Dec 28, 2014 - How-To    1 Comment

The Dusk of Our Discontent

IMG_2695It’s December 28th and I find myself in a place I recognize from holidays past. I don’t think I’m the only one. Many of us wander in those days between Christmas and New Years as if we lost our way in route to a joyful event being held at a neighbor’s house. We have the directions. We’ve been there before, and yet every year we wind up on a foggy mountain road wondering how to find the party.

Our Swedish neighbor, who knows much of what it is like to be lost in the dark, says that the Swedes take a week off every Christmas and celebrate as if there is no tomorrow. And truly, once the partying is over, they will be in the dark for many long months to come. When we talked to him after Christmas, he told us the Swedes have a name for this time between Christmas and New Years–only it doesn’t sound as cheerful in English. So he said “Happy Continuation!” Basically it means the good cheer keeps on flowing until everyone returns to work again. I wanted to tell him that I think most Americans think of it as the “In-Between.”

I equate this time of year more with the way our chickens and ducks feel in the evening just before roosting or resting time. The chickens are quite noisy about it. They fight for a place on the roost; flapping and clucking and even fighting in a most unfeminine pecking order. “I want this spot!”  “No, that’s mine, I always sleep there!” Squawking and running around and fluffing up ominously until, at last, all are settled someplace whether they like it or not. This feathery mayhem can last for as long as an hour.

We finally had to move the ducks from their place beneath the apple trees where they joyfully motored in mud for most of a month. They now reside under the chestnuts. The dip in the land beneath the Crow’s Egg and the big yellow apple trees held water until we had a virtual duck soup. Our feathered darlings, which we always thought were such clean little birds in their white suits, billed holes in the mud and at the roots of the trees into which they could disappear their entire heads. Besides being somewhat horrifying, we figure it was not doing the land a lot of good either. So we moved them and their house and play yard to drier, if not higher, ground.

But birds have no sense of home as the house which is their abode. Fresh straw and water, a full tray of food notwithstanding, every IMG_2576evening they stand like statues staring forlornly back at the mudhole from whence they came. They do not motor. They do not swim, but sit in the water comforting themselves. In the evening they all three stretch out their long necks and look back, still as statues. At dusk, we must herd them into their same old house in this new location, which is obviously not home yet.

Leigh likes to call this time of day, the “dusk of their discontent.” I suppose, here at the beginning of winter, we could still use Shakespeare’s term, “the winter of our discontent” but actually, I prefer dusk for this particular time of the year where we are treading water between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Sure, we have all these new resolutions but we are waiting to begin them until New Years Day. There’s a Mardi Gras feel to this. I need to party hardy: drink all I want, smoke my last cigar, eat tons of sweets before I give it all up in just a few days. Even for those who don’t take our “continuation” on in exactly this manner, there’s a kind of discontent about not doing it in that way. What do we do with that time between the end and the beginning?

I don’t know. When I don’t know what to do with myself, I write in my journal, post a blog, read a book, attempt to better myself even before the New Year begins. Even if I am half-hearted about these things, it mostly prevents me picking fights with the other hens. “No harm, no fowl” as they say; or at least as we say around here. The leftovers are gone, the bad cookies have been fed to the chickens, and there’s no more candy. Time to eat that salad we’ve been talking about needing for days. Pick up the house. Take a hot shower. Go for a walk. Gather some kindling. These things bring some satisfaction, but really, the dusk of our discontent will continue until we get used to these new digs, which will happen hopefully with the dawn of 2015.

Dec 20, 2014 - How-To    1 Comment

Beating the Holiday Blues

IMG_2619Not everyone loves a holiday; many, for good reasons. Those days strung together like brightly colored lights everywhere can bring back bitter memories. Some sufferers simply don’t believe in all that anymore. They may object to consumerism. Some will have suffered a painful loss at Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Years. Some folks may be in the process of losing someone now.

No, not everyone loves a holiday. I don’t think they are Scrooges; they are lost in these dark days of Winter Solstice. For whatever you may or may not believe, Solstice and the dying of the light happen. And that fact by itself is enough to make you want to take to the bed and stay there.

This is why there are celebrations, lights, shiny red objects, and evergreens spread around this time of year. To remind us that as the light dies, the days immediately begin to grow longer again. According to my Nature text, that’s what happens anyway. And the return of the light; whether it be days growing longer, a foggy depression lifting slowly, a new idea starting to form, a list of things we would like to make happen in 2015 (a list unaffected by outside influences–our list) signifies there are yet days to open and open like presents under under a tree.

No matter what religious holiday one celebrates, or if none is celebrated at all, it seems to me that any reason people find to be kinder to one another, more generous, to smile and greet each other in the street or at checkouts, is worth celebrating. Maybe we give to our favorite charity, or donate a big box to Goodwill, or pay for someone’s coffee behind us in line, as my cousin’s husband did before he died last year. His death was a great loss to his family, but he left behind a legacy of generosity and this small tradition to commemorate and continue.

