Sunday, May 2, 2021

SWAN SONG

I'm not sure exactly when I heard it but it might have been in the middle of the TED talk I was listening to last week. It was a generally funny talk by Tim Urban about procrastination, which focused on why people procrastinate, how deadlines affect us, and what happens when we don't have deadlines, in important areas such as our families, friendships, or entrepreneurial work. Near the end of the talk, he put up a screen filled with tiny boxes.  Each box represented a week in the life of someone who lived to be 90.  As Urban pointed out, everyone in the audience had already used up quite a number of those boxes. And of course, no one knows how many boxes they have left.

I've seen many different portrayals of how time flies, how little time we actually have in our lives, and how we have even less left. But somehow the starkness of those boxes laid out in rows on the screen spoke eloquently to me, particularly coming at a time when a number of my big projects are almost finished.  

I have gathered a 72-page collection of my poetry, In our green visions: The Pacific Trail, and it is currently being judged in a contest for poetry collections. I wrote a middle-grade novel, Sooners in Backwater,  which I have begun shopping to literary agents. I have written a non-fiction book, Spectacular Marriage, which is with a publisher and I hope will soon be coming out. I am waiting for my daughter Mary's final critique of my 42-page poetry chapbook, Portal of Light, so I can begin to submit it to publishers and contests.  Each of the books has taken years to complete; the chapbook was begun in 2018 and has gone through more changes than any of the others, but I also judge that it is the best thing I have ever written.  In the process of writing it, I have rediscovered in a deeper way that my charism, the primary way I am called to share my gifts, is through poetry. I have been writing more poetry than ever before, and working on revising and polishing it with a passion that has become more intense as I pursue it. 

As I pondered the boxes on that screen, I knew that I want to fill more of the life I have left with what I can say and share with my poetry. Therefore, I am singing a swan song for this blog with a poem I wrote when I was a young mother often feeling tied to a brown house and endless mundane chores involved in raising 6 children and cooking and cleaning for them as well as for my husband and parents, who lived with us. My beloved husband was far more of a help with everything than part of the burden, but there was still an exhausting round of things to be done.  I can remember my son at about age 3 sitting at his little desk, saying "There's lots of work to be done."

When I thought of giving up this blog, I realized that I have learned much from writing it, especially since I started publishing every week, but I also have grown wings to soar into my chosen land of poetry. Look for me in the air.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGES


Drained at dawn, the night

sky is scoured blue;

soapsuds curl up on chaparral slopes,

with beckoning roads still

in morning lull:

here, there are no forced marches.


If I deny this gravity,

ignore the pull of house and street

and rise on buoyant feet


day lengthens into light,

mockingbird lyric, summer space

and glimpse of western ranges.

Heartbeat lengthens to a lope--


but calendars weave cocoons

of sentinel pines and splintered moons.

In the dark, gargoyles colonize

the eucalyptus trees,

coydogs, possums, cricket-charged breeze

swirl into dream.


I do not seem

a prisoner of this brown house, these days

of subtle routine chains,

riveted to a window view

--clock time framed--

distilled, restrained,

sparse slices of seasons,

like flint to flame:


one intense vision

held at bay.


Birds paying morning calls

light the blowtorch of sunrise

etch arches 

in these stuccoed walls


I fly free.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

GAUDY NIGHTS AND DAYS

Recently, I finished re-reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, the third in a series of four novels about her detective, Peter Wimsey and  Harriet Vane, the woman with whom he falls in love. It has always been my favorite of the four, although the last, Busman's Honeymoon, is a close second, and has one of the funniest scenes I have ever read.

Gaudy Night is set mostly at a fictional woman's college at Oxford and looks with a scholar's eye at the potential conflict between a scholar's work and one's responsibility to one's family. It could easily be expanded to an examination of what has been called work-life balance, which is being re-examined after a year of the pandemic lockdowns when working and studying at home have become prevalent and many of the things that were taken for granted are suddenly up for grabs.  I can remember when my beloved husband's company moved from the San Diego area to Orange County, and he negotiated to work from home 3 days a week, to avoid the hour and a half commute each way.  He told the CEO, that he thought he could be more responsive with that schedule than many lawyers could be when they were in an office where the CEO could walk in and talk to them whenever he wanted.  Every CEO balked at his suggestion but after a couple of weeks in which he exceeded his commitment, nothing more was heard of their concerns.  Now many companies are finding that having most or all of their employees working from home has not limited their ability to do their work.  

The question in Gaudy Night was not so much whether people should be able to work from home, but whether the integrity of one's scholarship was of more value than a person's commitment to his or her family.  

The woman who was the guilty party in this book gave an impassioned defense of what she had done. "You wouldn't have cared. You killed him and you didn't care.  I say you murdered him. What had he done to you? What harm had he done to anybody? He only wanted to live and be happy. You took the bread out of his mouth and flung his children and me out to starve. What did it matter to you?.... Couldn't you leave my man alone? He told a lie about somebody else who was dead and dust hundreds of years ago. Nobody was the worse for that. Was a dirty bit of paper more important than all our lives and happiness? You broke him and killed him--all for nothing."

In these days when lies and half-truths are being published and promulgated everywhere and people who differ with the prevailing philosophy are attacked as intolerant, it might be a good idea to look at these issues again and see which barricades we are willing to die upon.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

SONG OF SENSES

One of my daughters told me that a way of focusing mindfully is to pay attention to what comes to you from each of the senses. I began with my walk along the horse trail near our house, and the first sense that attracted me was the sense of smell. I recognized the fragrance of honeysuckle, and stopped to smell the blossoms on the fence; I had never noticed that there was a honeysuckle vine there, but the perfume clued me into it quickly. Further along, there was an orange tree close enough to the trail that I could stop and smell the tiny white blossoms and inhale one of my favorite scents in the world.  

As I continued my walk, I noticed winged seeds on the ground, like the winged seed that played an important part in the movie Soul. In all the years of walking the horse trail, I have never seen those particular seeds. I wondered whether a new tree had been planted--although they were quite large and didn't look like the seeds from a sapling--or if the winds we've been experiencing recently had blown them from a greater distance.

My sense of taste has been delighted many mornings recently with an orange freshly picked from my tree when I have gone out to be sure that I inhale my own orange blossoms as long as they last. They have almost all dropped from the navel orange tree, but the Cara Cara is still covered with them, and the lemon tree has an abundance of almost pink blooms that are almost as sweet.

I discovered fluffy white cylinders of soft fibers that will become red cylindrical bottlebrush blooms later on, and I rubbed my fingers on the last of the yellow broom blooms that look like tiny koosh balls.  

Finally, when I had finished my walk and opened the window to practice my horn, and I played a minuet to a recording of my granddaughter playing the piano part, the male house finch who shares nest duties with his wife, sat and sang with me while I was playing. It was a melodious accompaniment and I look forward to the peeping of tiny house finches when the eggs are hatched.

