Jul 31, 2015 - Writer's Life    2 Comments

Landscapes of Love

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I return to John Fox and his book, Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. As I work this book, I continue to find much that needs reviewing in my life. The reward for doing the work is usually a poem I either need to write or that I actually like having written. One does not necessarily follow the other.

Fox’s chapter “Landscapes of Relationship” is taking me a spectacularly long time to get through. I underline. I read the sample poems repeatedly. I reflect on whether his words speak true to my life. Although I am married, I believe Fox intends this chapter to apply to a large field of relationships.

What I found interesting is that Fox doesn’t begin the chapter with all the complaints you might have in any given relationship. You don’t just sit down and write a rant and get it all out of your system. No, he actually asks you to do something more complex, even difficult, depending on where you are in your relationship.

Fox asks you to write a praise poem for your beloved; a love poem. If you’ve been married awhile and what he calls “everyday residue” is making love murky, perhaps you’ve forgotten what’s in your significant other that attracted you in the first place. For those of us who’ve been together awhile, we’ve grown and changed since that first long kiss. What is there in the immediate present that you love and admire about him or her? Fox asks you to write this whether you are in the midst of a fight, living through grief, or concealing what most needs to be said. Write the poem. Praise your lover. That’s the work.

One of his examples is a poem by Judy Grahn (one of the truly under-valued poets of our time). I want you to have it in front of you. Because of this, my post may seem long but try to stay with me here.

Paris and Helen

He called her: golden dawn
She called him: the wind whistles
He called her: heart of the sky
She called him: message bringer

He called her: mother of pearl,
barley woman, rice provider,
miller basket, corn maid,
flax princess, all-maker, weef

She called him: fawn, roebuck,
stag, courage, thunderman,
all-in-green, mountain strider,
keeper of forests, my-love-rides

He called her: the tree is
She called him: bird dancing

He called her: who stands,
has stood, will always stand
She called him: arriver

He called her: the heart and the womb
are similar
She called him: arrow in my heart
Judy Grahn

As many poets do, especially if they admire a particular poet (it’s great practice), I copied Judy’s style, trying to capture in my words the beautiful naming that sounds Native American in nature. Reading this, I feel as if I’ve been granted an intimate glimpse into the lives of these two lovers.

As I began to write, I immediately fell across a stumbling block. She was writing this in third person about other people. If I wanted to make it a personal love poem, I needed to write it in first person. What this meant was, I had to write as if I knew what my beloved would call me. And that meant I had to praise myself as well. As usual, I had set a harder task than was asked of me. If one must love themselves to truly love another, then I was setting out to prove that with a poem.

Despite how daunting the exercise seemed, below you can read my effort to complete this self-imposed challenge. Afterwards, I asked Leigh if the names rang true to her. She agreed, although she seemed surprised by a few. She was quite sweet on me the rest of the day. Such is the power of poetry. And love “that stands, has stood, will always stand.”

How We Call Each Other

I call her: queen of bees
She calls me: poem maker
I call her: feet planted in earth
She calls me: lightning strikes

I call her: bringer of honey,
strong body, another new supper,
hands-like-white-doves-landing,
healer, inventor, evergreen

She calls me: stands-the-watch,
broken heart, innocence,
fire fighter, laughs out loud,
bird lover, blue

I call her: tall grass bends
She calls me: swims with waves

I call her: has many lives,
has many gifts, has hidden her sorrow
She calls me: always the same

I call her: this is home
She calls me: I belong here

Jul 20, 2015 - How-To    1 Comment

Disappearing Ink

Saying goodbye

Saying goodbye

 

The following poem is a sort of Part 3 to the last two weeks’ posts. All three writings are, in large part, a response to a book I’m working called, Poetic Medicine The Healing Art of Poem-Making by John Fox. You may remember him from a much older book, Finding What You Didn’t Lose. With these two books (and only these two), he has proven himself both inspiring and helpful in so many ways.

In my struggle to cope with Dad’s dementia with patience (for myself) and understanding, Poetic Medicine is proving an invaluable tool. One of Fox’s early assignments is to take a difficult situation involving a loved one and use metaphor or simile in place of the thing itself. That is how “Green as Grief” came to be, and as I was better able to name my sorrow, “For the Love of Words.” My poem, “Disappearing Ink” was also born with help from his pages.

