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To My Son

After 9/11,  children had fears adults could not qualm.  My son was one of those children.  At that time, I wrote this poem.  I’ve reworked some of it–a poem is never finished–and post it now in thoughtful sorrow, mostly for the families of Sandy Hook but also for all families who have felt the shock waves of a world in which we can not keep our children safe and the children know it.

 

To My Son

You are ten, on the edge of a nightmare,

Though still you have not slept.

“What if?” you say.  “What if it all were true?”

Black tarantulas creeping up the screen.

Silent murderers waiting by the door.

Hooded terrorists plotting in the street.

Your watchful eyes turn to the window,

Open to the dark that stretches into dark.

 

For me the nightmare was an axe

Glimpsed on a screen through finger-shielded eyes.

It was a roiling sky and oozing, blistered skin,

Relentless Russians scheming in the cold.

It was gas and ovens and hills of shaven hair.

I, too, watched at the window of the world,

Which has stretched out even to this day

When my nightmare’s this:  that you must feel it, too.

 

I hold you now though holding doesn’t help.

I am the one to blame.

I gave you fear though I’d have kept it if I could.

From my blood to your blood,

The world’s blood staining our dreams.

 

But this I give you, too.  Lean down.  Look closely.

Across the green, dew-jeweled forest floor

The soft tarantula delicately steps.

The dying gaze in wonder at red flowers.

The turning wind breathes high across the blue.

To have lived—

The heart soars.

The Happy Masons

One occupational hazard of the writing business is that a person can get weird spending so much time wandering around in the imagination or fiddling with this word or that.  Not surprisingly, therefore, writers develop techniques to fight off the weirdness when it descends.   So I search for the perfect anti-weird medicine, a way to clear the mind, to reconnect, to realign.

Wallace Stegner might be an excellent role model.  He reputedly wrote until lunchtime and then chopped wood for a few hours.  This solution, however, is impractical for me.  We have no use for chopped wood.  The neighbors would be disturbed if I widened my activity beyond the few trees in my own yard.  And I am afraid of axes after seeing the preview many years ago of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

Charles Dickens was also a master of balance.  The man walked about ten miles daily.  Again, however, this technique is impractical for me.  Besides the traffic issue, there is the surrounding swamp, the heat, the virtual monsoon rains, and the general fact that this is not England.

Nevertheless, walking has been my medicine-of-choice when the weirdness starts to encroach and so I decided to dose myself recently on a balmy December morning.  My mental goal is always to give my mind freeplay so that it will relax and serendipitously produce whatever I was earlier trying to force it to produce.  My mind, however, does not always understand that this is the goal.  On this particular December morning, my mind busied itself counting the number of maintenance and contractor operations underway on my street.  On my block, two houses were involved in long term, major projects.  In the next two blocks, nine—possibly ten—projects were underway.  Walking along the street and seeing all the various trades out and busy, I felt a bit like Oliver in the movie Oliver when he steps out in the morning to a teeming world of dairy maids, knife grinders, and flower sellers, all singing and dancing along the street.

No singing and dancing on my walk, but I soon heard laughter.

Shouts, waves, gales of laughter.

I turned a corner to cross in front of a major renovation project that I like to keep tabs on.  A beautiful, ornate, brick, four-story, 1930’s school building which has sat desolate since long before Katrina is finally being restored and renovated into condominiums.  Currently the brickwork is being cleaned and repaired, including the detailed arches over the huge, multi-paned windows along each side of the building.  A yellow web of scaffolding obscures the work-in-progress as well as the workers themselves.

It was from these hidden heights that the laughter rang out.  Standing on the ground in front of the building, the orange-vested supervisor grinned up at the building while an invisible, loud-voiced man said something I couldn’t make out and a whole crew of masons burst into laughter.

“Me and that girl,” I heard, and the laughter rolled down.

Clearly a story was underway.

Another shouted line.  Another wave of laughter.  And another and another.

By this time, I was laughing myself although I couldn’t make out a word of the story.  For two more blocks I could hear them and I kept laughing.  I assumed that if somebody who knew me saw me, they would assume the weirdness had finally overwhelmed me.

But in fact I had found the best medicine.  I felt completely reconnected, realigned, and clear headed.  Laughter.  It is much better than chopping wood or even a ten mile walk in England.  Thank you Happy Masons.  I can think of only one thing that might be better.  Next time I walk by perhaps we can all do a little song and dance together.

Plato and Blogs

Plato apparently distrusted the written word.  He feared philosophical learning that relied on writing because one cannot ask questions of or engage in conversation with the author.  Therefore, some say, Plato would argue that one cannot learn from the written word.

Hmmmm.  When I teach writing my first observation is that writing is the outward and visible sign of inward and invisible thought.  Because writing so often is in response to that which is written, one should approach any written word as if one were in conversation with the writer.  Hence—marginalia.  Hence—notes.  Hence—at the very least—highlighting.

Once I was in a class in which the professor began by circulating the room and looking at—no, not whether we had done our homework but at—how much we had marked up the text we had been assigned for that day.

