In the Bleak Midwinter

February 14, 2015 § 1 Comment

wallkill_cabin

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
–In the Bleak Midwinter, Christina Rossetti

On the days I don’t write, I’ll blog. That’s the discipline, which I have not been following, but the scalding boredom of illness and my tap-dancing dreams makes me think I have to try harder. It’s Valentine’s Day. I remember February 14th four decades ago: I was a lonely college freshman, recently broken up with my first college boyfriend, living in a rental apartment with my friend Ellen.

Charles, my landlord, was downstairs, with his daughters, six and two, sleeping in the living room (their old bedrooms were now mine and Ellen’s rooms). His divorcing wife lived elsewhere with the boys. Charles had a crush on me: my kilt, combat boots, big Mexican sweater with the cigarette burn on the sleeve, round glasses. I had barely noticed him. I paid more attention to the six-year-old who visited nearly every day and kept me company with her nonstop chatter. But he came back from visiting (breaking up with) a girlfriend in New York and he looked different. He’d cut his straggly hair. He had a certain swagger. I became aware that he was possible—and not all THAT old. He was thirty. I was seventeen.

I seduced him. Even now, I stick to that story. I may not have known I what I was doing in the larger sense—certainly not that I was setting out on a lifetime cruise, that the children would grow up and have children and I’d still know them, that love as the answer to a problem or a question or a dream would be abandoned in rage, while love as what accepts and endures would calmly sail on—

No, I knew none of that, but I knew what I was doing. I’d slept and fooled around with a number of boys: in the wet Vermont woods, on the beach in Mykonos, at a funeral in Long Island, in a threesome with my cousin. I’d read everything from Gone with the Wind to Justine. I knew men were simple creatures in bed, though infinitely mysterious and frightening out of it. I liked making them tremble. Pleasure was my weapon and I wielded it with confidence.

Love is something else. I’ve only ever loved two men, discounting countless infatuations. The early excitement fades. The feeling that you are discovering the meaning of life—I refer to the kind of meaning that lifts you above the unending confusion of the everyday—disappears. You pay the price for not knowing how to handle conflict, which nobody does. You pay the price for secrets and lies. You regret.

I’ve been a dumbass for love and, yes, I regret it. There may be a book or ten in it, but I don’t care about that so much anymore. I learned the makeup of my humanity and have been humbled but not yet made wise. Grudge is my constant companion.

That was the one that got away. My therapist refers this event as my great piece of luck. I can’t really argue. Sanity has its grays, but more madness is not the answer.

And the other? He brings me soup, cleans the kitty litter, entertains me when I am sick at 3 am, and will not, does not know how to, ease my loneliness with make believe. You see that? Lies/make believe. One is nasty; one is nice. They are the same creature. I chased after that creature until it bit my head off.

I don’t really understand anything. Maybe you noticed that already. I would like to say something simple about love; for example, that’s its wonderful, sustaining, infinite, the pulse of the world. But others have said that. I need to find the courage to try again to say whatever it is I really know.

I dreamed last night that my novel (one that doesn’t actually exist, making fun of hostile men) was rejected by a British publisher, causing me to have a tantrum— but it was a snarky, lively book and, leafing through it, I found I was happy to have it home. Then I was buying china with a French country tulip pattern, a gift for Dick Cheney. I was a little embarrassed to be his friend. The salesmen at the china counter insisted that Cheney’s views on torture were his own business and no reason for anyone to criticize him. He loves art, they said. Music and art; he’s a big fan. He can’t make it himself but is passionate about those who do.

I was confused again. Dreams aren’t always clearer. Father issues ribboned through the air. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Windchime

BY TONY HOAGLAND

She goes out to hang the windchime

in her nightie and her work boots.

It’s six-thirty in the morning

and she’s standing on the plastic ice chest

tiptoe to reach the crossbeam of the porch,

windchime in her left hand,

hammer in her right, the nail

gripped tight between her teeth

but nothing happens next because

she’s trying to figure out

how to switch #1 with #3.

