Category Archives: prompt responses

Rant or Lament?

Can’t tell if this is a rant or a lament. That may be evidence that I badly need to get out of the house and go camping or it may signal something about this extraordinary age. Probably both.

That’s when I got the idea about sleeping out in the forest: pine needle pillow; pricks of stars visible through the jagged, vertical pines; shadows. Hoots and cricks, some scary, some soothing but all better than the eternal thrum of the AC system and its chill result. What are we? Slabs of meat in the walk-in cooler waiting for the sous chef to grab and fry? The heat knows no bounds. Or at least, previous bounds exceeded. 90, 91, 95, 97. Even the dog gets tired after a block.

I drape my bra on the back of my chair — convention set aside. Where am I going anyway? I can speak to a neighbor at the lot line with my arms across my chest.

The deck at night offers no alternative because of all the AC generators littering yards nearby, thrumming into action at regular intervals. Plus traffic two blocks over. You don’t hear traffic in the daylight because of all the suburban sounds of improvement and maintenance — yawing, sawing, polishing, blowing, hammering, trimming, and trucks, trucks, trucks.

The place of my birth always lies to the north or west. Where I write in community in August quite nearly on top of my birth town and so the geography speaks to home as little else can. When no single school, no single neighborhood, not one state, even, claims your history, let the rolling hills and the clinging mists at dawn speak to home. Those hills. Old, old mountains. Not the majesty of young upstarts like the Rockies, but the soothing ancient rolls of tree-covered dirt and stone. That’s where I’d like to sleep.

After a long solitary walk away from the conference center’s line of Adirondack chairs. A creeping fear of bears. A constant look-out for the bite of a tick. Scraping through damp grasses until shadow and branch take over. What happened to our primitive selves — the musculature of the hunt, the wary nervous systems of vigilance?

We’ve been scrambled. First by too many interior hours, then by a wicked remove from food sources and now by the glowing blue light of our devices. How many sleepless nights do I succumb to the news feed — holding the phone above my head, working my arm a little, my thumb a lot, knowing the whole while that I’m entering an insomniac’s hell — a damnation so complete that it might keep me awake until the early doves start calling out to each other and the passerines twitter with their timeless chatter. If the eyes manage to close at three, the continued scroll under the eyelids represents a modern form of torture — not just for the delivery system with its pituitary-disturbing glare, but because of the tsunami of terrifying content.

We are fourteen Reichstag fires into the creation of a fascist state. We are frogs, boiled, boiled, boiled. We are pretend pundits, all, twittering our outrage in fear and pretend hope that something, ANYTHING, we do might forestall the total collapse of the Republic.

How much, then, I might prefer the clicking rattle of a venomous snake or the crackling approach of a large mammal to lying in bed in the glare of news. Dying riddled with poison or after being mauled by a bear, alone and in pain, somehow more right than the accretion of damage to our nervous systems wrought by today and tomorrow’s political fuckery, which of course is not merely political, but personal. DID 1970’S RADICAL FEMINISM TEACH US NOTHING?

So okay, those circles of advocacy were hideously, egregiously white, but now here we are all, arms extended to any and all who would prefer liberty, or let’s say “so-so democracy,” to kleptocracy, hoping to grab each other and sing, not unlike the yellow-shirted moms in Portland trying to protect protesters with their bodies, which is what good moms have always done — tried to protect their young with their bodies. Look how they turn the BLM chant into a lullaby — “hands up, please don’t shoot” — knowing how the nasty, cameo-clad soldiers must not be angered and really, must be soothed.

I’ll sue, you’ll sue, the AG’ll sue, the ACLU will sue — but the delays and the chances of meeting a radical, unqualified right winger on the bench grow by the minute. We’re frogs. We’re boiled. Our organs are near to exploding.

Let me walk, therefore, barefoot on rocks still warm with summer sun and risk disturbing a rattlesnake. Let me enter the deep, cool shade of the forest and lie down there as the sky inks black. Let me be surrounded by the old sounds, even if bringing ancient fear with them. Let me lay my head in the bracken ferns, aware that I crush a few fronds for my comfort, but prepared to do so to save my soul.

  • Collage above made sometime between Zimmerman’s acquittal and Michael Brown’s death.

After Kindcaid

In the spirit of learning through imitation, here’s something written after reading three pages from Jamaica Kincaid’s “At the Bottom of the River.” As promised, it’s pretty stream of consciousness.