Becoming aware of how many of my senses are engaged just in the course of one day has filled my heart with thankfulness for how many blessings are poured out over me. May I be alert to their presence in my life!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

TRAVELING TO EMMAUS

Easter Wednesday is my favorite day, liturgically, of the entire year.  It is during the Octave of Easter and is filled with the joy of the Easter Season, and the two readings for the Mass of the day combine to make a special day.  

The first reading tells how Peter and John were going up to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem when they encountered a man over 40 years old who had been crippled from birth and was brought every day to beg at the Beautiful Gate.  He asked them for alms, and Peter looked intently at him and told him, "Look at us." The beggar paid attention to them, expecting to receive something. Peter, however, said, "I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk."  When Peter took him by the hand and raised him up, his feet and ankles immediately grew strong. Then he "leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God."

The first year I became aware of this passage, I had filled in as lector at the last minute. I was myself in my forties, and I imagined what it would have been like to have been crippled my entire life and suddenly to have been healed. I was sure that I also would have been leaping and jumping and giving praise to God right there in the aisles of the church!

This was followed by the Gospel telling the story of the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus, discouraged and heartbroken after the death of Jesus, whom they had hoped was the Messiah. Now their dreams were shattered and their hope was gone and the rumors that some of their friends had seen Jesus alive were simply delusions; no one could come back from such a brutal death. Although traditionally this passage was interpreted as two of Jesus' male companions, Fr. Chuck Gallagher, the founder of World Wide Marriage Encounter, envisioned them as a married couple. Only one of them was named, and after I heard him discuss it, I could easily imagine a husband and wife talking over their disappointment as they walked away from Jerusalem. When a stranger approached and asked them what they were talking about, one of them asked if he were the only person who hadn't heard about what had happened to the prophet from Galilee. When he pointed to every passage from the prophets in Scripture that explained what had happened, the couple were so intrigued that they asked him to come in and stay with them since it was getting toward evening.  As they shared their meal, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and vanished. In that moment they recognized who he was.  It was this passage that both my daughter Mary and my spiritual advisor had suggested I ponder throughout Lent, and as we approached the end of the Lenten season, I had written the missing poem that Mary had been asking for almost since she began helping me with my chapbook.


PORTAL OF LIGHT

Trudging back home in despair

our hopes and dreams threadbare,

we’d thought he was the one

but then he was tortured and killed.


We plodded along, tears in my eyes,

disillusionment on your face,

our strength nearly gone.


A stranger approached, we slowed

and moved over to let him pass.

“What were you talking about?” he asked.


Irritation stung me. “Are you the only man

who doesn’t know what happened in the capital

three days ago? How the man who inspired

us was nailed to a cross and crucified?

We had thought he’d save us but he died.”


You added, “Some of our friends

claimed they’d gone to the tomb

and couldn’t find his body—maybe stolen

by enemies.  I don’t know.” 


Then he began to unroll the scrolls of prophets,

to illuminate verses from Torah to Malachi

revealing the suffering servant, the paschal lamb,

the leader to gather the nations, the great I AM.


We were spellbound. “Don’t leave us—

it’s evening, getting dark, come eat with us.”

He sat silent at table, then pronounced Berakah,

broke the bread and vanished.  Then we saw.


Weren’t our hearts on fire?

Weren’t we drawn within his flaming heart

before you took off on your journey through space

like Perseverance roving off for Mars?


Unlike the landing watched by the silent room 

of expectant, breathless engineers,

you’d no telemetry to transmit 

photos from your new universe

but with all my soul, I believe: you did land,


artisanal, received with love that glows

within the sparks lighting up your soul

blazing with the name he signed

and freeing you to shine.




Sunday, April 4, 2021

REDISCOVERING HAPPINESS

This week, I was driving half an hour to physical therapy for my shoulder, which had been bothering me for several months, after a fall. It's a drive I've made innumerable times since we moved to the San Diego area 37 years ago.  For some reason, as I drove along the divided parkway, dotted with trees covered in pink and purple blooms, I unexpectedly realized that I was happy.  I have had moments, hours, and days of happiness since my beloved husband died, but I can usually point to a reason--a member of my family or a friend is coming for a visit or I finished a big project that had been hanging over me for a long time.  My trip to France with my son in 2019 was a wellspring of happiness, both in the anticipation, in the actual experience, and in the delightful memories afterward.  But on this particular day, I was just going through the routine of things I needed to do on an ordinary day, and happiness burst upon me suddenly very much as my orange tree had gone from a couple of blossoms to a vast cloud of white with a fragrance that carried from the back of the house all the way to the front yard.

This happiness carried me through Holy Week, as I reflected on the many people whose friendship has sustained me in the years since my beloved husband died. I looked forward to being with my two oldest daughters and their families, as well as my son. I am very conscious of the fact that this year I can attend the Easter Vigil at my parish instead of being home alone and watching the Mass being live-streamed. In addition, I won a raffle run by the Knights of Columbus for reserved seats and parking spaces for the Easter Mass of my choice. Every other year for the past 12 years, I was playing French horn in our church choir and had my own chair.  But this year, I came to the Vigil, and found my seat, with a pot of tulips next to it and an Easter card from the parish staff saying that they were glad my name had been chosen.  My daughter and her family's reserved seats were just outside, since they haven't been vaccinated and felt safer sitting there.  All of us had front row seats for the blessing of the new fire and the Easter candle, and for the Baptisms and Confirmations of the catechumens and candidates, among whom were many children, with the little girls in their First Communion dresses and the little boys in small suits. By next year, I hope our choir will be back together in church, but we will then be sitting at the full length of the church from these special moments. This year, it was wonderful to be celebrating them together and being so close as lives were transformed and joy radiated from their faces. It was an Easter I will always treasure.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes have me help her in our little garden. She was a farmer's daughter who couldn't wait to get off the farm, but we usually had a small garden where she raised a few vegetables. She also knew which of the "weeds" that grew in our neighborhood would cook up into greens--dock and dandelions are the two I primarily remember. She would cook them for hours and I always enjoyed them.  However, it was when I spent summers at my Grandmother's and uncles' farms that I really got a glimpse of gardening. My Aunt Jeanne had a huge garden filled with all kinds of vegetables. There is nothing quite like picking a ripe Missouri tomato from the vine, sitting on a swing, and eating it out of hand, with the red juice running down your fingers. My aunt would pay any of the nieces who happened to be about to help pick peas and then shell them. We'd sit together on the porch and listen to her stories as the peas rolled out of the pods and into the measuring cups.

After my family moved from Oklahoma to New Jersey, we seldom went back to visit my parents' relatives in Missouri. I was soon sucked into academics in high school and then college, and after I got married, my husband and I lived in Manhattan, so the closest I got to gardening was in a begonia I set in our windowsill looking out on Broadway.

