Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Open Mic: Happenstance Poets

It always wracks my nerves to stand up with a microphone in a busy bar and introduce my 4th Monday Easy Speak. An exodus usually follows, leaving behind our motley bunch of poet-stragglers huddled in booths with beer.

But last night, no one headed for the door. Yes, there were some surprised looks of WTF, but everyone quickly settled-in to the evening — and a remarkable and uncharacteristic quiet descended upon the low-lit room.

Once past the intro, my resident butterflies calm themselves down, and I begin to enjoy myself.

Last night there were about a dozen readers, and not enough musicians. (One of the poets played one song on one ukelele.) There's always some droning, almost always some yelling, but mostly it's pretty damned good writing, well-presented. We're lucky. I'm lucky.

After everyone on the sign-up sheet had stood his/her time at the podium, I wrapped up the evening with the usual banter, said good-night, and went to turn off the microphone, when an older man sitting at the bar asked if he could say something.

Well, of course I said yes, and he came up to the mic and introduced himself, said he was from Somalia, and that in his country, everyone loves poetry.

"In Somalia, poetry is organic. Everyone can recite poems. Poetry is very important to us!"

He went on for a few minutes speaking of the poetry scene in Somalia, then went to sit down when a cry came up from the assembled crowd:

"Recite something for us!"

And so he did, in his language (Somali? Arabic?), and not recited but sung. Sung! It was a little bit of magic, even not knowing the words.

I like to call these unplanned participants my happenstance poets. It's occurred only a handful of times in the past year, always someone who just happened to be at the Hummingbird Saloon on the 4th Monday. They stay, they listen, and they decide to go for their own spontaneous five minutes at the mic. And each time, it's been a bright sparkle layered upon the already inspired recitations of an evening.

Ali — last night's Somali poet — drew the heartiest applause of the evening.

I always feel a glow, a fullness of heart when the open mic is over and my poet-friends and I hunker down for the next hour or so crowded into booths. Someone almost always orders Tater Tots.

The post-poetry poets' exodus is a slow trickle of good-byes. When we're done, the bar swells with late-night patrons and the sound of pinball machines. The jukebox pounds out a bass line.

We laugh and deconstruct the evening, catch up on poetry gossip. We laugh some more.

'Round about 11:30pm, I glance at the time, curse my early next-day rising, settle up the bill.

It's a mile to my house, and in the few minutes it takes to drive home, I wonder, every time, why those butterflies, every time?

Maybe one of these months they won't be there. But I'll tell you: they're worth it, and they're short-lived. Last night's happenstance poet was the evidence I needed, the reminder to keep going despite my vexing anxieties.

I remind myself: I'm lucky. Again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I texted my friend T. this morning:

"Wanna come to dinner tonight?"

I hadn't yet had coffee; in fact, I was still enjoying my Saturday morning in my bed.

He immediately called me:

"Did you invite me over for shingles?"


"I don't have my glasses on, and I guessed shingles."

"No! Bingo! I invited you over for bingo!"


"No! I said swing dancing!"

"SWING DANCING?!!" What time?"

"Seven. And there will also be dinner. See you then."

I like to call this intentional mishearing, or creative misinterpretation. It drives my kids crazy and they insist I need a hearing aid, when, in fact, I've heard them just fine. I love these little verbal jazz riffs! In any case, I started my morning with a hearty laugh, and can't think of a better way to begin my weekend. (But, alas, there will be no bingo, or swing dancing, and absolutely no shingles.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

So how do you feel about that?

Yesterday people told me things, all manner of things, and I listened.

There was an account of a planned suicide by pistol, that was cut off at the pass, as it were. There were two separate incidences of rape. There was a recounting of high-school years as a drug addict, and the subsequent recovery. There were Zulu warriors at a public ceremony.

I thought: this is what it must feel like to be a therapist.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Eliot was wrong: January is the cruelest month.

In six days the sun will set at 5pm. I've been keeping track of the accumulating minutes of additional daylight each day, +2 minutes 17 seconds, + 2 minutes 40 seconds, etc., divided disproportionately between sunrise and sunset, a little here, a little there.

And not enough anywhere.

