Thursday, August 21, 2008

reading list

Update on the sidebar. Too many things to list!

Fire Season: On the Eve of Our Seventh Anniversary

August 4th was my wedding anniversary. We haven't really gotten to celebrate it yet. But we have instead just declared it our annivesary month. Each day we wish each other a happy anniversary and every other or so we open a bottle of wine.

The weekend before our day, we were camping in Big Sur. I lost my balance walking in the river and jammed the ring finger on my left hand. Luckily, I had enough presence of mind to move my wedding ring to my other hand before the injuried finger swelled up into a purple balloon. I'm still wearing the ring on my right hand as my knuckle hasn't quite gone back to its original ways.

Mike and I have something of a history with the Big Sur River and our anniversary. A couple months before our first year together his ring came off while we were walking together in the water and that was that. Gift to the gods. Had to have it remade.

The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur has a new slogan - "The Henry Miller Library - where nothing happens." This is of course a complete truth and a complete lie. Big Sur is a magical place where shit happens, in a Zen kind of not really sort of way.

We are about to go off again for more camping adventures beginning this weekend, and since by the time we return it will be the end of our anniversary month, I thought I would share this now, foolishly, perhaps, as no eyes but mine have seen it. I see it as kind of a companion piece to another poem I've been working on forever about my grandparents "practical romance" as I've imagined it. That one is called "The Space Between."

The poem below is a draft. They are all drafts. What the hell. Here goes:

Fire Season: On the Eve of Our Seventh Anniversary

My husband, my love
has never once called me any term of endearment
not a honey, not a sweetheart, I've never been baby.
So when the camping stove he was priming
to heat water for our dinner of soup broth and rice
lit the picnic table on fire and flames climbed
in a pyre that engulfed the view
from the triangle doorway of the tent
where I was reading, he said only
my name, once, almost quietly: Kitty.
And I flew from my spot to where he was,
bare feet scored by unfriendly brambles.

I will not be the one, I thought. I will not be the one
to set this forest back aflame, to scar the redwoods
I chose as respite. I will not be the one.
Those were the mind's musings in the moments
before reflection. And yet, why not me? Why
should I be blameless? Have we not all set fires
now and then, just to watch them burn?

My monologues, he quiet, closing,
both of us walled cities, and then a spark,
words too close to the wick and we ignite,
just briefly, a flash – like lightning in a forest.

Once when my grandmother was just a girl
lightning entered the kitchen window and burned
a black path across the floor while she watched.
What did she learn then, after the fear had dissipated,
taking up residence in this and that corner of who she was?

These forests - just open again after so much charring smoke,
dozers plowing fat lines through the dirt daring the flames to cross,
ocean copters dropping gallons to try to keep it in place.
The redwoods are fearless. Let it come, they whisper,
not a pang in any branch. Basin Complex Fire –
it means nothing to them - fire is fire, this one,
the one a hundred years ago, a hundred years from now.

There is a taking stock, a naming that happens
in the nebulous space before change clicks into place
and everything is different. He called me
to be beside him, if not to help extinguish
the danger, then to witness the burning. He called me,
my name invoked in calm terror.

The fire went out almost as suddenly as it lit. The stove
hurled in the fire pit, the table dowsed
with our weekend's drinking water. I stood, trembling,
on the eve of our anniversary, still raw
from so many parched acres, mighty hillsides
grey with ash. In seven years,
not a honeypie, not a single lovey-dovey.

(I've already changed some of these lines twice in the few hours this post has been up. Stay tuned, it may continue to morph.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


“See that castle over there?” my colleague scowls, directing my attention toward the ruins out the bus window long after we'd crossed the border into Slovakia. “That's a HUNGARIAN castle.” I widen my eyes and nod as he watches my face longer than necessary, searching for signs of treason.

That's the opening paragraph of an essay I wrote about going on a skiing trip with my school when I taught English in Hungary. Further along it continues like so:

“Where you're standing,” my co-worker begins again during a pit stop, “was aaaaaaaaall our country.” I survey the portable toilets, the spike-heeled women leaning against truck cabs. “Uh-huh,” I manage, and sip my Coke nervously.