There’s the book about indigo, the one about slavery, one called, “Unexplained Presence.” If you could explain anything you would. You know you can’t, but the trouble is you keep trying. A fan in a summer window whirrs, more to block out a roofing crew than to cool the hallway.

All hallways connect one thing to another.

Remember how little Markie crawled up the stairs and his brother trailed behind, exclaiming, “You’re a good climber-upper!” Stairs connect up to down, the present to the past.

With all the molecules swapped out since our babies were learning to walk, we might as well be different people. That’s supposed to make us feel better — scientific evidence that we are not, after all, stuck. But what of all the unread books? The tome about journalism highlighting Ida B. Wells or the new massive biography of Frederick Douglass? You don’t even take the time to reread his Fourth of July speech.

You go, instead, to the rocky shore looking for talismans, hoping to be refreshed because the evidence in hand suggests that you are indeed stuck.

The man’s forearms still lovely, still eager for son. You write ‘progeny son’ instead of ‘solar sun’ and give the game away. Our issue, 1,000’s of miles away, having left, and left again. Airports foreclosed for now. Even a run to the PO to mail care packages means defying the odds. Contagion everywhere, anywhere.

If you look at the lozenge of of light on the floor, what do you actually see? The puddles of gold like stepping stones from here to sleep.

At the shore, you gather palm-sized rocks, silently condemning the neighbor who fills his truck and fills it again to line his long driveway with Pebble Beach artifacts. Your offense is so small by comparison, three rocks in the pocket, but the impulse is the same.

A mist came in. The surf crashed in brownish rolls. We could smell the kelp. We could smell the brine. All the smells, stepping stones to the past.

Remember when Thacher Island light houses bellowed out their caution on days like this? If they were to do so now, I might weep. And why don’t they now?

The sandals are left in the car. The espadrilles get sandy and, because of recent downpours, muddy, too. We used to come here as children, as families, as the last of the boomers, ready to accept all as our due and then reject the same with ideology, entitled rage, and dirty espadrilles.

We were too young to protest the war. As Saigon fell, I was taking my boyfriend by the hand, lying him down, unbuckling him. We were too young to go to Woodstock. We watched the reels wistfully, knowing all the songs. We missed the mud. The dirty hair. Jimi Hendrix before he died.

We protested Three Mile Island instead. We made ‘Take Back the Night’ banners instead. How many forthright and righteous women does it take to bring down a single, lying predator — twenty, thirty? And maybe not even then.

I put the thieved, striped rocks in the garden where they can talk to others of their kind. ‘I was stolen from the beach. How ’bout you?’ ‘I long for the sound of the surf, for the sound of the fog horn, for the sound of children scrambling with their plastic pails and sunburned shoulders.’

Sunburns no more! Lighthouses silent!

When the sun illuminates a long string of cobweb draped from ceiling molding to light fixture, it’s hard not to gasp. How long, exactly, has it hung there?

How long had the creepy pair lured girls to the massage table? Why do we call her a ‘madam’ or ‘socialite’ and why do we call him anything but ‘convicted sex offender’? She turned up in New Hampshire, not Zurich, not the Upper East Side. She thought her money would shield her.

Will she live long enough to tell her dirty secrets?

The muddy espadrilles resist the bleach, refusing to be spiffed up. Now the toss away shoes cost unreasonable sums — formerly priced like upgraded flip flops, now like a mid-level shoe.

No foghorn blare. The mist a fine spray. We were refreshed. The dog always between us. Pebbles rattling in the backwash of surf like we remember. All the rock tokens. The light puddled on the floor. Hallways and staircases leading somewhere. Recalling the toddler proud of his new velcro sneakers. “Here, Markie, chew on these!” Those were the days when the little one put everything in his mouth, chewed banisters and socks. Memory like a plaintive foghorn, marking out where the invisible island lies.

The roofers bang the shingles in place.

Get Me Out of Here

A prompt response to “get me out of here.”

Short version — life sucks, but there are pockets of joy.

1) Horse hair lath. Dust of decades. Darkness. I scrabble away. Can anyone hear my frantic efforts?

2) The leg, it is broken. The well, it is dry. I watch the sun fall off the rim of the stone like it’s the end of the world.

3) I cannot see myself in the mirror. He has smudged me out with benign disregard. “Oh,” he says, “I didn’t tell you?”