It's the 5pm mark that seems to spill me over into fragments of hope. 5pm: the shift into evening, the close of the work day, the beginnings of the evening meal preparations; and in earlier times, the arrival of the evening paper and all that it contained. 5pm was when my father came home from work — until he didn't, after an untimely and early death.

5pm has always been about change, about the permission to let go of the day's requirements and slip into a more relaxed mode. Today it's about a glass of wine, the NYTimes crossword puzzle, playtime with the cats. (Even they recognize the hour.)

Winter is once again beating me up. I just cut myself two pieces of a lovely cornbread I made yesterday, heated with butter. Dinner, and almost like cake. In the middle of January, it's hard to face a cold salad.

I googled "January is the cruelest month" (a riff on Eliot's "April is the cruelest month") and the first hit was a NYTimes article, by Neil Shubin (full text here), that spins a marvelous perspective on this ever-challenging battle with the shifting seasons:

"Our clocks tie us not only to other creatures, but also to the formation of the solar system itself. The spinning of the earth and rotation of the moon form a backbeat that thumps inside the chemistry of our cells. The Apollo missions returned more than 840 pounds of moon rock and soil samples. Analysis of minerals inside reveals that they have a chemical signature similar to those of Earth’s crust and are in this respect unique among other bodies of the solar system. 

The current theory that accounts for all the evidence is that a Mars-size asteroid hit the Earth over four billion years ago. The mélange of Earth’s crust and asteroid debris ejected into space, ultimately congealing as the moon and tilting the primordial Earth. 

With that great cataclysm came our seasons, months and the duration of days. Our internal timepieces, and some of the maladies we suffer, lie as artifacts of this moment in our planet’s history." 

Small comfort knowing that my acute awareness of winter's day-length points even more to my insignificance as a single organism in the universe, at once an artifact of primeval debris and just a 58 year old woman at 47.6097 degrees N and 122.3331 degrees W trying her best to slog her way through yet another sunrise/sunset.

But mostly ticking off the days until the light really returns: 5pm, January 25th.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Twenty eight years ago today, on a dark January night, I pulled my son from a fire. He was nine months old, asleep in his crib, and it was 25 degrees outside.

Still haven't been able to write much about that event, the unreality of it, how when I even begin to talk/write about it, it sounds like a bad Hallmark movie.

There was no terror once I had R.
in my arms, once I ran outside; the adrenaline was running high by then. There was an office building behind the apartment, and a maintenance person let us in out of the cold, and I recall watching the back of the apartment go up in flames, flames that sparked high into the sky. Astonishing.

I can still smell the smoke that lingered for months in everything we salvaged, despite the incessant scrubbing. Smoke permeates everything, no holds barred.

How different my life would have been had that fire never happened: my circle of friends, my work, my home and community that I love are all offshoots of that single plastic garbage can that was left too close to a heater by the downstairs tenant.

We like to think that we choose our direction, but so often, the direction stumbles us forward whether we want to go that way or not.

I laugh to think this: I had a fire put under me, and damn, if it didn't get things rolling!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Stranded in Winter

The gutters are dripping, a perpetuity of grey. Yesterday this entire landscape appeared swathed in wet dryer lint. When the mountains aren't out, my world lacks perspective.


What I miss most not having a partner is the companionable silence that imparts texture to the hours. The buzz of a game in the background, another person's footsteps. Someone who is not me opening and closing a door. The secret duets of private jokes, layered one upon another.

How to endure — not a question, exactly.

(Waiting on the daffodils to ruffle up those yellow skirts.)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Two Tartes, Redux

I lingered tonight in the doorway of the nearly empty café, a constant drizzle on my shoulders, the sidewalk lit by a single streetlamp. In the glow of the apricot-colored walls, I could see the vinyl floor my husband installed (with leftover 12-inch tiles stacked in our basement from his flooring days), the oh-so-high ceiling our sons helped to paint, the old battle-axe of a convection oven that cranked out its roaring heat beginning at 5:30 every morning. The pastry case with a couple of plates of cookies, the cold case lined with pop cans, the blackboard with its chalked specials.

How many times have I dreamed of this place in the past ten years? How many times, while I slept, have I stepped back through these doors and resumed my rightful place in the kitchen? (Always, it's close to opening time, the shelves are empty, the customers lining up.)

