First Time You Felt Brave*

 

I am fifteen. I do my best to avoid being noticed. I don’t dress provocatively or wear makeup other than mascara, barely even see other faces because I don’t wear my glasses. I do my schoolwork, work an afterschool job, date a boy who makes me feel safe. But inside I have large, loud opinions about social conditions, politics, religion. I don’t know anyone who talks about such things. My boyfriend wisely listens and agrees with the fervent opinions I share only with him.

I don’t know how to get along with my boyfriend’s family so I smile and stay quiet. I’m pretty sure something about me disgusts his older brother because he won’t even look at me. If I call and he answers, he drops the phone on the counter to yell for his brother. He’s never once said my name. My boyfriend’s father is 6 foot 5 inches, towering 14 inches over me. I’m not familiar with adult sarcasm so I wilt around him. I don’t like that my wilting makes me seem like my boyfriend’s mother, who expresses no opinions, not even on her face, making herself small and subservient.

One afternoon my boyfriend and I are out together. We stop at his house for a brief interlude with his proudly Irish great uncle who is visiting from out of state for the first time in decades. He is thin and whiskery as a stalk of wheat. I smile at him whenever he looks my way. He brings up a work-related incident that still angers him, quickly devolving into racist comments  He is the first person I’ve ever heard deride Black people. In the next sentence he uses the n-word. I bristle. My boyfriend looks at me with an expression I interpret as let it go. The great uncle continues, his mouth in a strange smirk. I have been taught to be polite. I’ve kept quiet to my detriment many times and will do so many more times. But this time I speak up.

My boyfriend’s family looks shocked as the quiet little blonde girl, the one who obsessively reads history, spews out all the Irish slurs she can think of. I say Mick and Paddy and drunken Irish, asking if he wants his people spoken about that way.  I ask if he knows what prejudice his ancestors endured when signs were posted outside buildings reading No Irish need apply or No Irish, no dogs, or, more commonly, No Irish, no dogs, no Blacks just a few generations ago.

There’s an awful pause.

I want to run out of the room but, unexpectedly, he agrees such terms are unfair. Then starts to justify his biases. I say it’s the exact same thing. He says no it’s not, I say yes it is. Prejudice is prejudice.

A longer pause.

Neither one of us knows how to extricate ourselves from the situation. Right about then, my boyfriend invents a reason we have to leave. We hustle out of the house. Once we get in the car, I laugh although I’m shaking. I say I have no delusion I’ve made any difference. I have no idea how to make a difference. The real me wants very much to know what can.

~

Now I live in a world where young people, everywhere, advocate loudly and persistently for a sustainable, equitable, compassionate future. They’re not standing up to one racist man, they are standing up to an entrenched history of brutality and greed. They are reshaping the future. I can feel it happening. I hope you can too.

*I’ve worked on an exhaustively hyperlinked post about ways to reimagine education during the pandemic but just can’t seem to muster up what it takes to finish it. So I’m posting this response to the writing prompt “the first time you felt brave.” I think our world needs a great deal more bravery (and love) than it ever has in my lifetime. Please respond with a story of when YOU felt brave. 

 

2019: What A Year

2019 seems to have stomped by in adjective-defying ways, with giant lows and highs. And that’s just my own life.

