10.30.2011

Letter to a Deep Listener

Dear Pauline Oliveros,

The first I learned about you was just a few months ago, a friend telling me, almost in a whisper, that you were coming here to play, and that I must not miss it.  You are an old woman, and me just over half your age, feel the fool for not knowing your name because when I hear your music I realize that I do know your work, that it percolates through everything I know and have yet to learn about sound, you having learned it from chicken songs and toads and cicadas, pianos and records and radios.  How extraordinary your insight from such a young age, not only to hear, but to acknowledge that this noticing is powerful and something to be cultivated and not forgotten, as so many of us do as we grow older and fall into the responsibilities of adulthood, how easy it is, and sad, to allow the crispness of childhood to surrender to greater states of distraction and complication.  And yet, here you are, old woman, showing us how fruitful and tremendous life is when we learn to practice deep listening, when we embrace the music we hear no matter how unusual that hearing is.




My grade school art teacher taught us to put our heads down on our desks before class, to close our eyes and listen, first to our hearts beating and then to our breath and the noises surrounding our bodies.  She asked us to hear just the noises in the room, just the noises right outside the windows, from the street, from the neighborhood, from the city, from the sky above us, the noises in the furthest reaches of the atmosphere.  Slowly and quietly she guided us into outer space and back again, retracing our steps until we returned to listening to our own breath, our own beating hearts. I secretly loved this art teacher and her strange ways, though my classmates made fun of her, I discovered that if I listened very carefully I could hear the stars humming.

But I forget, and race about and scold my children and get frustrated with my husband and fall into all kinds of worthless modes of thought, envies and jealousies and anxieties, and so it is that I am grateful that you perform and teach and explore and arch your attention to the cutting edge, and we hear you as you share with us, sitting in our chairs on a university campus, an autumn afternoon, these deep wisdoms you have gained over a life time of deep listening.  I aspire to be such an old woman as you, playing your accordion and conch shells and children's toys, expanding out beyond the horizons of all we have already discovered.

Waving my hands at you, I thank you.


10.26.2011

got bookmarks?

post card
coupon
receipt
pencil
napkin
tooth pick
old photo
tea bag
fork
playing card
subscription tear out
fuzz
feather
used envelope
allen wrench
red leaf
paint brush
paper clip
magazine
wedding ring
sticky note
toothbrush
corn husk
brochure
shoe



10.25.2011

Gray Day

I don't know whether it's the absence of anything to write about that puts me in a glum mood or a glum mood which makes everything too bland to write about.  On exciting days, by contrast, the ideas are so abundant that I stumble, opening new document after new document trying to keep up with the deluge of seemingly interesting bits that come from just about everywhere, scribbling notes which I can expand upon when in a different sort of mood, one which allows me to sit quietly with one idea for an hour or two or three.

But today is neither of these.  Ideally, I would watch T.V. all day long.  Instead, I fret about my blue mood.  I try to spur myself into inspiration with chocolate, coffee, rifling through old manuscripts, attempting to find something worth resurrecting.  Nothing, nothing, and nothing.  I read a book I was enjoying, until I no longer am enjoying it.

And the worst part is, I don't feel like doing anything I have to do or anything I should do or even anything I want to do.  I don't even want to do nothing.  So I tuck myself under the covers, fully dressed, wide awake, and lie there thinking about how dull it is to feel so dull.


A phone call rouses me from bed.  It's L., from California, the very friend who suggested I start a blog some two months back.  She says something nice about my blog, and I say something nice about her role in helping create the blog.  And then she mentions a recent post she especially enjoys because she saw the guys with the slim ties, a thing we all adore, encountering something familiar. Like the way I especially love Alexander Payne's early movies that were filmed in the neighborhood where I grew up (Citizen Ruth shoots up in the alley behind Dundee Hardware and hangs out in Memorial Park!), or the way my friends in Central Africa were thrilled to see photographs of people who looked just like them and bored by photos of Eskimos.  Just think how excited we get when we discover that a new acquaintance knows our hometown, or better yet has a mutual friend.

Groove Matters, L. says.  That was the bumper sticker on L's car back when she lived in San Francisco, back when she dated a long string of men, some nice guys, some disconcerting, but all who earned a "Nope" for various offenses.  One wore a beret on the first date.  Nope.  One, who had everything going for him, grew agitated when L. placed her bagel directly on his kitchen table. Nope.  And then P. came along, her dream man in every way.  Immediately she knew.  The guy she wanted to marry.  But when he saw her car, he frowned at the bumper sticker.  "Groove Matters," he read.  "What's that suppose to mean?"  L.'s heart collapsed.  She could not marry a man who did not understand Groove Matters.  "Please," she begged.  "Tell me you are joking."