I cannot imagine reading something and not arguing with it the whole way through.  Perhaps writing was more sacred in Plato’s day.  What would he have thought of blogs?

 

 

My Tiny Trail

Today I am reaching deep into the archives for this poem, written way back in middle school:

 

I make a tiny trail in the vastness of eternity

Like the tracks of the sandpiper in the sand beside the sea.

The tides of people will come in and wash my tracks away.

And all I ask of you, my friend, is why can’t my tracks stay.

 

I don’t remember exactly the year I wrote this poem.  I do remember that my cousin–also in middle school at the time–commented upon reading it, “Everybody thinks that.  You wrote it.”

 

Who wouldn’t want to become a writer after a comment like that?  Thanks to all my readers, who make it matter.

Boys on the Brain

This just in:  Scientists have discovered that the majority of human female brains contain genetic material that is found only on the Y chromosome.  This material is not there when the female is born.  Somehow it arrives later, and the assumption is that this occurs when the female is pregnant with a male fetus.

Once again, science explains what I knew all along.

When each of my sons was born I thought about the fact that my job was to separate from them, first physically and then psychologically.  I knew, however, that I would not ever stop being their mother. Though I would never feel their heartbeats inside me again, somehow the flow of their lives would become more and more intimate with mine as I came to know them as individuals, separated from me and yet so intricately connected.

My sons will be with me always.

“Wonderful, wonderful!  And yet again, wonderful!”

Hate the Library?

Today I went to the library, not to check out anything or even to do research but simply to find a quiet place to work.  I am lucky that a five minute walk takes me to a shaded university campus and its large, musty-smelling library.  The minute I walked in the door and inhaled, I felt at home.

The first time I recall entering this library was in January after Katrina when I began taking some literature courses at the university.  One of my first classes included a tour.  The library had suffered because of the storm.  The basement had flooded and original Beethoven compositions had been lost.  The fourth floor was now empty, and throughout the library, the air conditioning system consisted of massive tubes of flexible, plastic duct pierced on the underside and suspended from the ceiling with cable ties.  But the books still stood in quiet, comfortable rows with their call numbers neatly printed on their spines.  As we were conducted through the stacks, a fellow student leaned close to me and whispered, “I love books but I hate libraries.”

Hate libraries?  How could anyone, especially a student of literature, hate libraries?

The libraries of my past have been places of shelter and places of wonder.  In law school, we almost lived in the library. My chosen carrel stood by rows of legal journals and looked out on the front drive where the university bus periodically disgorged students hurrying to classes.  It was through that window that we watched the fall colors come and then the spring blossoms.   In graduate school, I used the library less but it was there that I experienced the mystery of shelving companions.  Working on a bibliographical assignment, I found, shelved right next to something like Dryden, a clutch of the most sexually explicit literature I’ve ever read.  (Yes, I promptly sat down on the floor between the stacks and read it!)  I worked in the library during my undergraduate career and have fuzzy memories of dozing at a sunny desk in a silent room.  In high school, the stacks in the middle of the room were only waist high so the librarian could maintain a vigilant look-out at all times.  I recall in particular a book entitled Jubilee.  I don’t remember the contents, only that it was about three inches wide and that very fact seemed to hold a delectable promise.

And then there was the County Library, not much bigger than a single room, lodged next to the town jail and tucked behind the courthouse.  We visited this library in the summer, most particularly to stock up for our annual vacation to the beach.  My memory can pick out four books.  One was about a young girl at the turn of the century.  What I remember is that she had to wear a tightly-cinched belt until a forward-thinking relative decided that young girls needed only a sash to allow full freedom of movement.  In another book, a girl summered on the coast in the Northeast in an old house.  I remember there was an attic.  And secrets.  Another one was The Lion’s Paw.  I have permanently etched in my mind the image of children walking down a dirt road carrying paint cans and feeling the wire handles digging into their hands.  The last is Rebecca, of which I need say nothing.

Though I grew up in a house filled with books and I live in one that may possibly contain even more, these four books—and, of course, hundreds of others since—are books I would not have read but for the library.  Way back then, when I opened them up, I could tell just from the smell that I was entering  a world of wonder.

I can tell the same thing now.  Hate the library?  Oh no.  I go with pleasure and when I arrive, I inhale deeply and I am home.

The Checklist

I post today to honor my flying father-in-law who recently suffered a heart attack while prepping his aerobatics plane for flight.  He is recovering nicely, thank you, and we are grateful that “feeling right” was one of the checklist items last Saturday.  This comes from an old file, as you can see.

—-

I learned about checklists from my father-in-law.  He is a retired commercial pilot who now occasionally ferries grandchildren or daughters-in-law in his four-seater Cessna.  So I wasn’t surprised on one visit with the in-laws to learn that we would be traveling from the lake house back to town by way of Cessna–estimated time of departure: 10:30.  I mentally subtracted the twenty minutes necessary to get to the airstrip, took off another ten minutes just to be sure, and decided that leaving the house at 10:00 gave me plenty of time to do a load of baby laundry.  In went the clothes, down went the baby for a nap, and out to the deck went this mom with a relaxing cup of coffee in hand.  About the time the clothes were soaked and soaped, my father-in-law poked his head out the door, grinned, and cheerily asked, “Ready to roll?”

