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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How Mystics are Born

May 5, 2018

At the Judy Chicago Exhibit, The Dinner Table, in the Brooklyn Museum

I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke free on the open sky.
—from the poem Poetry, by Pablo Neruda

I noticed her and her mother walking alongside the triangle table, talking. A pixie-sized girl with straight brown hair, she looked to be about four or five. Her mother was carefully explaining each name listed on the cloth at each place setting: “Kali, a Goddess; Sophia, a real person.” The daughter seemed entranced and was listening carefully, asking questions as they went. I was surprised she had such a sustained interest. By the time they got to the middle of the second side, I made up my mind to give them the little booklet that gave the details about each name. I stood silently by their side for a bit at first, listening, as the daughter gave her ideas about why all these women were being honored together.

“I think these are great lights,” she said, “and we’re trying to remember them.” She went on: “I remember them. I remember when they were stars next to me, before I was born.”

Her mother looked at me and said, “I didn’t tell her this. She started explaining this at 18 months old, that she was a light, a star, and that she came down from the stars through a hole in the top of my head and went into my belly.”

She filmed her, quietly, as her daughter went on to explain: “I’m younger than you two,” she said, “ so I remember. I’m four and a half.”

I said, “Yes, but maybe you’re an old soul.” The mother smiled.

“Everyone has light,” the little girl said. “Like rays of the sun. They come out from the middle of you, and I can see them. I can see their rays, too,” she said, nodding to the table featuring 39 women represented by the feminine place-settings and the 999 women honored on the platform underneath them, names hand-written in gold, in a feminine script.

“Maybe,” I said, “We’re old so we’ve forgotten about the light but you can help us remember.”

“Yes,” she said. “I think so.”

I left the book with them and went back to my own daughter, waiting for me in the next room. I hoped I’d be able to see her light, and that would still be able to see mine.

This is the good work that mothers and daughters and artists and mystics can do in the world.

Here.
In the garden.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

More on The Dinner Party, from the Brooklyn Museum Exhibit

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79) is an icon of 1970’s American feminist art, and one of the most important artworks of the 20th century. The installation celebrates the achievements and lives of 1038 historical and mythical women while paying tribute to all women whose stories have been lost to history to erasure or suppression.

The Dinner Party consists of a corridor of welcoming Entry Banners, a massive Heritage Floor, and a dazzling ceremonial banquet arranged in the shape of an open triangle, which here symbolizes equality. Each of the 39 “guests of honor” is individually commemorated through and intricately embroidered runner executed in historically specific techniques, as well as a unique 14-inch ceramic-painted plate with a central motif based on butterfly and vulvar forms. Gold ceramic chalices and utensils, and embroidered napkins accent each place setting. Painted on hand-cast tiles, the names of 999 additional women, correlating with the contributions, experiences, eras, or regions of the 39 place-settings, spread out across the heritage floor.

Chicago’s installation was the first monumental American artwork to survey the contributions of women to Western culture. In addition to sharing knowledge of forgotten historical figures, the artist was invested in a feminist reclamation of craft techniques traditionally associated with women: embroidery, needlework, ceramic painting, and ceramics. Chicago used “central core” or vulvar imagery as an unprecedented symbol for the struggles and achievements of women. The artist began work on The Dinner Party in 1974 and it took five years and the help of hundreds of volunteers to realize her vision.

The Brooklyn Museum was an early stop in The Dinner Party’s original tour, and nearly 100,000 visitors came to Brooklyn to see it in 1980. Chicago’s aspiration for the work was “to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” In 2002, Elizabeth A. Sackler generously donated The Dinner Party to the Museum, ensuring a permanent home for the artwork. In 2007, The Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art opened with The Dinner Party as its central installation, inspiring viewers to question history and carry the work’s feminist legacy into the future.

Women represented in the place settings 
The first wing of the triangular table has place settings for female figures from the goddesses of prehistory through to Hypatia at the time of the Roman Empire. This section covers the emergence and decline of the Classical world.

The second wing begins with Marcella and covers the rise of Christianity. It concludes with Anna van Schurman in the seventeenth century at the time of the Reformation.