He wasn't.  But he convinced her he was and earned himself a Yep.  It's one of our favorite stories.  And all we have to do is say the words, "Groove Matters!" and we laugh and the day doesn't seem so dull anymore.  Rope belt.  You can't tangle that.


10.24.2011

A Lesson on Learning




"A fishin' cane, some people when they get through with it, throw it down on the ground.  No.  You don't have no idea . . . There's something in that cane you ain't understand and you ain't found and there's somethin' in that cane that you can do and you'd be surprised at yourself what you can do. Learn how to blow that cane yourself and know that cane. . . . It's what you make out of it, that's what it is."

Otha Turner in an interview with Adam Lore, published in 50 Miles of Elbow Room #2, Brooklyn, NY, 2002.

10.23.2011

Memory from 51st Street, #18

One summer evening, in the den of the 51st Street house, I was studying the spines on my parents' book collection, wondering how it could possibly be that adults had so much to say that they could fill so many pages in so many thick books with nothing but tiny words.  My brother was practicing piano in the front room, as he did every day around that same time, sunk so deep into concentration that it scared me.

I smelled the sweet scent of cigarette smoke and went to the front door to see, sitting on the top step, Mrs. R, her back to me, a cigarette dangling from her fingers.

Mrs. R must have sensed me standing there staring at her because without turning around she said, "Ask you brother if it's okay, if I just sit here and listen."  Mrs. R lived two doors down from us.  She was thin and tough skinned and kept her hair short and unadorned.  She always wore jeans and walked like a man.  Two years before, her husband had put a ladder up to scrape the flaking paint from their house but never got around to taking the ladder down.  So it remained, chained to a column on the front porch.  When the weather was warm, we could hear yelling coming from their house.  They had two very sweet children.

I silently faded back into the den where I could watch, through the window, Mrs. R smoking, her hard cheek bone hiding the sharp edge of her nose.



And then suddenly, my brother stopped playing and went upstairs.  My heart seized, afraid that Mrs. R. would think he stopped playing because I had told him she was listening.  And before I could figure out what to do about it, she stood up and walked back home.

Years later, after I had moved on, my parents told me, amid other news from the block, that Mrs. R had committed suicide.  And now that fact illuminates this memory of mine with unanswerable questions.  What was it about that evening that made her come sit on our porch and listen to my brother practice?  Did the music allow her to escape, for a few brief minutes, those hardships that continually plagued her?  Was she working through some unsolvable dilemma?  Or did she feel light enough that day to do something daring, something out of the ordinary?  Was the music familiar, conjuring up memories from her own childhood?  Or was it simpler than that: A mother stepping outside her own gate to hear what was beyond the din of her own family.

10.21.2011

On Fire

How is it that one band, full of good earnest musicians who practice hard and know their tunes, who wear matching shirts and the same slim ties, fails to get anyone but one drunk guy to clap along, while the next band, more sloppy perhaps and less polished, can bring the people down, one by one, ten by ten to the dance floor to pump and clap and jive?  What bit of magic do certain types have, or rather where does that magic come from that flows through them out to the world and back again?

Some claim it's a thing a person is born with, determined by the genes like eye color, like general disposition.  Others believe it can be learned with practice.  But perhaps it's something even more elusive, an element in the air that causes the slightest shift in confidence, from hesitance to brilliance in a matter of breaths.


