Monday, December 13, 2010

12 Days Till Christmas: On Plums, Dogs, Paying Attention

I can't believe it's been months since I last blogged! I'd like to say that it was because my life was full to bursting with dazzling adventures, social whirl, glamorous night life, but the reality is I have been tentatively feeling my way here in NJ. Slowly, slowly. Inch by inch. Appreciating tiny things: the crystal clear view of the sky and its constellations from my huge backyard (Geminid showers 3 AM this morning; setting my alarm!); Doris, the talkative 75 year old crossing guard who loves Rosie and wants to "introduce her to other dogs in the neighborhood;" singing the "12 Days of Christmas" with mom as we set up the Fagan family tree; glorious MOMA and Matisse with his rapturous dancing nudes on a blue background.

But, I've also been reading a LOT--and as often happens when I read a LOT, synapses start firing and throwing off sparks and ideas in a new book will flint and flame and send off other sparks until there's a veritable firework fountain in my head. And what I've been paying most attention to lately (though I've never felt less focused in my life) is, ironically, the act of paying attention, or more precisely, what it is that captures my focus and what that might say about my life.

On Plums and Dogs and Paying Attention
Winifred Gallagher's book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life engaged my own frequently divided, scattered, and diffused attention immediately in her first two paragraphs:

Five years ago, a common enough crisis plunged me into the study of the nature of experience. More important, this study led me to cutting-edge scientific research and a psychological version of what physicists call a "grand unified theory"...: your life--who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love--is the sum of what you focus on.
That your experience largely depends upon the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a psychological fact. When you focus on a STOP sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock market tip, your brain registers that "target" which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things you don't attend to in a sense don't exist, at least for you. All day long you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and ultimately, your well-being.

I'm a big fan of books exploring neuroscience and behavioral science, but this book has also deeply resonated with me for many reasons right now. 1.) I've been struggling to find my focus since my move. 2.)As a poet, I've known that this conscious act of paying specific attention to the world--for instance, in my one chapbook, the shadowy, nuanced environment of alleyways--has deeply shaped my work 3.) And I've often encouraged my students (as many poetry teachers do) with Zen exercises and "object" exercises to help them sharpen their focus, and tune into the details of their world. And what they choose to write about, to turn their focus to: the drunk man swearing on the 61-C bus or their grandmother's engraved silver hairbrush lying in a cardboard box begins to help them understand what it is they value. What you pay attention to as a writer is what you ask your reader to pay attention to: hey, folks, look at this. this matters

Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Mean By "B-Grade Poet": Reinvent the Ruler and Sit Your Ass Down to Write

1. Shadow on the Things We Know

Bill Mallonee is a singer/songwriter/guitarist who travels the United States performing in churches, art galleries, living rooms--any small venue where he is invited. I signed up on his email list a couple of years ago after seeing him and his pianist wife Muriah Rose put on a terrific show in Pittsburgh. He's a musician who puts his whole heart into his song lyrics and his show. And like a lot of artists, who have stuck with their deepest calling all these years, he has hit a wall. About a month ago, Mallonee sent his mailing list a very dejected note. I am excerpting some of his email here, because I want to talk about the hazards of measuring an artist's life by the measuring rulers of the rest of society. Here's some of what Bill had to say:

... to tell the truth, I'm having a massive crisis of confidence; It's gone on for over 10 years now. I have relied FAR TOO MUCH on the goodwill and graciousness of you all here on this list;

But it's deeper than a lack of shows. It's about feeling ignored for years now, and kinda feeling cast off. I haven't been able to get inside the "real world" of the industry for quite awhile... I can't seem to make a bare bones living by writing, singing and performing the kinda songs I write. I'm sad and tired.

I knew the risks" involved with the life of being a songwriter. But even when records didn't go that well in the marketplace (I've always gotten "good ink" with 4 and 5 star reviews on my work) I always figured:

"Hey, I'll make a new album, a new set of songs, a new tour...surely SOMETHING will "hit." It was a sort of a "rinse & repeat" formula. But, after 25 albums, 8 EPs and countless songs, I see it's all appearing to be a "fool's errand." The light does seem to shine on other's careers...I can't figure out why it's been so hard for me. 

I never wanted fame or fortune. Just the ability to pay some of my bills... It's all i've done and given my heart to for a long time. I'm proud of all the work and the legacy, especially since the resources have been so meager as of late.

So, today...I awoke feeling stupid for ever having played music in the first place. Self-loathing and feeling irrelevant have always dogged me. So, I'm thinking of just selling almost everything...
~Bill Mallonee

Most artists can relate to this sense of crashing against their own private wall of expectations for where their work should be at any given moment. By middle-age, I think the internalized Greek chorus (Zeus! It's so noisy!) of "why aren't you further along, more well known, have more books (or even a book)/more albums/paintings/fame??" can become deafening. In fact, as you can read in Mallonee's email, it can shut an artist down. Break your spirit. (Mallonee ends this dispiriting email with a list and description of many of his guitars and equipment all up for sale. Nothing worse than an artist selling their "tools.")

Poet on the Lip of the Ledge
I have long been fascinated with the artists who plug away at their craft without much recognition or "reward" (by society's standards and sometimes by their own standards.) I would imagine that being a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, or simply a poet with a few books to her name would be ample "support" from the larger world to keep on going, to push on past the "noisy world" that pays little attention to such labor. It is the poets, who continue writing and writing well--even when they've not yet published a book, even when they can't even think to compete for teaching jobs with the "real"(as in those with two books or more) poets, even when the larger society that pays any attention to poetry at all (and that is a small slice of the population) wouldn't bat an eye if they decided to never write a word again--it is these artists who most fascinate me. And it is not simply because I am one of them ;-) though that does help me to understand some things.

It is something about the tenacity of spirit. The depth of the "calling" (a word I've carried over from my Catholic education, though they only applied this word to those "called" to be nuns or priests...), which demands that they keep on putting words to the page. There is something about this need to narrate the world or construct the inner life with carefully chosen words that is intrinsically beautiful to me, whether it is recognized or not. Something satisfying about being able to "make order" to the chaotic world that is intrinsically beautiful. These poets are, in a way, the "working class" layer of poets (or you could transfer this into painters, musicians, etc.), who get up every day and give themselves reasons to labor at it, despite the drawers full of literary magazine rejections, the readings that keep being booked without you, and on and on...