The third wing represents the Age of Revolution. It begins with Anne Hutchinson and moves through the twentieth century to the final places paying tribute to Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The 39 women with places at the table are:

Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire
1. Primordial Goddess
2. Fertile Goddess
3. Ishtar
4. Kali
5. Snake Goddess
6. Sophia
7. Amazon
8. Hatshepsut
9. Judith
10. Sappho
11. Aspasia
12. Boadicea
13. Hypatia

Wing II: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation
14. Marcella
15. Saint Bridget
16. Theodora
17. Hrosvitha
18. Trota of Salerno
19. Eleanor of Aquitaine
20. Hildegarde of Bingen
21. Petronilla de Meath
22. Christine de Pisan
23. Isabella d’Este
24. Elizabeth I
25. Artemisia Gentileschi
26. Anna van Schurman

Wing III: From the American to the Women’s Revolution
27. Anne Hutchinson
28. Sacajawea
29. Caroline Herschel
30. Mary Wollstonecraft
31. Sojourner Truth
32. Susan B. Anthony
33. Elizabeth Blackwell
34. Emily Dickinson
35. Ethel Smyth
36. Margaret Sanger
37. Natalie Barney
38. Virginia Woolf
39. Georgia O’Keeffe

Women represented in the Heritage Floor
The Heritage Floor, which sits underneath the table, features the names of 999 women inscribed on white handmade porcelain floor tilings. The tilings cover the full extent of the triangular table area, from the footings at each place setting, continues under the tables themselves and fills the full enclosed area within the three tables. There are 2304 tiles with names spread across more than one tile. The names are written in the Palmer cursive script, a twentieth-century American form. Chicago states that the criteria for a woman’s name being included in the floor were one or more of the following:

  • She had made a worthwhile contribution to society
  • She had tried to improve the lot of other women
  • Her life and work had illuminated significant aspects of women’s history
  • She had provided a role model for a more egalitarian future.

    Accompanying the installation is a series of wall panels which explain the role of each woman on the floor and associate her with one of the place settings.

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Buster

DSC_1868-1024x683I’ve been watching Buster slowly leave me this year.

He moves gingerly these days. Our walks together are shorter and he’s more hesitant. He’s skin and bones, and his spine curves in a hump when he walks. His back legs bend at odd angles. He looks more like a scurrying armadillo than the fierce little fighter he once was, barking ferociously at any dog that crossed our path.

His kidneys are failing, so he gets up often in the night; his little bladder can’t hold much. I put him outside, and get back into bed, waiting for his bark so I can let him back in.  He usually needs a long drink of water, so I place him by his water bowl, then wait, shivering a little while he laps up an ungodly amount of water. When he’s finally finished, I scoop him up and put him back on the bed near my pillow, making sure he knows where he is, next to me.

Not that long ago, for the first time ever in the nearly the 15 years that I’ve had him, he fell off my bed in the middle of the night. I was horrified and jumped out of bed wide awake to rescue him, feeling his heart beating quickly as I held him close. He was OK, but now I block the edge with pillows, just in case.

The truth is, I never wanted to a dog.

It was my former husband who thought we should get one, for the kids. We did have two parakeets and two hamsters already, but he thought a dog was important. I was reluctant, concerned about shedding and messiness in our spic-and-span life—not to mention all the responsibility, especially the emotional kind. I’d faced a lot of losses from animals dying during my time on the farm as a kid, and I wasn’t sure, frankly, that I wanted to set myself up for another loss.

I was cautiously researching dogs when a friend from the kids’ school told us about a 10-month-old Yorkie that needed a new home.

The day we picked him up, the kids could hardly contain their excitement, especially Camille. When we walked in, Buster raced joyously across the living room to meet us, shivering with excitement. It was as if he KNEW we were his new family. A handsome guy in his warm brown-and-black coat, we loved each other immediately.

As we prepared to drive away, Camille said eagerly, from the back seat, “Mom, now that we have nine animals in our house, including us … can we get one more, so we have an even 10?” We weren’t even out of the driveway yet.

What I didn’t know then was just how important this dog would be to me. How he would heal me. Comfort me. Strengthen me. Connect me.

On the days my husband took the kids to school in the morning, the loneliness could be crushing. Buster solved that problem for me. I could always pick him up for a cuddle, then head out for our first walk of the day.

But it wasn’t just the loneliness that changed. My emotional and even physical health changed, one walk at a time.

Working from home, I had a tendency to stay stuck to my computer, getting more detached from my body and inside my head, with all the resulting ill-health. But Buster insisted on those walks, and gradually, I began to need them as much as he did.

We usually walked three times a day. As we walked, I gradually became more aware of the larger world around me—the tall mature pines in our golf community, the swoop of cedar waxwings in the sky come spring, the mix of palmetto, beautyberry, and Cherokee bean flowers in the wild patches between the houses. I began to talk with my neighbors, who in turn stopped and asked me about the dog. I began to feel more connected.

And later, because I could walk, I started to run, going one light pole at a time until the fat started to melt off and my heart strengthened.

I needed that heart strength later, in more ways than one.  When our family went through our own divorce, Buster walked for miles with me around our gated community while I talked on the phone, out of earshot of the kids doing homework at night.  Buster literally walked me back from heartbreak. I grew stronger, and he put on more miles.

