Sunday, December 30, 2012

Snow: A Story of a Girl

When I return to my childhood home in New Jersey to visit my mother, we sometimes meet up with some of mom’s long-time friends and former neighbors, now in their late seventies and early eighties. During these visits, the old stories of Overbrook Drive resurface.  Often, in these discussions, my mother will refer to me as her “difficult” child.  I cringe every time she describes me this way.  After all, I am the fourth oldest of 12 children. This is a dubious distinction and quite a feat to be labeled the most “difficult” of that crowd. To hear my mother repeat this label, “difficult,” one might imagine that I had been a holy terror—disobedient and wild—throwing temper tantrums. However, that’s not what my mother means by “difficult.”

         She explained once what she did mean by this, and here’s the gist of what she said: I was a child who was “too” deep and “too” serious. I was always asking questions—hard, often unanswerable questions about the sky, God, life, death, love, etc., from the time I was three-years old. In other words, I was more like my father: “too” sensitive, more emotional than logical, and “too” analytical. In fact, my mother loves to tell the tale of my first “word.”  When I was about 15 months old, my mother had begun to worry that I had not said any actual words yet, unlike my three older siblings with their “mama” and “dada” and “cookie.”   My mother recounts the story this way:
“One day, I was holding you on my hip. Your brother came into the room crying because he’d fallen down and scraped his knee.”  My mother shakes her head at the memory, “Before I could open my mouth, you piped up, ‘What’s the matter with you, R.D.?’ (R.D. was my brother’s nickname.) I almost dropped you on the floor! Your brother was so shocked that he immediately stopped crying. Thinking back, it makes perfect sense that your “first word” was a complete question!”
All of this is a way of saying, as close as I am to my siblings, I always felt a little different than them. And in contrast to some of my mother’s stories of her difficult daughter, I have my own memory—which I cherish—of myself as a girl. Yes, perhaps this memory confirms mom’s idea of me as a “difficult” or at least, a different kind of child. But, for me, it illuminates a girl who would one day grow up to be a poet and a teacher of poetry.  I think this winter day crystalizes a moment, when I was first introduced to something I truly valued and what would, ultimately, bring me joy in my life.
One morning when I was seven, I woke to a snowstorm blustering outside my window. From the third story of my house, I looked down at the whirling white. The snow had already made soft drifts on the picnic table in the backyard, and the arms of the apple-tree sagged under its cold weight. White curves smudged the edges of the wooden fence-posts. One yard over, the Evans’ collie bounded happily in the deep mounds. When the wind kicked up, it erased the Rinaldi’s white house behind us. I was thrilled. No school!  And suddenly, the day bloomed before me with all of its possibilities.
Downstairs, a couple of my sisters were eating Cheerios in the kitchen, while my brothers, still in their feet pajamas, burrowed into the couch cushions in the playroom and watched Bugs Bunny cartoons. I ate my breakfast quickly.  I had a great idea and wanted to get out into the snowy day as soon as possible. While Mom was down in the basement doing laundry, I snuck into my parent’s bedroom and took her new, boxy tape-recorder with its’  silver, push-buttoned levers. I piled on my turtleneck, sweater, parka, hat, and scarf, and yanked my red rubber snow boots over my shoes, buckling them securely. Finally, I slipped a new tape into the recorder, put my hands into mittens and set off into the frigid tundra of my yard and of Overbrook Drive in search of the sounds of a winter day.
I was a girl who always loved sound. At night, I fell asleep to the comforting rise and fall of my parents’ voices drifting upstairs from the living room. Music was always playing in my house, whether from my mother’s newest Simon and Garfunkel record or from my Dad’s plucking on his beat-up banjo. I had just started to take guitar lessons and would make up songs and sing along to the three chords I’d learned. I loved the collision and chaos of my family’s voices at the dinner table and was still young enough to fear the long silence of night.
On this winter day, I walked around my house, at first just listening intently. I saw a pair of cardinals, flagrant red against all that snow, at the Lerner’s feeder and turned the recorder on. I rewound the tape and played it back.  Mixed with the scratchy sound of wind, there was the birds’ scarlet staccato chirrup, chirrup at precise intervals. Satisfied that I had captured this moment, I pushed the tape deck back on and made my way into the day. I recorded the swish of a car’s tire driving through a patch of slush and the crunch, crunch of my own boots against the icier piles of snow.  I ran fast around the yard, the microphone against my mouth, to record my own heavy breath. Even all these years later, when I listen to the tape, I can “hear” the cold clouds of vapor leaving my mouth and floating off into the steel gray blue of the sky. 

