Thursday, December 28, 2017

Everything Is Subject To Change

We count on the constancy of story. Freddy Malins arrives drunk to the party, Desdemona drops the handkerchief, Nell flees home with her primer and then leads a tribe, Rumplestiltskin tears himself in two. When we close a book and shelve it, we are assured of its beginnings and endings remaining the same, and that the story will unfold as it always has for us, as consistent as taxation.

Oral stories, however, migrate and are ever-changing. They are shapeshifters in a world that has no particular cover, back matter, or organized chapters. Morphing across cultures, through time, they live in the breath and memory of the person sharing the story. The listener may attach her own meaning to a detail, and in the retelling, alter the plot or the ending. Oral stories escape boundaries. They are clouds.

When we tell personal stories we are almost always the hero. Hyperbole starts to expand our stories as we age. The plots get twistier, the details juicier. The arc takes longer to travel because we love the audience, the attention, and that someone cares to listen. Our stories tell us who we are and how we’ve changed. They connect us to others. Without them, what happens? Who are we?

My mother has a gold locket that has been in her possession for almost sixty years. When she wasn’t wearing it one day during the 1970s, I discovered it was empty, and was bothered that it had no contents, so I sneaked a large green sequin inside. Lockets were supposed to contain stories. I had no photograph that fit or seemed fair enough, but I had the sequin, a little glint of cheer.

I don’t know anymore which family stories are true. I doubt my own memory of them. Photographs have allowed me to remember or fill in the blanks easily. My sister’s account of a shared story is often a completely different perspective from mine.

There are days now when my mother starts to tell a familiar family tale, then turns to me with a performer’s panicked look to her partner of “take it!” The plot, lost in the details, has shifted course and is flying to another island.

My memory of the gold locket story of my mother’s earlier telling is that it was a nursing school graduation gift from her parents. Yesterday she told me and my sister that she and two other classmates bought them for themselves, and she was the only one out of the group who kept hers for all these years. Is the truth in this story that her parents gifted her money to buy the locket, and she and her friends all got matching ones? Does it matter?

My mother has faced a lot of loss this year. Among the losses, her once reliable memory. She’s becoming the abstract expressionist narrator of her life story. The shifting narratives sometimes bother me, because we once shared the “truth.” What I’m learning from all of this is that maybe there is no truth.

We fear losing ourselves, losing our minds and memories. Genetics play a part, so this could be my fate too, the sureness of erasure.  We talk about dementia with verbs of thievery, and rarely with verbs of generosity. It is difficult to write with the additive when there are so many subtractions. There are moments of grace in dementia, like an openness to shifting narratives, the abstract, a letting go of time, allowing the self to be the self as she is now. To just be.

I put a large green sequin into a locket once to stave off what I perceived as emptiness. The story, when I opened the covers of that little gold book, seemed to be missing, but maybe it was just being written in invisible ink. A mystery-romance-thriller-fairytale-fantasy of a life being lived.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wednesday Pickup of My Truth

My truth is that I know nothing.

One day I will return to chlorophyll
and it’s easy for me to face this
while I still remember my own name,
can write these words with my hand
on this piece of paper that was once a tree.

The body of the Marquis de Sade
became a tree after he died.
His request was to be buried
with acorns, and their little
green horns nosed
into his flesh,

To be greening!
Or green!
A fresh lawn!
An oak!

To dream of joining the chorus
of twig, bark and root,
the mysticism of up, up, up.

Maybe you know everything then,
have all the answers but can’t speak,
how poetic, forced to watch others
make mistake after lonely mistake
in their crosswords and delegations,
negotiations lost.

You unfurl your tiny green flags
and they wave. You change
them all to red, a warning,
and finally just give up, your truth
on the ground for others
to rake up into piles, thrust
into paper bags and park
at the curb for Wednesday pickup.

Your heart is a nest of squirrels.
Birds mate in your brain
and then there are more birds,
and don’t cardinals carry the souls
of the dead?

I know nothing,
but can speak,
It feels dangerous,
to be alive.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


A hand other than your own
covers your mouth.

You think about the haphazard way
that prayer works, miracles,

The obvious choice
is to stay put. Don’t move.

There is no form for this —
you ought to know it by now,
instinct, the body’s language,
a total no-brainer. Not some
second grade teacher’s 5-7-5
relief during the poetry unit,
an easy formulaic response
to growls of cherry blossoms.

Oh no. This is full-on, redoubled,
wheeling epic free verse —fever dream,
old-bones- rocked-to-sleep-on-a-razor’s-edge-can-of-soup-

A ship is pulled underwater in your chest.
Cows graze in your head.
Your feet have no imagination.