The ever-observant Camille came home from college one day, eyed Buster and said, “He’s getting old.”  “No, he’s not!” I said. My capacity for denial is great.

But one day, trying to jump up into the reading chair where he usually snuggles with me, he missed. His back legs, having walked so many hundreds of miles with me, were weaker,  and his muscles failed him. He fell back to the ground. I started watching him just in case he needed assistance, and more and more often, have to pick him up and place him in my chair, or on the couch, or on the bed.

Our walks are shorter now. The pace is slow. The dog that used to outrace me on a bike now moves at a very deliberate pace, sniffing everything, pausing at the corner and refusing to budge if he senses I’m going too far. His little legs are still strong and his will is unbending! He still barks ferociously at any other dogs walking by, but only if he can see them, which is not very often.

He’s been such a comfort to me these past two years as I’ve transitioned to being an empty-nester. The alone-ness can cause my heart to ache just as it did when the kids were little.  I can fight it off with Buster as we sit in my writing chair together, walk the new neighborhood together, and sleep together, his soft body curled up next to me, asking absolutely nothing from me but love.

My Dad thinks I’m a little crazy. He suggests I get a boyfriend instead.  I tell him they’re a lot more trouble than dogs! The kids think I over-indulge him, and maybe I do. I took him with me to NYC at Christmas, not willing to leave him alone for too long. I bought a sling and carried him everywhere as my dad and I toured the city. I slept on the basement floor of my sister’s house so I could more easily put him outside in the frozen dead of night, his little feet making tiny prints in the white snow.  Finally, I bought tiny dog diapers so I could avoid tiny accidents—even if it affronted his dignity.

I really don’t mind the extra effort. It’s a very, very small price to pay for many years of devotion, of love, of increased health and happiness.  How could I know that a dog that I had rescued would somehow rescue me?

I know I will have to say goodbye to him soon. The kids will be heartbroken, and so will I.  In the meantime, I will try to enjoy these last days, being grateful for a love that outlasted my husband’s, and for a husband’s wisdom that outlasted his love.

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Country Morning

IMG_7781Hamden, NY. Upstate.

Honestly, I was scared when I got here last night.  So dark! A porcupine greeted us as we arrived, trundling along, his plump body and prickly quills undulating as he walked. He glanced back at us, and I quickly shut the car door in case it threw its quills at us.  Everyone else jumped out.

I lingered in the car, dreading the cold and the dark and the hectic shuffle of bags and belongings being transferred from trunk to porch and to farmhouse. Steeling myself, we got out, Buster in his sheepskin coat and me in my purple one. We headed toward the house, looking out for the porcupine and feeling safer now with the house lights on.

Julian reported that the porcupine was slowly climbing the tree in the front yard.  I wanted to see but was too scared by the all-consuming blackness to do more than take a quick glance. No sign of her.

I headed inside where I was pleasantly surprised to find it warm and cozy; the furnace had apparently been on for a couple hours. Jon and Dad began working on the fire in the wood-burning stove in the living room while Liz and I began unpacking the Thanksgiving leftovers.

I gave Julian a $20 bill to keep taking Buster out so he wouldn’t tinkle on the floor out of nervousness. “I’m scared of the dark,” I whispered, confessing my weakness. He accepted that without comment, just glad for the cash as any 17-year-old would be.

With Julian in bed before I was, I forced myself go outside one more time with Buster, turning on all three front door lights. I stood on the porch while he stretched out the leash down the front steps to the frosty grass below. I could see the stars through the trees and wished the lights were off so I could see better, curiosity fanning my courage.

Darkness stayed very close throughout the night as Buster and I camped out on the couch, close to the warm fire and its faint glow. Neither of us moved much, though I had to unzip the sleeping bag a couple times as hot flashes caused sweat to pool on my chest.

I waited until morning light had crept in enough to see the furniture outlines before slipping on Dad’s coat and stuffing my hands deep in the pockets. Not too cold outside, and I felt alive. Dark branches contrasted against light blue sky with streaks of pink and orange. I took photos while Buster meandered about, and we both kept an eye out for the porcupine. I half hoped, half dreaded to see her, but she was gone.

The chickadees across the road began their morning scold and I looked around at the many tree shapes emerging against the lightening sky. The grass felt crunchy under my feet, the frost stiffening their spines against my foot steps, the sound like breaking glass.

No one was stirring inside the house yet. I added a log to the stove and opened the vent; flames snapped and crackled as I settled onto the couch again with a cup of coffee and my journal. Fortified by the country morning, I felt brave again, knowing the darkness is really only in my mind, and that fire, and a blank page, can banish it.

Here.
In the country garden.

IMG_7782

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