Redemption Poem

This piece spins off from a Ben Huberman Daily Prompt post of January 17. Thank you, Ben! The first part of the question he poses is “. . .when was the last time you wrote something substantive—a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc.—by hand?” This post tells the story of my most memorable writing by hand.

The dark of the moon makes the call more believable, a storm cloud moving slow and inevitable across familiar terrain that suddenly shifts. Jolts.

“Come home. Your grandmother is in the hospital. Heart attack.”

It isn’t really my home anymore and hasn’t been my home for decades, but this time I don’t feel compelled to point it out.

The drive is too long. Vermont roads that usually give comfort or pleasure now simply twist and annoy. The entire State of New York is in the way. Despite the beauty of the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania goes on forever. On one trip to Ohio, my mother was at the other end, dead. Now my grandmother is gravely ill, perhaps dying. My elders are conceding their ground. Not ready, I protest to the empty passenger seat. I am not ready.

Grandma raised me while my mother worked to support us. “Divorced” was a pejorative in Ohio in the 1950s.

Grandma taught me that you had to be good in order to be loved.

Grandma was a perfectionist.

And Grandma fed me nourishing home-made food, breads and soups and pies. She kept me warm under hand-stitched quilts and hand-made feather-beds. She taught me the value of a dollar and the worth of a bird in the hand, a place for everything and everything in its place. On rocky ledges above Ohio strip pits, Grandma taught me how to hear the floating, haunting voices of the fish. Beneath the grape arbor, she introduced me to life’s incongruencies. I was Annie Oakley and she shelled peas.

When I left home, Grandma wept inconsolably.

When I moved into a commune, she wouldn’t answer my letters.

When I was arrested for political activism, she helped post my bail then took me home and placed me under her own scary version of house arrest.

When I veered off toward addiction, she shamelessly went through my bureau drawers, my backpacks, my closet. She pushed up my long-sleeves-in-the-summer, searching, scrutinizing the soft skin of my forearms for track marks.

When I had my first child, she came to New Hampshire and cleaned my house.

When I had my second child, she came to Vermont and alphabetized my spice rack.

When I left my husband, she snarled at me in alarm and disgust: “You’ll never have a pot to piss in.”

She ironed wrinkles out of $20 bills and sent me one every birthday, every Christmas. She sent the same amount from 1968 until 2004, never thinking to take inflation or food stamps into account. Never forgetting to send the card.

When my kids did poorly in school, she worried endlessly, then sat back against the worn afghan on the back of her couch, folded her arms, tightened her mouth, and conferred the blame entirely on me.

When I came out as a lesbian, she stopped speaking to me entirely and for a very long time.

When I visited her with my partner and my mandolin, she was puzzled: which one of us did the cooking?

When we left the next week, she hugged us both good-bye, then called me back to her door and hissed into my ear, “You’re out of my will. Drive careful.”

She looked at my lifestyle, over and over, but she could hardly see me. She couldn’t sort me out. “How did you get so twisted?” she often asked. It was a question that nagged at her so much that she puzzled over it every time we saw each other. I found the question devastating, and for me the visit often ended in tears, my adult self wilted, my still-child’s heart broken. Twisted. Not a very kind word.

I met my son at the airport, and together we went to the hospital.

She was sitting in a blue recliner, newly transferred from the ICU, watching a game show. I sat on her neat hospital bed, wrinkling the bedspread. But her eyes sparked with utter love. “You look beautiful,” she said. “You look like your mother.”

She looked at my son, awkward, frightened, stoned. “You look so handsome, sweetie. You be a good boy for your mother.”

We stayed with her for an hour, and absolutely no unkind words were spoken, no recriminations made. She pulled out flannel memories from a softened heart and handed them to us with shaky, generous hands.

We promised to come back after dinner to watch Wheel of Fortune with her.

“Pat Sayjak!” she exclaimed. “I love that little Pollack!”  I had to roll my eyes, but she laughed and said how delighted she was to see us, and now she was ready to go home. Of course, she didn’t mean her apartment in elderly housing.

