I’d temporarily forgotten that February 13 was the date my mother died until last night when a photo of her and my father tipped over for no apparent reason. Hi Mom!
Coming down the stairs for coffee this morning, it struck me that perhaps all the missing blog photos in the year 2009 can be chalked up to my sister. That’s the year she came back into my life after a nearly ten-year hiatus and inserted doom into my daily fare. Is that you Noreen? Not quite done fucking with me? If so, nice prank.
Enough of that. It’s Valentine’s Day and so I offer you a Valentine’s Day poem. A couple of weeks ago, my Thursday class writing teacher gave the villanelle as a prompt. One very famous example of the form is the Dylan Thomas poem, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.
Love lost, love found. It’s one big ocean. We fold our clothes, we make our meals. Spelling care with simple acts, there is no commotion.
You may envy the grand gestures of devotion. Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde hold appeal. Love lost, love found. It’s one big ocean.
Do not gather relics and affix labels like some sort of museum docent. Tidy the house, run one another’s errands and reveal that when Spelling care with simple acts, there is no commotion.
Don’t keep a tally of sums, multipliers, and quotients, Lest your feelings harden, wither, or congeal. Love lost, love found. It’s one big ocean.
Remember the pleasure of the bow, the box, the gift well-chosen Let that ripple outward with warm appeal. Spelling care with simple acts, there is no commotion.
And you my dear mate, through the ups and downs of fortune Have taught me patience and rubbed my heels. Love lost, love found. It’s one big ocean. Spelling care with simple acts, there is no commotion.
I happed upon this image just before a writing session. Here’s most of what I wrote.
Up, anxious, sitting on the pot. Above the bathroom curtain’s ruffle, I can see a section of the night sky. A wedge of moon travels above Linshaw’s roof and into the netted shadows of their massive copper beech.
That tree, part sentinel, part cautionary tale, is hundreds of years old. It was a sapling during the small pox epidemic of the late 1700’s. It grabbed sky in one direction and earth in the other when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Horses and a stream wandered nearby at one time.
The beech was bigger yet at the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time of the Spanish flu perhaps the twin trunks had established themselves.
The white planked house is old too, but not nearly as old as the tree. I like to think that Abraham Jackson sited the foundation with due regard for the tree, a tree which was still in its youth but already punctuating his property with its mighty grace at the time of building.
The moon in her delicate variety is older yet, so old that a different scale of time is required. The coal-to-diamond scale. The asteroid-encounter scale.
All I can think about during my brief viewing of the night sky is how insular I’ve become. A life apart from the wonder of puddles and their up-side-down worlds. Apart from trout and hummingbirds. Apart from the cleansing sweep of cold night air in the lungs.
Oh I go outside, but my walks with the dog are more like mail delivery than adventure. Making the rounds. A chance to take stock of all the closed blinds and wonder why so few structures ever show any signs of life.
When I lived on the other side of the state in the Berkshires, all I had to do was raise my head off the pillow and gaze out my eastern window to be transported. Sheep’s Heaven Mountain, a name whispering: time passes, time passes. Not that long ago the wooded hill was bare and dotted with sheep.
Here the horizon is poked with roofs. One neighbor painted their house a bright yellow this year and at first I wondered at their choice. Today I welcome its yolky warmth in all the grey.
All the grey can dull the senses. Maybe that’s why the news of a snowy owl in Washington, D.C. captivated me this morning. She’d made her way south from her usual haunts. She could be yet another signal of the drastic climate change we’re all so busily — in one way or another — trying to ignore.
But when I spy her fluffed up against the cold atop a statue of Themis, a figure representing freedom and justice, I like to think she stands for something else. That she augurs change. I like to think that when she lifts her wings and reveals their white undersides, we are meant to notice and in noticing, act.
I don’t believe the arc of the moral universe necessarily bends toward justice. There are too many ways we can fail. But this bird perched on the head of a goddess carrying the sword of justice lets me think we have a chance. A chance to make things right. A chance to live up to our promise and to atone for our sins. Not because I say so, but because a solitary owl, mysterious and commanding, has told me so.
The boxes arrive like secrets waiting to be heard. The beauty of forgetting. Memory herded and exploited the stuff of scholars, but let’s not neglect the joy of a blurred-out past. What did I order, exactly?
The slicing of tape like ripping cloth. One violent jerk with a blade. Last time I jabbed my thumb and bled all over the fur of my new boots before I knew of the wound. Some injuries come like that, stealthily, all consequence and no memory of impact.
The time before there was no blood, just mystery. What did I order, exactly?
