Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Woman Sits Down to Write an Essay. What Happens Next Will *Look over there! An Elephant Dancing With a Ribbon!*

My mind wanders.  I wish it would walk around the little red house on the lake. Instead, as a result of my phone, it wonders why someone named hairypoppins started following me on Instagram, or if I should make a Facebook post about the new private sessions I’ll be teaching in the coming year. I wish my mind would go pet the calico cat I named Poem, or untangle the dreamemoir I’m writing. How it used to love the diptych of the sun and moon, the peak of garage peering through green trees, anagrams. Now it loves the promise of whatever is happening elsewhere. It’s better over there, whatever and wherever that is.

There are a few open documents on my computer, a result of all this scattered brain activity, which is a result of all the glowing apps around me. Not one essay or idea is complete.

The first is an outline for a workshop idea I had - a revelation - that ended with me researching whether or not my bit of genius had been produced elsewhere. Sure enough it had, by another woman with more credentials than I have (older than me, thank the gods), and a really fascinating artistic style. I researched my way out of finishing my idea. My outline ends with the following sentence fragment: “We will cull phrases from our writing that speak to us directly and on a visceral level, and use those to”

Do something. Anything. On a visceral level. God, I hate that phrase. Either everything is visceral, or nothing is.  We will do something, and it will be revelatory, life changing, and will make everything we’ve done previously seem like pure drek. At least that’s the way it is up in my head, because it’s not down on paper yet. I’ve left the whole idea up there in its perfect little cloud of heaving emotional connection. Until I take action, I will continue to sit on the sofa every night drinking mint tea and flicking through an endless scroll of other people’s cat photos.

An essay I began on the train on my way to Philadelphia remains a morass of anecdotal experiences. I really enjoyed the private office space of the train car though. The quiet business everyone attended to on morning trips made me feel like I was part of some sort of evolutionary office space, as if at any moment I’d be asked to be patched into a conference call with the rest of the passengers, and I’d finally be in in the know. Life’s big secret revealed on the Keystone line! So I began taking my iPad each week, with the thought I could definitely get some writing done with the trees and graffiti blurring beside me, and I did. Sort of. I got a few paragraphs out about wrongfulness, the idea that no matter what you say or do, you will always be wrong. Bleak, I know, but I’m angry with the internet and all the sisterly advice videos and articles showing me I’ve been cutting fruit the wrong way forever.

It didn’t help that the place where I stood to wait for the train each week was near a pole that had this nugget of graffiti scrawled on it: “Don’t Think.” My essay on wrongfulness was doomed from the start.

The last open document on my computer starts with this sentence: “It only takes about a day to be completely erased.” I was thinking about the compost heap of social media when I wrote that, I remember. I was probably also multitasking a browse through a friend’s photo album of her post-performance selfies, and a read of a Wikipedia article on the magazine Weird Tales, while simultaneously printing out a copy of a Pear & Gorgonzola Salad recipe I’d never make. Because, let’s face it, everyone knows I don’t peel pears the right way. Thanks to the internet, I’ve learned I’ve been butchering pears all my life, and now I don’t eat them anymore for fear of being judged.

The more I read online, the more I become frozen. All of the articles keep me from taking action. They keep me on the sofa, they keep me in my place. They keep me from getting to the heart of things. They keep me from being truthful.  They keep me from listening. They keep me from making a choice, from starting, and they keep me from finishing. Fuck those articles, every single one of them. Yes, especially the one about fruit.

It will only take about an hour for this post to be completely erased from the feed. That’s not so bad. I'll take my mind for a walk around the red house on the lake.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014


Don’t think. Great advice, Release. Forget. Just be.
The garden is just over there, filled with a thousand million flowers
and it has a locked gate, but remember, don’t think. Your body
will know what to do. Say yes, take an arms out leap. Smile —
a word that activates all the parts of your brain,
lights up your facial muscles, spreads the deepest reds
throughout the system. Words control the body. No, the body
controls the words. Don’t think.
A kick or a smile. You pick.

But don’t think, just do. Or be. Whatever.
Make a choice. It’s easier on your partner,
relieved when you say yes, and yes again,
oh yes and the gate swings open, the flowers
not quite what you had planned, but ok,
you can work with dandelions all gone to seed,
multiplying on the air.