You should know this one.
Don’t speak. Leave it blank.
There’s your control.

You stand up. You raise your hand,
fail the test over and over again.

The obvious choice
is to stay put. Don’t move.

A hand other than your own
covers your mouth.

You host the barbarian,
you are incendiary,
you are the reason
we have no way
to grade this.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

For My Dead Classmates

You miss so much
by being dead.

The stirred up embers
of a recalcitrant argument,
Virtue and crime
in the same narrow bed.

You miss so much —
a space to find yourself
breathing in again,
a heart full of beehives
and inquisitions,
the sometimes friendly sky,
and a glance in the mirror
on a good hair day.

Nostalgia. Who owns that,
the dead or the living?

Perhaps you miss that
or maybe there’s no memory,
all of it just a juked up Polaroid.

Hey, there’s no history then,
or race, or belief, and lucky you,
no war! There is no truth
other than that of being dead.

A sureity.

You miss teacups, or beer,
tindered fires,
the 2 a.m. dust-up
with your landlord
for having a man
in your apartment.
Are we living in the 1950s?!
you shouted, wielding
a Rubik’s Cube.
It’s all you had.
The first thing you picked up.

The first thing you remember
having. You miss that? Possessions.
Gone now. Some relegated
to antiquedom, others nothing more
than apple core and lint. As if your love
for a particular ballpoint pen
kept it alive, would make someone
else desire it.

Music and desire.
Throng and thrum in your ears
and chest, a throne of rhythms.
The Clash,
Bronski Beat,
Van Halen,
Hüsker Dü.
Some of us will hear
tinkly versions of our favorites
in the dining rooms of the retirement homes
where we find ourselves living. We
will look for your aged faces at our table,
expect you to flop down with your
lunch bag full of potato chips
and Farmer’s iced tea.

You miss so much.
Assertive heels.
Peach juice.
Long insomnia.
Garlic, onions,
an open stage
or a quiet corner.

Your own name spoken
by someone you loved.

Who loved you.

Friday, September 15, 2017


Lostness bursts into the day
like a bright trapeze
and you grasp it on the upswing,
howl through the air.

Fine. You’re more acute alone
anyway, striking a match,
stalking a cloud, trying to align
your functional body
with all the stories it still
wants to tell.

Expectations trill and purl,
sweet beasts that belong
in cages. Let them pace.

How violent and heartless
you are up here, how led
by your own blindness.

It is impossibly gorgeous
to slice the sky, to let go
with potential and swing
to stillness and fictitious force.

Your body now an exclamation mark,
full stopped in a shout:

I am not here!
No, I am here,
I am here,
see me.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Time and the Shape of a Life

"How many sessions do we have left?" a woman asks. She's a participant in the life writing workshop I'm teaching. I've asked the group to choose a partner to go through the process of interviewing each other on a topic. A bonding experience as much as the chance to be a storyteller and an active listener. When offered a few choices, they opted to tell stories of travel.

"Nine," says the senior center director. "There are nine sessions left."

The same woman with the question about sessions pulled me aside our first meeting to correct something she said when we wrote a group poem. "I meant lithography when I said etching. You can change it if you want." The detail mattered to her and it had to be right for the record. After the interviewing she told a long story of all her travels that circled around into telling about her children. She felt squeezed for time.

There is never enough time to tell your story. And how can you even see the shape of your story when you are in the middle of it, living?

On my computer is a file I ran across while I was preparing for this residency at the senior center. It's titled "95 Year Plan." I don't remember making it. It's a grid with the left hand vertical column showing my age in five year increments.  I went up to 95, a hopeful thinker, or maybe it was part of the instructions to do so. This must have been a writing exercise from a book I was reading or a workshop I took.

There are three other columns to the right of the age column which read: "Major Event," "What I Learned" and "The Most Amazing Thing I Saw."  I never finished it. I filled out the "Major Event" column up to age 55 and I gave up. I stopped recording "What I Learned" at age 20 when the "Major Event" was "got first real job as a typesetter" and the "What I Learned" was that "most real jobs suck." When I was 15 I learned that I was able to succeed at something I didn't necessarily want to do for the rest of my life.

I can see why I never finished this project. Filling the entire grid out is tempting fate, and reminds me of keeping a ten year plan for my life with clear, achievable goals. I've never operated that way. I like leaving places blank to allow for  the "Not Quite What I Was Planning" column and the "Spontaneous Magic" column and the "Mentor From an Unexpected Place Arrives and Kicks Your Ass" column. Actually, I can't even conceive of my life in a grid or with columns. It isn't a line. It's not a circle, because it will end someday, and I will feel like it's unfinished. I am unsure as to what shape it is at all, or even if it has a shape.