I don’t make resolutions or choose a word for the coming year, valuable as those traditions may be for others. But I do have a ritual for the end of the year. I take down my old wall calendar (where a Luddite like me keeps track of life) and refer to it as I enter birthdays and anniversaries into the new calendar. There are plenty of digital solutions that would relieve me of this task, but I like going back over the last 12 months. Each day is scribbled with names, places, and events. As I write important dates in next year’s calendar, here are some of  my 2019’s most memorable contents, randomly ordered.

~~~~~~~~~~

Long walks with people dear to me, including one recent wintry stroll when I mimicked a fake fall on ice right before actually falling on it. Living example of the old “pride goeth” thing.

Shorter walks with small dogs. On our street we’re likely to hear braying donkeys, yelling goats, and neighing horses. We’re likely to be passed by pickup trucks, school buses, tractors, and the occasional Amish buggy. Occasionally our walks are entirely quiet except for wind in the trees.

Teaching creative writing classes for Cuyahoga County Public Library, Literary Cleveland, and other community-based organizations. I never imagined I’d get to do something I love SO MUCH.

 

Grayson Books publishing my poetry collection Blackbird. I am forever grateful for publisher Ginny Connors.

 

Watching my husband lift off in a helicopter from our small town hospital, headed for a big city hospital’s neuro ICU. The 50 minutes it took me to drive there, unsure if he would be alive when I arrived, was the longest trip of my life. Affirmations and prayer couldn’t staunch my full scale weeping, and I needed to see in order to drive. What really propped me up was talking directly to him as if he could hear me. “You’re fine,” I told him over and over. “You are fine. Everything is going to be fine.” He was. It was.

Doing art with little kids. A recent project was painting trees. Not painting representations of trees on paper, I mean using paintbrushes and washable tempera to paint on sycamore, maple, and ash tree bark.

 

A group of six intrepid poet friends who gather monthly.  They tell me how screwed up my poems are and I tell them how screwed up their poems are. Essential. We go by the name 811s, named for where in the Dewey Decimal system poetry books are shelved. (Name suggested by brilliant poet librarian Laurie.)

My longstanding book group, full of smart interesting people who make me read books I’d normally ignore.

Cooking weird things. These are stuffed enchilada skulls, with the filling showing through just enough to look thrillingly like decomposition. The most recent birthday cake I made featured gummy teeth. I cannot be stopped.

The utter delight of seeing out-of-town friends and family.

Books! With insomnia like mine, I get through a lot of books in a week. Some of my nonfiction favorites this year have been Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris (more medical history than you wanted to know, amusingly told), The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn,  A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, and Lynne McTaggart’s The Power of Eight, which inspired several of us to start a focused intention group. I was also lucky enough to get an advance copy of Mystical Activism by my friend John C. Robinson, who is a contemporary of Robert Bly,  Michael Meade, and James Hillman. I’m talking real wisdom in usable form. Read this!

 

The newest kitchen wench in training.

 

Hosting house concerts. Excellent live music in an intimate venue, a true delight.

Being interviewed by Dan Poletta. My squawky voice on NPR!

Vigils, rallies, marches. Fewer this year than last because I simply feel broken by all that’s going on, although what needs to change is ever more urgent. And I am ever more likely to cry at these things. Tears are not a useful measure because I also tear up at musical performances, fire trucks hurtling by, and any act of kindness.

Wonderful opportunities to read poetry at Loganberry Books, Wm. Skirball Writing Center, Lit Youngstown, Visible Voice Books, Wick Poetry Center, Ohio Poetry Day Association, Second Sunday Poets, and Literary Cleveland.

The incredible honor of having an excerpt from one of my poems stamped in a public sidewalk, thanks to Lit Youngstown.

 

Audiobooks, which turn a long drive into an enchanted journey. My favorite this year was The Highland Witch by Susan Fletcher (originally carrying the much better title, Corrag). There’s unforgettably pure vision in this historic story, made real by  narrator Rosalyn Landor.  Other gems include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn, and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.

Podcasts. I used to listen to NPR while cooking and doing projects, but the last few years I’ve had to limit my news intake to an early morning deep read of the NYT and Washington Post lest I fall into ever deeper weltschmerz. The rest of the day its music, podcasts, or sweet sweet silence. I mostly listen to science podcasts but my newest delight is Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process with poet  Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and science writer Christie Aschwanden.

 

The amazing garden bells my husband makes. He kept this one for us.

 

A poetry appreciation group called Flat Tire Poetry Society, so-named because the idea for the group came about when four of us were stranded late at night somewhere in Cleveland on our way home from a poetry workshop. In the hour it took for a tow truck to arrive we talked about poetry that had changed our lives and decided we wanted to do this more often. Not the stranded part but the poetry discussion part. Now we meet seasonally with whoever of 20-some members can make it.