But, it ain't all romance here: Bills pile up on the dining room table. You watch some amazing people get published (and cheer) and some mediocre people get published because their old teacher at so and so college selected their manuscript in a national contest. (you still cheer after first grumbling. After all, there's room in the world for a million voices, right?) The jobs that have to be taken to make the money often drain a soul of any decent images in her head. the readings you used to constantly do in graduate school have all dried up. You're a writer who wants to be read AND a performer who loves to read her work out loud to the audience, but the 22 year old editors at the magazines can't relate to your style of writing anymore and the 18 year old fresh faces running the readings are asking all their friends to come do their unedited spoken word tomes at the cofffeehouses. But, this is just whining, right? These are the manageable concerns in the bigger picture.

But the thoughts that haunt you in the dead of night, in the hot hazy swampiness of a summer day are what can paralyze you. It's the unspoken , ominpresent fear muttering: You're simply not good enough, otherwise you'd have a book by now. No one wants to read your silly poems--your life is simply not interesting enough/marginal enough/ dysfunctional enough to rate anyone's attention. OR aren't you getting a bit old for this silly dream of book publication? OR the poetry scene has passed you by...or any variation on this theme. Then FEAR takes your computer and puts up your Facebook page so you can wallow in silly status updates and hours of looking at stranger's photographs. FEAR drives you from that chair that Mary Oliver swears you have to sit in each day to "be there" when inspiration strikes. It seduces you, promising that washing dishes or buying a bike rack at Target or throwing the tennis ball for your dog is really a profoundly more important use of time than writing a poem that no one will read anyway.

About the title: Confessions of a B-Grade PoetSo, here's the complicated part: I still DO believe I am a good writer, even better than good when I work at it, even downright inspiring at times, when I really focus and apply myself. I think my work should be in a book and that (as an excellent reader and performer), I should be getting invited to read all over the place. This is not grandiose thinking. Or an over-romanticized view of my poetry life. I think some of my work could have impact if it could get out there. I have been told this at the readings I give: "that poem really made me think/feel/laugh/cry." I have been told this about my chapbook. I have been told by a poet who's won the National Book award and a poet who's won the Pulitizer Prize, and by the wonderful poet Tim Siebles, who I had the pleasure of reading with once in Pittsburgh that I "should have a book. It's crazy you don't have a book yet." And I'm still pursuing this dream. And still have no guarantees that I will get there, wherever "there" may be.

I call this blog "Confessions of a B-Grade Poet," to call attention to this notion of "rulers," those rigid and unforgiving wooden sticks that dictate there is a "here" you should get to (see the solid black line of it?) and shows you how far off you are and continue to be from that designated mark. I named the blog this to call attention to our grading systems and hierarchies, which seem to define this gnawing need of humans to feel "better than" or "superior to" or "one up" from one another. (And how, worst of all, I bought into it--thus feel "one down" when I have not reached the mark.)

I am aware that dear writer friends have written me, with affection and concern, about my "self-deprecating" blog title, some saying lovely supportive things like "You are just an A-grade poet waiting to be discovered" --which of course is lovely to hear, but it doesn't change the reality of it-- or, on the other hand, some viewing the title as a "need to get attention by denigrating my writing."

What I was thinking of with the title was actually the "B-Grade" movies of the 40's, when the movie studios ruled Hollywood and the film industry. And about the film stars we love and will ALWAYS remember because they reached that STAR level-- Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn--both because they WERE talented and compelling at their art and because they were lucky, in the right place at the right time, stars aligned to make them stars.

More importantly, I'm thinking of all the thousands of actors and actresses, who were also talented and good looking and tenacious and hard working, and despite trying their hardest (see Bill Mallonee's message again, above) who never became household names. Yet they acted their whole lives, as character actors or the bit players who were integral to the "reality" being constructed on the screen--secretaries to the lawyers, cab drivers with a few lines to say, detectives who had to populate the scenes but whose names we would never remember even if we were on a game show and big money was riding on our answer. In essence, the supporting players who worked at their art/craft all of their lives and made the STARS able to be stars.

And I love those artists, all the artists who, historically, immersed themselves in this act of creating something new from whatever chosen materials and who did not become names that we will remember. I love them for their passion and energy charging into the world, for their dark nights of yearning for the "big break" that never quite comes. I love them for how they teach the rest of us, as generations proceed to LOVE that part of ourselves which is creative and vital and pays close attention to this crazy world.

The B-Grade Poets don't really need to grade themselves at all. Perhaps they need to make their poetry its own "measure"--a measure as one in music--with its ordered rhythm and timing and notes that beg to sing out into the dark fields. A section of the larger theme, the larger composition. The so-called "B-Grade" poets who, like me, are going to keep on writing no matter what happens because, frankly, my life is fuller and richer and more deeply vital when I write. I am so lucky. So damn rich. I get to approach the world as a poet. I get to make myself crazy with paying such close attention to the deer's dark eye in my winter yard or the icicles lined up in such a lyrical way that I want to strum them like the steel strings on my guitar. This is a lucky thing. I get to love the messy world with all of my heart, even when I get hung up on wanting to "get there," even when I am lost in the thicket of my discouragement.

And for Bill Mallonee, I am sending you love, too, and hoping that your email was just a "dark night of the soul" and that you are right now chugging down a lit highway, heading to a packed art gallery in Spokane, Washington or toward someone's living room full of folding chairs in Madison, Wisconsin, your guitars secure and tuned taut in their dark cases, your fingers itching to be upon the strings again.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: When all is Upheaval and Change, Still the Natural World and its Ground

The last week I was in Pittsburgh, I had the visceral sensation of ripping myself up by the roots--it felt that rough at times, all the goodbyes to my family of friends--these loved ones--Karen and Steve and their beautiful family, Barbara, Ellen, Raymond, Joy and Rob and Chance, Jeff, Lynn, Bea, Connie, Blake, Casey and Dan, Ellen and Scott, Keely and Amadeo, Rob, Stacey, Jason, Bill, Samantha, Jonathon, Amanda-- the list goes on and on--who had been there for me through everything, who inspired my poetry, who laughed at my silliness and hugged me on the darker days--and I grew frightened over the prospect of "transplanting" myself. As a gardener, I'm very aware that though many flowers will transplant and flourish, no matter what the conditions, there are those plants that go into shock and never quite rally after losing their homeground. (I know that sounds dramatic. If you haven't figured it out from my blog yet, I have a streak of the dramatic in me. ;-) )

As my life has never been what one might call a traditionally "secure" one--not financially, not in terms of the traditional marriage root (route!), not job-wise--I have learned what keeps me sane, rooted, held to this earth. Two things: my art-making and teaching about art and the earth itself, the natural world that reaches out during all of my times of change and upheaval, which breathes deeply in its humid air and blows out stabilizing winds and shows me in countless ways: there are cycles in the world, there are resurrections in nature, there are instincts that override and outlive logic, there is a time, as the bible says, "to sow and a time to reap."