I wandered over to the Lerner’s house next door, where I recorded the soft thud of Stuart’s snowball hitting the trunk of a sycamore tree.  From beyond Starlight Drive, the road over from mine, my recorder caught a mournful trace of a far off train whistle. Every so often I would turn off the tape and play it back. These caught sounds made me immensely happy. In fact, as the sounds began to accumulate, there was something of a musical composition to them—staccato against legato, pitch against steady bass, shrill sound against sonorous.  I started to hope that certain sounds would “appear.”  An airplane’s drone overhead. The slam of a screen door. I looked up the Samatovitz’s driveway, hoping to catch one of them walking Princess, a thin, gentle dog, so I could record her panting or licking my face or catch the click of her paws against the ice that ran along the gutters.
I was out in that bitter cold for hours. The snow fell in fits and spurts, punctuated by silence. I was immersed in the moment, keenly listening to the world around me. I ignored the stinging wind burning my cheeks red, the snow that made my wet bangs fall into my eyes, and the tingle growing in my big toes and fingertips. When I think back on this day, I’m sure there must have been neighborhood children out, building igloos and snowmen or just running and screaming for the sheer pleasure of having a day off from school. Oddly, I didn’t capture any of these sounds at all.
 I was a girl on the hunt. I became fixated on the idea that I needed to capture the most definitive winter day sound of all: the sound of snowflakes landing on snowdrifts. Snow on snow. I imagined the sound to be like the sound of a hand sliding down a dog’s fur. Or softer: the sound of a paper napkin falling to the floor. Surely that moment of touch, of impact held its own perceptible, small sound? I held the microphone up to the sky and its swirling flakes. I followed the path of the descending crystals with my microphone, as they neared the earth and then hit ground. I rewound the tape over and over to see if I’d captured anything.  There was the shriek of wind tearing around the corner of the house. There was the drag and clank of tire chains behind a slow moving station wagon. But, I could not get the sound of snow on snow!  I was startled by the crash of an icicle when it fell and hit the top of our aluminum garbage can. As glad as I was to record that dramatic moment, I kept trying to get the sound of the snow’s descent and landing. I spent a long time marveling at the fact that you could have impact without sound. I thought about this a lot. The fact that this sound remained elusive and that I had a mystery on my hands was also oddly satisfying to my seven-year old self.
After all those hours, I was very cold. The final sound I taped was the sound of Mrs. Lerner’s voice, calling her son inside,  ST—UUUUUUUUUUUUU-ART!” That “u” sound seemed to undulate with the falling snow and held steady in the icy air.  It seemed the right time to stop recording, when I had finally caught my favorite sound of all—the human voice.
When I came into the house and peeled off all of my wet layers, my mother scolded me for spending so long outside on such a bitter day and for taking her tape recorder without permission. She asked,
“What were you recording? What could have so fascinated you that you stayed outside that long?” She shook her head and turned off the boiling pot of hot cocoa. “You’re an unusual girl, Sharon!”  She put a steaming mug, topped with three fat marshmallows, on the table in front of me.
I put my hands around the mug and let the warmth pull the iciness from my fingertips. I didn’t care if Mom scolded me. My mind was swirling and wide-awake from my adventure. New questions buzzed in my mind.  I had a tape that unraveled certain mysteries for me, but a tape that also kicked up a new mystery. I drank my cocoa and ran up to my bedroom, shut the door, and pulled the tape from my pocket. I could not stop smiling. I felt joy that day and a sense of being immersed in a wholly worthwhile quest. All these years later, I think that it was the poet inside the girl, who was enchanted at this labor in the winter snow.
To this day, I still have that old tape of Sounds of a Winter Day, and sometimes, when adult life feels too dark, too banal, or too sad, I pop that tape into my old boom box and listen. I cheer on that little girl. And occasionally I think—listening to the spaces of white noise punctuated by the crunch of boots against snow—that I hear it. That intangible sound. The purest touchdown: snow upon snow.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bitter Acoustic Book Review Out!

