Thursday, March 31, 2011

The other side of the ledger

Wedding dress. Those are the words that I heard or read or imagined in the last few days. A remnant of said dress was being worked into...something; a collage, a quilt, doll clothes. All that stuck was wedding dress.

As we consider our demons - that topic is still fresh and drooly - would their opposite be angels? No, more like blessings, pluses rather than minuses. Any bearer of lasting good - animal, vegetable, mineral or other. And no, there probably won't be a scrap of wedding dress or wedding suit among these souvenirs. Not the stuff, at least as garments go, of horror but not worthy of any museum, other than one which celebrates survival.

A rummage through assorted containers in my studio the other day did not excavate the clear envelopes I would have sworn were in this spot, but revealed a painted, stamped and splattered envelope with the hand-made catalog for a friend's one-time ephemera business. Holding the envelope, reading through the catalog, examining the samples of her wares tucked inside, brought with them the enjoyment of so many lunches, so many hours at tiled patio tables, so many iced teas, more laughter than I would have thought possible. We see each other on Facebook now. I need to write to her about the souvenir, one in my collection of everlasting passes to ride the time machine.

While I once was better at holding onto stuff, what seem like a lot of changes...of residence, circumstance, marital status, fortune...made letting go of treasures too easy. It was not all intentional, mostly not, yet they are gone regardless. Even the frequent, grown-up conversations with myself reminding me that the wagons were pulling out and I had to go, are not always enough to ease the pangs of loss. Yes, it is, it was things, but I need to learn not to expend so much energy and way too much regret in low thoughts of wishing so much had been different.

What is still with me is a train case, probably now extinct in the luggage world, with ruffled raspberry yogurt pink satin lining and an aqua leather exterior. My girlhood initials, MML, are stamped in gold. It was a gift from my grandparents to be used, well, as luggage, but first to carry my shoes and practice clothes to and from dance class. I began ballet and tap lessons in about the second grade, was promoted to toe shoes, en pointe, and even dreamed of dance as a career until being told over and over at home what a hard and discouraging life it would be...still, the train case and its mirrored lid, elasticized loops to hold shampoos and lotions in place, endure. All that has disappeared is the snap-in, plastic-lined cosmetic case that survived for decades.

Once I stopped dancing, it became a full-time suitcase. Not appropriate for Girl Scout camp, for that my father's WWII parachute bag was my favorite, but just right for honeymoons, press junkets, a cruise (as a governess), running away from home, air travel before 9/11 and almost a lifetime of driving vacations.

When I think of creating the gallery of demons, my strong Libran influences urge me toward balancing those images with memories that don't carry pitchforks. While many of the objects, and certainly the people and the moments, are gone the flowers left in their wake are still fragrant. There are always two sides to the ledger, aren't there? If I could have her in my hands, my Betsy McCall doll, whose hair I curled regularly into a perfect brunette flip, would have enough white grandparent magic to make any demon back down.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Such a long learning curve

This boat, this rusting vessel that is my life, was not delivered to me with instructions. I know what folly can result. I've seen ships run aground when there was no one to decipher the numbers. Charted depths are meaningless if they are not marked in a language or alphabet you recognize.

Through time, my politics lean further and further to the left while the usefulness of my brain skews ever more stubbornly to the right. The hemispheres still communicate but regardless of how earnestly part of me longs for order, if it ever happens it will not be the product of logic.

Last night I was reading portions of Lynda Barry's 100 Demons, a collection of some comics (as close a description as I can find) in which she presents some of her demons, based on an ancient Japanese text that offers instruction, and purpose, for creating brush paintings of an individual's demons, one hundred of them. Hers were identified as, among other things, Head Lice, Bad Boyfriends, Hippies. In the section that covers the end of summer, she writes about getting ready for the school year, about wanting THE pen that would guarantee her straight A's. My need would not have been a pen but THE pair of shoes, a tool suited for guiding my steps and choices through the mine fields, spring traps, cut-purses and goblins-in-disguise that awaited this unwary child.