We were eating something fried, standard fare at my aunt’s, when the phone rang, shrill, into the neat suburban house. It was decorated by what wasn’t there anymore. My mother, my uncle, my grandfather. Young cousins, all grown up and gone.

We drove back to the hospital. Grandma was panting, in congestive heart failure. The nurse was putting in a foley catheter. I held her gently by her shoulders, put my face close, looked in her faded blue eyes. Said, “I love you, Grandma.”  She smiled. It was the sweetest smile. She spoke some garbled words. Her eyes closed.

My cousin and I sat vigil with her. Sometime after midnight, I saw her hover above her body, in the rocking chair from my little-girl years. It’s in my bedroom, still. She was half seated, half rising, trying to decide whether to stay or to go.

She died at 4AM.

I went alone to the crematorium the next day. My cousins found the idea peculiar but generally in keeping with what they had come to expect from me. What else was there for me to do but to go on listening to my truth? What else was there to do but to listen with my heart?

I dressed warmly and brought my journal. I sat in a private room in a faded floral easy chair that I dragged across the room so I could be close to her body. It was on a gurney. She still wore the same hospital johnnie that she died in. I could tell from the tiny Betadine stain on the front of it. Her eyes and her lips were shut tight. For a long time I stared at the tiny line of epoxy glue that sealed her mouth.

I sang her favorite hymns, without flinching. I sang songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, 50s tunes from my childhood. I sang Sinatra, Perry Como. Tony Bennett. Then I sang Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Brokedown Palace:

“Goin’ home, goin’ home / by the waterside I will rest my bones / Listen to the river sing sweet songs / to rock my soul.”

I talked with her body for a while. Mostly I cried. It felt good to be there.

When I stood up to kiss her goodbye, some inner choreography changed. Instead of pressing my lips against her cold forehead, I purposefully placed my journal over her silent heart. Then, holding my own body at such a peculiar angle that, afterward, my back had a crick in it for weeks, I wrote. I filled page after page in my journal, which was supported by the hard surface of the shell of my grandmother’s life.

That day, my own epic redemption poem was born. It sang, it wailed, it witnessed. And it transformed.

The cover of the journal was black.  The figure of a woman, dancing, was etched on it in gold. The binding was big, fat, and spiral so the pages stayed open beautifully. I wrote with a fountain pen, given to me by a dear friend to honor a special occasion.  But to this day I haven’t found it necessary to open that journal ever again, nor to read any of the writing. It has been enough to realize, after all those decades of feeling not enough, not seen nor understood, that my Grandma loved me the very best way that she could, and she loved me so much that she waited while I drove a thousand miles so I could be there when she died.

“What the hell does someone DO that long at the crematorium, Pat?”  My cousins were waiting for me at my aunt’s house. Dinner was ready. I was late, and they were hungry.

I smiled and reached for the deep fried zucchini.




I am Looking at Blue


I am looking at blue, the color of the iced-over earth reflecting the vastness of space and indigo night. Blue, color of the winter ice that surrounds us now, companion to our waking and sleeping, and to everything in between. It glimmers and sparkles and confers such magical stories onto the trees and bushes that I have to blink, sometimes, to make certain what I’m seeing is true. Sometimes Truth is hard to see, especially when it’s in your own back yard, especially when it’s beautiful, especially when it could be dangerous.

The ice saturates the branches and twigs, burying the buds that will explode with life in the spring. Blue, the color of life receding, burrowing back into subterranean layers, surrendering to inexplicable rhythms, complex in their own patterns as is the night sky. Underneath, there is deepening, a silent infusion of essence. This is what happens in the long nights in the dark time of the year.

Something is speaking to me in my dreams.

In the morning, when the sun rises and lends its truth to the ridgeline, the golden, silver glowing begins a transformation that will stay with us all day but will never give up its solstice season color of throbbing cold, ice-blue. Life sleeps and dreams deep in the earth, and invites us to hibernate, too.

And I am pondering this throbbing cold, this ice, this blue.

