Thursday, April 29, 2010

If I don't write it now ... when?

Listening to two old songs on the radio this morning and here come thoughts of somebody I never name but often mention here. A very personal and special garland today, made not of flowers but words--the only kind of weaving I know. This is for you, Gemeau.

For My Mate

I don't know why I love you
but i do

That's not true - the part about
not knowing why.
Let me count the whys ...

It's all those little things:
The way you take care
with everything you do.
The way you always thank me
for even the most ordinary of meals.
Wine, bread, cheese, soup.
That you take an interest in my
interests, though they are not yours.
That self-absorption is not something
you ever indulge in.
A random remark on my part
about an object I admire but think unaffordable,
frivolous even
--definitely not necessary
and eight months later, out of the blue
there it is, from your hands to mine.
I had completely forgotten.
You hadn't.

And just when I think I know
everything there is to know about you,
you go and surprise me,
with yet another hidden treasure
from the depths of you.

You're always there
holding up the universe--
for me
for the family
and every lost, starved animal
in the neighborhood.
You laugh when I say you're like a saint.
Now I ask you,
what kind of person
sees his mate's little flaws
as quirky endearments?
Anybody else would frown
raise an eyebrow
but you just smile
as if to say
"That's just her being her"
while your eyes say love
and my heart melts all over again
at you being you.

"I don't dance," you said
oh but you do
in so many ways.

I've seen you angry and frustrated,
dead on your feet, bone-weary,
watched you soar, elated,
experienced the joy in your laughter,
held you when you were
heartbroken with grief,
felt your love surround me.

What happens when
two loners pair ...
no need to explain, that's what--
about those needed times
for oneself, alone.
You give me space
I save your place
and in all things us
we still keep the core
of who we were
and are.

Like everyone, we have our irks
Am still waiting  (nine years now!)
for those songs you promised.
Yes I know you're shy
and prefer to sing just in my ear,
not into some recording machine
but do you have any idea
how beautiful your voice is?
Everyone says so.
Can you blame me for trying to
immortalize it?
Why, I could carry it with me
always, when we're apart.

Now, for what reason, that empty milk carton
placed back in the 'fridge?
Is that a guy thing?
You ate like a teenager
when I met you.
"Okay, Miss Kettle, let me remind you ..."
Yes, I know, driftwood from a Vermont beach
doesn't belong behind the curtain
propped up on a windowsill
but this one's shaped like a hawk
he even has a name
and where else but at a window
can he scan the skies?

I know I'm not good with hammers & nails,
the smell of paint makes me ill
and fancy cooking for lots of people
is not my style.
I hate that I suck at math, can't knit afghans,
that I can't ride in an elevator
or airplane
or stand on a 5th floor balcony
without hyperventilating
or nearso.
Is it high weirdness to enjoy shovelling snow,
washing by hand,
running barefoot with dogs.
Then I'm guilty.

But those are such little things.
It's the big things that matter.
Like, do our worldviews match.
Are we on the same wavelength?
Do we respect our respective cans and can'ts?
You cannot swim
if your feet don't touch bottom;
you stand in the water and wave
to me crossing the lake
one happy stroke at a time,
with the fish.
I cannot  speak
in front of a group, even a small one
I stumble over my words,
break out in a cold sweat.
You handle this so much better.
And don't let's even talk
about driving in traffic.
I envy your at-easeness
in any situation.
Applauding the cans,
helping with the cannots
two peas rearranging their pod.

I like that we think alike,
that we can converse without speaking.
We even sometimes gesture simultaneously
move our toes in synch, to the beat of a song,
then notice and break out laughing.
We share a knack for getting lost
and hating crowds
and loving ice cream
and being open
to the strange and

Did I know you in another life?
Was I your child, or you my lover?
Because we seem to have been glued together
from all the ages.
And if so, how is it that
I found you again
and you me.

They have a saying here
Je me sens bien dans ma peau
"I feel well in my skin"
Being well with who you are--
I with me, you with you,
in this particular time and place,
we, with each other.

I love that you're an eternal optimist.
To every problem, every concern:
"Don't worry.  Il s' arrangera".
Whatever it is, it will arrange itself.
But what does that mean? I had asked.
And sure enough,
things always do
arrange themselves.
One way or another,
things get okay again
and one can move on.


Have I told you lately
how much I

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Meet Hercules

Meet our new little neighbor, "Hercules" (pronounced Her-KIUAL, not HER-kyu-leeze). He is 6 weeks or so old and just learning to navigate the porch steps and back yard. He hasn't yet figured out how to climb the steps, though. His owner ties him outside and lets him play on the walkway near the woods. His leash keeps getting tangled in the bushes.