10.20.2011

Bandito


The building on Rue Mouffetard had a bright light over the door, illuminating the stone step like a stage.  Hem paused under the light, blowing onto his hands.  He pushed open the heavy front door.  Inside, a staircase wound past oak doors, each with a tin number nailed above the peek hole.  Men, who Hem recognized from the cafes, sat on the stairs, smoking, playing cards.  One man, with a serious brow, was mending a garment.  The apartments emitted odors of sweat, aging cheese, soup made with meat killed in the road.  The men reeked like dogs.
As he climbed the stairwell, Hem’s step matched the beat of Selma Valeria Diego’s typewriter.  Men crowded the landing of the 4th story, panting as they listened to her Underwood tap-dance.  Number 37 had a small card posted on the door with this typed message:  S’il vous plaĆ®t.  Ne frappez pas.  Jamais.
Hem had dropped off his manuscript four days before and hadn’t slept well since.  It was hot in the stairwell.  Hem slid off his coat and listened.  He could tell by the beat she was working on his book.  Rhythm, he had recently decided, was everything.  Being brief simply lent itself to a manageable tempo.
Behind walls came muffled sounds of radio news, a woman singing off key.  A motor whirled, a baby cried.  But everything fell silent the moment the typing stopped.  The men jolted to attention.  A heater hissed.  The door to #37 swung open.  Selma Valeria Diego stepped into the hall.  The men lunged to the banister, craning their necks to see.  She was barefoot.  Her hair was disheveled as if she had been tossing in bed.  She leaned her elbows onto the banister, her chest rising out of her dress.  A lit cigarette appeared in her hand.
Hem shouldered his way to her side.
“I’m on the last chapter,” she said, without glancing at him, her voice like cinder.
He knew better than to ask what she thought.  “I’ll wait,” he finally said.
She shrugged, threw the butt of her cigarette over the banister, and returned to her room, the door falling shut behind her.  Her scent lingered in the hall.  The men rubbed their mouths and scratched themselves, trying to shift their thoughts to other things. 
Somewhere below, a door flew open and the stink of caged birds filled the stairwell.  An old woman cawed at the men for loitering outside her door.  The men shuffled away.  A parrot screeched, “Marde!”  The door slammed closed.  The men shuffled back.
Someone tapped Hem on the shoulder.  It was Wagner Lent, a great skier and a miserable poet.  They had skied at Schruns together, a few winters past.  Spending a day climbing a mountain and then racing down, etching lines across pristine fields of snow, turns strangers into fast friends.  They embraced and shared a smoke. 
“How’s the novel?”
Hem gestured to #37.  “She’s on the last chapter.” 
“That’s great, Hem!  I never thought you’d finish.” 
“If she hates it,” Hem mused, “I’ll take it to the Seine and throw it in a barrel fire and spend the night getting drunk with a Portuguese whore.”
“You wouldn’t!”
“Why not?”
“Such a waste!”
“And life?” 
They heard the building door open and bang shut again.  Another man groaning, the unseasonal chill rising up the stairwell. 
“How goes the poetry?” Hem asked.
“Bah!” Wagner said.  He leaned close to Hem and confided, “They claim she’s a muse.”
“She’s the only one I can afford.”
“How lucky!”
“You think?”
“How’s Hadley?” asked Wagner.
“Fine.  We have a kid now.”
“Wonderful!”
“I quit journalism.”
“How’s that?”
“Wonderful.”
“Ever see Gertrude?”
“Not since she called my writing inaccrochable.”
“What does that mean?”
“Who knows?”
“Tell me something about Ezra.”
“A man’s never had a better friend.”
“Still cheating on his wife?”
“It can’t be helped.”
They passed the time talking, but after a while, Hem lost the track of the conversation.  He was distracted by every ding and thump of the carriage.  He imagined her on the other side of the door, galloping down the final stretch of his novel.  She would never be the same again. 
Abruptly, the typing stopped.  The door opened, and Selma Valeria Diego stood in the hushed hall, steam rising from her moist skin.  Over her shoulder, Hem spied a scarlet room, the typewriter at the center.  Men ensconced in cigarette smoke lounged on thread bare furniture.
Hem pressed a wad of bills into her chapped hands.  A small brown boy emerged from the room and lifted the manuscript to Hem.  Selma Valeria Diego didn’t say a word.  But she smiled.  Hem swore she did.  He kissed her on the mouth before she pushed him away whispering, “¿Que pienses, Bandito?  ¿Esto libro tuyo va a cambiar todo el mundo?” 
“Oui, ma belle,” he said.  “It’s going to change the world,” and he kissed her harder.  
Hem trotted down the steps, the eyes of all the men burning into him.  Then he remembered Wagner.  “See you at Schruns!” he called and stepped out into the brisk night.  The heavy door swung closed behind him.  He stood on the step under the light, listening to the stars, the chill making his head tingle.
Rarely did he feel so good.  Tomorrow, he decided, he would take his wife to the races.  

10.19.2011

A Matter of Opinion

When we first planned to get married and were telling people our news, some people were happy for us, others concerned.  I took their reactions as evaluations of our compatibility. When others were happy for us, I was happy for us.  When others were concerned for us, I was concerned for us.

