Straw Flowers

Straw Flowers
"Straw Flowers" by L. Folk

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Man Who Fell (from Upon Waking)

There was a mattress in the air, navigated by cables and the people atop it were drinking, having a party, looking down and pointing. A strong wind blew and a man toppled down, or did he dive? There was water all around, azure blue stretched wide in rivers' mouths between peninsulas; he missed, hit his head square on the asphalt, and bounced. We swerved around him, aghast. We stopped, turned around, went for him. Time passed, or better, shifted from one frame to another, and I was inside an ambulance now, looking for bandages. The man should have been dead upon impact. The man should have been dead, but he was sitting up with a line of blood down his temple. Another frame shifted: in it my daughter dove into a tidal pool, but she didn't know how to swim. I dove in after her, thinking, what an adventurous spirit! There were barnacled rocks, seaweed softly moving in the tide, friends and strangers perched on the surrounding jetties. Afterwards, we went into a summer cottage with full view of the inlets, the mouths of the bay, the blue, blue, and I was still thinking how he should have been dead, but something in me chose otherwise and death would be postponed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Winter Moths

Papyrus nymphs
of no certain beauty
but certain lives
not unlike my own
(in certain ways)
color of dust, bothersome
like dust
diminutive and diminishing--
an equilateral triangle
of wings clinging
to the door, the window
a visual staccato-- iterations
in December
welcome themselves in
crash into your face,
spiral up, up, up
seeking
what we all seek
in the end
in the beginning
a portal, illumed.



Monday, December 7, 2015

Vanishing Point (from Upon Waking)

There were zinnias, aligned in a row along his country home driveway, each with a patch of snow in the middle of it--evidence of a climate gone awry. He saw her taking a shower, this young thing with young legs and arms, long maiden hair. He was older now, debonair, some would say; he had made his mark in the industry and was respected for it. But she could feel his desire, his longing to ravish youth, vitality, devour it like a chocolate eclair.

When they went to his flat in New York City as a couple, there were movies on the walls, images so vast they made her anxious. He had every amenity in this haven, this brownstone in a neighborhood where other musicians lived, composers, notable writers, artists with their work in MoMa. She went to the courtyard to make a call to an old friend. The friend had said she was going to visit her in the city, but there was apprehension in her voice now. Curiously, when she looked into the dark pane of a window, she had noticed new lines etched across her face, her hair not as perfect and maidenly. She had told her friend that he had started to notice her flaws, how perhaps his friends saw her dimpled ass, the peek of a varicose vein behind her knee. She was losing it. She told her friend that she was certain she was losing it.

It started to rain and the courtyard became a pool, vast and green. She touched the cement filigrees of the walls. "I haven't talked to her in years," she gossiped, and she said it as an affront, as if it were the estranged friend's fault and she had nothing to do with the severing of the relationship. When she hung up the phone, she had a fever. She went back to the flat and found no one home. Her mother took her temperature while she was lying on the sofa watching the images flash across the walls, images of bombed cities, crumbling buildings, rubble.

It was time to accept it for what it was, she thought, an entity moving toward some vanishing point, where everything that flashes, wanes, then becomes nothing at all.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Matrix of Orbs

Yesterday I sat in the car staring at the landscape below my mother's apartment complex. It appeared to be farmland, but it was a cul-de-sac only simulating farmland with a red barn-like house and a white livestock fence, and a green pasture-like lawn. There were trees shedding their leaves, and many trees with leaves already shed, the sky with a puddle of sun. I wondered about the trails there that led to a field of corn beyond, what animals roam there. Then I closed my eyes. I sought a particular peace that would bathe my mind, baptize it into new thought. I had been feeling weary and needed respite. I was a woman sitting at a fixed point, staring out. My vision was limited to a certain square footage, my eyes being only in front of my head. I thought of an orb with a thousand eyes, each with a different perspective. Then I thought of this thousand-eyed orb at a thousand different fixed points. Would this be omniscience? This would be God; this is how I interpret God, the all knowing. My small, limited mind can only tap at the door of understanding.

This is why faith is so important.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

From the Window, November


From the window, November looks too much like grief to me; this is why I recoil from it, at first. From the window, the stark, slender trees, the gray--I think of my father's cancer diagnosis and untimely death. No, I don't think of these things; these are not thoughts. These are the antitheses of thoughts, thoughts suppressed but moldering somewhere inside me. There are other antithetical thoughts: who is next? Me? My husband? One of the kids? November is the mark of our vulnerability. It reminds us of the pending treachery of life and we shiver accordingly.

But when I cross the threshold and go out into November, walk among the fallen oak leaves tinged with lace-like frost, touch my hand to the slender, stark trees, peer up at the timeless meditating firs and down into the cold, clear water of the river, I want to submerge myself. I am aware of a melancholic beauty--the Persephone of the Underworld, prayerful and accepting of her fate. This stage, this necessary reflection is, too, a part of existence.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Pool One Night in October (from Upon Waking)

Everyone was in the pool that night, my father and I, his football buddies--men I had never known or seen before, figments of men. My father, showing off, took the babysitter in his arms. She leaned back and her breasts popped out from under her bikini top. She slipped from his arms, embarrassed (she was such an innocent thing), submerged herself as the men roared. It was dark and chilly, an evening when the dew settled early; we had no right to be in that pool.

I unpeeled the layers of water to find her, despite my being intimidated by her beauty and youth. She was shivering from cold and anxiety, and her lips were turning purple. We hoisted ourselves up out of the pool, walked across the dark, dank grass. Suddenly I felt nauseous. I stopped, pulled parts of bodies from my mouth, arms, legs, feet. I looked down and they were strewn about the grass.

Then, the actor showed up. I worried about my breath, whether he would notice; he was once my lover. Surrounded by his entourage, he moved passed me toward the pool. I waited for him to turn back, to acknowledge me, to acknowledge, perhaps, the young beauty next to me, but he didn't. He was swept away with the crowd.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Question of Herons With an Answer by Mary Oliver

There must be some point when herons know they can't make the trip south.

I started wondering this sometime in October as I walked the woods along the river and saw the regulars--geese, mallards, gulls, sans the tall delicate birds that approach the river with semblances of curiosity and grace. During the summer I would see the white ones perched in the large oaks along the river's embankment; from the road they looked like draped handkerchiefs, pure white, newly laundered.