The cats are curious, but not as curious as Hercules. Whos IS this fearless little creature, they seem to be wondering, who'll go running up to a dog four times his size, plant himself smack down in front of it, and start to bark. You impertinent little pipsqueak, the dog's look says. Why, I could smash you to a pulp with one pat of my paw. But he won't, of course. Animals instinctively know what's a full-grown something and what's a baby something. Baby somethings, you leave alone.

Meanwhile one of the cats approaches steathfully, hiding behind some branches. Hercules spots her and dashes out, full speed ahead galloping toward her, his little tongue hanging out, his tail wagging. You never saw a cat run so fast in all your life, ha ha. It was the funniest thing I've ever seen. I was watching from the window and about cracked up laughing.

And just when we're getting used to the pup's friendly visits and adorable little face, the neighbor tells us he's going to be moving come July. He has three part-time jobs and wants to move closer to his work, which is some distance away. The sun just went down in my soul, or so it seemed standing out there in the back yard later, when he told us this news. I was getting so fond of the Little Pip.

I asked the neighbor, when he first introduced us to Hercules, how come you named him Hercules? Such a tiny little dog ... the name didn't seem to fit. "It was the first name that came to mind when I saw him," he said.

Agatha Christie invented a character by the name of Poirot, a quirky detective who appears in several of her mystery novels. He was a Hercules also, known for his abundance of "the gray matter". I think Hercules the dog will make up in intelligence for what he lacks in size. I can't think of him now going by any other name.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Toothbrush Factory

It was a temporary assignment.  One week, they said, no more. I was to replace a woman who was out on maternity leave. "Just some light typing, a bit of filing" the temp agency told me. But when I arrived at the toothbrush factory they put me right away at the main reception desk where I was to greet incoming visitors and answer incoming calls on a busy 9-line switchboard. A chart, taped at the side of the desk, listed all 40 or so employees and their individual telephone extensions. The calls came in three and four at a time, non-stop.

"Good morning, Toothbrush Factory, how may I help you?"
     --I wanna talk to Bob please. He there?

I consult the staff chart. There are two Roberts and two Bobs listed.

"Excuse me, Bob who?"
     --Bob! Works in the plant. Look, I'm in a rush here. Just leave him a
        message, will ya? Tell him I said we need eight #6's by 2 o'clock."

The caller did not tell me his name.

A call comes in for a Donna Smidleybock. No such name is listed, nor is there anyone on the chart with the name of Donna. "I'm sorry, we don't have an employee by that name," I respond. "Oh for crying out loud," the caller huffs. "Donna's been working there for sixteen years! Give me the supervisor please." I forward the call to the supervisor, who later comes out to my desk and says: "Uh, Donna got married two months ago. She's no longer Donna Bradley. We forgot to cross out her old name on the chart. Sorry."   So "D. Bradley" is Donna Smidleybock. Okay, got it.

Six calls-in-a-row later a caller wants to talk to Pete Robinson. I ring Mr. Robinson's extension. No answer. "Can you page him?," the caller asks. "It's urgent." Two men are standing in the entranceway having a conversation. One of them is leaning on my desk, where he has placed his cup of coffee. "Pete Robinson, can you call the front desk please?" I announce over the loudspeaker. The man leaning on the desk frowns and gives me one of those--what-kind-of-an-idiot-ARE-you?! sort of looks. "I'm Pete Robinson!" he says, irritated, as if I should have grasped that intuitively.

At times there are six and seven lines on hold simultaneously and people are never where they're supposed to be, rarely in their cubicles, especially the supervisor, who is usually to be found on the shop floor where they make the toothbrushes--when he isn't in the hallway chatting with someone, at the coffee machine or out in the parking lot taking a smoke.

The supervisor gets the most calls, and instead of calling back the numbers on the pile of pink message slips I leave for him, he comes to the desk and shuffling through them, one by one, tells me to: "Call X back and tell him I can't make the meeting at noon; call Y back and reschedule the inspection for Thursday instead of Friday; call Z back and ask him if that shipment from Portland got here and when can we expect delivery. Oh, and remind him about that invoice from Spitzers--have him get in touch with Frank. You can ask Sherry for Frank's number. She'll be back at 3...."    And as I'm writing all this down, eight more calls come in, the red lights on the telephone blinking frantically.

"Hello, Toothbrush Factory, can you please hold; Hello, Toothbrush Factory, please hold; Hello, please hold; Please hold. Please hold."

