Category Archives: prompt responses

Riff on old family photo

The prompt for this writing was to imagine someone in shadow.

Aspire as in a form of breath. The earring catches on the collar. The heart flutters fast for no reason. Will the silk rug remain in place, the one that was my mother’s? Will the box of old photos reveal any secrets, or even anything new?

There’s my sister on my father’s shoulders, chewing a finger in nervous gesture in the summer sun. He grips her ankles and wears the relaxed face of a young man in his prime. Out for a picnic. Lulu Brook. On the other side of the state park’s carved sign stands my mother, shoulder canted backward as if to put my face front and center. I am say, five months old. There is a lace bonnet on my head. She wears the face of a young fertile woman in her prime, bringing babies into the world on time, every two years, one more to come.

I lived in the Berkshires for many, many years and then, not far from there in the Connecticut River Valley for a few more. But, I never went to Lulu Brook. It’s somewhere in the Southern Berkshires near the Connecticut border, I think. See? I don’t even know. By the time I lived in Western Mass., ages ten to twenty-one with time outs for school and travel and in three different abodes, there were no family outings to state parks. Suburbia and its demands. Dual careers and those demands. Three kids turning into angry or secretive adolescents and those demands.

And eventually, heart failure. His. The angina was so bad one night that he fell face forward into his dinner plate at Lenny’s Restaurant on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. If you lived far enough west in Massachusetts, you crossed the New York state line like others drove a little extra to get to the bigger mall. Somewhat revived on the stretcher rolling out the door, my father quipped, “Don’t order the scallops!” He was funny like that. But no sense of humor would keep his arteries from filling with plaque and seizing. Even surgery only granted him three years more.

But on the summer day of the photo, the year of my birth, when he was twenty-eight and my mother was twenty-four, what could they know of what lay ahead?

One generation earlier, hope skewed much more toward survival, my mother’s father arriving to Ellis Island in his twenties, soon to work the docks in Brooklyn and not long after that, to marry my grandmother, Alice, whose family still lived in County Cork. His name was Albert. They called each other “Al.” It wasn’t until my mother’s younger sister was in grade school and visiting a friend’s house that she realized that not all parents called each other “Al.”

My great-grandmother also came here but returned to Ireland for a while after the death of her young daughter, Mary. Perhaps she wanted the solace of her own mother or maybe she needed the quiet rural landscape of her ancestors instead of the grimy racket of Brooklyn. She was already pregnant with another daughter, who she would also name Mary. I think about the second Mary, conceived before the first Mary’s burial, being born into a clutch of intense grief, expected to bear the name of a little girl already gone into the light.

You wonder how a mother could do that to a child, I don’t care if it was common. Rather than placing honor on new life, it has the stink of a curse. “See New Mary! How much longer will she live than Dead Mary?” All Marys will eventually be Dead Marys, but still. The older sister wasn’t yet dead when the cells of Second Mary began their furious division.

Speaking of furious cell division, my mother might have been pregnant with me in this photo. If not, then it is mere weeks off. Is she smoking? Even with two pairs of eyeglasses on, I can’t quite tell, but probably. It’s the right gesture. It’s the correct hand. It’s the reason I was born teeny and spent the first nine days of my life in an incubator.

Hero of the Week — Navalny

A nugget of rock salt turns Finn momentarily gimp. I kneel. Brush the crystal out from between the pads of his snowy paw. An hour’s walk involves the tugging up and down of a mask, a half dozen street crossings. A light snow doesn’t usually deliver such quiet, but today it does. Nevertheless, my earbuds deliver news.

On Chase Street, I imagine the angels hovering above Navalny’s head when he was in a coma in Berlin. Their toes on fire, wings tinged red. It’s the bold red of passion, to be clear, and not the red of blood or Communism. The specialized poison infiltrated Navalny’s veins, his tissue, and very nearly killed him. Some devious hit man had smeared the toxin on the seams of his underwear.

Trying to kill someone with novachok is the equivalent of a serial murderer leaving a business card next to the corpse. There is no confusion, only harm.

The angels hum. They hover. They transmit messages directly to our hero’s heart, bypassing the brain where caution might reasonably prevail. “Go home,” they chant. “Go home!”