The Good Neighbor Thing

Coming-out stories come in all shapes and sizes. When my friend Joanne came out in her late 30s, it was a pretty lonely affair.  She came out as a lesbian feminist, and there was a general lack of affection in the broader lesbian community for this identification. She didn’t know many women in town in any case. There were several lonely months, lots of self doubt and second-guessing, before Joanne felt welcomed and comfortable. In telling this story later, she shakes her head, dismayed, still a little puzzled, but with an intact sense of humor: “I really thought someone was going to show up at my door, sort of like a gay welcome wagon, with a reading list and a loaf of bread and friendship.”

Starting to blog is a little like that. This assignment offers a remedy. Here are some sites that I have been drawn to and/or that have particularly welcomed me:

With powerful photographic images and penetrating words, Treothe is immersed in the ecopoetics of the Pacific Northwest in his blog, Tree Oathe — Fresh Ancients of Cascadia & Beyond, that can be found here.  There is  an especially incisive post in his writing category, using the story of Ferguson as an allegory to the state of our communities, comparing it with a case of lethal domestic abuse:

Elspod writes creatively on a variety of topics, some whimsical, some serious, all very well crafted. She imagines a spectacular send-off for Robin Williams–one he deserved, one more fitting to the humor and magic that he shared so generously with the world. Her blog, Be Amazing, is found here.

talesbytink is another excellent, creatively written blog. Her muse is a mermaid. An  evidently brilliant mermaid. She is committed to developing her craft of writing, and her posts have substance and depth.  Find her here.

Wendy Barron is a spirited writer with a rich creative life. She has a love for all things literary and an aversion to housework. You can find her over here.

I declare this the blog equivalent to the Gay Welcome Wagon thing that my friend Joanne missed. It’s true that making positive connections strengthens the fabric of our communities. Whatever and wherever they might be.

Lise’s, Montreal. Blogging 101, day 9

43fbfc4ac5c4fdda2405f42d8430ad57A professor and friend of mine lives and writes in Montreal. Her brick row-house faces a green urban park. The street is lined with trees, and parking is impossible. The view from the sidewalk, all along the street, is of cats on window-sills and container gardens flourishing in the sun.

Ah, but it’s the view out the kitchen window that enchants me. Those back windows look out over a maze of complex courtyards, paintings of rich detail: a cat’s-cradle of clothes-lines that fly work clothes on Monday morning and billowing worlds of sheets sailing later in the week; back-yard balconies with routine performances by mops and brooms and the wild shaking of throw rugs. There are magic flying carpets floating in the hot glimmer of a summer afternoon; fairies conducting their fairy-business beneath the drenched leaves of a June downpour; early morning children, Saturday night couples, and Sunday solitary women.

Inside, a rich world of books suggests a lifetime affair with words and ideas. I smile. It’s like walking into another time, into a crowded back-alley bookshop where communicants seeking shelter from the rain are announced by the shallow tinkling of a delicate bell positioned over a carved wooden door.

Then all my whimsy vanishes, stopped short in the presence of shelves bearing the heavy weight of discourse from those formidable French feminists.

Book Review: Bloodroot, by Amy Greene


Using alternating first-person narrative and a fractured chronological style, Amy Greene tells the legacy story of an Appalachian family from the early 20th century until the present. It’s a story that touches on “magic and madness, faith and secrets, passion and loss.”

There’s a little magic and a whole lot of madness. Also poverty, neglect, and domestic violence–which is madness, after all. Ms. Greene writes madness capably and with authority. After reading some of her dark, disturbing scenes, we understand how people go over the edge, how something breaks inside them. By using the first person narrative she allows compassion, or at least understanding, of some pretty sketchy characters. And even given the darkness and the hardscrabble lives, there is also tenderness, and redemption.

The Appalachian dialect felt awkward initially, making me wonder why I’d read such good things about the author’s prose. But the strength of the story worked me and I forgot at some point along the way that I was reading dialect. Still, there is something about Appalachian dialect that doesn’t have the same depth or resonance as the characters’ in Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The Color Purple, or The Book of Night Women.