The response to “For the Love of Words” was so strong, I know that this must be a familiar story to many of my readers. If so, we know there will be things left unsaid, gifts that we can’t say “thank you” for, anger that has no place to go except into the promised land of forgiveness. Hopefully, we will finally find ourselves able to drink from the clear, deep well of acceptance. I thank author, John Fox, for his aid in helping me to to manage all these conflicting emotions with a modicum of grace.

Disappearing Ink

My father is a blank page now.
You can write anything across him.
It’s disappearing ink.
He is in the eternal present
for he forgets the past
and can’t remember having had a future.
He knows me when he sees me.
I announce myself on the phone before he has to guess
so he can conjure up a picture in his head I hope
of his eldest daughter.
The minister who was a dapper dresser,
even in his yard clothes, neat,
sweet-smelling, smooth cheeks–
grows whiskers he will shave in patches
with shaky hands for his wife’s sake.
He will not shower unless reminded.
He wears the same clothes every day.
He forgets he should not drive; grows
anxious searching for his keys.
The dad-like stuff he used to do:
fix a lock, mow grass, chat with neighbors,
know which gadgets to pick at Lowe’s,
are but shadows in this mystery.
He’s forgotten how to grill.

He remembers the Sabbath. To keep it holy,
he gets up at five for church at ten.
It takes a long time to get ready.
He worships
although guilt and shame have disappeared
like a puff of Vatican smoke,
vanished where no angels stand to roll the stone away.
In the pew, he recites the Apostle’s Creed, sings the Doxology.
Blameless as a newborn, his memories have been traded
for a good night’s sleep.

What remains belongs to me:
Holding hands with him after a football game
he took me to because I didn’t have a date;
him watching me shoot hoops, swim;
going fishing,
sweating in the garden.
That long, hard drive to the bus station
when he wouldn’t look at me. I cried,
“Forgive me, Father…”
but I could not change my self.
He can’t remember that.

I think about this meditation
that he has never practiced.
His prayers consist of names without faces,
go unanswered, but then there’s
his new inability to care.
I ask him on the phone what he has done today
and he answers truthfully,
“Nothing.”
He sits quietly on the couch waiting for the train.
His wife of over sixty years wades through deep
long silences, not ready yet for him to board.
Will he remember passengers once he takes his seat?
It’s impossible to know.
Perhaps he’ll be given pens with good, black ink
to cover his blank page with names of new acquaintances
and places he has never seen.

Mendy Knott July 2015

 

Jul 14, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

For the Love of Words

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My father wrote a sermon a week for over 50 years. Fifty-two weeks in a year, well, you do the math. That’s not counting funerals, weddings, memorial services and the interim preaching he did until he was 80. This is a major accomplishment, a passionate act of dedication and commitment. I attribute these traits, my love of words and a commitment to writing, to my dad. I’m also surprisingly comfortable in a pulpit, onstage, or anywhere I’m asked to stand and deliver. Before Dad became a minister, he wanted to be an actor. It must be in the blood. My brother is a preacher, too.

My dad has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Luckily for those of us who love him, his disease progressed slowly. Until his early 80’s, he could hold his own in an argument and was still teaching a weekly Sunday school class. Now his dementia has progressed to the point where daily life is difficult for him; even more so for my mom as his primary caregiver.

Still in fair physical condition, Dad has lost perhaps the most painful things a person can lose: his memories, his understanding and retention of written language, his own vocabulary. For a man who spent his whole life deriving meaning from language–through his reading and research, his writing, his listening ear, even his daily prayers and scripture–all are lost to him now.

Since I can remember, my dad led us in a “devotional” time each morning after breakfast. In order to make the Word accessible to his young children, he purchased and read children’s bible stories with large colored illustrations, as well as morality tales we could understand. My favorite book was “Bird Life in Wington” by John Calvin Reid. These were moral parables or fables whose main characters were owls and bluejays, robins and sparrows. All the birds were members (or their membership was eminent) at the First Birderian Church of Wington. They weren’t perfect, either. They made foolish mistakes like we did. I gasped. I cried. I was completely caught up in their avian drama. And I loved the First Birderians long after I was “too old” to hear about them at devotional.

I loved the classic Bible stories, too. I never tired of the miracles, the romance and violence, the poetry of a gigantic book written primarily in iambic pentameter. David and Goliath. Jesus. Lazarus. Wild John the Baptist whose head ended up on a platter. The prostitute Mary Magdalene. Moses and the Israelites looking for a land of milk and honey. Fishermen.