Two different women’s spirituality groups, one that digs deep into study and practice and another that dives deep into support. Both are lifeblood.

Dear friends who tell me when my work isn’t working and who support my writing no matter what.

 

Indulging in puddle delight.

 

Apollo’s Fire which enlivens even my pores. Alan Choo doesn’t plan violin so much as radiate music from his whole being and Amanda Powell’s voice makes any space sacred. We manage to afford two concerts a year and they tide us over.

Violating basic gardeners’ rules by planting seeds directly into hot compost, nearly all of it chicken coop bedding. Result? The most massive heirloom squash plants and fruits we’ve ever seen.

Putting up food from our gardens. This year we canned somewhat less than usual, but still put up well over 100 jars of salsa, sauces, jam, and syrups. This melange was photographed in our five gallon pot.

Binge-watching, because retreating from reality restores me enough to face it again the next day. We don’t have cable, so our binges are limited to Netflix and series we can order from the library. This year our binges included The Kominsky Method,  Occupied, One Strange Rock, Happy Valley, Grand Designs (our favorite episode was the handcrafted timber house in Herefordshire, from the 2017 season), the requisite Great British Baking Show, and the simple comfort of Father Brown.

Going through volunteer training so I can run writing workshops at a local domestic violence shelter. A lot of training…

Three Pushcart nominations this year thanks to Grayson Books, Gyroscope Review, and Typehouse Magazine.

Being named Ohio Poet of the Year 2019. I am still astonished.

 

 

Teaching one of my favorite small people the most important word.

What Not To Do While Being Interviewed

I have done all sorts of phone and online interviews since my first book was published nine years ago. Such interviews neatly fit into two imperatives for me:

  1. Make myself do hard things.
  2. Honor my hermit impulse to stay home.

Because I never, ever listen to the resulting podcast or online discussion I don’t have to count my digressions, annoying laughs, interruptions, or “um’s.” I’m pretty sure if I had to hear my voice I’d curl up in a nice comfy corner and avoid hard things forevermore.

But I recently told students in a writing class about my worst interview, so I guess I can tell the story here.

I prepare myself for the phone call as usual. I go into my home office and shut the door to keep out dogs and visitors. I say nice things to myself like you can do this while looking at the clock. I remind myself the interviewer’s name is Julian* and the call will be coming in at 7 pm my time from California. It rings at 7 with a local number, a number that looks like my friend Andre’s number, but I can’t hear the caller. Just static. The call ends. A minute later my phone rings again. Frustrated, I say “Andre?” into the phone. No response. The phone rings again and this time it is indeed Julian, the podcast host, who explains he is trying to work out some equipment problems. As we talk he says, “Whoa, it’s really loud from your end.” I hope he can dial it down so his listeners didn’t have to listen to me at max amplification, but he’s not sure he’s able to equalize my voice and his.

Julian plays the opening music, introduces me, and I promptly say, “Thank you for inviting me, Andre.” Apparently I still have Andre’s name in my head due to those glitchy calls. I laugh, apologize, and we start over. But making a mistake in the first minute isn’t the best thing for my confidence.

I have two tactics to deal with my nervous energy during interviews. I stand looking out the window at trees, which is calming. I also play with Thinking Putty, a gift from my much-missed friend Bernie DeKoven. The putty keeps my hands busy while I try to avoid what I consider some of my common interview failings:

  • telling the same stories I’ve told in previous interviews
  • making unequivocal statements
  • leaving air space while I ponder
  • giving in to my urge to talk about research (exciting to me, deadly to most listeners)

As the interview proceeds I roll the putty into an ever-lengthening strand, twirl it around into a tiny coiled pot, then squish it and start over again. Pot after pot is created and destroyed until a bubble forms in the putty. As I squish it a loud slow sputter noise is emitted. It sounds rather like a human emphatically passing gas. I am so startled that I pause what I am saying long enough to remember that my side of the conversation is over-amplified. Michael pauses too. I prattle on again in the eager high tone of someone trying to cover up a mistake, the badly behaved putty now back in its tin. But a few minutes later my nervous energy gets the better of me and I’m back to rolling it into strands, then coiled pots, then back into lumps to start over. And yes, before the end of the call the damn putty makes yet another resounding fart noise.

It may be a coincidence, but I haven’t been asked to do a single podcast since then. So here’s my advice — avoid playing with putty while being interviewed unless you really want to go with that hermit impulse.

*Julian and Andre’s names have, of course, been changed. 

There’s Something About Stacking Stones

I’ve always loved stones. Not gemstones; I’m not a swayed-by-shiny-baubles sort of girl. I mean the wonderfully rough-shouldered stones found heaving up in the garden, pasture, and woods. I’m drawn to their geologically long view of things. Their solid gray patience with scurrying life forms. And their reassuringly substantial form in a world preoccupied with ephemeral concepts like wealth, fame, and power.

Maybe that’s why I’ve got a thing for stacking them.