By about noon, I am a nervous wreck. I am finding the whole experience extremely stressful. I would have preferred to have been assigned to the section of the plant where they make the toothbrushes, doing some simple, rote task where the fingers do the work and the mind is free to roam--or a challenging task doing something I'm actually good at, involving research or transcription or editing or something. But this particular assignment reminds me of that old television gameshow "Beat the Clock", where you're given a task that by itself seems simple enough but then they go and tie your hands behind your back, blindfold you and place huge obstacles in your way--and time you. Hurry up, get there before the bucket of water falls on your head. Hurry up, the clock is ticking.

Hurry up, get those messages to X before he leaves the building--there he goes, run out to the parking lot and wave him down--wait, get those four lines first, you don't leave people on hold for more than 60 seconds, remember? Hurry up, he's getting in his car.... [I run out door].  Another staff member sees me and scolds, "Why aren't you at your desk? There are calls coming in....."

I once had a boss who I heard talking on the phone one morning to the branch manager in New York, telling him the contracts were Fed Ex'd out "yesterday." Which puzzled me because I hadn't yet been given them to type. This was a legal office where that type of insane rush-rush-rush to beat-the-clock type mindset was common. One learned to get faster and faster and faster, skipped lunch to meet deadlines, stayed overtime to meet deadlines, came in an hour before scheduled, to meet deadlines, most virtually impossible but routinely imposed. Some people actually thrive on this kind of adrenalin. I am not one of them.

I don't know what made me think of that toothbrush factory this morning. I am told it has gone out of business. I find the stories from people who work in factories fascinating, though. Zlata, an old neighbor friend, once told me, proudly, that she had personally sewn on 10,000 (or some such number) stomachs for the bears in the Teddy Bear Factory. That was all she did all day--sew together the part that becomes the stomach. I once took a tour of this factory and there she was, sitting behind her machine, sewing away. She waved and smiled. When we were leaving I passed her again. This time the workers were taking a break, standing up and stretching, doing some kind of little exercise in unison.

That evening I saw her out on her concrete porch, watering her flowers. She loved her job. I hated mine. I would have given anything, at the time, to have traded places with her.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day -- A Wake-up Call

Today is the 40th annual celebration of Earth Day.  The blogosphere has been alive all week with announcements of events and rallies, individuals and groups dispensing advice and gathering pledges, to address the environmental problems of Mother Earth which, as you may have heard, is a planet very much in peril today.  So this special day has been set aside, which may remind those only peripherally aware of the extent of the crisis, that time is running out--perhaps not for our generation, but for those generations that will follow:  our children, our grandchildren.

The first Earth Day in 1970 was a raucous, radical teach-in that helped spur clean-air, clean-water, and endangered species legislation in the United States. Today it's much tamer. "The first Earth Day was effective because so many people went out in the streets ... Forty years later, "people are asked to do much simpler things, like recycle or turn their thermostat to a certain level ... they're not being asked to get out there and shake up the government and force a recognition of how things are produced and how much we consume."[1]

Earth Day, today, is celebrated by more than a billion people in 180 countries around the world, according to Kathleen Rogers, President of the Earth Day Network.  Being concerned about the environment is "routine" now, and "green-ness is today as much a marketing tactic as a moral pursuit". (One suggestion I read about yesterday, as a huge step in "going green", was to "go paperless with your reading", i.e., stop buying books and go buy a Kindle wireless reading device for $489.  (Information on where to order included.)  Hmmm.  Save a tree.  Buy a mechanical device that can't be recycled.  The emphasis seemed less on the "save" part, and more on the "buy" part.) 

But here come those horrible statistics, updated every year, that people may not have been aware of, to startle and shock one out of complacency, till next year's Earth Day, like:

  • 14 billion pounds of trash are dumped into the ocean every year
  • Americans use 50 million tons of paper annually -- consuming more than 850 million trees.
  • Most families throw away about 88 pounds of plastic every year.
  • Only 11% of the earth's surface is used to grow food.
I wasn't aware of that last one, but it strikes me as particularly alarming.  I've seen photos of the gobs of plastic littering the ocean, swallowed by or embedded in the fish who live there.  Now, to solve the problem of possible peak oil, efforts are being made to turn corn crops into fuel to feed cars (ethanol).   Food products genetically manipulated to kill certain plants or insects and which have caused damage and death to certain animals, are claimed by the manufacturer to have no adverse effect on the human organism.  Independent research showing otherwise is consistently ignored, or the scientists censored.  Foods containing altered genes and animals  pumped full of growth hormones and/or antiobiotics are processed into the food chain and distributed to markets for human consumption, while efforts to have such products labeled as such are met with staunch resistance because of its potential to limit profits for the producers.  In all of these instances, "the people" have little or no control over what is happening.  Other, more powerful entities, make all the decisions.