The essay focuses mostly on my complete ineptitude on a ski slope while touching on the complicated history of Eastern Europe and a notion I encountered in Hungary that I like to call “armchair nationalism.”

The Hungarians can be somewhat nostalgic, shall we say, for their empire. What empire? you ask, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sillies, which held its close out sale pretty near a century ago. But nevermind dates, those maps of the Glory Days are still rolling off the presses and hanging on Soviet-thin walls of apartments across the country, apartments belonging to old men who raise themselves slightly off the seat of their armchairs to point at them with shaking fingers thick as sausage links - “aaaaaaaaall our country!”

I began my year in Hungary knowing just three phrases in the language. They were “thank you,” “fuck you” and “I'm a vegetarian.”

When you think about it, without an extended stay, you can do pretty well on these little gems. But of course, after a while, I grew tired of the man at the photo developing shop shouting me deaf in German and decided to learn more. (One of the next things I added to my repertoire was “I don't speak German.”)

Eventually, with the help of a book, a tape, my students, an occasional tutor and lots of hands on life experience, I learned a decent amount of Hungarian. One of my obstacles to learning more, however, was that my other American friends sucked big time - as in huge juicy lemons - when it came to even ordering a bottle of wine. After months and months of being there they were still so pathetic, anything I could squeak out and with the help of hand motions get a native to understand made me look like I was some kind of linguistic savant.

The other deterrent to studying harder was the Hungarians themselves. They held deeply schizophrenic views of their native tongue. One day I'd hear, “Have you been practicing your Hungarian? HOW long have you been here? Let's hear what you can say, mm?” The same afternoon I'd get, “What in the world are you learning Hungarian for? It's a completely useless language! Stick to English. Take up French.”

Their patriotism, though sincere, contained some profound insecurities, or deep-seated doubts. I can relate. And I seem to have similar voices in my own head when it comes to what to do about political engagement three and a half years after the dawn of motherhood. One day the voices say “HOW old is your kiddo? Let's see what you can get out there and do to turn this place around for him, mm?” And a few hours on they croon, “What in the world are you thinking about political action for? It's useless to bang your head against the wall. You're busy; you're tired; you're doing all you can. Stick to day to day interaction with your son. That's where change begins. Introduce him to the world slowly. Take up French.”

I just don't know what to do. Read the paper or Dr Seuss. Volunteer for phone banking or discuss what brown spiders might eat for the better half of an afternoon.

I just don't want any bastards taking over our government again. When I look out my window, I want to feel like I have some say here, some control over how things go and how they got to be that way. I want to look out and think that's “aaaaaaaaaall our country.”


It's closing in. November.

I often wonder if I am doing enough in my own world to change the political scene... A separate entry to follow on that, but in the meantime, here's a poem I wrote based on our experience at the start of the Iraq war. In the aftermath of dejection that followed the elation of the San Franciso peace march, we fled to Amsterdam for a week. The poem is modeled after a Ruth Fainlight poem. Her poem below too.

Amsterdam Bar, March 2003
(after Ruth Fainlight's “Handbag”)

The Amsterdam bar, dark at noon
crowded with people from anywhere
some, like us, trying to escape
the news of war. The smell of the bar: wood
and smoke and something like electricity.
Elbows leaning, fleshy buttocks edged
to the seam of high stools, all of them
doing their best to push aside
the loneliness of being human
at the start of the twenty-first century.
The looks on the faces of those others,
alight, then fallen, then hopeful,
read, and refolded so often.
Faces I see every day and will never
see again; the flash of CNN on the TV
monitors over our heads, we had to strain
to look, our necks in knots. Odor
of long wood burnished to a glossy finish,
gin and smoke, which ever
since then has meant strangers,
and love, and anguish, and war.

