Sustaining words

As I turned the pages of my academic planner from April to May, I discovered a quote from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön…

You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.

The implication is to just be. To remain. To not worry about things beyond your control. The storms of life may rage and wreak havoc, but not indefinitely. They pass. And they’re interspersed with moments of incredible beauty. The sky exists above clouds. It is the sphere through which the sun, moon, and stars pass…what would it mean, then, to “be the sky”? I feel more posts coming on this later…

Meanwhile, more Chödrön:

Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

On Mother’s Day my family gathered for lunch. Sunday afternoons have an ethereal quality; they are not your ordinary afternoons. They beckon sleep, or reading, or other quiet pleasures; they also offer an outlet for expending physical energy and embracing joie de vivre, joy of living. After lunch my granddaughter, age five, needed to “run and get her wiggles out.” Her mother and I watched her running through a sea of white clover in my backyard. I’d been irritated that our lawn service hadn’t yet cut the grass but as I breathed the sweet, clover-perfumed air, I thought How perfect is the fragrance of this day. My daughter-in-law and I began identifying all the different types of plants growing with the grass in my yard with the “Picture This” app on our phones: Tall goldenrod. Spreading hedgeparsley. Ryegrass. Bluegrass (who knew?). Posion ivy on the far corner of the fence under the pines (lawn crew must be notified). Woodsorrel. Wild geranium. And wild mock strawberries, which enchanted my granddaughter. She picked them and carried them around, tiny red fruit in a tiny pink hand… my son said, “I never knew those grew here!”

There are a lot of things we never realize. Such as the value of simple moments, in the living of them. We cannot imagine how the memory of these will remain with us, like the sky, for our lifetime.

One more quote…

Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.

One of the thick, spiky weeds we identified on our backyard exploration is a species of “Everlasting.”

I said to my daughter-in-law: “I had no idea so much poetry lived in the grass.”

I think about all that would have been lost in these dappled Sunday afternoon moments, if the grass had been cut like I’d wanted. My granddaughter didn’t complain. She savored it all, blue eyes as brilliant as the sky above.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring. For now I only know we stand as we are, in our shared sky and story, moments in the making, entering the warrior’s world, a family of everlastings like those growing in the universe beneath our feet.

Where nothing is ever really ordinary.

In the grass (a snapshot poem)

with thanks to Susan Ahlbrand who invited writing around an old snapshot today for #verselove at Ethical ELA.

A tribute to my grandmother, who had six children by age twenty-two, during the Depression. She outlived four of them. One baby boy died a few years before this photo was taken.

For those of you who read my poem for Earnie (my aunt Earline): she’s second from right, the child snuggled closest to her mother.

A pantoum for Day Twenty-Four of National Poetry Month

In the tall, tall grass
a mother’s determined love
covers a multitude of sins
revealed in time

A mother’s determined love
surviving day by day
revealed in time
burns at the roots of deprivation

Surviving day by day
her feisty, firebright glow
burns at the roots of deprivation
before the brokenness shows

Her feisty, firebright glow
covers a multitude of sins
before the brokenness shows
in the tall, tall grass

Unexpected poem

with thanks to Araceli, Deanna, and Michelle at #verselove on Ethical ELA today, for the invitation to write about someone who’s influenced your life, incorporating sensory details. My first inclination is to write of my grandparents – as I often do – but today, my aunt came to mind. I expect she’d be so surprised.

I am.

This one’s for her.

On Day Twenty-Two of National Poetry Month

A Poem for Earnie 

I didn’t expect to write of you today
but here I am, remembering
of all things, the tape recorder
your ready, set, go!
the click of your finger pressing play
and singing for all we were worth,
you, my little sister and me:
Wherever you go,
wherever you may wander in your life
Surely you know
I always want to be there…

one of us flubbing the words
all of us cracking up
you saying, I’ll rewind
let’s try it again

I think of your laughter
wild, free, contagious
your raucous humor
trailing you like an ermine robe
rich, resplendent, priceless
cloaking loneliness
I may not have perceived

The only one of my mother’s sisters
never to marry or have children
which didn’t keep you from giving advice
pressing Mama’s buttons
like no one else on Earth
yet she went and named her youngest daughter
after you

Then there were the wigs on
the featureless disembodied heads
sitting on your dresser
you could pick whatever 1970s hair you wanted
each day
how cool was that?