You collect them all with a bunch of rabbits
that hop way ahead of you. The seeds
are bubbles you chase after, the rabbits
so happy, do they smile? Your breath heavy,
each bubble pops as you hold them to your mouth
to feel nothingness, to mirror the shape. O.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Old Maid

In this house we play it so:
you hold the last queen, you lose.
Shirts and ties to the thrift store,
and one side of your bed empty.

You become the wise buzzard
on the cover, and there’s more
empty time, Jack, than you imagined.
Your children made pairs of your free

hands, and won, for the time being.
You remember when old
wasn’t you or him, the sun
heated sand, his skin, the sea.

In this house we play it so:
his shirts, his ties, they have to go.

Friday, October 03, 2014


You haven’t talked to anyone for days
since being asked, “What have you done
in your life that is practical?”

You wear your best bone jewelry,
and last week’s bruises.
Those from years ago resurface in their
mossiness and bluish purples, the colors
of pigeons and oil spills —
a laugh that hurt your brother in law,
and your carelessness with a best friend
in college while out on a date you thought
mattered. It didn’t. The jerk. Remember?

We get little perspective outside
of ourselves. Your heartbeat is practical.
This breath, and the next one.
All of your cells conspire toward
the art of being and doing,
and original as sin, your spirit slipped in.

Maybe you like to make lists
and check each item off, perhaps
you leave the coffeepot on until
it sings a diesel fuel fire.

We grow old under scrutiny,
wizened looks and questions
about just what in the hell
we think we’re doing. Decades
of being asked and having
no answer. No answer beyond
your life. Your lucky daffodil life.
Love buries itself in you.
You release it like fireworks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Poem Fragment

One day you say,
Well, I guess I don’t need this anymore,
and you let go of the bracelets,
umbrellas, songs, the bright argument
of family and friends.

Your clothes hang, an idea,
an outline of the body you wore
and now shed — the ultimate
simplification! Subtraction.

Nylon stockings still hold
the shape of your legs.
From the fragranced drawer
they whisper,
All her steps were forward,
even her last.

I was writing to a friend recently about how my brain has been on some sort of extended summer vacation. Body has taken over and Brain just rides the Tilt-a-Whirl and Scrambler endlessly, shouting and whooping nonsense into the air. Brain likes all the swirly rides, and avoids anything with an extreme drop because it scares Heart. Brain has a crush on Heart. Heart keeps Brain at a safe distance because she thinks he's being a total rube. Body thinks she can think for herself. She trips a lot and skins her knees. Brain laughs a hearty boy laugh. Heart rolls her eyes.

Spring and summer were a blur of performances, a promotion to Mentor Artist through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the completion of training with the Center for Creative Aging, a play produced, a father-in-law moved to a new home, some teaching of hoop and poetry. The fall offers a list of work in writing, some stage performances, hoop classes.  These jobs pay some bills. A few jobs are solidified, and others not - they are just up in the air. It's frustrating.

I have a collection of books with titles like "Wishcraft" and "344 Questions - the Creative Person's DIY Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment." The pages have folded corners and margin scribblings. Tucked into them are receipts for a wig or something frivolous for Body with a note written on the back of it. They offer comfort when I need time to focus. Which is now. Fall is a good time for answering a question like, "What is your Best Case Scenario?" and then pulling the lever on the Tilt-a-Whirl of summer so you can better hear what you really need.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What do I look for as a reader, and what do I expect from myself as a writer?

When I read, I look for language that engages, that is verb-rich, and image-driven. I like humor and wordplay, but I also seek the metaphoric, and when I really enjoy writing the most it is when there is contrast, and an underlying message, a hidden key that my mind needs to find to unlock the meaning. I seek this in fiction, poetry, memoir, and plays. Meaning. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and I prefer when it isn’t. I like it when a writer trusts me as a reader to understand or make meaning. Tone can be humorous, obstreperous, sardonic, joyous. I expect sincerity in tone. Please don’t fake me out. Be genuine. Honest. I want to learn from what I’m reading. It can be a new word, or a way of folding a shirt, or a new perspective or opinion. Short, clear sentences engage me more than long rambly ones, and if a writer ends a sentence on the word “thereof” I am going to check out. The fragmentary intrigues me because I get to fill in the blanks. I love it when I read something and I think, “I could never do that!” because it challenges and inspires me as a writer. I know I’ve read a good book when I cry at the end – not for the content – but for the fact that I will never read the book the same way again.