And then one night a gruff stranger in a bar told me, "Well, you got to get married before you can get divorced," and I realized that our opinions speak much louder truths about ourselves than of those we speak about.

10.18.2011

Journal, 9:38 a.m.

It's not that I don't have a lot on my mind, things I want to write about, things that are worthy of some deeper attention, it's just that I'm afraid there may be nothing more for me to note than the mere mention of them.

I saw a movie this week, though it would be more accurate to say "watched" since I rented it from the library, and for some reason the verb "to see" implies the process of going out, whereas "to watch" implies having not gone out to see.  This distinction I may have never noticed had it not been for my favorite job, teaching English to adult immigrants in Tucson.  It was at this job where I noticed many quirky things about our language, things that one usually only notices about foreign languages one is trying to learn.

Examples: Some nouns such as "church" and "school" do not need an article whereas "hospital" and "store" do.  Sentences require the addition of "do" to make them negative, except for the verb "to be" which does not require the addition of "do" in the negative, though I would have to review many more examples before I could defend this rule with complete confidence.*  Many words are distinguished by the slightest variation in pronunciation of vowel sounds.  Beard and bird are particularly challenging because to mispronounce them leaves the listener completely baffled:  "I must remember to feed my beard." In other cases, the pronunciation can vary wildly without loosing the meaning of a word, think "a" and "the".  Sometimes the past tense "ed" is pronounced like a "d", sometimes like a "t", and other times like "id."  Many names of letters are also words, some with multiple meanings.  Be, bee.  I, eye.  See, sea, an interesting case since neither use the letter they sound like.  "Use" is a very difficult verb to explain given its many uses.  My husband used the diaper bucket to brine the turkey.  Not only that, he used a used diaper bucket to brine the turkey.  But it would be most accurate to say, my husband used to use a used diaper bucket to brine the turkey.  But he does not use one any more.  Not after the relatives rebelled. (Notice that "used" is pronounced differently depending on if one is saying "used to" or simply "used.")

In order to make a nice transition between this lengthy digression and what I had set out to mention, I was about to write that the movie I watched was also about language, a lame and redundant observation.  Aren't all movies about language, just as are all books?  Why would I need to bring that to your attention, except to quell my own insecurities that you Dear Reader will not tolerate non sequiturs.  Obviously, I underestimate you.

So now, I will tell you about the movie I watched this week.

When the Road Bends, tales of a Gypsy Caravan is the story of four diverse groups of gypsy musicians from Spain, Macedonia, Romania, and India who come together for a North American concert tour.  Near the beginning of the film there is a scene when they are trying to work out a finale in which they can all play together.  But their music is all so distinct that they are visibly annoyed with the task.  But after three months on the road, listening to each other's music, playing together in hotel rooms, on buses, in planes, they find their common ground.

Watching these musicians I couldn't help but wonder about my own roots.  I realize that dressing up like a gypsy every Halloween when I was a kid, and never wanting to settle in one place doesn't make me a gypsy any more than playing a cane flute makes me a sharecropper from Mississippi.  But it is fascinating to me to contemplate that no matter how hard we try to distinguish ourselves from our neighbors, our political rivals, from people who look and act and talk so differently from us as to be incomprehensible, we are all, somewhere along the ancestral line, related.  It would be a good thing for us all to remember.

*Also: will, can, shall.

10.17.2011

Dead Bird


I find the dead bird on the porch under the picture window.  It is the first really warm day of the year and the birds are celebrating.  Apparently, this one didn’t get the memo about not flying into windows.  I go to get the shovel. 

The kids are playing baseball with my husband. My youngest child is on my heels wanting to know what I’m doing.  I tell her I’m going to dig a hole to bury the dead bird. 

“What dead bird?” she asks. 

“The one on the porch.”

“The porch?  What porch?”

“The front porch.”

“Oh, the front porch.  Where is the front porch?”

“You know.  The one in the front of the house.  The one that faces the street.”

“Oh.  That porch.”

She watches me dig a hole. 

“Why are you doing that?”

“That’s where we are going to bury the dead bird.”

“Why bury the dead bird?”

“So that it can change back into soil.”

“What’s soil?”

“This.  The dirt.  Everything that dies turns back into soil.”

“Everything?”

“Eventually.”

“And then a tree will grow?”

“Maybe.”

“Why maybe?  Why not yes or no?”

“Because maybe something else will grow.  Like a flower.”