The life of my countless small gardens in Pittsburgh (each one left behind as I moved to new apartments) that continue to live in me. The feathery purple cosmos that outgrew the hedges in my first Northumberland Street apartment, where my son, a 4 year old boy, would play hide and seek with Peter and Zack. The hollyhocks and rose bush growing against the fence in my Ridgeville Street apartment I shared with my son, with R., a man I deeply loved and his huge German Shepherd, Samson. (And there is a mum plant that my son gave me when he was about 10 that still grows and blooms out front of that Ridgeville Street apartment. I walked by it the last week I was in town.) The daisies and butterfly bush in my Friendship apartment that hid my friend Jeff and I as we talked in shaken tones about the horror of planes crashing into and taking down the World Trade Centers that terrible September 11 day. And my colorful sidewalk garden that cheered me every time I walked around the corner of the house I've lived in for the last 4 years.

Each garden continued to teach me in quiet ways: to keep paying attention, to not lose sight of the beauty always offered if one looks, to dig deep, to view roots as sacred things and tend them carefully, to nurture and take care of all the living things (people, animal, plant) that you have taken responsibility for. On some days, the garden was the only slice of world that had any coherence and clarity to it.

During my latest upheaval, two small garden anecdotes: The first was the explosion of monarch and swallowtail butterflies that rode the brutally hot air and delicately walked the orange cones of my coneflowers this past summer. I had nurtured this garden, as I said, for four years. During that time, I was puzzled by the lack of bees and butterflies in my small garden. I had one butterfly in the entire four years. But this summer, all I had to do was walk into the yard and butterflies flitted everywhere. I'm not sure where the sudden burst of butterflies came from this year, whether they thrived in the drought conditions, or were drawn to my yard because of the daily-filled cool water in the birdbath, but they were everywhere: orange monarchs, the swallowtails that looked like shards of sun edged in black, the black butterflies with their royal blue markings.

It does not take a poet to know the symbolism of butterflies as I prepared to leave Pittsburgh: the joyful succession of changes the caterpillar labors through to become the tissue-thin bits of controlled light, who feed for their short lives on the giddy reds, corals and yellows of blossoms. Transformation. The embodiment of turning the low crawler to a soarer in wind. Change. Beauty revealed from a process of labor and isolation (cocooning.)

My friend, Ellen said, "Trust your instincts about this. I think the natural world is sending you a message. And it looks pretty hopeful." Again, nature provided a map of meaning on the days where I wondered, for the thousandth time: "why am I moving, again?"

The last two weeks of living in Pittsburgh, I stole free minutes here and there (away from the packing) and deadheaded the daisies, watered daily the spread of 4 o'clocks, cosmos, coneflowers and balloon flowers on those never-ending 90-degree days. I had my usual visitors--the 4 pairs of cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers and yellow finches still combing the ground for the bags of seed I'd dumped there as a "farewell." I'd already given the feeders and birdbath to dear friends Ellen and Scott by then (and my friends have made me so happy, reporting that their own garden, which pinwheels in dahlias, every subtle shade and nuance of scarlet, orange and violet--is now a continual source of joy to them as they sit outside and watch the "flurry of movement" from the squirrels, birds and chipmunks visiting the new local bird bistro.)

There was something in the act of keeping the garden blooming and flourishing in those last days that never failed to cheer me and steady me. The ground WAS literally my grounding! The slumping new guinea impatiens visibly perked up and stretched striped foliage toward the rose petunias. The 4'oclocks, fainting under the noon sun, suddenly were active climbers on the trellis, keeping the secrets of their yellow and pink blooms until it was time. The yard was, as always, full of wild rabbits, who under the cloak of night, would venture toward the bird seed and eat their fill. The only thing missing was "my" herd of deer, the five that spent winter days, their legs buried in the snow (last winter was a very snowy one) jostling one another to lick the seed out of the feeders.

Until moving day: Sunday, August 29, my former co-worker, Jonathon and his friend Dave came over to move my houseful of boxes and furniture into the back of the U-Haul truck. How lucky I was to have their help--good workers, cheerful and steady, smart and funny--under their strength, the rooms emptied out swiftly. The most strategic "movers" I've ever met, they carefully planned the space each piece would fit into--especially thoughtful about my huge paintings (all the glass, glass, glass) to make sure none would be broken enroute. As we chatted, the guys commented on the "hidden refuge" type feel of my apartment--tucked away on a lovely (dead-end) red-bricked road, a sprawling side lawn, up on a hilltop from Frick Park. I told them about my wildlife visitors, including the deer. And expressed a regret that I wouldn't get to see them again.

Not 20 minutes later, dusk falling and the apartment echoing with lamp light and its own emptiness, Jonathon ran into the space:

"Come outside NOW! You won't believe this."

I followed him out to the UHaul, half afraid that a favorite painting had fallen and shattered on the gravel.

"Look up there." Jonathon pointed toward the hilly backyard. Dave was staring upwards from the truck's interior.

I turned and followed his gaze. Lined up, their white tails visible in the waning sun, were five deer staring down at us. It was growing steadily dark enough that their muzzles were starting to mute into the shadows. We stood gazing at each other--humans and animals-- quietly. I had not seen the herd of deer since March, when the snows finally melted and spring seemed a foregone conclusion-- and there they were all in a row, the two fawns, a step or two behind the older deer, standing still as the crescent moon that began to appear in the sky. I felt so grateful that they'd come to say goodbye. I felt that sense of how solid this orbiting earth felt at that moment, Venus polishing off and swinging under the moon like a woman's pendant, the deer lifting their heads to catch our scent. I was so grateful for their appearance. And then the buck took a leap away, tail flashing and the others followed swiftly into the dark trees beyond.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: My Last Week of Living in Pittsburgh

Walking tonight with Rosie, the full moon was stippled by clouds and the crickets kept a quiet chorus. Late August, that mild tease of fall in the breeze, we walked the "cliff" on Fernwald Road, which overlooks hundreds of homes in the distance, their lights on. For the hundreth time, I pause on this hilltop and imagine the people in those homes, watching television, wearing pajamas, having an argument, tucking in their child, looking out their own windows into the distance and dreaming. I have found this view comforting on many nights, through all four seasons. Below me, the traffic slows to a crawl on 376 before it disappears into the Squirrel Hill tunnel. I will miss this view so much, these hillsides, the deer moving up from Frick Park that startle below me at times in the fields, the fat waddle of groundhogs into the brush when they see Rosie coming. It's been too hard to blog these past couple of weeks: overwhelmed by the love and gratitude I want to express to all of my friends here in Pittsburgh---and overwhelmed with all the leave-taking.

