Friday, January 3, 2020

Distractions


“Allow distractions, don't shoo them away. 
They may be knocking on the door of your poem.” 
Billy Collins

Once when I told a person who studied astrology that I was a Gemini, his response was, “Oh, spaghetti brain.” I laughed because it is so true. My mind can find tangents within tangents within tangents, sometimes ending up finding no answers, but a lot of interesting ideas to pursue later. The Internet has only made my particular pasta more intertwined.

My latest wander began on New Year’s Day when I read Barbara Crooker’s poem “The New Year” on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. I really liked the contradictory nature of this poem that begins with the proverbial door shutting, but the window, instead of opening, slams on your fingers. It concludes on a more positive note, “In spite of everything, you sit at your desk and begin.”

I was not familiar with Crooker and saw that the poem came from her collection Some Glad Morning. That immediately started Albert E. Brumley’s hymn “I’ll Fly Away” playing in my mind, and also reminded me of one of my favorite television programs, also titled “I’ll Fly Away” starring Sam Waterston, long before Law and Order or Grace and Frankie. (You may have noticed there are already three links in this story so you can get distracted too if you choose to).


Much as I love Sam Waterston, I was, at that moment, more interested in the poem, so I went on Amazon to find out more about Crooker and the book. I discovered two things. One, she has been widely published (Why was I just discovering her?) and two, she wrote about some of the same things I did, i.e. faith, peonies, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keeffe. I immediately clicked “Buy now with one click,” (Who invented this irresistible temptation?) and true to Amazon’s promise, it arrived the next day.

So this morning I am still sitting here, long after the oatmeal is finished and Kat has returned to warm my lap, just reading these poems that touch me in familiar and new places. “Black and Purple Petunias” delves into Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1924 painting, one I had not written about in my O’Keeffe collection, Climbing to the Moon. Crooker, like O’Keeffe, sees deep inside the flowers, “They will not let the darkness eat them.” “Peaches in August” delights in these fruits as “the only true light” in a darkening world. I too had written about peach moments.

With each poem I am feeling more and more of a connection with this poet. I go back on the Internet where I find her homepage. I look under Events to see if there is anything close by, and there I see that she’s doing a workshop of ekphrastic poetry at Poetry by the Sea in Madison, CT, in May. Perfect! Poetry, art, the ocean, and meeting my new favorite poet! Sign me up.

So, Billy, I didn’t get a poem from my journey, but a blog post. And I think I’ll go back to “I’ll Fly Away” and write something, It’s still playing in my mind.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Feeding and Being Fed


The truth is I didn’t want to go that Wednesday. It was dark and cold, and I really just wanted to stay home, have bowl of soup, and take a nap. Then I thought about the people who were already lined up on this wintry day just waiting for us volunteers to distribute the food brought with the Mobile Food Bank.

Sponsored by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Mobile Food Bank comes to Trinity United Methodist Church on the first and third Wednesdays of every month. The truck arrives about 1:15 full of food that has been donated from local farms, stores, and the government. The driver unloads pallets of potatoes, onions, squash, or whatever the fare is for the day. We volunteers take up a station in front of one of the pallets and proceed to pass out the food to the people in the line.

On our busiest days there can be more than 300 people representing a virtual United Nations including Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Greece, and Russia. There is no charge for the food, and the people who come are only asked the number and ages of the people in their household.  They come on the hottest days of the summer and the coldest days of the winter. And they wait patiently--very patiently.

On that Wednesday I was handing out beets—4 large beets per person. Quite a few turned them down, but several smiled brightly when I suggested they could make borscht. Once I began dropping the beets in their bags—some flimsy plastic, others more sturdy from Big Y, and some backpacks on wheels—I remembered why I like doing this, even when the weather is not pleasant. Everyone is so grateful. One after one, they smile, say thank you, God bless you, and, in return, I cannot help but smile back.


There are some regulars I recognize like Max who is Russian. I discovered awhile back that he is an amazing pianist. I smiled and asked if he was doing well, “Not good,” he said, “excellent!” Ann usually comes with her youngest child and always greets me with a hug. I am fed by these people who come here for food.