He wakes, our hero. He rises. He sends videos to his followers. The multitude yearning for change, not necessarily for him, but definitely not for the thug in charge. Navalny counsels them to chant: “Putin is a thief! Putin is a thief!” I’m bowled over by the simplicity, the accuracy of the statement. For more than a generation, he, Putin, has ravaged resource-rich Russia for his own gain. A few others. A gang. A criminal operation with known links to the corrupt party in our own country (which is, as they say, another story).

(Or is it, asks Sarah Kendzior? Author, pundit, specialist on the rise of authoritarianism around the globe, she must get tired of saying, “I told you so” (though not quite tired enough for this listener, I’m afraid). The smoke steams out her ears. Being right and ignored will do that to a person.)

Navalny, recall, has already been imprisoned by Putin and now Putin has tried and very nearly succeeded at killing him. What chance does he, Navalny, have? But our hero rises. He crosses the tarmac in Berlin. He goes home.

Not a straight path, as it turns out. The 100’s of protesters gathered at the airport in Moscow, huddling together for warmth, chanting “Putin is a thief,” watch as Navalny’s plane makes a giant U-turn and disappears. A snow plow stuck on the landing strip, the laughable excuse.

But the GRU, the pilots, the boots on the ground cannot stop the protests. They throw Navalny back into prison — a probation violation, the laughable excuse. “Stand tall,” the angels now whisper. As international beings, the angels have followed him home — what does security clearance mean to them? Now their wings flutter teal with shots of yellow. There is something of a springtime butterfly about the feathered appendages. “Stand tall.”

Meanwhile, what celestial beings encourage the protestors? Many brave souls gather in northern cities where the temperature drops to 60 below. We hope the fur around their parka hoods — the Russians love their fur! — keeps the wind chill off their faces. We hope their wool socks never get wet. We hope bellowing, “Putin is a thief!” warms their lungs and the spaces between their bodies.

I wear a down parka. The hood is up, the mask on, though since no one is on the street at the moment, it rides below my nose. Turns out the cloth makes a wonderful chin warmer. The dog and I detour into small snow banks or out onto the street to avoid the strewn salt — brittle crystals the color of rotten teeth. There is nothing of hardship in this morning routine, though a certain fatigue has set in. Waiting for the vaccine, waiting to see children, waiting for good health news, waiting to launch a creation a long time in the making. The return of spring.

It’s a lot of waiting. But it’s not heroic. I’ve got the comfort of my home, the pretty snowy, tree-lined streets to walk. No, it’s a dull throb of forbearance.

Up goes a rear leg again. The dog has stepped on another large grain of salt. He immediately makes his discomfort plain. You gotta love that about dogs: how reflexive and pure their signaling of need! Finn is also the great keeper of the afternoon clock. I know when it is precisely one hour before his dinner time because there he is, sitting next to me on the couch, giving me that eager and pleading look, perhaps even going so far as to lay a paw on my arm. It never works. He never gets his dinner an hour early, and still, he tries.

Navalny goes home. He uses the internet like a Jedi master. The forbearance of a generation has turned into something else — an eager outburst demanding the end of corruption. Enough with the deprivation! Enough with the lies!

Putin walks the halls of power with that uneven almost gimpy gait, that smug expression — is it contempt or is it glee? I doubt the man knows joy. I doubt the man can even begin to calculate the damage he’s done. And yet, with a short man’s insistence that he be noticed, he keeps at it. There are records to be set — he’s a real Tom Brady of potentates.

And meanwhile, in frigid weather, the fur-lined hoods continue to gather to call for change. To decades of denial, to the absolute failure of the common weal, they say, “Enough!” The foggy condensates of their breath concur. “Enough.”

A man willing to die for them is confined to a prison cell. A man willing to die for his country left the safety of Berlin to return to his Mother Country. What is inconvenience, even pandemic-scaled inconvenience, in the face of that? And more to the point, what is despotism in the face of that?

Here’s what else you need to know today. *

* Listened to an episode of The Daily — a NY Times podcast — while walking.

Ms Wheatley and Ms Gorman

This short piece was written to a prompt in an AWA class.

I have come, unwilling, afraid. A sticky heat. An unmooring. A destruction. A pale lady pats my cheek, making bird sounds. “Ooh! Ooh!” She turns to a man, the colors of his jacket, a glaring affront after the dark hold, the grey sea.

“Susanna, no! Be reasonable, my dear.” He clomps along the dock, pats another on the head. “Like her. What about her?”

But Pale Lady kneels. Now my chin is in her hands. I clutch the carpet scrap around my shoulders. It is filthy. Whether she chooses me for good or for ill, is impossible to know.

