Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?

She's such a show-off, she said from the other room. She just wants attention.

I was making a doll in a sparkly red dress juke about in the doorway, to entertain my teenage babysitter and her friends. It didn't have the desired effect. I was about three or four years old. They were probably fifteen, and so didn't want to be bothered with dancing dolls. I knew by her tone that a show-off wasn't good. A show-off was a bad person. So I stopped.

I stopped and pulled on the knit hat of shyness. I kept my dancing dolls, circuses, radio programming, imaginary television shows (where I was the host, of course!), restaurants, and beauty parlors limited to the confines of my bedroom and to the audience of my family when I felt an audience was needed. My family was encouraging. No one ever said, "Who do you think you are ... Carol Burnett?" when I did my mudlizard impressions at the dinner table. We all joined the theatre together, right around when I was fourteen or fifteen, the same age my babysitter was when she called me a show-off. Being among other "show-offs," I took off the knit hat. It was stifling under there.

The question 'Who do you think you are?" is a really great one if asked without a tone of disapproval. When you erase the tone from it, and just allow the question to bring about a thoughtful answer, it is fun to consider. Who do you think you are? hints at Who do you want to be? What are you testing out, trying on, or discovering?

Friday, July 10, 2015

City Mice to Country Mice

It's difficult to ignore the stripe of blood running down the center of the butcher's hardhat. He's wearing a sheen of sweat and a polyester shirt with a print that reminds me of a starry night. It's been a starry night for some animal today. A cow perhaps. There are several in a barn a few hundred feet away from the little shop where we peruse shelves full of products I haven't seen since my childhood, plus a few I have never seen. Tubs of lard wait in the cooler. The freezer holds all the ice cream treats I remember from the 1970s and 80s - Drumsticks with their rubbery cones, and Strawberry Shortcake bars with their crunchy coatings. This guy is a sly businessman. We buy a pint of perfect raspberries, and are told that "Meat Days" are Fridays. Thursdays are end days, I think. I am reminded everyday of where my food comes from because I see it verbing in pastures: grazing, pecking, rolling and lolling.

We moved here last week from the city. In the week since we've been here, unpacking and getting to know the two goats across the street, we've also attended an auction with a neighbor and my mother (we got a Hoosier cabinet for $30!), and visited more produce stands and organic farms than I can count. Dan made cheese yesterday. We knew the names of our neighbors in less than a week. They introduced themselves to us and one even brought us a gift.

When I look up into the branches of the Black Ash tree in our backyard, or wake at five a.m. to see another human is awake at 5 a.m. in a barn near our house, I understand why E.B. White left New York to live on a small farm in Maine.  It's quieter here. There's a poetry that isn't inscribed on any surface for you to read, but it is inside of everything for you to discover. What I like best is that my neighbor's duck has no expectations for me to be an amazing, incredible, stupendous, and glittering imaginative anything. I can just be. And just being, for me, is allowing myself the luxury to putter.

During my childhood upbringing in the woods, I learned that puttering is exploration, which leads to creation. E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web from his farm experience. I'm not saying I will be writing any great children's literature out here, but I do feel a lot more relaxed and able to explore ideas here than I did in the city, where I started to feel cramped and trapped, and I didn't realize it until we moved here. The city was loud, on a lot of levels. Too much noise and input that I couldn't shut off.  I always had to be moving and doing, because everyone and everything else was. I loved creating while I was there, but I didn't feel rooted. I was a seed in gale.

Here, with the stripe of blood on the hardhat of the butcher, things are visceral. There's no Febreezing the scent of manure, and it's everywhere. It's the shit that makes your food grow, a reminder of all the good things that come from the earth. It's a scent that says, "Pay attention (how can you not?!), think, play and work, and beautiful things will grow."


Monday, June 08, 2015

Love

Love is a free agent. She goes where she is called. She wears no labels or logos, and does not accept sponsorships. She belongs to no one but is available to everyone.

As soon as you get proprietary about Love, when you say, "I am saying this out of love in the name of (insert name of group, corporation, etc. here), she exits, and Propaganda steps in to play a very weak role as understudy.

Pity is not Compassion, nor is she Love. Pity sidles close to you as you're falling just to be seen picking you up. She says, "I'm sorry for your clumsiness," and offers nothing else but her smug self-assuredness. Pity is in the habit of bruising the other person's sense of self-respect. She feels sorry for you for making the choice to walk on the side of the street where the sidewalk is nothing but a series of challenging brick jut-outs and lumps of crumbling concrete. "The other side of the street where everyone else walks would have been safer, easier," she says.