She must have been standing in the kitchen,

coffee in her hand, asleep,

when she heard it—the wind blowing

through the sound the windchime

wasn’t making

because it wasn’t there.

No one, including me, especially anymore believes

till death do us part,

but I can see what I would miss in leaving—

the way her ankles go into the work boots

as she stands upon the ice chest;

the problem scrunched into her forehead;

the little kissable mouth

with the nail in it.

In My Dreams

February 13, 2015 § 2 Comments

tiger

I’ve been sick now for almost seven weeks, two nasty viruses separated by a ruptured appendix necessitating surgery and several days in the hospital. Now depression comes, drawing from all the things that generally make me unhappy (difficulties with writing, sex, money, age) but especially this weakness, this inability to do anything to counter the narrative of disability.

Except for my dreams. They have been my safety net: complex, marvelous, not all good but rich and variegated as a shelf of world’s greatest fiction, the well-thumbed paperbacks of Bellow, Marquez, Dickens. I don’t mean I have had dreams like books by those authors—the first to come to mind—not at all really. My dreams have been decidedly realist, American and female, yet blessedly not me, even when known villains from my life make an appearance. The romances, the adventures, the conversations: none of it has the drag of my neuroses and preconceptions, my obsessive and boring attempt to tell the same story over again because I can never find the place where it bursts into magic, purifies with fire, and announces my transfiguration.

In my dreams, the magic is there, fully functioning and insouciant. It creates and sustains without effort; it has the hard brightness of a young genius giving a cocktail party in her Oxford rooms (cleaned by elderly, nameless people). She is someone from whom the veins of madness have been painstakingly removed, leaving more room for air and light.

I have been happy in my dreams and aware of it. I have opened doors in my chest for the books to come out, and they emerged arm in arm like English speaking animals, Noah’s ark elites. I have attended a Cathedral fair that was like a donor’s opening at the Metropolitan Museum, if the Metropolitan was also a consortium of linked living castles in France.

My dreams are my refuge from a same-same dirty and too-small apartment, the foul sweetness of take out food, clients’ questions about when the work will be done—the work that is not my work, that will pay bills I didn’t budget for this year, leaving the debt intact—from the stinky kitty litter, buckets of used Kleenex, rust-stained bathtub, Facebook chatter (my new book! My kid! The republicans! More snow! Three dead…) and husband’s relentless guitar practice—my dreams have a thousand pages, no copy writing errors, I can flirt and sing, and all the characters make sense.

Come inside, they whisper. There’s plenty of room. Be like Fitzroy and Mouchette—sleep eighteen hours. The real world is a heartbreak machine.

 So I write this, doing my best to dream awake.

Giving Thanks

November 27, 2014 § 3 Comments

photo 1 (14)

I’m thankful that my husband and cats are always excited when I wake up in the morning. I’m thankful that my mother wasn’t hurt badly when she tripped over a cement divider in the supermarket parking lot. I’m thankful that I no longer need to use a typewriter and carbon paper. I’m thankful that Charles is doing the dishes. I’m thankful that Fitzroy has woken up and is shaking his furry head to get rid of the ends of dreams. I’m thankful that I have indoor plumbing. I’m thankful that my clients pay their bills. I’m thankful that I can see pictures of beloved children on Facebook. I’m thankful for bitter greens, ripe pears, French cheese, and walnuts. I’m thankful that there is still winter. I’m thankful I don’t live in Buffalo, though, as a child, I always wanted it to snow up to the roof, just because. I’m thankful that my husband is incredibly cute at 72. I’m thankful that my cousins Roberta and Kate are so kind to my mother, and that my cousin Faxy works to save animals. I’m thankful that my sister’s health issues are better now and that my brother is happy with his vibrant poet laughing woman. I’m thankful that when Fitzroy stares at me, he reminds me of my grandmother. I’m thankful for the English language and its thousands of world-creating writers. I’m thankful for certain evenings I will never forget— the sun throwing rosy light over my bed and bare skin and promises like fireworks. And certain other nights in New Hampshire, Virginia, California, New York, in cars, bed, fields and forest. I’m thankful for James Taylor, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin. I’m thankful that I knew Jesus, if only for a week in my teens after taking LSD. I’m thankful to history for having my back, and death for making sure nothing lasts forever. I’m thankful for Africa, the ocean, the Internet, and crickets. I am thankful that I have written books, painted pictures, made jewelry, love, money and peace. I am thankful that it wasn’t worse.