So here’s a list I use to beat the holiday blues, or when I feel the holiday blues are beating me. You might try just one or two of these and see if it helps. And if you don’t want to be helped, well, no judgement here. Sometimes it’s best to sit with what troubles you until it passes. But should you tire of that, try one or two of these:

1. Write your way through the holidays. (Check out another year’s post on this very thing.) Do it for yourself, in your journal. Write in a bright and bustling cafe. Even better for beating the blues, write someone you love or a friend you haven’t contacted in years. No card is necessary, but you might support an artist by sending one of theirs.

2. What the heck? String a couple of rows of lights. They make LED’s now and they are low energy users, especially in exchange for the uplift they bring.

3. Go listen to some live music; choir, bluegrass band, or rock ‘n’ roll–uplifting for you and supports your local musicians. Go out to eat or drink and overtip the waiter, the waitress, the bartender. Write “thank you” on the check.

4. Bake some cookies or loaves of bread to give away to neighbors who have suffered a loss as well. Keep some for yourself. Some sugar can be good for the blues, says Dr. Mendy.

5. Invite some neighbor kids to visit if you have none of your own. Serve them cocoa. Give them a small gift. Even more important, listen to their stories and tall tales. If you find this difficult, spike your cocoa.

6. Sing along with the radio and have a party with yourself. Dance. Howl. Sit quietly and meditate; on the snow, the crows, the evergreens. Go for a long walk in the cold, observe winter’s stark beauty, then enter a warm place and cup your hands around something hot to drink.IMG_2637

7. Keep your expectations low. I expect a lot of myself in holiday seasons. This causes stress. I am only just learning to let go a little, and let the thing unfold, remembering I’m suppose to be on holiday, too.

8. Make some art. It doesn’t have to be great art. Or perfect. It’s the process, not the product.

9. Talk to an elder or a person with a handicap. Give them a hand with something that’s hard for them that you can do. Smile while you are doing it.

10. Give, give, give. That’s my best prescription for healing the holiday blues. That’s my prescription for a good life. However much you have, there’s always a way to give. There are always those in greater need than we are. And I believe with all my heart, when we give to others (people, animals, the earth), we give to ourselves and lighten our own load.

There you have it; my prescription for the holiday blues. The rest is up to you. Happy holly days to all!  Love, from the Hillpoet

Dec 12, 2014 - How-To, Writer's Life    6 Comments

The Trouble With Ducks

15819055027_363651c437_zRecently, we acquired some ducks. They were a wedding gift. This is how it is if you marry a farmer. You give her a ring. She gives you….ducks. Three ducks to be exact. Three beautiful white and gray Ancona ducks. Actually, she says she is giving me a “lifetime supply of ducks”, since ducks are as tempting as chicken to most predators. I have high hopes for my ducks anyway; that they will live long and happy lives. So far, so good.

Today’s blog may be more parable than post. The ducks came from a place called Duck Dance Farm. Visiting Pat and Andrew, the owners of Duck Dance, was a treat. There were ponds and pens with little houses and baby swimming pools scattered all around the place. Geese honked, ducks quacked, chickens clucked and there seemed to be much general happiness amongst the feathered tribes. Andrew, who seemed to be knowledgeable in all things watery, told me about ponds and ducks and minnows and how all these systems worked together. He said a little food and a lot of water were essential for a waterfowl’s happiness. I thought, “How hard can that be, right?”

Andrew explained that ducks form affinity groups and they do not like to be broken up. This is why, he said, we were getting a one-eyed duck with our little group of three. It was either that or he would have to break up their trio and add a different duck, leaving little One-Eyed Fiona for the pot, I feared. Leigh was more disturbed by our little misfit than I was. After all, it was her wedding present to me. But I have always loved an underdog, or duck in this case, so we packed her in the crate with the rest. Besides, ducks are funny creatures and Fiona was pretty hilarious as she could only swim in circles and had to really crane around to have a look at you. I saw endless hours of entertainment to come.

Leigh had renovated the Frankentractor, which I really thought we were done with once the new henhouse was built. Oh, but our ducks loved it. They trooped in there, nestled into heaps of straw, and stared at us. They didn’t even quack. So began one of the longest stand-offs between human and animal in history. You might be able to see how frustrating this was for me. I immediately made the metaphorical connection between the ducks and my Muse. They sat there like blocked writers in front of a blank page. Zen-like, they remained in a happy state of meditation for days on end. I’ve always worried about meditation and writing. I mean if meditation makes you content with life as it is, what is there to write about? My ducks happily proved the point.

I had given them good, honest, active duck names. The big white girl was the Unsinkable Molly Brown. My gray-tinged girl I called Glenda, Good Witch of North Carolina. And then there was the prettiest of all with her soft gray angel wings, One-Eyed Fiona. I love that Lyle Lovett song. Who knew I would ever have occasion to name anything after it? I talked to them constantly. “Hey Molly. Come on out, Glenda. Fiona, you sweet thang, come swim.” No response. I could tell they were learning their names only by the nodding and soft chuckling that occurred when I called out to them. Nodding back, I felt like Japanese cartoon characters constantly bowing, “Thank you.” “No, thank you.”

