Category Archives: writing

Who do you come from and to whom do you pray

ripCary & Nana 7-4-95I don’t come from a faith that much honors the ancestors (that is my mother, above with my first born. The B&W is me, circa 1981). That’s why when I read about African belief systems that make ancestor worship central, it feels foreign.

The ancient Celtic bent toward Nature as guide and source, on the other hand, fits like a glove. No wonder I love the writing of Mary Oliver — her poems read like 9th century monastic poetry from Ireland. I find sustenance in her words. Wisdom.

In writing about human bondage in early America, I have often wished for (and on occasion asked for) some sign from the ancestors of the enslaved. Should I be writing this story? Is it okay? Am I okay?

Thundering silence.

Hard not to wonder. But because I am such a master of doubt, it’s hard to give it much weight either.

IMG_7910(A little aside — This cloth, from my Middle Passage series, is somewhere. I never backed it because of the beautiful stained glass effect when hung in a sun-filled window. The others in the series use my favorite house motif to examine both loss and sustenance of culture from one side of the sea to the other. This one, though, explores the sails. All those sails, riding the currents, powering ships packed with black bodies, flapping signals of wealth to some and horror to others).

IMG_7521Anyway, maybe because the anniversary of my mother’s passing was two weeks ago, maybe because there is so much transition in the lives of my sons, making me reflective and sometimes sad or anxious, and maybe because one of my characters is modeled closely on my mother, I have been thinking a lot about my parents.

And duh! It is the guidance and help and esteem and love of my very own dear parents that I should be calling up. My ancestors know me. They dwell in me. They know where I trip up and why. And they (most importantly in this business of moving forward), understand fully my strengths.

They’re the ones to call upon — even about writing a novel about black and white people with NO GENETIC links to me whatsoever.

And so I did. Call upon them. And they did answer.

Losing things and finding them

Are you a person who loses things a lot of the time or just now and then? A recent New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz takes a beautiful wander through the topic. Subtitled, Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss, Schulz examines not just the business of losing things, but also what it means to lose our minds and loved ones.

Things go missing so much in this house that I have categories for lost objects, not unlike the childhood game of calling out ‘warm’, ‘cold’ or ‘HOT HOT HOT’. I usually can tell that I’m going to retrieve a lost object before I find it and often sense its general vicinity. Lest you think that gives me some sort of advantage, know this: even a ‘hot’ lost item with a felt sense of place can take DAYS to find.

In my early twenties, my checkbook went missing so often that the bank tellers on North Street rolled their eyes to see me coming. I’ve gotten somewhat better. Medication helps.

In spite of my incapacity, family members are right to ask me where things are, since in addition to being an over-the-top loser of things, I’m a good finder. Is that uncommon? My mother used to call me “old eagle eyes” and ask me to round up her scissors.

When the “where’s my” question is posed to me, it feels like more of an imposition that it might otherwise, because I’m kinetic. Being kinetic means I have to take notes to remember anything and that to find a lost object, I have to move my body. When both boys were home over Christmas, I really enjoyed cooking for them and felt neutral about loaning the car and picking up. But the “where’s my?” routine was annoying.

“Where’s my jacket?” “Where’d I leave the fob?” “Did you move my paycheck?”

I was asked to find things I hadn’t used, touched or seen. Being winter, I’d have to unearth myself from a blanket, heating pad and lap top (that’s two cords and a lot of fabric). My joints hurt sometimes. I’d groan. Then I’d wander around the house, maybe finding their lost thing, maybe not.

Objects can move from one category of lost to another. ‘Fucking vanished’ is a category, but believe it or not, a mutable one. Some things that I could swear after a vigorous, multi-day hunt have been taken by leprechauns do in fact show up. (‘taken by leprechauns’ is a whimsical name for ‘fucking vanished’). It is especially hard when something that feels retrievable shifts into the ‘permanently gone’ category.

Frequently losing things teaches you about attachment, sharpens intuition, and inspires resourcefulness in coming up with substitutes. Humility is involved. But those are topics for another time.

Let’s instead descend into my studio, which is really messy (also a topic for another time). Yesterday when I went downstairs to find some xerox color copies I’d gone to some trouble to make a few months back, I wasn’t sure how readily I would find them. That they were pretty much right where I’d thought they’d be felt like a gift.

There are about forty-five collages ready to be mounted to card stock. Then, at last, they will be SoulCollage cards.

Because I hate to measure and really suck at it, it took a good long while to mount just five of the collages. At five a day, I’ll need eight days to get through the pile. But guess what? After an especially demoralizing day of writing, the task actually satisfied. I took my time. I enjoyed working toward a goal with manageable and discrete steps — so unlike finishing a novel (am I finishing? is it a novel?)


Off to walk Finny, then back to my laptop (wish me a more productive day!)

  • (thank you for posting on FB Michelle ! Even though we get The New Yorker, I might have missed it)

Done, done, done

A ditty from a prompt in class this week. “Peas and the rice done, done, done” comes from a song sung by bondmen and women during the age of slavery.

Speckle, spackle lint
Globe, orb, light
Star prick, potato cut – Fie!
Cookie cutter, duster buster —
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Done. Peas and the rice,
done, done, done.