4) The legs crowd my relief. Chairs, staid and those that rock, ladies feet, socked and shoed. Get me out of here!

5) Twelve at the table. Eating. Pass this. Pass that. Nine people tied for saying nothing.

6) It would’ve been funny if it weren’t tragic. Abominations launched. Lies tolerated and worse. Quick! Change the channel.

7) In the dusty cellar, the ten year old clutches the Bible recently purchased at a flea market for ten cents. Fifty years later she wonders, ‘do fallen Catholics have any protection during tornadoes?’

8) Sandy wore pigtails, ate her boogers, and laughed at all her father’s dumb jokes. ‘Will childhood never end,’ her brother wants to know.

9) Ronnie slobbered because of cerebral palsy. Ronnie leaned in for a fourth grade kiss. Wet. His mother where? Sandy called home. Her mother would not come.

10) At the will signing, Jennifer thought her head would pop off in panic. ‘Was it the business of witnessing,’ her therapist later asked.

11) Brad sat in the corner of the lodge, cold French fries on a plate, his wrist broken. His mother couldn’t be reached.

12) The uncle that declares ugly predictions as if doing a service. “Most don’t live for more than three years,” he opined. Her father’s staples not even out.

13) There’s Robert De Niro acting as if he’s a young thug. Only problem is, he’s got an old body. Is this ever gonna end?

14) Herculean restraint collapses and spite retaliates agains the crazy that is her sister. The silent tolerance never credited.

15) It’s 10:30 am. Her boys have been rocketing around the house since before six. Time is a liar — surely it’s dinner time?

16) She wept by the tomb, her blue robes darkened by tears. Three days is a long time to wait.

17) And behind that rock? Waiting, why exactly? Was God the Father brewing up some special elixir to elevate His Son or was the Holy Ghost off on a distracting mission in Egypt, perhaps, or Mongolia?

18) Even 47 minute masses are too long.

19) Why not give them sacks of grain? The potato blight did not cause catastrophic death and emigration anywhere else in Europe. Genocide, an old game.

20) What was her name — the girl in the well? Now we remember the scuba diver who didn’t make it out trying to save that trapped soccer team.

21) ‘Get me out of here,’ thought every single one of those boys. How polite their desperation!

22) Hamburger grease and twitter thumbs do not go well together. Can no one stop the man?

23) All the saviors fall down. They, too, might as well be trapped in a damp cave in Thailand with a flooded egress. We holler and holler for their help when they are the ones in need of rescue.

24) Can no one stop the man?

25) Traffic on the Bourne Bridge crawled to an absolute halt. There was no way out. An existential crisis. Would Jennifer eventually slide forward past the narrow rails and be reborn. Get it?

26) If I count to ten or a hundred will it go away? If I count to ten or a hundred will I go away? If I count to ten or a hundred and vanish, who will I be after?

27) The Committee chairs bored even themselves. Why keep talking?

28) The partner in the corner office humiliated her with a guffaw at a department lunch. Much later Jennifer will rail out loud: “I’d rather be a decent person than a good lawyer.” Fucking boilerplate!

29) Interminable wait. Wooden benches. Dead, hostile faces at the counter. 84. Oh god, I’m 110.

30). Wait for it. Wait for it. She’s still waiting for it.

31) Her apartment smells rank — a vile combo of garbage and urine. There are so many boxes and piles of crap everywhere, there’s no where to sit. ‘Did I want to watch CSI-Los Angeles reruns?’ she asks as if everything was normal.

32) At some point, we all shed the body.

Finally, well, there is no finally — just strings of intolerable moments punctuated by sweet spring air, a perfect omelet, the well-timed embrace, passionate release, the just-right pocketbook, friendships that endure, a cool glass of bubbly water on the deck in July with a good book, oak trees that rattle all winter, catalpas that litter the ground with orchids in spring, the devotion of dogs, the quirky affection of cats, a difficult catch made, dancing into remembrance, the blues, rock and roll, the sound of pounding surf, the smell of pounding surf, foaming surf on ankles and knees, a dip in the cold Atlantic, his clever wit, my laughter, your beauty, purple shadows on snow, the old dog relaxing in his bed at last.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

A spoken work with references to the nursery rhyme, Ring Around the Rosie, and to ideas put forth by Resmaa Menakem in a recent interview with Krista Tippet, On Being. See references, below.

Ring around the plaza
an eye socket full of gas
the corner goes up in flames.
Ashes, ashes, we all
rise up.