My first hint of instruction came from hearing a pitch in a 12-step meeting. I remember the woman's luminous complexion, the thrift of her words, as she told of letting her life be guided by, "the next indicated thing." I was, at the time, in my early 40s and felt, maybe for the first time, something like hope. Going forward without a plan (now there's a four-letter word) had seemed like the default position, not a first choice.

Recognizing the next indicated thing, she forgot to mention, is a skill that grows stronger and more reliable with use. Learning to tell the difference between motivation that comes from fear, guilt, shame or lack and true heart-centered guidance is not for the impatient. Twenty-plus years later, I am still more talented amateur than trained professional. One has to listen actively to hear that often low-volume voice and trust that its sometimes unlikely suggestions are the real thing. Knowing the why of them is not my job.

I would like to take the one-hundred demon challenge. Ms. Barry says I will need traditional Japanese brush painting tools and, for this, I will follow the directions. One of my demons will be the map I was never given, another, perhaps, the English-Success dictionary that was left out of my student packet. Giving our demons names and form means they have to show up and make eye contact. No more slithering around in the shadows, causing us to wonder... The best part is that some of them have already be rassled to the ground. Those I can paint as extinct, declawed with tongues lolling. Two down, 98 to go.

Illustrations by Lynda Barry from "100 Demons."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thoughts that may be connected, but may not

What have I done lately? In one portion of last night's dream, I introduced a new religion. My presentation consisted of taping glittered paper in vaguely Christmas shapes to the meeting room wall and telling people things I'm sure they already knew. Yet they welcomed me and what I told them as an affirmation of what they suspected. Their reception was friendly and attentive. They helped with the taping. The shapes, scissor-cut from glossy, solid-color gift wrap, were mostly Christmas stockings, though some were just rectangles with a band of glitter across one end. Pretty flimsy material for an evangelical pitch.

Internal debate, Part One: Is it more difficult to (A) believe a new concept or to (B) unbelieve an old, fixed notion which was never true, has never brought any measure of strength or reassurance and has, generally, created a density through which much that is desired cannot flow? Answer is (B). Part Two: Can one be courageous and cautious at the same time without being a weenie? Answer is not known. Mobility issues cause me to retreat from situations in which I fear I may be unsafe in my unsteadiness. This impairs my quality of life. I wish to be safe and unafraid. The perfect recipe is still being worked out.

My mind surprised me this week with a name I was sure had been lost. For a piece I'm writing, I wished I could remember the real name of one of my subjects. Calling her Mrs. G (which I knew wasn't right) made me cringe. I could see it on the page, draining all the juice out of the story with its falseness. Then from nowhere, not a flash, not a big deal, she was Mrs. Welsh and I thought, oh yes, of course. And thanked out loud whatever bearer of pixie dust made that happen.

This might be where the truth versus reality discussion is introduced, not completed, just begun. It is a topic of such scope for me that I am wary of taking it on at all but it is central to what I believe and to the choices I make. In a comment on the last posting, Denise referred to modern shamans as being able to step between realities and being called mad. Simply told, my definition of truth may well be what resides outside reality, the everyday life in a media, politics and money-driven construct that has nothing to do with our essential selves. What I see as reality has no provision for the spirit; it makes no allowance for intuitive existence, a life fueled by the heart as a source of quiet clarity. Reality is demanding and linear with abrupt, jutting angles; truth rolls in on unchartable currents, delivers its message and departs. Reality has evidence, it has facts, even statistics. Truth is an unprovable knowing.

Since I think about this all the time, I'll probably keep jousting with it. It is as important as, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Notice we said truths. No one mentioned reality.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Poets Joseph Brodsky, left, and fellow Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott.

In cultures other than mine there are ceremonies to restore balance, refit missing pieces into the spaces left by their exodus. My absence from self has been an itinerary of comings and goings for which no estimated times of arrival or departure were known.

Before poetry - appreciated and even studied long ago but not absorbed, not inhaled, no door opened wide enough for habitation, accommodating the bulky goods with which it travels - caught me, I assumed that my once-absent segments had all flown home. Now I find that what I took for life in full measure was more a silhouette. Poetry has a way of poking its fingers into vacant corners, eyebrows raised with the question, shouldn't there be something here?

