Dancing with the Cranes

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“We did not ask for this room or this music; we were invited in. Therefore, because the dark surrounds us, let us turn our faces toward the light. Let us endure hardship to be grateful for plenty…. We did not ask for this room or this music. But because we are here, let us dance.”

—Stephen King and Bridget Carpenter

Dancing with the Cranes

Fastwrite, March 28: Heart of the Matter writing circle

Prompt: What keeps you from dancing every day and, if you want to, how might you change that?

I’m reminded of the Nebraska sandhill cranes that a friend has been writing about.

The cranes dance, and no one knows why, she said.

She’s filmed them when they arrive in Nebraska as part of their migration, the river flats and fields suiting them perfectly as they make their way north to Canada.

I saw two sandhills cranes once, up close; heard their strange call, saw them dancing, awkwardly, together. It was in Tampa, on the banks of the Hillsborough River, which ran outside my front door in those days.

Funny, now, to think that I was up close to another river there, but undervalued it. And I was so close to the birds, not knowing how obsessed I would later become with them.

I did recognize, at the time I saw those cranes, that this was a special moment—a gift I did not fully understand. It woke up something in me; something stirred, a seed was planted.

I loved loved loved the rivers in Tampa, the deep woods nearby, the profoundly beautiful swamp available to me right from our front yard. It was riddled with pop-eyed alligators with only noses and eyeballs above the water or sunning themselves on the banks, amidst blue herons and white egrets, hiding in plain sight under huge overhanging branches and between cypress tree roots. On higher ground, my favorite sight was the fields of palmettos under tall loblolly pines swaying across the sky just like Lois Lenski drew them in Strawbettery Girl.

I miss that time, of dancing cranes, hanging moss, and dark, still waters. Such richness I knew to love but did not know how.

So maybe the cranes are calling me now, asking me to go dance with them—to follow my passions, to stay close to the river, and yet, find safe ground for myself.

Here,
In the time of the coronavirus.

Reflection: The only thing that keeps me from dancing is remembering how important it is to do so.

 

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Threads

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Fast Write, 5 a.m.: Threads

Putting on an art show in my home is a bit like being on the RAP Home Tour. Twice a year. Every year. Forever.

It’s so much work!

I remember the second year I was living here in Riverside in this historic cottage and I got a call from Joy French Walker asking, Would I be on the RAP Home Tour?

I’m not ready, I said! How bout next year?
How about this year? she asked, gently.
OK, fine. Let’s do it.

Secretly, of course, I was thrilled. But then the work began: Transform the She Shed! (thanks, Dianne). Replant the garden! (Thanks, Sven and Leslie). Powerwash the driveway and touch up all the trim! (Thanks, Anthony!) Drywall the hole in the SHeShed ceiling. Order flower arrangements. Clean out the closets. Hang a new live wreath of succulents on the front door because I wanted the fresh flowers vibe.

Plus I wanted to upgrade my art. So I asked Mindy Hawkins to help, who provided her own art and art from other artists. And I asked artist Carol Rothwalk Winner to sell her fun wordplay pieces (which people apparently loved). I got a taste of what it’s like to have an art show in my home, and I liked it.

Then Dad got sick.

So I couldn’t be there. Not to attend the preview parties. Not to view the other houses. Not to meet 2,500 of my new best friends as they toured my house and She Shed.
But I did get to see my Dad go from Death’s door to a miraculous recovery under the diligent care of my two sisters, Ruth Anne and Liz, and myself. Thank you, dear sisters!

Growing up on a farm, my sisters and I lived in the middle of a laboratory experiment, 24/7/365. We often did six impossible things before breakfast. Light the coal fire in the kitchen in the unheated farmhouse. Feed the orphan lambs stashed in the house during deep winter and clean up the urine puddles they left on the kitchen floor. Walk up the snowbound lane in knee highs and a short skirt, carrying a French horn.

Yes, that is all true.

My mother, the consummate teacher but also the consummate learner, was always trying something new— long before anyone else was doing it. Organic farming. A CSA. Farmer’s markets and fabric arts. Spinning, weaving, and shearing the sheep at the huge Pittsburgh Arts Festival, where I learned to be a bit of a barker and we taught the crowds the business of making art out of life on a farm.