So much of who I am, what I value about myself was inspired, nourished and flourished here in Pittsburgh: my poet self, my teacher self, myself as a mother. I was given the gift of becoming "Sharon" here--a distinct individual with her own skills and talents--apart from the eleven siblings with whom I'd felt such a tight kinship. I was NOT just one of the Fagans, a clan well- known and well-liked in our New Jersey community, but a woman given the opportunity to truly grow and grow up in this city far from home.

For instance, my "teacher self" started in a most unlikely way. I had no intention of becoming a teacher, when I moved here straight out of college. I still harbored dreams of being a rock star, having spent the prior four years of college singing and recording with a variety of bands. I also loved writing poetry and had won my college's top Creative Writing medallion award.

But, desperate times called for desperate measures: within two years of moving to Pittsburgh, when I found my marriage crumbling, I needed to find a job quickly that would help support myself and my son. In a brazen act that still makes me laugh to remember it, I literally walked into the principal's office at Shady Lane Preschool, my guitar in hand, and started strumming and singing "Going to the Zoo," by Peter, Paul and Mary, to a most startled woman who knocked her notebook to the floor, so abruptly did she stand up. I thought she would throw me out, crazy intruder that I was, but instead, she hired me as a pre-school music teacher on the spot. Lucky me.

Not only did my son get to attend an amazing pre-school for free, I began my "on the job" training as a teacher. My young self would have been amazed to know, as I handed around tambourines and bells, rain-sticks and wooden blocks that this first teaching job would lead to eight years teaching literature in a private high school, the University School in Shadyside, which would lead to my receiving an MFA in poetry, which ultimately led me to seven years teaching as a Visiting Lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. What a trajectory! From singing dinosaur songs to classes of three and four year old to teaching aspiring young adults to write poetry-----"I'm going to the zoo, zoo, zoo; how about you, you you; YOU can come too, too, too, Oh we're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!!" Indeed!

...To be continued....

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Substance of things Past: What's Found Between the Spines

I was remiss in posting "Nostalgia Thursday" last week, as my last four weeks in Pittsburgh are turning into frenzy and friends and too much packing left to do. I'm up way early this morning, unable to sleep past 4:00 AM. My Rosie dog squints at me from her "cave" beneath my dining room table, confused as to why I've turned on the lamp and disturbed her beauty rest. I figured, rather than toss and turn this morning, I'd write about the treasures I've been excavating from between the spines of my hundreds of books.

Between the Spines
A confession: I am a girl who likes to hide things--photos, leaves, pressed flowers, letters, cartoons, postcards, you name it-- within books. I'm not sure when or why this all began, but, I've carried on with this personal tradition for a long time. It means that during times of upheaval, when bookshelves get overhauled and scrutinized for what dear old friends will stay on the course with me and what dear old spines will be pulled and sold to Halfprice Books or Caliban Bookstore or given to friends, I first need to flick through the pages to make sure I'm also not giving away a little extra piece of my past. This makes the packing up of floor to ceiling bookcases a little more time consuming, but it also becomes an archeological dig of sorts--and oh, the gems that fall out from between pages!

My long-time friend, Barbara, came over on Saturday night. Between eating Thai food and conversation, we boxed up a few smaller bookshelves and worked our way halfway down the larger shelves. At one point, she pulled out an envelope from between two books and handed it to me. It was addressed to my son; the handwriting was my mother's and the postdate on it was June 28, 1991. B. would have been 11 years old at the time. And what a point in my family's history this 5 paragraph letter captured!

As soon as I unfolded the typing paper and saw those familiar typos and white-outs and scratch outs on the sheet, I knew my father had typed this letter, already years into his Parkinson's Disease and on the brink of losing all ability to use his hands. Which is why my mother had addressed the envelope. What makes this especially poignant to me is that my son, the first grandchild, was the only grandchild to have any memories of my father still walking, talking and writing letters. My father's descent into Parkinson's was awful, fast and took away everything he was.

The letter was quintessentially my father's work, though--a mix of sentiment: "I am delighted to receive your Father's Day card with the photo of you in your baseball uniform. You look really good." Humor: "How many of your cards could you trade for any of the Pirates cards?" Cautionary admonitions: "When you come visit us down on Long Beach Island, make sure to get in the habit of using Sunscreen Protection factor 15 or 25. You have that Irish fair skin we've all inherited." And a lovely little story tucked into the PS. My son's bicycle had been stolen just the weeks prior to my father typing this letter. My father wrote: "I was very sorry to hear your bike was stolen. I'm afraid that that has gone on forever--even when I was young. My bicycle, though, was so battered that they'd bring it back after they attempted to ride it. I only owned one bike my whole childhood." His "Love, Grandpa" is handwritten, smudged by a dragged hand. I can picture how badly my father's hands shook at that time and what control he must have exerted to sign this letter. I can't wait to give this gem to my son next week when he comes to visit.

In addition to this beautiful piece of history, I found, tucked into Mary Oliver's White Pines, an "in the moment" poem I'd written 2 years after my brother died. I stopped writing for a full yearn after Brendan died, sure that language was meaningless, lint in the pocket, why had I pursued poetry for so long? It was my friend, Jeff, at the time, who brought me back to writing. We were riding the 61-C from Oakland to Squirrel Hill, and he presented me with the back of a postcard on which he'd written "The man in front of us looks like a wolf." This made me laugh and he encouraged me to write the next silly line, an observation of the people on our bus. I did so. We traded the card back and forth, put a stamp on it and mailed it to our friend, Liz, when we got off in Squirrel Hill. Jeff's small, kind act gradually enabled me to write again. A piece of paper was daunting to me at the time, but the back of a postcard was just small enough to encourage my forays into language again. --This grew into a year of my writing postcard, "in the moment" poems to my sister in NY.