Today I found my answer in Mary Oliver's poem "Herons in Winter in the Frozen Marsh." It's funny how poems can answer questions churning in my mind; it's almost as if I'm being directed. This is what the old herons do: they wait. They wait as the cold whittles their bones and starvation loosens their flesh. At some point their "wings crank open/ revealing the old blue light" and they let go, "first one then the other ... into the ditches and upheavals." They become the water, the marsh, the bending grass.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Ship (from Upon Waking)

She got herself aboard a sailing ship to travel the Atlantic. The captain was a ruffian of sorts, large and outspoken, who barked orders at the sailors. It was rumored that once, in a fit of anger, he turned the boat over; it rolled in the Atlantic like a dog in the grass. He did it to punish to crew, and some of them nearly died from hypothermia.

They traveled north, through a rocky channel where fish got stuck in the high cliffs after the tide went out. She remarked to the captain, there, a flounder, there, a grouper, a marlin. Ay, they'd be tasty, the captain said and ordered one of the sailors to pluck the bigger ones for frying. Later that day, she found a flounder on her plate, whole, it's two eyes staring blindly up at her.

At some point, she felt the thrill of a storm, the ship hurling itself through the waves, the spray of the surf. She had said it to herself, "I have never felt so alive." When the storm retreated, they sailed into port. It could have been a port in Norway or Iceland; she did not know exactly. In fact no one but the captain knew the name of the port. The buildings were centuries old and conveyed an air of elegance and antiquity. It was early when they arrived and only the dogs were out. These stray dogs of the sea port had remarkably fine fur and were carrying a bag of sweet cake. They started to tussel over it, but not too aggressively, almost comically. She and the captain perused the otherwise empty cobblestone streets and canals and he took her elbow, guiding her; afterwards, they went back to the ship for breakfast.

Someone knocked at the door of her cabin before she went to table. It was a jeweler with a briefcase of metalwork--rings, shards and plates of copper. He asked her to pick out a gift for the captain. She wondered what good he had done. Why was everyone always appeasing him, this tyrant? She made her choice, a sheet of finely hammered bronze in the shape of the centuries-old buildings. The jeweler went on his way.

Adaptive Creativity and "Camel Toe" a short short from Upon Waking

Lately I've been writing these short short vignettes (Woolf called them "sketches) from my dreams. The "Longing" post is an example of one of these; I plan on compiling them all under the title Upon Waking, because they are written when the dream is fresh, after I have just opened my eyes. Surprisingly these pieces come out nearly whole. This genre is new to me, and I didn't think I had the type of brain to write them. I'm more equipped mentally for the long haul and weaving long yarns of prose. But I've learned that my creativity is adaptive; as a mother and a professor, I don't have the luxury of delving into long pieces. In fact, sadly, I have hardly any time to write at all. But I can manage 10 or 15 minutes upon waking, before the kids barge into our room wanting bweakfast. And I feel somewhat creatively satiated, knowing that I at least tried to get something down, and reassured that my mind can still dwell in a creative space, albeit a brusque one.

Here's a very short piece called "Camel Toe."

Camel Toe

She is a Vegas dancer in a corporate cafeteria dressed like an angel. Her chest is crisscrossed in diamonds and her bodysuit is nylon nude. She regards a man on his knees--Rob Lowe--who is in a comic role, begging some upright gentleman to take pity on him. If there is a laugh track, it's subtle or perhaps understood. The angel takes the arm of the upright gentleman and the two walk away; her wings nearly take out the Exit sign over the doorway while people go about their business, unfazed. There is more laughter. I turn to a second observer who could be my husband. "You can see her camel toe," I say. "Is that allowed?"

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Longing (Upon Waking)

We were there, my brother and I, hiding in the basement of the healer's house. I longed for her private sacristy--the singing bowl, burning sage, and prayer to the four directions--I longed for a sacred kind of calm, but I knew she was depleted and needed respite. Even healers need to sleep.

By hanging around waiting, we had gotten stuck, afraid to ask for the door, afraid to cause a disturbance, have them think we were stealing, or worse. I had just washed the baby in the commode, and we lingered somewhere near the furnace, behind a door, peering at the healer's husband in his easy chair as he watched television, his Bob Ross hair flying off his head, his feet up. At some point it became dark, and we could hear the husband's soft snoring. When the house was still, we tried a door that led to a stairway and out to the front hall. Here we opened a second door into the night.

In a leafless tree, an owl spread its wings; he was white with brown specs on his breast and had yellow eyes that looked down into one's own nakedness. He was fierce but elegant, soft but stern, and his wings took up most of that southern sky. We stepped out, free, and he flew up into the night, his giant head adjusting like the moon.


***

"Some people just get stuck inside you." This is what I told a student regarding his obsession with a high school classmate. I don't know whether it's ego or love or just unfinished business, to tell you the truth. I'm talking about longing like I still long for you. It's been some twenty or so years now, and I grapple with your mystery. Why do people get stuck inside us? You once admitted we had a bond (you were reaching to run your fingers over my faux leather biker jacket when you said it) but I doubt the bond tugs at you like it tugs at me. You were trained early on to not let such things get to you.

But there was that time, years after we broke up and after you broke up with her that I knew you would walk through my front door. We had just moved in to that dingy apartment in Brighton, and I was standing in the foyer looking at the painted grain of the wood and I said to myself, he's going to be here at some point. And then you were. You called me up to return a book of poems, and you picked me up and we went out for dinner. Your hair was cut and you were wearing a ring. I don't remember anything about the ring, only that it was there, on your hand, some gem, and I thought perhaps she had given it to you. You had transformed into a man and yet you still lacked some facial hair; there would be parts of you that would be forever boy. I wanted to make a good impression upon you, but this was impossible. You had already made up your mind to move to LA and besides who would want a woman still dripping fresh with longing and need? She's as desirable as a wet piece of laundry.

Is this the part I need to rectify? Your opinion of me? How I see me through your eyes?