Ring around the Big House
pocketful of protests.
The fence becomes a meme
demanding justice.
Ashes ashes, we all
fall down and weep.

Ring around the house of worship
pockets emptied of protection.
The Reverend’s voice rings to
the rafters of the nation:
“Because you held a
knee to our neck.”

Ring around the Rosie
a reference to a rash
pockets full of posies
those nosegays believed to
protect against the plague.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
as cases spike, the bodies
that cannot breathe, numerous.

Ring around the wrist or the waist
We wear our slogans proudly
as if our purchasing history
might changed the damage done
over centuries.
Free Shipping! Black Lives Matter!

Ring up the purchases, fast and
furious, for its not all
pat and full of pride. The
esteemed list of best sellers
goes nearly fully to educating
white people about the ills of
our body, our white body,
holding down the Black body
for 14 generations.

‘Performative’ sneers a neighbor
‘a buzzword,’ she demeans,
then puts “micro-aggression”
in quotes, nearly begging
to be challenged in a post
decrying white women
challenging each other.

We could argue. I could be
right and she wrong, or
I could be obnoxious and she right
and none of it would matter since
it all happens from the
neck up and slightly to the left.*

What if justice with a
capital ‘J” arises from a
place located just below
the navel?

What if it’s a problem
niceness can’t nice us
out of? And policy can’t
strategize us out of?*

I’m reminded of the brief
time in one of my toddler’s
lives, when he went
around disagreeing with
everyone. “You are
UNcorrect,” he’d scold.

Neighbor, fellow white
progressive, you are
UNcorrect. Hook up the
laugh track or better yet join hands and
spin and spin and spin until
the world blurs into horizontal
stripes and when we all fall
down, the world tilts and
makes us woozy — a
full body sense of disorientation,
a visceral impression
of losing hold of our
ingrained reliable perspectives —
even gravity unfamiliar.
A falling down
that might unhinge us
enough to fully rise up.

No nosegays for protection,
no signs of disease
breaking out, but an

embodied redirection
a skeletal curiosity
a human openness lacking
historic reference to white
supremacy except as
a check and a check again —
a hand out held for a
less insular dance
maybe even a fever pitch
celebratory hallelujah
where race matters as
culture but not as an
up or down measure.

Ring around the Rosie,
a Juneteenth dance,
a July 4th dance.
Post pandemic, Post
Tulsa, Watts, Rodney King,
post slavery, reconstruction, Jim
Crow, red lining, post foul brew
of leadership that slinks
from low point to low point.

Some of this will be over
soon, right?

We’ve burned it all down
before — ashes, ashes —
but could this be
the real time, the call
forward, even if the dance goes to
our death — yes — since all
dances go there — but
with real hand holding
in a dance of falling down? Alive.

The wind blows today.
Maybe it brings hope.

 

* * *

*in his now famous TED talk about education, Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about how most of academia is aimed to an area “above the neck and slightly to the left,” and that this is one of its greatest weaknesses.

* Reverend Al Sharpton’s eulogy for George Floyd was powerful and moving.

* Resmaa Menakem studies how trauma is stored in the body.
In his recent interview with Krista Tippet (On Being podcast), he criticizes white anti-racism efforts for relying on strategy and policies, instead of on culture. He also says that ‘white niceness is inadequate to deal with the level of brutality inflicted on black bodies.’ He asserts that the ‘real battlefield is inside our bodies and therefore the conflicts need to be resolved there.’

 

PS This post took almost two hours. ARRRRRRRRRRG! WP would not upload a 5M video from my iPad. I kept trying. Then, it also wouldn’t upload a draft to my phone (I usually bounce back and forth). So then I said, screw it, I’ll just publish and keep revising. So then I made a voice memo, forgetting how I uploaded it last time, then researching and remembering — requires emailing it to myself and then downloading to PC and inserting as media on blog. But then (Then!), I could not access WP Admin on PC, at which point I moved from a barely contained fury to whimpering. I had to google how to access admin, which took a bunch of tries, and then, when I tried to sign in, I apparently had the wrong PW, no re-assign PW link showed up in my email and then (Then!) they told me my account was closed and if I thought it in error to tap link where they wanted three pieces of info — none of which I had. I backed out and started again and just for fun input what I THOUGHT my PW was, just to see what the fuckers would say, and sure enough: “PW was used ‘too recently.'” YOU MEAN IT WAS MY PASSWORD? So now I have a PW that starts ‘youfuckingpieceofshit’. But I got my poem up!