It’s intriguing to pivot one stone on another, finding the spot where they rest in pleasing balance. Then to place another stone on top, then another, and another. I need to be careful. I don’t want stones to drop on my loved ones or my dogs or other innocent being happening by. What’s interesting is that they don’t. Sometimes stacked stones slump sideways a bit, almost as if establishing a balance they find more pleasing. Or maybe the Earth’s rotation is felt more honestly by stones as they lean in accord with the great whirling Mother stone.

The stack on the left is leaning off in its own direction.

A few seasons ago, what looked like a stone forehead emerged from our lawn. Every time the tractor passed over it the mower blades shrieked. So my guys got out a shovel, crowbar, and wheelbarrow to fully liberate it from the earth it was trying to exit. Now it’s above ground again, nestled with companion rocks by our garage door, safe from the mower. Being a stone, it’ll sink back into the ground eventually, waiting for Earth’s tides to heave it back up again.

Here’s that stone, waiting for a taller and more artful stack.

Actually, quite a few of my stone stacks have rocks piled nearby, waiting until I’m hit by stacking inspiration.  Like this one,

and this one.

These are sister stacks, seen from the side,

a

My current favorite is this gravity-defying stack.

a

I also stack stones indoors, although I’ve kept myself to one spot, the little dresser that served as our Waldorf-y nature table for years. (By the time my kids were teens that mostly meant animal skulls, fossils, and strangely shaped sticks.) These are three of the seven stone stacks there. Now, seeing this picture, I realize the one on the left has lost the pyramid-shaped stone that used to perch there. I’m off to search for it!

” The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”  ~ Bertrand Russell

This post is shared from our homestead-y site, Bit of Earth Farm

Broken Glasses

The nose pad on my glasses snapped off as I left Loganberry Books. I was vastly grateful they didn’t break while I was standing there reading from my new book. Now my glasses sat at a crooked angle and the world took on a sickening migraine-ish skew. I’m unable see much without them, although I’ve given that a try in the past.

When I was around 10 years old, I started getting answers marked wrong on my math homework. “Careless” the teacher would scrawl in red ink. Even when my parents checked and found every calculation correct, the next day many were marked wrong. No one seemed to notice I was incorrectly copying problems from the board. To the nearsighted, 7 looks quite a bit like 1, 4 looks quite a bit like 9, most numbers waver in a fog.

One awful afternoon I was demoted from the top math group to the middle math group. This meant walking across the hall from Mrs. Simoni’s class to Mrs. Goodrich’s class. The hall was quiet. Our janitor swirled a long shaggy dust mop across the floor. I wanted to take over floor swiping. Let him walk into the classroom where every face would turn to look, let him figure out how right answers became wrong.

Thankfully, Mrs. Goodrich figured out my vision was the issue and my mother took me to get glasses. The process was new to me. Drops blurring my vision. A doctor clicking neat circular lenses over my eyes, asking “this one or this one” as he hurried through a sequence to make the eye chart come into focus. Trying on the inexpensive plastic frames my mother steered me to, their price still making me gulp in discomfort at costing my parents so much.

I wore those glasses for the first time as we drove home. I was astonished. I could see expressions on people’s faces in the street! I had no idea that was possible except when up close. I could see individual leaves on trees! The whole ride I sat transfixed, watching miracles scroll past the window.

Those glasses fixed my visual problems. But by sixth grade, the plastic frames became a severe social liability. I was outgrowing them and needed new lenses anyway, but asking for something expensive like stylish frames was Not Done in our family. I asked anyway. I wanted wire rimmed glasses, the ones everyone even remotely cool wore in 1972. My mother said only hippies wore those frames and she wasn’t paying extra to make other people think differently about me. I wheedled. I begged. Finally she said if I could find a picture of even one respectable person wearing wire rimmed glasses she’d consider it. I found a picture of presidential candidate George McGovern wearing them. She said that didn’t count, she didn’t consider him respectable.

I prevailed, eventually getting new glasses. I felt cool in them for a whole day, maybe two. Then my skin reacted to the metal. Red bumps formed everywhere the metal touched —- over my nose and along my cheeks. The bumps swelled, itched, and burst like gooey blisters. Putting the glasses on over my broken skin burned. I tried all sorts of remedies — coating the metal with clear nail polish and coating my skin with various concoctions, from Vaseline to cortisone cream. Nothing helped. So at home I folded toilet paper strips to make a barrier between my skin and the metal. My family got used to seeing me with paper along my nose. I got so used to it that I often forgot how strange I looked, only to be reminded when my siblings had friends over or when I answered the door for a delivery. Sometimes, if I didn’t have to go anywhere for a few days, the red oozy bumps on my face nearly healed. But the world doesn’t allow kids to retreat, even bookish hermits who don’t mind being hermits

13 and not wearing glasses…

By the time I was 13, I’d largely stopped wearing my glasses in public, even though I could barely see much more than a foot in front of me. A metal allergy surely wasn’t my only reason. I was insecure and probably hoped I’d be faintly more popular without glasses. I can only imagine how stuck up I must have actually seemed, ignoring peers because I couldn’t see them… And the year I turned 13 was also the year I was assaulted by a friend’s father. Maybe I didn’t want to see men seeing me.

