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.