We filled up an oval tank from Tractor Supply for their swimming pleasure. (It takes a lot less water area for a duck than one would think.) When they wouldn’t bother to check it out, I put a smaller pail next to it. No dice. Perhaps the sides of their pond were too high, so we built them stone steps, then a ramp, then a larger ramp. Then a ramp with a deck at the top. I bought them special kibble which they ignored. Worried that they would dry out into some kind of shrunken head replicas of ducks, I finally put a chicken watering can in their “house” with them. Warily, they approached and began blowing bubbles into the trough around the bottom. I supposed they were drinking.

The ducks were beginning to make the chickens look smart. Finally, it rained. I remembered the old saying, “It’s great weather for ducks!” Sure enough, they ran out of the house to play in the rain. I mean, they absolutely adored the rain! Of course, it couldn’t last. Soon they were tucking their heads under their wings in the “If I can’t see you, you don’t exist” position. We would be out there for hours encouraging them to get in their “pond.” They’d venture out. If a bird flew overhead, back inside they’d run. If Ada the dog approached, back inside. If the wind banged the chicken house door shut, they flapped and ran. These were incredibly high-strung animals. Leigh worried. Here was my wedding present, refusing to respond to me, refusing to swim or eat,  or do any duck-like things. And then of course, there was Fiona.

One afternoon they approached the smaller pail of water. They motored their bills around it. They ducked their poor dry heads to the bottom of it. Glenda even tried getting in, but it was so small her feet banged the sides and out she came. Progress! They began to eat. Finally, Glenda (leader of the pack) made her way trepidatiously up the ramp. She dipped her head in. She thought about it. She spread her wings in the sun, and then finally, FINALLY she made her leap of faith. Molly followed and they splashed and swam happily around and around. It took Fiona awhile; head cocked to the side, walking around the pond many times, getting depressed and going inside until she, too, spied the ramp and made it into the pond! (Watch video of water frolic below.)

There was a set back one day when the precip froze on the ramp and Molly slid back down to the ground. Another couple of days in the house. Once again, we had to go out and hang out with them until they were brave enough to get back in their tank. If anything at all untoward occurred, they would not go near the pond. These were the biggest chickens ever! Today, I will go out and fill up the pond. And wait. And quack. And call. And spread kibble around. I’ll watch them dip their beaks, walk away, then walk up the ramp to the deck Leigh built. Then they’ll go back down again. Eventually, they will get in the water and clean the mud they’ve created, and which they love, from their lovely little white and gray bodies.

And so everyday, my three little amusing Muses remind me of how hard it is to be an artist or writer; to take the plunge and make that leap of faith. We creatives love to procrastinate. We pray and meditate. We get close to writing, then we run away. We hide from ourselves. We take to the fainting couch should we hear the flutter of our Muses’ wings in close proximity; should we see her shadow pass overhead. We have nothing to quack about. We wait for a rainy day. We require constant reinforcement and admiration, and no criticism or loud noises, please. We keep looking for our affinity group, our safe house.

Given enough dream time, though, and a little personal praise, we will head for the deep end. We really can’t help ourselves. We are drawn to create–well, the way ducks are drawn to water. Persistently, we dive for treasure at the bottom of the pool. Occasionally, we forget ourselves completely and motor around with our muddy pens creating tracks and signs which read, “We are here. We have something to say, and it is this. Life is incredibly mysterious. We love it.”

Unlike Glenda, Molly, and Fiona, though, we must create our own safe space. We must encourage ourselves to swim, and search out our affinity groups. Even if we are the one-eyed Fiona of our coop, we must feel loved and led, even if we must circle and dip and do it ourselves. Once we take that scary step off the ramp and into the dark water, we will set our souls free to soar, no, swim. Whatever. This is self-fulfillment. This is what all that meditation leads to. Motoring around in the mud, looking for answers to the Grand Mystery. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. Now I gotta go feed my ducks.

Dec 5, 2014 - Writer's Life    4 Comments

Generosity–An Inside Job

IMG_1740 “’Tis the season.” You’ll hear this repeated dozens of times in the next several weeks, at least here in the USA. Whatever your spiritual persuasion, it might be good to reflect on the old stories that got these songs and celebrations started in the first place. Most of them are about poor people who brought what they had to the table. Having few material goods, they usually brought themselves and their talents. Tara Brach tells us a story in her podcast, “A Generous Heart.” A group of very poor villagers go to the wise man who presided over their small town. They had a question that had been puzzling them since his last sermon on generosity. They said, “Wise One, what in the world can we give to others if we have nothing to give.” And the wise man answered, “Go, and make everyone you meet feel cared about.”

This was a very wise teacher, as is Tara Brach. Along with the many great teachers of our time, I believe there have to be those of us still learning and making ridiculous mistakes; those of us willing to stand before you and tell the truth so you won’t feel alone in your ineptitude. I say this in the most empathetic way.