The attempt to record the details of one day, which I do each morning when I journal, can feel like riding the edge of some protoplasmic creature. I catch only moments as the rest of the day slips into another current and I am forced to let go. I always close the journal with a little sense of loss. I'm adding, but I'm losing too. Writing a life can feel deleterious.

How many sessions do we have left? Who knows. You won't catch it all. Create anyway.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


My window is a broken mind, all
scattershot with spaces that
time screaks through, dates and numbers I
leave in shards at your feet. I trust
the wing-clamor of branches, but not this
toothbrush. The slow alphabet of my heart
in this small room of body has
built and wrecked me, lagged and led
my life. See how all women fall? Not me.
I float on wordlessness, naked. Almost content to.
Another one for my mother. This has an echo. Read down the right side of the poem for a phrase.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bullet Journal: February

If you add order to your days,
graph paper, gel pens, post-it notes —
and record it all, a crochet
of charts, progress, your mind devoted
to that forward arrow — if your throat
chokes on time’s constancy, just play
with colored pencils, add a favorite quote.
Craft the human ordeal.

Essential accessories: stencils
for thought bubbles, the personal
accusations, dark snark, the chill
winds of what you didn’t do. Decals
add emphasis to weekly logs, all
actionable to-dos that you will,
you swear, get to. Washi tape goals.
Craft the human ordeal.

Rapid logging is the solution
to sustained contemplation. Mark
events with an O, notes with a dash —
Simplify, compartmentalize the shark’s
jaw of surgery, muzzy bazaar
of painkillers, snow blowgunned
against a window full of paper hearts.
Craft the human ordeal.

Download a matching shade of nail polish
for your Instagram of today’s page,
Inspire everyone with your mantra:
Craft the human ordeal.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What We See and Don't See

My father once saw a soap bubble float across the road as he drove home from work. He described it as perfect and alone in its incongruous drift through traffic. He didn't want to hit it. "I'm sure it was a fairy," he said.

My father believed in magic. He read everything there was to read about the Arthurian legend. He was logical and orderly, and his handwriting was that of a draftsman -- squared off capital letters that let the reader know exactly what his message was. He was gifted in spatial thinking. He could build a bathroom where there wasn't one and make it look like it was part of the original structure of the house.

I never considered my father very emotional. The story we tell ourselves about fathers is that they are strong, the roots of the tree untouched the wind. I saw him cry a few times. Laugh many. He held his hand over his heart when he laughed hard. He was intelligent, so it was my secret mission always to make him laugh. If I could make someone as smart as he was laugh it was a true accomplishment. To bring him to the laughcry was a rich reward. I love to make my mother laugh too, for the same reasons.

I was, and still am, horrible at building birdhouses. I did, and still do things in a strange and illogical order. I once, just for fun, tried to glue ice together. Being able to make my father laugh connected us when I felt we weren't connected at all.

I have his eyes. I always say I don't think he knew how he ended up with a poet for a daughter, but I think he knew exactly how he ended up with a poet as a daughter. He was one himself, but he was a poet with light instead of words.

As I was writing this, my daughter brought up a piece of his stained glass that was hanging in the window downstairs.

It blew off in that big gust of wind.

Really? Wow. I'm writing about grandfather right now.

Ah, he's here.

So I hung up the piece in my studio window, where it catches light in the leaves and curlicues he painted by hand. There are twenty golden circles at the center, like bubbles, to remind me that where I come from, where we all come from, is magical. That anything is possible.

* Artwork created by a high school student at Canterbury High School in Canada, where Dan and I spent time as resident artists a few years ago. And by a few, I mean something like five.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Cognitive Assessment

Remember these words in this order:
red velvet daisy church face. Got it?

Here, let’s say them first together.
Remember these words in this order.
A color? Good. A fabric? Great! Flower?
You can do it, take your time. Commit.
Remember these words in this order:
red velvet daisy church face. Got it?

Now tell me how to draw a clock —
After the circle, what shows the time?

The curtains pulled at noon, it’s dark —
Now tell me how to draw a clock.
After the hands, what are the marks?
Verbal, you don’t need a pen, you’re fine.
Now tell me how to draw a clock —
After the circle, what shows the time?


A triolet, doubled. I think each stanza can work on its own with the same title, but I had more to write than one octave.