I'm so excited that my book of poetry, Bitter Acoustic, just received such a positive review in the beautiful online journal, Cerise Press.  Please check it out and let me know what you think!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Garden: Thirteen Lessons I'm Still Learning

Let your quiet heart lead you

                                                            ~I Ching

The Red Poppy


The great thing

is not having a mind. Feelings:

New Coneflower, 2012
oh, I have those; they

govern me. I have
a lord in heaven

called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh, my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again?...
                        ~Louise Gluck, from The Wild Iris

1.) All plants grow, heeding their own internal rhythms, timing, moments of unfurling. You can no more tell a flower when to bloom, than you can tell a person when it is exactly the right time to change or to heed the calling of his or her own heart.

2.) While all the love and nurturing you bestow upon a flower is a wonderful thing, it is not a guarantee that the plant will flourish or even survive. Insects devour the leaves. Roots don’t take. Risk and attachment go hand in hand. This is NOT a reason to stop loving and nurturing the living things of our world.

The Symmetry of Petals Unfurling, 2012

3.) The cycle of flowers deeply moves me.  How the colors change over the short course of the life of a bloom—the vivid lilac of a newly opened coneflower leaches to cloud gray in a matter of days. Or the expansive ruby geranium sifts petals into oblivion, dropping each one gracefully, like a red snowflake. Or the individual lemon yellow cosmos, almost indistinguishable in a crowd of tangerine and yellow beauties, quietly collapses over the course of a single day, until it is no more than a stem with a few quilled seeds. The restraint and stillness of the singular bloom’s demise strikes me as beautiful and sad. This morning, I noticed the range of a bloom’s cycle within my garden. A single zinnia bloom just started to unpack its folded radius of yellow. If I had a stop-motion camera and the patience, I think I might capture, over the course of the next couple of days, a kind of pop-up origami, so intricate and precisely packed are the individual petals. This zinnia is a miracle in itself, because out of four packets of seeds planted in rows back in May, this is the lone zinnia that grew. Meanwhile, the blue moon lobelia, exhausted from a long summer of unrelenting sun, crisps into nothing, its branch of blue pilot lights extinguishing.

Petunias in Window Box with Sol, 2012
4.) Flowers ask for so little: water, sunshine, and a good place to root. 

Tomato, 2012

5.) Paying attention to my garden, as day turns to night and seasons pass, has taught me more about the nature, play and mutability of sunlight than any art class. My stately maroon dahlias (“the color of dried blood,” my friend, Scott wryly commented) with their symmetrical petals, keep counsel with the sunlight. One minute the sun lasers the large face of the dahlia into pure architectural scaffolding—line, crease, and crossbeams— and the next minute, the maroon-color drains from its petals into shadow. Hours later, the sun fills and spills from every crevasse of the dahlia's conical petals. By late afternoon, the sun has transformed this same flower into a sacred bird: translucent red wings surrounding a gold corona.

Sunlight on Dahlias, 2012

Ivy Knot, ChainLink Fence, 2012
6.) Learning Patience. I have a tangle of morning glory vine and leaves overtaking my chain-link fence.  Each morning, as I go outside to drink my tea, I long to see the large trumpets of blue flowers open on the green tangle. But, this particular Celtic knot of ivy has been expanding for two months now and shows not a single bud. And summer is passing swiftly. The truth is: Flowers do not care if you are patient. Stamp your feet. Vent your spleen. But, my impatience will do absolutely nothing to bring to the fence the desired glories. And perhaps by coaxing myself to be more patient, I might just tune into how beautiful the sun is coming through the twisted layers of green.

7.) Take responsibility and care for what you choose to nurture.  And you will witness the palpable shift, when a plant finally gains root in the ground, establishes itself, and begins to flourish. It's so gratifying to be the audience to this small drama.