Quaker Meeting, The Sixties

BY ROBIN BECKER

Seeing my friend’s son in his broad-brimmed hat
and suspenders, I think of the Quakers
who lectured us on nonviolent social action
every week when I was a child. In the classrooms
we listened to those who would not take up arms,
who objected, who had accepted alternative
service in distant work camps and showed
slides of hospitals they helped to build.
On Wednesdays, in Meeting for Worship,
when someone rose to speak,
all the energy in the room
flew inside her mouth, empowering her to tell
what she had seen on her brief
encounter with the divine: sometimes, a parable,
a riddle, a kindness. The fall that we were seventeen,
we scuffed our loafers on the gravelly path
from the Meetinghouse, while maple and elm
leaves sailed around our shoulders
like tiny envelopes, our futures sealed inside.
Despite the war in Vietnam, I felt safer
than I ever would again. Perhaps
those aged, protective trees had cast a spell
on us, or maybe the nonviolent Quaker God
had set up a kingdom right there—
suburban Philadelphia. Looking back, I see how
good deeds and thoughts climbed with us to the attic
room for Latin, descended to the gym for sports,
where we hung from the praiseworthy scaffolds
of righteous behavior. We prepared to leave
for college, armed with the language of the American
Friends and the memories of Thanksgiving
dinners we’d cooked for the unfortunates:
borrowing our parents’ cars to drive
downtown to the drop-off point, racing back
to play our last field hockey match. Grim center forwards
shook hands before the whistle, the half-backs’
knee-pads strapped on tight; one varsity team vanquished another.

Happy Birthday, Grace

November 20, 2014 § 5 Comments

editors_4344

It’s my Facebook friend Grace’s birthday today and when I wished her many happy returns, she asked for a new blog post, illustrated with a photo of my cats on the bed. Dear Grace, how did you know that I started a new post yesterday—for the first time in ages—but gave it up when it veered into unpleasant territory? It’s your birthday, so I won’t go to that place. I will tell you about my daily life. When I woke up this morning, my husband said, “Today is a day of celebration.”

“Why?” I asked. “Oh, Fitzroy shit?”

Yes.” (The pumpkin-and-spun-sugar-colored cat threw up a mess of slimy stuff yesterday morning, kindling fears that he had, once again, swallowed something that would require surgery.)

There followed a long conversation about my husband’s obsession with our cat’s digestive issues—and then a sharing of “Dear Prudence” from Slate, with a letter by someone who doesn’t want to go to her sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving because she expects the SIL’s cats to lick the turkey and walk across the table with fecal-tainted paws.

We agreed that this would not stop us.

“But we’re not going anywhere for Thanksgiving,” Charles said.

“That’s because no one invited us.”

“Would we go if they did?”

“Depends on who it was.”

Charles then veered into fantasy about the sort of invitations he would accept, none of which would excite me. I’d be happy going to my brother’s—where my mom and cousins will be—but my brother’s in San Francisco and anyway I just saw most of the family at Ramona’s wedding. I don’t mind ignoring this holiday. It was exciting as a kid; it was exciting when I grew up and got to be the hostess; it was a challenge when my stepchildren were small and I wanted them to clean their plates. It was heartwarming when my stepson hosted us, several years in a row, when the grandchildren were little. But then they stopped inviting us. (We were lovely guests, playing with the children, helping with the dishes. We brought expensive wine, not our fecally-challenged cats. We did not drink too much wine.)