I both hated it and loved it.

So now it seems I’ve followed the thread and turned my Riverside home into some sort of laboratory, a platform for community voices, an experimental garden of sorts, an ongoing project of limited resources and unlimited dreams—albeit on a smaller footprint than 148 acres of rolling hills in Western Pennsylvania.

And it’s not unlike my years as a journalist: Impossible deadlines. Constant work to do better. Lack of a personal life! Though, fortunately, I don’t find myself sleeping on the production floor with a newspaper over me, as I did in my start-up magazine days! (remember, Foster Barnes Jr?)

And then there’s imposter syndrome. I sure hope the brilliant Hope McMath does not think I compare myself to her in any way, seeing her only as teacher and mentor for this work of building a more conscious community through the power of art, writing, and human connection!)

But as I stare down this last week before my next art show, BLOOMS, opens Friday at 6 p.m., I’m thinking of all the impossible things and hoping my mother would approve—and that I don’t burn out myself or anyone else with my creative desire to do more, be more, learn more, teach more, write more, talk more.

It’s just that the risk seems important.

Here.
In the garden.

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Matthew Dug a Hole

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I wanted to bury Buster in the backyard, in the garden. Matthew agreed. When I came home that afternoon, he reported he had found the perfect spot. It was under the palm tree, just beyond the outer circle of the patio. I concurred; it was perfect.

Last summer, I was working with my handyman on a project to dig a trench around the house, and I asked Matt to help. At 21 years old, he was reluctant. He didn’t want to get up early. He didn’t want to deal with the roots. He didn’t want to push through and do the job properly. I was chagrined.

So when I asked him to dig a hole for Buster’s grave so we could have a little funeral, I was doubtful, but I left him alone. I hurried to prepare the program before my friend and her daughter arrived for the service. The daughter, Avery, arrived first with a plate of cookies and a pot of flowers. I checked on Matt and saw he was still struggling with the landscape cloth and the thick roots underneath it. Concerned with finishing my own work, however, I again left him alone, just asking him to dig a second hole for the flowers.

Finally, I was ready with my one-page program, a mix of quotes and a sweet poem written by a writing circle friend. My plan was to ask Avery to hold the flowers and Beth to hold the candle; I would hold the ukulele, and Matt would hold Buster. But I worried; would the hole be deep enough? Had Matt properly completed the job?

Checking one last time, I looked into the hole, which was next to a large pile of dirt. It was perfect. Deep, narrow, just the right size, in just the right spot. I was gratified. Asking more of Matthew, I said, “Would you please go get Buster?” Buster had been lying in state in his doggy bed upstairs, and Matthew brought him down, wrapped him in a blue towel, with just his ears sticking out. We proceeded to the backyard, with Matthew in front, gravedigger and pallbearer all at once.

So we lit the candle, sang Amazing Grace, read the poem, and kissed Buster’s ears one final time. We laid Buster in his grave. Then we went inside and left Matthew to finish the job while the candle burned in the soft falling darkness.

Later, I checked on Buster a final time. The candle was still lit and glowing in the dark, and the hole was neatly filled in. I saw that Matt had left a handprint in the soft dirt, his own loving touch.

I could ask no more of him. He had done what I asked him to do, and then, he did more. Matthew dug a hole, and he filled it in, his own particular way. Such is the everyday grace, the amazing grace, of being lost, then found.

Here.
In the garden.