When I got pregnant, we moved to an apartment in Hackensack, and the begonia came along with us. I added a few plants to our balcony, killed a bonsai that my boss gave me (unintentionally) and proved that I didn't have a green thumb.  

Then we bought a house in a town of 6,000 next door to where we had lived when we met in New Jersey years before. It was on half an acre, and I discovered how little I knew about gardening. There were green things coming up in the middle of the grass, and later, larger green things coming up in the flower beds.  I had to ask one of my neighbors what they were; she told me I had crocuses in the yard, and daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips coming up all over the flowerbeds.  The couple who owned the house before us must have planted 500 bulbs over the years they had owned the house, and I added several hundred more, so that from our first January thaw well into June, we had a symphony of color as well as fragrance, for in addition to the hyacinths, we had mock orange bushes and lilacs. I perused plant catalogues all winter and planted madly as soon as the plants arrived, in addition to all the bulbs I put in the beds in the fall.  I read gardening books and would dash outside the minute the baby was asleep. As she was an excellent sleeper, I put in hours of work in the yard every day, with her window open so I could hear when she woke up and started shouting "Mommay!" Looking back, those seem like idyllic times, though I was struggling with depression and didn't realize it until much later.  But when I was out in the sunshine life seemed happier and the dark clouds in my mind retreated. And even now, when planting my fourth tomato plant out in the garden, I realized that gardening is always a choice for hope--hope that the weather won't get too cold at night for the new tomato plants and hope that the 2" tall sugar snap pea seedlings will reward me with a delicious harvest before the weather gets too hot. The liquidambar trees are budding, and the plants that my gardener put in my flower beds this year when I decided to do a makeover are flourishing in many colors and shapes.  Spring is shaking out a many-colored patchwork quilt and my whole being is rejoicing.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

ON BEING "MOTHERLY"

My daughter Mary and her daughter Bernadette were with me recently, and she commented that a friend was concerned that her child, who seems to be a melancholic, wouldn't know that she loved him.  Many in our family read The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett, as a means to understand ourselves, our spouses, and our children.  Mary has one son who is definitely a melancholic, and one of the things she has learned is that when he is in a melancholic mood, talking to him is useless.  But what she has learned is that a hug does wonders.  He is definitely a boy who loves hugs, and now that I have had my two Covid vaccinations, and they can come over, I can get my wonderful hugs from him again. 

Mary commented that while she didn't think of me as "motherly," she always knew that I loved her, just as she knew my husband loved her, although he was from a family that exchanged almost no hugs and kisses from the time that the children were about 10.  In my family of origin, on the other hand, we have continued hugging one another into adulthood. It was interesting that after my husband's brother died, the other five siblings all began hugging one another and saying "I love you." This became even more prevalent when my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. With my own children, who are all adults, I have continued to hug them, kiss them, and bless them, and I do the same with my grandchildren (except for the year just past when we had to be physically distanced due to Covid).

I also didn't think of myself as being very "motherly" when I was growing up.  I was the oldest and somewhat of a tomboy. I played football with my two younger brothers, romped in the woods behind our house, and was aggravated when my older boy cousins wouldn't let me tag along with them when I visited my grandmother's and uncles' farms as a kid.  Fortunately, my mother's youngest brother, who was also my godfather, took me under his wing and let me follow him around. I often slept on the screened-in porch at my grandmother's house with my clothes on a chair at the foot of my bed.  I would wake up when the back door slammed at 4 in the morning, throw on my clothes, and be out the door to go with him to milk the cows.  I loved the smell of the barn made up of cow, hay, and manure, the sound of the milk pinging into the bucket or squirting into the mouth of a waiting cat.  The happiest day of my life as a child was when I was about 10 and he asked if I wanted to go out in the combine with him.  I rode in the cab with him for a while, and then he asked if I'd like to ride in the back of the combine where the grain came down. Nothing could have seemed like a greater adventure.  He put me in the back and I rode about with the grain falling around me; the sky was hot and blue and I sang up and down the fields with my heart nearly bursting with happiness.  When the grain had gotten up to my neck, he came around and pulled me out and let me sit back in the cab with him, covered with dust and dirt.  (Just a side note--don't try this at home.  I found out much later that it was very dangerous, but in those days we didn't think of that, and it was as perfect a day as I ever had.) When we came in the back door, my grandmother looked at me and said she didn't know what my mother would think if she could see me!  

I think I had only one babysitting job when I was growing up, and I was so inept I had to call my mother to come and help me before the parents came back.  When I was in college, although I was looking forward to graduating and marrying the boy who became my husband, I was almost totally focused on academics, especially after one of my professors mentioned that if I kept my straight A average, I would be the first student to graduate from that college with a 4.0.  From that point on, I was determined to rise to the challenge, and I did, although when I received the medal from the Bishop for being at the top of my class, the medal read "Frist Honors."  Years later, the University contacted me and said it had come to their attention that the medal was engraved incorrectly and they would be glad to re-engrave it.  I replied that I wanted to keep it the way it was to remind me of the mistakes that all kinds of people could make.

I got engaged just before I graduated and moved to New York City so I could be closer to my fiance. We thought we should have a year to be able to see each other almost every day, rather than depending on student standby flights once or twice a year.  We were married the following May, and two years later had Elizabeth, our first child.  My husband was the oldest of six, so he was the one I turned to for advice, often calling him at the law firm to see what I should do when the baby was crying.  He used to tease me that my tag line should be from Gone with the Wind: "I don't know nothin' both birthin' babies!"

But what I discovered was that I learned quickly and had a mother tiger's instincts to protect my baby no matter what.  With each new child, I learned more--about how different they were, how endlessly fascinating, and how my heart seemed to expand with each one, and with each day.  The same thing has happened with each grandchild, and I'm sure it will happen when #23 arrives in May. Each child is a new adventure and each one takes me on a new path of learning.  I may not be what I thought of as a "perfect mother" when I was a child (my Aunt Cecilia, who had 11 children, came very close), but every mother is different, and as long as she loves her child, she is "motherly" in her own way.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

