Friday, August 29, 2008

Miss Ella

I was eating a piece of crabapple bread (yes, crabapples again) when suddenly I thought of Miss Ella, my kindergarten teacher in Leitchfield, Kentucky. Miss Ella taught me left from right, taught me how to plant a garden and brush my teeth. I learned to read, sitting in Miss Ella's lap. I remember vividly when I pointed to a "W" and she sounded out "Wagon" and suddenly all the letters formed words and the words made a story.

We planted a garden while we were acting out the story of the Little Red Hen, who asks everyone to help her, but winds up doing everything herself. At the end of the story, she eats the bread (made from wheat, made from grain she planted) all by herself. Was the lesson self-sufficiency, or something else?

I never even knew Miss Ella's last name until by chance (if you believe in chance) an Internet contact sent me her obituary last year. I learned that Miss Ella was known for her frugality, growing gardens, raising chickens, and teaching five-year-olds. I suppose that next to my family, she must have been the most important person in my life, and yet I never had any contact with her after that one year.

It may not be much consolation to schoolteachers to realize that they're a bit like gravity in the lives of their students. If I could thank Miss Ella right now, I would.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Naked Ladies

It's the season of Naked Ladies where I live. Their pink faces appear alongside the road and in almost every yard. Since the gophers tend to move the bulbs around, one never knows where they might appear in August. When I try to transplant the bulbs, they die. The Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) want to do what they want to do, where they want to do it.  It is not just delicacy which makes my mother call them Surprise Lilies. If you pamper them in any way,  they will not bloom. They have no leaves at all right now--that's why they're called naked--but after the pink trumpet-shaped blooms die away, the greenery will come out and last until spring...if you leave it alone.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Keeping On Keeping On

The distance from the little town of Marathon to Athens is exactly 26.2 miles. I watched my son finish that run in November of 2002 with the music of  Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire" playing over the audio system in the stadium. The runners were carrying olive branches. I actually elbowed somebody so I could get a picture of my son finishing the marathon with the Parthenon in the background. I pressed and kept the part of that olive branch he gave me.

Watching the Beijing Olympics marathons on television this week told me a great deal about keeping on keeping on. Unless you yourself ran a marathon backwards so that you could see the other runners, you would never get this kind of documentation of a long-distance race. The runners' eyes are far away. They don't even seem to be running very fast. Sometimes they are companionable, passing water bottles back and forth, trotting side by side. They don't even seem very competitive until the very end of the race, though they quickly separate into a lead pack and a chase pack.

 After months or even years of training, experimentation, trials, injuries, recoveries, timing, after carbo-loading, hydrating, choosing the right shoes and hoping for a cool day, they go through a two to four hour drama with hardly any idea of how it will come out. It is dangerous, too. Although my son assured me that the original historic marathon runner did not really die, someone did die at this year's San Francisco marathon. Many of the runners at the Olympics did not finish the race. There were ambulances. Glycogen depletion can make the muscles stop functioning entirely. Once the runner reaches this point, there is nothing he or she can do but stop. An important part of preparation seems to be estimating how much food and water and what kind will provide just enough energy for the particular temperature and track involved in the run.

Because the runners have special chips in their shoes, it is sometimes possible to follow the progress of a particular runner at your computer, miles away. I have had some bad moments when I was watching the computer screen to see how my son was doing in the Boston marathon...and then results abruptly stopped appearing.

All kinds of things happen to marathoners. Their toenails might come off. A friend told me of a woman marathoner who just gave up trying to keep toenails and started polishing her naked toes. Their nipples are abraded by their shirts. They throw up. They get diarrhea. Salt cakes on their bodies. They strain and pull important tendons and muscles. They get foot injuries and joint problems and shin splints and stress fractures.  Some runners limp to the finish line. It may take days to recover from a marathon.

On the other hand, there are statistics showing that runners tend to live longer and stay healthy longer than non-runners. They have slow, powerful heartbeats and lean animal bodies.

In Beijing, the Kenyan front-runner jogged along easily for 20 miles and than ran as if he were being pursued by wild animals, setting a new world record of two hours, six minutes and a few seconds. Kenyans almost always win marathons, though a Romanian woman got the gold medal in the women's race. 