In the end, I have my dad to thank for my love of words. We may have stuck to a handful of books, and only one carried any real significance in his eyes. but it was chock full of beautiful images and language. I was encouraged to read it all, even the songs of Solomon, because, hey, they were in the bible!

The poetry of the Psalms proved some of my favorites. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou art with me.” The 23rd Psalm comforts me in times of fear, of loss. I pray these words are still alive somewhere inside the man who first taught me to love them, my dad.

Jul 2, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

Green as Grief

IMG_3262Nothing but green in the garden now, if you don’t count the sleek black and white ducks asleep beneath the collards. I am relieved when they curl into a downy patchwork quilt there. In my mind they are safe and unseen from both land and sky. They seem comfortable hidden under thick wide leaves, stretched out in the rich, damp soil.

Having spent some time in Texas recently, I grew accustomed to sky, giant clouds, sunsets. Now I know what visitors to our mountains mean when they say, “Everything is so close.” I feel a bit claustrophobic on my porch where two great maples join limbs and hold leafy hands overhead in our front yard. They reach toward the roof and mix it up with the small red maple below them. When I left for Dallas, the Blacks had not been fully leafed. Now the parkway views puff with giants rounded by twenty shades of green.

In the garden, the lacy hair of carrots droops and drags the ground like willow trees while peas rise into a tangled mass of green. Tomatoes hug their stakes, form hard little balls that have yet to ripen into red, orange, or yellow juiciness. Strawberries, picked, eaten or frozen, leave green and brown patches of ragged leaves in an unmade bed. Asparagus waves from stringed captivity and long, dark stalks of garlic begin to curl but are not quite ready to be unearthed. Even our five apple trees groan beneath the weight of apples much too green to eat.

I admit, summer has never been my favorite season. When I was a teen, I spent June, July, and August lifeguarding long, blue pools of cool from daylight until after dark. I fled to those oasis as soon as I could, running from my mother’s garden which burst with life in the surly Mississippi humidity. I see us together still, she demonstrating repeatedly how to “get the root out” and make sure we shook the clinging clods back into the bed–as if somewhere in that rich Southern soil there might be a deficit of dirt. It was a jungle, green and fecund, itchy to every inch of my fair, sensitive skin.

I know I need all this green to breathe and shade me, it’s true. I am not an ocean, plains, or desert person. But like words, the thick woods and clusters of leaves can become claustrophobic. There must be more Texan in me than I thought. I dream of wide open spaces with nothing to confuse the line of sight or to hide behind; where the pitfalls are obvious and the snake is visible coiled beside the path. Unfortunately, a lot of open spaces also boast a burning sun, with quickening breezes more like a blast from an open oven with no green to filter and cool.

My wordless mind remains stuffed with images I can’t separate into ideas, dreams I can’t see for all the thick life around me. I pretend I am weeding out what is useless, pray that what I pile into the compost wasn’t something I needed. I feel lost in all this green, needing a clear, deep pool in which to baptize myself anew. I know grief is like this; disorderly, chaotic, claustrophobic. I need to, but would rather not, write it out. Metaphor is as close as I can come to the real thing.

Perhaps I simply need to reconcile myself with the knowledge that what dies creates all this new growth. If only there was a collard large enough for me to curl beneath; where I could fall asleep beside the ducks, in the moist earth with the smell of iron and musty leaf rising in my nostrils, healing me back to ground again.

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Mar 31, 2015 - How-To    1 Comment

April’s 30 in 30–Not Just Any Challenge

 

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There is no poem too long or too short that might catch at one’s sleeve or spark the shirttail with an image fiery enough to blaze in the chest, burning the heart down to something clear and clean and sharp as steel.

It’s that time again, April, National Poetry Month, and time for 30 in 30. I love this crazy exercise which makes my heart go all arrhythmic, skipping beats as I try not to skip a daily opportunity to become more aware, to read more poetry, and to write a poem a day for 30 days. This year, as if that weren’t enough to overlay my overwhelm, I’m adding sketching to the mix. That’s right, a sketch and a poem a day for 30 days.