CROSSING THE FINISH LINE

For two years I've been hammering away at a poetry chapbook. I changed the title several times, and it has lengthened from 15 pages (the version I sent to a chapbook contest, which I am glad it didn't win) to nearly 50 pages.  It had begun with a poem I wrote about our son, which was the first poem I'd written since my beloved husband had died, which didn't have the shadow of my grief cast over it. I thought that my gratitude for the times I had spent at the Wild Animal Park with our son throughout his life was a good entry point for the new life I was trying to create for myself as a widow. At some point, I decided to ask my daughter Mary, who had been an English major and who had started to work for a Ph.D. at UCLA, to look at what I had written so far.  At another point, I decided to include some quotations from Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles) in the Old Testament. Mary took her "assignment" very seriously and began giving me some in-depth critiques of what I had written. She suggested I take out some of the poems I'd included. In the beginning, I resisted many of her ideas, but as I began to trust what she was saying more, I started to listen and then act upon what she recommended.  Then she told me that I needed to expand a section about one of her sisters. Next, she commented that I should write another poem. After I did that, she told me I should write one about meeting and falling in love with my husband. That was bittersweet and difficult to write, but she was right. I thought of adding some other poems I'd written, but she pared those down.  Then she told me to write another poem about my husband's death.  I rebelled then, but eventually gave in. She kept adding to what I needed to write, and in the background, we had a running battle over the ziggurat which I had made the central structure and theme of the whole chapbook, which she kept telling me I needed to take out.  As I added more of the layers that she had proposed, I could gradually see that the ziggurat was in fact out of place; some day it may be its own poem, but I had to deconstruct it out of the chapbook, and set a more biblical scene, primarily Jerusalem.  She gave me a few more poems to write and I wrote one of them.  Then she told me I still needed to write the other one she had suggested. I countered with the fact that the "Way of the Cross" was implicit in the poem I had written about the Biblical scene set on the road to Emmaus, but she kept pushing me on the second one.  Finally, the day after I had my second Covid vaccination, and she gave me flowers to celebrate what one of my grandchildren calls my "Super Power," I sat down and started to write "Via Dolorosa."  It started as many of my poems do, as a tangle of lines thrown on the page just to get my ideas down, without much rhyme or rhythm or structure.  My ending image involved a window, but I couldn't seem to make it work, and I wasn't getting anywhere with rewriting the whole poem.  Finally I mentioned to one of my coaches that I was thinking of actually asking Mary to give me some advice on the poem before I'd proceeded any further, which was contrary to how I have worked on any of my other poetry. She encouraged me to go ahead and call Mary, which I did as soon as I finished my call with her.  I read the last bedraggled lines of what I had so far and explained what I was trying to do with the window.  She agreed that the idea of the window didn't work. I asked her if I should use a door.  She paused for a moment and then said, "What about a portal?"  Since the title of the chapbook is "Portal of Light," it was as if she had turned a key in the whole body of work and it illuminated the direction I should go.  I started with the end of the poem, which I also have never done before, and reworked it from there.  I set a timer for 20 minutes so I wouldn't be overwhelmed, but by the time it rang, I was immersed in Kairos--that sense of time out of time--and I worked steadily for three hours and had a completed poem at the end of it.  I emailed it to Mary, and later that evening, received her response.

I was so excited to see this email- I was telling Elizabeth earlier how amazing it has been to watch how quickly you have been writing one challenging, compelling poem after another during the past year.

What is so great about this is not just bringing the title into the poem explicitly, but also that this poem also is the moment where we see the colliding of the two worlds, 2 types of poems- personal and biblical for the first time.

I think congratulations are in order- I have some minor recommendations for this and your final poem, but every piece is in place- no more poem assignments! This is so exciting to see it all together at last. I am so impressed with the way you were willing to write, and rewrite, and let go, and write more, and let go of more.

And we can celebrate this weekend in person!!! Hurray!!!!

We can be together this weekend at last since I have been fully immunized against Covid. We have been waiting for over a year to be able to work on our scrapbooks together, and she told me a few days later that it was my persistence in having her work on her album with her photos from her year in Israel that helped her in looking at the parts of my chapbook that were set in Israel as well. So it looks as if we are drawing into a great celebration of this chapbook collaboration, and can cross the finish line together at last!


Sunday, March 7, 2021

DRAGGING ALONG WITH DEPRESSION

Decades ago when I had a new baby and my parents had moved in with us and my husband and I had a very busy marriage ministry, I gradually found myself slipping down into a dark depression. It came on gradually because I was so busy with carpools for the older children, trying to hold on to my role as an adult when my mother seemed to be criticizing me as a wife and mother, writing and giving talks in our marriage ministry and all the other myriad of things involved in keeping the home running, the meals cooked, and the calendars coordinated.

We had a group of couples who met every few weeks, and one night I remember bursting into tears and saying that I was sure I needed to see a counselor, but I didn't have anyone to watch the baby so I could go--I didn't want to ask my parents and let them know how I was feeling.  One of the wives immediately said she would, and my beloved husband found a psychologist whom he knew through a church group and offered to make an appointment for me.  He even drove me to the first appointment because it was downtown and I was nervous about driving there.  

After that, on Fridays, I would meet with the psychologist at 11 and then my dear husband would come home for lunch, and I'd tell him all about what I had discussed with the psychologist. He was an excellent listener, so I was getting two sessions for the price of one!  Slowly, over the course of the next year, things improved, but so gradually that I didn't think I was getting any better. I can remember going in one day and thinking that things were so bad that I was going to ask why he wouldn't prescribe any medication that would help. Instead, he showed me a graph he had made of the numbers I'd indicated in a journal he had me keep indicating the severity of my depression each day.  He pointed out that I never had more than one really bad day in a row. And the very next week, I felt as if I had turned the corner. The number of my sessions was reduced until I didn't need to go back, and even after my beloved husband died, although I was grieving and sad and often felt depressed, I have never felt as if I were slipping into that black hole that I thought I would never escape.

Today was one of those depressing days where I can start to worry that I'm sliding downhill.  It was a gloomy day, and I'm convinced that I have at least some tendency toward Seasonal Affective Disorder, so the fitful appearance and disappearance of a watery sunshine left me feeling less than cheery. I had two Zoom calls, one of which was frustrating, I was still feeling the negative effects of a phone call with a friend yesterday who seems to be heading toward a very bad decision.  I argued with her and tried to convince her that she is heading toward a cliff, but I felt like Cassandra, the figure in Greek mythology who predicted the fall of Troy. No one believed any of her predictions and they all came true.

I tried various remedies for depression. I had cut some freesias, and delighted in their fragrance. I discovered that the first of the orange blossoms had opened--and can look forward to a tree filled with my favorite perfume.  I planted my sugar snap peas, which I had been putting off, so I had something tangible that I had done in the garden.  I put my tomato seedlings outside for a couple of hours to catch whatever of the sun they could soak up. I even made bread, although I'm not sure if the yeast is still good, so I suppose I'll find out after I give it some time to rise if I'm going to have unleavened bread.  None of these things really hauled me out of my depression, so I decided I'd better write this blog post, which I had also been procrastinating about all week.  

As I sat down to write, I became aware of a headache threatening somewhere in the back of my head. I received a nice text from a friend and was able to reflect that yesterday I gave a talk that was helpful to a group of widowed and divorced people. I realized that one of the things depressing me was that Sunday is the only day my oldest daughter doesn't call me because we talk on our family Zoom in the afternoon, but I reminded myself that I can always call her if I'm feeling depressed.  As I kept rolling out my thoughts I felt a slight lift in my spirits, and reminded myself, as Scarlett O'Hara would say, that tomorrow is another day!