Blue Lobelia around Dried Flower
8.) Bees are invaluable to life as we know it. Do not Kill Them!!   Bees are a marvel of work ethic. ( I also think they’re quite beautiful.) How they stumble, in their feverish intent, on the upper petals of a cosmo!  How they dive head first into the throats of alstroemeria! When they have visited enough flowers and their leg-sacks are furred with pollen, they appear almost tipsy. Yet, their intense focus on the pistils and stamens of flowers, one after another, is powerful to observe. NPR recently shared an amazing article about how paper wasps and European hornets “may be the secret to the wonderful complex aroma and flavor of wine.” Duccio Cavalieri, a professor of microbiology at the University of Florence in Italy, who, along with his colleagues, made this exciting discovery says, “It is important because it tells me that it’s crucial to look at conservation and the study of biodiversity.” And he adds, “Everything is linked.” (All summer, I have had a hive of wasps that set up shop in the brick wall of my backyard. They climb from the holes in the mortar out into the heat of the day and mill in the mud of the watered soil, or they wander the flat leaves of the dahlias, eating destructive insects. In the mornings and afternoons, they fly very near and are everywhere around me. Not once, this summer, has a bee or a wasp tried to attack or sting me. They go about their lives; I go about mine.) We have no right to destroy these incredible, beneficial insects.

Tangerine Coneflowers, August 2012

9.)With grace and humor, my garden reminds me each day that I am not the center of the universe. I play a small role in the grand design, as does every single human, animal, insect, plant on this planet. How did I get so lucky to be a part of this wonderfully interconnected natural world? Every single life gets to play out a unique life of its own. And I truly believe ALL of it matters. Though I am happy to be a steward to my garden, especially during these summer months, I do not delude myself into thinking that the flowers “need” me. There is integrity to each plant, each bloom and an inner agency that I will never see or touch. But, there is so much to learn from watching another life form live out its full life cycle.

The Bright Lights Cosmos! August 2012

Honeybee Taking a Drink of Water, 2012
10.) Gardening,much like life, is a lot of trial and error.  Work with what you have. I’ve grown gardens in postage-stamped size front yards and in massive back yards. When the yard is a full-sun yard, I’ve planted full-sun plants; when it was in shade, I planted shade plants. I’ve coaxed plants from packed clay soil, from soil embedded with glass and gravel, and from soil festering with poison ivy and weeds. I’ve always rented apartments in the city, and most people have found it odd that I’m investing my money and time into creating gardens in places I don’t own and might leave. I grew my first garden

when I was in my mid-twenties, raising my son 
on Northumberland Street. It was a postage-stamp size yard and I planted zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos and hoped for the best. By mid-summer that year, the garden was overflowing with color.
Neighbors would stop by and comment on how pretty it looked and one elderly Chinese couple asked me if they could snip some of the nasturtium flowers and leaves to eat. It was at this point when I decided that, no matter where I lived, I would much rather look out my window and see something beautiful and alive, than stare at concrete parking areas and shrubbery collecting litter.  When I lived in a neighborhood called Friendship, I planted an enormous garden—butterfly bushes, Russian lilac, roses, tiger lilies, cosmos, dahlias, coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans— along the length of a driveway that separated my apartment from the apartment building next door. Two young male graduate students, who lived in that building, teased me during the whole planting season, laughing at my labor and telling me how impractical I was to invest money into rental property. But, when summer came and all was thriving and fragrantly in bloom, guess who asked if they could set up their lawn chairs in my yard and study there near the flowers? 

