Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On Men and Aging

        My aging husband falls off a ladder. Bruised, sore - but ever so fortunately, nothing more.  It’s his ego that hurts - no even deeper than that. His physicality is such an important part of who he is.

        This is a man who just a few years ago scampered across scaffolding painting murals and intricate effects on walls. He skipped stone to stone across fast creeks, once carried our wounded 65 lb Samoyed half a mile on a hard trail back to camp. He has always counted on his body.
(And so have I.)

        We have a friend who led treks to the highest mountains, not that old now really, slowly shuffling around the block two strokes later. Don’t suggest books to him, crafts, or afternoons of foreign movies, unless you want the most dismissive look anyone has ever given you. He doesn’t really want to live.  « Who the hell am I now» he asks, « and why bother? »
(It really hurts to hear that. )

The artist Pierre Bonnard  Self Portrait
       And there's our friend who is no longer supposed to drive, who promised he wouldn’t but had a set of keys hidden, his partner was gone for the day and would never know, and the car was just sitting there and why pay for Uber?  

     « Being unable to drive in our culture is a massive blow
to independence. We attach so much attention to self-reliance
and independence as defining characteristics of masculinity, of
maleness and virility that they have deep significance for the lack
of hope and feeling of insignificance in American men as they face
reduced  mobility and independence. Dependence upon charitable
programs, friends, neighbors, or relatives further erodes feelings
of self-capability, confidence and usefulness.»   David A. Baker

     At my age I’m surrounded by these men, and I feel for 
them. I've seen the depression that sets in, that lurks and lingers, and hinders appreciation let alone joy. I have heard men boasting of old exploits to their grandkids so the little ones will know that grandpa was once Really Strong.
(It doesn’t sound like macho to me - just compensation.)

        David A. Baker continues  « Intimate relationships between women where shared feelings are discussed and support is offered freely, is simply absent in relationships between men. «  

       How sad I find that. I have shared feelings about aging with my women friends, acquaintances, even empathic strangers in rest rooms, since the first gray hairs. We grieve that we’re no longer ‹ hot’ and complain of the cold. There are tears, but ribald crone-laughter too, lamenting droops, dryness, double chins.  There must be some guys who have such sharing!

Rembrandt van Rijn  Self Portrait
      « We lose touch, Victor Rangel-Ribeiro says, and we try to establish touch but often when we reach out our hands and find only emptiness. »  from Growing Old on Two Continents
      "Long legs that once carried one with some grace and some speed on the hardwood court or playing field morphed into fragile pipestems ....the body, as Richard Pryor put it, (or was it Ali?) should  sue the legs for non-support."
     "Does that shuffling codger not know his spider’s legs, purple-veined, are pathetic in walking shorts?  In the midst of one’s arrogance and intolerance, a discomforting inisght floods one’s consciousness: these pensioners are one’s peers! » 

                    Gordon Weaver, That Face in the Bathroom Mirror

      I read the draft of this blog to my husband. He hopes
that men will read it and share it with each other. I hope so too.

David A. Baker, private correspondence
The essays Growing Old on Two Continents and That Face in the Bathroom Mirror can be found in 
Duff Brenna & Thomas E. Kennedy, Winter Tales: Men Writing About Aging, Copenhagen and Florham Park, N.J. : Serving House Books, 2011.




Friday, August 5, 2016

In the Goodness of Time: The Poet and "The Great Work"

W.S. Merwin in his garden on Maui        (The Merwin Conservancy)
          Recently, I read an article about Wallace Stevens in the New Yorker. In it Peter Scheldahl declares that for him the best poem of the 20th century is The Idea of Order in Key West.

          I re-read the poem after many years, and yes it is beautifully crafted and mythic, about a She and the Sea and it has the power and repetition of waves - but it is a poem written from a metaphysical sky. There is a line in the poem that tells us « She was the single artificer of the world/In which she sang », and I thought the word ‹ he › could be substituted for ‹ she › and it would describe the poet.