***

There was a stairway to the third floor apartment, and I ran up and down it for exercise. I thought perhaps you were watching me. You were playing a game on the fields below; it was some kind of timed obstacle course. I saw you during your run; you hurled yourself over the finish line, and I thought, yes, I do that too, hurl myself at things.

I found out eventually that you and your wife were our new neighbors. While you were at work I befriended her, and we planned to have breakfast, despite the fact that she could barely speak my language. Was I just trying to get to you? Get on your good side? When you finally came home, you arrived dressed only in a towel. I hadn't seen you in years and then, suddenly, there you were, dripping wet, the hairs on your chest, wet, wet. You glanced at me and then started talking to another writer in the room about how you had connections. The longing inside me throbbed. "I'm doing this to myself," I said. It's a wonder turned sour, a conditioning, of sorts, for real life.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

There May Be Openings


There May Be Openings


There may be openings,
though I spend my life
banging at the door
there may be openings
at my head perhaps
or in the floor.
You subtle god rising
tucked away in some bud
some stone, some afterthought
you dangle, you plunge
you live your life
underneath my tongue

A thirsted, distant entity
yet intimate
lies within me
a hatchling crying out
to sustenance
to embrace and dance,
to chance

Flip a coin of mood and
I am staring at you darkly
and you don't move an inch
I cup your riddle
in my hands and sit, investigate
meditate
wait
for a petal to release
for a scent, some sound

but what I don't know
unfolds behind me,
around me, blossoming,
harkening
in petals and sounds abound

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Breaking Glass

I place my shards
     at your feet
is what I hear when I pick
    at broken glass in the dirt


Perhaps placed is not
    right for the vandal
doesn't care
    where the shards land or
whether they puncture a paw
or file into a foot

    In fact, the vandal doesn't care
for anything at all
   when that bottle busts--

evidence of
   something intimate ignored
or forsaken, something that rises
  amidst glowing faces
round a ravishing fire

Damn it all to hell

the shards convey
  whether in the woods or

at sea (broken over
   the bow of a boat? shattered
over the jetty's jutted edges?)
  dusty and misty
collectible and collected.

How ironic--this now dulled
   mad dash at the world
for its own careless ways
    sits innocuous in a dish

    the focal point in some
stranger's living room.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Glimpse of My Life

I felt it this morning-- a something Sunday, a kind of ease. Rest, meditate and the muse whispers. It was possible, I thought, as I walked the white-washed road to the woods with my dog. We entered the dark, cool woods, entanglement of branches, smatterings of green. I perched on my rock and framed by a tree was a great egret, a picture of grace with its soft curves and softer plumage. Across the tidal river, the cars glided along the road. I got up from my rock, looked for her; I'm always looking for her. I may never see any of them again.

We hike up through the blues. The foxes must've eaten all of them. A boat sent a wake across the river; small waves splashed on the shore. A vixen had left her mark right in the middle of the trail. "This is mine," it said. I walked down a path that had every shape of mystery and myth. Where were they all, the totem beasts? Buried in the piles of mulch they dumped on the edge of the playground? Sleeping in their dens between the rocks? They say the fishers hang out in the trees, but I have yet to see one up there. We have seen the northern flickers scampering through the wood, their white patch like a star ascending in the dark. We passed an opened door and there was singing. If there were only some shade I may have stayed a bit. I headed back home to clean, to do everything that is expected of me. To do everything I expect of myself.


Cool Confidence

I think of the monarch butterfly in its jeweled sheath, transforming. Is this process rushed? Does she slide out with half a wing? No, she dangles elegantly until the sheath is torn. She waits silently in transformation, is patient about her tender wings. The sheath shrivels and is whisked away. In that moment just before flight, she is certain; she is confident. This is the characteristic of a genesis un-rushed--confidence. A cool confidence is valuable to an artist. A cool, mindful confidence is everything.

The butterfly tests her paper wings. The eye of the wing is awake. One moment to wave, another to lift, up, up, up.

She looks down and sees the world.

Letter from the Editor: Taking the Namby-Pamby Out of Compassion



Taking the Namby-Pamby Out of Compassion

I found the essay “Keep Your Compassion, Give Me Your Madness” (NYTimes, June 20, 1987) while doing research on compassion in literature and I felt like I struck gold. In it, the writer and critic Anatole Broyard wonders “whether it isn’t oxymoronic for a novel to be brilliant and compassionate at the same time” and “whether compassion isn’t just another form of writer’s block.” Finally, he claims there’s something “sticky, pious, or namby-pamby about the word.”

There it is in print, namby-pamby, further evidence of how compassion, often mistaken for pity or sentimentality, gets a bad rap. Broyard wants characters “to survive on the strength of their deviousness and stubborn wrongheadedness.” That’s what makes a novel brilliant according to him, because after all, novels are a form of “sadomasochism” anyway.

Huh.

Broyard provides no examples of the namby-pamby, compassionate novels of which he speaks and abruptly shifts his essay into a review of a non-fiction book about the neurotic utopian socialist, Charles Fourier (Charles Fourier: A Visionary in His World, University of California Press, 1987) who sought to construct a society based upon human pleasure and “passionate attraction.”

This essay/book review provoked a reader to write a letter to the editor titled “Compassion in the Novel” (NYTimes, August 1, 1987). The reader chastises Broyard for not giving evidence to prove his point, as any college freshman knows to do. That reader was bestselling author and National Book Award winner John Irving.

Irving refutes Broyard with the classics, concrete examples like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and specifically the character Levin, who believes life has meaning by the power of goodness he puts into it. Levin’s relationship with the peasant people who live on his land is exemplary in the novel: it shows the interconnectedness of humanity, which in the good, translates to compassion. I would like to add to Irving’s list the Grapes of Wrath: who doesn’t remember that last scene where Rose of Sharon, after having lost her baby, nurses the half-starved man back to life? Or in Ethan Frome when the hypochondriac misanthrope Zeena changes her tune and devotes her life to caring for the crippled Mattie and Ethan? In these beacons of literature, compassion has a sort of power and is anything but namby-pamby.

