Sunday, September 27, 2020

A BRAW BRICHT MONOLICHT NICHT!

It was on a "braw bricht monolicht nicht" (a beautiful bright moonlight night) that a new friend and companion in poetry burst into my life. My daughter Elizabeth had met her on one of the online boards she frequents (probably not the Science Mommies board), saw some of her poetry and thought it might be interesting for me to read it. Now when people hear that I am a poet, I often get comments like, "I write poetry, too." When they inevitably show it to me, I usually encounter the "Roses are red, violets are blue" type or the somewhat more advanced greeting card verse that poetry journals are always warning you not to send.  I usually respond with a noncommittal comment along the lines of "That's nice," and they fortunately seldom back me into a corner with a request that I critique it.  However, Elizabeth, who is a biochemist and not a poet but who appreciates the poetry I write, suspected that this woman was writing serious poetry and sent me a few examples of her work. I was blown away. Not only did I recognize poetry at a professional level of intensity, but I suspect that that level may be several levels above mine.  It will take me a while to figure it out, because she is also Scottish and loves to include a lot of "Scottishisms" in her poetry. When Elizabeth told her that I was amazed by her poetry, she requested my email address, and sent me an email that was closer to an epistle, chock full of her poetry, along with a recommendation of an online Scottish dictionary so I can decode the words I don't recognize (although there are also words that I think are English that I will have to look up and I almost never have to do that).  I am telling myself that the educational system in Scotland is dimensions beyond the one in the U.S. but I think she is basically just brilliant as well as extremely well educated. 

In her first email, she ranged over Scottish ballads, Kafka, little known facts about Robert the Bruce, more little known facts about Clan Grant (my maiden name) which settled near Loch Ness, the poetry of St. John of the Cross and his use of Song of Songs, and included a series of poems about the full moons during Covid 19, asked my opinion on an opening line in one of her poems, and left me with the feeling that I had been for a ride with Lord Peter Wimsey in one of his fast cars touring a field of diamonds.

It was intoxicating and intimidating and effervescent. Since my poetry mentor, whom I had known for 40 years died recently, I hadn't had anyone with whom I could share the challenges of creating poetry who was also engaged in that demanding work.  Interestingly, on Friday, my horn teacher had asked me a question about the poem I had included on a birthday card for his wife, and I plunged eagerly into a half-hour discussion on how I create my unique verse structure, and I could feel myself coming alive as I described it. While my new friend's poetry is quite different than mine, there are also similarities, and the realization that I have encountered someone who speaks the same language has left me feeling as if I were breathing the sparse air of a high mountaintop, or as Keats wrote in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (although it was actually Balboa who was the first European who saw the Pacific rather than Cortez),

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise 
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

However, Keats was actually talking about his discovery of a translation of Homer that was exhilaratingly different from the polished literary translations of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. A friend, Charles Cowden Clarke, brought him George Chapman's earthy, vigorous paraphrase, and the two men stayed up all night reading it, "Keats shouting with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination."
Lest I seem to be criticizing Keats, I will quote from the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse, 
In a postscript to the novel The Clicking of CuthburtP. G. Wodehouse says "In the second chapter I allude to Stout Cortez staring at the Pacific. Shortly after the appearance of this narrative in serial form in America, I received an anonymous letter containing the words, "You big stiff, it wasn't Cortez, it was Balboa." On the other hand, if Cortez was good enough for Keats, he is good enough for me. Besides, even if it was Balboa, the Pacific was open to being stared at about that time, and I see no reason why Cortez should not have had a look at it as well."

I suppose that since my new friend Alba is across the Atlantic I should make that my discovery--though I could get to Scotland going from California since the world IS round, but I feel as if I have discovered--"with a wild surmise"--an entirely new ocean of poetry that beats upon the shores of my heart.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

THE AUTHENTIC SELF IS READY TO ROLL

 Yesterday, I had my coaching call with our Mission Accomplished group led by Deborah Hurwitz (Productivity for Perfectionists) and we were discussing accountability and authenticity, and specifically how accountability is accessed through authenticity. At the end of the discussion, our homework was to decide what new action we would take as a result of laying claim to our authentic self. I was somewhat perplexed by this, since I usually see myself as authentic. I don't feel hemmed in as I sometimes did when I was a child. My beloved husband and I were equal partners in our marriage; he encouraged me in all my endeavors, especially in my writing, but also in taking riding lessons when I was 27 and painting classes in my 40s, but most importantly in going to a World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekend after 7 years of marriage, and all the adventures that ensued--moving from New Jersey to California, giving WWME Weekends and becoming involved in leadership, and adding three more children to our quiver. I have never felt so fully alive as when we were working to enrich marriage and family life, especially when we coordinated the 2008 International WWME Convention. We learned to lean into one another's strengths more than ever before and learned how to listen deeply to other couples and priests and reconcile our differences.