This Thanksgiving I will roast a duck and do something with apples. Apples are the most comforting of foods, especially cooked with maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The only thing better than apples is money—green sheafs of it—or a brisk autumn wind through an open bedroom window. Or the sunlight through Fitzroy’s pink ears. Or Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

And to write again, even this frippery of a blog post, is always good; I can imagine the long novels, filled with characters to adore and torment, scrolling out through the twilight of my years— forgive the cliché—into the dawn of the dead, which I hope is vast and white and full of souls with poor eyesight (wrapped in fluttering draperies like travelers in a sandstorm) so I can avoid the ones I have nothing to say to, the ones I would erase from Eternity if I could.

This is part of what I wrote yesterday:

The writer needs to be able to not give a fuck. But in order to not give a fuck, one must also care very passionately, believe that one’s story has power and resonance. One must be willing to feel fully human, which I have spent the last couple of years trying not to do. One cannot be any good as a writer without believing that the story is a gift. Whether others like it or not—it is a gift, like a child, and one must be willing to do (almost) anything for it. I have retreated from that position. I have disdain—or possibly terror—for my inner life.

Grace, I’m not sure I have the strength for my next book yet, but thank you for making me put words on something resembling paper. Since this is also a day of celebrating writer’s prizes, here’s a poem I wrote a little while ago for another friend.

For a Poet Winning a Prize

She read a poem about wanting immortality,
questioning if that was alright.
I remember the hot wish, late teens,
More alluring than sex.
Now I think: clown shoes, Kaleidescope glasses
a wish like the last stain
of blood on my underpants.

I’ve no grudge against the future.
Anyone who likes my words can use them.
But why should I imagine this
or care about posterity
with its swaggering, know-nothing ransack
of our personal histories?
Let the dead stay dead, ice thickening
over their tiny ears.

But since none of us
can want only one thing
I admit to a scribble of hope
jammed in a pocket, easily ignored
to be born again in a place like this
almost exactly the same as this,
except—

I just don’t see why
it should matter to me if my poems
are feted when I’m dust.

The poet has gentle eyes.
Fame becomes her.
She looks at stars seriously.
When she spoke, there was a hum in the air
as if thousands of gold and black
already pollen-dusted bees
with their fat, furry backs
and inexorable honey
were under her skin.

I drank too much wine at the reception,
left early.
A five-year-old could draw my heart with crayons.

And that would be all,
Another snapped off night,
But the bees followed me.

Tucked in bed, I watch them crawl on the ceiling—
earnest wobble of sun and ink—
and write this poem.

April is the Coolest Month (Looking Ahead)

March 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

photo

I’ve been having a lot of nightmares lately, some referring to recent emotionally distressing events/memories, but most feature strange men and vampires trying to kill me, which they have been trying to do since my 20’s. (Before that, it was ghosts, swarms of insects and evil fog.) The cat persistently meowing me to wakefulness, the husband making toast, the sounds of New York in the spring – these are welcome reminders of the little sorrows I really face: working for a living, getting older, remembering to open my mail.

I have a new Macbook Air, which is making me happy. I like all my clients and enjoy editing – novels, memoirs, academic papers, other – except for the inconvenient effect it has of making me want to write my own books.

I’m learning more from editing and from reading self-published novels than I ever did in writing workshops. In particular, watching the writing/reading process minimally obstructed by the publishing industry is fascinating: so many “bad” books are very well liked by readers, maybe not in the tens-of-thousands-sold sense, but in the hundred-plus five-star reviews on Amazon sense.

I’m sorry to have to lost my financial freedom, but I appreciate having work come in over the airwaves – from all over the world at any time of day – meeting strangers and hearing their stories, honing my skills, feeling useful.

But mostly I love walking my city in the spring, buying strawberries and cupcakes, broccoli and tortellini, looking at the young beautiful women, the dreamy-eyed elderly, the street people with their snarly charm, and the groups of teenagers pouring out of the W 4th or 14th Street stations, thirsting for novelty, adorned with attitude.

The nightmares can have my slumber. I want the April days.