“The bird is going to turn into a flower?”

“Sort of.  Yes.  That’s a nice way to think about it.”
I don’t dig a very deep hole.  But I’m already tired.  It will be deep enough.  It’s a small bird. 

I get a stick and roll the bird onto the spade.  It rolls as if it’s alive and my heart jumps.  I look again.  Definitely dead.  I carry it half-way down the drive before I decide I’d like to draw it first.  I carry the shovel back to the porch. 

“Where are you going?”  My daughter is still following me.

“I’m going to get a paper and pen.  I want to draw the bird before we bury it.”

“Can I draw it too?”

“Yes.  Get your clipboard.”
The bird’s eye is perfectly black.  Its feathers are so fine, I could draw for a lifetime and never be able to capture every detail.  Its feet are curled like crippled hands.  The claws are surprisingly long and fine, a perfect instrument for gripping bark.  I roll the bird over for another look.  On this side, the eye is squeezed shut, part of the beak broken into a disconcerting angle. 

We carry the bird to the backyard together.  We tilt the shovel and it slides into the hole.  Its death is more evident, now that we are done with it, this body lying in a hole.  I pause.  “Ready?” I ask.  “Should we bury it now?”

My daughter doesn’t say a thing.  She stands very still staring at the bird.  I scrap the dirt back into the hole and the dirt covers the bird and then it’s gone.  My daughter starts to sob.  I pick her up and hug her.  “I want the birdie to fly away,” she cries, her face wet, her eyes red with mourning.


Today, my youngest sits in my lap watching me type.  “That’s my name!”  I tell her I’m writing the story about the dead bird.

“What dead bird?”

“The one we buried yesterday.”

“Oh yeah.  Did you write the part about the crying?”

“Not yet.”

“Oh.  I love the part about the crying.”

10.15.2011

Lessons from Literature #109

"Then you'll play the santuri."

"If I'm in the mood, d'you hear?  If I'm in the mood.  I'll work for you as much as you like.  I'm your man there.  But the santuri, that's diffferent.  It's a wild animal, it needs freedom.  If I'm in the mood, I'll play.  I'll even sing.  And I'll dance the Zeimbekiko, the Hassapiko, the Pentozali -- but, I tell you plainly from the start, I must be in the mood.  Let's have that quite clear.  If you force me to, it'll be finished.  As regards those things, you must realize, I'm a man."

"A man?  What d'you mean?"

"Well, free!"



Zorba talking with his boss in Nikos Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek

10.14.2011

Origins of a Story


A while back I started to save stories as a new document each day I worked on them, allowing me to see how long I've been sweating over a piece and also what changes I've made with time.  Somewhere along the line, I also took to creating a document to accompany some stories called "Origins of. . . ."  Today, I had a hankering to go back and do some work on a story that I was wrestling with earlier this year.  I'm surprised to see I started it in 2005.  Here's what I had to say about how it came to be.

12-8-05

I started The Book Collector after talking to my mom last weekend, after she told me yet another story about Vic Hass, this one which I had never heard before.  She told me about how he had been so disappointed when none of his children wanted his library and how he eventually came to meet a local book seller who bought his entire collection and how Vic later filled in at the bookshop when the owner went out of town.  The Hass’s were long time friends of my parents.  There are many details of their lives which have always fascinated me.  I have thought about writing an essay about Vic, who was also the book editor of the Omaha World Herald for thirty years.  But the essay form does not lend itself to me the way that fiction does. With fiction, I can change and create.  It is like a puzzle.  I have all these pieces, details of the Hass’s life, plus my own memories.  How to put the pieces together with the glue of imagination?  I am gathering even more details from reading his collection of his best articles, Leaves from a Bookman’s Notebook, which has sat on my parent’s top bookshelf for as long as I can remember.
The first writings are trial and error.  I let my instincts take over, the first few days, just trying to write 1000 words each day, just letting the words flow out, not worrying about structure.  Today, I was attempting to figure out a structure.  What should come first?  What last?  I know that I want it to be a story about his great disappointment that his children did not find value in those objects he dedicated his life to.  But what else?  How should the story telling unfold? Do I start with Vic in the book shop and then tell his story as a big flashback?  Do I start when his wife died or before that?  Do I begin with his mother reading stories to him after he filled the kitchen wood box? 
The great and scary thing about writing fiction from real details about real people is that in the telling, you make up details and then those details become so real to you that you don’t actually remember what details are the original ones, and what ones you made up, thus, they all become real in a way.  What is history but storytelling, and what is storytelling but arranging details in compelling ways?
I am reading Alice Munro’s Runaway.  Two things I’ve noticed.  One, her stories are series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks.  She gives a lot of details.  She outlines whole lives in single paragraphs.  Her stories move along so swiftly you can’t imagine that the words were actually worked over and worked over.  It seems to just flow out of her.  And when the important part of a scene is finished, she double spaces and goes to the next thing.  She doesn’t worry about making her characters exit.  These are a few things I’ve noticed.  Reading her while attempting to write this story, I think is a good thing.  

