Monday, January 27, 2014

Poem for a Monday

Is the Subaru the State Car of Maine?  The Regional Vehicle of New England?  It should be.  Conrad and I love ours:  we currently have a blue Outback, mileage in the six-digits, blessedly paid off.

This poem by Stuart Kestenbaum of Deer Isle, Maine, is particularly appropriate given the frosty temps of late, and our shared admiration for the Subaru.  I found it while perusing Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry.  This site is the brainchild of our poet laureate, Wes McNair, and if you haven't visited it, go.  Now.  Click.  It's such a gift.

Starting the Subaru at Five Below
by Stuart Kestenbaum

After 6 Maine winters and 100,000 miles,
when I take it to be inspected

I search for gas stations where they
just say beep the horn and don't ask me to

put it on the lift, exposing its soft
rusted underbelly.  Inside is the record

of commuting: apple cores, a bag from
McDonald's, crusted Dunkin' Donuts cups,

a flashlight that doesn't work and one
that does, gas receipts blurred beyond

recognition.  Finger tips numb, nose
hair frozen, I pump the accelerator

and turn the key. The battery cranks,
the engine gives 2 or 3 low groans and

starts. My God it starts.  And unlike
my family in the house, the job I'm

headed towards, the poems in my briefcase,
the dreams I had last night, there is

no question about what makes sense.
White exhaust billowing from the tail pipe,

heater blowing, this car is going to
move me, it's going to take me places.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Poem for a Monday

This one's an obvious choice for Martin Luther King Day, but it speaks to all of us who have encountered those who attempt to undermine our confidence or sense of self.

My advisor in college, the poet Robert Pack, told us that we didn't really know a poem until we knew it by heart.  I guess that means I only know a few poems, plus bits and pieces of dozens.  However, the opening lines to "Still I Rise" are among the few I'm able to summon from memory on an as-needed basis.  You can find it in countless anthologies, but I reach for it in my volume of "Poems That Could Save Your Life."

Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Fifties are Weird

It probably says something about the eclectic nature of my friends’ community that on a given morning I’m opening emails inviting me to 80’s night at the Sulky Lounge as well as reviewing the curriculum vitae for a Catholic theologian who authored our latest book group read.

Or maybe that’s just Life in the Fifties. 

“Am I weird?” I asked the spouse, regarding these disparate energies.  “Cyndi Lauper or Mother Teresa?  With whom shall I party on Friday night?”

“You contain multitudes,” he replied. 

“Yup.  Weird,” I concluded.  “Who else would stay married for 27 years to a guy who quotes Whitman?”

For the most part, I really like my fifties.  I like how the women I spend time with are not simply workplace buddies or peers raising same-age children: they are individuals I’m drawn to because of their character, regardless of age.  Some are widows, some are 20-somethings.  All of them interest, or challenge, or inspire me in different ways.  They recommend books I’ve never heard of, they pick on my backhand and make me come to net, they rope me into their community service.  They make me dinner and pour me a glass of wine when I’m flagging; they make me laugh; they surprise me.  Some of them are old friends, some are brand new.  I like that I’m still making new friends.

I like exercising because it feels great, not because I’m trying to squeeze into one-size-smaller jeans.  I like wearing clothes with great colors and textures because they make me feel beautiful … not because I’m trying to attract.  Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t surrendered to sweat pants (except on long, rainy writing days, which, frankly, are their own sort of bliss … ) but I’m definitely a Coldwater Creek gal.  The husband of 27 years shops for me there.  I can forgive the Whitman because of those great sweaters ….

I like dancing, even to throwback music from the 80’s (Talking Heads!!) and had a really fun, ridiculous time at a recent college reunion dancing en masse with classmates in a muddy field.  I like ballroom dancing with the spouse, salsa dancing on New Year’s Eve, dancing with my dog when I crank the stereo and clean the house ….

Here’s what I don’t like:  leg warmers.  You have to have a certain length of leg to pull off a leg warmer, and I never have and never will.  I thought leg warmers went the way of the 80’s, but apparently, if you wear them at the door of the Sulky Lounge on Friday nights you don’t have to pay the cover.

This is slim incentive indeed for a woman of a certain age, a.k.a. moi.  All I can say to my intrepid peers willing to brave that scene is You go, girls!  This Friday night you’ll find me in cozy pants, sipping Chardonnay, supervising the son as he packs for his return to college, and possibly reading a little Ronald Rolheiser.

This is not surrender:  it is comfortable acceptance of who I am.  In my twenties I couldn’t have said that.  I suffered from way too much FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and spent too much time chasing what I thought I was supposed to do. 

Life in the Fifties may be weird, but it’s such a relief.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Poem for a Monday

In Sunday's NY Times Book Review the author Sue Monk Kidd said she tries "to read a poem every morning" with her coffee.  I think this is a marvelous practice ... provided you can find the quiet space in the morning maelstrom to actually savor the poem.

I'm still crushing on Mary Oliver (see last Monday's post) so here we go with another one of hers.  This one fell open this morning, which was a little scary because only yesterday I was talking to someone about despair.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
      love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In other news from the Times:  author Jo Knowles wrote a very good review of Laurie Halse Anderson's latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory.  These two are among the best writers in young adult and middle grade fiction right now, and I want to rush out and get Knife as well as Living With Jackie Chan, which is Knowles' latest.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Where They Take You: NYC, 1/7/14

 I have a friend in Maine who raised three sons who all played ice hockey.