In the summer edition of The Compassion Anthology we are including “The Cloak” a classic itself, by Nikolai Gogol. Fyodor Dostoevsky said of the short story, “We all come out from Gogol’s overcoat” speaking here of Gogol’s influence on Russian literature and literature in general. The story is timeless in its premise of lack of compassion and how a society will be “haunted” by remorse when the powers-that-be don’t do the right thing. We have contemporary examples in Michael Brown and other black men killed by police; these men may not have been as innocent as Akakiy Akakievitch, but they certainly did not deserve the fate that befell them.

Also included here are works by Janel Houton, whose colorful paintings lend awareness to endangered species living among us; Mikele Rauch’s paintings of compassion and healing after violence; Don Cooper’s photographic collage of Mother Teresa (the icon of compassion) amidst the destitute in India; Cansu Bulgu’s “Eye of Oneness” that portrays how, in the stillness of the self, unity and compassion show up; Laura Foley’s poetry based on her fearless plunge into “compassion predicaments”; and Marina Cantacuzino’s reflection on the complex nature of forgiveness.

I hope you find these works and the others published here inspiring and evidence that art, too, can touch this innate power in us all.







Friday, July 31, 2015

Owning the Flowers

My 3 year old daughter is a flower freak just like her mother. I had to hide the oxalis in March when it burst into bloom because she kept nagging me for one of its nymph-like white flowers. No, two. Two, she'd say. I would find her crawling across the kitchen table to grab a fistful in the baywindow. Later they lay limp and dying on the rug in the living room, forgotten. In the mornings in May, dried dandelions in her bed. Now that it's July, she nearly hyperventilates every time we go for a walk. I see her crouching in the grass, hastily grabbing at each small bloom. She walks around with fistfuls of grass, weeds, roots clinging to dirt--byproducts that come with the beauty she covets.

When it comes to picking the perennials in my garden, I intervene. Why can't you just admire (love, I say, she understands love) them from afar? If you pick them, they will die sooner. She doesn't care. She has no comprehension of death or the concept of time. She wants to own the beauty of the flowers and that's that.

I can relate. I want to own beauty too in all of its forms--color, grace, song, poetry, laughter. Beauty (a bouquet, a painting, a Neruda poem) often mimics passion and depicts a heightened state of being. Our lives are filled with drudgery--bills, chores, errands, the to-do; glancing at a bouquet reminds us of our more passionate selves, a peak state when it's easier to be wholly alive and engaged. It's the child part of us that wants to cling to it, though, possess it like a secret. A mature mind knows to appreciate beauty where it stands and let it go when it fades.

There are some that believe the fading part is just as important as the ecstasy part. I think of the Buddhist monks building their sand mandalas, revel at the painstakingly placed particles and complicated patterns. When the toil is over, the monks destroy the mandala in the blink of an eye by sweeping the sand. It's a practice, to endure the end of beauty. Later, the monks transport the sand of the mandala to a river where it is poured into the water and flows out to the world, a blessing.

 

Could you take a knife to a Botticelli? I doubt I could. But watching the monks pour the sand into the river in a sacred ritual made sense to me. It had intention, meaning, a higher meaning. I hope someday I'm that mature.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Persistence of Mrs. Finch

And still Mrs. Finch has not returned to her nest.

About a month ago, a Mr. Finch and his partner Mrs. Finch were scouting out a nesting area. They were fluttering about a downspout at the northeast corner of our roof; this had us concerned. But the couple resigned to the top of a column supporting our side porch roof, therefore bypassing a clogged spout and a drowned brood. Unfortunately this was the same exact spot a sparrow, let's call him Jerry, used to roost at night in the late fall and early winter. I would come home after an evening away and see him up there with his eyes closed. It was sort of strange to see a bird sleeping; we know them as the antithesis of this--singing harbingers of the waking world. So Jerry had his roost at the column top (there's probably some architectural term I should be using here, but I am too lazy to look it up) but abandoned it come spring and the Finches moved in.

Mrs. Finch began to build her nest and Mr. Finch serenaded her with his sweet trills. As I was making lunch or dinner, I would hear his delightful song and every once and a while catch a glimpse of him with his jewel-red head and throat. House finches they are called, and the male is stunning with his scarlet color, the female a slender brown bird with black eyes. They originated from Mexico and the Western US and were introduced to the East, specifically Long Island, as cage birds, but this failed. They were released into "the wild" sometime in the 1940s and multiplied quickly; today they are numbered, nationwide, in the billions.

So Mrs. Finch gathered dainty twigs and stalks of grass and wove them together with her beak. I watched her do it, her butt high in the air like a duck in a pond. She tucked and primped and made it all just so. We decided to close down the porch once again, despite it being closed most of the winter due to ice dams and snow mounds. This was inconvenient, especially since we were looking forward to using the deck, the side door and porch being the easiest access. Mrs. Finch and her babies were a priority, much to the dismay of my husband, and we honored her nesting and let her be for the most part.

She was very astute and nervous as it were, always aware of me when I was stealing a glimpse and flying off if she sensed an intrusion, which there were, of course, intrusions, due to my husband breaking our pact and grumbling about the damn bird. I must confess, I felt anxious and caught between my husband who had every right to access his back deck in the most convenient manner and Mrs. Finch who was now sitting in the nest and atop her babies that needed her warmth to properly mature. We did have a few visitors who came to the side door, due to my being lax about roping it off, and this sent Mrs. Finch off in a tizzy each time.

Truth be known, I had every intention of roping off the porch one particularly fateful day, but when I returned home from a pressing engagement found the carnage: two blue eggs smashed on the deck. There were fragments of the nest everywhere as well as feathers and a smattering of bird poop. It was a crime scene.

Later that day, Mrs. Finch returned to try and rebuild the nest and there was Jerry alongside her (or some sparrow that strikingly resembled Jerry) trying to destroy it. So as Mrs. Finch was frantically rebuilding, Jerry was frantically destroying and protesting in loud, sharp chirps. Mr. Finch was nowhere to be found.

Eventually, Jerry succeeded in completely dismantling the nest; wisps of it floated hither and thither all over the deck and side porch. Then both birds disappeared and we saw neither one for about a week. Richard washed the deck and we presumed that was that.

But not a week later, Mrs. Finch returned again to build another nest. And once again Mr. Finch cheered her on with his tender trills.