But without vision correction, I was legally blind.

This created all sorts of complications, mostly in the social realm. For example, I kept a vaguely friendly expression on my face as I walked to and from school, because the blobs in front of me might resolve into street signs and fire hydrants, or they might resolve into people. I had to get close enough to find out.

The cute high school guy I started dating when I was 14 surely must have thought I didn’t have much brainpower. One of the first times we went out to eat I picked up a piece of lettuce that had fallen from my salad. He stopped me before I put it in my mouth. It was his crumpled up straw paper. Another time we went to his house. Across the room was a new frame with three ovals inside. I assumed they were portraits of the family’s three offspring. “Oh,” I said cheerfully to his mother, “new family pictures!” Nope, it was a barometer.

I couldn’t see, he overlooked a lot. I ended up marrying that cute guy. (By then I was back to wearing non-allergenic glasses.)

All these years later that guy, after my poetry reading, carefully fashioned something out of medical tape and gauze to hold my glasses level so I could read. (Because he knows I must read.)

And the next morning he hurried my broken frames to The Eyeglass Hospital, the only place in the Cleveland area that welds tiny titanium eyeglass pieces back together.  When he returned and handed over my glasses, I could see! Leaves on trees, words on pages, and my dear husband’s facial expression.  He was smiling.

The Clothes She Wore

My mom, graduating with a degree in registered nursing.

Years ago I interviewed for the chance to ghostwrite a book about the history of a textile factory that had recently closed. The opportunity initially appealed to me  because it was a local story, and because the pictures of the abandoned manufacturing facility were so compelling. But the owners who closed the mill and design studio didn’t have the heart I believed necessary for the story. They saw it as a book about business. A book about staying on trend or what global competition can do to an entire industry.

“It’s not like the clothes themselves mean anything,” one of them said to me. I had just spent weeks clearing out closets and drawers after my mother died, so I disagreed.

I tried to explain that new clothes are only possibilities, but when they’re worn they become part of our experiences, our memories. “Clothes hold the bodies we love,” I told them. Their eyes showed no lift of recognition.

When I was in elementary school, my mother went away on a 10 day trip. She’d never been gone more than a night or two before. We kids stayed home with our father, reveling in greater freedom to pick out what we wanted at the grocery store and to stay up a little later. Those freedoms quickly lost their appeal. I missed my mother’s hugs, her voice, her scent, everything about her. Sometimes I needed her so badly I snuck off to her closet. I’d lean in until it felt as if her clothes were hugging me and breathe deeply, as if I might catch her scent there among clothes slack with her absence.

Thankfully we had her back for many decades, but it didn’t make cleaning out her clothes any easier. I wasn’t able to fold a dress or scarf without thinking of where my mother wore it and what this garment must have witnessed. No surprise, the items most fully imbued with memory were those she wore most often. A favorite dress, its floral cotton soft and faded. A navy cardigan she put on only at home,  the one with a hole at the elbow she’d patched many times. Her closet held dresses she kept for special occasions and outfits she hoped to wear again. In drawers and boxes were packed away things she considered “too good.” They held no memories at all.

My sister and I tried on a few things our mother saved from her younger days, marveling at how much thinner she once was. (Size 12 from the sixties was much smaller than that size today.)  We kept some things to cherish. I took a stack of handkerchiefs; some beautifully embroidered and some the utilitarian ones she used to give me when childhood allergies made my nose too tender for paper tissues.

I still use those handkerchiefs, in part to be environmentally conscious but also because they are kinder to my nose. Each time I reach for one I can’t help but wish they still held my mother’s scent, the way her clothes once held her.

Poets & Sages Behind Closed Doors

Sunlight flashes across the nursing home lobby when I enter. By degrees the brightness dims as the door swings shut. My eyes adjust to a line of wheelchairs, their occupants so still they might be in deep meditation. One woman rouses, her brown eyes searching me out. “Feet don’t work a’tall,” she says politely. “Not a lick of good.”

I walk down the hall past living koans. A man is held in a chair with padded restraints resembling a life jacket. His arms extend forward as if he is about to swim, but he doesn’t move. He repeats over and over, “I, I, I, I.”

An aide explains in a loud, cheerful tones to a woman hunched over a walker, “There is no upstairs, Dorothy. See? No elevator. We only have one floor.”

Dorothy ignores her and pushes the walker ahead. “Let’s go upstairs now,” she says.

“Show me how to get there.”

When I get to the room where my husband’s grandmother lives, she says, “There you are!” She knows me even if she can’t remember my name. Today I get her talking about childhood memories. She recalls that as the youngest of an immigrant family she had to be tough even as a little girl. “They’d beat you like they wanted salt,” she says, “but I wouldn’t cry.”

“Who beat you Grandma?”

“I’m never hungry,” she answers. “Never.”

Her roommate, who leaves the television on all day, calls out over the noise of a game show, “Ned, come over here.”

There’s no one by that name in the room. Not that I can see.

This whole nursing home feels like a living poem. But I don’t want to write about the people here. I want to write with them.