I can’t recall a thing you ever cooked
only that you loved eating
Mama said you were picky
you didn’t look it
Mama said that’s why you weren’t married
so picky that you didn’t get got

I wondered why you never really left home
living with Grannie most of your life
you’d break away for an apartment once or twice
but would always go back
like you needed to be
within the borders
of her shadow

Perhaps it will surprise you
that I recall the ceramics class you took
and the Pepto Bismol pink statuette
of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha
god of happiness and contentment
that you made for me
his hands thrown high to the heavens
Rub his big belly for good luck
each day,
you said
and I could hear the pleasure in your voice
only much later did I flip him over
to find your inscription of love
on the bottom of his pedestal

Funny how the dress you wore to my wedding
was Pepto Bismol pink
I am glad I asked you to be my wedding director
at Mama’s prodding
I remember the books you ran out to buy
to do the job well
for me

Of course there’s Jenny…
a love of your life
Siamese as picky as yourself
who’d curl in my lap
purring
That’s rare,
you’d say

Jenny who lived twelve years
who died in the fire
when you woke in the middle of the night
choking on the smoke
phone in your bedroom
hot to the touch
calling 9-1-1 for the first time
because it was
a brand-new thing
I don’t know how you roused
Grannie and Papa G in the other room
nor how any of you climbed out of the windows
onto the roof
into the freezing midnight air
and safety
as the firemen arrived
but you did it

in my mind, Mama’s voice:
It took three firemen to hold her
from going back in
for Jenny.
They found her
the next day
under Earnie’s window.

I hear your anguished sobs
even now
in those wee hours when you
arrived at our house to stay
reeking of smoke
so that the fur coat you wore
would have to be destroyed

I remember the clothes
you bought for my first baby
in bright, beautiful colors,
expensive
so lovingly chosen

You didn’t live to see my youngest
never knew of his gift for music
how you’d have loved it
I can see you right now,
tape recorder in hand

As the disease took your lungs
and reached its insidious fingers
into your brain
I recall the peculiar shine in your hollowed eyes
against the yellowing of your face

when you asked:
Are you still writing?
Have you published anything yet?

Yes and no, Earnie.
I am still writing, yes.
Long, long after we laid you to rest
in your pink dress
(Grannie had your nails painted to match)
and this isn’t really published
but it’s for you
I didn’t expect to be writing of you today
or singing Olivia Newton-John all of a sudden
after all these years,
but here I am
and here you are,
wherever I may wander
in my life
snatches of song, rolling laughter
here in my morning
here in my night.

Summertime poem

with thanks to Abigail, Betsy, and Soshi for the invitation to write on this topic for #verselove at Ethical ELA today (who’s not longing for summer right now?!).

Here’s why summer has such a special pull for me.

For Day Nineteen of National Poetry Month

Summer Second

Sunny afternoon
blue sky
bit of breeze
faint sound of a radio
from a neighbor’s yard
I can’t discern the song
it just sends me into 
reverie
for a second
conjuring
hot sand
under my bare feet
Coppertone in my nose
salt on my tongue
If everybody had an ocean
across the USA
then everybody’d be surfin’
like Californ-i-ay…

snatches of conversation
cresting and dipping
on the breeze
mighty waves of memory
crashing on the shore
my father’s big black sandals
flip-flopping to the old navy-blue Ford
the battered brown Samsonite
suitcase in his hand
the ride is so long
so long
the city gives way
to pastures, meadows
horses
fields
that go on and on, forever
plowed furrows running
like long crazy legs
to keep up 
with the Ford
as we zoom past
until at last
the lonesome highway
comes to a fork
on the left,
the tiny church
where my ancestors
sleep under stones
we veer to the right
turning 
onto the dirt road
my heart beats faster
Daddy drives slower
stirring clouds of dust
and I am already
grabbing the door handle
as Granddaddy’s lush garden 
comes into view
with just a glimpse of 
Grandma’s white angel birdbath
circled by orange marigolds
through the laundry 
lazily flapping
on the clothesline
and there they are, 
walking across
the green, green grass
and I am out of the Ford
before it’s hardly stopped
and in their arms
in the blinding sun
as the forest stands tall
all around
with its cool
dark mysteries
where the rattling cicadas
crescendo
vibrating on and on and on
through my soul
I can’t discern the song
it just carries me
through eternity
in this one
bright second