I found this to be particularly perplexing. Mrs. Finch had already laid her eggs; could it be she had more? Can birds manufacture another brood that fast? Or was she just delusional? I admired her persistence, and I thought of myself and how, with every failed fertilization attempt, it was back to the drawing board. It never occurred to me to give up. It's an innate thing, perhaps a female thing, a faith, that the good in life, the joy, the successes are all worth the effort of having a brood. Or is it the innate compulsion that life must go on at all costs? There's also the larger than oneself factor: the progeny part and the extension of the self through children. We're only here for a short time and it's somehow comforting to know we will live on in others. Was this what Mrs. Finch was thinking?

So Mrs. Finch built the entire nest again and Jerry never showed up again; I wondered if perhaps the Finches hired a hawk or raven to whack him. And then Mrs. Finch suddenly disappeared after the nest was completed. I watch for her every day and every day she does not come and the nest is up there, constructed but empty, like an empty womb, and I must once again embrace the unknowable.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Icon, Idol, Model Man



Icon, Idol, Model Man

You are a place in my mind
and I am a person
You, icon, idol, model man,
tresses on your shoulder
long and lithe when you
stand and rock the boat
bare thigh, a flash.
We lay on a raft
made of saplings and drift
toward a shipwreck in
Gloucester Harbor where
there are night swimmers
and other incorporeal beings.
You, too, are a ghost
and yet your hand is pure
sensation
You take down my shirt
and expose my skin
to the stars.

Later, you break me
and I break you, entomb
you in a mountain cave
like Antigone.

When the evening wanes
and the dishes are put away
and the children asleep
I return to you, my private
lust, my evensong.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mothering: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Wonder-ful




Love that does not have humility as its mother and holy awe as its father is orphaned from all goodness.
                                                ~Mechtild of Magdeburg

I don’t find it easy to write about motherhood, probably because the independent, creative self wants to be free of all duty (and motherhood, although a blessing, is indeed a duty). But the above quote struck me as true. No matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant, successful, etc., motherhood and the type of humbling love that accompanies it can knock you on your ear.

A couple of weeks ago I posted two pictures of myself side by side on facebook: the one on the left was taken of me when I was newly married before motherhood; in it I have long model hair, a tan, and I’m smiling like the world is my oyster. The one on the right is of me as of my twins’ third birthday: I’ve gained weight, have bags under my eyes, wrinkles across my forehead, and I look exhausted.

Motherhood takes its toll; you get gray hairs and no longer have visible abs; you are often at that place of Wit’s End, but as a friend once advised me, that’s how you know you are doing it right. Love that does not include the hard part isn’t love at all. And what is the hard part exactly? Compassion. Putting another first, caring for them first, satisfying their needs before your own.

The women of my generation went to school and got jobs; we knew how to put ourselves first. When we wanted a new dress, we bought it. When we wanted dinner and drinks, we called a friend. We lived independently from our parents and followed our passions even if they failed us. My mother’s generation never complained so much about motherhood (no one ever told me it was going to be this hard, we always say when we’ve found a confidante); they went from their father’s house to their husband’s where they assumed the role of caretaker and that was that.

This is why motherhood is more of an adjustment for my generation. The education, thinking skills, and experience we got serving ourselves translate to valuable wisdom for maneuvering our own kids through the world.  We use these skills to try and strike a balance between a life for ourselves and a life for our family, but that just isn’t easy in today’s society. This often leaves us frustrated and it can get the best of us.

When I was pregnant with the twins, I remember observing a gull with its baby, a speckled bird bigger than its demure white and gray mother. The baby followed the mother along the edge of the water, crying and squawking incessantly. The mother gull walked ahead, ignoring her baby, and then she suddenly took flight across the bay and the baby hurried after her. Yep, I thought. That’s a part of mothering, too, wanting to fly away.

I take my dog for a walk every morning and when my son sees me put my jacket on, he importunes, “Where are you going, Mommy? Huh? Stay here, Mommy. Sit down right here on the couch.” My daughter confronts me every time I fetch my purse and keys, “You’re going to come back, right?” What do I do that makes them question if I will come back? Is my restlessness that visible?

I remember how frustrated my father used to get when my brother and I started acting up, so much that he would voice this frustration and threaten to leave. And he did take off, for weekends at a time, to go hunting in upstate New York, to be free for a little while and blow off some steam. But my father always came back. And this is what a humbling love does: it brings you back to the people who need you most.

I try to see the world though my children’s eyes. My daughter is delighted by dandelions, pill bugs, and worms. She likes to carry them around. She tells me she loves them, that they are the most beautiful things to her. My son notices every truck and construction vehicle we drive by. He moves his matchbox car over the sofa and observes how the wheels rotate in unison. My children are enthralled by the world, by snowflakes, spring blooms, tidal pools, and I can reach back, back and recall this feeling of the “gift of life” of a sacred wonder, where everything was new and precious. For me, it was the fiesta colored azaleas with their silk thread stamens and the rainbows in the hose water, the peonies with their ant sentinels patrolling each bud, and the feel of the cool grass between my toes at twilight. I was safe. My parents were home and my parents were everything.

And that holy regard one has for one’s parent does not go away, no matter how old you are. A couple of weeks ago I was giving a public lecture at North Shore Community College and my mother walked into the room. Something inside me cracked open and I wanted to sob. She’s here. She’s come. My mother.

So I remember what it’s like to need a mother, to love a mother and I need to be mindful of this-- in my rush to be this and my desire to do that-- because to be anything less than a mother would bring suffering to my kids and that, to me, is unthinkable.

Regarding those two photos, the motherless me and the mother me, well, here’s a secret: pound for pound, I’m happier being the mother, despite its physical and emotional drawbacks. I have lost the existential angst that used to plague me during my younger years and I wouldn’t want that back for all the model hair in the world. This humbling love is hard, and it has taken everything I’ve got, but it has meaning and purpose, a deep soul kind of meaning and purpose that confirms, no matter how nuts I get, that I am on the right track.