Poetry, if it wanted to, could beat any self-help manual senseless. A poem is a far more believable testimonial: I survived to write this. Poetry doesn't tell you, it shows you. How is it that, over not so many months, a literary form, an art, has become teacher, guide, source of wisdom and the voice that keeps me awake at night (in a good way)? Painful shards of memory that used to steal my breath now look like material.

There is study ahead, there is travel. My fragments could turn up anywhere. They arrive in daily emails, my heart lurching in recognition. They emerge in posts and comments, they step shyly forward from links that have a telling glimmer: look here.

In a culture thought by some to be without shamans we are not lost or abandoned. The poets rattle and drum, they chant and dance. We are redeemed by words, their incantations point the way.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tonight We Ride...revisited, revised, from March 4, 2010

This video is not here by accident. It plays a central role in the, forgive me, somewhat spotty and meandering account that follows.

The Backstory

During our pre-school years my cousin Sheri and I each lived for periods of time with our grandparents. Their home was a sun-filled, stucco, California airplane bungalow on a deep lot with a green-floored wrap-around porch, honeysuckle-twined and overgrown back yard, hydrangeas, ferns, a driveway shared with the neighbors and a three-car garage. Other than breakfast, we ate in a dining room with built-in everything including a drop-front desk. The breakfast room, windowed on three sides, was so much cozier than the formal dining room. We sat closer together, close enough for Grandpa to add the insisted-upon extra pat of butter to our oatmeal bowls.

It had been at least 20 years since Sheri and I had seen each other or been in touch at all when we met again at a small family reunion our Aunt Nancy held to celebrate a visit from her last sibling, Mary Ellen. We cousins began to e-mail each other and discovered we shared a sense of humor, political leaning and life-long adoration of our grandparents.

Factual history and folklore combined in the roots of our grandparents' stories. Gertrude was from Boston, from a lineage that reached back to the revolution. We grew up hearing that her mother had donated all the heirlooms in her possession to a museum in Massachusetts in exchange for having a portion of the building named for her. Charles, or Charlie, had been a hero in World War I, a sheriff, law school graduate who did not pass the bar exam because, as the story goes, he took too long answering the questions in details considered a little too minute.

Two different scenarios explained his extreme sensitivity to the sun. The first was that it resulted from being mustard-gassed in France (which did leave him with tuberculosis for which he was treated throughout his life). The second, the popularly-held explanation, was that he had been severely sunburned (he was Finnish, very fair-skinned to start with) when riding with General Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa.

Gertrude and Charlie met on a troop ship to the front in Europe, our grandmother a recent graduate of nursing school in Boston. They married once the war ended and were zealous members of the American Legion for the rest of their days. They are buried in a San Diego veterans' cemetery, atop a tranquil, ocean view hillside they would have enjoyed.

More Recent Developments

One night five or six years ago, I awoke with the television still on. Letterman was nearly over, the last - musical - guest having just started his song. I came in on the words "Pancho Villa," then "Black Jack Pershing" and I thought, "Grandpa." Having, at that time, the ability to record and replay, when the song ended I took it back to the beginning. Yes, that was Paul on the accordion and yes, Tom Russell's song might be considered a tale from our genealogy. It was also, in my later interpretation, a sort of Cormac McCarthy novel set to music.

I did not call Sheri in the middle of the night, babbling of my discovery. I waited until the next morning when we could play our DVRs in unison. Not too long after, we saw Tom Russell perform at one the local Unitarian churches. As he autographed our CDs he listened graciously to an abridged version of what drew us there, how his music, which appeals to me in its own right, told a piece of our collective story. Since that concert, Sheri played the song for Nancy and her daughter Lisa as they drove through the hills and scrub oaks of mid-state California, the adventure-of-choice for our terminally-ill aunt. I know the volume was up, the windows open. It IS that kind of song, whether one of your relatives was among the horsemen or not.