While I’m doing that, I will also pack and prepare myself to fly to South Africa where I will remain for the entire second half of this exercise. I’m sure this sounds crazy to you, but it’s not as nuts as it seems. After all, I will be on a plane for 15 hours flying non-stop over a lot of ocean with little better to do than draw all the strangers surrounding me and write about my not-so-secret dread of crashing into a deep blue ocean from 35,000 feet high into perpetual darkness from some unknown time zone. I could finally find out if that darn floating seat really works. See all the good poem material, and that’s just getting to Jo’berg!

I have not found out who made up this insane exercise, but I would personally like to thank them. If I should happen not to read a poem from my long shelves of poetry for an entire season, I can no longer ignore them come April. If poetry seems to abandon me, (although I know it is I, shoving off in my busy little pirogue into a swamp of inattention) then April returns me to myself, challenging me to “..row your boat ashore, Halleluia!”

Finally, I make time for the important idleness that leads to a greater appreciation of life. Besides, it only looks like idleness to outsiders. To insiders, the mind is at its peak when it is emptied. It’s a koan, zen masters. I made it up, but you know what I’m saying. That’s why 15 hours of nothingness will be really good for me right in the middle of this exercise. It will also keep my mind occupied and off the poem I wrote on Earth Day last year called “Lost.” You can check it out in Notes on my FB page, where I posted last year’s 30 in 30.

I dare you to do this. Be the tomboy daring to leap from a cliff into the deep green waters of a forbidden quarry. Having jumped once, I must feel the chilling thrill of the fall once again. Only this time, I will add 30 sketches to the dare. Oh, don’t be amazed or impressed. This is my job, after all. Instead of willy-nilly as I am wont to do, April helps me see the value of practicing and appreciating creativity every single day.  No matter who is visiting; no matter the garden needs weeding or the clothes must be hung on the line or the dogs fed. There is always something to do, and doing it as if each duty were a poem to be written or a sketch to be drawn, well, it makes us more alive. It makes us feel more alive. No lie.

IMG_3005Let the poetry begin! Let the tomes full of poems pile up beside the bed like towers of color and imagery! Life is waiting to leap from the page toward the heart in living color, in all its lion-ness, its passionate desire to become part of who we are and who we can be. A poem, an essay, a free write, a sketch. One a day for 30 days. You can do this. And if you think you can’t, read a poem a day for all of April. See if one of those poems doesn’t oxygenate something longing for breath in you. Then think of what writing one will do.

 

 

Mar 6, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

A Clock, A Bottle, A Matchstick Holder

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“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?” Rod Stewart’s single line in a long song is profound. He had a way of painting with lyrics so that we could see the places he’d been and the things he’d done. I think every picture, especially one you paint or draw yourself, tells a story.  I find that drawing objects in a room–really, any room of my house or that of a friend’s–brings memories surrounding back to life. In this drawing, for instance, of a clock, a bottle, and a matchstick holder, there are dozens of related stories; not only mine but those of people I love. As I sketch each item, I revisit those memories and my drawing becomes something more profound and meaningful to me.

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The clock was built by Leigh’s Uncle Howard. It no longer works, so in its world, the time is always 4:48. Everyone should have at least one clock that doesn’t work in their house because that time tells a story all its own. Uncle Howard was a wonderful male role model in Leigh’s life. As an accomplished carpenter, he showed her how to work with her hands. If Leigh said, “I want to build some hutches for my rabbits”, he would show her how, then step back and let her do the work. They might not be the most beautiful hutches, but they were functional and built to last. Leigh builds many things we need on the farm, and I thank Uncle Howard often for his early encouragement and instruction.

In the process of telling me about his building skills, I also learned that Uncle Howard raised a baby blue jay as a pet that would sit on his shoulder and come and go as he pleased. Beside the point? I think not. This is all part of the story of the clock which he built for her out of love with his own hands. Although it quit working some time ago, she has moved it everywhere she has lived since she left home. Uncle Howard is gone to a timeless place now, but his clock lives on; an intimate object which is part of my beloved’s life.

The old Sprite bottle which dates back to the 60’s or early 70’s was the first thing I found on this land we now call home. Standing on the bridge, looking down at the creek with Leigh, I spotted the open end of the bottle sticking out of the mud bank just above the water. I scrambled down the rocks and dug it out. It was completely preserved with the SPRITE label intact and the dark green bumps which used to be an identifying feature of Sprite. How many times as a kid did I run my fingers over those bumps never realizing they were there because it made the bottle easy to hold, especially with hands wet from a swimming pool.

