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Ode to Jim Harrison

At The Wagon Wheel in Patagonia, AZ

Now Booking our Haven Writing Retreat 2016 calendar

June 8-12 (still room)
June 22-26 (full)
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

Ode to Jim 

(1937-2016)
I have started nearly every day of my writing life by reading some sort of Jim Harrison. A line of poetry, a poem, five poems, a few words in a novel, an essay. I try to keep it short. I have to pull myself away before I lose hours. I’ve been doing this since I was 18 and a 19 year boy gave me Dalva. He also gave me e. e. cummings and “Letters to a Young Poet.” So I was set for awhile. But it was Harrison that I was addicted to. You never forget your first Harrison. Or you don’t get him at all. I got him.

He was from the Midwest. I was too. He sorted things out by walking in the woods. I did my best, in the suburbs of Chicago and every summer in the woods of northern Wisconsin, not far from his Upper Peninsula. He was a sensualist. I was too. He gravitated toward edges and defied the middle ground. I did too, but only few told me that was okay– and all of them on the page, namely Jim.

I longed to meet him in person, but perhaps it was better because he did and wrote and felt things that made me blush as a teenaged young woman.  But I read on, because knowing that he went so far out to the edge and got cut there and stayed there bleeding, helped me to take my place behind him, on safer ground.  Still to peer over his shoulder….and wonder about what life could be like if I really lived the wilderness that was in me.  If I was willing to be that honest.  Jim Harrison was honest.  I wanted to be that kind of honest.

I read him all of my 18th summer and knew that I was moving in a totally different direction than the one I had been raised to embrace. I studied how he could make a bird holy in just a few words of poetry. And how he could do the same with the word Fuck. And when I moved to Montana almost ten years later, and found out that he had left the Midwest behind for big sky country as well, I learned how to let Montana be my muse. I walked alone in places that scared me because of him. I went to snow goose migrations because of him. I sat on rocks and logs and stumps and river beds because of him. I paid attention to birds because of him. I went into sketchy small town roadside bars because of him. And I wrote it all down in my own way with voracity that I learned from him.28HARRISON-OBIT-articleLarge

Jim taught me that saints are everywhere. Now he is a saint. Now he’s free of the edge. Now he is all big sky. But damn…I am on-my-knees sad. I will miss you. Thank you for writing so many books. And for the kindness you showed me when we finally connected person to person, and not just heart to word to heart.

I have over 30 letters to Jim Harrison that I never had the courage to send. They were all weepy and whiny and I’m glad I spared him of that. When I finally did send him a letter, it was because I was going camping with my family in southern Arizona and had read that he had a home down there when he wasn’t in Montana. It was a famous bird watching area and I wrote him for advice about where to camp. And then at the end I hazarded these words: “We’d love to meet you for a drink if you’re around.”

I got an email back in a matter of hours. He told us where to go (which turned into a major adventure including wide open sun-caked tundra, more raptors in one place than I’ve ever seen, and helicopters lifting Mexicans out of the fields around our camper at 5:00 am). And he wrote these words that were better than “this one we’re going to publish” from the New York TimesModern Love’ column that launched my whole career. They were, “Usually I can be found around 4:00 at the Wagon Wheel, trying to hydrate.”

I met him there. And that is a story which deserves its own personal essay. For now, in honor of writers who help writers by writing, by bleeding, and by meeting them for a drink, I’d like to share a letter I sent to Jim after my book came out, in addition to my other two mentors (although they wouldn’t ever want to be called such a thing, so I’ll leave out their last names.)

Thank you, Jim, for helping me learn how to think, how to breathe, and how to walk in the woods. And thusly, how to write. Rest in peace. I will never stop being honored by the help you gave me along the way in so many forms.  I’m so sad I haven’t gotten the novel published that you promised to blurb…but you can bet that when I do…there will be a bottle of Domaine Tempier involved, and a big-sky-sized toast to you.

Yrs. (my sign off, which I lifted from you. I’m not sure if it means Years or Yours, but I’ll take both.)

Laura

Here is a  letter on the myth of success and the importance of helping people who are kindreds…

January 29, 2011Harrisonobit1-blog427

Dear Terry, David, and Jim,

I’m writing to you from a sky-dripping grey day in Whitefish, MT where I’ve been holed up all winter trying to remember how to breathe and write novels after the fog of getting a book published, going on tour, national television, and countless radio interviews. It’s felt like all I can do to not get “spiritually scummed,” as David once put it. He was talking about hospital ICUs, not authorly success…but I have found the two to be quite similar in more ways than one, the largest being the need for oxygen and IV fluids. Getting up and speaking about something that you wrote is a little sick. You already gave it to the reader the best way you could in the book. Feels like it’s between the two of them now. But I happened to write a book about a season of my life and people have questions and a lot of times they ask them with tears in their eyes and quivering lips…and like you all have helped me, I want to help them. Especially if they’re writers.