One funny thing: I don't remember ever reading Alice Munro's Runaway.  Another funny thing: I worked on that story for 4 days in 2005, one day in 2007, one day in 2008, and so far, 13 days this year.  It seems to me that it might be finished soon, if I keep working on it.  If I don't wake up tomorrow thinking it's terrible as I must have thought at various point in 2005, 2007, and 2008.  I'm hoping that the act of publicly posting its origins will spur me to find its conclusion.

10.12.2011

Interview with Myself

J.K. Dane recently met herself for coffee at the Hooray House, the name she has given to her residence on Washington Street. She agreed to do the interview with herself under the condition that there would be no questions about The New Frugality nor The Creativity Center and that she would be allowed to play harmonica at any point during the interview.

Me:  Why do you call it the Hooray House?

Myself:  A talented friend of ours sewed a string of little flags that reads "Hooray!" and gave it to us when we left town. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it or even what it meant. But there were two columns on the front porch of our new house perfectly spaced, so I hung it there. And then one day, it just came to me.  Hooray House.  It sounds nice with the alliteration, don't you think?

Me:  Like a half-way house.

Myself:  We prefer to think of it as a three-quarters of the way house.

Me:  It's said that you are now writing in the same room where a famous poet used to work.  Is that true?

Myself:  That's what the landlord told me.  But understand that this is a rather unusual landlord, one with a heavy liberal bend and a PhD in English.  Who knows what kind of fantasies he makes up about famous writers living in his houses.  So one day I decided to investigate for myself and I called the famous poet.  At first she seemed very uninterested in talking to me and even a little put off.  She didn't seem to remember living here, but then she asked me if I had seen any ghosts.

Me:  And have you?

Myself:  Just curtains blowing when there is no wind and pots falling from the table and floors creaking when no one is at home.  But no ghosts.

(Harmonica interlude.)

Me:  What's the deal with the harmonica?

Myself:  You know.

Me:  Tell me again because I still don't get it.

Myself:  A deranged friend of mine in high school once took one out and played it when we were walking.  I was so envious.  He said all I had to do was buy one and keep it in my pocket and play it whenever I felt like it.

Me:  Like Zorba and his santuri?

Myself:  Exactly.  I have to be in the mood to play.

Me:  Is it the same with writing?

Myself:  If it were, I would probably be a better parent.

Me:  Why's that?

Myself:  Early on I got it into my head that if I didn't write everyday then I'd never make it as a writer. So I write everyday which mostly means I write a lot of shit.  And then I feel bad that I spend so much time and energy writing a lot of shit.

Me:  So you would be more loving and accepting if you wrote less?

Myself:  Probably not.

Me:  Recently you started a blog.  Has that changed the way you write?

Myself:  Here's the thing about the blog.  Somebody just might read it. So The Fear sets in and I get nervous about all kinds of things a person gets nervous about when they expose themselves to public scrutiny.  As our hero Lynda Barry says, "Is this good?  Does this suck?"  Why bother?  But the part that is scary can also be fascinating.  Like the other day, a neighbor stopped me on the street.  He stared at me hard.  "I read your blog," he said.  "That's some haunting stuff."  It made my day.

Me:  So you want to scare people?

Myself:  If that's what it takes.

Me:  To do what?

Myself:  How should I know?

(Harmonica interlude.)

Me:  The kids must love the harmonica thing.

Myself:  That's what you would think.  But I was sitting by the campfire not long ago and started playing and my four year old year sitting in a folding chair next to me, said, as calm as could be, "You have two choices, Mom.  Either stop playing or go somewhere else."  It couldn't have been clearer than that.  So I left.

10.10.2011

Autumn Days

Sitting on the porch,


Watching the leaves fall,


I forget to watch them falling.