So much history. Odd to think that the current owners have been here nearly twice as long as I was. (How is that even possible?) And even more curious that this storefront, where my heart resided for only a few short years, has taken on a significance of much greater proportions. Those years spanned two husbands,  a car-accident/death, a multi-million dollar lawsuit, the demise of a long-standing friendship, and, ultimately, the loss of this very place. Hard to imagine that much living is possible in that amount of time.

And how many cases of butter? How many 50# sacks of flour did I heave into the plastic bins? How many times did I wrap a 10kg block of Callebaut dark chocolate in a clean towel and whack it with a hammer?

How to measure my broken heart? Teaspoons? Cups? Gallons? 

I stood there, gazing in, not going in, not caring what the girl behind the counter was thinking. (Who is that strange woman, and why is she just staring?)

The light inside was soft and warm.

It felt like home, or a kind of home, the kind you can't go back to. And this time there was no sadness attached to it, only a sweetness of recall.

I stood as long as I wanted to.
It was my moment.
This was my life.

Friday, January 2, 2015

And if you're too f---ing lazy to go outside....

....you can drive ten miles to the mall and buy a bag of moss so that you can recreate, inside your house, an outside-like "forest" environment. No actual time in nature required!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

How to Go Outside

I read an article this week about the benefits of ecotherapy, ie, going outside, unplugged. Really? There's a name for this? Can I get paid to show people how to do this? (When I was a child, I specialized in giving tours of the woods, especially during nesting season, when I conducted birds' nest tours.)  I'm only half-serious when I say that I think I've found my next career. Seriously half-serious. (Only a lifetime of experience.)

Taking my own advice, I quite reluctantly put on my shoes and coat and hat and scarf and gloves and trudged out into my back yard this afternoon, despite really loving the sunny warmth of my upstairs room. It was really chilly outside, and these old bones do not have a friend in ice. I had no plan, no chores to attend to, no yardwork that needed doing. My new year's assignment was to poke around in winter's detritus. It felt like I was eight years old again and my mom had sent me outside in the cold to get some fresh air.

But you know what? It was marvelous. Yes, the garden is in ruins. Yes, the ice was abundant, but also unlike any ice I've ever paid much attention to: the saturated earth had heaved upwards, kind of like nature's tilling of the topsoil, and there were vertical columns of ice, stacked one upon another. How is it possible I've spent so much of my life not looking closely at this?
And while I considered sweeping up the kiwi leaves, I'm happy to have left them where they've fallen, in all their lacy configurations. (I'd much rather peer down at a decomposing kiwi leaf than a clean-swept piece of Trex decking.)

I checked in with James Fenimore C.; his words are beginning to slur together, and this piece of a maple seedpod appears to have found a peaceful landing place —
And my last bit of ecotherapy involved a few quiet words with the Virgin of Guadalupe, who seems to be a bit throttled at the neck with leaf debris —
I was neither cold nor bored. A hummingbird dithered loudly and incessantly from the laurel hedge (I put out fresh, unfrozen nectar this morning.) The winter light was achingly clear and seemed especially focused and bright. The green tips of snowdrops were just beginning to show, and the hardy ferns appeared to be gathered into themselves, conserving energy. The unpruned grape vines, stripped of leaves, arched into the blue, a crazy erratic weave. The watering cans brimmed with ice.

There are some old russet-toned bricks around my fire pit, and each of these was encased in a slick icy sheen. Again, water saturated, I'm guessing, which expanded outwards in the freeze. Curious!

After only 15 or 20 minutes of poking around, my imagination felt ignited, my lungs expanded in the sharply brisk air, and where there had been a musty haze was now a sense of clarity and purpose. And so easy! All it took was to walk out my back door.

Ecotherapy. Ha. Just go outside.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Musical Chairs

The only Christmas cookies in my house this year were baked by a Jewish friend, delivered yesterday afternoon while I was up to my elbows in potato peels. I can't recall a year when I didn't bake in December — even my early years were spent in sugar-dusted glee, with sprinkles afoot most of the month. I work too many hours these days to spend much time in the kitchen, dog-tired at the end of each day. Not a complaint: I am blessed with a job that sustains me in many ways. There are trade-offs involved, and things are good. And if the only cookies in my kitchen were baked in someone else's house, then so be it.