We found the turkey feathers on our next trip to the land we now call 5 Apple Farm. As we wandered through the Indian field with Jane, we found a bouquet of huge turkey feathers. Later, we saw the entire troop head-bobbng their way across the field to drink from the stream. I put the feathers in the Sprite bottle for luck, in hopes of making the dream of our land come true, and there they have remained ever since.

The matchstick box I found out junking with my friend, Trudy, at an antique store called Menagerie in our little town of Burnsville. If you wander the booths and look closely, you’ll often find some authentic old pieces from the mountain people who have lived here so long. I loved this particular matchbox holder because the tin is painted like a coop complete with chicken and rooster on the front. Best of all Trudy pointed out, there is a striker opening on the side. Not all of these old boxes have those cuts. The box sits on the mantel where it is used daily during the long winter months when we start fires in our wood stove.

If you can sketch a keepsake or a wildflower, tell a story about it, or write a poem using the images it conjures up for you, then you understand art on a most personal level. In my book, if you can do any one of these;  even better, if you have the chutzpa to do all three, you can call yourself an artist.

mendy and turkey feather

 

Feb 20, 2015 - How-To    2 Comments

It May Look Like Crap, But…

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…it’s not. It’s yours. It’s your toilet and your bathtub, your bathroom and medicine cabinet captured by your own hand using your own two eyes. This drawing may look like I only have one, or maybe none, but that’s just how I see it at first. Drawing is the hardest and most fun thing I’ve done in years. I love it and it scares the shit out of me. Actually, Danny Gregory said draw what you see from your bedroom door and there you have it.

Fear is so common we don’t even call it that anymore. Apprehension, worry, defense strategy, self-protection, etc. In me it often looks like anger but only if I’m really freaked out. If I feel pushed or cornered or criticized around this new thing I’ve taken on, I am likely to shove back, shout, say “Get out of my face! I already do one thing well! Whaddya want!?” But my friend Jane knows how to gentle the artist out of me, out of anyone, I believe. As we work on writing/sketching a book together, we are learning so darn much en-couraging one another, I’m wondering how we’ll fit it in to one book. She is writing and I am sketching and that is a complete turnaround for both of us. We are somewhat terrified of the process. But going through the process ourselves is the only way to write the book! How can we ask someone else to do it when we haven’t done it?

So our assignment for this week is to write a blogpost concerning overcoming fears when starting a new creative form. We are to give you at least one way you can overcome yours, too. Of course, I always have more than one rabbit in my hat. The very first thing I recommend is to find a friend who is creative and is willing to share their creativity with you. Whether that means listening to you read a poem, looking at your first drawing, or humming along with the song you’re writing, this is a crucial element in continuing the process. Your friend must be someone you trust and who is not your spouse or lover (because what’re they gonna say, really?). It helps if this individual has some talent in the direction you are headed.

I don’t want to make this too long, because I want you all to read it. I think this stuff is really important, facing our fears and creativity and how that just touches on nearly everything. I’m not kidding. It does. Fear has an energy behind it, a push that you can use. I know that sounds crazy unless you are familiar with the old “fight or flight” theory, which you probably are. I personally think there are more responses than just those two to what you can do with that welling up of adrenaline when you feel your old friend Fear knocking, knocking at the door to your heart. Use it to make yourself brave. Teach yourself to stand there and feel afraid then pick up your pen or pencil and draw that damn toilet over again, or write that haiku 167 times until you have said what you truly want to say.

Here are a few other things I do: drink a lot of coffee, eat chocolate, ride the stationery bike, walk up a mountain road (anything that sweats the demons out). I do the drawing over and over again until I get it right. I throw away nothing and I correct mistakes right there on the page the same way any writer would who was revising a poem; cross-outs, insertion marks, and curses included. If you have ever loved a writer and have discovered some of those first drafts, how lovely it is to see those corrections on the page. That it didn’t just flow from their pen like water or ink. It took going back in, going back in. That is what my friend Jane keeps telling me. “Use a little water and smooth that edge. Oh, dab a little kleenex there in all that blue and make some clouds. It’s not messed up. Here’s another kleenex. Now go back in.”