11.) After a long, hot day, you will be rewarded if you water your flowers.  Within minutes of the water soaking into the parched earth, my coneflowers look visibly renewed: they lose the droop, stand taller, flex the full radius of their petals, and lift their leaves higher as if waiting to partner me in a dance. 
Snapdragons Emerging

12.) There are definitely things in our lives that are worth all of the labor we invest into them. This year’s garden took a lot of sweat equity: all the broken shards of glass picked up by hand, all the deep shoveling and clearing out of gravel—inches of it buried in the dirt. All the weeding, deadheading, and daily watering  during these excessively hot summer months. All the staking up of the massive dahlias and unwieldy coneflowers. All the bidding farewell to the delicate red poppy that died suddenly one day and the subsequent replanting of two new tangerine coneflowers to fill in the spot. I am a happy traveler, moving through the midst of these living things. Right now, each morning, just to look out my office window at the crowd of Bright Light cosmos that are all blooming (so many small suns fallen atop delicate stems, fluttering in the breeze) delights me.
Pale Pink Rose, 2012

13.) Flowers do not exist to make us happy or to fill our vases indoors or to make us realize the breathtaking variety of life in our natural world.  Flowers exist for their own biologically complex reasons and to nourish the pollinators and wildlife in our world. But, we are the lucky beneficiaries of such largesse. Once in a while, say thank you for these living things that bring such beauty and joy to our lives.

Lilac Coneflower, 2012

All photos taken by Sharon McDermott, copyright, Summer 2012

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Waverly Street: New Home, New Start, 2012

Seashell Roses, yard, 2012
My Morning Walk Greeter
Waverly Street is wrens in my yard eating seed and a tuxedoed cat that slinks like a slick of ink, down the fire escape toward them. It’s the yard in April,

which was a spoil of vines, poison ivy, muddy holes, and foot-tall weeds. Large shards of broken plate glass was embedded everywhere in the dirt. Now the yard is flowering with dahlias, coneflowers, cosmos, tomatoes, snapdragons, and coreopsis. Mud wasps come each day and pulse their thoraxes in the wet earth. Honeybees huddle on the coneflowers and dive into the hosta’s pale purple blooms. Rosie runs on the dirt path I've left open for her--chasing sticks, balls and that inky cat slinking in the alleyway. Even a hummingbird has visited my red geraniums.

Waverly Street is a big scary dude bellowing across the street at me and Rosie, “I got $500 in my pocket right now, and I want your damn dog,”  (I assume for a dog fight ring) and me foolishly trying to explain to him why I can’t sell this dog I love. (Shut up, Sharon. Just keep walking!”) Waverly Street is my eight-year old neighbor, Helena, who put a “friendship” magnet on the chain link fence between us “so you’ll always know that I’m your friend.” Waverly Street is also her puppy, Biscuit, who gallops over each morning and sticks his blonde head through the hole in the fence to greet me.

Biscuit, 2012
Across the street is the Wilkinsburg Church of the Nazarene, and on these hot summer Sundays, as I water and weed my garden, I hear the deep river rise and fall of the preacher’s voice, the call and response: Amen! Amen!  Soon enough, there’s the jangle of tambourines, percussion of clapped hands, and voices praising the Lord! in song. (Sometimes, I catch their fervor and do a little dance on my yard’s gravely dirt.) 

Garden in Progress
Waverly Street is my neighbor’s, Andy and Julia’s brand new fence, a dazzle of perfectly milled pine and a swing-in gate at the front walk. Andy, a remarkable carpenter, is rebuilding their house, floorboard by newel post. The fence is his latest addition to the property. Julia showed me photos of the original house, which they bought for $10,000, five years ago. It looked like something that the city should have condemned and razed to the ground. Since then, Andy’s sweat equity has already turned it into something from “House Beautiful.”
Rosie by the neighbor's new fence

But just doors away, there’s the decrepit three-story apartment building with broken beer bottles in lieu of a front lawn and dank balconies from which the tenants toss down their dead plants and trash. What grabbed my attention—and has kept my daily attention living on Waverly Street—is how one neighborhood can so gracefully (and with humor) hold such contradictions.

Joni and her purple larkspur live near Waverly Street. Each week, she places new plants—sedums, hostas, Black-eyed Susan, larkspur seeds—in her “Free! Take Them!” boxes in front of her urban “farm,” which she’s tilled since 1973.  And Bonfire Man and Boxer Dog live down her street. Bonfire Man’s out on his patio again, warming his hands by his nightly wood fire, no matter that it’s 99 degrees out, or that his boxer is wailing blues through chain-link to my beautiful dog walking by. 