Q.  What stops humans from doing more to help stop the extraordinary contamination, waste and abuse of their planet?
A.  Other humans, for whom profits trump all.  And apathy.


When there are no more fish in the sea,
        when the rivers are full of chemicals
               and traces of pharmaceuticals appear in our drinking water,
                    or toxic sewage sludge distributed as "organic compost",
when the land stops producing food
     because there are no longer any bees, to pollinate,
            when the air becomes unbreathable,
                   and our bodies riddled with disease
                          that might have been prevented--
what good will money do?

If you are thirsty, you cannot drink money.
If you are hungry, you cannot eat money.
If you are suffocating, you cannot breathe money.
It will sit there, mocking you,
and probably outlast you.
     (that is, if you invested in gold.
     Paper or digital money by then may have become meaningless).

Mother Earth weeps, and the folly continues.
Meanwhile, while we celebrate increased awareness
let's also note how little has been done
to stop this fast-tracked train on a collision course
to No Man's Land.

One petitions, marches, shouts,
spreads suggestions like "15 Ways to Save the Planet",
brags that one recycles,
yet cannot seem to slow
the steady march of decline.

40 years of urgent urgings...
and money still rules,
profits proliferate
the message is muted.

Each small step forward, and
fourteen more small, intentional blocks are created
to prevent our getting there--
deliberately, through manipulation,
watered down regulation,
nonfunding, politicking
programmed delays
and the need to dominate,
the need to control
the need to

"Where have all the flowers gone?"
a former threesome sang.
One day we may be singing
Where has all the water gone?
Where are the fish?  Where are the trees?
Nothing can be eaten. What do I do now?

"When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn..."
and so it

For some, respecting the Earth is a way of life, a consciousness not in need of prescheduled "alarm calls".  Some people just live that way--all the time, every day, conserving, doing as little damage as possible, and they are everywhere, from the biggest cities to the poorest haven, in every country--millions of fellow planet dwellers from whom we can learn by example--how to live simply, be healthier, and take care of our Earth in our short time here. 

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.
There's still time.
Not a lot ...
And it will take time.

Or--we could just jump on the runaway train, pull the shades down, and ask to be awakened when the ride is over.  That's assuming the train actually gets there.  Or that there is a "there" to be gotten to.

*My devil's advocate, sensing that  the above imparted a tone of pessimism, rather than one of the "hug-another-earth-person" variety , asked: "Should the negatives about a situation trump the positives?" implying that it induces fear instead of hope (talking about trains fast-tracking to a no man's land stripped of anything edible, for example).  Perhaps I should have emphasized more the growing world consciousness about environmentalism and provide examples.  But experience tells me only like-minded individuals seem to pick up on this.  It's like preaching to the choir.  Most people, I think, are largely oblivious to what's happening, unless it immediately impacts them; they think this is much ado about nothing, that warnings about ozone depletion and polluted waters and  radioactive waste with a half-life of millions of years is nothing but a bunch of  whiney Chicken Littles crying that "The sky is falling, the sky is falling!!".  And even if what they say is true, they don't want to have to think about it.  So maybe I wrote this for them, though none will read it--but also for myself.  You sometimes feel powerless, lapse into complacency out of sheer frustation wondering if it makes any difference whatsoever what one does or does not do, given the magnitude and severity of the problem. Still, that's no excuse to just give up entirely.  And sometimes, even like the oblivious, you'd prefer not to have to think about it at all.

I remind myself that it's not a wasted effort, though--to learn to live more simply, make healthier choices, use less, care more.   I can do this.  It is not rocket science.  It's not easy, either.  Some things, some habits, are annoyingly hard to give up. And some seem downright impossible.  But they're not--and it liberates you, from inertia, from unconsciousness, from lack of control, and makes you stronger, prepares you for how to cope when times are hard.  (Not just difficult, but really hard.)  And those times may be coming, sooner than we think.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poets as Parasites; World without Words

A loyal subject of these second-rate years,
I proudly admit that my finest ideas
are second-rate, and may the future take them
as trophies of my struggle against suffocation.
      I sit in the dark.  And it would be hard to figure out
      which is worse:  the dark inside, or the darkness out.

--Joseph Brodsky
   an excerpt from “I Sit by the Window” (1971)  [for Lev Loseff], translated by
   Howard Moss  in A Part of Speech  (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977).

Joseph Brodsky was arrested in 1963, and in 1964 charged with parasitism by the Soviet authorities. A famous excerpt from the transcript of his trial made by journalist Frida Vigdorova was smuggled to the West.