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

SOUL STRIVING

 As I near the final shape of my chapbook, Portal of Light, I've had some interesting discussions with my daughter Mary who has been critiquing it as I've gone along. The chapbook opens with what I think is one of my best poems--it's also about creation, so it's appropriate as a beginning.  We've had many discussions about what should and should not go in the chapbook, and the major point of contention was whether the ziggurat, which in some ways began as the structure for the whole chapbook should stay or go. Ultimately, I finally agreed with Mary that it didn't belong, and I excavated it out of the chapbook. 

However, the last time we were together, Mary told me that she still believes I need to have a very structured poem at the end to balance the beginning. I didn't really think I should--at first, I just thought I could never write a poem as good as the first one. But as I discussed the structure of the poem, I told Mary that because this is basically a narrative of my journey through widowhood, and that is like living through an earthquake, wildfire, and hurricane all at once, and that nothing will ever be the same again, there can't be the same structure at the end. In fact, the end will be very different. 

Yesterday I was freewriting about a gazebo that I noticed on my walks down the horse trail, and today I worked it into a poem and realized that the gazebo is an emblem of the only structure that seems possible to me now--it is an outpost, a reminder of hope, of the possibility of joy, of little snatches of order that I can still appreciate and perhaps even achieve, but that I can never go back to the calm understanding of my faith and my place in our family that I had before I became a widow. Nor can anyone go back to Eden since sin entered in. But we can find those outposts that shine with hope for a future that will be even better; we can see, as the movie Soul revealed, that tiny moments of beauty, like a winged seed, can show us a reason to live.

I turned the freewriting about the gazebo into a poem, and sent it to Mary, and she said she didn't think that was it. Then I sent another poem to her about the messages coming to me that I can't understand or read, and that didn't do it either. At last I wrote the poem on the road to Emmaus, and sent that to Mary (and Elizabeth as well). I even included a reference to the landing of the Perseverance on Mars, which was a vague echo of the opening of the creation poem that is the beginning of the chapbook, "The Smell of Space Suggests." When I had finished several drafts of the poem, I reread the opening poem and realized that I could parallel the final verse with a slightly altered final verse in the Emmaus poem.  Elizabeth emailed me back that that verse had brought tears to her eyes, and Mary said that yes, that was the kind of poem she had been imagining.  

The next day, she had offered to take me to get my second Covid vaccination, and she gave me a complete printout of all the final tweaks she thought I needed to make in the chapbook.  She bought me flowers to celebrate what one of my grandchildren called a "super-power" of being able to resist Covid. On the way back to her house, though, she said very cautiously that she still thinks I need to write one more poem reflecting on the Way of the Cross.  My first reaction was to resist, saying that the beginning of the Emmaus poem reflected the reality of Good Friday and that I didn't think I needed to write anything more.  Then I told her I would meditate on it during Lent and see what happened; this was a way of postponing what I thought would be an extremely difficult piece of thinking and writing.

The day after this, as I was sitting at the breakfast table, I thought back to my time in Israel when I was 21, and how the group I was traveling with had walked the Way of the Cross, the path that Jesus had taken to his death, in the midst of markets and crowds, noise and smells.  I began writing lines that reflected those memories and the vague intersection of my traveler's recollections with the events of nearly 2000 years ago and the current chasm of my grief. I wrote a few more lines Saturday morning as I thought about the comments my daughter Elizabeth had given me when I told her about Mary's "assignment."  I'm now in the midst of the construction, the "messy middle," which always looks as if very little creative can come forth.  But I know that it will if I keep after it like a scuptor carving fleck after fleck of marble away to reveal the statue within.  And I am glad that I took up the challenge right away. I have kept on my desk a quote about Teddy Roosevelt that often keeps me from procrastinating.  

“As soon as (Teddy Roosevelt) received an assignment for a paper or project, he would set to work, never leaving anything to the last minute. Prepared so far ahead "freed his mind" from worry and facilitated fresh, lucid thought.”―Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Now that it is begun, I believe I can finish it, make the final few tweaks, and actually complete the chapbook.  This has become my chef d'oeuvre and as I come closer to the end, my excitement grows. How appropriate that "Portal of Light" is coming into port as the light increases each day, and spring provides me every morning with new surprises: the orange blossom buds are forming, a branch of honeysuckle fills the air with scent, the freesias promise their intoxicating perfume in a week or two, my five tomato seedlings are growing sturdily with time in the sun and a grow light when they have to be indoors, and the first hyacinth has opened.  There is a portal of hope in the air.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

WERE NOT OUR HEARTS BURNING WITHIN US?

I have been working on a poetry chapbook for over two years that tells the story of my marriage, children, and widowhood, interwoven with excerpts from the Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles) in the Bible. My daughter Mary has been my chief critic and commentator and has been responsible for clearing out a lot of clutter (including the ziggurat on which the chapbook was originally constructed) which has made it a much better collection of poetry as a whole.  

She kept telling me that I needed a poem for the end that could serve as a bookend for the whole chapbook, that would be comparable to the opening poem, which I've been told is one of the best things I've ever written.  l didn't feel as if I could live up to the challenge. In addition, I told her that the opening sections of the chapbook, which dealt with my life before my husband got terminal cancer, were created on a solid bedrock of faith which all came crashing down when he died.  So I didn't think that a "matching" poem could or should be written because his death was like experiencing a hurricane, earthquake, and wildfire all at once. The landscape of my life will never be the same, and I can't write the same kind of poem. I sent her a couple of poems, but we both agreed that they weren't what she was looking for, and I didn't really think I wanted to try to write what I thought she wanted. 

She recommended a couple of Scripture passages that she thought might help, and I agreed to reflect on them, especially as Lent was approaching.  One of them was the Road to Emmaus, which is not a Lenten story, but post-Resurrection. It is also my favorite in all the New Testament; it is the reason why I always try to go to Mass on the Wednesday after Easter.  That is the Gospel and the First Reading is the story of the man who was lame from birth, whom Peter heals as he is heading into the Temple. The man follows him into the Temple and leaps and jumps about praising God. I always love the sheer joy and excitement of that man and imagine him causing quite a stir in the staid precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Beginning on Ash Wednesday, at the 9:00 morning Mass, I have been reflecting on the Road to Emmaus story.  That evening, I was describing this passage to a friend who isn't Christian and therefore was completely unfamiliar with it. I told him that it is the story of a pair of Jesus' disciples leaving Jerusalem after his death and heading to the town of Emmaus.  The priest who was the founder of World Wide Marriage Encounter told us at some point that he always imagined those two to be a married couple, that they were walking away from Jerusalem in disillusionment after their dreams that Jesus was their Messiah ended on the cross.  He had just been another false prophet and his death ended all their hopes.

As they were discussing their disillusionment with what had happened, a stranger drew up with them on the road and asked them what they were talking about.  One of them, irritated and angry, asked the newcomer if he was the only one who didn't know what had happened in Jerusalem three days ago. They had been thinking that he would be the one to redeem Israel, but instead, he was handed over to be crucified.  In addition, some of the women from their group had gone to the tomb and didn't find his body but had a vision of angels who reported that he was alive, but no one had seen him.