As I’ve grown older, I have a little more of everything than I had when I was young. Still, even at the most difficult times in my life, I found a way to give. I had hard-working hands, maybe a poem, some little thing I made or found. I would cook a meal if someone else bought the groceries. Material/physical gifts are easy for me to give because it comes naturally. Really, I was born this way. (Some of my relatives believe I “may be too generous for my own good.” I chuckle at this. I mean, how’s that possible?) It is not in giving material things—money, clothes, help, my truck—that I have trouble. No, it is giving my heart, my listening ear, my patience, (particularly my patience), my willingness to understand, and perhaps even to change, with which I have difficulty.

Let me tell you a story: I was home visiting relatives over Thanksgiving. During my trips to Dallas I stay with my parents who have an extra bedroom. They are in their late eighties. We enjoy one another for the most part, although as anyone knows who still have parents, there can be trying times. I’m sure the reverse is also true for parents with grown children.

This story centers around my dad. He has memory loss problems and I know it can be frustrating for him, as well as for my mom and others. We all encourage Dad to do the things he enjoys, or at least used to enjoy. So he is grilling pork chops for dinner and I am out watering their desert garden. Instead of waiting for the coals to burn down to that gray on the outside, red on the inside color, Dad just throws the chops on as soon as the flames die down. I heard my mom tell him right before he started to wait until the coals got gray, but he paid no attention. 

I said, “Dad, the coals aren’t ready yet.” He said, “Well I put these on there so they’ll get ready.” I guess he meant the fat would make the coals flare up. I said, “Well, that is no way to cook a pork chop.” And he said, “Look, I do this all the time when you aren’t here.” I worried about that a second. I said, “Well I am not eating a pork chop cooked like that!” And he said, “Well don’t then! You don’t have to!” And I yelled at him, “You don’t even have enough patience to wait for the coals to get ready!”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I thought, well that’s a great example to set; yelling at him about not having enough patience. Way to go. I was still mad, even though I felt stupid, and stormed in the house. This is where my lack of generosity shows up. Both my sisters have more patience with Dad than I do. My mom is surely earning an extra pair of wings, since she already owns a set from raising me and my brother. Here, right here in the back yard with Dad, is where I am lacking in generosity; generosity of spirit, of kindness, of true compassion.

The poor villagers, if they followed their guru’s instructions, have it all over me. How do I make everyone I come in contact with feel cared about– whether it’s a family member or the person gassing their car beside me at the pump? This is the generosity I am challenged to learn. Material gifts look easy next to this commandment.

My friend Trudy taught me a valuable lesson in showing me how to care just a little bit more. Every time we go to the grocery store, Trudy reads the name tag of the person checking us out, as well as the young person bagging our groceries. She says, “Thank you, Darcy. Thank you, Henry. I appreciate you. Have a wonderful day.” This. Just this.

This is more than a lot of us do on any given day. There is always more room in our hearts than we think. There is always time to show someone we care. If I had it to do over again (and I probably will) I hope to say, “Well, Dad, I guess that’s one way to cook a pork chop. I appreciate you wanting to cook for me. Can I help?” Whether I eat it or not is beside the point.

Enough. How can we say we don’t have enough…whether it’s time, money, food, love, kindness to family or stranger? There is enough– time for patience, to listen, to lend a hand. This is the generosity I am learning now—that there is enough of me, and enough time, to “make everyone I meet feel cared about.” 

 

Nov 19, 2014 - Writer's Life    2 Comments

I Do

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This is the poem I read to Leigh at our wedding.

I Do
 
Sixteen years and here we are saying it again, “I do.”
I do take you, choose you, want you, love you. I do. 
Only queers must say it formally so many times
to the same person, and sometimes,
I love this–I do–but sometimes I rebel 
because you know it’s true that I love you:
like freshly mown grass and clean sheets
like the light in the east
growing bright until I’m blinded by my love for you.
I love you as much as Romeo ever loved a Juliet
no matter who is playing who.
However, it’s annoying to have to say it
in front of witnesses over and over
as if we might have been lying when we said “I do”
the first time in a civil union in Vermont.
That didn’t really count in a Carolina court.
We repeated vows in Arkansas, for our friends,
and Mom and Dad who unable to affirm the first time–
could be present, give their blessing.
Now here we are again.
This time the State will back us up
as if that made loving legal, which I guess it does,
and I do want that, I do.
But let me say this to you, too:
I never minded all those years as love bandits,
stealing kisses, secret handholds in the dark.
We acted out “I do” long before we got the State to listen.
“I do” promise to love you, to stand by you
when the world will not. I would go to jail for you,
stand outside your sick room, waiting,
while all those who could not love you, all of a sudden do,
and I, who did and do, wait and watch and pray for you.
I do willingly take turns washing dishes, scoop the poop,
vacuum, cook, shop—which I know you like to do
alone, because I take so long, but then I do 
insist we share. I do
love you like the mountains, that old metaphor
but still steadfast, unmoving, in every season beautiful,
never going anywhere.
I love you like the last red leaf, frosted, hanging long
before it drops to leave us lying in the dying day.
I do love you now, and then, and again and again
and nobody can ever change the simple fact
that love outlasts the law.
I do want to step with you into the light of a legal day,
get that marriage license framed and hang
it up where everyone can see me say, “I do.”
I do love you just enough to let the bandit go,
the one who stole your kisses, your heart, your clothes
when nobody said we could, but so?
We did it then and we still do.
The State can say whatever, but I declared it 14 years ago,
“I do,” and these same witnesses affirm
those vows bound you to me and me to you.
We have been faithful, not because some law said we should
or a messy divorce might ensue
but simply because we wanted to.
We knew we would be when we said “I do.”
Finally, here is the moment we have not been waiting for
which I never expected to happen in my lifetime
when I started this outlaw life some 40 years ago.
I have mixed feelings I admit, but not about you.
For you, my love, I’d do anything, everything
over and over and over again and you know it’s true
because I do. I do. I do.
 