Roll!  With a sleeping baby, a half full cup of coffee, and a soaking load of laundry?  My polite astonishment made no dent in his determination.  What happened to all that time I had?  Gone to the necessity of The Checklist.  Lift off might be at 10:30, but the hour beforehand must be dedicated to making sure the plane is ready to fly.  Nothing to do but toss the coffee, find a plastic bag, and wake the baby.  I wanted to be annoyed but at the same time it all made perfect sense.  Who would want to fly with a pilot who didn’t make sure all was ready before the wheels left the ground.  Not I!  And I surely wouldn’t put my children in such a pilot’s care.

So I excuse my own checklist mentality as that of a pilot of a different sort.

Every morning I mentally cross things off as I get myself and my four boys out the door.  Three boys wakened.  Check.  Two dressed.  Check.  Two, no three, now breakfasted.  Check.  Three pairs of shoes on.  Che–  Ah, the baby’s awake.  Diaper changed.  Check.  My bag.  My coffee.  Cell phone.  Keys.  Where are my keys?  ANYBODY SEEN MY KEYS!?!  Keys.  Check.  Three book bags.  One Bun Bun to hug.  Back door locked.  Triple check.  Two buckle themselves.  No, make that three–Strike one buckle job off the list.  Baby buckled in car seat.  Mom buckled in driver’s seat.  Check.  Check. Check.

It’s time to pause.  This pilot turns to the crew.  Does everyone have what he needs?  Is everyone warm?  Is everyone safe?  Is everyone happy?

Four pairs of boys’ eyes look back at me.  “You are in charge,” they say.  “Do you think it is okay for us to go?”

I make four checks on my list.  Everyone is taken care of.  Okay, boys.  Let’s fly!

As I drive them to school, the checklists of the future loom large in my mind.  Three are already safe on two-wheelers; one is learning to push his scooter.  Two can read; one is learning letter sounds; one can’t quite talk yet.  One is looking at girls; one is noticing them; one still hates pink; one doesn’t even know he’s a boy.  Soon one will drive.  Then there is college and work and marriage and a new set of children.

Twenty years from now, I’ll look again as these same four pairs of eyes–all the babyness and boyness gone, the lashes darkened, beard shadows showing–and I will go through the list again.  Do you have what you need?  Are you warm?  Are you safe?  Are  you happy?

And this pilot’s prayer is that once again I’ll make four checks on my list and that they’ll say to me, “Hand over the checklist, Mom.  We’re pilots on our own now.  It’s time for us to fly.”

 

 

How to Tell What Music Is Good Music

I am lucky in that I have an interior music-o-meter according to which I can reliably determine what music is good music.   Good music will always register soundly (ha ha) on one of its three settings.

Setting one is “Dance.”  If the music makes me want to dance, it is irrefutably good music.  An interesting dance beat is almost irresistible to me, and I shed many inhibitions as my feet carry me onto a dance floor.  Those of you who have witnessed this phenomenon need not chime in.  I have already confessed.

The second setting on my music-o-meter is “Fly.”  Good music makes me want to fly.  Yes, the term “fly” does here include the ordinary concept of physically whooshing through the air.  But more significantly it encompasses mental flying, that kind of travel when your eyes are closed and you are sweeping up a crescendo of exploding notes or bubbling along a gentle stream of sound.  Flying music is definitely good music.

The last setting is more personal.  This is the setting at which music almost causes the ends of my fingers to throb.  This setting is labelled “Write” because there is some music that brings me into its vision so completely that my whole self evaporates and I want to be a conduit of the same passion or strength or beauty that I am hearing.   I will never tell exactly what music this is, partly because nobody else in the world would agree with me and partly because it changes.  Sadly, what inspired me last year does not necessarily inspire me again today.  Happily, I never know when something new is going to burst upon my personal scene.

Thus, with three simple settings on my handy-dandy tool, I can always tell what music is good music.  The music-o-meter — I wonder what settings are on yours.

 

Why do I write?

Two days ago as I was making the bed, I was mulling this question.  Between tucking the sheets and fluffing the pillows, I had inspiration after inspiration.  My ideas were incandescent.  I told myself that as soon as I tossed on the throw pillows, I would write it all down in my pink notebook.

But I didn’t do it.  And it is only now, two days later, that I am even remembering my moment of brilliance occurred.

There must be a moral here.

Think.  Think.

Beginning

Today I bought a new notebook.  I plan to write in it often.  Not every day, but often.  And not organized pieces, just random thoughts and ideas.   This is a very ambitious plan for me.  Doing anything regularly seems almost impossible in the crazy quilt of my life.  So the notebook I chose is pink to stand out on my desk where there is not one single other item that is pink.

But even that will not be enough for me so I worked a stronger magic.  I slid into the pocket on the notebook’s front a quote I downloaded from the internet.  In letters so large the words cover the whole sheet of paper, the quote reads, “’You had the Power all along, my dear.’ – Glinda the Good Witch.”

What Power, I wonder?  What is it I can do if I only try?

Click-click.  Click-click.