Then the stranger stunned them by saying, "Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!"  He then proceeded to explain to them everything in the scriptures that had referred to him. By the time he finished, it was nearly dark and time for the evening meal, so they invited him to eat with them. While he sat with them, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them, and they recognized him as he vanished. They looked at each other and said,  "Weren't our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?"

When I finished telling this story to my friend, he told me that he sensed my heart was truly open and imagined my husband's heart open as well even though I can no longer see him. His comment reminded me of so many times when my husband and I would hear a story of someone who received the gift of faith or reconciled with someone from whom they had been distanced and we would turn to each other, knowing our hearts were burning with joy and astonishment and grace. Thinking of those times, I realized that I am called to be open to letting those scriptures set my heart aflame again, just as they did when my beloved husband was alive.

Then I felt able to begin the final poem that my daughter has been looking for, and I believe this will be the culmination of the chapbook that I didn't think I could write.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

LASTING MAGIC

When I was pregnant with our third child, my mother-in-law told us that she thought we should take a second honeymoon and she would watch our two daughters for a week since it would be a long time before we got away by ourselves again. We quickly accepted her offer, and began to think about what we would do.  We lived in New Jersey and decided that Bermuda sounded like a great place to go, so we made our reservations and started planning our trip.  As we were dreaming about this wonderful opportunity, I noticed in our parish church bulletin, that there was going to be a Marriage Encounter Weekend just before we were leaving for Bermuda.  I pointed this out to my beloved husband, because when I had had pneumonia the winter before, he had promised me that we would go on a Marriage Encounter Weekend "if I got well."  Both of us had been resigned to the fact that it probably wouldn't be until our children were all grown that we could go.  However, I told him that I was sure his mother would be willing to take the girls for an extra weekend, and she was.  I was excited about it, and he was agreeable, though he thought that it wouldn't be worthwhile and had some concerns that they would make him quack like a duck or some other activity that would make him feel foolish. He told me to call the people in charge and find out if we should make our reservations for the flight to Bermuda for Sunday night or Monday morning. They told us to plan for Monday morning.  My mother-in-law picked up the girls on Friday, and we headed to the Howard Johnson's for the weekend.  

We already had a great relationship, but through the course of the weekend, we fell more profoundly in love, learning to listen with our hearts, share our deepest feelings, and encounter one another on a level we could never even have imagined.  By Sunday afternoon, we were flying high without benefit of an airplane! We came home, finished our packing, and headed to the airport Monday morning. As we came up the airstairs to the plane, the flight attendant looked at our faces and asked us if we were on our honeymoon! I came up a few more steps and he could see that I was quite pregnant as I assured him that it was a second honeymoon. 

That week in Bermuda was unforgettable. We stayed at a hotel that had 5 pools and we swam in every one of them. The water in the ocean was a clear turquoise blue and as warm as an embrace, and we floated in it together nearly every day. We went into the capital city on the one rainy day, drove mopeds from one end of the island to another (all 26 miles), took a bus tour, and discovered plants and flowers that I had never seen before--but many of which I have rediscovered since moving to California--and enjoyed continuing to learn more about each other and loving each other more every day.  It was the incredible beginning to a marriage that became more exceptional--even spectacular--all the time.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

THE BLUEBONNET TREK

I had planned to go to a college about 25 miles from Harvard, where my boyfriend was going. We lived in New Jersey and I thought everything was going along according to plan when my parents announced that we were moving to Texas and I had been offered a scholarship to the University of Dallas, so I would be going there.  I was not happy about the move and the change of college plans but I wasn't independently wealthy so I went along, with much grumbling and complaining.  My father had just resigned as Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange and was going to become President of a computer start-up in Austin. I think they promised that I could have a horse, but that could have been a figment of my robust imagination.  I mean, if you're going to live in Texas, you need a horse! I also learned that only if you were born in Texas you could belong to the native Texans' club. I was born in San Antonio, so I was ready to join.

When we moved to Austin, it was still a sleepy college town.  If you wanted to fly out of the Austin airport, you went out on the tarmac and climbed up the airstairs. It was long before South by Southwest. In those days you only went to Austin if you were going to college there or you had business there. Businessmen wore cowboy hats and boots and bolo ties. And Texans talked like Texans, not like the Columbia Broadcasting School. Nowadays the only place you can still get much of a genuine Texas accent is way out in East Texas or West Texas. There isn't much left of it in Dallas.

When I started at the University of Dallas, it still seemed like an adjunct of a Catholic school in Forth Worth, where half the students in my class seemed to have gone.  Coming from New Jersey, I felt like an outsider, though I quickly made friends with a girl from New York City. I was always amused by the way she said "you-all" with a very strong New York accent.

I entered as a Politics major, planning to run for President in a few years after graduation, and then discovered that the major was "Politics" not "Political Science," so we studied Aristotle not current affairs.  There was a core curriculum at a time when most colleges flailed about offering classes in niche subjects but disregarded the whole sweep of Western culture or any culture whatsoever. In my first year of Literary Tradition, I discovered T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," which at least at the time changed my whole approach to writing poetry; I included snippets in other languages and shifted to free verse and more contemporary language.  

My teaching assistant in my first Politics class joined the Cistercian monastery on campus and became my spiritual guide the year he was in the novitiate. That was my introduction to the Cistercian Abbey, Our Lady of Dallas, and I fell in love with it. I often went to Mass there on Sundays and stayed afterwards to visit with some of the monks and the Venezuelan couple who took care of the Abbey.  I never knew exactly what their official position was, but we would often sit together in the kitchen eating cheese and sausage on bread. I'd speak Spanish to them, English to the monks, and the Hungarian monks would occasionally indulge in a little Hungarian among themselves, although most of them spoke several languages, and my Greek teacher, Fr. Placid (whose name described him perfectly) had a working knowledge of about 17.

One of the monks, Fr. Gilbert, taught my Philosophy of Man class my freshman year, and I was almost instantly entranced by his holiness, his sense of humor, and his charming Hungarian accent. I proceeded to take every course he offered in Philosophy and Theology, working my way up to his graduate course in The Trinity.  That was heady stuff, and there was only one other person in the class who was not a seminarian. I did my final paper on a comparison of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, and Fr. Gilbert asked permission to use it in his own textbook on the Trinity.  When Wes and I were preparing to get married in Missouri, we asked Fr. Gilbert to be the main celebrant at our wedding, and we flew him up for the ceremony. When our son was born, we named him Gilbert, and Fr. Gilbert always sent him particular greetings when he wrote to us.