         Perhaps I responded this way because I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s Moon Before Morning and the ease and truth and quietness speak to me so sweetly. When he writes of the earth, he is of the earth, and when he writes of the past it is present for him, and when he writes of the Ark you think you can smell the animals.  
Merwin's House    www.hilt.org
         The Idea of Order in Key West is a peony of a poem, perhaps and entire  peony bush - no it has to be larger - the tree of huge red flowers in front of a temple in Laos that I can’t identify by name. A tree that blooms year round and holds its canopy up proud as a god.

        Merwin has been planting Pritichardia palm trees, native to Hawaii, on his property in Maui for 40 years. His poems are palms, either quietly climbing toward starlight, or they rustle seductively when the wind blows. Or the poems are the small startling flowers of the tropics like the low growing butterfly pea flower - not the brilliant blue variety, but the candid white.  I am enamored of the poems particularly because they present the sense of timelessness and presence that one wants age to enable:

                    Dew Light
Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age

The Merwin Conservancy

         Those 19 acres, 2740 palms, are the work of reclamation the world so badly needs to do - as Thomas Berry describes it in The Great Work. The palms, along with bananas and mangos and papaya were planted on land that was damaged first by logging, then pineapple rows were planted vertically so most of the soil washed away.  What was left of the soil grew grasses so bitter that an experiment in grazing failed when the cows’ lips curled in disgust.

         The work of reclamation is what there is when the age of conquering the world is over. Or let us say that reclamation and renewal are the new adventure.  What if our own or the world’s losses connect us rather than embitter or force us to turn us aside?

        Merwin has been aware of what has been happening to our planet for a long time. His great poem For A Coming Extinction was published in The Lice in 1967, which makes me feel like a Jenny-come-lately to environmental concerns. In 1967 many of us were working and writing against the Vietnam War,  and so was he - but he was able to step out of the headlines and into the world to come, which he knew was already there. For A Coming Extinction laments:  

“Gray whale/ Now that we are sending you to The End/ That great god/ Tell him/ That we who follow you invented forgiveness/ And forgive nothing.”

The Merwin Conservancy
In an interview with Joel Whitney, Merwin talked about the story of Noah:
« I loved that story so much. And I had this fantasy of building an ark in the back yard, because when the rains came, I said, you know, nobody believed Noah. Nobody will believe us either. We can build this boat, but [smirking] where are we going to get the animals? »

         Merwin has alternated originality, translation and reclamations since his 30s. I was aware of his long poetic narrative on the history of the Hawaiians, The Folding Cliffs, but I did not know that he had once translated the poetry of the Native American Crow people. In an interview with Edward Hirsch in 1986 Merwin said:
« And I had very much the feeling about the Crow, along with American Indian poetry in general, and many other non-literate poetries, too— that even as we talked about it, it was disappearing. And I think of it as of comparable importance to, say, the burning of the library at Alexandria. »

          That comparison. A lessening of scale, a tale of equivalence. Not a diminishing of what we have achieved, but the recognition that others have done as well, and their work is just as significant. This too is the great work.

The Merwin Conservatory

 Insurance Man
The Life and Art of Wallace Stevens

The New Yorker
May 2, 2016

Joel Whitney interviews W.S. Merwin
February 15, 2011

The Lice, Atheneum, 1967










Wednesday, July 22, 2015

NAMI: "You Are NOT alone"

from the blog "How to Juggle Glass"
       On Livernois, the old "Avenue of Fashion" in Detroit, she was known as Robbie. A short, vibrant dumpling of a woman who managed Belle Jacobs, an upscale boutique. There she was, narrating a fashion show fundraiser, and there she was, marching before her troop of saleswomen like a general before the invasion, preparing them for the line waiting outside the door on Sale Day. (Where the hell did she find the four star general’s hat smartly cocked on her dark hair?)

        To her husband, she was Pearle, a slightly outrageous woman prone to the unexpected. There he was, exclaiming at the line of Miss America contestants parading across the TV screen, and there she was, slinking into the den in a silk nightgown, exclaiming, « Take me! »

        To friends and relatives suffering from anything from depression to lost charge cards, or the friends of her kids with ‹ parents-who-don’t understand-me ›, she was a warm, available listener.