A new poet I’ve discovered—

Nothing is Lost

She would emerge from nightmares,
inch by inch, in the kitchen. Perched
on a wooden chair, she hugs her knees
. She is five, wearing a flannel gown
down to her ankles, with blue pistols
scattered over it, for killing mice at night,
her brother said.

The window lights up
like an altar. With her eyes half closed,
she looks at the particles of dust turning
inside the light, landing on the floor,
painted warm chestnut, as Mother
insisted.

The coal stove still unlit,
she hears the breathing of the house,
its sunlit silence rising and falling,
a fly stirring, brushing its wings, buzzing out of the dark corner.
I see her
making room among the shadows,
and remember: nothing is lost
until we miss it.

–Lucyna Prostko

– See more at:

Bed Work

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

thegirlsroom

I didn’t get outside today, but the light was lovely from my bed. I woke up tired, tried to nap after breakfast but was kept awake by Fitzroy batting my face and sucking on my hair. Then I imbibed more coffee and got to work, editing almost seamlessly, in the zone. The romance novel I’m working on is all sex and champagne, cashmere, Louboutins, pink marble, MoMA. Sonoma, Manhattan, Stockholm. My favorite parts are the descriptions of vintage kitty litter odor coming from a neighbor’s apartment, and the erotic dream where her boss rips her shirt off.

The light brightened and faded. Charles took checks to the bank, fed the cats. I ate leftover wild rice and Brussels sprouts, browsed Valentine’s chocolate online, wanting it now.

“Did anything come for me today?”
“Just the cat food. Are you expecting something?”
“No, but I want a present.”

I miss being nine, my body painless and nimble. Tobogganing in the back yard, making Valentines cards with construction paper, Elmer’s glue, little red heart stickers and doilies. The one for my mother was the masterpiece, of course, though as I remember it I always put too much stuff on, hearts upon hearts, a big mess of needy love.

I can’t make money and do my creative work at the same time. My imagination folds over and hides its face. Even letting it out this far to say hello to you all feels dangerous. One of my clients emailed, “You’re such a good writer! Why aren’t you doing your own stuff?”

The light today was like children singing. Like a crystal bowl of lemons, silver steak knives, and eight-year-olds singing in French.

Just found this poem by Cynthia Huntington. It brought back memories.

Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese

“So, why don’t you sleep with girls?”
“I’m not really attracted to girls.”
“Are you telling me you were really
attracted to every man you slept with?”
Conversation with a friend
1.

After twenty I stopped counting,
not like my friend Beverly, who sewed
an embroidered satin star on her bell-bottoms
for every new guy she fucked.
She had them running down both legs
and around the billowing hem,
and was starting up the inseam
when the jeans gave out in the wash.

It was a boys’ game anyway, those years
of our extended homage to the penis:
the guitar playing the penis, drums saluting it,
cock rock, Molotov cocktail, the motorcycle
gripped between the thighs, and I went down,
we all went down, in the old cultural disaster
of idol worship—a thousand-year bender.
Only this time it was the adolescent member,
oiled and laved, thrust forward arcing,
thin with ache, all tight flesh poked upward,
claiming its own. How it came and went,
penetrating but never settling down,
and how often we were caused to admire it:
hairless sweet warrior, raider against the State.

But I have this sweet pink flower
here between my legs—I put my hand down and touch it,
still soft and wet, and many-folded, endlessly opening,
hiding, seeking, hidden and sought,
but never very much admired or even smiled on
in those years, never served much less sung to.
Not a garden then but a citadel,
a wall to be breached, a new land claimed,
but linger there? No, I would say
there was an overall lack of appreciation,

though breasts were well respected, slopping loose
under T-shirts like little animals,
and I would feel my nipples brush the cotton
with pleasure, see them regarded also with pleasure.
Still, sex then was a taking, like spoils of war, a victory
over all those straight fucks back home, marooned
in the dismal suburbs that birthed us squalling and red
and watched us flee in ungrateful cars down night highways.

And God knows it felt good those nights.
I was ready, it was ready, to open and answer the call.
And take me down and roll me over, yes, and give
it to me—but why all this riding away afterward?