What I remember most vividly about the monastery was that in the spring, when I would walk over, the entire hill in front of the monastery would be covered with bluebonnets in bloom, and any Texan can tell you there are very few things more beautiful than that.  We had made it through the winter (one year we had an ice storm that shut down the entire city of Dallas), and spring was spread out before me in a stunning carpet of blue. When I walked there, I was enveloped in peace, knowing there were men who dedicated their entire lives to prayer, study, and teaching in an orderly schedule that followed the liturgical rhythms of the faith and the daily routine of the Liturgy of the Hours.  Although my husband went to Harvard, after he became Catholic, he was very influenced by the Cistercians, and for the last 20 years of his life, he also prayed the Liturgy of the Hours. As he was dying, Elizabeth, our oldest daughter, asked if I thought he would like it if she and her sister Mary read the prayers so he could hear them, and they did.  We could see his lips moving to the prayers that were said every day, so we knew that he was aware of their prayers. It was a holy death, connected as he was with the prayers of the Church being said around the world. And perhaps there was a path of bluebonnets leading him into heaven.

The memory of that abbey and its blue hill still fill me with color and light, harmony and grace.

LIVING WATER


In spring, the monastery rose

from a wildness of bluebonnets

coursing in torrents down the hill

giving limestone walls the softness

of a cloister in a watercolor stream.


I ran like a child and chose

the fathers I had dreamed

from mortal men in black and white

whose lives were waterfalls of light

pouring out yearned for fatherliness.


I thirsted and was filled

by the fountain of chant

welling up from Benedict,

cascading into unfathomable inheritance.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

THE MAKING OF A POEM

In creating many of my poems I have begun with an idea or inspiration, or sometimes an entire line, a donee as my poetry mentor, Colette Inez, called it, which I understood as a gift from the Muse. When I checked in an online dictionary, it was defined as a set of literary or artistic principles or assumptions on which a creative work is based. However, I recently worked on a poem that seemed much more like construction than a flight of images descending from the heavens.  

I had been sitting innocently at the breakfast table reading my morning Scripture when I casually glanced outside.  I can look out a huge bay window from the table and see my angel garden with the St. Francis fountain.  This particular morning I looked farther afield and found myself staring at what I thought was a telephone pole. The wires strung from the pole frequently host bevies of birds, often mourning doves but house finches and other avian visitors as well. This time, though, I was struck by the morning sun reflecting off something connecting the pole to the wire, two large cylindrical objects.  I couldn't ever remember seeing light shining from the direction of the pole in exactly that way although I've lived in this house for over 35 years and sat at that table in the same chair to eat my breakfast for most of the eight years since my husband died. I registered the impression but in some ways, it seemed so humdrum that I didn't think much about it except to wonder if I would ever do anything with it.

The next morning as I enjoyed my vegetable frittata and smoked salmon, I noticed a hummingbird zooming in near the window and enjoying the nectar from the scented camellia blossoms that are scattered up and down the slender branches. It reminded me of Ezra Pound's stunning two line poem, "In a Station of the Metro:"

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:    

Petals on a wet, black bough.

It was even more meaningful now that I have ridden on the Paris metro, a more elevating experience than the dirt and smells of the NYC subway where I commuted for several years. As I watched the hummingbird flit erratically from one blossom to the next, and thought of the electric chirp that these birds make, along with the whirring of their wings, I wondered if there was a connection I could make between the telephone pole and the hummingbird, but it was idle musing at the time that I tucked away somewhere in a back synapse of my mind.

Several days later, I was idly scrolling through house listings. My daughter had recommended that I just look at possibilities.  My house was built for the ten of us when my parents and my husband were alive and our six children were still all at home. My daughters are all married, and my son finally moved out, and during these Covid times I had been unwilling to look for a house cleaner, although keeping up with all that needs to be done in such a big house is beyond me. Elizabeth told me that I might want to look into a smaller home or a condo that would be easier to maintain; she said I can do it without any sense that I have to move or that I would be moving at any time in the near future but just to give me a sense of freedom in the possibility of being able to do it sometime if I choose.  What I found myself looking at were homes in the same town that are all about the same size, some even larger and with more than the half-acre that I have now. What they all have in common is that they are almost all clean and staged for selling. Very few have the piles of papers that surround me at my desk in my office or the week's layer of dust that lies on much of my furniture.  At some point, it occurred to me that I might ask a real estate agent if they have a cleaning service that would work for me.

Before I veered off down that path, though, I had started to put together a poem with the first two images--the telephone pole and the hummingbird. First, though, I had to do some research on what the cylindrical objects were between the pole itself and the wire. I learned first that what I had been observing is not a telephone pole but a utility pole and the cylinders are insulators. I discovered a great many things about the construction of utility poles but none to the purpose of my poem.  With that information under my belt, I sat in the living room in front of a sunny window to counteract the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder; it was the one sunny period of a day with downpours and hail. I sketched out three stanzas, each with a different focus, and then had to do something else, but I determined to work on a revision the next day.

This was the first draft:


First I took out the third, fourth, and sixth lines of the last stanza--which seemed either too blatant or banal--and instead added two lines about my househunting, including the phrase "none coded mine."  That chimed with the last lines of the previous stanzas about the revelation or secret that was closed to me.  Then I pulled out my rhyming dictionary and started reconstructing the lines so I could find a rhyme or slant rhyme for every ending word.  

After another hour's work, I had the current version.


Originally, the last two lines were one iambic pentameter line, but I decided to break them up, leaving them shorter and emphasizing the more restricted life I live now as a widow. I chose the title to underline the fact that there are messages all around me that I can't understand--yet.



Sunday, January 24, 2021

INCOMPLETE STEPS

I would love to have my life totally organized. I have a whole shelf of books on how to organize everything, from my house to my projects to my garden to my correspondence, and on and on. At times I fantasize about dedicating a different day each week to a different aspect of my life.  Monday was always my poetry day, and in pre-pandemic days it was also the evening for choir practice.  I'd like to have a day for working on my book and it is often Thursday because my business partner is helping me get it into the format for submission. She used to run a publishing company in Austria and she knows better than I how to get it in shape. Friday is the day I have my horn lesson, and I also have my journaling program in the morning.  

However, other things pop out at me when I'm least expecting it. For example, this morning when I was journaling, I noticed that sunlight was bouncing off the telephone wires in a particular way, and wondered if that could be the jumping-off point for a poem. Shortly afterwards, one of our hummingbirds spent a great deal of time sipping breakfast from my scented camellias, and I thought of a poetry departure there, and then I wondered if I could put the two together, since the sounds that hummingbirds made often sound like an electrical humming, and in fact I wrote a poem based on this observation called "Electrical Engineer." Now I can't remember what the focus was and I realize I need to have a notebook nearby to start poems so I don't have to get up and find something to write on--I could write in my journal and I have in the past, but at times I'm afraid I'll lose my musings in the recording of my daily events.  

Saturday is the day I water my orchids--each pot has to be sunk up to the rim in water with fertilizer for an hour, and watering them all can easily take most of the day. I started with one orchid that I bought in Laguna Beach on the first trip my husband and I took there for our anniversary.  That orchid did so well in my north kitchen window, that friends started buying me orchids, or giving me the ones they had that never bloomed, and now the whole garden window is full of them.  They are just starting to push out their flower spikes over the last couple of weeks, but by February or March, the whole window will be a riot of blooms.