As I began to catch the rhythm of this book, I thought maybe we could look forward to some novels that, like Louise Erdrich’s, explored inter-related characters over a series of several books. Greene is from Tennessee, and her next novel, Long Man, takes place there as well. Interweaving or not, place figures prominently in these two pieces of her fiction. And this author writes Appalachia very, very well.

Reflections on Nurses, Writing. Blogging 101, Day 4

I live in Vermont, home of the Bread and Puppet theater group, which shares magic, social and political commentary, and affordable art with its guests. One summer, the troop led us into a hushed red-pine forest. We sat on the ground at long, makeshift banquet tables laid with bright cloth and 582289a3d3123309b4a0d36b24c096b0coffee cans painted with flowers and arcane symbols. Our puppeteer-hosts served, in silence, chilled water from clay pitchers and chunks of homemade bread.

Like fresh bread and cool water, writing nourishes when it is shared.

I work as a nurse.  Nursing, too, is a practice that must be shared in order to exist. As a profession, or a calling, right livelihood, or just a paycheck,  by simple definition it cannot stand alone. The very mechanics of doing our jobs allow us to look through intimate windows opening briefly into others’ existences. Our jobs intersect with theirs at intrinsic turning points as they experience birth, life, and death.

That intersection is a crossroads where mysteries live, where events below the surface manifest in language we have become clumsy with. Nurses write to translate, to interpret.

The dichotomy between the technical and the personal asserts itself repeatedly in this profession. How do we maintain the pace required to provide dramatic, cutting edge interventions while preserving compassion and healing intention? That call to serve and to heal sparked the beginnings of the nursing profession—and eventually it sparked the creation of technology.

The ancient healers—magicians, witches, shamans—have been replaced. Today we survive infections and trauma that, before the arrival of modern medicine, were deadly. These improved outcomes are miracles and that come with various requirements. We must be technicians we well as nurses, often responding not to the person but to machines that measure and image the body’s mysterious inner workings. We are accountable to federal, state, and local regulations that assure safe, quality patient care. We seek an evidence-based practice. We have advanced practice and advanced degrees. I’m not suggesting that any of this is wrong. I am saying that often as nurses we have little time for providing the elements of care that called us to our profession in the first place. And I am saying that sometimes those same elements have been erased by a system that has embraced corporate culture and practices.

Yet time exists in layers, and so still there are the small, secret pockets where the legacy of healing emerges again and again.

And in those pockets, nurses are writing to survive that great split between science and magic. We are writing to avoid being destroyed by the heavy pendulum with its great momentum, swinging powerful and erratic between the polarities of what is possible in health care and what is possible in healing. For they are not always the same thing. Although our world so much needs both, there is an unfortunate and deep divide between the two. Nurses are among those who try to bridge that chasm, underscoring our profession’s commitment to interact with the person, not the disease.

Nurses use a process which includes assessment and documentation. There is this, too: we notice, observe, witness, map, and chronicle. It’s the pursuit of writers, yes, and it’s also what nurses do, from our own particular places in the universe.

Nursing happens. It doesn’t pretty things up. It is intimate with birth and blood, shit and insanity, illness and death. It’s built from primitive stuff, the humus of life, raw energy that demands acknowledgment.

Warm bread, shared, silent, in a summer forest in Vermont is one sort of offering. Another is giving voice to our experiences of life, through our words on the page.

These things are good medicine. We offer them up.

Going in, going out. Blogging 101 Day 2

Edit your blog’s title and tagline? Hold on! These could be metaphors (or would they be allegories?) for my life. And while I’m wide open to change and growth, there is core content that won’t change at this point on my journey. So my title and tagline now are what my title and tagline will remain, at least for the foreseeable future.

But on this chilly September evening, I’m reflecting on that tagline, mapping “. . .living, one word at a time” and thinking of a book I’ve just read. Twice. Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby has left me with many connections to explore, many possibilities to consider, many new ideas.

I look for meaning just about everywhere. Trying to locate meaning and sense in my life, in other’s, in the world—these are the essentials that call me to writing. I can roll with a great deal of chaos, but I look for terra firma amidst it all, even if all I can do sometimes is just precarious rock hopping. I aim for balance, but sometimes this propensity for reflection can be a source of discord between my partner and me.