        For my brother and me, she was Mom.

        And to her psychiatrist she was a woman with a deep inexplicable wound, given to weeping. When she remembered the terrible beating she received as a child our saga began.
by Kevin Caffrey  Alexandra College, Dublin, Ireland
    In the 1950s, a Weeping Woman was thrown in the hospital and given insulin and electroconvulsive shock treatments, which terrified her, made little difference, and insured that she would neither forget nor heal. She was stuck fast in trauma like an insect in amber. Later treatments in later hospitals involved massive dosages of Stelazine and Thorazine, still experimental, which resulted in premature dementia. 

        I was 16 when it all began, my brother 10.   The psychiatrist gave my father all the information he could. Some members of our extended family tried to give support. My father left a 10 hour work day to visit her every night during the 90 day hospitalizations Blue Cross allowed. Later, I would leave Wayne State University after my classes and take a bus to a hospital, or Lafayette Clinic, or wherever she had been taken, and hear her pleas to come home.

        Her need and her pain were not containable. When she was home the knives were hidden in my sweater drawer, the key to the upstairs back porch next to them so she wouldn’t harm herself.  Our Pearle became she-who-lost-herself, and we - we were alone, trying to maintain each other.

from the website "How to Juggle Glass"
          Support groups? Unavailable. (Did they even exist?) Education classes for families? Unknown. We were powerless and overwhelmed, and what I find so moving is that now so much is available for families. (And don’t kid yourself - mental illness can happen to anyone.)

        My husband & I  know people with family members who suffer from mental illness. We empathize and grieve with them. What is it like to live with someone who is suddenly exhibiting incomprehensible and/or frightening behaviors? Imagine all the phone calls, internet sessions, and the trips from one professional to another, trying to find out what’s wrong. Imagine the helplessness and worry, the struggle, and families possibly divided over the right course of action.
Arizona Capitol Times
The fortunate ones find NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which has offices everywhere. The support our friends have received is inestimable.  Call an office and you will immediately be given resources.  There are classes -  NAMI Basics, for parents with children or adolescents exhibiting symptoms. NAMI Family-to-Family is a class for families, partners and friends of individuals with mental illness.  

        There are courses on growth, healing and recovery for the individual with mental problems, and courses for the families of the psychically stricken veterans of our current wars - and I’ve only mentioned a small part of NAMI’s services. For families, the ability to share stories with others in the same situation, to compare symptoms, treatments, fears -  share what is still considered dark and shameful by many in our society.

        NAMI handles national problems as well. The fight for better coverage for mental health, and the disparity between funding for physical and mental health is one that NAMI is actively involved in on the Congressional level. 

        If you know someone who has suffered alone with mental health problems, or a struggling family, you only need suggest their local NAMI office. You can find that info at https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Family-Members-and-Caregivers/Supporting-Recovery.

        And if you are looking for a worthwhile charity, a great place to put your dollars, where money is not eaten up by Administration, I recommend NAMI.  Bill & I enjoy the marches and fundraisers for the wholehearted energy of all who participate - and I find it so healing to know that no one today has to go through the isolated misery my family experienced.
Thank you NAMI.

"My art, my mental illness" Johnny Beaver



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

As Butch Cassidy said, "Who Are Those Guys"?

University of Leeds, Dept. of Cultural and Media Studies

        Not only am I hopelessly out of date in cultural studies, but I don’t even remember the date. However, this is not one of those dirges by an old-lady-who-once-was-cool-looking-back nostalgically-at-her-radical-past-saying-in-my-day-we-did-it-better. I don’t use the phrase « in my day », because I’m still here. I am often very still, but I am here. And please remember that the linguistic root of radical is root.

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s brilliant The Argonaut, and I fell in love with this phrase: »if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness...". I will come back to this later, I promise. But meanwhile I have been absorbed in Nelson’s world of contemporary cultural studies and gender preoccupations.