When I write,  I want to connect with the reader, and I do my best to make that connection through clearly written observations. It isn’t always easy to be honest, writing the truth in memoir or poetry or a play, my truth, is difficult but it is the part of writing that I seek as a reader, so I expect it in myself. I expect to learn something when I write – about myself, about the world, about the way words click together or fall apart. I love it when I’m writing and something that wasn’t clear to me as I was writing suddenly surfaces, and it takes hold of the writing and states “I’m the theme.” Or, “Hey, metaphor here.” Surprise, surprise! I expect myself to be able to write to the point where that happens, to not give up, to be willing to let go for awhile and come back to it later to work on the craft of the language. I expect myself to work. Writing well is work. It’s excavation. If I’m only scratching the surface, I won’t discover any of what lies underneath, and neither will my readers. I expect to earn the understanding of my readers.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

There's a Unicorn in Here. It's Why I Perform.

It's 6 a.m. Glasses are necessary for me to see this thin line of eyelash glue. I tick off items on my mental checklist after I remove my specs and press a lash onto a crepey lid:

  • stuffed frog
    • lion
    • fox
  • dance ribbon
  • amp
  • 20 hoops
  • swivel chair
  • striped socks
  • sequin armbands
  • toy instruments
  • water bottle
It's all packed in my bag, and what doesn't fit will be lugged then tucked into the back of my VW Beetle. When I leave the apartment, I'm wearing butterfly leggings, cowboy boots, and the top half of a costume that was handmade by someone who can actually sew. As I drive to the school, I feel the familiar cloud of pre-show nerves that turn to half-hearted daydreams of having a job that doesn't include stuffed animals and hula hoops. I probably just need to hydrate a little more. I swig some water.

After I haul all my props to the gym and answer questions about my eyelashes to a lash-curious secretary, I get set up. The floor of the gym is my stage today. Three  hundred kids will sit behind the blue dashed line that marks the performance area. I rearrange the curtains that hide the stacks of gym mats and a large hockey goal cage, then set my props out. A parent volunteer introduces herself and her four year old son, who starts to climb all over the swivel chair. "Sorry, you can't play with that. I'm really sorry. I know it's tempting." I say. "Here buddy, take the Kindle," his mother says, and the boy parks himself against the wall with his digital dreampad. The stuffed frog and fox stare out at him with stitched on looks of "Are you flipping kidding us?"

I hate to admit it, especially to my impatient self, that I've been rehearsing the act I will perform at this school for a little over a month. Act development takes me forever. I love it, but I need time, and a lot of time, to create. Space. Plenty of room for screw-ups, flubs, bruises, popped off puffballs, getting stuck in hoop tangles, and complaining to my poor husband. Hours of videoing myself working the act. I share the rehearsal videos with my sister who I know I can trust for critical, honest, and very useful feedback. A sister will tell you when something isn't working. I develop the character, a little girl who has been banished to her room with her imagination, and create a 12 minute soundtrack. I polish the hoop choreography until my skeleton could dance it if my skin and muscles took off on a last minute vacation to Hawaii.

The boy with the Kindle is talking to it now. "I have gone to the most beautiful place! There's a unicorn in here!" His mother brings him over to the side of the stage where the amp sits. I've asked her to push play when I give her a nod from backstage. Kids file in from the hallway and sit by grade, the Kindergarteners in front. A few have spotted me waiting for my cue in the wings by the stack of gym mats and hockey goal cage.  The principal makes a few announcements, I give my nod, the soundtrack starts, and I'm on. They laugh and clap at the swimming on the swivel stool, the stuffed animals growling at my neck after I step on them too much, and during the hooping their "holy moly!" "this is so crazy!" and "ooooooohs!" push me further.