Why do they do it? Olympians, of course, are there to win, to break records, to make their country proud, to get fame and glory and lots of money endorsing products. But local non-Olympic marathons are another matter entirely. Marathon prizes are provided by hundreds and thousands of the slowest runners, who pay a fee to enter the race without a hope of winning it.  "I get my best ideas when I'm running," my son says. "Once you get the machine going, you are absolutely free."

I can almost imagine what this is like. For two hours or more, the runners are like birds riding the thermals, watching the scenery, correcting their pace, thinking their thoughts, eating their power bars, accepting an orange slice or a water bottle from the cheering people who line the route.  Look at their faces. Until the final push, the faces of distance runners are as placid and serene as those of Zen masters.

Someone interviewed a 91-year-old man who ran the classic marathon in Greece in 2002. It took him a very long time. He managed to walk or run almost the entire course, but had to be hauled across the finish line by his friends. "Why did you do it?" the interviewer asked. And the old fellow answered "Why, for love, of course."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Thought Forms and Poetry

The poem which won a school contest back in the Stone Age was almost certainly a rephrasing of a lullaby my mother sang, "Baby's boat's a silver moon". In college, mostly because my boyfriend was French-Canadian, I wrote a few things in French and my French teacher gave them to the Orange and White, the school newspaper.

After that, poetry became a kind of shorthand for me. Working and raising a family, I didn't have the time to unburden myself with anything longer than a poem, but I could jot down an image between chores or while riding a bus or subway.

Once I had an unforgettable dream: I was in a kind of museum of Thought Forms, a large hall with all kinds of structures like sculptures, but made from some unknown material. "This is pure thought", my guide said. "One form can be translated many ways. It can be a mathematical equation, a social system, a piece of music, a painting. You are looking at the essence of these things, but they may be interpreted an infinite number of ways."

Poetry is almost always Metaphor (from the Greek metapherein, to transfer) or Allegory (allegorein, to speak figuratively); that's the nature of language which makes it more of a miracle for someone to "get it" as for someone to emit it.

I have scribbled out about 13 collections of poetry (11 of them unpublished and two self-published) with maybe 50 related poems in each.  Some of the early stuff is pretty embarrassing. It makes me think of Mike Keeley's comment "It is clear that you are a poet, but what kind of poet remains to be seen." All this writing may be sheer self-indulgence, but I figure that whichever way we choose to express ourselves, there are skills which must be acquired and craft which must be practiced. As you see, I practice all the time. Maybe too much.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bridges: A Memorial

         We had a food club back in the 1970s. We would go to the Santa Cruz co-op and buy peanut butter by the gallon. Most often it was Bryant who drove, helped shop, and distributed the purchases to members.

The food club put out a recipe book and produced a little melodrama, "The Saga of Spanishtown Sue", for friends and family. Bryant had the role of Wicked Willie Whoppergotter, the tyrannical landlord whose transformation came with the recovery of his only child, Sweet Susie Thistledown.

Bryant died, too young, in July of this year, but I only learned about it yesterday. Part of the paradox of Bryant was his willingness to stand out in some cases (wearing full Scottish regalia to the Symphony, for instance) and his reluctance to attract attention ("I don't much like to read about myself, especially on the Internet.") Trying to deal with his loss, I wrote about him for the e-magazine of a friend.  I figured that Bryant wouldn't mind now that he wouldn't have to read the words.

I wrote about how he dressed up at St. Nicholas and distributed toys at Christmas on his way to midnight services at Grace Cathedral (he was Jewish), how he yearned to sing bass in a Russian men's choir, how he could hold a stick in his hand and it would sprout leaves.

I found a picture of him, more than 20 years old, a Polaroid I took during his brief attempt at playing piano. The picture shows his wild dark hair and beard, his half-smile, his eyebrows which went up into an expression which was at once hopeful and surprised.

Bryant once played Tevye in a small production of Fiddler on the Roof. Since he liked to do things properly, he repeatedly bowed throughout the performance whenever his character was addressing God. Davening, they call it, from the Aramaic D'avot Inun, "These emanate from our patriarchs". The act may have been more suited to worship than to musical theater, but of course it was unforgettable. "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan/ If I were a wealthy man?"

My church holds memorial services for the departed after forty days, one year, three years, seven years. The people sing "Eternal be his (or her) memory" and they say "Light be the earth which covers him (or her).

Bryant will be buried next to his mother's grave, far from where he spent more than half of his life. Probably the best 40-day memorial I can make for him is this poem I wrote about him in 1974.