I have used your personally famous line a few times, Terry, when my gut tells me to: “Oh sister in words, what can I do, how can I help?” I just got back from a week in Arizona doing readings and catching up on some much needed vitamin D and thought you of you, Jim, down there in Patagonia with the Elegant Trogons and the Wagon Wheel, thinking that writers need to move around with the birds every so often. Writing with one raven against an ashen sky for four months means things can get a little bleak on the page. I feel renewed, and in honor of that, I’m writing you all this letter, which is one of thanks and also musing. I hope it finds you all very well and your muse plump and ready for more.

Well, you were right, David: “The only difference between being published and not being published is being published.” And you, Jim: “Somebody’s got to get published, any why can’t it be you.” And you, Terry: “Stop trying to get published and write your story.” Three sagacious lines that have held me through the years in the palms of their/your hands and kept me nested when I needed it most. I truly feel that no one in the world quite understands why I live this life the way I do more than you three. I’m sure there are more, but it’s you three in whom I rest.

This year I fledged.

So I thought you might relate with what my current book is about:  The myth of “success.” It’s one I worshiped for too many years and that you all warned me about in your own way. It’s the Green Flash I’ve been waiting for at every beach sunset I’ve watched since 1988, begging “Please let me get published to wide acclaim.” That’s the pathetic prayer I prayed, I’m embarrassed to admit. I ruined a lot of perfectly good sunsets over the years, crying. Probably missed a lot of green flashes too, though I’d like to chalk them up to myth because when we’re waiting, we’re not creating. We’re victims. I got really sick of that. I’d much rather answer the questions: what can I create? 

A person who hasn’t prayed that prayer can’t really understand the destructive nature of this myth. I’m out to bust it. Now, on the other side of that flung beg (I’m not going to call it a prayer—it’s a beg), I can see that all “success” is– the way society spins it, anyhow, is getting paid for something you created, and having people assign it power. But all that’s really there is the waking up and creating something else and sending it out to the powers that be who might pay a bit more attention to you, because of the way that people assigned you power. Or not. It’s all in the creating. It’s all in doing the work. I’ve never had a problem with that, so I think I’ll be able to handle this “cherry popping” (that was for you, Jim) that is becoming a published writer.

I can see that it is possible to go entirely insane running around the country speaking in front of crowds of people who ask the same questions over and over, only to detox from it in a lonely hotel room or a lonely airplane cabin, even though I try to call them womblike to trick my brain. Truth be told, they both smell sickly and inspire a fierce claustrophobia that I have to work hard to quell…and in each, I can’t help thinking about humanity boiled down to basic needs. It happens every time: standing in the airport security line, I can’t stop thinking, wow—all these people have had sex. All these people have lost someone they love. All these people are afraid of dying today—falling from the sky. Or have managed to click into auto mode and are so much the walking dead that I start to feel like if I make eye contact with any of them, they’ll rub off all my edges. In hotel rooms, it’s more the lack of those people, and even more their ghosts.

Hemingway said he could never write anything in the cabin of an airplane and I’m with him. I usually just sit there and tell myself that I’m lucky that a metal mechanized bird can swoop me across the country and deposit me safely to a new adventure. If I do write anything, it’s all about this, so my journals are almost entirely made up of fright, panic, and phobia. (Jim, thank you for our conversation about this.  It helped).  I never seem to write in my journal these days unless I’m travelling, in fact, so if anyone ever reads these journals from this manic “successful” period of my life, I’m sure I’ll be considered a total freak. And maybe I am.

But if there’s anyone who I know won’t judge me for it, it’s you three. And that’s another reason why I feel so grateful that you landed in my life, on the page and in person. Thank you for being fellow “freaks,” Terry you being more like a saint, but there must be something in you which knows exactly what I’m talking about. David and Jim, you are both legitimate freak/saints and you know how I feel about you.