My partner maintains that processing is hard work. She dislikes going inward and would much rather explore her external environment. Usually we can find a compromise somewhere toward the middle, but when we’re polarized it can be a problem. I have to admit that I was stunned to learn, decades ago, that there were some people, including her, who didn’t like to use self-examination or reflection as relationship tools.

Rebecca Solnit gives an artful explanation that brings these ways closer together. She says that, while self-reflection is necessary, “. . .so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles. . .Being able to travel both ways matters. . . [italics mine].”

So there it is. The compromise. Disengaging from an attachment to meaning that may no longer serve. And here I am, on a chilly September evening, still learning, always learning, about mapping my life, one word at a time.

May we always live stories, and tell stories, that serve.

Hello Blogging 101 Comrades

A Blogging 101 drop-out from earlier this year, I’m drawn to trying it again. I’m struck by the passion and wisdom, the intelligence, from the blogs and bloggers that I’ve gotten familiar with. I’m curious  how my own life might be reflected—back to me, out to others—through this different (to me) style of sharing words and of listening to and hearing them. Receiving them.

I’m committed to writing. Even with its difficulties, writing often feels easier than conversation. In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit speaks of “. . .telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible. . .” to speak out loud.  Communicating the nuances of what I’m trying to say often challenges me. The written word frees me from some odd, self-designed hook that expects meaningful dialogue only aurally. It’s the written word that dances in dialogue and life. Don’t get me wrong. Conversation and connection is important to me in any form. It’s just that. . .well, writing is different.

I love the written word. And I love dialogue. I guess that’s why I’m back to Blogging 101. I’m hoping to connect with others who are blogging their ideas and opinions, particularly in the contexts of creative writing, nursing, and generally being your own cartographer in this 21st century world.

A Place I’m From

I’ve joined the Writing 101 Challenge that WordPress is currently sponsoring. Typically, I’m way behind on my posting. This is from the day 2 prompt.

The snow comes, sometimes in October, and it hardly stops until May. The cold bites with razor teeth. Along with the deer, moose, turkey, and bear, hunting season annually claims a few human lives as well: young men with their lives ahead of them; older men whose families love them deeply in spite of their big drinking habits and faint scents of domestic abuse.

The snow falls hard and fast, leaving the rocky fields, red spruce, and balsam firs pristine and white before the soot makes the fields dreary again. Winter lasts so long that cabin fever is often tried as a legitimate excuse for a variety of  behaviors that would otherwise result in divorce or criminal charges. Mud season is practically a formal fifth season and limits comings and goings more severely than the snow. Potholes and erosion mark the 2-lane paved roads and the narrow dirt roads. In one season, more struts are destroyed than there are people in Derby.

Spring, nearly invisible and imperceptible, precedes a brief summer. Growing season can be as fleeting as 60 days but is often 90. The mosquitoes and black flies are predators and must be dealt with in some way. Autumn makes your eyes ache with its pulsing reds, yellows, and oranges. If you look too long, it’s like you’re staring at the sun—the colors of the trees are that strong.

Then winter comes again.

The northeastern-most part of the Northeast Kingdom is a loose container for people eking out economic existences in a wild variety of ways. Women fare well in the helping professions. Farmers often feel they’re working in a hostile environment. The paper and furniture mills shut down routinely when work gets slow. Car mechanics did well until engines became more and more computerized. Logging is good pay, but it’s the second most dangerous job in this country.  There’s seasonal work–cutting Christmas trees in late autumn, working at the ski resorts. Some have tried their hands at smuggling, and many have moved large amounts of pot. Some claim disability. Some get themselves arrested for the winter and released in the summer.

Here, too, are some of the first-, second- and third generations of back-to-the-landers of the 1970s, who came from various city-holds across the lower northeast. Although some have returned to the cities, many stayed, were grudgingly accepted as part of the community, and became part of the everyday struggle and celebration that is life along this cold border.

Here, many of the lost arts, aren’t.   Stitching everything together, a wedge needle on leather, is an artful way of living called survival.