Opening, remembering — a pre-ordered deck. The American Renaissance Tarot. It winks in promise. Remember? Remember?
It is still a stranger to me, this collection of 78 cards but already I thrill to its character – American, not Egyptian, not medieval European. Say it again, the breath rising, cresting, enunciating with the power of recognition, four syllables:
There’s Harriet Tubman! Edgar Allan Poe! Oh, and look, Moby Dick and Frederick Douglass. One figure teaches a young Black boy to read, another upholds a sacred root. Hawthorne, Stowe, Harriet Jacobs. They’re calling to me and they’re calling me home.
Hello. Been writing a lot and editing even more and they somehow take away from showing up here.
We got a little snow last night. The cooler temps make it seem like December. Almost nothing else does. More on that in the next days.
We are still America. We know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die soon.
U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo
I gave this Harjo quote to my writing friends on Tuesday as a prompt. Below is my response. If you haven’t watched Ted Lasso, perhaps don’t bother because it’s a lot about that show. Also, if you haven’t finished Season TWO — warning! There are spoilers!
* * *
“To face a crowd,” she instructs, “lift your arms while breathing in.” She demonstrates. “Make yourself big!” The statuesque club-owner talking to the littlest of the coaches. When he tries, he finds the technique useless. He cannot make himself bigger. Instead, he spits at the mirror. Somehow, that works. Spit, plus an e, equals spite, we soon learn.
All the happy transformations and mini-redemptions, which are sometimes big redemptions, somehow are lost on Nate the Great, the littlest coach. He turns into Nate the Snape. It doesn’t matter that his burning resentments are misplaced — clearly father-induced — they flare into betrayal anyway. He digs himself into a hole so deep that no rope ladder of apology can help him exit.
But we know, we wise viewers, that our hero, head coach Lasso, previously portrayed as being able to bridge every chasm with folksy stories, genuine humility, and a radical capacity to apologize, doesn’t try very hard at the critical moment with Nate, now does he?
And, pshaw, when the final scene of Season Two shows Nate formerly the Great on the sidelines of the nemesis team, we know the failure was a gimmick and it disappoints as gimmicks always do.
Nevertheless, we look to Lasso, a man of the moment, somehow. If only there were stories appealing enough, humility genuine enough, and apologies transformative enough to bridge the flaming chasm that divides America. I don’t think there are. We’re at Stage Nine or Ten on the way to tyranny, the stage where truth no longer matters. Post truth is pre-fascism. It comes after the stage of simplistically and hatefully vilifying the other. Lock her Up! Build the Wall! As one pundit put it, we’re not debating the efficacy of vaccines or masks, we’re debating whether truth matters or not.
So before trying to spit out the notion that we are in free-fall decline, I must first spit on epic, destructive stupidity. SPIT. Yes, it’s the racism, stupid, but it’s also the stupidity, stupid! I must spit on greedy corporatism infecting governance. SPIT. On lying. And more lying. I mean Satan-level lying. SPIT. And on stupidity again — willful stupidity, as in I did my own research on Facebook, and corrupt stupidity as in a climate-crisis denier opining in Congress, ain’t it better for agriculture if it’s warm? Yuck. Yuck. SPIT.
The rumors of our demise are so well-founded, how do I spit them away?
Magic not saliva might be required. A national exorcism. Starting with the Former Liar in Chief followed by Fox News, which leads me to note, by the way, that the step on the road to tyranny about the state taking over the levers of the press would not be required on our path to damnation, not as long as idiots like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham drip nightly poison to huge adoring crowds.
We are still America. Still riven by race. Still tainted by the original sins of genocide and slavery. Our exceptionalism always dwelt in pools of blood and now it also depends on the masses being ignorant. George Carlin knew as much decades ago when he joked, they WANT you to be uneducated.
List of the vilified: intelligence, climate science, disease science, science, science, science, eloquence, the separation of church and state, women, women, women, especially women in positions of power.
Therefore, I can only spit on the rumors of our demise as a supreme act of faith.
An act of faith.
An act of faith.
If only Paul Bunyan could come back as Ted Lasso and stomp from state to state applying his special brand of seeing the other, meeting the other, transforming the other. Not, certainly not, Mitt Romney in the signature cardigan and a plastered-on mustache which, by the way made him look more like Hitler than the humble coach, kneeling in a sickening gimmick, making an offering to the flourescent-pink-garbed Sinema.
SHE’s spitting on America.
Can I spit back before exorcizing the sense of inevitable demise of our Republic?
An act of faith. Into the ground my weary disdain, my frothy pessimism. Pattoowie.