All Aboard!
A few blocks from Waverly Street is one of Mike’s Amusements—a ride-able shiny black steam engine and set of crayon-colored (Red! Orange! Blue! Yellow!)  “box” cars—heaped in “Mike’s” backyard, awaiting the next weekend’s carnival.  And there’s Sue pulling weeds in her side garden, which takes up half a city block. It is chock full of tomatoes and pepper plants, cucumber and pumpkin vines—and is bordered by a variety of carved wood and metal headboards. (Get it, she grins, get it?  It’s a garden bed!) 

Waverly Street is also the beautiful young man who staggers down the street, his eyes, drug-glazed. He flutters his hands like a fledgling trying out wings. He looks bewildered. Stops. Stares at his right shoe as if he’s forgotten how to lift his foot.

Brickwork across the street
I’m living on a “Historic Corridor” at an intersection of two city streets. My friend told me once that some cultures believe that spirits dwell in the intersections. If so, are these the spirits of the French and Indians, who battled here long ago? And what would past inhabitants make of this half-ruined, half-resurrected neighborhood?

Each morning, a young mom walks by with her two pre-school aged boys and their dog, also named Rosie. The older boy is learning to whistle and his breathy tunes carry through the front screen windows. Yesterday afternoon, a woman, who made me think of William Carlos Williams’ “poor old woman/eating" a "solace of ripe plums," called me over.

“I’ve just been released from Western Psych.” She’s holding a bag of
food from Wendy’s and an extra large soda.

“I was in there 3 ½ months. I’m not ashamed of it, you know?”

She says the hardest part was that she had to give up her 3 elderly cats. “Can’t take care of them, till I can take care of me, right?”

I nod, feel sad for her.  She sets her food down in the street, kneels and buries her face in Rosie’s soft fur.  For a couple of minutes, I’m worried she’s crying. But then she beams up at me and says, “This is a God moment.”  

Tiger Lily 2012
4th of July night, Waverly Street. ½ of my new neighborhood seems to be setting off fireworks. I mean real KABOOM-fountains-and-rockets-exploding-chrysanthemum-in-the-sky-fireworks.  Andy and Julia’s yard is crowded with assorted relatives. Young cousins lob water balloons at each other, while the family’s three dogs alternate between play fighting and yowling at the rat-a-tat volley of firecrackers. Henry, the old bachelor across the street from them, normally a very quiet, staid guy who manicures his lawn and sweeps his sidewalks daily, fires bottle rockets into the air from the bottom step of his porch. They explode in red and blue and tangerine starbursts over my apartment building. The noise is deafening, but the falling red and silver stars are beautiful.  It’s awfully hot this 4th of July. In my kitchen, I flip burgers, stir baked beans, and pull corn on the cob from a boiling pot on the stove to feed my love, David, a chef who is exhausted from his own 12 hours of cooking that day for others. Waverly Street is also this song of food coming to the table and David’s easy grin at me.
Alleyway Near Waverly Street

Surprises around every corner
Since spring, a bunch of new, young families with infants have moved in and started renovating the old dilapidated homes. I see their window boxes go up, with marigolds and petunias brightening the brick facades. Tricycles and Big Wheels sprout on the lawns and surrounding sidewalks. A new couple walks back from the local East End Food Co-op, holding hands and murmuring to each other.  And Rosie, the neighborhood ambassador, and I introduce ourselves to them.

Dahlia Opening, Yard
Morning Glories, Rusty Garage
Waverly Street and its neighborhood is a study in diversity and contrasts, much like the startling blue morning glories that climb and twine against the corroded metal door of an ancient garage.  I’ve learned that my writing self emerges in these spaces between intersections. The daily surprise of these streets—and the tension of  its opposites—keeps my curiosity alive. Back in April, I had not wanted to leave my long-familiar neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.  I’d raised my son in Squirrel Hill, and its streets hold many memories. But, once again, my life has led me to a fertile new ground. From my first day here, my imagination has flared again. My new neighborhood has grit and grandeur, edge and earth, ruins and beauty. What more could a writer want?