Those of you who fit that description ... parent of a hockey player ... know what that involves.  Dawn practices, gear bags which emit unspeakable odors, the heart-in-the-throat moments when someone delivers them a hard check into the boards.  Conrad and I were more than pleased that our two played basketball.  Warm gyms are nice places in the Maine winter ....

Anyway, my friend:  a Jersey girl, like me, who grew up in a family of sisters.  One morning (or was it still night?  Does five a.m. in January, the black sky still studded with stars and the mercury hovering at 7 degrees count as morning?) she was in the icy men's locker room at Bowdoin College's Dayton Arena (before it was razed and turned into a fine parking lot) tying skates on her young son's foot and marveling at the unexpected places parenthood takes you.

I remember how impressed I was by her buoyant attitude.  I would have been a complete piss-ant in that moment, no doubt yearning for coffee.  Instead, she was Mother Philosopher, taking the long, wise view.

Parenthood has taken me places I wish I'd missed:  a few I would gladly swap for a year's worth of pre-dawn mornings at Dayton Arena.  It's also taken me to emotional ... and actual ... peaks and valleys of pure joy impossible to imagine without the little darlings.  This is probably the subject of a book, or at the very least a long psychiatric journal article, and not a blog post, so I'll get to the point:  earlier this week parenthood brought me to the winter tunnels of New York City.

You think it's cold in Maine?  Think again.  Yeah, I'm sure there are places and seasons in the Pine Tree State where you spit and it freezes before it hits the ground.  But nothing gets you like the frozen, damp wind off the Hudson River when it picks up speed along the luge-like avenues between the gray skyscrapers.  I'm going to guess that the morning my son and I arrived in The Big Apple, the wind chill hit its low for 2014.

It was also the morning he'd scheduled for a new head shot.  A soon-to-be-graduated college student and aspiring actor, he's in the thick of all those things you do to prepare for employment in the Real World.  For an actor, that means obtaining a realio trulio professional photograph of yourself so you have something to hand out at auditions and mail off with your resumes.  Our son had found Xanthe Elbrick, an actress and photographer who specializes in using natural light for her headshot work.

I know what you're thinking, and yes:  outside.  Wind chill at 20-below.  And not just outside:  the Boat Basin, at the intersection of West 79th and Riverside.  My mother claims it's the coldest spot in the City.

We met the delightful Xanthe in this sort of grotto which, thankfully, shielded our lad from the wind.  And he needed shielding:  while the rest of us were protected by multiple layers and serious mittens (Xanthe had a parka Prince Harry would have coveted during his recent Walking with the Wounded trek to the South Pole), The Dude had several "costume" changes, all of which involved little more than a light sweater and tee shirt.

It was his best performance ever:  he played "warm."

Somehow, Xanthe succeeded in taking some great photos, after which The Dude and I cabbed it to our hotel, where he spent some time massaging his feet and restoring circulation to his toes.  We had time to kill before our show that night:  we had tickets to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in "Waiting for Godot."

I can't imagine anyone I'd rather go with to see a play, especially if it's something along the lines of "Godot."  I'm not smart enough for Beckett, whereas my theater-major son has studied it or read it or seen it more times than he remembers, and he can coax me along.  It's one of the unexpected places he's taken me: plays I wouldn't have chosen to see, sometimes in surprising venues.  Thanks to The Dude, I've attended "Julius Caesar" in a grimy college basement, as well as "Twelfth Night" in London.

But before the show we had time, so we wandered out again and within a few short blocks discovered an amazing exhibit at the New York Public Library: "The ABC of it: Why Children's Books Matter."

I found myself listening to a recording of E.B. White reading the opening to "Charlotte's Web."  We saw the actual stuffed animals which inspired "Winnie the Pooh."  Eeyore was a naturally bent donkey: of course A. A. Milne made him dour!

The original Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, Roo and Pooh. With a photo of A. A. Milne and his son, the inspiration for Christopher Robin.

There were the books I loved as a child ("A Wrinkle in Time") and the books I loved reading to my children.  For some reason, as a child I never read Robert McCloskey. But I read all of his to my kids, especially:
"Make Way for Ducklings" original edition.
Two of my kids' favorite "city" books were on display:
"The House on East 88th Street" and "Eloise."
And as an author, I was knocked out by this tower of titles which have all been banned at some point. Some of my favorite books are here!  Actually, most of my favorite books are here ....
Tower of banned titles

Close up of some of the banned titles.  Really?  "Little House on the Prarie"???
Another friend (whose children do NOT play hockey) found herself at an orphanage in Africa, volunteering with her daughter.  Yet another friend found herself celebrating Christmas in Istanbul thanks to her son.  Another found herself hauling a Thanksgiving turkey into the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital with her daughter.

Exploring New York in the extreme cold is fairly mundane in comparison, but surprising nonetheless.  I'm looking forward to seeing where else they'll take me.    

Monday, January 6, 2014

Poem for a Monday

The latest "game" on Facebook (everyone is posting poems and assigning poets to each other!) has prompted me to get back into my "Poem for a Monday" habit.  I think it's a good way to start the writing week ... especially this writing week and mizzly Monday, which is pouring down rain on several feet of what was only yesterday's beautiful snow.

This poem from Mary Oliver (my latest poet crush) spoke to me today.  Even though it's supposedly about death, I love it because it inspires me to live my life differently.  Favorite section of the poem:  "When it's over, I want to say: all my life/I was a bride married to amazement."

When Death Comes
By Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.