He blew the conch to summon the herdsmen.
From the next valley came an answering call.
And lo! The Golden Goatway Bridge
built of huge stringers and consummate daring
crossed over the sheer drop to the ocean.

Bridges are something else, he said.

The children cut the ribbon.
He drove the gold stake.
The goats refused to walk across
to honor the occasion;
in fact, Bryant chased them up the cliff,
looking like a goat himself,
but gathering ceremonial flowers.

When he changed his tactic
and ran away from the goats, they chased him.
"The goats have taught me all I know,"
he said, panting,
distributing the flowers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing, One, Housekeeping, Zero

This morning's mandatory two hours of Writing Right involved a free-lance article for a magazine which has used my stuff in the past. The article needed an illustration of a cuckoo clock. I took a picture of my clock, downloaded it, and was ready to attach it to the article when I noticed for the first time, horrors, spiderwebs in the photograph all over and around the clock. After only a few moments of lazy hesitation, I whisked a feather duster over the clock face and took the picture again.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Annie Dillard Again

"And you can get caught holding one end of a reel out love's long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief ...." (Holy the Firm, 1977) Should this happen to you, one answer is to Write Rite Wright Right.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Keep Your Day Job

My book is #662,503 on Amazon's list and I just received a royalty check for $14.15.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Crabapple jelly, jam, sauce, syrup. Pickled crabapples. Crabapple chutney, bread, pie. A gallon put up to ferment. Is there such a thing as crabapple wine? There is this horror of waste, with so much of the world going hungry, but the crabapples aren't finished yet. "There is, God help us, more," Annie Dillard says in Holy the Firm. "Time is eternity's pale interlinear, as the islands are the sea's. We have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild."

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Eye of the Beholder

This odd little image appeared in the ivy on our fence. If you get close enough, you see that it is just some eucalyptus bark, but from the window it looks like...what do you think? A pilgrim? Garden saint? Grim reaper? If it's the G.R., we hope it takes a look at the slugs, snails and gophers.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Having Something To Say (2)

She wanted to say it so much that she had to learn how to write as she was doing it. It was probably a little like jumping off a building and teaching yourself to fly. I had the good fortune to be in on the project from the beginning, playing English Teacher ("Please don't use a red pencil," she begged) and urging her on. It was--almost is--a book on meditation, a subject in which she believes passionately and on which she is qualified to speak. The charming thing about the way she is writing now is the way she takes you right in and talks to you. She writes the way she speaks, with lots of "aah"s and "nice deep breaths". She uses unforgettable vivid images to illustrate her points. All this has been done under hardship conditions, not quite writing with crayon on grocery bags, but you get the idea. I'll post a link when the book comes out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Camille asked me to post some poetry, already, so here is one from a 2005 unpublished collection called Marie of Rumania, subtitled Poems of Love and War.

Liturgy at Sea

I am cast adrift in this small boat.
O for an anchor or the sight of land.
The wind drowns my cries.
A bird far from shore
keeps to his way.

There is comfort in ritual, at least.
As night fades to day, then,
let us welcome the light.
We will always do this in the same way;
the gesture is harmless.
No evil can come from it.

Amid chaos, perhaps we can create
order in some small way.
Here is a rope; let me coil it.
With cupped hands, bail water
without thinking how small the vessel.

Casting thought about,
I find no way to save myself,
swimming with no shore in sight,
signaling to nobody,
but I am grateful for the calm,
for the time, for the humble boat,
for the temperate weather.

I cannot avoid hoping.
Hope is a kind of anchor
to replace the one I lost,
so I watch and wait
and hope says help may appear.

Hunger and thirst make their demands
but the eyes are feasting.
The wave crests reflect a glory
the departing sun has painted
and in its setting I know now
which way is West.

In the night, the boat rocks
like a cradle. I am cold,
but not afraid. I remember
the lullaby she sang.
I see her face in the moon
when the clouds pass.

When day breaks, I sing
the lullaby to the morning breeze
and do my welcoming ritual.
I am grateful for the sun's warmth.

I cannot keep talking to myself.
Something in the smell of sea spray
reminded me of incense.
I could pray, I thought,
but the only prayers I know
are Please, Thank You, and
Lord Have Mercy.