In memory of our beloved Buster, February 5, 2002 to October 10, 2018. 

~~~~~~~~~

Buster

I can see you standing
sitting.
Standing
then sitting again.
Adjusting
your spindly ballerina legs
as you seek
a comfortable nook.

I can feel your bony little
frame pressed
snug against
my thigh.
Warming the
cushion (and my heart)
before
you patter away.

I can hear your paws,
tippity-tapping
along wood floors
and closed
doors—your
dainty requests for
treats or
garden expeditions.

You precious, jaunty
thing. Bringing
smiles to the
circle, while
reminding us
to keep our perimeters
open to the few true
gentlemen among us.

—Jenny Anderson
Member of our writing circle

Read the previous post on Buster…

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Where I’m From: Writing On the Theme of Home

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Selling lamb kabobs at the Farmer’s Market with my mother in Western Pennsylvania circa 1983.

“The place I lived as a child, the sharecropper’s farmhouse with its wind-bent mulberry trees and rusted farm machinery has completely vanished. Now there’s nothing but plowed fields for miles in any direction. When I asked around in town no one remembered the family. No way to verify my story. In fact, there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually happened,
or that the people I knew ever existed.
— Louis Jenkin

This summer, at the Community Transition Center where I write weekly with incarcerated women, we are focusing on the theme of “Home,” as in, “coming home to ourselves.”  This Friday we wrote poems based on the structure of a beautiful poem titled, “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyonwhich begins:

“I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.”
—excerpt, Where I’m From, by Geroge Ella Lyon

This poem, by the way, has started a movement that you can read more about here. We carried on that movement by writing our own poems as we sat in the circle on Friday morning in a very cold classroom on Catherine Street with eight women. Below is my version of it. (If you want to read their versions, stay tuned for our mini-anthology to be published soon as a fund-raiser to keep supporting our work at the CTC!)

Where I’m From

I am from percolators and coffee cups, 
From Maxwell House and Spic and Span.
I am from the farmhouse and the fruit cellar
(Dusty, shelves filled with canned peaches,
the dirt floor squeaked under our rubber boots.)

I am from purple irises,
and climbing roses,
mock orange blossoms and frothy forsythias,
planted long ago around the house,
a gift each spring from a stranger.

I’m from Cuban bread and homemade apple pie,
     From Rose and Dolores, Robert and Edith
I’m from playing with puns at the table
     and having an opinion about absolutely everything.

From make hay while the sun shines
and get off the phone!
from you’se not fat you’re fluffy and
hoooooooome, sheep!
     I’m from small-town liberals
     gathered in a mining town
     singing For The Beauty of the Earth.

I’m from Wyano and West Newton,
roasted lamb and homemade spaghetti sauce
     From the little boy who delivered groceries
     in his wagon for 25 cents,
     The girl who read books under her desk, hidden from the nuns.

In a stash of vintage slides brought to life
relics of another era:
Hospitality, beauty, conversation
cultivated intentionally,
seeds planted that
still shape
my life.

 

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Dear America: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

“Love is at the root of everything — all learning, all parenting, all relationships.
Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen
is part of who we become.”
—Fred Rogers

Dear America:

I wish we could be kinder to one another.

Growing up as I did, under the influence of my Pittsburgh “neighbor” Fred Rogers (and lots of storybooks), I did always believe we were “the good guys.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw the American soldiers coming to free the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. Square-jawed, fresh-faced, tall and healthy, they were shocked by what they saw there, and earnestly went to work to help them, to free them, to feed them. I saw them holding emaciated bodies in their arms, giving them soup, and kindness, and love.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was my World War II hero, and Eleanor Roosevelt (my namesake) was my model of the enlightened national cultural leader. He created the New Deal for Americans, one that protected them from the dire poverty of the Depression with Social Security (think about that phrase) and Medicare. He wanted to ensure that no one would starve here in our own country due to extreme poverty or age or poor health.  Not on his watch.

Then Eleanor served as the first Ambassador to the new United Nations and was named the chairman of its Commission on Human Rights, relentlessly pursuing the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by all countries until it was done. She helped forge an agreement around the world, an agreement joining all nations to work together toward peace and justice for all so that the destruction and savagery of World War II might never happen again.

The phrase, “Lock her up” to me means, lock up love. Lock up the mother.  Lock up kindness and nurturing and goodness. And then throw away the key.