When I graduated from college I found no openings in my field. Instead I eventually found a job as a nursing home activities director. There I read the newspaper aloud every morning to a lively group of elders, soliciting their opinions and making sure to find the articles they loved to cluck over — tales of human failings. I played songs on the piano like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for sing-alongs. I got a group of rabble-rousers together each month, named them the Residents’ Council, and helped them advocate for positive change with the administration. And I developed a local network of activity directors. We shared closely guarded secrets such as contact information for puppeteers, barbershop quartets, amateur magicians, and others willing to perform in nursing homes.

My fellow activity directors and I had the best jobs in these places. We had time to listen to the people who lived there. When I listened, really listened, I knew myself to be in the presence of poets and sages. I developed a writing program to let others hear them too. When I took the job, the facility’s monthly newsletter contained only a schedule of events, a list of birthdays, and generic health tips. But the building was home to 100 people with voices of their own. I needed to expand that publication.

I started with a column called “Tip of the Month.” Some residents didn’t know what day of the week it was or where they were, but if asked for suggestions on getting a child to behave or living within one’s means, they bubbled with advice. That column usually featured comments by dozens of residents. Many times their opinions contradicted each other, making for a livelier feature. Better yet, staff members and families implemented some of the suggestions in their own lives. When they came back and told the residents about ways they had benefited, it helped put these seniors back in their rightful position as elders with wisdom to offer.

For example:

Home Cold Remedies

“My mother used to put dry onions on my chest like a poultice. She browned them in a frying pan and put them on hot as I could take.” — Harry Pierce

“We took hot milk with ginger.” — Carmen Morales

  “My mother would rub goose grease and turpentine on our chests and put us to bed after a drink of whiskey, hot water, and sugar. Boy did we smell after that!” — Lillian Edwards

 Once I got beyond the typical “how are you feeling today?” conversational dead-end so common in nursing homes, I discovered residents whose suggestions were too long and complex to fit in Tip of the Month.” If asked to give advice for high school graduates their answers covered psychology, religion, and culture. If the question dealt with handling bullies, some people brought up international affairs, others disclosed wild personal incidents.

So I added another section to the periodical. This one centered on a different theme each month. Harvest time, first day of school, best friends, what made a good neighbor, lifelong dreams, a mother’s touch, fatherly advice, vacations. Some people brought up fragments of memories, others shared powerful insights. Nearly all of their answers illuminated a bygone era.

Preparing for Winter

“My grandfather from Hungary never drank water…Hungary had been at war and both sides poisoned the water. He never took up drinking the water again… Each year he bought a truckload of grapes and had them dumped through the basement window. We helped him make barrels of wine.” — Bill Dobscha

“Back in Ireland we’d dig up the potatoes, pick the apples, and store them away…Close to winter the pig was butchered and the meat smoked. The wheat was ground for bread and we made sure there was enough oatmeal to feed us 21 kids all winter.”  — Catherine Monally

“Only rich kids had skates, but you could slide on ice by smashing tin cans on your heels and use garbage can lids for sleds. We had fun in any weather.”  — Freda Tesar

Sometimes new staff members had difficulty telling residents apart, frustrated that stooped posture and thin white hair made the very old look alike. But stories in print gave unique perspectives on residents who spent day after day in nearly identical rooms. It also gave us more to talk about with them.

Although some people understandably found it difficult to adjust when they had to move to a nursing home, many adapted with astonishing ease to the losses represented by institutionalization—loss of identity, health, possessions, and freedom. Their contributions to the newsletter made it apparent they did so because they’d already endured great difficulty in their lives, hard lessons in impermanence.

Residents also blasted apart the sweet oldster stereotype. Some were eager to talk about their indulgences, shenanigans, even crimes. Oftentimes pain or dementia loosened the sense of propriety that had a greater lock on their generation, other times mischievousness seemed to linger right under the surface. Their willingness to reveal an edgier side accorded them new respect from the youngest people on staff.

As residents talked of the past I was struck by how dispassionate many of their accounts were. It seemed they no longer suffered over prejudice, judgment, and injustice imposed on them or that they had imposed on others. They talked with a distant tone, as if simply telling parables.

Soon I added a “Resident of the Month” feature. This gave me the luxury of listening to much lengthier oral histories. Some people told me details they didn’t want in print and we worked together to craft the material they did want published. I usually had to corroborate the facts with their files and was often surprised to find significant information they didn’t bother to mention, further evidence that stories aren’t in the data of where one lived and worked. They are in the details. Union busters coming to rough up a little girl’s coal-mining daddy and her pride in hiding his supper dishes that were on the table so no one would suspect he’d taken refuge under the front porch. A sibling dying in the night of diphtheria, and later honoring the lost child by giving one’s firstborn baby the same name. There were also tales of accomplishments, hardships, and sacrifices dismissed with the wave of a hand–“No, I never saw Mama again after I left the Old Country. That’s how it was.”

