily pacifists (John Brown or Nat Turner, anyone?) and though she was a humanitarian, Harriet Tubman was also the soldier who was famously quoted as telling slaves who thought after their initial escape that they’d made a mistake and should turn back, “You’ll live free or die a slave.” The gun she carried at times (she was drawn carrying a sharpshooter rifle on posters by irate slaveowners demanding her return) certainly gave that statement some weight. While I doubt she was unsympathetic to their fear, she couldn’t allow anyone to give away the position of the rest of those who were going to keep running. She carried a gun not just to avoid capture herself – she had a $40k price on her own head (well, Araminta Ross did, which was her name as a slave; she changed it to Harriet Tubman herself), which was a megabillions fortune in those days – but to make sure her little train on the underground railroad didn’t leave the tracks or lose a passenger. 1,000+ slaves and she never blew her cover, never lost an escapee. That is nothing short of miraculous, you know. A short, middle-aged woman (she was 38-44 during the Civil War years) who couldn’t read or write and who’d had a severe head injury during slavery, and she managed all of that.

Her heroism merely showed
A dame adept and of strong will
(Rethought her planning on the fly,
Refused to cower or stand still.)
Intuiting through trap and maze,
Eluding landmines laid for leagues
Tenacious, and her cunning ways

Transfixed her charges through fatigue.
Undaunted ’til their fear broke through –
By balking some made to return – “If
Manumission’s not for you?
A bullet will ease your concerns.”
Nursed and cooked, too; soldiered, spied: “hero” the word, exemplified.

So, she was many things: nurse, cook, soldier, spy — and veteran who drew a pension after the Civil War. Many, many people don’t know that. She wasn’t just some nice lady with a lamp showing freed slaves the way from shackles. She also demoralized the Confederates, blew up their mines on the Cobahee River, served as a raid commander under Colonel James Montgomery, in concert with the African-American 2nd South Carolina regiment — and she carried on as if her color and gender were beside the point. Many people know a bit more about this story from Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” It’s a neat little reenactment, but if you’ve not seen it, be warned: drunk narrative with swearing:

Despite the wandering, this is quite accurate, which means this lady knows her history stone cold sober. So should should we all.

{w r i t e}

Yesterday I said I’d share my unfinished fragment of a blog post sometime. Here it is:



[6.29.2017]
It’s both necessary and redemptive; as seductive as the lure of the whale, as obsessing as the chase, the need to conquer —

Write for the spaces between the words, for the air that buoys you like a rescue device, safety trapped between layers of subordinate clauses. ♦ Write toward the air and light, like a trapped miner digging toward safety, seeing the light filter at the end of the paragraph. ♦ Write deaf, like a sailor of Odysseus, ears defended against distractions beautiful and deadly, against the siren song of doubt. ♦ Write in darkness, thirsting for starlight, tracking your path like Galileo, defending your belief in the world the shape that it is.

~ ©2017



{lissa’s poem}

Occasionally I need to repeat something I said to myself. I wrote this the day after the 2016 election in response to Melissa Wiley’s poem, and I need to hear it again. Maybe you do, too.

tenacious

“the grit that vexed the oyster, formed the pearl,”
my mantra, this, as living shreds my plans;
“and still we rise” and rising, we unfurl

our battle standard, bloody in our hands.
in disillusioned pain; in shock and fear
our doubts, now kindled, conflagration fans,

what, from disaster? how, to persevere
when we’re defeated, running on exhaust?
from deepest pressure precious stones appear,

Hail Marys passed when better plays are lost
A root, determined, granite stone will split
Some harvests sweeten only after frost –

why claim “all is not lost,” like hypocrites?
we tried. we failed. regardless, we don’t quit.

{p7 on pf lift a glass & w r i t e}

Every once in a while, I go through my blog’s drafts folder and find posts I began and never finished, or finished and never published. Sometimes, the reason is crystal clear – they were too moody, too personal, too specific. We always want to show our best selves in public, after all. But, every once in a while I find unfinished gems. I started a post last June, after Robin Smith died, and I was “all up in my feelings,” as it were, pondering her exhortation to me to keep writing despite the chaos in the world. (And there was chaos closer to home, too – after Robin passed, we had houseguests from across the country to entertain, my Mom went back to work, Tech Boy got a new job, and within two weeks, we’d abruptly moved out of a place we’d been for the five years since we moved back from the UK – it was A LOT. Too much, really.) I was groping my way through what those words meant to me. I did eventually publish something on writing near the end of June, and will eventually share the blog fragment — but today is more for my thoughts based on those words.

The fragment was some very descriptive thoughts on writing – and writing through life’s chaos – and as a jumping off point for the Seven Sisters Poetry Challenge this month, that’s my topic. Now, this month, Sara’s challenge was for us to write a toast. Or, kind of a toast, anyway; more of a salute to a…thing. Toasts for non-drinkers don’t come up a lot, but I gave it my best shot in three glasses.

three tools, one toast

A quill! A quill! The poet needs a quill
to scribe in blood the pain of loss
to lance the flesh and drain the wound
to coolly plot a double-cross
signal a shipwreck left marooned
A quill! A quill! All hail the mighty quill.
      ♦
A pen! A pen! All celebrate the pen
chips ice from frozen seas inside
a two-edged sword, which cut both ways
a whetstone to the tongue applied
we cross out lines and then rephrase –
A pen! A pen! All celebrate the pen.
      ♦
A word! A word! the writer seeks a word
elusive as a unicorn
it hovers just beyond one’s reach
grasped for in joy and hurled in scorn
its figure lent to grace your speech
A word! A word! the writer seeks a word.


Sara’s rules for “A Toast! A Toast!” were merely that we had to begin and end each poem with the same two words. (After setting the challenge, even SHE found this supremely difficult!!!). The crew is off in seven different directions this month, so we may not all get to this challenge at the same time, but we raise a glass to Laura in Cyprus, Sara in an airplane between here and there, Andi in the garden, Kelly in the studio, Tricia under a pile of final projects, Liz dashing between school and daughters, and me packing for vacation. The poetry must go on!

Poetry Friday is being hosted by the gracious Brenda Davis Harsham at Friendly Fairytales. Pop over to visit her beautiful garden-centric blog.