Friday, March 27, 2015

Father God, Mother God, Lover God


Father God, Mother God, Lover God

Father God has been drummed into our heads aplenty by the patriarchal dogma of Judaism and Western Christianity. Mother God and Lover God are lesser known deities, but they do exist. Mother God stems from a feminist undercurrent rippling within the patriarchal religions: you can find evidence of Her everywhere. I think of my own grandmother and her allegiance to the Blessed Mother; she prayed more to her than Christ himself. My grandmother belonged to the Legion of Mary and attended meetings and prayer groups; she said the Rosary every morning. I can still see her lying on her back in her bed, her lips mouthing the prayers, the beads wrapped around her gnarly fingers. She put herself into a trance every morning, a communion of sorts with the Catholic version of the divine feminine.

Recently I’ve started revising a novel I thought I finished two years ago. It’s a part historical/part contemporary read featuring polygamy in nineteenth century Utah. In my research, I stumbled upon a feminist text that reports an undercurrent of feminism within the oppressive bounds of polygamy. Sister wives were bonded to one another through the Female Relief Society, a society that incorporated feminist ideas, not only in spirituality, but daily life as well. Joseph Smith organized the society himself, under the helm of one Eliza Snow, who wrote poems about a Mother God. The society was modeled after the priesthood in that members could practice sacred acts such as the laying on of hands to heal the sick. The Female Relief Society had its own publication called the Woman’s Exponent where women could voice their frustrations with men. Here is an excerpt from Blanche Beechwood, a.k.a Emmeline B. Wells, the editor:

I know we are taught that Eve was the first to sin. Well, she was simply more progressive than Adam. She did not want to live in the beautiful garden for ever, and be nobody—not able even to make her own aprons.

Here’s another excerpt, showcasing true feminist thought, from an entry titled “An Old Maid’s Protest” addressed to the “Lords of creation,” i.e. men:

I have no doubt but that you will greet this with a cynical smile, as your conceit and vanity are developed to such an extent as to prevent you from accepting it as truth. But such it is. You may call me “Woman’s rights advocate,” “Blue Stocking,” or any other tender epithet; I care not. I am independent and not afraid because I am a woman to express my views on any subject. You may think I am only joking; but I warn you not to test the truth of my remarks by proposing to me, for I have such an utter detestation for the whole sex that it is with the greatest difficult that I can treat the men with common civility. And don’t think I have been crossed in love either, for I haven’t.

The once editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline B. Wells, was active in the women’s suffrage movement while still being a proponent of polygamy. She believed that plural marriage afforded a woman personal freedom and independence to exercise her rights because her sister wives helped in the chores and child rearing.

I’m excited about incorporating this research in my novel. I believe it will supply some depth to the chapters that needed a bit more oomph. The research served another purpose for me, though: I realized it was okay to want a divine female counterpart in God. Mormon women both contemporary and historical are/were vocal in their need for a divine being they could relate to. I realized I felt the exact same way and that this was a very natural thing. You didn’t have to reject a patriarchal religion altogether, as I have been doing; you could voice your conflict with it and make necessary adaptations.

While rewriting the novel, I revisited my book of readings by woman mystics to further be inspired (I have a character who is a Mormon mystic). The mystic shows up in every religion; she’s that person who pushes the boundaries of doctrine and is fueled by passion—more than conformity and fear—and sees God not only as a divine parent, but a lover. In my research I’ve encountered the term “coniunctio” defined as the conjugal bond between the soul and God. Catherine L. Albanese, author of “Mormonism and the Male-Female God: An Exploration in Active Mysticism,” describes this bond as “erotic” and “sexual.” I found this idea fascinating, how the mystic yearns to be one with God as a lover yearns to be one with her beloved. Here is evidence of coniunctio in the poems of Mechtild of Magdeburg, a thirteenth century German mystic:

A Song of the Soul:
Lord, You shine into my soul
like the sun glows on gold,
and when I rest in You,
what rich joy I have.
In fact, You clothe Yourself, God,
with my soul.
You are her most intimate piece of clothing against the skin.


God’s Singing Response to the Soul:
God as Lover of the Soul says:
“When I shine, you glow.
When I flow, you grow wet.
When you sigh, you draw My divine heart into you.
When you weep and long for Me, I take you in My arms and
embrace you.
“But when you love, we become one.
And when we two are one,
we can never be separated.
Instead, a joyful sort of waiting
binds us.”

We are tempted to say we know this love through sex with a beloved, a person one loves and wants to join oneself to. But sex can be divisional; we get too focused on bodily sensation and pleasing one another. I feel like I know this grander type of love on an unconscious level; last night I dreamed of an old crush, and in the dream, my crush had a twin who was dating my friend who happened to look like me (Jung would have a field day with this). I remember the euphoria of being held by him; it was not a sexual type of union; it had nothing to do with body desire, and yet he had strong muscles and was regarded as the handsomer twin. I felt like I had achieved something, that there was a struggle to move through and then a reward—his magical love that soothed me and made me feel like all was right. He was a safe-haven of sorts. My “crush” was almost god-like in that way.

I wrote this poem before I had these thoughts about a Mother and Lover God. But it fits. Maybe it was a premonition of sorts:

If I say the world Love
do I mean it?
Judgement and Scrutiny back me
into a corner, where I sit
until I can't stand it anymore.
But with Her, I can run
or sleep in the soft snow.
We will rest in Winter's
Womb--the rabbit, the fox
and us. I feel it-- Elation.
Eleison. A cloud of Yes 
about my ears. Yes! Yes!
The God is singing in the bell
tower. His love child with
every man and woman is born
again and again.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Letter from the Editor of The Compassion Project: Beyond the Dragons of Eden: How Art Makes Us Human

Letter from the Editor

Reading and witnessing works of art can open our minds to our global community in both space and time. They allow us to act as fully functioning humans, not reptiles that want to kill each other.

We are all hard-wired for both selfishness and compassion, for ruthless fighting and enduring love. We all have that ancient reptilian brain embedded in the hypothalamus, designed to implement what scientists call the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… sex. When your testosterone and adrenaline are pumping during an argument, you can thank your distant cousin the T-Rex. If you’re born into poverty with few resources, survival becomes paramount, and you’re more vulnerable to the reptilian instincts.