Then I started regular poetry workshops. I read poems aloud, passed around objects with relevant smells and textures, shared observations. (And served cookies. Sweets inspired many a reluctant participant.) Then I scribbled rapidly as they talked. Later I combined their words into a group poem crediting each author with his or her own line. Residents and their families seemed to prefer traditional verse so I encouraged workshop participants to work with rhyming phrases whenever possible. Some were diagnosed with dementia or suffered speech impairment due to a stroke. Though they couldn’t make coherent contributions to our other writing projects, their abilities shone in poetry.

Phrases from a resident who said the same thing over and over took on a new tenor when made into a refrain. The man who dryly commented on a topic with only three words in an hour had his contribution included. So did the woman who kept interrupting with more ideas. After our workshops I would visit other residents’ rooms to seek their input, searching out those who couldn’t attend the poetry sessions but whose impressions could make a difference. Occasionally I transcribed the words of a single resident to create an entire poem.

When residents’ words were invited, taken seriously, and written down, when I nodded and looked them in the eye, they had more to say. A lingering silence, in fact, seemed to bring ideas from a place of deep contemplation. Many times I watched someone’s gaze turn to the window, past the ubiquitous geranium. I waited. When it seemed that they’d forgotten completely they would speak gracefully, forcefully, in ways that juxtaposed symbols with objects, meaning with abstraction. Poetry.

“I’ll see you next week Grandma,” I say, leaning down to give her a hug. She seems present yet detached, like so many of my greatest teachers. I brush the hair away from her face, pat her hand, adjust her lap robe. She smiles distantly. I stand for a moment. She rouses briefly, looks at me. “Listen,” she says urgently, “the wind! The wind!”

There are no open windows, no breeze on the soundtrack of the blaring TV. So often she speaks from a place beyond logic. I want to know if it’s possible to trace her words back to meaning, but her eyes are already closed.

As I walk outside the sunlight is intense. I fumble for my sunglasses. Only then does my attention turn to my breath. The wind. The wind.

 

Originally published by The MOON Magazine and DailyGood.org

Battered Blue Wheelbarrow

What It Carries, Still

Your father, whose voice scared me,
whose head loomed a full 14 inches over my mine,
bought us our only housewarming gift;
a bright blue, six cubic foot wheelbarrow.
We laughed at its size, laughed as you gave me
a bumpy ride over the first lawn
we giddily called our own.

He seemed to believe our future
would be one of Paul Bunyan-sized loads.
It was.

In it we hauled firewood, dirt, rocks,
crinkled leaves topped with squealing toddlers.
It held a big block Dodge engine.
It toted rolls of fencing, chicken feed, cow manure.
It carried trays of tender seedlings
out to the garden, waiting
as I blessed each one into soft earthen beds.

Today you mend the rusted body
of our battered blue wheelbarrow.
I wish your father lived to see
its wooden handles smoothed from use
and what it carries, still
on that one sure wheel.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in The Moon Magazine. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

The Land Remembers

There was a small forest behind our house when I was growing up. Stepping from lawn to woods felt like stepping into another world, one teeming with mystery. I couldn’t articulate, but fervently believed, that everything — plants, rocks, water, and creatures —spoke in a language just beyond my understanding. I liked to go alone to a special place, a small rise between two trees next to a tiny stream. I’d sit there silently, hoping creatures of the forest might get used to me, might even come to accept the wilted iceberg lettuce and carrot peelings I was allowed to bring. My offerings were always there the next day where I’d left them, like an answer to a question.

I liked to imagine living in those woods, although I didn’t know how to weave baskets from reeds, how to make a shelter, or what plants might ease illness. I certainly couldn’t imagine eating the creatures I hoped might be my friends. (I was also afraid of the dark and entirely unable to go a single day without library books…)

Of course I returned to the world of mowed lawns and  store-bought food. I’d walk back as if I were part of the forest, trying to keep my footfalls from making a sound despite twigs and dry leaves because I imagined that’s how Native people walked,  when they lived in the same place, when the largest trees might have been saplings.

Every place I stepped then and step now is a place walked by people before me. As Chelsey Luger writes in YES Magazine, “You cannot find a corner of this continent that does not hold ancient history, Indigenous value, and pre-colonial place names and stories. And every place we occupy was once the homeland for other people, most of whom didn’t leave willingly.”

Now, thanks to collaborative mapmaker Victor Temprano’s efforts we can easily find out more about who lived where we now call home. Mr. Temprano is mapping Indigenous languages, treaties, and territories across North America on the website and app Native Land. Simply enter the name of your town or its ZIP code. An interactive map will color-code your inquiry, showing hyperlinked data on the area’s Indigenous history, original language, and tribal ties.