I’ll sign off now. I don’t know if I’ll write another book of non-fiction. You’ve all done it too and you know that treacherous terrain of exposure. I wrote my book because I needed to process a brutal time of rejection in my life and knew that it would help people know that they’re not alone and that they have options.  Dealing with rejection is familiar terrain for writers, and it was an interesting act of prestidigitation (learned that word from you, David), to apply that to a marital crisis.  I’ve heard from people all over the world and it’s been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, so I guess it was worth it. Heart language is heart language and it has its ripples.

Thank you three for speaking this language on the page, and to me. And Jim, thank you for letting me use your poems as bookends in my memoir. Every time I feel ashamed that I have exposed myself too much on the page, I feel held in their warm embrace.

Whenever I hear the jack-hammering of the pileated woodpecker, I think of the sound of the delete key through a long sentence that you had to write, but that serves no one in the end. Part of me wants to do that with this letter and leave you all alone. The other part knows that writers need to be thanked. And that the legacy of that fact never dies as long as there are printed words…

Yrs. 

Laura

Lastly…because I could devote an entire blog to Jim Harrison.  One post just isn’t enough…

One of my favorite Harrison poems is called “Counting Birds” in which he confesses that he has been counting birds since he was a child. It ends:

“On my death bed I’ll write this secret
Number on a slip of paper and pass
It to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in late June
And they might be glancing out the window
At the thunderstorm’s approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
On the window screen I’ll wonder
If there’s a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I’ll sing to myself, you’ve carried
Me along on this bloody voyage,
Carry me now into that cloud,
Into the marvel of this final night.”
–From The Theory and Practice of Rivers (Clark City Press)

May you be carried…Jim Harrison. Peace.

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Haven Winter Series #3

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.56.17 PMThis is the third post in my winter series where I open up my blog to other writers to explore a theme. This year I asked my Haven alums to consider submitting a piece about what it took to get themselves to the retreat, what their blocks were, and how it has informed future decision making when it comes to creating possibilities for themselves in the field of their dreams.

The theme is: I Gave Myself the Gift of a Haven Retreat. So Now What? 

If you’d like to come on a Haven Retreat, here’s our 2015 calendar:

February 25- March 1 (only a few spaces left)
June 3-7 (filling fast)
June 17-21 (filling fast)
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25
April 29- May 3- Haven joins the fabulous luxury guest ranch Ranch at Rock Creek for an activity-based retreat that will blow your mind!

Click here for more info.  You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker…

I Gave Myself the Gift of a Haven Retreat. So Now What?
By Fateme Banishoeib

Haven found me when I was lost as a little kitty cat on a corner in a rainy night. Haven took me home and rescued me from freezing unseen and voiceless. In the warm nest, I found my  whisper, protected by the feminine power of the circle and my heart heated by others’ passion for writing and give voice to their soul.

I was disturbed by the loud voices of brutes with no soul and to save myself I hide. Holding myself waiting for that moment, for that sparkle, that blink, for HAVEN, and finally come to light again. My truth came out in Poetry. I was born in Poetry and Haven gave me the chance to re-born in it again. Poetry was hidden in me, came out as from mother’s womb revealing beauty, life, memories, visions, dreams and medicines for my heart.

After HAVEN copious pages of poetry wrote themselves through my hands. I was given the key to open the magic door of intimate conversation with life. My mind does not know what is happening and led by the heart I conquer my presence in an act of freedom into the path from “good girl” to woman. A woman that does not care to be known or controlled. A woman that is rebelling for independence from what I was told to be and is changing the relationship with my own shadows. A woman emerging into the light of my true self.

In Poetry I am stepping up and coming alive again. Line after line I peel off the layers of hurts and free the real me that the “Dancing Queens” saw and I have been hiding.

The Poetry whispers to my ears that is never too late. It is time for fun, playing with words and their music. I know I always wanted to write and many years later it is what I am doing right now. Convinced by my own limits I kept telling instead that I did not want it. I said it out loud. So the Poetry took a detour and hide in the place I was most scared to go, the shadows. Blinded by my own veils of limitations I realize it now.

The music of Poetry is taking care of the secret garden I had abandoned exactly where I am and wait for the dream to be attracted by the smell of roses. I know it will come. I can smell the roses!

And after the gift of Haven I gave myself the gift of Poetry…this is for you and me.

The Ebb

I cannot see, hear, accept, control

I disappeared in the cold new season

In the darkness the only light is the imagination

I turn on the magical thinking and seek for the unicorns

The masquerade is over

The heart has taken over

I let go of the craving of wanting to know, wanting to be right

From the garden asleep

When the time is right

New life will spring

The sky above knows

Dark and light alternating as night follows day

The darkness is the time to dream big

Expect a miracle

We live in a world of miraculous Poetry

 

I Found My Voice and Lost My Cheese
by Mary Novaria

I left my shoes on the porch and stepped into the lodge feeling like a fraud.