Yesterday's dinner guests were all refugees from changing lives of their own, the shifts that occur when loved ones age, when marriages crumble and houses, metaphorically, fall. I wasn't even sure of the guest list until Christmas morning. It kind of felt like musical chairs: when the music stopped, we all sat down for dinner, and one person was missing. (And yet so many others, too, gone now forever.)

I doubt there was one of us that didn't ponder the make-up of this new, loosely-formed family. But no matter: we wasted no time getting to the important stuff: laughter. Rolling explosions of laughter, rising and falling gales of laughter, for hours on end. I think that from the outside we must've sounded like a party of twenty or more, but there were only seven of us.

A failed attempt to set the Baked Alaska aflame provided additional entertainment (a blow torch was involved) and fears from my nephew that the house would, at any minute, go up in its own fiery blaze. We did manage a trickle of blue flame down one side of the meringue-flocked Mt. McKinley, and the dearth of alcohol-fueled drama didn't in any way mar the fabulousness that is Baked Alaska (cake, ice cream, meringue).

A stupor of exhaustion set in once dinner was finished, in everyone, it seemed. No charades, no Cards Against Humanity. We sat in the candlelit, tree-twinkled living room, slumped onto couches, as our stories and laughter dwindled, most of the dishes done, the melting Alaska ferried back to the freezer.

The day after Christmas possesses its own happy wreckage — the kitchen overflowing with leftover abundance, emptied wine bottles, and that plate of cookies, still untouched. This morning I sat in misty sunlight with my coffee and read from Louise Glück's new poetry collection:

"...ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed."


These hours.
These days.
This life.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

After the Mall

The only antidote to yesterday's mall-ing (where I vowed I would not visit this holiday season, but, well,) was a walk in the woods, so I hurried down to the park this afternoon in the last hour of daylight on this winter solstice.

Upon first stepping onto the trail, a couple pointed out a pileated woodpecker bobbing its beak up and down high in a Douglas fir. The bark was riddled with large holes — evidently a great place for grubbing! The tap-tap-tap echoed from every side, and up in the canopy a breeze rustled the treetops. Waning light. Cedar scent, moss and damp humus scent.

Further along, some people were talking about the bald eagle's nest, and a man was spading in some native plants where invasive blackberry vines had been yanked out.

Deeper into the park, I came across a young couple outfitted for a wedding (knee-length dress!) and a photographer. They were very cautiously wading into the salal, while the man with the camera directed them. The young woman in barely-there shoes, her lace-and-chiffon dress just itching to snag on a twig. The young man in a black suit so crisp it seemed able to reflect light.

Because of the lateness of the hour, I'd anticipated a solitary walk, but it wasn't to be had. Joggers, dogs, more dogs, a group of teens trailing the scent of weed.

I cut off the main path into deeper woods and mud, carried snippets of fir branches to toss onto the trail when the mud was too soggy to traverse. Fewer humans here, and once, when I thought I heard someone rustling towards me, I discovered instead that I'd stumbled into a flock of small birds — juncos, chicadees — who were flitting through the underbrush, perhaps thirty of them, mostly unconcerned with me. And I saw almost none of them; rather, I saw the things they rustled through:  the feathery branches of hemlock, maple leaves caught up in twigs, the everpresent ferns. They moved through the forest at perhaps knee level, a constant quiet motion. I wondered about the life of a bird, wanted to have a conversation with a chickadee. I wanted to know what life looks like from the perspective of a junco.

And then I was back on the main path, back to the car, up the hill to my house.

Friday, December 19, 2014


I turned on the porch light so the UPS driver could bump the giant box up the front steps.

"It's all in the legs," she said, "otherwise you blow your back out. Biggest thing I ever delivered was a lap-pool, in 17 boxes. Luckily, there was someone home, otherwise I woulda stacked those boxes up on his front porch. And you wouldn't believe how many mattresses I've delivered. "

My son's new mattress, compressed into this cardboard box. Does it spring up when opened, taking in air? I can't imagine how this will happen.

This is our world: need a bed, order it on Amazon Prime: free shipping, delivery in one or two days.

I bought a white, hotel-quality fitted queen size sheet last night at Goodwill, for $4.99. A little bleach, some hot water, and it's good as new. I thought, I never need buy anything new again.