10.09.2011

A Matter of Perspective

A couple of years back, I sent a holiday card to the relatives.  My mother-in-law immediately phoned my husband wanting to know if everything was alright.  Because it was his mother and because of his particular brand of humor, my husband implied that I might be on the brink of disaster.  My mother-in-law suggested putting me on a suicide watch.  "Did you see the card she sent?"  My husband said he couldn't remember if he did or not.  She explained that it was a drawing of a person hanging herself.  My husband said that sounded familiar and put me on the phone.

I tried to reassure my mother-in-law that it was not my intension, to send a holiday card of a girl hanging herself, and though I could now see how it could be interpreted that way, I had in fact, drawn a merry child swinging.



During the holidays my husband took a survey.  Some agreed with my mother-in-law, though an equal number thought the card light-hearted and whimsical.  Several had no opinion at all.

10.07.2011

Finding Otha

When I was a kid in the fifth grade, my mom called my dad's cousin Tuffy and asked him what instrument I should play.  He, a middle school music teacher, said oboe thinking that would always assure me a spot in the orchestra.  But Mr. Music said I couldn't start with oboe and had to play flute first, so I did and by the next year had taken to it enough that Mr. Music said I should just stick with it.  So I did.

When I went off to the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic, I brought my flute but hardly played it because I was too shy, too afraid to draw any more attention to myself than I already did with my white skin and foreign habits.  Plus, I was scared to play anything I hadn't practiced, anything I hadn't read off a page.

To my Central African neighborhood, there sometimes came a blind man and his young grandson.  At some point, I took to calling him Saint Blindman.  Saint Blindman had wrinkled red patches of skin where his eyes should have been.  He carried a gourd guitar with three strings and for anyone who would offer him a coin, he would sit in the shade and sing and play, and it was something extraordinary because it was so unbound.  I recorded him once and played the recording back for him.  Those patches where his eyes should have been, twitched with concentration as he scolded the children to be quiet.  Afterwards he shook his head and laughed.  He had never heard a recording of his music before.  I offered him the tape, but he didn't take it. "What would I do with that?" It almost makes me cry this morning, thinking this thought for the very first time, what a shame I never got out my flute to play with him.

When a coup broke out in the capital and we were evacuated to Cameroon, we displaced volunteers traveled around, trying to figure out what to do.  We came to a town in a lush mountain bowl and walked the paths up the mountainsides, past creeks and waterfalls and somewhere along there was a shop that sold crafts, and I bought myself a bamboo flute.  I've been carrying around that flute for 15 years now.  I played it at our wedding.  It's my husband's favorite line, when he sees me slip it in my purse.  "We're just going to the grocery store, not to join the circus."  But you never know when you might get a chance to play.

Like the other night, when a couple of friends stopped by and we started a little band.  The next day one of those friends sent me some video links to fife and drum bands.  And that's how I came to learn about Otha Turner.  Whenever I learn about something that takes hold of me, I wonder, how could I not have known about this before?  Because when I see Otha Turner playing his fife made of river cane, I get this strange feeling (and I know this is going to sound ridiculous), as if I'm watching something of myself, manifested in an old black man who was a Mississippi sharecropper his whole life. Where along the ancestral line does our DNA meet up?  How stunning it is to add up this series of accidental events, from Tuffy's advice, to a coup in the Central African Republic, that give me access to something so finely laced into my humanity that with a sneeze, I just might have missed it.



10.06.2011

Mama Mia!

This morning my mom called.  We talked about some family news and about a new pot my mom bought at an art festival, a beautiful piece full of flowers that are still in bloom.  She asked about the kids and our trip to New York.  And then when it seemed there was nothing more to talk about, she said, "So tell me.  What have you been up to?"  I saw my chance and decided to take it.

"Well.  I've been working on the blog.  Did you know I have a blog?"

"Yes.  We know about the blog.  But your father and I don't read blogs. Maybe we're just too old.  I don't know.  But we just don't like that kind of thing.  We tried to read it.  But we just aren't interested in blogs."

"I thought maybe you just didn't know how to click on the link."

"Of course I know how to do that.  It's just all these people with their blogs and cellphones and youtubes.  I'm afraid for this next generation.  I really am.  Everyone is so distracted these days.  No one knows how to concentrate.  Like this friend of ours.  She decided that she needed to get into youtube, who knows why, to relate to the young people, I guess.  And then she started feeling very distracted, and she couldn't concentrate on anything and then she realized it was the youtube.  So she stopped watching it.  And now she's fine."