When I arrived at Haven I’d lost confidence in my words and in myself. The past five years had been a morass of caregiving for an aging mother and teenage daughter, both incapacitated by maladies that my words, written or spoken, just couldn’t fix.

Although there’d been scant time and even less energy to write, when I got to Haven, I’d somehow managed to scratch out about 75 rough pages of angst, the meager beginnings of a memoir. A mother, a daughter, a grandmother—two slices of bread (them) and a slab of bologna (me)—assembled into a complicated mess of a sandwich.

Deep down, I didn’t really believe I could do it. Not in the way you have to believe in yourself and trust in your story in order to actually write a book. I was frozen, stuck, unsure of how to dig myself out.

But the ranch is warm. Even when your boots crunch down on the icy dew as you walk from the guesthouse to the lodge. Even with the lake shrouded in a gray mist that obscures the squawking geese. Even as your breath puffs out like exhaled smoke while you stand in awe of the night sky.

I began to thaw in the sanctuary that is Haven. Scribbling in a notebook spotlighted by the streams of afternoon sun the poured through the windows… sharing words and laughter and tears before the crackling fire… soaking up Laura’s kind, loving, emboldening words. There was warmth enough to incubate both a fledgling book and a lost woman as fragile as a chick just hatched.

And there was soup… specifically that simmering, creamy, fragrant carrot coconut concoction—the first of many love offerings to emanate from Emma’s kitchen.

I admit to a twinge of trepidation at the notion of going of vegan, if only for a few days. I could deal with no meat. But no dairy meant no cheese—one of my great comforts in life. Good riddance Gouda. Cheerio Cheddar.  Bye-bye Brie. I was astonished that I didn’t miss it, not even when we had raw tacos.

Two months later my new doctor (a naturopath) took me off dairy, wheat and a few other things to address some longstanding health issues. I began cooking and eating a different way and wrote to Emma for baking advice.

I reminded myself that at Haven I’d wanted for nothing. Not even cheese. And certainly not for companionship and inspiration. I realized that as much as I relish the isolation of the writing life, I do occasionally need the blanket of community to bundle me up and keep me from freezing to death. So I found my way to a monthly writers’ workshop. I’m not much of a joiner, so this was a stretch. But then, so was a life without cheese.

Using my workshop group for accountability, I committed to daily writing, once amassing a streak of 261 straight days. I took a break when the kids came home and felt like I’d fallen off the wagon. I shared chapters in monthly workshops, which kept me moving me forward since there was an expectation to show up with new material each time. I finished a first draft. A second. A third. A major revision.

For more than two years now, I’ve been a wheat-free, dairy-free writer. If I’m fortunate enough to find my way back to Haven, I won’t feel like a fraud when I cross the threshold in my stocking feet and I won’t be pining for Brie.

 

 

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Haven Winter Writing Series

WinterWell, it’s time for the annual Haven Winter Writing Series again, and this year we have a theme that I hope will inspire you to do something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but haven’t quite had the guts or permission or stamina or time or money or support or inspiration or did I say guts, to give yourself. I know all about it. Every time I start a book, never mind an essay or a magazine article, or heck, even this blog post, my inner critic puts on boxing gloves and starts to swing: “Who do you think you are?” “You’re not good enough to pull this off.” “No one asked you to do this.” “People will judge you.” “This is what OTHER people do, not you.” “Go on Facebook and see what the COOL people are up to. You belong at the other table- the one with the theater geeks and the people who missed the memo on hygiene maintenance.” “Have you looked at yourself lately? You need to join the gym!” (not sure what that last one has to do with writing, but somehow it always sneaks its way in…) But for some reason, I keep writing things. Always have. Call it an obsession. Call it an addiction. Call it just plain stupid. I’ve just learned not to listen. I’ve learned to put that chatter in a box that is not quite cast off to sea, but nowhere close to my writing desk. I hope that someday I will once and for all give it a proper water burial. One step at a time. 

You can bet that voice was loud when I started leading writing retreats– all of that mean inner chatter about supposed-to-be and not-enough. Well for some reason I did it anyway. And now over 300 people have come to Haven and have had major breakthroughs in finding their unique voice through the transformative power of writing. AND Haven was ranked in the top five writing retreats in the US!  You do not have to be a writer to come to Haven. Just a seeker.