According to the map, I currently live on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French, the League of Five Nations by the English) and the land of the Potawatomi Nation. These peoples were uprooted by Indian Land Cessions from 1784-1894, and beyond. (See a time lapse map of how 1.5 billion acres were taken from Native inhabitants.)

I don’t know much about the people whose land I occupy. I don’t understand the language of plants, rocks, water, and creatures. I am still trying to listen.

“I keep having these recurring dreams where I’m on a plane or train and all the people around me, Native and non-Native, are speaking different Indigenous languages. I hear Paiute, Lashootseed, Diné, Catawba, and they’re feeding their babies wild rice and smoked fish. I’m dreaming about a modern world that doesn’t erase its Indigenous intelligence, but rather embraces the rich complexity of Indigenous culture.

This can be actualized if we all bring our hearts and minds together. The land we walk on is Indian Land, whether it be suburban cul-de-sacs or city streets. Echoes of Indian existence are all around us. It’s up to us to listen.” Matika Wilbur

Superhero Plunge

My mother was born much too late to be a Victorian but she never once, in all the time I knew her, wore anything but a dress. No pants, no jeans, certainly no shorts. An earlier era’s propriety had its grip on her. (She was also affectionate, occasionally hilarious, and a wonderful storyteller.)

Because of my mother’s preoccupation with politeness, I was raised in a family where anything related to human elimination went unspoken. (For example, intestinal gas was neither heard nor discussed. Only once, when behind a closed door we heard my father’s gas amplified by the toilet bowl, did my mother acknowledge it, saying, “Poor Daddy doesn’t feel well.” We all hung our heads to acknowledge misery so great it could be heard.)

Still, the shadow wants to be known. Perhaps that’s why our bathroom rebelled. Faucets leaked and toilets gurgled in the night as if ghostly hands pulled on the handles. And far too often, the toilet seemed unwilling to swallow our refuse. A few wipes, a flush, and suddenly the angry toilet’s water would rise in an increasingly threatening manner to tremble at the top of the bowl. Sometimes, sheets of water cascaded onto the clean tile floor. I developed a terror of mutinous toilets pretty early in life.

The plunger was of no use to me because, as a child, I didn’t have enough arm strength to create the necessary suction. I learned to grab the toilet brush and clear the toilet’s unwilling throat any time it seemed to swirl a moment longer than usual.  If that didn’t work, I’d cry out in desperation, “Mom, the toilet is overflowing!”

Keep in mind, before I was in first grade, my mother taught me to set a proper table with salad fork, entrée fork, table knife, butter knife, and spoon. She taught me to “sit like a lady” when company visited. She taught me to write thank you notes; always say “please” and “thank you;” and when treated badly, to “kill them with kindness.”

But she was no cliché. My mother broke records in school with her high grades. She broke rules as an RN to better serve her patients. And when our toilet threatened to overflow, my mother morphed into some kind of superhero. No matter where in the house she was, she responded to my cry before I finished the first syllable. I swear she flew through the air, arriving in time to grab the plunger and heartily convince the toilet to behave itself.

(In her last years, she used a walker to get around. Even then, my children were amazed to witness their grandmother levitate to their sides at the mere hint of trouble and unclog the toilet before a single germ-laden drop of water touched her floor. )

I grew up and moved out into a world where my mother could not unclog threatening situations for me. This became obvious when I took my own precious two-year-old to the bathroom in someone’s home. It was a lovely home, with a bathroom far more precious than bathrooms I normally frequented. Everything was stark and shining. I wiped my toddler’s adorable bottom to find that he had, somehow, crapped out a substance thick and unwipeable as tar. I ruminated on what he’d eaten as I cleaned him up, lifted his adorableness from the toilet and flushed it, then pulled up his tiny underbritches and tiny pants.

The toilet rebelled in a slow, menacing way. Water swirled. It rose. It made no gurgling digestive noises as toilets do to let us know our digestion is being taken care of. I felt the hamster wheel of panic start twirling in my chest. I looked for a toilet brush or plunger, but of course this fashionable bathroom did not display such utilitarian tools. Water rose even higher. I could picture it trembling at the lip of the bowl, then pouring out onto the beautiful floor as I fled with my child — ruination flooding out the door behind us.

Every cell in my body wanted to cry out, “Mom, the toilet is overflowing!”

My mother was nowhere in sight.

I saw no other choice. In one rapid move, I pulled up my sleeve and plunged my arm into the icy depths. I grabbed the offending clog away from the opening. The water happily swirled down. With a gurgle, everything was gone.

I washed my arm ferociously as I assured my child that, no, he should never put his hand into a toilet. It was Mama’s job and only in an emergency. I did not tell him that he should never speak of it again, lest that might inspire him to announce it to everyone for months.

It has been a very long time since I was forced to commit this act. I still remember the icy plunge, but I don’t remember the horror. Instead I remember realizing that it was up to me.

I was the Mama. It was time to be the superhero.