As we moved up the evolutionary ladder, some reptiles evolved into mammals, and the limbic or mammalian brain that developed enabled them to nurture. This wasn’t out of love, per se, but preservation of the species. Unlike reptiles that laid eggs and split, mammals gave birth to their young and had to care for them until their bigger brains matured. They had to feed, protect, and shelter their babies. For humans, it is through the mammalian brain that we learn to put another individual first, that we can exercise our compassionate tendencies.

 The evolution of the neo-cortex or “over-seeing” brain in human beings made it mandatory that an infant be born “prematurely,” that is, before the bigger brain fully matured so that it could fit through the birth canal. Thus, infants were born totally helpless and entirely dependent on their parents. “Parental affection ensured the survival of the species,” writes Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Infants now “needed the support, care, and protection not only of their parents but an entire community.” Through evolution, this type of compassion became more entrenched and widespread. It eventually evolved into altruism.

 With the adaptation of the neo-cortex, humans became capable of reasoning, reflection and creativity. We began to seek meaning in our lives. This is where art and science factored in; we began to experiment and explore the world around us. We documented and classified. We expressed our emotions through creations. We realized that art, as well as science, could lead to knowledge. Most importantly, we learned that art and science allowed for us to abolish wrongly preconceived ideas and notions.

 Art establishes understanding and empathy, and it does this with finesse and originality. It employs beauty and sophistication. I think I can speak for most of us when I say I would much rather read a novel that showcases the full range of human emotion than delve into the tenets, theories, and accounts in a textbook.

 Here are some examples of art that promoted large-scale understanding, empathy, and disproved wrongly preconceived ideas:

 ·      Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. This elegantly written autobiography proved to nineteenth century Americans that blacks were not inferior to whites intellectually; they too had fully functioning neo-cortexes.
 ·      The plays A Doll House, by Henrik Ibsen, Trifles by Susan Glaspell and the paintings of Frida Kahlo. These works prove that women are not “dolls” nor do they have trivial inner and outer lives.

 ·      Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. These works portray the imperialistic attitudes and emotional complexity inherent in colonialism. They aim to show that what some deem an “inferior society” is just a different take on being human, and often a more spiritual one.

·      The poetry of Rumi. Poet and translator Coleman Barks says that the “love” in Rumi’s poems is “nakedly exposed and restless like a mountain creek, like sunlight moving around a winter room.” Rumi’s poetry is a portal to mysticism through which Non-Muslims can freely enter and learn that true Islam is not fanatical and hostile, but compassionate, ecstatic and reverent.

When our belief systems are altered through experiencing artistic works, it translates to our behavior and enables us to act compassionately.

At North Shore Community College, a female faculty member claims the poetry of Bruce Weigl helps her relate to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  She writes, “Every time I encountered a veteran, I thought of this Weigl poem, ‘The Snowy Egret.’ It made me approach these students with a respect and gentleness that I didn't think I had in me…it clearly made me treat veterans differently than I expected I would and which my political beliefs on paper would dictate.” 

Tam Martin Fowles, founder of Hope in the Heart, an organization that guides individuals to triumph over adversity and understand their place in the global community, cites the novel Notes from an Exhibition and specifically the character Anthony, a Quaker who “lives his life by a set of values that aroused great empathy and inspiration” in Martin Fowles.  After reading the book, Martin Fowles began to attend Quaker meetings herself, ultimately discovered a faith that suited her, and a community of people that embodied “ an ethos of peace and social action.”

We tend to see art/literature as a means for empathy only, but empathy is only the starting point. Readers can empathize with the plight of characters they love; people can be captivated by works of art for very personal reasons. Yet, when we say art matters, we say it because we have been moved beyond personal illumination to act more compassionately in the world. 

We at The Compassion Project seek to do just that. The fundraiser we are sponsoring this spring will benefit the children of ChildHelp Sierra Leone, a child rights organization that bore the brunt of the Ebola virus—not only physically, but emotionally and financially—this past fall. I have been in contact with director Kaprie Thoronka since August and his heart-wrenching letters of devastation in Sierra Leone have moved me to do what I can to help. Moreover, Africa got the short end of the stick with respect to world aid for a calamity. People weren’t rushing to Africa to lend a hand like they did for Haiti and Japan. I remember scrolling through all of the Indiegogo Ebola campaigns; many of them had no funding at all and remained that way until they closed.

Please read the Call for Submissions on our home page to learn how you can contribute and help foster our community of compassion through creativity. To quote Armstrong again, "We have a duty to get to know one another and to cultivate a concern and responsibility for all our neighbors in the global village."


Regards and happy spring,

 Laurette Folk, Editor of The Compassion Project: An Anthology

www.compassionanthology.com
 

 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Snow Life

There's a car outside skidding its tires up our icy hill, and the wind is roaring about the house like a train circling. It feels like the window panes are going to get punched in. The snow is more than 3 feet deep in our backyard and in some drifts, over 6. Taking my dog Josie for her walk along the road is like taking our lives into our hands; the snow banks make for a maze where imposing cars suddenly appear and disappear, and it's nerve-wracking. So I decided to take a different route, out back and into the woods, atop the snow and otherwise prohibiting brambles. For the 6 and a half years we've lived here, we've never ventured back there, because it was too difficult to manipulate the undergrowth. But now, with snowshoes, I can easily make a trail for my dog and I to safely follow.

The land abuts the Bass River, now cloaked in ice. In the morning we usually see a red-tailed hawk perched high in an oak tree, surveying the land around the cattails; nervous doves flutter below him. When I peered through my binoculars at him, I saw a design on his back like a peacock's emerald eyes-- he was still watching me with his back turned.

The woods here isn't much and the river isn't that pretty during warmer months. Its bed is muddy and when the tide is low, you can see remnants of tires, chairs, shopping carts. You can't help but hear the road-- Route 62, and see the urban sprawl of the Cummings Center. But there, where the hawk perches, atop an old oak tree, atop a promontory, you can look East you and see the breadth of the woods, a tributary of the river winding through the ice; an old nineteenth century factory building and church spire make for a nostalgic backdrop. At dusk yesterday, the setting sun pitched an orange halo over that part of the city, and the wind picked up the snow and made for an ethereal white haze. With the tinkle-ping sound of the sailboats boarded across the river, it was mystical.