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And here we are right back where we started. At toilets where you can get rid of your kleenex or toilet paper or whatever you used to make those corrections. And here is my second drawing of essentially the same scene done only minutes after completing the first one. Yo, buddy! I almost got that toilet right!!! I like the clear bathtub curtains and the curve of the cabinet. I’m getting closer to that old perspective thing. Obviously I don’t see lines like everybody else. All my lines have been poems and lyrics until now. No wonder their wonky. Their hooks. But they’re original to me.

I hope you can see the difference. I have a long way to go, but finally, finally I’m able to push off on the fear like a diver does a platform in order to spring into something totally new; what I’ve longed to do–but buried beneath my fear instead–all my life.

 

 

 

 

Feb 7, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

Inspiration from Rod McKuen(?!)

“If you go away on this summer day
Then you might as well take the sun away
All the birds that flew in a summer sky
When our love was new and our hearts were high
When the day was young and the night was long
And the moon stood still for the nightbird’s song
If you go away
Ne me quitté pas
If you go away
Ne me quitté pas” —from Rod McKuen’s “If You Go Away”

rodmckuen_picInfluenced by author-friend Jan Morrill’s post, Rod McKuen’s Time Machine, I felt inspired to write my own “in memoriam” for the poet who died last week at the age of 81.  Interestingly, as Jan is a bit younger than me, she had a different perspective on Rod and his poetry. For Jan, Rod’s death brought back memories of her mom, who listened to McKuen’s poems and missed Jan’s father who was serving overseas in the military. For me, Rod McKuen was my first poet, period. The first poet I ever really heard, and certainly, the first poet whose books I owned and read.

Referred to by many critics as the “King of Kitsch,” McKuen was also responsible for bringing spoken word to the everyday housewife, the romantic couple who was stepping together into a middle class life, and millions of regular folk who could comprehend his poetry simply by listening to it. For those of us who had his albums and read his books, Rod gave meaning to our sense of loneliness and longing in the early ’60’s, a time of strife, protest and general upheaval in America. His poetry was personal. We felt like he understood us.

As a diehard romantic from the day I was born, I would lie around on the shag carpet of my room listening to his albums, The Sea, The Earth, The Sky, which I paid for with hard-earned allowances from my parents. I was always delighted to find his books wrapped and waiting for me under the Christmas tree.

Everybody has to start somewhere, and my love of poetry started with Rod McKuen. Yes, I was influenced by the Beatles’ lyrics, and by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. When I first began hearing their raspy poetics, though, I was still too young to comprehend the complexities of their imagery and metaphor. Believe it or not, I was a naive youngster and wanted life to unfold like a fairy tale. Somehow, it just wouldn’t, and that depressed me. Rod McKuen understood that longing in his audience and talked about love and life in words my teenaged mind could assimilate into the world I occupied.

For better or worse, he helped me maintain the fantasy that everything would work out in the end, there was someone for everyone, and on some days, that kept me putting one foot in front of the other. There’s likely not a slam poet out there who would possibly identify with the likes of Rod McKuen, but let’s face it, he was performing poetry to music with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac before most of us were xx or xy chromosomes.

Born in 1933, he ran away from an alcoholic stepfather at the age of 11. He worked all the jobs that make good poets: dishwasher, ranch hand, surveyor, DJ, lumberjack. Because he had no formal education, he kept a journal of his adventures which resulted in his first poems and songs. Okay, unless you missed that in your quick scan of a post about Rod McKuen, he KEPT A JOURNAL which led to his poems and songs. This is how many poets begin. It’s how I began. lonesomecities

Sure, some of you may say, “Lord, I can see way too much of McKuen in Mendy’s poems and songs,” but this would not shame me. In his lifetime he sold over 100 million records and over 60 million books. He won a grammy and was nominated for a Pulitzer. He wrote lyrics for  the likes of Barbara Streisand, Petula Clark, Waylon Jennings, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Percy Faith, Dusty Springfield, Al Hirt, and Frank Sinatra. He was an American poet and songwriter who came up the hard way and softened his voice so that it could make its way into the hearts of the American people at a time when they needed a little romance in Life. 

So today, I want to honor Rod and his persistence–to fly in the face of the critics, to work hard at what he loved all his life, to create and to keep creating. I, too, turned my back on him. After reading Emily, Dorothy, Robert, Maya, Wendell, Elizabeth and so many more in classic American poetry classes; after attending readings and poetry slams all over the country; after struggling with my own work; after hosting events where the youngest writers wrote better than Rod, I long ago closed the book on him.