On Sundays, I have two or three Zoom calls--Weight Watchers, our family Zoom, and twice-monthly a Beginning Experience call.  By the end of the afternoon on the days when I have three, I usually feel Zoomed out.  I used to have to get up at 5 so I could practice before playing horn at the 9:00 Mass at my parish, but there is no choir now so I usually go to the 5:30 Mass on Saturday evening, since it's often warmer then, and they have heaters on the patio where we have Mass.

My word for this year is "Create," and so far I've written two new poems and revised another. I'd also like to organize the drawer that holds all the poems I've submitted in the last few months and be able to submit more, as well as finally finish my poetry chapbook.  Again, it's an incomplete project, waiting on some more comments from my daughter.

I suppose all of life is like that, especially with the pandemic putting so many things on hold. I have a big pot of soup on the stove that I need to put in the refrigerator so I have some healthy things to eat when I don't feel like cooking.  But I never quite seem to finish any of my big projects--and I suppose that life is always an ongoing project. It would be boring if everything was suddenly finished!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

LIFE-SAVING POETRY

I had a little over 6 months to prepare for my beloved husband's death. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer just after Easter, and the oncologist told us that only 5% of people with this cancer survived even 6 months.  He lived just a little past 6 months, and during all that time I was in despair, wondering how I could ever go on living without him. After he died, I felt as if I had experienced a major earthquake, flood, and wildfire all at once. I was alternately numb and pierced by grief, aware that the landscape of my life had changed and would never be what it had been again.  Becoming a widow was terrifying. Most of my friends were couples and priests I had known through our work in World Wide Marriage Encounter, and the work had vanished with Wes so that I felt even more isolated and alone.  I no longer had the best friend I'd had since I was 17 and he was 16, nor the mission and purpose we'd had for the past 30 years.

Being a poet, I began to pour out my sorrow and desolation into new poems that were darker and went deeper than anything I'd ever written before. More of my poems were accepted for publication, and the editor of the journal that had accepted more of my poetry than any other told me that these poems resonated with many of her readers. One morning several years later, I realized that I had written a poem about our son that had no shadow of my husband's death lying over it; it was a poem of sheer gratitude for remembered snapshots of moments spent with him at the Wild Animal Park over many years.

That poem inspired me to begin the chapbook that is now almost finished, called "Portal of Light," which has engaged me for over two years, has required that I walk back down into the valley of the shadow of my husband's death, and laboriously climb back up again, having gained an appreciation for all that I have not lost, as well as all that I have been given since he died.  In many ways my poetry has brought me back to life, not the life I wanted, but the life I have been called to live.

I learned in the selection from Plutarch on Nicias that we read in our book club recently that poetry can be life-saving in other ways.  After the Athenians under the leadership of Nicias lost a disastrous battle to the Syracusans in Sicily, Plutarch notes, "Some of the Athenians were also saved thanks to Euripides. Apparently the Greeks in Sicily were keener on his poetry than any other nonmainland Greeks, and longed to hear it. They would learn by heart the occasional small specimens and samples that reached the island through visitors and one of their great pleasures was to share them with one another. Anyway, the story goes that at the time in question many of the survivors who made it back home greeted Euripides warmly when they met him, and told him either that they had been released from slavery for having taught their owners all they could remember of his verses, or, in some cases, that when they were wandering about after the battle they were given food and water for singing some of his songs." Plutarch commented, "If this is true, there is no need to doubt another story." He wrote that "Some Caunians were once trying to bring their ship into the harbor to escape some pirate vessels. At first the Syracusans refused to let them in, and actually prevented them from entering. Later, however, they asked whether the Caunians knew any of Euripides' songs. The Caunians said they did, and then the Syracusans let them in and helped them beach their ship." Thus, the verse of the author of Medea and Helen of Troy and another 16 or so tragedies extant today even rescued sailors from pirates!

Many times, as I struggled to keep from drowning in grief, I clung not only to the creation of my own poetry but to a verse or a stanza from another poet, as to a mast left adrift from a sinking ship, and rode it until I could find a harbor. It was never the harbor I was hoping for, but it was a harbor, and those times at anchor gave me strength to set sail again.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

SPARKLE, SPARKLE!

It all began when I was discussing the sounds that instruments make as expressed by onomatopoeia. While we have rather simple expressions such as "tootle" for the flute or "rum pum pum" for the drum, I couldn't think of any word that would reveal the mellow tone of the French horn, and when I went on the internet to research it further, there apparently was nothing. From there we wandered into other onomatopoeias and my oldest granddaughter, who is not quite 21, said there is a word in Korean that is similar to an onomatopoeia, "banjjak banjjak," that means sparkle or twinkle. Since I love anything that sparkles or twinkles or shines, I immediately fell in love with the word. It had something mesmerizing about it. I had already picked my word for the year (this was the first time I ever did this, but I decided I was tired of New Year's Resolutions and much preferred a word  to give me a focus for my hopes and dreams for 2021). My word for the year is "create," but I then decided that "banjjak banjjak" is the effect I hope to have on both myself and others who experience what I create. Then I plunged into a new poem that I hoped would express both the experience and the desire that seem to be poured into that word and sound.

At first, I just titled the poem "Banjjak banjjak," but eventually I decided that I needed to intrigue the reader but not bewilder them, because I doubt that I have a large readership who speak Korean. I changed the title to "SPARKLING ON THE ROAD TO 21," since I owe the departure on this whole poetic adventure to my granddaughter who is on her own adventure to becoming 21.

The first version was very bland, almost prose, but it was an effort to get my ideas on paper, in lines, and in a first poetic attempt.  Very often, these first versions almost put me off from doing anything further with what I've written.  They frequently seem simplistic, puerile, and superficial.  What I've learned over the years is that they are like the marble Michelangelo had that he turned into David. Although Michelangelo always seemed to know exactly where he was going--he allowed the marble to speak to him--I just have to believe that there is a more finished poetic form hidden beneath the bland words and awkward phrasing.  

I begin by marking off the line endings since what I have come to recognize as my voice is that every line has another rhyme or slant or inexact rhyme somewhere else in the poem.  Sometimes I discover a couplet as I am writing the poem, but most of the time, I have to rework the line or change the final word in order to sychronize the whole poem.  This is where the excitement begins--looking for a word that will work, that will bring the poem to a new height, that will exactly express what I want it to.  Often I can reach that in a second draft, but more often it takes three or more to work everything in. And some poems have lain dormant for years before I've felt up to tackling them. Now that I have taken "create" as my word for 2021 I have worked more intensely just in the week or so since 2021 began to craft better poems out of the ones I scribbled down in the last few weeks, and I believe that I am going to create amazing, sparkling writing as I delve into the new year.