Sheri naps in my mind and heart today having just come through a setback in her cancer treatment, from which I believe she will rally. Nancy has been gone for several years, Grandma and Grandpa for decades. Bless Tom Russell, a fine singer/musician/songwriter/cowboy poet and his evocative, serendipitous performance, for the delight he has given all in the family who have heard him, for innocently keeping our legends alive. We come from remarkable bravery, Sheri and I, resilience is our legacy. We have rides that await us. I'll keep the horses watered until then.


Addendum: Sheri died a year ago tomorrow and is remembered here. We were allotted no further rides, no further conversations. It will be a day of missing her, sending love to her husband and singing our Tom Russell memorial song, whoops and all, as many times as the day will hold.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beauty in Decay

One of the images from Beauty in Decay,, which is reviewed in Dwell magazine, with a brief slide show.

In the course of architectural research for a writing project, my son, who has the good fortune to work in a library, brought home a book that he had to pry from my hands. Beauty in Decay is the companion piece to bottomless waters in my ambivalent heart.

Ruins took on new meaning for me when I read Thomas Moore's The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. In his chapter, "Ruins and Memory," he speaks against restoration that tries to improve upon the past in the name of preservation. In our race toward the future, we have lost the enchantment of the unbuilding of a culture that, in his words, speaks to the soul.

"We try to repress ruins," he says, "especially in America, probably because we have little appreciation for failure, ending, and the past."

My son calls it the haunted house feeling, the chill that overtakes us, even as we are being pulled closer to the repellant beauty of life abandoned. The photos stir a response beyond words. Given enough time, impression may give way to vocabulary but the language will not arrange itself in any recognizable order. For now, it is enough to sink weightlessly into these chambers, these hallways, shells and skeletons. Even visited as images, distant from the spaces themselves, the rooms murmur with embeded memories. We are not strangers here.

Our Pale Blue Dot

"Somewhere, there is something incredible waiting to be known."
Carl Sagan

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In good company

Sending my thanks to fellow blog writer,  poet and Soundzine poetry editor, Sherry O'Keefe, for presenting me with a Stylish Blogger Award. As I remember, it was late last spring when I hopscotched my way to Sherry's Too Much August, Not Enough Snow, via friend Donna B.

At Too Much August...I found words and photos that captured a sense of place, gave greater meaning to small joys and significant events. They reminded me of how our ordinary, mechanical-world lives exist within the larger context of nature.

By accepting the award - yes, happily, thank you - one agrees to link to the presenter's blog, list seven things that might not be generally known about the recipient, and select five other bloggers for acknowledgment. Luckily, there is precedent for bending the rules.

Another of Sherry's awardees is Kerry O'Gorman, whose example I will follow regarding the next Stylish Bloggers. Meanwhile, here are seven things.

1. I will never grow tired of red.
2. The Mariana Trench, deepest part of the ocean, fascinates and disturbs me, as do bodies of water referred to as "bottomless."
3. I once lost a shoe to quicksand.
4. Wind blowing through the tops of pine trees may be my favorite sound in nature.
5. Experience has not discouraged me; I believe in true love.
6. When my mind is too unfocused to write, I can still draw.
7. Awakening suddenly from a dream feels like returning from somewhere else.

As to the naming of five blogging favorites, it is impossible to choose. Each one of you that I read enriches my life, stretches the horizon and makes me want to write as well as I possibly can. I think of you, your families, your meals, your passions during the day and you've begun to appear in my dreams. In finding your pages, I feel that I stumbled into a meeting of some ancient, sacred order, one I didn't know I was seeking but recognized upon each first reading.

All of us who circulate among each other's sites have become, to me, a community, participants in a movement of not just self-expression but a larger commitment whose meaning we are only beginning to know. Speaking our truths, pulling back the curtains, makes me feel almost courageous, offers a steadiness that can only come from being fully who we are. Stylish, yes, you are, and so much more.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nails too bent to be straightened

Pieces of our story wait to be collected. They appear as an apron in a Dorothea Lange photo, a Girl Scout Handbook on ebay, the gray of a February sky, six words of family myth revisited.