ForwardThis year I asked my Haven alums to consider submitting a piece about what it took to get themselves to the retreat, what their blocks were, and how it has informed future decision making when it comes to creating possibilities for themselves in the field of their dreams.

The theme is:
I Gave Myself the Gift of a Haven Retreat. So Now What?

We’ll be postings these essays written by Haven alums who will share their story twice a week through February, in hopes that you will take a brave stand for whatever it is that you dream about doing for yourself. If it’s a Haven retreat that you pine for, here is our 2015 schedule. I’d love to tell you more about the experience.

Here’s to a wondrous 2015! And may you grant yourself your wildest dreams!

February 25- March 1 (only a few spaces left)
June 3-7 (filling fast)
June 17-21 (filling fast)
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25
April 29- May 3- Haven joins the fabulous luxury guest ranch Ranch at Rock Creek for an activity-based retreat that will blow your mind!

Please enjoy this poem by Josina Manu Maltzman, which was inspired by my one day Haven Workshop at The Loft in Minneapolis this December. The prompt was: Why is Writing Dangerous? I chose this prompt because anything worth diving into head-first is a little, if not a lot, dangerous. That’s what makes it powerful. Consider your dreams, how you deem them “dangerous,” and choose to tell yourself a new story. Making them come true just might change your life! I am living proof of that.

Yrs.
Laura

In honor of the writers killed in Paris this week

Writing is Dangerous

by Josina Manu Maltzman

Writing
is the space between cells that holds memories
atoms of information
the part of me that blends with you
the in-between that creates
the line
but also blurs it.

It is terrifying to write,
never knowing what may happen.
Words create worlds and we must follow them pulled to discover
what lies there.

Writing is both safe and safecracker
code breaker
myth weaver.

When you think you are alone but the words tell you:
You are not.

Writing is salve and salvation.
We need the words to heal,
mending collective trauma
where our humanity has been torn and ailed
for generations.

Trees need soil.
We need art.
There must be packed art around our roots
to push against
spread within
hold the water to us
and rest there,
waiting for us to sip and be nourished.

Writing is dangerous where there is power-over,
suffering-under.
It is dangerous to write truth into a scene that is otherwise void of it.

Writing is dangerous
the way jazz is dangerous.
The way meeting in town squares
under the watchful gaze
of the master
is dangerous.

Even if (because)
it looks like revelry.

Writing is forbidden sex and Love
re-imagined.

It is barriers destroyed and prison bars disappeared.

The undead coming alive
their voices rising together.

Words are
the testament of where we came from
proof of our pasts
claiming our futures.
On the page history
is told with our own words,
our lives
at once
have value.

Writing dangerously feeds hunger
when we are supposed to be starving.
Edwidge Danticat says,
“Create dangerously,
for people who read dangerously.”
Because some people
are killed for their words
and to read them
is also
sure death.

Some stories must be shared by candlelight,
behind drawn shades,
because the truth of what is said
is dangerous
to power.

Writing must be dangerous.
How else do we reflect
truly
on the world we live in?
We must get dirty
fearlessly uncovering.

What is it to desire un-dangerous writing?

To write safely is Wednesday Night Sitcom
Disneyworld bench
sandbox playground.

We write dangerous
because our world is dangerous.
And as we chronicle our surroundings
we shatter glass ceilings
shards falling like pointed daggers
exposing an endless sky.

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Haven Winter Series #1

For the last few winters, I’ve offered up my blog as a place for other writers to share. I’ve spent a few weeks posting their words while I’ve focused on my own writing. This year, I’ve asked Haven alum to write a short piece describing something they’ve learned or a way they’ve transformed through our writing retreats. I’ll be sharing two pieces per post over the next couple of weeks. This is the first post, written by Renee Lux and Tracey Yokas.

Montana Walk, by Renee Lux

This is a Crusade,
A journey to sow the seeds of my soul
Around this Montana landscape.

With you and without you,
Because of you and in spite of you.
I carry your colors on my back
And emblazoned across my heart.
Red.

Love,
Feel the warm wake of my footsteps
Setting an urgent and steady pace through these
Forests.

Do not be afraid.
I will blaze a new trail for us.
I will walk this path again and again
And see to it that we can find our way back home
To each other.

There is nothing to fear.
The black bear is just a stump,
The hunter, just a cairn of stones.
There is no mountain lion, no goat, no deer,
Only evidence of them giving us wide berth
Through this new place.