Mendy Knott Nov. 3, 2014
 
 
Nov 8, 2014 - Writer's Life    5 Comments

Change: “Let Your Light So Shine”

The ring of joy

The ring of joy

My answer to changing the world is so small, you might be disappointed. You may not even believe me. Because I think one of our most compelling actions is to share our happiness. There is nothing that changes hearts and minds like a good attitude. Joy openly expressed, a smile, a song or poem on the lips is hard to deny. Some days this is difficult. Some days it takes all the courage of one’s convictions.  More’s the reason to make the most of the days when happiness comes easy. Like Luke Skywalker’s light saber, joy is a most powerful weapon. Let me tell you a story.

Just before my legal wedding in NC (imagine!), I took a day to myself in Weaverville. I like spending my money in small towns, in independent stores when possible.  I was nervous, but I was getting married. It was to be expected. Also, I was marrying another woman.  I wasn’t sure of the places I needed to go, how they felt about marriage equality. I did know the flower shop was cool because a former neighbor worked at Brown’s on Main Street, so I started there.

I told Susan I was getting married and needed help with flowers. “Congratulations!” she yelped, and came around the counter to hug me. My confidence grew. A few boutonnieres, roses, and a tussy mussy later, I was ready for the ring. I asked where an independent jeweler might be. The owner of Brown’s suggested I cross the street, but that store specialized in art jewelry. I needed something more traditional. She then directed me, rather reluctantly, to the Karat Patch. I worried about that reluctance, but climbed in my truck anyway and headed for the Karat Patch.

I walked into a really nice, really big family-owned jewelry store. An older woman came out to help. I worried about how I was going to establish the rapport I needed in order to buy the perfect thing. In my boots and jeans, my shaggy hair hanging over the collar of my cowboy shirt, I could tell she wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. Meanwhile, I heard a customer leave, and there were a lot of “God bless” and “We’ll be praying for you” and the sort of thing that could make a less than devout lesbian-looking-for-a-wedding ring nervous.

While I stared overwhelmed at all the bling, a more typical customer came in and she moved to help him. A younger woman was sent from the back to take my case. She introduced herself, shook my hand and asked my name, then said, “Diamonds or color?” I said color. Things got a bit clumsy as I tried to avoid talking about who the intended recipient of the ring was. Finally, I understood I could no more buy a wedding ring for a woman without saying “she” than I could write a poem without picking up a pen first.

As I turned a beautiful little band with diamonds and sapphires, the saleswoman asked me what kind of person the ring was intended for. I looked at her and she looked at me, and finally I shrugged and said, “Well she’s a farmer. She has to be able to wear this ring while pitching straw at chickens, picking eggs, weeding a vegetable garden, or working honey bees. And it can’t come off or get hung up in a glove. You got anything like that?” She smiled and said, “Now that’s a nice little ring you’re holding in your hand, but there are prongs that will hang up in a pair of gloves.” I was amazed. She had dealt with this before!

“Now this ring, ” and she lifted a ring with four sapphires set flat in white gold with little diamonds flashing between, “won’t hang up and is smooth all the way across. This style appeals to a lot of nurses.” “She’s a nurse too!” I couldn’t believe it! I was pretty well sold then, although I stuttered slightly at the difference in price. “Of course, it costs a little more,” she smiled. Of course. But hey, I’d been waiting 16 years to marry my farmer, I had to get the ring that worked! And it was beautiful. And I was in love. The saleswoman seemed happy for me, and possibly happy for herself, too, but that was fine. I paid. I needed it sized and I had a fancy hairstyling appointment. She said, “No problem. We’ll size it while you get your hair cut. Come back and pick it up after that.” What service, I thought!

I got my haircut at Aabanni’s, another splurge, but by this time I needed the head massage with the calming scented oil and the great shampoo. A young stylist, Candace, soon caught my excitement at the wedding, the flowers, the ring. She asked me why I was nervous since I’d already had a civil union and a tenth anniversary party which included a renewal of our vows. (She was probably 8 when we got together.) I told her that this time it was for real, that I never thought I would see this day in my lifetime. She paused in her clipping. “Oh, that gave me chills when you said that.” She warned me against seeing the bride on the day of our wedding and sent me off with my new hairdo.