+ + +

The man with the bag of coins approaches. He knows a buyer when he sees one. “She’s yours for a trifle,” he announces and husband hands over a few bob. It’s likely he, the seller, thought the girl about to die. Any money was better than none. And then Susanna Wheatley, her husband, and the newly purchased girl clambered aboard a carriage to take them the few blocks from the wharf to Boston manse.

The enthusiasm his wife exhibits puzzles John Wheatley until he realizes that the dark-skinned skinny girl looks to be just the age their Sarah was when she died. Seven years old. This girl is missing her front teeth, just as Sarah had been. Their poor, dear Sarah, taken by the pox before even her grown teeth came in. So this vanity purchase — what else to call it? — driven by a grief-soaked nostalgia, would have to be tolerated.

“Mary will teach her Latin,” Susanna gushed on the ride home. Her husband tucked his chin down to dissemble, the enthusiastic plan striking him as pathetic, absurd.

“We shall call her Phillis,” he said. “After the ship.”

A thriving servant. They refused the moniker, ‘slave’ — as if to do so made a difference. She, the slave Phillis, took to words like a duck to water. John Wheatley’s tolerance, a state he expected to be brittle and difficult to maintain, transformed into pride. The little darkie had something of genius about her and how well the white ruffles of her cotton lawn cap framed that Senegambian face! Her teeth grew in. She mastered English and not just Latin, but Greek as well. So proud, so possessive but willing to share were the Wheatleys, that they found a printer on State Street who rolled plates with ink, plates with their Phillis’s words on them and he, the printer, printed them. Poems.

A council was convened. John Hancock, a short man with a bit of bluster (to put it nicely), the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, Samuel Mather, others — their one purpose to determine the authorship of the folio. Surely, it could not be her? A slave! A collection of precise poems filled with lofty and literary images, language suitable for the illustrious poets of the age.

But, never mind all that for now! After gently, reverently nodding to Toni and Maya in the shadows, let us call forth that skinny black girl with a gift of the tongue — Phillis Wheatley — for she, too, must be on the Capitol steps today, beaming with pride.

Look at how this current orator’s yellow coat glows with promise! See how the red satin head band across her crown and the beads elegantly tucked among her braids, speak to the past that she calls upon us to repair. She, Amanda Gorman, can certainly speak with authority about the ‘belly of the beast’ — just as Phillis could have (but didn’t) lament the belly of the slave trading ship, the Phillis. Imagine being named after the vessel that ruptured and destroyed your former life! Imagine being poked with that perpetual reminder. “Phillis! Oh, Phillis! Come here!” “Phillis! Say it again, more slowly this time.”

If a ‘skinny black girl descended from slaves’ can position herself on the side of hope and mercy, surely we comfortable white people can do the same? Certainly, we must do better than we have done? We’ve all suffered these long-lasting four years, ‘bruised but whole,’ as the young poet says, a twenty-two year old who might as well be descended from Phillis Wheatley, herself. Seek harm to none she, Amanda, sang and: repair the past.

On a day we stumblers of the 21st century thought would never come, at this tattered end of a vulgar destruction that wrecked even the experience of time, let us take the words of the young poet into our hearts! Let us honor her lineage and what she says about the future! And then let us take her words back out onto the streets and continue the fight because as she, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, pointed out in incandescent glory — we are unfinished.

+ + +

* references: Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi; The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, America’s First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.;a history docent in Lexington, Mass. who characterized John Hancock as “an asshole;” as well, of course: the inaugural reading by Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb.

** It is not true that Wheatley was published in Boston. No one dared touch her work. She had to go to England to find a printer.

Off the page

First my page, then Helen Macdonald’s.

This paragraph came at the end of a much longer piece about illness and caregiving:

The copper beech branches outside claw at the sky, barren but for a few tattered leaves. But even a tattered leaf speaks to season — one jiggling a little message in the bitter breeze this morning. All I have to do to find redemption — serious, nervous-system, Holy Spirit kind of redemption — is lift my head and look out the window. Blue jays my best teachers. Squirrels and puddles and scarlet holly berries, too.

* Bird sculpture by Maggie Rose.

one week out RANT

May I be peaceful. May I be free of inner and outer harm. May our nation be peaceful. May our nation be free of inner and outer harm.