Abundance acrostic

The acrostic is an ancient poetic form, appearing in Scripture and as prayers in medieval literature. On Day Five of National Poetry Month, I use it to announce a family celebration…with a little wordplay…

Although I planned to resume writing of Easter’s
Bounty in the nest on the front door wreath,
Unprecedented number of little blue eggs—five!—
Now, instead, I ask you to picture my family
Doing a bun dance over the holiday,
At least in our hearts, at this
New-life announcement on
Cookies and a special T-shirt:
Expecting! —Exponential Easter joy!

First, the finch eggs in the nest on the front door.
The fifth egg appeared this morning.
We usually get three or four. Abundance!

Now for the cookies:
My daughter-in-law and granddaughter made them
to announce the special news to my husband and me
over Easter weekend
…aBUNdance!

My granddaughter’s face was radiant,
delivering those cookies at our family dinner.
In this photo she is crying on first hearing the news.
She threw herself into my son’s arms.
The desire of her little heart, granted; abundant joy.

—A-bun-dance, indeed!

Yahtzee

She spies the box on the top of the shelf in “her” room (I call it the “Spare Oom,” kindred Narnians):

“What’s that game, Franna?”

“Oh, that’s Yahtzee. I used to play it all the time when I was growing up.”

“How do you play?”

Sounds like an invitation to me.

I reach past Spy Alley, Catchphrase, Trivial Pursuit, the chess set, and Twister (that game floored her. Really. Not just trying to be punny).

Dear old Yahtzee.

The dice rattle inside the box…and I remember…

Whole afternoons elapsing on the worn living room rug, sunlight waning behind the lace curtains, sometimes distant thunder beyond the rain-slapped windows, none of it mattering in the wide circle of lamplight where my sister and I hunched over the scorecards. The exultant cry or groan of despair, depending on whose throw landed all five dice on the same number. Yahtzee!

Evenings in my aunt’s spotless, light-dimmed, vanilla-scented den, legs criss-crossed, drinking Dr. Pepper in glasses with curiously-cylindrical ice cubes clinking (ice-makers were uncommon, then). The lovingly-fierce competition between my young aunt and uncle, their laughter, their encouragement: Good choice, Hon. Sometimes you just have to take it on Chance

The look of perplexity on kids’ faces at math camp when I bought out the box after a lesson on probability; their brows furrowing as they learned the terminology: three of a kind, four of a kind, full house, small straight, large straight; their faces soon glowing with new zeal; shouts of YESSSS! accompanying fist punches in the air…

Hours at the kitchen table, the warmth of butter-yellow walls, my mother blowing on the dice, sending my sister and me into giggles; we start blowing on our dice, too. Come on, sixes, come on, sixes…years later, as I leave the house for a date: my mother at the kitchen table with a friend from across the street, whose story I never fully knew, only that she’d suffered a mental breakdown and had been taken in by relatives. Her hands shake as she lights one of my mom’s Salems, blue eyes wide and a little too bright, a nervous smile flickering across her face as the dice roll in her favor. Swirls of white smoke heavy in the air, floating after me on the sound of my mother’s cackling laughter, hilarious in itself, uniquely uninhibited, ever-gleeful…

So much depends on the rolling of the dice, on the way you choose to take what comes.

I lay out the pencils and scorecards, scoop up the dice, place them in my granddaughter’s little cupped hands.

“All right, Baby. Let me show you how to play.”

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 25, I am writing around a word beginning with letter y. 

Threads

While National Mental Health Awareness Month (May) is still weeks away, the COVID-19 pandemic has called greater attention to the need for support. Youth.gov explains the purpose of the national focus: “Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities.” 

I note that children are mentioned first. They are at the mercy of the grown-ups, and when the grown-ups in their lives are suffering, children suffer. They often don’t understand or have a framework for understanding, not for years to come, or maybe ever. To a child, your norm is your norm. You have little to no power of your own. Think of how long the Turpin children suffered, before one managed to escape and get help.