That is until my mom gave me some books she had been keeping for me for years, and there he was again. Memories crashed in on me like waves along the coast of Maine. Among those books were Listen to the Warm and Lonesome Cities. I found that Rod McKuen could still bring tears to my eyes as I was transported back to those teen years when his poetry was all I had to hold close to my heart. I had no boyfriends, no dates to the prom or football games, no hand-holding, kissy-faced young romance. I had Rod and I am grateful for his accompaniment through my own “lonesome cities.” Rest in peace, Rod McKuen. From one poet/lyricist to another, thanks for being there, and for the seed of inspiration you planted while I listened.

Jan 18, 2015 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on The Trouble With Ducks Part 2

The Trouble With Ducks Part 2

Fiona leads Glenda and Molly out to play.

Fiona leads Glenda and Molly out to play.

“More trouble with ducks,” you say? Good grief. When will we get out of this metaphor? Perhaps sooner than we all thought. Because the other trouble with ducks is that they are fragile and everything wants to eat them. When this happens you are ill prepared because you have fallen in love. You have protected them with an electric fence and a little house you lock up tight at night. You believe they are safe.Then two dogs bust through that electric fence on a Saturday morning and wreak havoc on your precious feathered friends.

I have a recurring nightmare. In it the innocent suffer. Oftentimes the victims are little wiener dogs run over by tractors; babies left behind by uncaring parents; bunnies, chicks, and ducklings destroyed in various ways. Innocent beings at the mercy of a careless or treacherous world. I know Jung believed that everything in a dream is an aspect of ourselves. I realize what this means is that I fear for my own innocence. Life should have long ago–through 4 years in the military, a 7 year stint as a cop, and just growing up different in a world where difference is seldom rewarded–wiped out any illusion that innocence survives. But it didn’t. I know for a fact that innocence is alive and well when we have the courage to foster it.

You cannot be a poet and destroy your vulnerability. You need it to write. You need it to be an artist. You need it if you are to remain authentic and real and if you are to touch others’ lives, whether they are people or dogs or ducks. Innocence is precious, even if it really does end in disaster. It’s hard to love something so much and to see it end violently. You do what you can to protect and preserve your little bit of wildlife and then the neighbor’s dogs tear through the electric fence in a frenzy of bloodlust and kill your Fiona and injure Glenda and scare poor Molly (who really does turn out to be the Unsinkable Molly Brown) nearly to death. It means an expensive trip to the vet to try and save them, and harsh words with the neighbor that sound a lot like threats in the heat of the moment.

Perhaps seeing this happen to the happy little ducks I loved and did the bobbing-head dance with everyday will end the dreams. I must remember that Fiona, with her one good eye and a history of hard times, had a great life at Five Apple Farm. She never stopped dancing. She bobbed more than anybody. Burying Fiona beneath the little oak we bought for our wedding tree in November could actually bring an end to my nightmares. I now have a visual on the facts. The innocent suffer; always have and always will.

Yet, just as I imagine that my little one-eyed Fiona will become part of the tree that commemorates marriage equality for Leigh and me, I will have to let my ducks loose again so they can enjoy the sun and the rain and their pond. I must not be afraid to allow the innocence in me out of the box where I sometimes try to keep her. She must be free to do her own head-bobbing dance,  whatever risk may exist. Without risk there would be no great artists or writers; no Sistene Chapel and no Mona Lisa. Too big, you say? Well, let’s bring it down to size. There would be no “Little Lazarus,” no Limbertwig Press, no Jane Voorhees calendars or cards.

Angel Wings

Angel Wings

It takes our most vulnerable selves to create. It takes risking our innocence to love. The failures and losses will hurt, without a doubt. But if we are strong, and determined to continue to create and to care, we will risk that pain again and again. We won’t give into criticism or defeat. We won’t give up on love. We will remember the happiness in learning a new dance and step out into empty space to see if we will soar; to dive into the deeps to see if we will sink or swim. This is the way it is, and unfortunately today, the way it has to be.

 

Jan 9, 2015 - How-To    2 Comments

The Power in Perspective

IMG_2715I like big ideas. As I learn to draw and comprehend perspective, I’ve come to see the truth of my title in a brighter light. It’s not a new idea, but it takes on greater meaning as I begin to study perspective in detail. Recently, I decided to take up sketching, or drawing, even some painting. Call it what you will, but for a writer whose primary tools have always been words, visual art is a whole new language requiring a completely different skill set.