Whether or not it was true doesn't change its meaning. My father claimed that his father, in the ordered space that was his farm tool shed, kept a coffee can on which he'd stuck a label, Nails too bent to be straightened. The thrift demanded by farm life during the Depression, added to the magnitude of lack that defined my grandfather's childhood, saw that nothing went to waste. It may have been said in teasing, which seemed the basic form of communication among these people, but I always believed that my grandparents had the ability to conjure whatever was needed out of whatever was at hand. Bent nails would have found a purpose.

For me, the greater meaning was metaphor. The phrase has always been with me. Somewhere along the trajectory it became a phrase I used to describe myself to myself. It represented the version of me that I assumed was true, the result of my life experiences. I believed that various traumas, losses and betrayals had hijacked my real life, my possibilities, the hope of happiness, leaving me defective and insufficient. This, of course, was once I realized that those events had such a profound impact on my choices, my state of mind.

Some of us awaken more slowly than others. Consciousness needed to shadow me, patiently, hiding subliminal messages in popular songs, movie soundtracks. With peerless manipulative skills, it arranged for excessive periods of quiet. It made me sit still, then innocently suggested materials I might peruse, teachers from whom I might learn. Sometimes it found the process too slow and just kicked my ass.

In recent days, from nowhere I can identify, came the possibility that I was never meant to be a nail doing a nail's job. What if the circumstances that shaped me into what I thought of as damaged delivered me to my true purpose, my real life? At her blog, Twisted Knickers, Susan has been exploring authenticity. I feel I'm being asked to step up and say "I do" to merging my imaginary tidy and consistent persona with the bent, disheveled, disparate bits that I find somewhat odious and not always fit for public viewing and declaring us to be one. It replicates the sensation of being put in the air-lock on Battlestar Gallactica.

Do I go back and re-evaluate everything there has ever been or do I simply start from here? The combo plate seems a good choice. There is new illumination for old tales and a call for acceptance at a level previously unknown. This must be what it was like when Oprah learned she had a half-sister, only I get to play both parts.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Just say you're with the band

The Rolling Stones, 1964, l. to r. Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman.

Soon after the start of the year, Ms. Moon wrote about reading Keith Richards' biography, LIFE. She made it clear that Richards is not who many of us have, uninformedly, thought him to be over the decades in which we have certainly known his name. Her enjoyment of the book was enough recommendation for me.

I have only reached the point at which the band is forming, there are gigs, there is time divided between coming up with money to survive and total immersion in the music they want to understand and bring, one club date at a time, to England. But in Richards' description of their process - listening to records they've obtained of American blues, teaching themselves how to recreate the sound, planning and practice, I was able to feel what it must be like, being part of a band.

From that awareness, of the work that emerges in a highly collaborative environment, the energy, the shared vision and anticipation, came a reflection on what is the - if such a thing exists - normal act of writing. It is, as I know it from experience and observation, a solitary business. My fantasy constructed a band of writers, not a very likely gathering, yet not unimaginable.

Some thirty years ago I worked for a multi-disciplinary, publicly-funded arts organization. Outreach was one of the mandates and performance was one arm of that. There was a group, active then, called the The Watts Prophets , poets and musicians who had that band thing going with the added emphasis of spoken word, a writing workshop, publishing AND performance. I see they are still together, still performing; they have a presence on Facebook.

Considering my demographic, I wonder what might be formed, or if any shared effort is possible as I make my singular way through blogging to whatever is next. Yet there is a message that shouts at me, words about the sum being greater than the parts, that says, as in so many things, we may be more together than apart. I don't know what that would look like; I don't know how it would work. Still I feel the threads that run from heart to heart; we extend our words, our affection to one another as we each sit, a pair of hands on the keyboard.

Perhaps our group, our troup of wordsters, is not meant to gather in one place, tune up together, adding and deleting communal phrases, preliminary to checking our makeup and the metaphoric seams of our stockings before we face the spotlight. What we have in this community may be our band. We read on-line the results of intense creative bursts or see with our minds' eyes the dry furrows of occasional drought. Notebooks, chapters, drafts in hand, we are, in our fashion, together for those last quickened steps to the stage. If our phones are smart enough, we can be in each others' pockets in real time, to share the fright overcome, to hear the emotion and applause. With the curtain down, we sigh as one and share a moment in which we, and all things, are complete. We're with the band.