Last month, in the neighborhood of the school where I work, a little girl was found dead with her mother in an apparent murder-suicide. I didn’t know this child; she wasn’t one of our students. But I have mourned her, mourned for whatever she suffered in her short life, mourned that a mother, unable to cope with whatever lies in her untold story, would resort to taking the life of an estranged partner and then her child.

People speak of unbreakable bonds, of the ties that bind. Sometimes those threads are very, very fragile.

Some of the threads running through the background are beautiful and bright, even as the family portrait bleeds away from the canvas. 

Sometimes destruction doesn’t come all at once, but by a long, slow unraveling.

Threads 

This morning I trimmed the threads off of my patchwork writing journal.

As I balled them up to throw them away

I realized the tangle of color in my hand.

They spoke to me: Remember?

Oh yes, I used to see you all over the floor when I was a child.

Rolling lazily across the hardwoods when we walked by

or nestled in the frayed carpet of the living room.

Fragments of my mother’s handiwork

vestiges of the artist she was

crafter of clothes we wore

tailor for many more.

Who’d have believed that such a creator

could destroy so completely?

A family of threads, each one its own vibrant color

in seams ripped apart

scattered far and wide

drifting on

and on

and on.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 20, I am writing around a word beginning with letter t.

The poem has been sitting as a draft for exactly two years today while I pondered publishing. I wrote the original draft as a participant in professional development for literacy coaches, of all things. I can’t remember the prompt now, only that we were to share our poems with a colleague.

My colleague wept.

I share it for the children.

Grandmothers

For Grandma and Grannie. With all my gratitude and love, always.

They stood beside each other at the hospital’s nursery window on the evening I was born.
For one I was the first grandchild.
For the other I was the first granddaughter, following five boys.
The other stepped back so the one could see me better.

I inherited the middle name of one.
I inherited the brown eyes of the other.

One had the name of a red jewel. Ruby.
The other had the name of a white flower. Lillie.

One was born the day after Christmas, in the year of the Lusitania sinking.
The other was born at Eastertime, in the deadly third wave of Spanish flu.

While a young teen, one lost her father to suicide.
While a young teen, the other assisted her midwife mother in delivering babies.

One graduated from high school at sixteen.
The other didn’t finish school, but completed home health certification when I was a child.
I attended her pinning ceremony.

One was married at twenty. She had three babies in three Octobers across nine years.
The other was married at fifteen. She had six babies by the time she was twenty-two.

One outlived two children.
The other outlived four.

One’s marriage lasted sixty-two years.
The other had three marriages. Although she didn’t believe in divorce, she divorced a violent man.
She was widowed twice.

One held me on her lap and read to me.
The other let me open all the bottles in her spice rack to inhale the fragrances.

One held me in her arms when I was a baby laboring for breath—rocking, singing, weeping, until my asthma subsided.
The other brought 7-Up when I was a schoolchild home sick with stomach flu, vomiting all day.

One learned how to drive under the instruction of her twelve-year-old son (my father).
The other learned how to drive in her fifties, as did her daughter (my mother).

One wrote me letters and kept diaries.
The other took me shopping when I needed shoes.

One played the piano. I sat beside her, harmonizing on all the old hymns in musty, well-worn books.
The other carried only Aigner purses. She bought my first one, as well as my first birthstone ring.

One gave me her prized antique locket.
The other gave me her mesmerizing floating opal.

One shielded her fair skin with a straw hat and long sleeves all summer.
The other’s olive skin just browned more in the sun.

One lived deep in the country, in a little white house that will forever seem to me a corner of Heaven.
The other lived in town, in a big house of mysterious angles and shadows, once nearly destroyed in a fire.
Both houses are gone, now.

One could make any flowering thing thrive. In the garden, the orchard, the African violets in her window.
So could the other. She resuscitated more than one of my houseplants.

One made the best collards I ever tasted, although the smell while cooking would knock you down.
The other made a glorious rum cake for holidays, although that first whiff upon removing the Tupperware lid would knock you down.
Both made killer potato salad.