On this particular card (in which a cartoon woman is thinking "I'm so silly, I forgot to have my mid-life crisis"), I was writing a contemplation about my new German Shepherd puppy, Buddha, who had apparently just chewed up a telephone wire, the leg of a stool and half of my philodendron. The "poem" moves quickly into a deeper place: "Why am I so afraid of the commitment that comes with love?/It is a gift, heavy in my arms/ a baby nestled against my shoulder wailing/ a language without words/ and now a new puppy looking to me for safety, food, sustenance/ I feel unworthy to the task./Buddha tugs on his blue leash, contemplates a pigeon/ puts one bear like paw in front of the other/decides to follow me anyway."

Other books turned up:
  • photos of me in my late 20's, clowning around with my sister Maureen.
  • A handmade Christmas card I'd written in 1988 to R., the love of my life, the first year we lived together. " I'm so happy to share this Christmas with you. Love, love, love..."
  • A photo of my son, around three years old, smiling up from the middle of a pile of gold leaves.
  • a small painting I'd made of a red-headed woodpecker, during one of my off again on again relationships with watercolors, acrylics and paintbrushes over the years. ( I am a frustrated, wanna-be painter who can't really paint at all, but loves working with the colors.)
  • The thick Children's Treasury of Literature book I'd saved from my son's childhood, revealed a birthday "gift certificate" that my son had drawn for me in early middle school, complete with a funny cartoon of a lobster with a beret on his head. This I could "cash in" for a "free" breakfast in bed--Cheerios or French Toast. (And no expiration date. Perhaps I could still redeem it?)
  • Crumbly red and gold and orange maple leaves spilled from the pages of an old Thesaurus
  • and in a book of Neruda's poems, a small pressed bouquet of wildflowers, dusty and barely holding glints of gold and rose, was tucked quietly meshed between love poems. It was given to me by 6'5" curly haired Ben, collected from a roadside in June on our first date--he'd pulled the car over as we drove a country road outside Pittsburgh and collected and presented me with the most beautiful bunch of daisies, Queen Anne's lace and wild roses, pricking his thumb on the thorns. We had had a joyful love affair at a time in my life that I'd stopped believing in love. He's living now in the wilds of Juneau, Alaska.

It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of how books keep on giving. These treasures have made me laugh, cry a little, reminisce and feel how wealthy I am these last few weeks. Because of these surprising gifts of memory, I think I will continue to tuck a little something here and there between the pages of my books.

I will end on this most recent "find." I have been debating about whether or not to sell some very old books (one from 1896) to Caliban Bookstore. Yesterday afternoon, I pulled down one of my Grandfather Roche's (the man who inspired my love of poetry) old books of Yeats. This book was not Yeat's poetry, but a 1959 book called Mythologies, in which Yeats collected Irish stories of the supernatural and the uncanny, including his own brushes with these experiences.

I briefly flirted with the idea of whether or not I could part with this book. As if in answer, I saw a tiny bit of cellophane? what was that? peeking out from the chapter called "Rosa Alchemica." I had not tucked anything between the pages--it was a tiny "hello" from my dear grandfather, who passed away in 1979. The cellophane wrap from one of his ubiquitous cigars marked page 270,where he'd left off reading. "Garcia and Vega Cigars" on a gold and red label. The ever so faint smell of tobacco. I will leave it where I found it. The substance of things past as I move toward the future.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: The Small Kindness that Can Sometimes Save Us

Some Pittsburgh memories are funny, rise like small balloons in me, still make me laugh years later. Other Pittsburgh memories are dark, shadowed with loss. But my musing today is not about dwelling on the pain of loss, but on the incredible warmth and kindness that materialized around me here in the Pittsburgh during the worst time in my life.

I am the 4th oldest in a family of 12 children--a loud, talented, intelligent, verbal, musical, creative and loving bunch I had the joy to grow up with in New Jersey.  We were a satisfying, rowdy number, a DOZEN, and never did I imagine losing any of my siblings.When you grow up in a large family and are one of the older siblings, you help to "raise" some of the younger children. Brendan was one of my favorites. We spent a lot of time talking deeply about everything from our varied musical tastes, to love, to the cosmos.

Brendan, the seventh child in the family, a twin to brother Brian who was born 5 minutes before him. died tragically too young from cancer back on August 1, 1996. He was only 36 years old at the time. Brendan was married to the lovely artist, Ellen, and he was the proud father of three young sons-- who were only ages 8,6 and 1 the year that he died. (The youngest, Tom, was a baby and had just turned one a month before Brendan died.). Brendan was always an exceptional student, earning straight A's in high school, and he went on to major in physics at Notre Dame University. He had a hilariously quirky sense of humor. In high school, for example, he decided to start a fake club just to see if he could get them in the yearbook. It was the Vikings club, and sure enough, if you look up the yearbook for his graduation year, there are a goofy looking group of boys, all wearing Viking helmets and grinning on the club page. Brendan also was an artist who loved to weld and make metal sculptures as a hobby. He loved prog-rock, Todd Rundgren (Hello, It's Me!), Jethro Tull and Genesis among other musicians, and he had a way of really making everyone around him laugh. He had success as a cross-country runner in Colonia High School and during those teen years, built his own keyboard MOOG synthesizer from metal scraps and parts lying around.

I miss hugging his skinny self. I miss his sweet smile and stealth bomb humor. I miss the nerdiness of him (he could talk about computers until my eyes glazed over and I felt faint ;-) ) I miss his brilliant mind and his loving attention and playfulness with his boys. I miss his passion for music and his mature blend of strength and gentleness. He was a favorite brother, a remarkable father and a husband who dearly loved his wife.

We have the power to make such a difference to each other just by doing the smallest gestures sometimes. I think we forget how much power we hold to be a force of change. Sometimes, a simple offer of cup of hot chocolate or a hand on the arm can literally save a life or at the least, change the course of someone's day. I could write so many stories about how many of my dear friends and family's words and gestures and hugs and shoulders to cry on carried me through a bleak time, but tonight,  I want to focus on one moment of kindness that happened on the very day that Brendan died. This is hard for me to write about, even still.

A Memory of Kindness: The Walk in Beechwood Farms
(John Sokol: I love you and thank you for your incredible kindness on a terrible day.)

In May of 1996, when Brendan was first diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to his brain and lungs, I was working at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, creating and booking art classes and publishing the ArtLines magazine that advertised all the classes open to the public. My favorite part of the job was meeting and hiring the artists who taught there (my home, to this day, is filled with their artwork.) One of the many artists I hired and grew friendly with that summer was a brilliant oil painter named John Sokol. We chatted and joked around the office when he would come in to teach his classes.