In the dark, we tag along in
ignorant clumps. Safety
in numbers? One arm
finds a rail, a toe stubs
rock. “Ho there!”
A single organism, we turn.

Out on the deck early, a
powdery blue sky offers its
solace — beauty
that can be referred to again

and again, lasting and constant.

Except it’s not
lasting. Or constant.

Look how swiftly the clouds
cover the setting and
glorious moon — in the short interval
it took you to dash inside for your camera.

view-from-bed

What happens when the shifting
markers of beauty verge
toward extinction, not merely sway
and decay with time?

“Ho! There! Ho!” No one
corrects course. The inevitable crash
sparks discussion, as if pinpointing the
cause of the wound trumps all other action.

In this season of cold, shattered bones and
bruises are nothing next to damnation.
Who knew lying would win
the hearts and minds of so many?

Sprinkle, dash, salt and mire.
Blood stream, character, impossible glow.
Peas and the rice, done, done, done.

Catastrophic, relentless capture
of the future: too swift to
block; too pervasive to illuminate.
It threatens to be so cold, there
are warnings.

The party lanterns bob and strain on the deck
rail, hanging, forgotten, so long
past their June flings. Remember June?

The moon hangs like a darling,
punctuating the morning with
soft, ridiculously sweet loveliness.

Just above the eave – “Ho! There!”

She runs inside for her camera, but it’s too late. The grey fuzz of
cloud shoved by a cold, cold
wind has changed everything.

She missed the moon
but caught a dream of power — a friend gathering her skirts to make an entrance. Stately. Invested. Prepared. She will
study everything, consider all the
players, account for the force of history. Seventy years of wisdom coming to bear.

Such a dream!

Mighty beech. Singular gate.
Ho there! The icy air seeps
through the window frame.

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In the kitchen, you watch the
tiny grain moths zig-zag
against their doom.  Slap. Slap.

The dog pants beside the fire.
Dots and dabs of light on the festive tree
blur after you take off your glasses,
offering another version of pretty.
Remember Wallace Stevens
trying to decide which to prefer:
the blackbird’s cry or just after?

As if calibrating how much reality you can stomach is anything like weighing
the relative beauties of music and silence!

poppy-egyptian-close
We slide into a
Bosch painting – celebrities being eaten by plants,
destroyers appointed to protect, eggs sprouting legs. Babies cry all the way
from Aleppo. We are
cursed and lack the explaining mythology.
Stab, slice, potato cutter — fie!
How quaint a cut to the finger. Apply pressure,
glue and presto — no more blood.

There goes the moon, behind its periwinkle
shroud. Time feels a foe this season.
Arctic air whips up its icy announcements
and someone, somewhere takes it as proof
that everything is as it always was.

Who will measure the cold and with what instruments
after they round up the scientists?
They’ll say: ‘Study moles and circuits. Or lumps of coal.’

“Ho there!” How about darkness? Make
a chart that nobody will believe
and store it somewhere in Canada.

The money will disappear along
with the truth, so button up.

“Ho there! Ho.” We smile and drink. We bundle up. We exchange
sweets and trinkets while frigid air sweeps down from the north.

So, go ahead – dream of power
or dream of extinction. Dream of
capturing the moon with your

bare hands. But when you wake,
with thermal underwear and corrective lenses on, gather your skirts and make an entrance. Somewhere. And speak.

“Ho there. Ho” Peas and the rice
done, done, done.

Erasure Poems

1). Start with a source document. Mine is a letter written in 1740 by Eliza Lucas Pinckney to her father.

2). Black out some words (or select some) or both.

3). Type up and read, edit if desired.

4). Repeat. Enjoy the variations.

I followed two rules: 1) all words in the Erasure Poem must be in the order that they appear in the source document and 2) all words must remain in their original form (i.e. the same tense or person). I made an exception to rule two and updated archaic spellings.

This technique, very popular in altered book circles, is one I’ve used for collage, but never for poetry. Relative to the historic fiction I’m writing (Eliza is one of the main characters), I was curious what might be revealed — anything new or useful about Eliza or her circumstances?

All of this was inspired by a poetry reading a few weeks back at Sam Durant‘s “The Meeting House” in Concord, Mass. (an Arts and the Landscape event sponsored by Trustees of Reservations). Four poets read. One of them was 2015 National Book Award winner for Poetry, Robin Coste Lewis (pictured above), who offered an erasure piece. It was intensely moving (you can hear her read three of her poems, here).

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
ONE

Honorable Sir,

Words to express the situation
beyond expression

the fearful immediate
danger

as I must own some
advantages
such as honor, perhaps profit too.

Put in with my just cause
the love you avoid
by unjust means.

The assurance that this life
depends on Dear Sir,
you.

Injurious to imagine
Heroism.

I deserve
this time.

You always persevere
Honorable Sir.

Your Daughter

***

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
TWO

To Colonel,

I want words
from you.

The situation terrifies us.
Immediate danger.
I must own

You are sensible.

Might some advantages arise
such as honor, profit too,
mere trifles
in the balance?