"There's a lot of people who have concentrated very hard to make the internet what it is today."

"Yes, I suppose so.  But it's scary.  It really is."

I tell her that I used to feel the same way.  That it scared me to see how consumed my husband could become with a little gadget in his hand.  And how I loved reading all the doom and gloom articles in smart magazines about how the internet is making us dumb.  But I came to realize that this fear is no different from The Fear.  It has nothing to do with the internet, but with me.  The internet is nothing more than a communication tool.  The Fear is nothing more than a construction of my own imagination.

"You should blog about that."  My mom who won't read my blog has ideas about what I should blog about.

"My in-laws were sure you weren't reading it because you were offended.  "

"Offended?"

"I might have mentioned you a couple of times on the blog."

"You have?  Well.  Maybe I'll have to take a closer look at that sometime."

I had to get my daughter to swimming lessons.  We said goodbye.  When I came home three hours later, there was an email from my mother.

JOANNA,


Please read my response to your blog piece....a conversation with my mother...and then CALL.  (Suddenly, I've developed an affinity with CAPS.)  We DEFINITELY need to talk!  (and explanation marks too!)

My mom has her methods for getting me to call her, usually not so subtle.  This time I called back right away. But she didn't want to talk long. She was too distracted by my blog.

"One question.  Is that really what we're like?" she asked.

"Yes," I heard my dad declare.  "I haven't even read it yet, and I can tell you.  That's exactly what we're like."

10.04.2011

Views from the High Line

Because my husband is an urban planner,

He insists we visit the High Line,


An abandoned elevated railway in lower Manhattan,


Turned green way.




While my husband considers the elaborate process involved in such a transformation,

I become engrossed in other transformations.

A gallery is open.

Full of fur and buttons.


Soon something new will emerge,


From a perspective never before considered.



How easy to forget, that sometimes all we need is a little elevation,

To bring some much needed inspiration.

Even the rain won't chase us from the High Line.

Not yet.  Not tonight.

10.03.2011

Whimsy

I am no different than anyone else. There are certain kinds of books, as with people, that attract my attention more than others.  Book jacket designers are highly attuned to such subtle preferences and know how to get particular people to select from the shelf particular books that will bring them joy.  Certainly, it is not the words that first catch my attention, but the design of the words that slows my eye long enough to capture the meaning of the words on the spine.  In this case, jacket designer for Oxford University Press, Leah Lococo did a very excellent job - black spine with capital white letters in a typeface reminiscent of the age of the printing press.  And so I came to check out The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and carried it with me on a weekend trip to New York.

Thankfully, it is not a cranky book condemning all technology that threatens the survival of the printed word.  Rather the opposite.  Alan Jacobs is not in the business of condemning much of anything at all except for people like Harold Bloom, author of How to Read and Why, which Jacobs renames What to Read and What to Think about It.  Jacobs is dead set against lists of books issued by authorities telling us what we need to read.  Instead he advises, "Read what gives you delight--at least most of the time--and do so without shame."  And as if that's not endearing enough, he entitles the lovely little section near the beginning of the book where he makes this point, "Whim."

Whim, often referred to as "frivolousness," was frowned upon in our household growing up, which is not to say that my parents do not laugh easily and don't have healthy senses of humor.  They do. Simply, there was a level of seriousness to be upheld.  We were to be serious students, serious citizens, serious musicians.  Or at least, that's my interpretation of how I was raised, which most likely, given the confounding nature of child rearing, is very different from the interpretation my parents have of how I was raised.

And so in me developed a seriousness that was responsible for getting me through college with respectable grades.  The danger was, my overblown sense of the seriousness of my undertakings (augmented by the seriousness of several serious boyfriends) risked suffocating my last vestiges of whimsy.

Fortunately, like so many things, I can blame my husband, a Whimsical man who, at every turn, challenges our most sacred assumptions about seriousness.

"It helps us to make a vital distinction between what I shall call whim and Whim.  In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge."  Alan Jacobs

Of course, we would all like to believe that we have just the right amount of the right kind of Whim. So indulge me long enough to make the case, for my parents' sake, who have made no mention of this blog, perhaps out of embarrassment, perhaps out of indifference, that this recent distraction is not the lower case whim they worry leads to a life of frivolousness, but rather capital Whimsy, the very kind that Alan Jacobs, serious scholar, professor, biographer assures us is the kind of Whimsy that is our best guide through the world of the written word.