This is the after place,
The place of forgiveness
And grace.

When I know this place well,
When I have given each pine its own name
Then, I will invite you
Home,
Here,
To the new me.

 

Nothing Else Makes Sense, by Tracey Yokas

The horse nibbled the belt to my winter coat.  He’s just a horse, I thought as I stood immobile noting his size.  He dared me with his big eyes.  One of us would have to give up and it likely would be me.  Instead Bobbi swooped to my rescue.  One flick of her horse-stick and the belt hung at my side spit out like stale gum.  “I should have tied it better.”

Bobbi looked at me and said, “It’s not your fault, but you need better boundaries.”

Okay.  Wow.  My life experience summed up in one sentence by a woman I just met on a horse ranch in the middle of Montana. And I was at a writing retreat!

I arrived for my Haven retreat one week after admitting my teenage daughter into residential care for help with severe depression.  She had started cutting herself with a razor blade and was no longer safe at home.  I told my husband I would cancel, but he told me not to.  I felt scared and sad and guilty, but also needed a break. When I wrote it felt like a chore, but I convinced myself that for a few days I could put on a brave face and pretend to be a writer.

Back at the lodge after my “Your Life Exposed” lesson at the horse ranch, I sat in front of the fire.  It cracked, popped and smelled like smoke – perfection compared to our Southern California natural gas-fueled fires.  I thought about reading out loud to the group.  My chest hurt.  I might as well read my diary. The pages I’d brought were about blood.  Who wants to hear about that?  And when they did would they judge me?  I felt more than heard Bobbi’s words.  It’s not your fault.

When my turn to read arrived, I held my papers high, right in front of my face, glad I hadn’t purchased those reading glasses I need.  Anonymity made it easier to ignore the quiver in my voice and helped avoid what I might see in the group’s eyes.  Pity?  Disgust?  No.  Finished, I dropped the pages to my lap and looked up.  One’s sniffle, another’s tear.  What I found was compassion.

I think often of my Haven experience, the people I carry still in my heart and what I learned in that long weekend.  For one, you don’t have to earn a living writing to be a writer.  Second, don’t wear a long belt (or any belt for that matter) to a horse ranch or at least be prepared for what a horse can teach you with it.  But most of all, writing with honesty binds us to one another heart and soul.  You will never be alone in a room full of strangers if you are willing to write your truth: good, bad or ugly.  When nothing else makes sense, writing your way to this connection can be what does.

 

 

 

 

 

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To Teach

dove

bird on a wire in the desert

My next Haven Retreat is a rare event in Boston after the MA Conference for Women. If you seek a deeper relationship with your creative self-expression…come!  Here’s the info.

I had a personal day today. I wrote. I rode a bike around Tubac, Arizona where I just lead a Haven retreat. I took photographs. I looked at light and breathed deep. Here’s something that came in on the desert wind:

TO TEACH

To teach is to listen for heart language
And to let people know that they have a pulse.
Or to remind them.
Sometimes to convince them.

To teach is to aid and abet the vivid “yes”
And the vivid “no”
And to call the troops off the battlefield
At least for the observance of Sunday supper.

To teach is to see past windows of eyes
Into souls
And be a curator with hands behind you
Not touching the painting
But seeing its meaning
Feeling the waves of the oil-brushed tempest against the dinghy
Smelling the salt air
And the breath of the painter
Knowing, if you were to point,
Exactly where her tear dropped
Into that salt sea.

To teach is to push a cart up a steep hill.
And have a line of people who believe in your brawn and compass.
And feet’s familiarity with the ground.
And to have people fall out of line.
Stray.
Turn back.
Come in front of you and push against the cart.
Until you show them a better place to push.

You say, “Thank you.”  

You feel a wordless joy.

And you weep a little.
But only inside.

You have a cart to push.
And you are tired.
And your muscles are in question.
And your sense of direction.
And you can never remember on which hilltop stands:
The Bo Tree
Golgotha
That mount.

You are a student.
You know where it is.
You just need reminding.