One day, however, John showed up early at the office door. I was sitting at my desk, finishing up writing copy for ArtLines. For some reason that day, our conversation veered from the usual chatty banter into much deeper waters.  I learned that, within the prior five years, John had lost his wife to cancer (herself very young). It was obvious that he still struggled with her loss. I opened up to John and mentioned that my brother, Brendan, had cancer and that his prognosis was not good. John said an unusual thing to me that day,

"I hope he makes it through, pulls out a miracle, Sharon. But, if he doesn't, please call me on that day."

I pushed John's words out of my mind; I couldn't think about the idea of Brendan dying. I also thought it was odd that John--more of an acquaintance than a friend-- would suggest I call him should I lose my brother.It was sweet of him, but I couldn't imagine why I would call him in the event of such a terrible and personal loss.

The Thursday morning that Brendan died, I was being celebrated by my co-workers at a party at the Center for the Arts, which was held to wish me well and bid me bon voyage as I moved into a new position as administrator with the Western PA Writing Project. After the cake, after opening the lovely gifts from my colleagues and the artists, I sat down at my desk to tie up the final ArtLines. I looked down at my phone: the "calls waiting" light was blinking like the top of a cop car. I had a queasy feeling as I pressed the button to listen to my messages. All three were from my mother, her voice barely discernible with emotion: "Sharon, Brendan died this morning at 11 AM. Call me when you get this."

In a state of shock, I gathered up my office belongings and gifts. I mustered a dazed goodbye to my co-workers. Drove up Shady Avenue in a blur. Got home and stared at the walls of my living room, feeling very cold. I debated about calling my son, Brian, over at his friend's house, but decided to let him enjoy himself for the day. I could hardly think. Too many tears. My German Shepherd paced around me, eyeing me anxiously. A warm breeze riffled the curtains. I shivered again. Sank deeper into my couch. The clock tick-tick-ticked. Then: a loud,  insistent knocking at my front door. John Sokol stood on the other side of the door, pushing his glasses up his nose.

"The Arts Center called. I came over as soon as I heard."

I don't remember responding to him, didn't let him in the house. John gently pulled open the screen door.

"Come with me now." He held out his hand. " I know this doesn't make sense. Nothing will today. But, come with me now, OK?"

I felt confused, frozen. But, I followed him mechanically down the sidewalk. climbed into the passenger side of his truck. He took the roads out of Pittsburgh,over the Highland Park Bridge where the sun glinted off the surface of the river. He drove through the winding wooded roads of Fox Chapel. Shadows draped across the lanes punctuated by long ropes of light. It was an impossibly beautiful day--not too hot, not too humid. Above, blue skies where white cumulus clouds, were adrift like skiffs on the sea. I don't remember exchanging a single word with John on the ride over. He pulled into a gravel lot outside of Beechwood Farms, an Audubon Nature Center. On the front lawn leading into the trails, butterfly bushes burned with the orange wings of monarchs. Even in the warmth of August air, I kept shivering. John began to walk the trail lined with thistle, goldenrod, and tall grasses that swayed in the breeze. It wound its way down to a pond. I had walked the trails in here many times before with my good friends. Today--my heart heavy with grief-- would color all the rest of my walks from then on. 

John called over his shoulder to me: "I think it's important to be somewhere beautiful on a day like this. It will help you honor your brother." 

I began to weep but continued to follow along quietly. John walked ahead, leaving me to my private grief. Through the golden fields of switching grass and timothy, the ironweed was already standing in exclamations of purple stalks. Red-winged blackbirds perched and twittered on the cracked stumps of fallen trees. Rabbits hopped from the trail into the brush and out of sight. Near the pond, frogs jumped from rocks into the water with a plash.

We paused on the worn planks of the dock that pushed into the pond. Such quiet. Dragonflies helicoptered over lily pads and green streaked pondwater. I knelt down and looked into the water thinking only "Brendan." Up popped a turtle's green and yellow striped head, funny leathery neck. A startled laugh escaped me. "Brendan?" I whispered to the floating turtle. It bubbled its head underwater again. It would be just like Brendan to surprise me into laughter.

John and I continued walking. Every sound was hushed, as if I'd entered a cathedral. Swallowtail butterflies fluttered over the purple asters, bits of sun blown from the sky. Milkweed swayed in the breezes as if a lace dress had unraveled and covered the field. My feet were twin bricks: I forced one foot down, then the other. My body did not belong to me. We walked on into the woods. Hundreds of trees formed a deep canopy over our dirt path while creeks recited their songs over fallen logs. Uphill, steeper and steeper, grasping at thin limbs for balance, the sun strong on my face, my arms. The warmth penetrated my skin, moved into me, through me. Every once in a while, John called out the name of some living thing:

"Coneflowers. Vetch. Maidenhead Fern." Rhythmic, dizzying. The litany was a hymn, an elegy. 

"May Apple. Bluebonnet." I had the odd sensation things were being named for the first time. Where was I?

At the top of the hill, we walked to the end of the lookout in the man-made tower. Far above the treeline. I thought of the tree fort Brendan had just completed building for his boys just months before he died. Leafy treetops spread out before us, umbrellas beneath a blue, blue sky. Never before was a moment so crytallized. I was immersed in seeing. Everything was crisply defined and of vital importance--blade of bark. Pebble. Dragonfly. Algae. Sparrow. Everything hummed and crackled with energy and color. There was a beautiful, bittersweet song going on and I was a part of it, and Brendan was a part of it and John was a part of it and every insect, animal and plant was a part of it. I wept for my brother, for his loss of this moment, this day, this beautiful life. I could not believe he was gone. It made me humble and grateful for what we are given on this earth--so many riches!

Brothers Sean, Dan, Mom, Brendan, Ray, Terry
There have been moments since that day, where I almost wonder if John Sokol were an angel. He moved down south from Pittsburgh a few short months after that sad day, and I've never seen him since. (Though I have one of his wonderful artworks--a portrait of e.e. cummings, which hangs in my office.) But, I prefer to think of John as utterly, wonderfully human--a man who didn't know me very well, who gave me a great gift that day. He taught me to greet such a deep loss with loving and empathetic silence and a walk through sun-blessed fields. Breathing in the summer sweet air, feeling the embrace of heat from the sun, watching all the winged things following their instinctual paths. He allowed me to create a sacred space where I can, to this day, 14 years later, "revisit" my brother and talk with him as I walk the trails. And as the anniversary of Brendan's death approaches in the next week, I plan on walking those trails one more time before I leave Pittsburgh to feel the force of life, to remember my brother with his blue eyes and dark curly hair, his head thrown back in the middle of a laugh.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: All the Pretty Little Poets Doing Poet things in Pittsburgh