Back I went to the Karat Patch. I entered the store and everyone who worked there–owners, jewelers, sales people–came out of the back to see my hair and to congratulate me. They showed me the ring, which looked perfect, and I watched as they put it in a beautiful black box with a gold latch, and then into another black box. I was grinning and blushing and thanking them as they thanked and congratulated me. It was a beautiful moment in marriage equality history as these conservative folk caught my joy and excitement and gave it back to me in full measure.

So that is my simple story. Take from it what you will. But know this: joy made that day one of the best days of my life. And for a moment anyway, it was contagious enough for everyone to celebrate, no matter who they were or what they believed. Changing the world is so damn incremental, you have to take the long view. One smile at a time.

Oct 9, 2014 - How-To    2 Comments

In One More Day (In memory of Jacob George)


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Autumn arrives. The thick curtain
of green on an eastern hill
opens enough to  allow for light,
even as later and later day breaks the crest.
Overnight, the half moon that horseshoes   
my neighbor’s land turns the color of clay
fired for months in a summer kiln.
All that russet and gold herald winds
so cold we’ll huddle in our houses,
our backs to the blow.
Chickens will crowd the roost, 
their straw nests flattened and bare
bereft of eggs.
Overnight, winter warns of her coming with
tumbling leaves. A north breeze pushes
 jesters from their limbs, fooling us
before the occasional white flake
drifts down from the high hills,
more chilling than anything Halloween.
We glance at the cord of wood, worry…
Today the mountains wear their dancing dresses,
clapping and tapping to the fiddle of fall.
Overnight, the bright cycle begins
before we must lean against winter’s wailing wall,
when gray is easily mistook for gloom.
Overnight, hold tight
to the memory of the redbud’s bloom.
 
 jacob
 Jacob David George  4-12-1982 to 9-17-2014 
 
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Jul 25, 2014 - Writer's Life    4 Comments

Sometimes a Toothpick

toothpick in feederNo matter what you may have bought, borrowed, or been given, at some point you will experience a lemon. Yes, I know the old lemonade cliche’ and dislike it. It’s just so smug, for one thing. Life doesn’t actually throw you a lemon most of the time. Lemons appear on your doorstep as the new car that won’t run properly or the book that had a publisher’s promise and then they “reconsidered.”

All of us can remember a personal lemon; an unexpected guest in the middle of your most productive creative moment, and they’re a relative, who is ill maybe, and always loved you when you were a kid…whatever. You simply can’t say no. And while I am a big believer in the “power of no,” I am almost always swayed in the direction of “yes.” And here’s why: because I have so much to learn from a lemon. Whether it is a moment in time, an interruption in my flow, a new trolling motor that won’t work once you’re in the water, or in this case, a straight run of Heritage breed chicks, one of which has a crossed beak. And also a heckuva lot of roosters in the hen to rooster ratio. To us, basically, that means more meat than eggs so I’m not complaining. Well, except for all that crowing going on beneath my window every day.

This story is about my little lemon, the crossed beak chick, or Toothpick as she came to be known. Chickens are almost always he’s to me before they start laying, so should I call Toothpick a he when I believe it was a she, please forgive. It doesn’t matter anyway. See, Toothpick’s deformity made it look like he always carried a toothpick hanging from the side of his mouth. Unfortunately, this charming characteristic also made it hard for him to eat and drink. He learned quickly to dive head first into the feed bucket so that he could work, work, work at getting enough food to stay alive. The same was true for water. He had to shoulder his way up to the trough with birds twice his size and use his tongue to lap up the water like a dog.

photo (8) This all kept Toothpick from growing big and tall and strong like all the other roosters and hens. Oh but s/he was tough. Toothpick strutted his stuff just like everyone else and as far as I could tell, he was never molested or pecked by the rest of the flock. I swear he pretended to pluck at the grass like the other birds, even though there was just no way for him to get a blade of grass with his beak at cross purposes. Toothpick let nothing stand between him and the pleasure he took in life. He ran and flapped and ate and drank, not exactly like the other birds, but he managed to live for an extraordinary 3 months.

It was the WNC rain that got him in the end. We had rain out here in this Black Mountain valley for 6 weeks running. Every day and sometimes all day, the water just would not quit pouring, dropping, dripping from the sky. The gardens flooded, the roads eroded, the rhododendrons bloomed furiously, the rain forest loved it while we gloomed our way through day after day. For those in drought country, I know it’s hard to believe, but there is such a thing as too much rain. The summer was starting to look a little lemonish.

Meanwhile, I had grown to love my personal little lemon. Being always great supporters of the underdog, Leigh and I protected and favored Toothpick as much as possible while allowing him to remain part of the flock. The chickens are in an electric fence with a moveable shelter we call the Frankentractor until a solid and more sane coop can be built. The constant rain forced the chickens to remain in the tractor more often than not. There was fierce competition for food and less for them to do besides sit on a roost and try to keep their feet above water. “Mad as an old wet hen” might come to mind here.