Love sees a human being with a heart and a mind walk along a tricky path. She sees her navigate the messy parts, fall, and pick herself up. Love reaches out to ask if there is anything she can do to help.  Love listens. In fact, she doesn't talk much at all. She does not update, tweet, or favorite. She acts.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Road That Ribbons Home

The theatre celebrates the opening of its new home, a building that was once a Catholic church just down the street from the American Legion. Dressed with a red carpet at its entrance and a ribbon for a ceremonial cutting, it beckons community members to gather, and they do. Farmers' wives, grandmothers, everyone from town walks down the center of the street like it's a parade day.

I am fond of saying how I grew up in the woods, how my closest neighbor was a mile away, how my propensity for poetry and retreating to my closet to think come from that isolation among trees, deer, and huckleberry bushes. That was the set of my childhood. What helped me most to grow up was my family's full-throttle involvement in a community theatre in Nuremberg, Pennsylvania, the town closest to our wooded home.

I was thirteen or fourteen when the local pastor and his wife, Bill and Judy Knott, proposed a community choral concert. My father, sister, and I joined. We sang Neil Diamond medleys and some show music, in the company of the town's postmaster and my middle school English teacher. Rehearsals and concerts were held in the American Legion Hall on Hazle Street. The show music lit the spark that set the idea for the first community theatre production smouldering, and the Nuremberg Community Players was born with the first production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. George Croll played the lead role. My sister, father, and I each played one of his brothers, two of our moustaches and beards drawn on with eyeliner. Mom worked backstage. George used coffee grounds to deepen his complexion, and my mother recalls the scent of coffee grounds as she worked. My father's textile company provided the upholstery fabric that made up most of the costumes for the show. George's technicolor dreamcoat was sewn by a local artist. Its rainbow spread as he opened the coat wide in a vibrant grin centered among our upholstery togas.  Spotlighted, it was magnificent, a promise of all things good, a true rainbow.

So began the first of 32 years worth of community theatre productions, where a local school bus driver played the lead in Oklahoma, where teenaged girls danced alongside their elementary school gym teachers in chorus roles, and a nurse took her first stab at directing the straight play in the fall. It wasn't long before the theatre was doing two shows a year -- a musical in the spring, and a straight play each fall. If it was cold, an enormous heater rocketed blasts of forced hot air of from the back of the hall. When it was hot, the back doors and front doors remained open to create a breezeway that lifted curtains and pushed dust and glitter across the floor.

My mother and I scan the audience for faces we recognize as we enter the opening of the new theatre, programs in hand. George Croll hasn't changed much. Ann Bonacci hasn't either. She is still the same carburetor of energy that makes things like fully dressed stages and framed collages of photographs appear. Time didn't erase the memory of a posture of a woman I recalled being a regular audience member when I was in shows 30 years ago.

A teenage boy with a face almost still young enough to be cherubic stands in front of the new theatre's black curtain, guarding the secret contents of the stage before the big reveal. He's dressed smartly in a crisp white shirt and black pants. The audience files into the new seats (someone sewed cushions and stenciled the theatre's initials on each), and he gazes forward, a sentinel. He sighs audibly, then catches himself, and remembering the importance of his job, his lips purse and his posture straightens. The curtain draws back to oohs, ahhs, and applause from the assembled, and the emcee takes the stage at a podium draped in sparkling cloth. Aqua paper flowers rise in a spray upstage and complement the hanging black and aqua fabric at the wings. The hallmark of Ann's design sense.

The emcee asks us all to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and everyone rises. Right hands over hearts, we face the flag and recite. A college freshman, brought up in the theatre and minoring in theatre now, sings the Star Spangled Banner. The priest from the former church gives the invocation, then steps down, careful in his orthopedic shoes. His left foot lisps sideways.

Welcome home, where pretense does not exist. What a relief to be here. I've missed it. The celebration of the new theatre includes a tap dance by Miss Greater Hazleton, who has overcome a drastic curvature of the spine through surgeries, and a sing-along version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by the young woman playing the lead in the upcoming show, The Wizard of Oz. I think of George's technicolor dreamcoat in the spotlight, of the stories of the people of my home and all their possibilities, and how in living they write their own scripts as well or better than Tennessee Williams.

While driving to this event I was stunned by how the only things that had changed in the road I dream about was the addition of a stop sign at the hairpin turn and the cutting down of a tree or two. You can go home again.