One of those skills is called “perspective.” The tools of both crafts may appear similar–pens or pencils, paper, journal or sketch book, etc–but the essential building blocks (words) will not make drawing one whit easier, no matter how much of a command of the language you may have. How does a writer, once safe and satisfied in the world of words, come to this alien planet of  art seeking entry into a place occupied by a plethora of truly great artists? With humility, for one thing. But also with determination and commitment. (I blame the ducks. They are so darn cute! I wanted to capture them with drawings, not just words.)

I simply decided words weren’t always enough to express my Self, my feelings, my sense of how lucky I feel to be alive to experience all this beauty. I didn’t want to just write about creativity, I wanted to ILLUSTRATE it. I wanted to throw in some sketches, throw a few pots, throw down my writing pen in favor of paints, clay, and #2 pencils! I wanted to get back to that pure state many artists and Buddhists refer to as “Beginner’s Mind.”

Beginner’s mind is actually common to all of us. Remember back in elementary school?  Do you recall learning to read; the actual moment when you didn’t need the illustrations any more because the words alone made sense? Wow! It was a miracle! Truthfully, it took me a long time to want to read a book without pictures because they were so beautiful. Those illustrators (Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, Wizard of Oz) were so gifted. But as soon as we realized words were all we needed because we could IMAGINE the pictures in our minds–whoa!–a whole new world, and thousands of books, opened up.

The same was true with writing. There we were busily copying A a, B b, C c and the next thing we know we are writing our names! We are writing letters to our Mommas in those big blocky letters with #2 pencils on Big Chief tablets. Yes! (I do hope kids still do this. If not, it explains a lot.) Beginner’s Mind starts with those sweet “ah-hah!” moments when we discover we are capable of creating something new. We can communicate our ideas in a different and exciting way. We require this principle so we remain vital in the world. This is how life stays fresh, we remain involved, why we long to learn something new. Beginner’s Mind is the beginning of discovering a new perspective.

Step #1 to getting into this frame of mind at 60, or at any age, is to try to recall what it is you always wanted to do. Was it to become an accomplished cook? A master mechanic? Did you want to create beautiful objects from clay? Make hilarious cartoons? Be a stand up comic? C’mon, you know there’s something. I wanted to draw like my friend Debbie Kelly, especially because she always had her art to occupy her during church. I watched her draw on the bulletin, fascinated by the worlds she created. I tried, but mine looked nothing like hers.

Step #2 is to gut it up and actually try something new. Oh, how we hate to get out of our comfort zones. Somebody might laugh at us. They might make fun of what we have spent hours creating. They may shake their heads and say, “Shame, that.”  Probably, nobody will give a damn what we are about. And if you are in a class like Sketchbook Skool, which has the beginningist beginners posting before and after the most experienced artists, you will find endless comments of encouragement and help from everyone, no matter what level they occupy in the high rise of artistic ability. There is kindness after art!

Okay, that’s two steps steps and enough for today. Ponder them. Trust me when I say that you will learn much more than you think when you take on something new. The first thing I learned with my beginner’s drawing mind is that the world is not how I imagined it. The old way of looking at things and describing them with words will not work in my sketchbook. I must learn to see things differently; like an artist as opposed to a writer or regular person. Not only is learning perspective necessary for drawing, it’s beneficial to my writing, and helpful in my relationships.

Perspective allows us to step back and observe the difference in how we perceive our immediate surroundings, our world, the Big Ideas. If we can see and sketch this perspective for a friend, an ally, an opponent, or even an enemy, we may realize we are looking at the same thing from a different angle. It only appears different to each of us because of the place we occupy. Shift slightly right or left and the picture changes. The thing itself could be as common as sliced bread. It’s all in how you look at it. So let’s sit down where we are, sketch it out for one another, and share a sandwich. Any way you look at it, the ability to share our varying perspectives can only be an important tool to have in a combative culture.

IMG_2745*Note: Since beginning this piece, the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris occurred. Twelve people, mostly satirists and cartoonists, are dead. There is power in perspective and in expression through art. I stand for freedom of expression and the right to create art as each of us sees fit. No artist deserves to die for their images, but many have and, no doubt, many more will. My heart goes out to all those families affected by this useless massacre.

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