One sent me money to buy an Easter dress every year until I was in my thirties.
The other randomly surprised me with things like satin boxes of Valentine chocolates and by coming to my school plays.

One went faithfully to church.
So did the other.

One told me I was a good mother and that she was so proud of me.
So did the other.

One battled dementia for a short while.
The other had open-heart surgery and battled diabetes and dialysis for years.

One died three days shy of her ninety-first birthday, in a nursing home.
The other died at eighty-one, in a hospital.

They sat beside each other one summer afternoon long ago, at my wedding.
They taught me everything about sacrifice and survival.
They walk with me for as long as I live.

Fashioned and faceted,
I am who I am
because of one
and the other.

My grandmothers, Ruby and Lillie, at my wedding.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approachOn Day 7, I am writing around a word beginning with letter g. “Grandmothers” came immediately to mind.

Fancy

She is sitting on my lap, scrolling on my phone.

—Franna, I want these.

—Ooooo, so pretty! I love those gloves.

—(nodding) Yes, and the crown. If I have them I will be SO fancy.

—(chuckling) Hmmm…I’ll see what I can do.

She adores being “fancy.” She’s adopted the word all on her own. I suspect Fancy Nancy books may have influenced this. Elsa in Frozen certainly has, hence the request for these particular ice-blue gloves and tiara—sorry, “crown,” my granddaughter declares. At four years of age, she can slink around the house like any haute couture fashion model, pausing with her face turned to one hiked little shoulder, eyes half-lidded…she can’t hold the pose for long, as the rest of us, her loyal subjects, dissolve with laughter.

Oh my, you are so fancy, we tell her.

Of course, she replies in her “fancy” voice, blinking slowly, before erupting in giggles and breaking her own spell.

The little package is waiting for her the next time she arrives.

No words for the magic on her face when she opens it, for the way she gingerly caresses the plastic pendant, as if it were the Hope Diamond. Within seconds she’s all decked out in her fancy finery. For the remainder of her visit, she walks with a regal air and won’t remove those gloves for anything except her breakfast of French toast.

I suspect she knows she’s the queen of our hearts.

One must be fancy even while helping to set up Christmas decorations.

In my humble opinion, the rest of the ensemble was necessary.

*******

Inspired by SOS — Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. This week’s prompt was “fancy,” with this quote from Donald Miller: “Everybody wants to be someone fancy. Even if they’re just shy.” If you write or want to write just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Breakaway poem play

At SOS—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, Ruth encourages playing with paragraphing and line breaks, as “a simple break changes the sound and, sometimes, the meaning.”

I am resharing this memoir poem I wrote a few months ago, wherein I played with line breaks. I am still playing with them.

This is one of my favorites. For many reasons. A scene I witnessed last year, during my husband’s recovery:

The Passing

She comes out of his study carrying it
in her four-year-old arms
and his face is transformed, glowing
as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun.
He leans forward in the recliner as she
drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning
—Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking,
it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops
at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it
with the easy grace of the boy on the court,
hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface
in split-second calculation of the shot
so many times to the roar of the school crowd
so many hours with friends, his own and then
his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced,
heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant
—and at twelve, all alone on the pavement
facing the hoop his mother installed
 in the backyard of the new house
after his father died, every thump echoing
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The game’s in the blood, the same DNA
that just last year left him with a heart full
of metal and grafts, too winded to walk
more than short distances, having to stop
to catch his breath, deflated
—it needs some air. Do you have a pump,
he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa,
eyes riveted to the screen emitting
continuous squeaks of rubber soles
against hardwood.
—Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too.
His father leans in to the little girl at his knee,
his battered heart in his hands:
—Would you like to have it?
She nods, grinning, reaching,
her arms, her hands
almost too small
to manage the old brown sphere
rolling from one to the other
like a whole world
passing.

Photo: Marcus BalcherCC BY-SA

More fun wordplay in my post title: A hinged basketball hoop that bends downward with a slam dunk and springs back into place is called a breakaway rim.

If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join the open-hearted group at
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
#sosmagic

Also celebrating poems and poets in the vibrant Poetry Friday community – many thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Roundup at Reflections on the Teche.