I taught Women’s Studies beginning in 1974. The door of rediscovered female accomplishment in the arts opened for me at the same time as my students: We learned of Artemisia Gentileschi, first woman admitted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. We were outraged that all of the artist Judith Leyster’s work had been attributed to Frans Hals, and it turned out that the unfamiliar artist and sculptor Rosa Bonheur had been famous in the nineteenth century. None of these artists had appeared in the art history books I’d been assigned in college. Our new knowledge was the result of exciting research by J. J. Wilson and Karen Petersen.  
Judith Leyster, Self-portrait, c. 1630
      If I were still teaching, would it be Cultural Studies? I would need to learn a new language. For example, I would have to admit that my life with a husband and a house and a garden was heteronormative. Could I create a sentence with the word performativity in it? Could I avoid telling my students that performativity is not post-poststructuralist, but the work of J. L. Austin in the 50s, a white male who looked like a woodpecker and told us that words perform acts? 
As a teenager I consumed 50's French cool. The flavors of choice were Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, so we said that life was absurde, wore berets, and argued over whether Sartre’s turn toward Communism was a defection from Camus’ early indifference. What was more profound than « Mother died yesterday »? That this period in our lives was a transition between the conformity of high school and the courage of individuation was not even known, let alone expressed.  
(photo from Progressive Thinking)
Sartre & de Beauvoir, The Guardian

Full disclosure - I miss my students. But teach now? Cultural Studies?  Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Peter Sloterdijk: Who are those guys? I only got as far as Irigeray, Kristova and Deleuze before my attention turned elsewhere.

      So back to »if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness... » Ah, the dangers of maenads and Orphic hymns, and wild sex and the seance of their calling! 
      But this is where that phrase led me: When the wild song that wilderness sings ceased to repeat in our brains like the lyrics of pop songs, did we turn to prose? Is the deep green and root-ridden forest the natural home of poetry - along with the riverbank and the wave-struck beach and the red dunes, and, and….all of it? When I heard the trees in the last patch of old forest in Chiapas call on me to speak for them, could I have written essays instead of poems? Published an anthology of prose rather than poetry?
from PBS website

Ficus Andronicus
The Queen of Trees. Walking Palm. Hoatzin bird. Bowerbird. Desert Paintbrush.  Not my only, but my new vocabulary, married to rhythm, and rhyme and alliteration and imagery. I could teach that biopoetic language. But then there would be syllabi to create, and media presentations, and papers to grade, and grades to give, and……..
I wouldn’t be free anymore, and I’d have to remember the date.



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Talking to the Leaves of Nasturtium

        I have never written prose about my garden. It seemed to me too slight - too Better Homes and Gardens. How silly, I realized, (with the help of my friend Dan). Time to honor both my garden and the season after spending the morning planting.

      Two things laced me to the cycle of the seasons: The first was the ceremonial calendar of my childhood, that begins with the High Holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the fall. The second cycle belonged to nature, and the intense seasonal changes of the Midwest.

     With the exception of the harvest holiday called Sukkot in autumn, and an egg, lamb bone and greens on the Passover ritual seder plate to commemorate Spring, the two cycles, one of the Earth Mother, the other of the Sky Father, seemed unconnected. It is in the myths of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest that Earth Mother and Sky Father connect and work together, and those myths had a profound effect on me.  The two cycles also come together in the rituals I have practiced with women over the years - and now in fact, spirit and nature are inseparable to me, in the wilderness, but especially, in the garden - and in the photo.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Every year my garden delivers its spring offering: the flowering plum and pear and apple, rhododendron, tall pale yellow iris, and 20 rose bushes, and every year it is one of the best gifts life offers me - the gift of petals.

       In Elizabeth Alexander’s heartbreaking memoir, The Light of the World, she describes a peony that her husband planted for her. It bloomed for her birthday every year on May 30th. Never mind that the peony’s season of blooming corresponds to that date. Never mind that the opening of those buds at that time is a normal event. For Alexander, it was a magical, deliberate gift - the gift of petals

My garden
      My husband fondly remembers the food of his childhood, and recreates the meals for us that his mother made. Those dinners were his first imprint of flavor, as my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens were my first imprint of petals. Peonies, lily of the valley & lilac, zinnias & phlox, the rose they called American Beauty, and tulips. 