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Winter Mind

Here is one of my favorite poems on this austere day.  Love to all…

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing
in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

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Rita Wilson on Doing What you Love

More Magazine’s editor-in-chief Lesley Jane Seymour interviews Rita Wilson at the Reinvention Convention in LA 

 I love what Rita Wilson has to say about reinvention.  I saw her speak recently at More Magazine’s Reinvention Convention in LA.  She encourages us to think about what we loved to do as children.  This rang all sorts of bells for me because lately I’ve been asked over and over about success, and over and over I hear people confess that they loathe their job.  “I’m good at it, but I hate it.”  And I wonder about that.  Our society, school, most institutions teach us to ask the question:  what am I good at?  But I think that’s an unfortunate if not plain dangerous question.  When I finally realized that I was a writer, a lot of people looked at me uncomfortably, knowing what I then didn’t know about how hard the writing life is, and said, “Then you should go into adverstising.”  I’d look at them strangely.  “I want to write novels.  Not jingles about Keebler elves.”  They’d just shake their heads.

If I look back at who I’ve been since I was a little girl, there are pages and pages to prove that I’ve been writing stories since the beginning.  I have journals that go back to fourth grade full of story ideas.  I once wrote a whole journal-sized book (my first memoir, I suppose) entitled, “Things Not to Do to Your Kids.”  I’m afraid to read it because I’m afraid I’ve committed every one of those “sins” as a mother.

But it’s a good exercise, especially if you are at a crossroads in your life.  What do you LOVE to do?  Who have you been being all along without even thinking about it?   What comes naturally to you that you can’t wait to do?  What homework assignments had you racing to get home?  I remember one that had my spirit soaring.  It was fourth grade and the English teacher asked us to write a poem about our favorite place.  I have it right here, in fact:

Small Lake

(this is a lake by another name in Wisconsin where we spent our summers.  For some reason I felt the need to protect it, much like you never hear the name of any town or creature in my book except my daughter’s pet rat Houdini.) …remember– fourth grade, so with only a speck of apology…here goes:

At three o’clock this morning

I walked down to Small Lake.

I sat myself beside a tree

And longed for the large pond to wake.

As time went by my patience died

And into the lake I threw,

A rock which skipped at least three times

Then sank without a clue.

Suddenly a fish jumped up

And frogs began to croak

Which sounded very similar

To an elephant about to choke.

Way off in the distance

I heard the loon’s lonely cry

The sun gleamed down upon me

And then I heaved a sigh.

I knew that I must go now

To part with the pine and the fern

How sad I was to leave Small Lake

You can be sure that I’ll return.

Hopefully you have a fond smile in your lips.  I do.  It’s sweet and dramatic just like any fourth grade writer should be. 

Then in seventh grade, I wrote this poem for a school contest and won it.

Man at the Seashore

The withering man with the idiot’s eyes

Lives under a shelter of rock.

He lives a life full of sorrows and lies and digs for shells by the dock.

The sea is his friend and the waves talk to him

There is nothing that they haven’t told.

The trees give him shade as he climbs on a limb

And watches the world grow old.

If it’s reinvention that you seek, look into your youth.  See what’s there.  See who you already are.

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Memorial Day Re-visited

Every year Memorial Day gets a little easier. My father died on this day, May 31st, seven years ago. He would have been an old man by now. He would have been miserable. He couldn’t stand it that his 86 year old body wouldn’t let him skim down the stairs at the Northwestern train station in Chicago anymore. He couldn’t stand it that he couldn’t figure out how to “work a computer.” He couldn’t stand that all of his years of service to the freight car industry was not hailed, but rather, that he was quickly being lost and forgotten, even though he went into the city five days a week to try to do what he considered, good work. When his younger, more techno savvy business partner died suddenly of a heart attack, it was no coincidence that my father went home that night and had a stroke. He died a month or so later. We were all there. We helped him die– with opera and weather shows, Marx Brothers movies and family stories. He had to go and we all knew it. Like I said, he would have been a miserable old man.

I’ve written a lot about my father in my book, so I won’t repeat it here. But I will mention a bit about grief. I have learned that it is as physical as it is mental, and the emotion of it feels at times impossible to control. I talk a lot about powerfully choosing your emotions. That happiness is a choice. That freak outs are a choice. But grief? Maybe you can teach me something about grief, because to me, it doesn’t feel all choice. It feels like its own category, both visceral and emotional. Sort of like fear.

In the first years after his death, it was like my adrenal system was engaged in fight or flight. Like if it wasn’t for my adrenals, I would have died in the trenches in what seemed a certain war. Year by year, it has become less so. It feels more like fighting a cold now, than fighting an enemy. I write that pain can be our guide, and I believe this with all my heart. Maybe what I have learned about the pain that comes with grief has to do with welcoming it. Not resisting it. Knowing that it is going to be part of life now. Death doesn’t go away. The loss of the physical presence of my father will not go away. I can’t call him. I can’t tell him about my day. I can’t ask him how he is. He isn’t.