On the fateful night, although not the decisive night, one friend plans to zoom with her Quaker community, another to block out all media. I say with a barking laugh: “Oh, it’s ice cream and Steve Kornacki for me!” Last time, I stayed awake. I drew a map of Florida and prayed over it. I saw the dismal, bleak, heartbreaking result before dawn, which by the way was not shocking because ever since a certain lanky G-man had made a catastrophic announcement about emails, I’d been sick to my stomach. Part of me knew already. Could not be shocked. Is it a good and decent sign that no such sick feeling attends these final days? Flutters of panic, passing visions of chaos in Pennsylvania, but no stomach ache.

Even with one of the Orange Buffoon’s Supreme Court appointments practically quoting the propaganda machine in an anti-democratic voting rights decision favoring republicans, I don’t feel sick yet. (There’s Gorsuch parroting Fox News about the need to have results on Election Night, adding “or soon thereafter,” just to sound lawyerly).

Isn’t it awful that “anti-democratic republican position” is now a redundancy? One Party Minority Rule is their game — and not a good solo party, either, but a regressive one with allegiances to business that will wreck the environment, with Federalist Society reasoning that tries to mask their sexism and racism, but can’t. Bye, bye voting rights! Bye, bye legal contraception (and you thought just abortion was on the line?) Bye, bye legal same sex marriage. Due process will have three months to fall during the next President’s 180-day Commission, that is, if we win and win big.

If we win and win big, the centrist party will have to turn a fire hose back on the other side of the aisle. We wont’ stand for less! All legal, of course, and perfectly Constitutional — “balancing” to “packing.” But really, why take it sitting down, with our heads in our hands?

Here’s the thing — AND IT’S NO SMALL THING — the right wing will revile whatever we do — even the centrist politician’s tip-toeing along, touting the virtues of incremental change — so we might as well be bold and decisive. Which is not to say I’m about to put a rose in my twitter moniker.

She makes calls to Wisconsin, another to North Carolina. The friend from Cleveland shares the podcast about white suburban women changing their minds (not my mind, mind). I gave a chunk of money to secureblue (again!) because who can say NO to President Obama? Also: made a gift to a Wisconsin voting advocacy group, because: Gorsuch. NO MORE MAIL!

Because a certain handmaid on a balcony stands ready to proselytize in jihadist extremes from our highest court. There she was in black with a tight smile, I’m guessing her only kind of smile, and pearls, standing next to the fat orange transgressive machine of destruction. Posing for Reality President TV. Will we be free of the beige, racist eunuch of a son-in-law, who’s speciality, for all I can make out, is failure? Well, and maybe crimes against humanity. Will we be rid of the Goya-posing reconstructed daughter that Daddy would’ve liked to fuck both before and after her many surgeries? Please say yes. Rid of them. Gone. Please say yes.

May those with sense be ready with a replacement health care plan, Supreme Court work-around built in. Then let the minority (may they be a minority!) bring 50-60 — or WAS IT 70? — bills to try and repeal THAT. McConnell closes up what some have called “the most expensive lunch club in DC” until November 9. Can you imagine being so cravenas to advance his justices with lightning speed and leave Americans in need hanging? Seriously, (and Mr. Necrotic Hands did more than take a fall, by the way), he knows his Stupid Prick of a leader is about to go down. He knows he himself hasn’t got much longer. Else he might not have taken such an inglorious and hypocritical approach to the Supreme Court vacancy. He’s grossly miscalculated, says one. It’ll backfire, many assert and I want to believe them.

Meanwhile, there’s joy at the polls. Trucks with music, activists with pizza. The moon is waxing. The leaves are falling. Babies are being born, dogs walked, prayers uttered. May they go down in flames. May the defeat be so decisive that not even the machinations of a certain MIA TOAD attorney general can pervert it.

May I be peaceful. May I be free of inner and out harm. May our nation be peaceful. May our nation be free of inner and outer harm.

—- * —-

Notes :
Collage made with dianaphoto app and includes a paper collage made while in Italy (the Buddhist monk — probably from National Geographic) and an image of Mahershala Ali (probably from Vanity Fair). Prayer is from Buddhist tradition. Lanky G-man is of course, James Comey; the recent SCOTUS opinion concerned whether Wisconsin could count ballots post-marked before Nov. 3, but arriving some days later. The answer was no; the miscalculation of McConnell’s was explored in a long thread on twitter by @realhoarse and the thread is here.

Joy at the polls — you’ve probably seen