It's complicated writing about poetry matters that have taken place in this city that loves poetry and its poets. Poets are everywhere in this town: hanging by their thumbs from the Hot Metal Bridge, floating in rubber inner tubes down the lazy Ohio, racing antique cars in Schenley Park, walking their dogs way down in the fields of Dogville in Frick Park, buying paint at Home Depot in S'liberty. Getting drunk at Dee's and shooting a game of pool. This very morning, one probably road her bicycle past you, helmet snuggly on her head, inhaling the exhaust fumes of cars and busses on Fifth Avenue. Another is sitting next to you munching popcorn in the Manor Theater watching "I Am Love." A third just bought a cup of coffee and a bunch of tulips over on Penn Avenue in the Strip. Yes, in Pittsburgh, poets and chances for poetic encounters are everywhere. Eating pancakes. Buying underwear. Mailing bills. I could write volumes about all the wealth poetry has brought me in terms of the poets I've met, the poetry students who have enriched me and uplifted me, the friends I've met who take language so seriously and so playfully at once. Pittsburgh's well kept secret: This city is chock-full of incredible poets and poetry.

So, here on Nostalgia Thursday, how do I begin to talk about all the amazing poetry adventures and meetings and misadventures I've had in this old steel town over the years? I'll start with this one story, a favorite memory because of how joyfully absurd it was:

Story 1: In Which Li Young-Lee and his Mentor, Gerald Stern attend a party at the House of Poet Lynn Emanuel after a very touching joint reading at Carnegie Mellon University And Gerald Stern gets Soaked.

The reading that night, at Carnegie Mellon, was a memorable one. Li-Young Lee and his mentor, Gerald Stern, bantered back and forth, obviously happy to be sharing a stage, taking turns singing one another's praises. Lee read one of my favorite of his poems "From Blossoms," and Gerald Stern read, among others, his roadkill poem, which always shocked me (in the best possible way) with how it travels from something so grotesque to something so beautifully moving. I was sitting among poet friends. Li Young Lee seemed so happy, even humbled by reuniting with his old teacher from his years as a Pitt undergraduate student. We all applauded heartily at the reading's end.

I was wild about Li Young Lee's book Rose at the time--its lyricism and narratives that dove to such impossible depths. And how every poem, no matter what the subject matter, became infused with the intractable loss of his revered father

After the reading, Lynn invited friends and graduate students back to her home for wine, crackers and cheese, light refreshments. That evening, when I walked through Lynn's front door, Li Young Lee was standing smack in the middle of the hallway. In my excitement, I thrust my copy of Rose at him.

"Wonderful reading tonight! Would you mind signing my book?"

Li Young-Lee smiled, "What's your name?" He graciously thumbed to the title page of the book, looked down, did a double-take, looked at me hard, then peered at the page once more. Finally he locked eyes with me for a good minute, as if to ascertain how dangerous I really was and said,

"I already did sign your book." He glanced again at his inscription: "In 1992."

And in case I wasn't able to grasp my mistake, he added quietly,

"Five years ago."

My face was ablaze. Anyone else would have apologized, grabbed the book, scrambled quickly into the madding crowd and hid themselves there. For reasons I cannot explain, I decided to play it off:

"Sure, I know you did. Can you sign it again? "

Li Young-Lee cleared his throat, took a step back, then another, wielded the book between us like an accusatory finger. He debated for a minute, pushed his black hair out of his eyes. But finally, he did sign it again, writing "To Sharon: The second time sweeter." (Which was both a charming and a funny thing to write when he was looking at me like he was sure he'd met his poetry stalker.)

But, that wasn't the end of the odd and wonderful evening. And by the way, I love having a twice-signed copy of Rose and have often thought how fun it would be to continue to have him sign the same book over the course of years. Though, he might, after a while, hire a bodyguard or serve me with a restraining order and nobody wants that .... ;-)

Thirty minutes later, I was happily party-chattering, buzzed on my second glass of red wine. I moved into the kitchen looking for something to snack on. The kitchen was packed. Rising above all the noise was Lynn's wonderful rousing laugh. There was a line curving around the kitchen table. I got in line behind Gerald Stern. Li Young Lee got in line behind me. Gerald offered me a plate. Again, I thanked them both for such a wonderful reading. Behind us was the kitchen island and my friend G. was at the sink, trying to figure out how to turn on the very sleek and modern faucet. I was joking with her about it: "maybe it's voice activated?" Gerald was bent over, forking lox onto his plate. I put a few crackers and some slices of cheddar cheese on my own. Gerald bent over further, his glasses sliding down his nose, as he peered into the large bowl of indeterminate salad (?) in front of him. Just at that moment, poor G., still wrestling with the faucet, suddenly managed to not only turn the water on, but simultaneously to unscrew the entire faucet from the sink.

Water was everywhere at once. People shrieked, ran out of the way. A veritable geyser, two feet in the air fountained right behind Gerald Stern's back. The back of his rumpled tan suit jacket ran in rivers down the creases, turned dark brown. Water spilled onto his pants, his shoes. What amazed me, as the rains came pouring down, is that Stern continued to spoon a little bit of this and a little bit of that onto his plate. My long hair was dripping. G. stood behind the sink, horror-stricken, the silver faucet held out in her hand like the wrung neck of a swan. It all happened so fast. I looked from the oblivious Stern to the horrified G. and started to laugh. I laughed until tears came to my eyes, till my stomache started to ache. Water continued to spray down on all of us.

At that moment, Li Young-Lee sprang into action and pushed past me and my laughter, waving a fat wad of paper napkins in his hands. He patted his mentor's soaked back and baggy pants and dabbed with a napkin at the back of Stern's neck. Something about this surreal interchange (theater of the absurd!!) made me laugh even harder. Lee leveled me with a gaze:

"You could help!"

I grabbed some napkins and struggled to control myself. Then, I pat Gerald Stern with my handful of napkins right down his back. This sent me off into more laughter. My mind kept chanting, "you're patting Gerald Stern! you're patting Gerald Stern!"

All of this happened in a matter of minutes. I have no memory of who finally turned off the water or screwed the faucet back in place. I do know that G., after apologizing 1,000 times, quietly slunk out of the party, never to find this story amusing. I also know that when I looked over at Gerald Stern about 10 minutes later, he was happily sitting, in his shirtsleeves, finishing off his food. I don't know where his soggy jacket ended up. And as for Li Young Lee? Let's just say that for the rest of that evening, I gave him a very, very wide berth.