Last night we had the neighbors over for a Memorial Day picnic. Usually I talk about my dad on this weekend. I raise a glass, tell a story, look through old photos. This year, I didn’t want to. Instead, this year, I wanted to be quiet about it. I wanted to keep my grief for myself. We sat around the fire and listened to the frogs in the marsh and the owl in the woods and swatted mosquitos, and did our annual burning of the Christmas tree. That hot roar was what met and blessed my grief. That was enough.

And in the night, while I slept, I had a dream. I was in my childhood bed and my father came in and sat on the edge of it as he often did for storytime, only he was gasping and saying, “Lord Jesus” over and over again. And I knew I couldn’t save him. It was between him and his God. Instead, I held him while he died in my arms. Maybe another year of grief died in my arms in my dreams last night. Who knows what the fire did when it roared its heat. But this morning, on the actual day of his death, I feel like I finally let him go.


Addendum:
Here is a poem that struck me so hard just now. I called a dear friend today wanting to somehow cry a little, and he sent me here, to these words. There are no coincidences…

Fathers and Sons
I will walk across the long slow grass
where the desert sun waits among the stones
and reach down into the heavy earth
and lift your body back into the day.
My hands will swim down through the clay
like white fish who wander in the pools
of underground caves and they will find you
where you lie in the century of your sleep.

My arms will be as huge as the roots of trees,
my shoulders leaves, my hands as delicate
as the wings of fish in white water.
When I find you I will lift you out
into the sun and hold you
the way a son must who is now
as old as you were when you died.
I will lift you in my arms and bear you back.

My breath will blow away the earth
from your eyes and my lips will touch
your lips. They will say the years have been
long. They will speak into your flesh
the word love over and over,
as if it was the first word of the whole
earth. I will dance with you and you
will be as a small child asleep in my arms
as I say to the sun, bless this man who died.

I will hold you then, your hurt mouth curled
into my chest, and take your lost flesh
into me, make of you myself, and when you are
bone of my bone, and blood of my blood,
I will walk you into the hills and sit
alone with you and neither of us
will be ashamed. My hand and your hand.

I will take those two hands and hold them
together, palm against palm, and lift them
and say, this is praise, this is the holding
that is father and son. This I promise you
as I wanted to have promised in the days
of our silence, the nights of our sleeping.

Wait for me. I am coming across the grass
and through the stones. The eyes
of the animals and birds are upon me.
I am walking with my strength.
See, I am almost there.
If you listen you can hear me.
My mouth is open and I am singing.

Patrick Lane

Witness: Selected Poems, 1962-2010
Harbour Publishing

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Pressing Ghosts

Maybe some of you have read the beautiful and powerful work of the poet, Hannah Stephenson on her blog thestorialist.blogspot.com.  I have been recently inspired in particular by the below poem.  She writes about something I know well and have spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about:  my inner critic.  Here is how Hannah puts her to words.  Thank you, Hannah.

yrs. Laura

 

Pressing Ghosts

by Hannah Stephenson

One morning, my mind woke up
but my body did not go anywhere.
I summoned my extremities, but
they remained slack against
the mattress. It soon wore off,
like drunkenness. Sleep paralysis,
science explains. Muscle lagging
behind consciousness a bit
more than usual. In folklore’s
jurisdiction, this is known as
a pressing ghost, kanashibari.
The condition of being fastened
with unseen metal, of being held
down by shadow. Don’t get up,
the pressing ghost murmurs above us,
and we don’t. Eventually, they release
us, wheel away into the air like bats.
Your hesitation before unlatching
your guitar, the way you cringe before
bringing your fingers to its strings
if anyone else is with you. Each fear
dripping within you, as water droplets
form at the end of icicles and fall.
This, too, is a pressing ghost. You will
look stupid, one says. Or You can
never finish this. I’ll show you mine:
They will think you are selfish.
The things you make are unremarkable.
How to deal with the spirits of paralysis.
Let us form a strategy. When doubt
presses itself across my chest,
issuing its fine mist of deprecation,
selfishhhh, dullnessss, I will not move
because I cannot, but I will look at it
and answer with this thought:
Even so, I keep creating, I am capable.
I will calmly allow its heaviness
and stand when it goes. It will.

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Spring


First a red-winged blackbird, and now robins. Is it really here?

Spring

by Mary Oliver

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her–
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

“Spring,” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press.

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