Today, however, I find it painful to acknowledge that some of my own friends, neighbors, old classmates, and even relatives have elected a president and therefore an administration that, to me, is the anti-FDR, the anti-Eleanor, the anti-Mr. Rogers. These leaders are not kind, nor loving, nor compassionate in any way.

Instead, under the guise of “we need strong leadership,” and while watching the hyperbolic prat of TV screen pundits, they are able to justify, or ignore, or perhaps even secretly support:

  • taking babies away from their mothers seeking asylum at our borders
  • the United States not only not paying our fair share of the dues we owe to the United Nations, but actually withdrawing from U.N. Human Rights Council
  • the relentless pursuit of dismantling and undermining of every civil and environmental and human rights advancement we’ve made in the past 50 years

But of course, the truth is even uglier than that. Turns out that we never really were the good guys. We built this country by enslaving and exploiting our First Nation peoples, African-Americans, immigrants, and, for certain, women and children. We’ve been separating children from their mothers throughout our history. Today we do this mostly through our privatized prisons, which have been shown to do more harm than good for mothers and their children. ICE, in my opinion, is just another form of this idea that “locking people up” is some kind of real solution. The phrase, “Lock her up” to me means, lock up love. Lock up the mother.  Lock up kindness and nurturing and goodness. And then throw away the key.

I watched the story of Fred Rogers last night in the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” My God.  He is the antidote we need in this world! He represents the enlightened male, the nurturing, kind man, the spiritual leader we need. He is the feminine side of man, and, yes, he was berated and even hated for that. After a lifetime of ministry to children and America, he had done so much good in the world.  But by the end, after 9-11 and the vitriolic hyper-patriotism that followed, he wondered, did he make any difference at all?

Today, on this Fourth of July holiday, as I reflect on this anti-woman, anti-mother, anti-father, anti-nature, anti-immigrant, anti-kindness, anti-love state of our country,  I must ask, America, seriously, Will you admit this is unjust?  Will you admit that we can’t go on like this? Will you at LEAST support greater compassion for the people asking for asylum at our border?

Will you be the great nation I thought you were?

Seriously, why can’t be good neighbors? Why not work to create a place of safety for all of us? A “neighborhood” based on love and all the possibilities of what we can create together, not fear of losing what we have? After all, despite our dark past, I do believe this is what actually made America great.

The question we face now is, who DO we want to become?

If nothing else this Fourth of July, I hope that you will—that we all will—make a commitment to greater compassion and love when we go to the voting booth this fall. Especially if you are a mother or a father, I ask that you remember this: Our children, our little children, are depending on you.  I hope you will show them the way of love and kindness for all, as Mr. Rogers did.

Here.
In the American garden.

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Garden Report

This morning, I walked outside my front door at 6:45 a.m. with my coffee in hand and was pleased to hear a Great Crested Flycatcher calling out nearby.  I sat down on my steps and listened, sipping while scanning the tree branches around me. Suddenly I spotted her moving in the highest branches of the camphor tree across the street. When she landed on a bare branch directly in front of me, as if to invite me to take a look, I finally grabbed my binoculars from just inside the front door. Catching her in the viewfinder, I followed her for a few minutes while she darted about. I saw a flash of her lemon yellow belly as she flew over me and then a clear view of her, the light directly on her, perching on the oak tree next door, cocking her head, looking at me.

And then she was gone.

Photo credit: Great Crested Flycatcher photo by Joe Noordman on UglyHedghog.com

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Morning Coffee

 

“Two phoebes flit from tree to eave to tree
Feeding the tyrant nestlings you can’t see”
—Judith Moffett, in her poem Grace

Morning Coffee

I do love waking up in a convent. The single beds, the monastic minimalism, the cheerful quilted bedspread that brings women’s work into the room. A sacred space.

I drink my coffee outside, early, despite the drizzling rain. I find a spot under the fire escape and I’m able to stay dry while watching the activity of the birds in the lush green gardens around me. Only a mosquito finding soft flesh on my coffee-cup-holding hand disturbs my peace, momentarily.

The coolness of mornings in the summer up North seem to last longer. In Florida, by 8 a.m. the heat can already be overbearing. So I luxuriate in the coolness of the day, enhanced by grey skies, low-hanging clouds, and light rain. It just makes all the green around me look even more lush.

I hear the insistent calls of those tiny “tyrants,” baby mockingbirds, calling out around me: “Feed me, pleeeease, pleeeese, pleeeese, feed me.” A constant noise in the early days of summer.

Life is calling! Feed me!
So off I go, for a run with a friend.

Here.
In the garden.

—At the Transfiguration Spirituality Center in Glendale, Ohio, on retreat with Women Writing for (a) Change facilitators.

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