Toothpick could not withstand these less than favorable conditions, being one down already. And so, on a rainy Saturday, with my friend Trudy visiting us, Leigh let me know that she had moved him to the dry shed and put him in the hospice box. I went out to visit him and knew he wasn’t long for this world. I held him, said goodbye to a sweet cheep, and lay the light bundle of feathers back in the pine shavings where he died warm and dry.

Trudy, who as far as I know, has never written poetry, wrote these words to honor him: It doesn’t matter how/ small the life/ Or how short the life/ just that the life was felt./ The breath was warm/ and the kindness felt by both./ Here’s to you, Toothpick. We loved you./ It’s still raining–tears.   I know, Trudy, I should have gotten your permission, but you left it for me and Toothpick, and how could I not use it?

What Trudy doesn’t know is that after we froze the body until the rain let up, I buried our bird beneath a newly planted Birch by the guest house. I dug the hole deep, but I wanted a rock to ensure he stayed where I put him. In the ditch across the road, I found a huge stone exactly the shape of an arrowhead. Arrowheads, for which Trudy and I searched diligently on mountainsides and in streams while she was here. An arrowhead for a warrior, who appeared at first to be a lemon. Ah, how appearances, on which so many Americans base their opinions, can fool.

photo (9)

There are lots of lessons here, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Mainly, I just wanted to tell you a story.

Jul 2, 2014 - How-To    Comments Off on Throwing the Block (or Moving a Mountain)

Throwing the Block (or Moving a Mountain)

"...if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you." Matthew 17:20

“…if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you.” Matthew 17:20

I have not forgotten that I was going to write a post about my good friend, artist Jane Voorhees, in a series about four creative friends who inspire my own life and work. Although I have not done the blog post, Jane and I  have decided to do a collaborative work combining sketching and writing, and how the two practices together stretch the imagination and broaden the perspective of the artist. When it’s published, I’ll do the post. Hopefully, because so much of the work is already done, this will be sooner than you think.

I also wanted to write about my friend Malcolm Christian, who runs Caversham Press down in South Africa. But Malcolm is a modest man, not prone to writing emails or long missives on the great work he does turning fine art and empowered artists back into the world to create a better place to live. I’ve decided I need to go down there and interview him myself. It’s a long and expensive flight, so if you feel prone to contribute to this effort, just leave a note in the comments section and I’ll be ever so grateful!

The hard realization that came from this pre-planning posts was that it blocked me like a good fullback from getting to the blogpost at all. I wouldn’t write because I couldn’t write about the things I said I would write. I felt guilty and ashamed that I had so little follow-through. (Guilt and shame, two of the most useless emotions I know, but great blockers.) I knew my artist friends would be disappointed and I felt that I had failed them. The fact of the matter is that whether any of these feelings were true or not didn’t matter. I think both friends would rather me post something than to quit writing my blog completely. As much as I wanted to write about my brother and sister artist, I found that spontaneity was crucial to my posting. For the most part, my blogposts cannot be planned ahead. They must be inspired in the present tense. They are strictly here and now, an act of faith on my part that I will write what needs to be written. I managed to block myself completely by telling you in advance what I was planning to do.

This is not necessarily the case when we create bodies of work that we intend to publish or display. I realize that some think of the blogpost as publishing, but I don’t. This is a dog park for ideas, inspirations and realizations to come together, intermingle, bark at one another and play. When one intends to publish a work of art, then there is the responsibility of reporting to another, having a deadline, following an outline–however you make yourself responsible. But somewhere in the world of creative art, the idea of immediacy plays an important role. While it keeps me responsible to a larger audience, it is also a blank page where I try on ideas, poems, essays…where I can share with you what interests me in the hopes that you, too, will find it interesting.

A previous example of this are the 30-in-30 poems written daily during the month of April. I didn’t have time to plan a poem, and in fact, have taken a lesson from this that many of my best poems are blurted out like a faux pas. I just have to put the pen to paper and write out the feeling that comes to me. Dedication to doing that was the only thing that was needed, and the poems seemed to get better on their own. Like spontaneous combustion, little fires started by rubbing a pen or pencil across paper.

What blocks you, my friend? Discovering that is key to freeing the artist within. How else can we deal with it if we don’t know what it is? You may find several of these little monsters in your repertoire. My advice is to just begin with one. Illustrate him any way you want. Maybe give him a little credit for standing in your way all these years and protecting you from even bigger monsters. Then let that blocker know he’s no longer needed and walk away. Set yourself free by removing, or simply going around, one mountain at a time. Then celebrate your faith, your obstinance. Immediately do something, anything creative; something fresh and different. See if there’s not a new joy in it, an unexpected freedom to take pleasure in your work. It may not happen right away, but have faith, it will.

May 22, 2014 - How-To    2 Comments

Do Not Live in a Small World

Dad and me at Dallas Arboretum in April

Dad and me at Dallas Arboretum in April

While I’ve been away from my blog, I have not stopped writing. Instead of typing onto a computer screen, I found the need to pick up a pen and write on paper for awhile. How simple! How quaint! How freakin’ refreshing that is after working with computers and programs that refuse to acknowledge poetry as a form. Here on WordPress, for instance, one must put the poem in as an “address.”