Prompt – taking something apart

Prompt: Write about a character taking something apart

It’s considered “cheating” to explain one’s writing in advance because the writing is supposed to stand on its own. I’m gonna do it anyway.

If a second novel is harder to write (whether the first one bombs or succeeds), it might be wise to have a second subject on deck and maybe even some rough notes before finishing the first.

Most of the initial scenes in the piece of historic fiction I’m now editing came in response to prompts. It’s incredible how participating in an AWA class over time can produce a novel.

Lately, I’ve been “getting” scenes of a family living in Massachusetts in the 1970’s. Closer to home in every respect. No research necessary (except maybe for headlines and number one hit songs). No worries about whether or not it is my story to tell.

What follows is a narrator ‘taking apart’ those initial efforts. Believe it or not, it was fun to write.

Listen, listen. You can’t have a character called Bernadette and one called Bridgette. They’re too much the same, even though it might be common to have certain sounds in a family, like yours — K_____y, D____y, and Finny.  And switching out the sex of the oldest child in this fictional family might be interesting to you and maybe even essential in creating distance from your older sister — a person who, after all, had been called not by one or two people but by several, “a monster” —  but not interesting to others. Have you pondered the gender change enough to make Robert credible? How would behaviors that were high risk for a 22 year old woman, for instance, translate to a 22 year old man? They’re overlapping but not congruent, especially when it comes to sex. Also, aggressive belligerence goes one way in a female body and another way in a male body. Have you considered adding: drunken brawls and late night visits to the ER? Instead of lawsuits for eviction and reckless driving, there might be criminal charges of assault and battery.  In other words, by being male, this character would be softened and teased in some regards and badly amped up in others.

And listen, if Maeve is 17, she has to be 17. She can’t go having experiences from her late 20’s. Compression for the sake of a story is one thing, credibility is another.

Start over. A different place. A different family. Make them Polish instead of Irish. Plunk them near Lake Oswego instead of in the Berkshires. I mean, my god, work a little.

The mother could be a drunk instead of the father and let’s make her a low functioning alcoholic instead of a high functioning one. Give the father a shovel instead of a briefcase. Now we’re talking. It’s a miracle if a kid gets to college, not utterly expected and paid for. The failure of birth control instead of its careful insertion. Instead of zero abortions, how about five? And one baby born out of wedlock. The rebellious antics of middle class kids might just bore the shit out of any audience you can name.

Unless you make one of them a terrorist, like Roth did in “American Pastoral.” Then, of course, you’d go back to making them Irish. What is it about the Irish and bombs, anyway? There are MacVeighs on your father’s side, a fact that of course (of course!) led your sister to assert familial ties to the Oklahoma bomber. But there was reputedly a murderer somewhere out west (in the Yukon? Alaska?) during the Gold Rush. Probably called Kevin. Maybe even Mallon. Or was he the victim?

I’ll say this flat out. Do. Not. Write. About. The. Loss. of a Child. Colum McCann’s character losing a son to the IRA in “TransAtlantic.” John Irving’s parents losing TWO children in “A Widow for One Year.” You do not need to spend time there. Better the fucking self-destructive foibles of teenagers who were given most things, than that.

Given most things, including a genetic inclination toward violence and drink.

Mary Mallon. Typhoid Mary. Reading about her is like reading a character study of any number of your relatives. No problem believing genetic links there! A symptom-free, disease vector. A servant in the kitchen. She stuck to her guns, boy! She wasn’t the problem (YOU’RE THE PROBLEM!). Slamming the door on the way out, you imagine, flinging down her apron in rage. Circulating from one kitchen to the next. Cough. Cough. How do you like the soup? Forcing one to wonder, was this vicious disregard for others or blinding belligerence? Does it matter to the dead?

And by the way, winning the lottery a plot does not make. Shit has to HAPPEN. And one thing that happens has to lead to another thing that happens. Even in character-driven fiction, this is true. Forget about striving to articulate how a character’s cluster fuck of impairments stung and slashed at a younger sibling. You might care about capturing the full toxic flavor of it, and no one else. See? Nothing happening.

Throw out those rough beginnings. I beseech you to make an outline. Instead of writing tangled knots, like fabric coming out of the drier in a clump, it’ll be like hanging ribbons of color off a tree — branches there already, waiting for adornment.