It was a slow day. Maybe people were still dealing with the aftermath of the recent storm. It gave us a little more time to talk to the people coming through the line. When an older man in a gray flannel shirt held out his bag for me to drop the beets in, I could see that he’d been crying. I asked what was wrong, and he just kept repeating, “I’ve lost everything.”

What does one say to that? The words I uttered—I’m sorry—felt insufficient. He told me then that his wife had died of cancer. Then he repeated, “I’ve lost everything.” He moved on to Kathy who was passing out carrots, and I could see that she was tearing up. I gave him a hug before he left. What else could I offer?

I hope we see him again, but I may never find out his whole story. There are so many stories behind all these faces. Most of these people would be labeled poor. To stand in line for hours to receive several pieces of food would seem to support that.But  there is a richness to be had in hearing people’s stories, in touching another human, in sharing smiles on a cold day. 

I was glad I went. I went home feeling much richer.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The October Holiday - a month late

"Dignity" Chamberlain, SD
"There was much discussion last month about what has traditionally been called Columbus Day. Many places have started celebrating Indigenous People's Day instead. As with much these days, it's become a binary choice, one or the other. Instead. I would like to propose we celebrate both.

The more we learn of Columbus, the more we see the cruelty and violence that he brought with him--the enslavement, raping, and pillaging. All true and reprehensible to us 500 years later.
"Christopher Columbus" Providence, RI

The native people had been living on the lands we call America for centuries when this band of Europeans and those who followed them (or preceded--consider Leif Erikson) came with a belief that it was their God-given right to conquer and take what they found.

Today we are quick to label and condemn those years ago who did not live up to our current moral principles. I sometimes wish I could jump into a time machine just to see what behaviors we accept  today as normal, even honorable, that would be condemned by future societies. What if, for example, it were discovered that our great feat of landing a man on the moon had somehow disturbed the cosmos in ways we cannot imagine today? Wouldn't the people of the future be quick to castigate us?

Columbus, like all humans, was complicated. He was motivated by ego and greed, and his actions towards the natives were inexcusable to us. But he was also brave and determined, and led the way for a greater and greater understanding of the planet we share.

Ironically we are also only beginning to discover lessons the indigenous understood--the importance of sharing the earth and protecting it for future generations. These lessons are 
critical to our very survival.

Maybe we should rename the October holiday Discovery Day in which we celebrate what we continue to learn about the Earth and all its people.






Monday, November 11, 2019

11-11-18


November 11, 1918

She was learning to read.
Every day she carried home
new words and calculations--
offerings to the grandmother
who signed her name with an X.

She first heard the news
from the kids at Eastern Avenue School
then from the neighbors.
The Great War was over.
The boys were coming home.

People filled the streets
shouting, banging pots and pans.
It was a noisier than the Fourth of July.
The war to end all wars was over.
Smiles were everywhere.

But once inside, she found
her grandmother in tears.
She tried to tell her the news--
today's lesson to share,
but Grandma had already heard.

She knew the fighting had stopped
that soldiers were coming home.
Her tears were for the others--
the boys lost far from home
and the mothers still waiting.

At six how could she understand
a mother's grief over a lost child?
This illiterate woman who remembered
the baby drowned back in Ireland
was well schooled in suffering.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

Before Chopped


As I watch the Food Network’s Chopped where four chefs compete to create three courses from separate baskets of strange ingredients, I am reminded of my mother who put together so many meals—sometimes standard, sometimes unique, but almost always delicious.

There were the formal Sunday dinners where the roast would be in put in the oven before we left for church, and upon our return, we would each set to our duties. My job was to set the table in the dining room using the good dishes (purchased at the church rummage sale) and the best glasses (which originally had held Big Top peanut butter). My brother helped to fold the napkins. After the roast was removed from the oven, my mother would set about making gravy from all the wonderful drippings in the roast pan. My father usually mashed the potatoes and cut up the roast. There were vegetables, of course, warm rolls, and usually a relish tray.

On regular week nights, dinner was simpler. We ate at the old oak table in the kitchen with the everyday dishes and glasses. Perhaps my mother made meatloaf or chicken or spaghetti, but towards the end of the week there were always the leftovers to deal with. My mother had two methods of dealing with those.