When the poet picks up a pen, however, s/he can write on darn near anything–a desk top, a body part, a napkin at the coffee shop. I hate to be one of those people who long for the good old days, but I do. I love longhand and doodles and poems that transfer easily to print. But enough whining about all that. This post is about getting the job done, however you have to do it. It’s about the writer/artist who is willing to challenge themselves to work even when there is no particular deadline to meet.

Recently I took on April, National Poetry Month’s, 30 in 30 challenge. There are a lot of poets who either accept or attempt to meet this challenge every year. The poet writes one poem a day for 30 days. That’s it. Sound easy? It’s not. Yes, you can do haiku, but I save haiku for the most stressful days, when I know I can’t squeeze in a longer poem. Besides, haiku done well is just as hard, if not harder for the wordy poet, than a sonnet. I think I only wrote 2 in thirty days, and only one was worth reading.

What can you possibly gain from writing all those poems and putting yourself under that kind of pressure?  All I can tell you is that I learned so much from this one exercise that even under the duress of remodeling a kitchen, VA appointments, a trip to Dallas for my mother’s birthday, and having turned 60 myself a week before the challenge began that every line was worth the effort. I found I can be creative and observant under serious pressure, on days when I feel bad, or when I am out of town or hanging around an airport waiting for the next flight.

I found that there is no lack of material in our everyday lives. We could write a poem or an essay every day if we wanted. A good poem or essay or song or short, short story. In fact, the building blocks of our lives are words, lines, phrases. If we expand them just a little, keep an eye out for the connections, we’ll find imagery, metaphor, and rhythm at our fingertips. It’s all there waiting to be tapped.

I discovered that writing poetry is good for the heart and soul. I knew this, of course, but not in the same way I know it now. As long as I wrote a poem (and some were more like prose poems and rants), I knew I could count on a good night’s sleep. That is a weird side effect I know, but it was true. And for this particular challenge, I had to post each one on face book. Forget the copyright issues. I know who wrote that poem. And it just seemed more important this April to get a few people reading poetry, even if on some days it was not-so-good poetry, than it was to wonder who owned the work. Essentially, I do what I want. I certainly won’t be the first writer thrown in jail for poems they published!

I encourage you to set a deadline for yourself now and then. In can be the 30 in 30, a class, or a self-imposed date by which you will accomplish ___________, fill in the blank. Then tell someone. Make sure somebody holds you to your word. Or tell your friends you will send a copy on such and such a day of the week or month. Get a partner to go along with you. This helped a lot, as other friends on facebook took on the 30 in 30 challenge, too. We read each other’s work, made comments, encouraged one  another to continue. We waited to see what the next subject would be. What style would they use? What form, if any? Would it inspire a poem in us? Yes, a cheerleading squad is extremely helpful.

The following poem was written in April during the challenge. I was sitting with my dad in his church in Dallas, without mom who was not feeling well. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat waiting for the sermon to start, staring at the stained glass exactly as I had as a child. Since this was April 27, I’d been practicing a poem a day for 26 days. They were coming to me more easily and not always in the most convenient places. I felt the urge while studying the bulletin, grabbed the pencil off the visitor’s sign-in sheet and scrawled away. My dad leaned over and whispered, “Are you writing a poem?” I nodded and kept writing. I couldn’t tell whether he approved, but he seemed to think it was my business and let me go about it.

I chose this one to put here on my blog because it seemed typical of how I learned to appreciate my day to day life by writing a poem about it. It is not usual to find me in a Presbyterian Church with my dad, it’s true, but it is what was happening that day. And despite my discomfort with the experience, I found the diamond in the rough all the same. It shines for me. May your days shine for you, too. It helps if you take note of them with your art, no matter what form it takes. To read more of my 30 in 30 poems, simply go to my face book page and click on notes. Most of them are there. A few were swallowed up by the ethernet. But not the ones scrawled on paper.

Do Not Live in a Small World

 
“Do not live in a smaller world than God has given you.”
                                             (quote used by Reverend Ben Dorr)
 
Silver organ pipes rise like prison bars above
blonde wood and brick, cathedral ceiling
braced by dark exposed beams.
An odd cross, shaped like a four-way stop
rises behind the pulpit where the preacher stands.
Dad doesn’t know what to do with his underdressed
daughter at his side instead of his stylish wife.
Swallowed up by Jonah’s whale I sit waiting
to be spit out, thrown back to the Sabbath I believe in;
trees, storm clouds, a fierce breeze.
 
Oh, Pagan believer that we are lucky,
not to be beholden to a Father, but fortunate
enough to be born on a planet that supports us.
The choir sings “Now the Green Blade Rises”
and I think they might be getting close.
The sermon, “Behind Locked Doors”
begs the question, “Why?”
Doubting Thomas, I believe you.
 
Oh H2O, O2, and CO2,
you are my sacred scripture,
the writing on the wall.
I praise your holy chemistry.
 
Amen
 

 

 

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