Two little girls break the ranks of dismissal after the show to say hello to me. "Hi! My name is Anna! This is Tristan! We love what you did with all of those hoops!" Their faces are so full of everything I remember about being eight years old. Total wonder. They look at me as if I'm a rockstar, and not some middle aged woman with a penchant for 70s sitcoms and chocolate chips. There is nothing like making other people happy. I've made 300 people happier this morning. Maybe even inspired a few. I have gone to the most beautiful place. There's a unicorn in here. That's why I do this.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


You’re sure if you squinted at the stars enough
heaven might notice the trowels, spoons,
tiny coins left in the dirt where you once
buried the ashes of the family dog. Daffodils
and grape hyacinths sent up their
green apostrophes the following spring,
and you once found a ring in a gardening glove,
sure it was sent by your dead father.
Now you do everything with your father’s
shield and sword in your hands, as if he bequeathed
them to you and you hadn’t really just stolen them
from a hope chest to remember the quest
of his imagination. You are still so far from guessing
the true meaning, but can point at the constellations
and rename them all: Falstaff’s Wrinkle, Circular Bear,
Skeezix and Threnody. You have something
to get you home safe and sound. You have
a belt full of tools at your hip as you stand  
in the center of your triangle of fire.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I know a lousy handshake
when I receive one, half-meant.
The unfocussed gaze. Not listening.
Or the hug that is so light I can feel
the chalk outline behind it.

It’s difficult to keep from falling
into the big black hole that hides
under all those metal plates
you see on the streets. To be swallowed
whole, to disappear, to drown
or be blown away by a gale-force
windbag you met at a university.

Unfair. Creating meaning requires
a good amount of just staring into the air. Time.
I like to build an act or a house of words
to walk through, a series of rooms
outfitted with damask and china,
then let neglect kill off all the plants.
Creak out empty nails from the walls where family
photos once hung. The windows were blown out
with buckshot that burst constellations of glass
on the floor, left shards and shadow.
An umbra that howls at night
so much it makes your knees jerk.

I think you have to add a lot first
in order to subtract.  Unless
you want to be a totally charming
but bad star in the field of creation.

Ask me when I am 90 what I loved most.
First I will tell you it was being held,
second, the slip of buttons through fingers,
then I will get lost in a spin of all there is to love,
a rambly multiverse that makes you wish for silence.
Ask and you'll receive a hug so hard you’ll feel
my whole life ahead.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why It Isn't Spring Yet

Because we will it so. Because the song of traffic thrums
against the wrestle of city gristle and grime, disguised
and then revealed by March's greyed lens. Because we will it so.
There is a mansion of snow for the carnival players
who burn their scripts to improvise longing. Because we will it so.
Because a rose stampedes its red into the eye. Because paper,
when offered up for an autograph, deserves one, but not right away.
There is a pause. A breath. The absence glitters.
Because we will it so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

We Always Have Things To Do

for Maggie Estep

“I would not think to touch
the sky with two arms”
                                    - Sappho

Oh no, not like this, not yet, with prophetic weathermen
singing their dirges of ice. Winter’s closed off attitude –
blank space. The erasure of entire fields, faces lost to scarves,
elegant thoughts to scientific sacrifice.
I’m not sure if this is right,
or even if the thoughts were
that eloquent, and what’s wrong
with a little Bill Nye, some blood
in what feels like a bloodless art?

I’m not sure if this is any good.
I’m not sure. Here. What can you tell me?
I am sure that snow drifts,
and other people’s memories float
between my own: a Lego lodges
in my throat, I skate across the pond,
I once sang in an opera, added graffiti
to the dome of a courthouse.
I forget myself, windblown
in the stories of others. No,
I remake myself. No, that’s bullshit.
I re-forget myself by turning the page,
by hating what I love, all of it. The words
that pile up at my door, shivering,
and the ones that sit at the end of the bed, waiting
for me to line them up into meaning. Their eyes glow.
They snarl. Their teeth are lovely, see?

Tell me a story and tell it now,
the story of a journey, a transformation,
a bit of dust in a storm.
Make the dust want something big,
to have arms to touch the sky with,
to think and breathe. Yes, make it breathe.
Please. Before my heart stops,
and before yours does too,
tell it.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Birds of North America

for Mom on her birthday

The only stretch of pavement for a mile around was our driveway. It was a capital U that sloped from the dirt road above our house to the garage. In the negative space of all that asphalt, my mother planted a few boxwoods along the perimeter, daffodils and crocus to bloom in spring, and a variety of perennials that exploded like fireworks throughout the summer and fall. A tulip tree dropped wooden flowers that looked like closed umbrellas. Patches of violets were a short walk down the road to the left, just past the blackberry bushes and sweetfern. They were actually in someone else's yard, and I snitched them often to bring them home for my mother to put in whatever lilliputian vase she could find.