There is so little that I need, or want, besides two weeks on a beach in Maui. Can I deliver myself to  Kapalua in a giant box, overnight, free shipping?

If only.

The UPS pick-up today at work was in a rented truck, apparently a common occurrence the month of December, when they run out of their own delivery vehicles. So many things, so much stuff, circulating the planet, driving the dollars-and-cents of the economy. But isn't there enough of everything to last us all at least 50 years, possibly more?

When I brought this point up at work, I was reminded that we are makers of stuff. Oh, um, yes. It's stuff that's driving my own economy, paying my mortgage, fueling my own machine of bones and flesh. Seems there's no way to avoid it without a dramatic change in lifestyle.

So where does one start? I started at Goodwill, in the sheet department. Fitted. Queen sized. $4.99.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What it's really like to do art for a living —

We like to joke about the comments that have accrued over the years, things like:

     You are so lucky! You get to stay home all day and do art!
      It must be so great that you don't really have to work!

(My boss used to say that she had a factory in her home, now she says that she lives in a factory.)

And then there are the comments in another vein altogether:

     When are you going to get a real job?
     Are you still doing that little art job?
     Did you go to New York to do shopping?

Shopping? SHOPPING?!

So, in case there's any question, yes, it's a real job. I run a small business, a small booming business with one helluva boss/artist-in-chief, and there's nothing "little" about it.

Today we discussed scheduling the shipping for this year's wholesale show, and we're up against a frighteningly close deadline. We lost a troublesome full-time employee yesterday, a mixed blessing; while our other fully-trained assistant is on sick leave with a seriously debilitating illness. Two new hires, a full line of prototypes to make and, wait, did someone mention Christmas?

We'll slip under the wire; we always do. I'm so used to pulling rabbits out of hats that the hat is frayed on the edges, the rabbit is getting on in years.

I have a fear that I'm going to succumb with a paintbrush in my right hand, an order in my left hand, the timer beeping on the "kitchen kiln", shipping labels being spit out of the printer while the UPS truck waits at the curb, engine idling.

But hey: abracadabra!

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Pod of Privilege

I drove my first loaner car today, a brand spanking new Volvo, because my son lost the only key to my, ahem, not so brand new Volvo. The loaner is sleek, white and new. NEW. I haven't been anywhere near a new car in a long time, and this one was, well, more than a bit intimidating.

When I stepped inside and closed the door this morning, immediately the outside world ceased to exist. I was transported into a hushed, plush universe, with a seat significantly more comfortable than my bed. I felt safe, yet disconnected. Barricaded, yet not part of anything. Is this what it's like to live in a gated community? This thought trailed me all day, the feeling of being closed-out, the how-many-inches of padding there were between me and anyone/thing outside. It felt like privilege, that subject in the news in the wake of the Ferguson riots and the ongoing protests in NYC and elsewhere. And to make my point more dramatic, I'll say it again: my Pod of Privilege was white. 

The car itself was a bit confounding. I couldn't figure out how to adjust the side-view mirror. I couldn't find the icon for turning off the heated seats. The windshield wipers kept alternating patterns — wait! Was that a figure eight? Never mind trying to figure out the computer screen on the dashboard. (Where's the scroll button? The mouse?! Can I send an email? Is there a facebook icon?)

There was a button marked "My Car" — dare I touch it, even if the car isn't mine?!  There was a button marked +/-, which I suppose is handy if you want to practice your arithmetic on long drives. Altogether too much gadgetry for me, but for the .8 miles to and from work, I experienced life in an alternate dimension. 

Let's not mention that it's taken the dealership five days to re-key my car. From the difficulties the guy on the phone kept explaining (in my daily call to Ravenna Volvo), you'd think it was an 1895 model with a ten mules strapped to the front hood, expecting hay and water twice a day. "Problems with the software," he said. "We can't figure it out." Apparently today's mechanics need a degree in computer engineering along with the toolbox.

And in the end, the key was found, on the sidewalk outside my son's job. But too late! The car had already been towed, and the new keys had been cut. Damn.

And....my son's car, which has sat idle for three months needing repairs for which he didn't have the cash, suddenly started running again.

All this, just so I could spend time inside the Pod of Privilege.

If anyone wants to do some math problems, come on over. I'm itching to test out those plus and minus signs. What could possibly be more entertaining on a Friday night in December?