NOTE: I still love Li Young Lee's books. He's an incredible reader should you ever get a chance to hear him. I've taught Rose many, many times over the years at the University of Pittsburgh and was always happy to see students walk off newly engaged by his poems...

Here's his poem "From Blossoms"

From Blossoms


From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Meeting Willie Stargell: 1st Installment of "Nostalgia Thursday"

It is January, 1980. An overcast, cold day. I am driving hundreds of miles from my childhood New Jersey home with my husband, Paul, his brother Kevin in the front seat next to him and my sister Maureen sitting with me next to my baby Brian in the car seat. We are heading toward our new home in Pittsburgh, PA.
I am not happy about moving to this city that I only know from my 6th grade geography textbook. In it, there was a grainy photo of a steel mill spewing smoke, the sky around it, all gray dismal clouds. Beneath the picture is a caption "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Smoky City." Paul is going to get his Ph.D. in Anatomy and Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

We are nearing the Liberty Tunnels, nicknamed "The Tubes," claustrophobically narrow tunnels that make you feel as if you've fallen into a giant's straw and are being sucked forward into the dazzle of the Pittsburgh skyline at the other end. It is the last step of our journey to our new home.

Outside the tunnel is a giant billboard. On it, a strong-jawed man with dirty blonde hair and a black and gold jersey grins down at the traffic. I can't figure out what is being advertised here. There's not a single word on the billboard.

"Is that the mayor of Pittsburgh?" I ask. My sister and Paul laugh.

"You'd better go back to NJ, sis, if you don't know who that is."

Paul chimes in: "That's Terry Bradshaw, Shar." I stare at him: "Who?"

"Quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers? Don't you know you're moving to the City of Champions? Steelers just won the SuperBowl again and the Pirates won the World Series."

Hmmm. Sharon living in a big sport's town? Not sure how this will all turn out. I look out at the thick gray cloud cover and wonder what I'm doing so far from home?
Welcome to Nostalgia Thursday: where I'm going to indulge myself in Pittsburgh memories for the next few weeks this summer. After decades living here, I'm moving back to NJ at summer's end. So, if you don't mind, one more "Sharon-never-did-catch-onto-the-whole-sports-mania-in- Pittsburgh" story for you:
By the age of 24, I was divorced and raising a son on my own. I was living in a railroad flat in Squirrel Hill, where I allowed my son to ride his big wheel up and down the long highway of our hall. Around the corner from us was Wilkins' Market, a charming 4-aisle, family-run store. As a pre-school music teacher, I was barely bringing in enough money to buy basic necessities.

On this particular winter day, I was tired, worried about money. I walked with my son bundled in his winter jacket, down to the market figuring out what I needed more: a 1/2 gallon of milk or cereal. I only had enough money for one item. I stood before the shelf of Cheerios and Rice Krispies, sun spilling in through the plate-glass window. Suddenly, the aisle was cast in shadow. I looked up, shifting my son to my other hip. Filling the aisle was a very tall, very broad shouldered, very handsome African-American man in a full-length mink coat and huge rings on his fingers. If Super Heroes came in fur coats, I would have sworn I was looking at one. The man approached us, smiling down at Brian:

"Hey little man--do you like baseball?"

"He's only two," I demurred.

I picked up the box of Cheerios. $4.00! I loved the owners of Wilkin's Market and understood why they had to charge more than Giant Eagle. But, I didn't have enough to buy the cereal. The handsome stranger in the mink coat still stood there.

"You're gonna be a slugger, too. Sure he doesn't like baseball?" He smiled broadly at my son who grinned up at him.

"Look, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude... It's been a long day..." I was in no mood to chit-chat, even with a good-looking, friendly stranger.

"OK, enjoy your day." He waved his hand and one of the large gold rings caught the light. It flashed through my mind that I could buy a whole carts of groceries with that ring! I smiled
weakly at him, feeling guilty for being rude. And went and bought the milk.

At the register, one of the owner's sons looked at me with scorn.

"Do you know who that was??? Do you know who you just blew off?"

He was indignant, blustering. I handed over three one-dollar bills, trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

"Sorry, I have no idea. He seemed nice, though."

"That was Willie Stargell. THE Willie Stargell! And he was talking to your son about baseball!! You could have gotten an autograph! Or tickets to the games! Something!! I can't believe it!"

He dropped my milk into a paper bag.

As I left the store, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had no idea who Willie Stargell was.
(PS: though I did finally find out!)
Yes, leaving Pittsburgh's going to be mighty hard. And the memories are going to keep washing up onshore, I suspect. I'm hoping this writing will be a small place to land, to remain grounded, to find stability in change, to find the courage to change.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

4th of July

Summer and the fireworks drum the sky with their pinwheels of light. Uncomfortable in crowds, I hear the commotion with only the darkened leaves of the sycamores and a cool street lamp outside my window. Rosie, my Australian Shepherd in her thick coat of fur marked in reds and tans and white (like "vanilla fudge swirl ice cream!" my neighbor exclaims), pants near me on the hardwood floor. It's warm tonight after a beautiful hot day. Tonight, I am content to be alone with my dear dog, a terrific book of linked short stories, Nora Jane, by Ellen Gilchrist near me, the dark sky peppered with explosions. This summer world awakens my sense of gratitude again.

Friday night, I braved a throng of hundreds on the lawn outside of Frick Museum to join a group of dear friends and their three small children for a picnic under the stars--cherries and farrow salad, lentils and rice, pita bread, brownies and blueberries to eat--. The children made each other laugh with big strawberries in their mouths, juice dribbling down their chins. Behind our picnic blankets, an elderly couple laid out an elegant setting: a table with lace cloth, candelabra, good china and wine glasses. A couple who embraces life--something I aspire to do!

This free outdoor concert featured an Italian guitarist flat-picking a small-bodied classical guitar--a humorous man from Genoa, Italy who professed his love for American blues and bluegrass music. It was an
"I-love-summer-nights" night, one that filled me with a yearning to write poetry. Don't these balmy music-filled nights send everyone to their own poetry? But, I came home and did not write. Had I written, it would have been entitled, "In the Kitchen of Light" or "Child in a Straw Hat Singing." I am struggling right now to find my way back to my own poems. There's less pressure to write when you're a B-Grade poet--and less motivation. But, isn't that the constant search for artists in the everyday world--to find the inspiration to go on when you know the world won't notice if you stopped writing tomorrow? And so I'm off to seek and find. And Rosie noses me to take her outside in the dark yard. Where does your inspiration lie? S.