      It is not cold enough in California for tulips to repeat in my garden. I treat them as annuals, spend an extravagant round number every fall to dig bulbs into the cold, (and now no longer wet), soil of December, assuring bloom as though without my labors Spring would not happen.  I'm planting hope as the year darkens.

Pike Street Market, Seattle, April 2015
     And peonies? I once so craved those luxurious blooms that I hauled bags of ice out to the yard in January, and dumped cubes on a faltering plant, knowing they needed winter's freeze. The plant couldn't be fooled, and the treatment didn’t work. Once a year I treat myself to a bouquet of peonies, remembering that my mother never cut her abundance of peonies, or any other flower, to bring into the house. I’ve mentally gone through all the cupboards in my parent’s house and I can’t find a single vase. Why? Self-denial? Another one of her mysteries I will never solve, and a practice I  don't follow.

     My roses have begun blooming and there are arrangements of roses in every room. Each morning my first act is to bring all the vases into the kitchen, recut the stems and replace the water - even before my essential mug of coffee. I suppose this action falls between care, habit, and ritual - the obsessions of ceremony:

 The Key to the Pay Tree Ark

The high priest was always rushed
The holy ones were due any minute
The altar flowers in alternate rows
 of blue
    and white
must be picked immediately
in virginal bud
the bones must be scraped
of flesh before blood dries
table and sun set precisely
Since we could not see the face
of the clock that timed him

we assumed it was God's.
When we think of him now
that we've aged
and our language has changed
we try out words like compulsion

We wonders if the seeds
would have sprouted without him.

The gift of petals on the dining room table

 I didn’t begin that garden with confidence. I didn’t know when to expect flowering. I went around to each plant and spoke to it, and I begin my real service to the Muse with this poem:

Speaking To The Leaves of Nasturtium

"Flower" I hear myself say to the plant.
Flower. Sounding each syllable.
Speaking as you would speak to a mute.
Not a demand. Not teaching the flower to speak.
I am not the man in the tale who would teach
a stone to talk.  To break its stony silence
with a word, perhaps bird, b-i-r-r-r-d
so the word would emerge from the rock
like a fledgling pecking out its shell.

Nor would I teach a dolphin language,
not to discover why eons ago
it returned to the water,
not to pry into its secret signals,
not even to ask why it loves us.
Could the dolphin accept our word
for how it knows and know
to tell us how it guides?
could it state the impossible
demands of grammar:
Turn right at the next corner,
Don't forget...
Hold me.
The dolphin has its own purpose,
it is our fate to talk to ourselves.

As for the plants
I have no questions that watching could not answer.

At Findhorn they called on spirits
to learn the needs of the green ones.
They said that the spirits were pleased
to answer.  More water.  More sun.
A little more to the left.

I hear myself speaking to the leaves of nasturtium.
Clearly, sounding each syllable.  Flow-er.
As though the green cells could hear
and respond in buds. As though I could cause flowers
by teaching the word. As though I could cause
by teaching.  Flower.  Flow-er. Repeated to the leaves
whose learning only flows from the roots upward.
I cannot stop speaking but the silence
of leaves is training me to see.                                                         

Photo by Bill Fulton


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Morning Walk With Bird Cries

      It has been months since I've written a blog, because whatever I’ve had to say the Muse has grabbed for poetry. In fairness to her, she always teases out ideas I haven’t thought of. 

      If I feed her the Muse will work for attention, but her diet, her cravings, can be mysterious. Generally, she feeds on culture, but sometimes I have to make imaginal  trips to specialty stores. For example, the prints of the Japanese printmakers Hiroshige and Hokusai are her sushi. She can make a main course out of a complex myth like The Crane Wife, or the rain forest. Sometimes it’s hot peppers and, on occasion, bitter herbs to remind me of those who are still enslaved. 
The Crane Wife    unknown Japanese artist
My curiosity shifts when the Muse is here. I explore images and myth and theater and nature and myself. It's not really research - more like a butterfly collecting nectar,  flitting flower to flower. When I find what the Muse wants, she gives me an opening line, or fills me with words.