Thirty years ago I was encouraged by the members of my community to step outside of myself, contribute, play pretend, take a risk. My shaking voice soloed in a chorus concert, and my quivering smile danced downstage at the footlights, and those explorations in public performance gave me the confidence to do more. Today, the message of the new theatre is the same: encourage the new generation.

The same boy who stood at the curtain offers me a box of Yoo-Hoo after the program, and several members of the theatre carry trays of cupcakes and donut holes. My mother and I take a tour of the dressing rooms. I snap photos of the framed copies of every show program for 32 years that ring the inside walls where the signs of the cross probably once hung. The words "I am the bread of life" and "I am the living water" shine through the stained glass and cast their rainbow messages across the floors and adjacent walls. Any theatre critic worth her weight in words will get the connection.

Both church and theatre ask you to believe, to take a leap of faith, to step outside of yourself and consider another story. Anything is possible if you just believe. Just close your eyes, click your heels three times, and say "There's no place like home."

Monday, April 06, 2015

What She Carried With Her To The Library On April 4th, 2015


One blue plastic checkbook, the next check #1024.

One empty packet of Orbit wintermint chewing gum.

A Thanksgiving grocery list written on a Sheraton notepad.

One tampon liberated of its wrapper.

One black comb she never uses, just in case.

One Stash mint tea bag.

A packet of Kleenex that belongs to her mother.

Three eyeglass cases. One vintage, two from the optometrist. All empty.

One pair of cat-eye reader glasses with rhinestones.

One mint from a fancy restaurant in Philadelphia.

One hand mirror with the New York School of Burlesque logo on the front.

A wallet full of receipts, one photo of her daughter. one photo of a friend’s daughter.

Two pens, one with ink.

One list:
    clothesline
    waist cincher
    1/2 & 1/2
    mint tea
    spraypaint

A receipt from Mabel’s Smokehouse in Brooklyn, where she ate alone.

A copy of liability insurance for circus performances.

Several half sheets of paper filled with open ended questions like:

“What motivates you?”

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Self-Portrait as a Gyroscope

for Dan

First the thread of birth and desire,
and the slow winding toward reason
at a series of smooth-topped desks.
A lust to move.

Waiting a long time for poise,
for someone to love me enough
to help with balance, then lured
by the line that leads to the center,
pulls, and lets me go.

My dance dressed up as hunger,
spinning like a moon in a dream of gold
and red flowers, a flame in the center
of the one word that is your axis.

Finally, the freedom to defy gravity,
at least for a little while, then the tilt,
the lilt toward forever.

Let me be your vision of circles,
possessive and faithful,
the heart of your wheel,
a singing bowl that fills
all negative space
with a resonant
tilt-a-whirl
razzmatazz
jazz.



Monday, February 23, 2015

I Made This Heart For You Out of Sweater Fuzz

I assembled this poem from thank you notes written to me by third graders in 2003. I spent several weeks as a poet-in-residence in an elementary school in Scranton, PA, and at the time I won an award for a poem through Poets & Writers Magazine. I told the classes about the award, which was a trip to New York City to read my poem among some pretty esteemed company (Joan Murray, Molly Peacock, Sapphire, Timothy Liu, Regie Cabico). I told the kids I was nervous. They gave me some of the best advice ever: New York has big stages, but no reason to not go on them!" And the hilarious send-off: "I want to wish you good luck for going up against fancy poets."

On the Bus from Wilkes-Barre to New York City

To Miss Jennapher:
You have brighten up my day
and I will give you a poem.
Thank you for making me smarter.
Have a happy poem life!
Poetry is like planting
a seedling in your mouth.
Good luck in New York.
You shouldn't be afraid.
I wish you all the luck in the world.
It must be hard to talk
to hundreds of people.
Hopefully you won't mess up.
Just look at Jack.
I want to wish you good luck
for going up against fancy poets.
Be courageous.
It's probley going to be a blast.
Pretend you are talking to us.
You are a great pome teacher.
Remember to read on the bus.
New York has big stages,
but no reason to not go on them.
Flowers, flowers, everywhere!
Do you want to go?
I would want to.
What is your favorite poem?
Please mail it to me.
I'll mise you.
Come bake soon.
Just become famous, ok?
Poetry flies away
like a butterfly.
You run and run
but it goes higher and higher.
Will you try these mazes?
Try not to studder.
Miss Hill is like a rainbow
over a pot of gold.
Proly at this time
there is a tear
running down your cheek
because you won't see us.
Don't panic.
I made this heart for you
out of sweater fuzz.
It was all that I had.