A just cause in preference
to every other means.
Courage enough
to will the thought
unworthy of you.

To pretend to Heroism
should conceal fears

and affections.

Always prayer.

Your most obedient
Daughter

***

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
THREE

To Sir,

I want words under you, us
Beyond and increased

Some place to differ

There, when put in the balance

Life
A just cause
Love

You avoid the assurance
that this welfare
injurious, I deserve.

To pretend
Heroism, I conceal
perpetual apprehensions.

I am always the prayer.

Your Eliza

***

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
FOUR

I am sensible and
I esteem the fight
as well as the love

Advantages arise

These mere trifles
honored a just cause
as well as every means
to retract anything more
than I deserve.

Mama and the Almighty
The constant prayer

Your obedient Eliza

Potato rice soup

By the time we turn the clocks back and it’s dark at 3:45, I will be semi-hibernating. This soup is perfect preparation.

This recipe is courtesy of Lidia Bastianach (of PBS fame). Quick, simple and really tasty!
img_6929A lot happening here, but most lies beyond the pale of my blogging. Writing progresses. Care giving goes on (and on).


The campaign continues to occupy and discourage and disorient. Fear whispers over my shoulder. The vitriol. The hate. The incitement to violence. Where will it all go, come November 9?

After the release of the pussy-grabbing tape, I had one of my Male Intruder dreams — a distress that belongs squarely in that orange-haired lunatic’s lap (oh gross. never mind). I used to have some variation of this dream frequently — sometimes as much as two or three times a week.


(The dream:  He has a rifle. He’s in my house. He wants to kill me and he would have but I wake).

But to be clear, it is Trump’s allegiance to delusion and his pervasive, unstoppable lying that terrify me the most. It’s unbelievable how he makes shit up. It’s equally unbelievable how his followers just eat it all up. What has happened here? Is there any going back?

Thank goodness beauty can’t hear him. Thank goodness fall offers her gifts without regard to politics. One spectacular day follows another.



Heart rash and quiche

A red patch of itch over my heart. Don’t want to ponder its meaning. Just like I didn’t want to think too hard last week about the significance of leaving my power cord at the library.

There’s this: I went to Salem yesterday and it was disheartening for all the usual (mind bending heart rending) reasons. And this: a writer friend sent me an article about self-publishing that harshly critiqued the unreasonable expectations of first time authors and outlined why self-publishing was probably the more likely path to success and then ticked off the fifty things one needed to do to be successful at self-promotion (and I thought selling quilts was awful!). That kept me awake a good extra hour and a half last night.

And it’s still really really hot. We have AC but the body still sweats and suffers walking Finn taking out the garbage running errands. I plan to write swim write today. Maybe Walden Pond for a change? After getting back from China late Saturday night, K is taking the week off.

I’ll leave you with a photo of the quiche I made last night. Hadn’t made one in ages. Oh the steps! The mixing chilling rolling chilling baking one way then another. And that’s just the crust! It was 7:30 before we finally ate. With a filling of egg, carmelized onions with thyme from the garden plus a little bit of Swiss, it was worth both the wait and the gluten cheat.

Refuge

Sanctuaries are so important — even in First World lives where aggravations go to comfort and not survival.

The piercing beeping of trucks in reverse and the roar of playground grass maintenance started at 7:30. That would be immediately after I sat down in the cool peace of our deck to write. Even inside, with all windows closed and headphones on, I thought I would jump out of my skin. It didn’t help knowing that in another hour, two house construction jobs within a stone’s throw of my driveway would get going. So, I got in the car and drove around.

Aimless escape of this kind is a luxury since Finn came to live with us. I drove around in part because I could — it’s a doggie play date day (oy – talk about First World) but also because I couldn’t think of a place nearby that I wanted to occupy. Peets is crowded, always. Our town library is not reliably quiet. The coffee shop in Newtonville — also rarely has an empty seat.

And then I remembered my alma mater: Boston College Law School.  A minute or two from the house. With a beautiful, clean, QUIET and nearly empty library. Wow. Wow.

Greeted first by Saint Thomas More and then by a Ruth McDowell quilt, then entering a wing donated by the law firm I used to work at, there was a sense of homecoming (even if I did not feel at home at that law firm for a single minute of my tenure there and even though this library was built after I graduated).

Something curious went on just before noon. Maybe because I was recently ‘followed’ on twitter by a Massachusetts ACLU lawyer, maybe because last night I watched a talk he gave at the Center for Constitutional Rights on YouTube (Carl Williams) and was really inspired, and maybe because when at 11:55 I got up to chant the Lotus Sutra for Mike Brown, for Mike Brown’s family, for all the BLM activists on the front lines, and even for the dumbbells who don’t understand that racial justice benefits each and every one of us, I was tempted into pulling a directory off the shelf that just happened to be at eye level.

img_5753

img_5752

I don’t even remember what you had to do to qualify for the Order, but I know it was kind of a bid deal. It was a weird and unexpected pleasure to reclaim this part of my life, even if temporarily and for no other purpose but to notice.

I’ll leave you with a little law school humor, lest you conclude I am spending all my sanctuary time on social media!