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
Judge:Did you study this?
Brodsky: This?
Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky:I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky:I think that it ... comes from God, yes God.

For his "parasitism" Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile with obligatory engagement in physical work and served 18 months in the Archangelsk region. [1]

In February of 1996, I attended "An Evening in Memory of Joseph Brodsky" on the campus of Harvard University, where they showed a film of Brodsky reading some of his poems in Russian:    Colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and students, in turn rose to read his poems and prose or speak about him and share their memories. The thing I most remember, though, and which I carry with me to this day, is a short sentence said to have been uttered by him, consisting of only two words:

"Words matter."

In translating, in editing, in writing, in speaking--in how you create them, how you string them together, where you find them, when you sing them, manipulate or omit them; when you hide them, when you distort, censor, or destroy them—in every interaction with them, whether accidental or intentional--they matter.

They are not "just" words.  They are equally capable of bringing ecstacy or inflicting madness.  They bring people together; they tear them apart.  They impart both joy and pain.  They can bore or annoy beyond endurance—or change someone's life forever.

You can love them, hate them, tweak them, murder them or happily play with them. You can ignore, or become obsessed by them.

Without them one is reduced to mere gestures for communication.  Comprehension disappears, connections are lost,  insights never arrived at.  An overwhelming emptiness would prevail.  A world of raw sound and images and symbols but no more written text, no more spoken, intelligible words.  I’m trying to imagine a universe absent the written and spoken word, where all of them are ... suddenly, completely GONE.  Civilization, as we know it, would grind to a halt.

The ultimate regression:  "A World Without Words". It would make a terrific science fiction story. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


drop of rain
           blink of eye
                             time unwatched
wit's soul

Photo by awyn, "Sun Through Cedar Tree", Summer 2008 in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Woodland days and webs of being

I can see why this place is called the web. Some years ago I read a tale set in an Anglo-Saxon pagan England and it told of a shaman's apprentice and otherworldly visions of every single thing being held together by spidersilk. Every thing, animate and inanimate, tree and stone and book and person and crow, all linked by a thread, a thread the shamans could travel up, and a thread through which vibrations of others could be sensed. This ancient view of things is common amongst shamanic cultures worldwide I think; it somehow feels true. The book was The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates and it is based on a thousand year old Lacnunga Manuscript held in the British Library.

-- Rima Staines, ex-itinerate, but still nomadic in spirit, over at The Hermitage.

Rima has come in from the cold, so to speak, no longer living in her converted horse-box on wheels without electricity or hot water.  She has set down roots in a small house with lots of space now for her books and art and cherished objects.  A self-described "painter, illustrator, and maker of things and teller of tales", her online Hermitage is a "phantasmagoria of fancy, museum of myth and realm of the ridiculous," as she continues her journeys with nature and art, to the delight of her many followers.

Moss and Lace
An excerpt from "A spring walk one sunny evening by the river"

You're sitting at your desk piled up with work and wishing you could step outside and walk in the woods, listen to mountain water cascading down old, tired rocks, hear birds singing in the tall trees, smell the fresh early, mountain spring air, stroll by the meadows, warmed by the sunshine, feel Nature "being" ... but it's a 20-minute drive to where you won't find any people, noise, or pollution, to a place of sheer quiet that would allow you to hear the land breathing.  The little videos on Rima's web side taken during her "spring walk" yesterday allowed me to do just that this morning.  Thank you, Rima (and I love your lampshades!).

I like the idea of "every single thing being held together by" something:   spidersilk, shared affinities, common experience, or the eventual plight of all human beings on this earth--especially significant today when so many in the world seem cemented in the ever-present "Us-Them" divide. 

Rima's  Misrule, Mockery and Monstrosity, with its myriad examples of marginal imagery, provides an interesting discussion of just such a divide. (I found her chapter on "The Outsider Figure and the Concept of "Otherness" especially compelling.  Worth checking out, particularly with regard to those "peripheral people" in history and society--disregarded beings shunned for their perceived otherness, their not-quite-worthiness; marginal people with whom one's established circle experiences discomfort, or contempt--"frindge" people. The "other" that challenges the status quo, where discomfort results in reaction: ridicule, judgement, censure. Understanding why this is so tells us things about us that we may perhaps not wish to hear.)

 Glad I dropped in at Rima's Heritage this morning.  If you can't make it to the meadows, beach or forest and are limited to vicarious journeys, this one's a treat.

I am left with this melody in my head:  Utter stillness except the sound of water, falling over rock.

Photo above of woodland lampshades made by Rima, of "far-hefted ivy twigs, some leafy handmade paper and a bit of wire and string."