What really ruled our home was not flowers and plants, but birds. We were visited by them at a schedule more regular than that of a train station. My father built a tray feeder that stretched along the length of the two kitchen windows. In the spring, the windows were cranked open to let in the scent of thaw and warmer air. A dogwood tree sprawled in a gnarly bloom of levels just beyond the kitchen and it was a safe perch for finches, chickadees, sparrows, titmouses, and the occasional cowbird that my mother admonished for its bad habits. Woodpeckers drilled the oak that supported our treehouse. Goldfinches flashed their sunny band uniforms, and a family of them lived in the little red birdhouse Mom put out one year.  Bluejays deviled the little birds with their bold markings and beaks, and called out like soldiers. The cardinals seemed built for cheering up winter, and hallmarking Valentine's Day.

Inside, our kitchen was golden and checkered. Baskets hung on the wall like nests. A sign that read "Virtue" hung above the kitchen table. On a spring morning, as my sister and I gulped a thick vanilla Carnation Instant Breakfast or wolfed a piece of toast, I shared "a really weird dream I had," as Mom gazed out at the feeder. She'd spot the first robin of the season, ask if Kristen had recorded last year's sighting in her journal, and claim that it seemed "awfully early this year." One morning Mom sang off key at the kitchen sink, and we wailed about how horrible it was, how out of tune and off key.  We asked to turn on the dishwasher. I felt immediately like I'd choked a swan. We squelched the song and ignored the beauty of our mother because she was the safest place for us to test out cruelty, but this didn't make us any less rotten. Cowbirds.

The front of our house had large windows that perplexed the birds of our woods. There were many afternoons where I'd arrive home after school to a small box on the porch with a bewildered bird inside it, all hunched down with its tiny eyes clamped shut in a dazed meditation. As sad as it made her that her birds dashed their brains into dizziness, my mother loved every instance she got to hold a patient inside her cupped hand - to feel the varied textures of its feathers, the light quick huffs of breath, and the wiry legs. She'd tell me all about the discovery of the bird on the porch, how close our cat Pyewacket came to finding it first, and the wonder of holding it in her hands. I listened, or didn't, lost in thought about how I'd started to dissect a cat in biology that day, the scent of formaldehyde still lurking in my pores, the word fascia caught in my mind.

My mother's birds never stayed long. I always thought we might keep one as a pet, but in an hour or two, the box would be vacant, the slow bird revived again. I'd hear Mom retell the story to Dad at the kitchen table when he returned from work.

My sister and I have twin graduation photos, taken three years apart. We stand at the lower curve of the driveway, flanked by our parents. We both wear the gold drapery of a gown, the sleeves like wings ready for takeoff. Not long after those photos were taken Mom watched us, a little bewildered ourselves, drive up the slope of that driveway and off into anywhere, anywhere else. She knew just how to catch, how to hold, and when to release.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Listen, we are human beings.
We are given to love
and there is no other war
quite like it. We fail,
and flail and fall, and will,
with a life lived well,
with every organ speared.

Inside you are continents
that pulse. They don’t need
your help too much. They dance
as you sleep, in the chilled out rhythms
of a lava lamp. During an ultrasound,
belly gelled, you may not even recognize
the liver, the pancreas, your own aorta,
the same way you aren’t sure
if Myanmar is near Thailand or India.
It all looks like the Aleutian islands to you,
all coral reefs and volcanic ranges,
borders unguarded. You could use
the comedy of a sea otter, but imagine
eruptions only.

The tactics are to fend off any attack,
to win, always to win, or at least get out
with only the loss of some vision.
Your health consultant for today
has set her sights on this dark region
over on the left, which could be a lake,
or the tar pits. Please take a deep breath in
and hold it, she says and you can think
of nothing but exhalation, the explosion
of air released from the lungs.

Hold and release.
Retreat and advance. 
You belong to a clan 
but someday a foreigner
may ask to carry you from one land
into your next. Let them.