This photo of my father, sister, and me on the back porch at my grandmother’s served as a writing prompt. It goes on some but if you want the gist, just read the first two paragraphs. Some of the pix below are double exposures created in response to this week’s Paris Collage Collective’s challenge. Those filter-plays made a statement about memory — how in one moment one detail comes forward and another fades and in another moment, some other emphasis occurs, some other element disappears.
*. *. *.
The thin woman on the porch lounger I don’t recognize, but she is my mother. Her eyes are closed, head canted away from the chair across the porch where my grandmother — her mother-in-law — sits. Is it respite Mom seeks? A moment of quiet in the hubbub of family — nieces, nephews, sisters and brothers-in-law — all crammed tight in the borough of Queens, mere blocks separating their cluttered lives?
Meanwhile, on the steps my father puts one paternal arm around my sister, who is seated on his lap, and uses the other to pull a reluctant four-year-old me into his side. He looks intent. Perhaps he exerts a little force. The sun is in his eyes. Does my mother sleep or merely pretend? I’m certain that I am whining, while my sister stares with a stoic maturity at the camera lens, her left arm hanging at her side, a casual refusal to hold the fatherly hand that keeps her on his lap.
His hand looks so big.
My sister and I wear matching red plaid dresses with white aprons. I’m certain my mother sewed them. Earlier that day, she must’ve helped tug on our matching white ankle socks and buckle our patent leather Mary Janes.
His hand so big, our Mary Janes so small. A repeating rhythm of white — socks and apron bibs. His face intent, mine in high whine, my sister stoic.
I imagine my grandmother is talking to my mother and my mother’s closed eyes and head canted away constitute a pointed refusal to engage. It’s not just the weariness, in other words, of raising children. There is a third out of the frame, by the way — my brother.
Legend has it my mother was hysterical and temperamental but to hear her tell it, the family in Queens was cruel and excluded her. Who wouldn’t turn away? Who wouldn’t throw a dish or two at some later date, especially if after twelve years or so she continued to feel marginalized, unheard?
I can speak to my mother’s bouts of hysteria but I can also say with confidence that she was a good judge of character. So who knows? I suspect alcohol had a lot to do with any undercurrents and skewed allegiances.
My whining face shows up again and again in the scant archive of my girlhood. Usually with my father behind the lens, perhaps in service of a Christmas photo. Early on I think: what a sour puss! Later: what was it about my father’s gaze that so discomforted me?
Who knows with what harsh insistence he demanded we three sit still? My squirming surely had something to do with the outfit as well — the built-in tulle slip, itchy in the extreme, and the too-tight collar, one year wrapped in a faux mink.
We were special alright. The matching expertly-made outfits a kind of testimony.
When my cousin sends batch after batch of recently converted slides, the paucity in my own family record is once again brought to mind.
The gaps in the record. The whining.
On a porch in Woodhaven, Queens, I am sipping Coke out of a glass bottle. Unbeknownst to the adults, ADD not even being an idea back then never mind a diagnosis, the caffeine probably calmed me, afforded some extra boost with which to deal with the reluctant pose, the itchy dress, the summer sweat in my father’s armpit, my mother’s non-discriminating refusal to engage.
In many pictures I can’t tell if the tow-headed girl is my sister or me.
In one batch, there are gleeful baby shots. Clearly me but a version I am unacquainted with. There I am clothed only in a diaper — smiling, mouth open in laughter, a slight blur because I’m leaning into a joyful roll. These photos are doubly provocative. One — as previously mentioned, the absence of such photos in my family photo boxes. And two, the near certainty that someone NOT MY FATHER looked through the lens, therefore capturing a child mid-rolic, giggling with a sparkle missing in every single Christmas photo.
I say “every single Christmas photo” like it was an annual thing when it may have only happened twice. The tradition unsustainable, for whatever reason.
We came to the porch in Queens from Schenectady, Pittsfield, or Rome, Georgia. Outsiders. Tow-headed from southern sun — okay Georgia, then. Where my brother was born. Dressed like little dolls, fed Coke, called to sit for a picture. My father sports a crew cut — the engineer on a corporate ladder, unlike the family he left behind — cops, homemakers, secretaries, and linemen. He pulls me close. I don’t like it. My mother’s head turned away, eyes closed.
If I saw girls dressed like this today I’d cringe and wonder what nightmarish home schooling they were made to endure, what fundamentalist dogma corrupted their souls. But back then it was standard fare. Siblings dressed as twins. A mother who sews.
And then there’s the father trying to exert control, imposing mild threats perhaps, one daughter wriggling in complaint, the other consigned to his big hand on her thigh, her own hand hanging down, passive and apart.