So I say these words
over and over until I feel
the companionable mist all around
and the sturdy rocking water
supporting the little boat
and the current which knows its way.
For a while, at least,
I am not cast adrift, but rather surrounded
above, below, about,
as if I were held in a giant hand.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle had a small story saying that at least 125 employees would be offered a buyout before the end of the year, and that if the reduction goal is not met, layoffs would be likely. The publisher was quoted as saying the Chronicle was "not the first newspaper to be affected by the downturn in advertising."

This morning's Chronicle had 24 advertising pamphlets or booklets--I don't know what to call them--in addition to advertising within the thin sections of news, some of it full-page. The Bay Area section of the paper, for instance, had six pages, three and a half of which were devoted to paid obituaries.

Founded in 1865, the Chronicle is northern California's largest newspaper, the only daily broadsheet newspaper in San Francisco. In 2005, the Chronicle experienced a 17 per cent drop in circulation, down to 400,000. In 2006, circulation again fell, to 363,805, and a fourth of the newsroom employees were laid off.

The population of the eight counties of the Bay Area is about seven million. Are they all getting their news from television and the Internet, have they lost the ability to read, or is it that they just don't much care what's going on in the world? Is it possible that readership could be related to content, and that the very lopsided relationship between editorial content and advertising could be affecting the declining numbers of people reading newspapers?

(The photo is a copy of Rembrandt's version of the Writing on the Wall from the National Gallery in London. The image is in the public domain.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

James Joyce and Proust Again

I was hurrying to finish reading Charles Rosen's book Piano Notes because I had to return it to its owner. Rosen was writing about contemporary  music, and then he had this to say: "Not many lovers of literature have been able to get all the way through Joyce's Ulysses, and I have met only two people who have read every word of Finnegan's Wake...Few people would deny that parts of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu are extremely tiresome, even those lovers of Proust who judge the work a masterpiece...Disgust, bewilderment, and even the most exasperated irritation are not insurmountable barriers to aesthetic appreciation; they may in fact be a stimulus."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Robert Bly

Once when I was trying to get advice about publishing poems, I wrote to Robert Bly, whose poetry I admired. He wrote back, a long letter in his hieroglyphic hand, giving me specific suggestions with names and addresses. I may have tried a couple of the publishers he mentioned. I do hate rejection slips. My heart sinks when I see the envelope addressed in my own handwriting.

I found a printer with a Linotype near where I lived. His shop was named Mount Vernon Press. He even had a Benedictine font, though he ran out of "e"s before he typeset the last pages of my little chapbook, The Phoenician Sailor.

I sent a copy to Robert Bly. He was gracious and generous with his praise. He asked me to send three of the poems to a friend of his who was starting a magazine, and she did in fact publish them. So of course I would be a fan of Robert Bly even if he did not write such good poetry. When I saw one of his poems in a magazine last week, it was like a "Hello!" from a friend.

At a reading Bly once gave in San Francisco, he said good poetry should stir you up. His book, Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (Doubleday, 1985) is some of the most stirring poetry you will ever read. Just the titles of some of his other poetry books bear out his intent: The Light Around the Body, Sleepers Joining Hands, The Fish in the Sea Is Not Thirsty, Old Man Rubbing His Eyes, This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years.

Ever since Iron John, Robert Bly has been better known for his men's books and lectures than for his large and comprehensive body of work, poems, essays and translations, but he is still out there, reading stirring poetry and beating a drum and probably strumming on his out-of-tune banjo.

Nothing To Read

After I finished the Christmas books and the new Annie Dillard and re-read John Fowles'  The Magus, I was out of things to read. Poetry and non-fiction don't count because they're always going, a few pages at a time. Nothing to read. I tried again to read Proust (which is on the shelf with things I think I should read) and gave up once more, right where the madeleine comes in. I'm afraid I muttered things about boredom and self-indulgence. My brother Dan, teasing me, suggested I try James Joyce's Ulysses again. "I tried so many times and could never get past the first sentence," I said.  "You mean you made it through the first ten pages?" he said. Then I tried Huxley's Point Counterpoint, a very worthy novel, I'm sure, but filled with despicable characters. Catching up on the New Yorker magazines, I found a pretty good short story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who did all those wonderful screenplays for the Merchant-Ivory movies. I went to the library and checked out their one book by Jhabvala, Out of India. "I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves,"  she wrote in her introduction. I knew right away that I was going to like this book.