We trudge back our worn path, which has been covered again and again by more snow; I make sure to break tree branches so I can trace where I've been. And it's worked famously. We track through the new fallen snow with every storm; any move to the right or left and we sink into cold, soft down. There are coyote, squirrel, fox, and rabbit tracks back here. I found an owl or hawk bolus and the remnants of a kill. There are locust, birch, box elder, and oak trees so old, they have gaping mouths that might at any moment start talking to you. There's thriving life in these ragged woods behind my house.

Last week I contemplated crossing the land bridge beneath the House of Usher. The House of Usher rises up from the banks of the Bass River like the tall gray oaks that camouflage it. It has giant solar panes mirroring the sky and a deck that spans into the branches of the trees. The man in the house has a vehicle for hauling trash or shoveling snow off his long clandestine driveway. Once, when I was in the latter months of my pregnancy, I was picking lilacs at the end of his driveway where a blooming bush was growing on an abandoned property on the other side of his fence. "Hello!" he kept yelling at me. "Hello!" His pitched voice betrayed his nervousness. In the back of his house, in the woods along the land bridge there are half a dozen No Trespassing signs, which I found intimidating, thus halting my trek at his boathouse. The dock there doesn't look like much from the road across the river, but up close, it's a formidable structure, built like a tank and stuck in the frozen mud and snow. Josie made her way out to the beach part behind the dock, and while the man was watching her from the window, pooped. I hobbled out to go bag it. It was sort of funny, a retribution of sorts, and I could have left it, but I didn't want him to peg me as irresponsible; I didn't want to give him any ammunition.

I try to sympathize with the guy. If I owned a house in the woods and the city wanted to run a trail abutting my property would I be upset? Would I dress up in a Carhartt jumper and spy on snowshoers hiking with their dogs, making for a cliche scene from a B-rated horror flick? My neighbor said he's very "vocal" at the town meetings on the subject of the trail. But he hasn't got a let to stand on. It isn't his property; he needs to learn how to share the woods.

I've appointed myself a scout for the trail and have contemplated bringing a sign with me to hold up for him to read while he watches me from his window. Perhaps it would say, "Dude, what are you hiding?" or "Paranoia, Big Destroyah." But that would be antagonistic.

And yet, the light is brighter now and promising; spring is just around the corner. Perhaps that would bring understanding and kinder relations.




Friday, January 23, 2015

Tending a Fire

I meditated this morning and the first thing that appeared in my head was the long blue (pale and steely, like the ocean) ranch across from our house in New Jersey. The Kelleys lived there and the seven years that we lived across from them, we never met any of them. We saw them from time to time, the son who drove a small car, perhaps a Toyota, blue like the house. He had long hair; my father probably thought he smoked dope. We were neighbors and yet, had no reason to know one another. Perhaps the Kelley's house is a metaphor for the impersonal, for disconnection, the disconnection common to winter.

After the Kelley's house came the boulders. My father hauled them to the edge of our front lawn to serve as a deterrent after some idiot did donuts and tore up the grass. Are they a metaphor for protection? I have been realizing as of late how blessed my husband and I are, by our children, by our belongings, house, and property. We don't realize our own vulnerability, being so close to the street. So far, I've only had to pick up the cigarettes people toss into my flowers.

After that, the wooden path to the Taylor's. I had walked it a thousand times, and dreamed of it; I flew over it, just a few feet off the ground, where I could still see every root and rock. Metaphor? Ahh, we may dream, but we are bound by gravity, by reality; we can only get so high.

A kitten with its paper bones, soft fir, warm vibrations. In Glaspell's Trifles, Mrs. Peters recalls how a boy "took a hatchet, and before <her> eyes"...And then I saw Denise's hawk, the curved beak and stoic eye after it had killed her rabbit. She told the bird she wanted to be there for the eating, and it did wait for her. She wanted to see it to understand, to know, and not have mystery to contend with; the mystery would make it worse. This is a very Buddhist thing, to not give the mind the ammunition of mystery, to make understanding a priority.

Why do these horrid images come up? It's the slaying of the innocent, and on some level, it happens to every one of us. There are reptilian forces out there. They have no empathy; they have no loving-kindness, and it's best to be aware of them. Gaining awareness is the mark of maturity.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Encounters

I've been walking Green Hill lately, behind Ayer School, because the city has cleaned up the woods, cleared paths, kicked out the squatters. My dog Josie and I have a route down to the shore line, up a promontory, down, up, down again, up again, through the woods, on a vine-draped path that reminds me of a setting from Tolkien.

I saw deer prints frozen in the mud one morning, which surprised me because this patch of greenery seemed to small to support deer. I was happy when I saw the symmetrical two-moon prints, because it meant I was closer to a wildness that I originally thought; I wasn't completely engulfed in suburbia.

I wrote a poem about meeting this lonely doe. It was hard to write, and I don't feel that I was successful in describing how I felt "blessed" by encountering her. I have since seen her a half-dozen times, always when I least expect to. One morning, she sprang up out of the wood, ran a few feet, and then stopped. She actually turned around and faced me. I gave her the universal I-come-in-peace sign by raising my hand, palm facing her. She took a few steps toward me. We locked eyes for a moment, and I felt the euphoria one gets when a wild thing trusts her. I coveted her wildness, her freedom; I wanted to run with her.

Josie caught wind of her, and her hair roused off her spine. The deer seemed to sense this, and in a flash, she became the woods again, just as suddenly as she became a deer.




Encounters

what I would speak of rather
is the weightless string of his actually soft and
nervous body the nameless stars of its eyes

                                                ~Mary Oliver, “Ribbon Snake Asleep in the Sun”

They toppled trees, cleared paths to open
the woods and flush out the homeless vets
pitching tents, sleeping in the oak leaves.

I saw the two moon tracks first—incredulous,
that my neighborhood’s patch of woods
could support something as big as deer.

She came to eat the tops of fallen trees.
We came to walk the new paths and view
the river from a different vantage point,
climb the rungs of roots and run loose.

Across the river, skaters motored and
scraped their boards at dusk. Through the
young maples you can see the light turn red.

Across the river, the nameless guard
their personal space, hunched over,
waiting for the train to let down her steps.

I only see her when I am not looking
when I am head-down walking
and then a flash of white, a flash of wing
from some other world.