Sometimes she would take out the large Revereware frying pan, fill it with water, and assign each morsel to its own custard cup and place it in the pan to warm. Then we would bring our plates to the stove to select from the “buffet.”

But my favorite nights were when she did her own version of “Chopped” and created something new from whatever was in the refrigerator. She worked her magic mixing together what had never been combined before. The results varied, but many times they were exceptionally good, and we would rave about her original creations. To which she would always say, “Don’t ask me to make it again.” It was a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime creation.  

I’m thinking now that there should be a spin off of Chopped where the chefs get plastic containers of leftovers to work with. My mother could have won that contest easily!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Weeding




Along the border between my neighbor to the north and me, a chain link fence marks the line between his neat, flat lawn and my wild collection of clematis, milkweed, cone flowers, day lilies, and a varied assortment of weeds. All but the clematis arrived here thanks to either birds or winds that pay no heed to fence or border.

My challenge today was to clear out the weeds that I have been avoiding. Sunny, the woman who lived north of the border when I moved in here 37 years ago, explained to me her definition of weeds: anything that’s growing where you don’t want it. So, though I never planted it, the milkweed stays. Besides its lovely fragrance in June and those parchment pods full of magical white stars in the fall, it provides essential food for the Monarch butterflies, and I love butterflies. Cone flowers tend to attract them as well. The day lilies stay too. They were here when I moved in, and I admire their tenacity and the splash of orange.

With my sturdy garden gloves on, and armed with clippers and trowel, I head out to extract the wild grasses, the thistle, and that sturdy, winding bittersweet that weaves itself around anything nearby, especially the galvanized steel mesh of the chain links. Most of the regular weeds come up easily, but the bittersweet is a challenge. It involves un-weaving its tiny branches from each diamond of chain link and frequently clipping a small piece of branch with one hand while catching the piece with the other hand lest it land on my neighbor’s lawn.

As I am doing this, I think about Sunny and the fence between us. A delightful woman and an inveterate gardener, she was 93 when I moved in. Every square inch of her tiny city lot was planted with some variety of edible or flower. She even had a tiny koi pond in the middle of the back yard.

Back then the fence was covered with pink roses that she encouraged me to pick. She would frequently come to the fence with a gift from her garden or some wise piece of advice for the new homeowner. She taught me much about plants and nature. “If you plant a garden,” she said, “you’ll always have something to look forward to.”

Our friendship grew because she saw the fence as a place to meet and share—both flowers and wisdom.

Friday, June 7, 2019

My Kids


I find it hard to believe that I have been retired from teaching for 17 years. Of course, when I see my former students on Facebook showing pictures of their grandchildren, it brings me back to reality. That’s one of the things about Facebook I most enjoy—seeing those “kids” now grown up and doing well. For some of them, I wasn’t so sure it would turn out that way.

Most teachers I know are invested in their students, want the best for them, worry about them, try to encourage them. So when you have a class load of 120+ kids, that’s a lot of worrying. I was reminded of that worry yesterday when I was volunteering at an event for fourth-graders.

One girl made an impression on me. She was small, with short dark hair and big dark eyes. As she reached for another cookie, she explained that she was getting it for her grandmother. We chatted for a while, and I was impressed with her composure, her conversational skills, and I guessed that she was an older sister to one of the fourth-graders in the group. When she had left, I asked her teacher how old she was. Ten! I couldn’t believe how mature she was for such a young age.

Then her teacher began to tell me her story. She and her brother were living with their grandmother because her mother was “drugged out.” Now, however, her grandmother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. “What will happen to them?” I asked. The teacher just shook her head. I could see the pain in her eyes.

Then she turned to speak to a boy who had been running around disrupting the group. “He’s so smart,” she said to me, “and he tests me all the time.”

Suddenly I was back in front of my students, worried about the sweet young woman who was being abused by her step father, frustrated by the so bright young man who was channeling all his energies into gang activities. So many students with real problems that I could do little about.

These are the kids that break your heart as a teacher, the ones you want to take home and nurture, the ones you pray for, the ones who you hope will show up on Facebook someday with happy stories.