Where was everyone going
and why didn’t I get to ride along? Who knew at first
nothing had changed, just wanting the thrust and tug
and slam up against the headboard, I should say so,
but left still wanting more, wanting to leap
out of centuries’ shame and be something new,
not this old consolation of women for the powerless,
some kind of cosmic door prize awarded
just for showing up with a dick,
some proof to themselves these boys were men.

“You’re good,” he said. Hell, I wasn’t taking a typing test,
I was fighting to live in a dying world.
I was throwing myself away, an offering to wildest space,
surrender to the mind’s dissolve, the body’s electric light,
nerve endings firing like exploding stars.
“You’re good,” they all said:
you’d think somebody was doing a survey.
Girls say yes to boys who say no, and then
your professor asks if you’re wearing underwear,
when you meet for your conference on the poetry of Yeats.

Crossing the border after midnight in a borrowed car
after a visit to the after-hours doctor’s office in Sarnia.
Nodding out in the back seat, pills wearing off.
He was a legend among undergraduates:
cheap and reliable, always on call,
until a month later the headlines screamed
“Abortion Doc!” when a girl died in his office
and he dragged her down to the river
and dumped her body in the underbrush.

Cynthia Huntington

Cat Roaches

January 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

bedcats

Lovely walk today in the sun and snow, the park paths smooth and white, the sky bright blue, activity everywhere, the cold gnawing on my face. I wanted to walk a long time, but only managed the park and Citarella, pears and broccoli, salad greens. We’ve been inside without vegetables for a couple of days, because we’re pussies.

You’d think if I fed the cat bits of pork chop, on a plate on the floor, and he didn’t want it, I’d shrug and go on to other things. No. I put the greasy bits in the palm of my hand, sit on the couch and let him dine the way he prefers to.

“I’ve fed you by hand,” I said to Charles, who was laughing at us.

“I can’t remember when.”

“Fruit,” I said, “Berries, cherries.”

“That doesn’t really count. But it sounds nice—an orchard, summer—”

I was thinking of the grand feasts of our early days, eaten in bed. Delicious food was almost as exciting to us then as it is now to the cats. Before he met me, Charles didn’t live with anyone who cooked especially well, and I’d never had control of a kitchen before. It was vegetables and fruits we splurged on, not meats or cheeses or baked goods. Those were too expensive. When I was young, you could buy eggplants and peppers and squash for pennies, bags of fruit for a dollar.

California last week was a sweet break, perfect warm days, friends, family, Mom’s 89th birthday. If it weren’t for the droughts and fires, especially the fires, I might consider moving out there again. Fire scares me, far more than hurricanes or terrorist bombings. We were delayed on the way to the airport by the L.A. fire, and though it wasn’t a cause for alarm, it was unnerving.

We came home to thin cats. They’d been fed, but not the way we feed them. Mouchette bawled like a baby and Fitzroy growled and ran away from me. They got over it. They’re plump again now, like Handsel and Gretel.

I keep being reminded of all the stories I’ve read (fairytales & novels not newspaper accounts: reality is too much) about people kept hostage, kids especially, who don’t know there’s a whole world out there.

It’s not my fault my cats can’t go outside, but I do feel a bit like a mad jailer. And sometimes I feel like I’m the one in jail, and these creatures I imagine are pets are really pests, companions in filth and delusion.

There’s no doubt I’ve read too much fiction. My brain is pickled. I wish I had a boy to massage my feet and a coconut cupcake.

One of my poems, for a change–

Untitled

Inside the fake Chinese chest
painted with dragons
armloads of unfinished work.

The sheets slide like new snow over ice.
All the typewriters are junked now.

Why can’t I ever be done with it?

It must be that I didn’t know
what should happen in the story
about the librarian and the aging

hermaphrodite
or the poem with its mouth full of poppies
like the signature of a serial killer.

You didn’t want to know
because you couldn’t bear the truth

or I didn’t know.

This is still the wide-open place
with a scarlet comma
in the middle of the page.

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