       Where is the Muse when she's not here? On vacation, a religious retreat, maybe having an affair? When she arrives she gives Commandments: I am your Muse, the Nameless One. Thou shalt have no other interests before Me. Honor My Time and keep it Holy.  
Greek vase  5th Century B.C. E. 

      Today she made an appetizer out of a bird call, had a buffet of animals and gave me rhyme and rhythm.  I am grateful, and I’ll put the new poem here because I want it to be read. And now, after hours of work, I’m starved, so it's time for a late lunch.

  Morning Walk with Bird Call

 ‹ Life ›  ‹ life ›   cry the crows
and when I pause 

the long-running performance 
that plays in my mind 
and listen    I am revived
I ask how to keep species alive
and the Muse speaks -
Tell those who don’t love 
the pawed and tailed  
finned and horned 
that it’s people who need animals 
Mention crows and lizards 
starfish and ocelots
because profusion startles 
the narcissist
Describe lark and lynx and lizard
since feather fur and scale
teach us the genius 
of shapeshifting cells
Finally, creatures remind us 
that innocence means 
not knowing
And we humans know too much
don’t we?




Tuesday, October 28, 2014


                 A few years ago, when we were in Chiapas, it seemed as though the great trees of the rain forest asked me to speak for them, and eventually I did. The trees were on the edge of the last remnants of old rain forest in the state. I wanted an in - a path, a way to walk through the forest - but I couldn’t find one, and the foliage was so dense. I have longed to walk through the rain forest since that journey.

     We are in Peru, on Lake Sandoval, in the Amazon. We walked two miles from the boat landing to the lake on a wide path through the forest. There are other paths here, leading out from the lodge, and you see the most amazing things. 

         Mimicry, mimicry, mimicry - nothing is what it seems. Leaves become butterflies, stones are beetles, snakes are vines and vines are snakes. If it is beautifully colored and patterned it’s poisonous - camouflaged is edible. The amount and variation of pattern and texture is constant. Everything is both everlasting and sudden - the sighting of a toucan, an alligator rising, the river otters cascading like rapids.
Photo by Bill Fulton
         The bird that has whooped since wake-up turns out to be a frog. The half minute buzz like a loose high tension wire is the bird with a name out of Dr. Seuss: the blue crowned motmot. The guacamayos are much noisier than starlings, and it is wondrous and strange to see them in groups squawking, rather than singly in a cage, the word macaw written on some brittle plaque. The sudden epidemic of wheezes came from birds with orange plumes a blue streak and the body of a chicken. Now when we are on the lake and hear what sounds like a ward of asthmatics we know its the hoatzins.  

Photo by Bill Fulton
It’s magical to put the sounds and patterns and practice together into how a world behaves. Some plants must be explained before we can fathom their magic: The fruits growing straight out of the mottled thin trunk of one tree are cacao beans. The  walking palm, with a tepee of thin branches instead of a trunk, moves 30 inches a year. I don’t seem to tire of watching the squirrel monkeys. They cover such great distances between branches. It looks like flight and I can’t believe it's not play as well as transport.

Walking palm
          Rain! it pours and pours for an hour leaving puddles and the butterflies come to drink. We are breathless from color and pattern but no one can photograph the fast blue morpho, a silk streak who never seems to land. We are told that when the rainy season comes this quiet waveless lake will rise and rise and bury the roots of the great trees.

       The rain forest trees are my people, my tribe. I greet each one with reverence - kapok, rubber, brazil nut (of course there’s a bird that can crack that nut) and ironwood and my soul tree, the fig that I also found in Africa - all buttressed like cathedrals.
       I ask the fig/ask myself what the trees need, and the response is a deep silence and I understand this is not a refusal to answer but what is necessary.    
     The trees tell us they are Gaia’s lungs - beings who breathe through their roots. For the Inca and other peoples, Pachamama, we were told, is known as a goddess, but in Incan philosophy she is nature plus time, or how the world works. It was Gregory Bateson who used the word stochastic to describe the union of nature and time and, that, he said, is how evolution works.
Photo by Bill Fulton