As I told my daughter Elizabeth, when I was growing up, I would sometimes feel squelched by my parents, but now I can feel somewhat constricted by my children. For example, I was looking for some form of exercise that I would really love, and I remembered that as a child my mother would take my siblings and me to the roller rink one day and the swimming pool the next, and we'd alternate all summer long. I was a terror on roller skates and my husband and I had even gone skating when I was 5 months pregnant with our fifth baby, and I wasn't the one who fell! After one my daughters suggested I get one of those things you wear that supposedly says, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up," instead, I bought a beautiful pair of skates, and started skating on the sidewalk we have in our back yard.  However, I quickly discovered after a number of somewhat painful falls that skating on a sidewalk that has gaps and edges that have heaved up under pressure from tree roots, as well as branches that you have to duck under when you're over 6 feet in your skates is quite different from skating on a rink.  I eventually gave them to my daughter Mary for a friend who wanted to start skating and thought no more of it, because the rink where we used to skate had closed and was being turned into a carwash.  But Elizabeth encouraged me to see if the other rink that was farther away was still open. She told me that a friend of hers who had been an Olympic ice skater, and stopped skating when she was raising her children, started back recently, but that she hired a coach to help her ease back into skating.  That seemed like a brilliant idea, and as soon as I hung up, I looked up the rink online, which turned out to be a historical location, opened by Eleanor Roosevelt. They are closed for Covid, but have plans to reopen as soon as they are allowed to, and they have coaches.  Because I used to pass this rink every time I went to see my spiritual advisor, I know exactly where it is, and having to print out a map isn't even necessary.  I was unbelievably buoyed up by this discovery, and by the fact that I took action on my daughter's suggestion right away.  I put my name on their email list so that I can be notified when they reopen, and look forward to the day when I can lace up my skates and get going!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

SEPTEMBER 11

 I'm writing this on September 11, 19 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. When they happened, I was living in the San Diego area, and my daughter had called me to tell me about these and the other attacks, and said that the priest with whom she was working was preparing to say a Mass in time of war. When I turned on the radio, servicemen were being recalled to Miramar and all flights in the country were canceled. 

Because I had lived in New York City when my husband and I were first married, I was very familiar with the World Trade Center, and my husband and I had eaten in Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the towers for our fifth anniversary.  In addition, I had interviewed for a job on the 80th floor, so I knew how massive those buildings were.  The elevators rattled and creaked as they made their way up in a way that made one think the buildings were rather poorly constructed, as opposed to the smoothly functioning elevators in the elegantly slim Empire State Building, where I worked until we moved to California.  The idea that a plane could bring even one of those monoliths crashing down was much more somber to me than to someone who had never seen the scale of the towers nor experienced them from the inside.

On the anniversary of the catastrophe, I pray for everyone who died, for the wounded, the grieving, the first responders, and all whose lives were inexorably changed by those acts of violence. And I give thanks for those of us who were spared and can live out the mission we have been given.


NEW YORK ECHOES IN SAN DIEGO


When the first trauma ceased to stun, November

overtook October and September

but few flew willingly.  I remembered

before the buildings were complete

I went for an interview on the 80th floor,

the elevator’s lurching left me unnerved,

rattling and shaking in the ascent, then doors

flew open, spit me out, slammed shut

before I saw where I’d emerged, and left:

skeletal 79th, cement dust,

ominous silence in the dampened air, 

and a jangling fear that I was not alone.

The call buttons didn’t work,

terrors lurked.

Desperate, I looked for stairs

then recalled that fire 

regulations sometimes required

all doors be locked except 

the lobby exit. Could I retreat 

down 79 long sets of steps

in my interview heels without breaking my ankle or neck?

Panic propelled me breathless up one flight.

Rushed, disheveled, I pushed the door—open—

back to the order of cubicles, computers and phones.


They asked if I were well, wanted children,

questions my husband said they weren’t allowed to ask.

I didn’t fit, had babies, worked at homely tasks,

escaped the pyre

of all those stairs collapsing into fire,

one more way my children gave me life.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

THE BATTLE OF THE ZIGGURAT

Last week, my daughter Mary surprised me by calling and telling me that their children had requested to come to my house for the last day of summer vacation.  Of course, I was delighted for them to come, especially after the long months of quarantine when I couldn't see them at all. Now we are all in a bubble together and can even share hugs.

The kids were thrilled to enjoy my air conditioning.  After years with no air conditioning in their home (they live closer to the beach and it is usually somewhat cooler there), my niece offered to loan them a room air conditioner while she is in England with the Navy, and I have an image in my head of the six of them sitting around the unit like others might sit by the fire in winter time. But having central air conditioning is much more comfortable overall. 

I was surprised that Mary had brought her latest comments on my chapbook, Portal of Light.  She suggested moving some of the new poems to various points earlier in the chapbook, and this made sense and was easily done.  I had a few changes to make in a couple of them, and have been working on them since.  

However, we finally came down to the ziggurat sections.  I had taken the whole last section of the chapbook, which was set on the ziggurat, removed some verses, broken it up into multiple sections, wedged in quotes from Song of Songs and somewhat vainly hoped that Mary wouldn't notice that the ziggurat was still there. She was adamant, however, that the ziggurat, while it might be a good poem separately, did not belong in the chapbook, since the additional poems she had had me write were set in Bethlehem or Jerusalem, not in the countries where the ziggurats might have been built (Babylon or Assyria, for example).  As she pointed out her vision for the other poems, and the points of intersection with the rest of the chapbook, I began to see past my prejudice in favor of the first idea I'd had of this chapbook and the much wider view that my daughter had.

So, although the ziggurat had appeared in my very first verses of the original chapbook, after I imagined myself walking through what I originally called "The Gate of Gratitude," I now have to dismantle the entire structure of the ziggurat upon which the chapbook was originally built. I had noticed that at one point I placed the action at the peak of the ziggurat and in the very next section, it was set in the mountains, and although at the time I constructed a verbal bridge from the ziggurat to the mountain path, it seemed very awkward. But I can see that by removing this foreign structure, as beautiful as it may have been, I will be allowing the chapbook to become a more integral journey of the heart through gratitude, grief and hope.