Handbag by Ruth Fainlight

My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and liptsick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened,
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

mealtime manners

Isaac, it is safe to say, is a sensitive child. There are a growing number of books I cannot read him due to the fact that someone gets somehow lost for a sentence, or, god forbid a page or two, someone's mother is injured, angry or absent, or really any other conflict you can mention in which a misunderstanding causes characters to go through some brief turmoil. The end holds no sway over the means. Happy endings don't count for jack with my kid if along the way the wolf looked a tad cross-eyed at the pig. Pulling a book off the shelf at the library to read sight unseen can be disastrous.

Despite this kind of tender heart, he has never been fazed by the idea of animals eating other animals. “This dinosaur eats other dinosaurs,” he announces to me proudly, holding up his newest piece of plastic. “Woarrrrrr!” Indeed.

The other day, in fact, he wanted to know for the 100 millionth time since he's learned to speak what lions eat. It was that crucial time of day – 4 p.m. on a napless afternoon. “I don't know, Isaac,” I said wearily. “Maybe you can think about it,” he offered magnanimously. “Okay, I'm thinking...zebras?” At this point, you need to know if you've missed this fact, that children are NOT “sponges” in regard to information, as everyone is so very fond of saying. They are BLACKHOLES. Nothing satisfies these creatures. They are intellectual tapeworms who glom onto your brain and don't let go.

Consequently, Isaac asks what he always asks next, “What ELSE lions eat?”

As I was sitting next to a computer that happened to be turned on, I caved to the ready answer of the 21st century and typed “lion diet” into Google. I read off the list to Isaac: “Zebra, giraffe, buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest, and impala.”

“Me wanna see pictures of lions eating.”

“No you don't.”

“Yeah, me wanna see PICTURES!!!!” (This speaking in all capital letters, while not new to the cadence of my son's speech, has recently taken on more nuance - read: Attitude.)

Reluctantly, I brought up a couple small photos.

“That a zebra?”

“It appears to be,” I tell him, peering at the thumbnail of an unfortunate striped leg in the center of a pride of lions. I glance at the picture beside that one. “Oh, look, we can add 'hyena' to our list, too, Iz.”

He leans into the computer screen at the bloodied mouth of a young cub.

“Hey! Let's do something else now!” I suggest.

Yesterday, a friend took me to lunch in Big Sur for my birthday after we picked up our respective wee ones from preschool. Driving down it was gorgeous, as always - the hills putting on a burlesque show with their wardrobes of fog until they were wearing nothing but sunshine.

“Look, Iz, look at that hawk!” The big ole wings were hovering in the blue just ahead of the car.

“Hawks eat fish?” he asks.

Brightened by this change of syntax and line of questioning, I'm refreshed, buoyant even, in answering.

“Yeah, I think so. I mean, they would. I've seen pictures of eagles with fish in their talons, so I guess hawks would eat fish too. But they aren't really fishing birds like pelicans. They also eat stuff like mice, nun-nuns (our left over baby word for your general rodent)...and rabbits...” I add a moment later.



Silence, then, “Me wike wabbits.”

I'm taken back. This hesitation is new. Flashes of hyena fur run through my mind and the mystery of what goes on behind those blue eyes in the back seat deepens. “I like rabbits too, honey. Is it hard to think about something eating them?”

“Me wike wabbits!” he repeats defiantly. “Hawks shouldn't eat wabbits. That's WUDE!”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

birthday present

My son announces that they've wrapped up my birthday books. When I rouse myself from bed on this, the morning of my 39th birthday, he hands me a package wrapped in yesterday's obituary page and tells me, "This is the book I picked out for you at the dump!" I laugh and take it from his delicate hands that have never stilled, since the day he was born they have curled and wiggled, trying to grasp this world that I forgot to wrap for him, though if I had, it would probably have been folded into the obituary page and nevermind because here he is tearing it open, my book from the dump, helping me, one of those hands trying out all of the intricacies of its digits, each of the five with its own idea, struggling to gather themselves to work for a single cause and all the while he is jumping up and down in front of me singing "It's Mama's birthday; It's Mama's birthday!" and all I can think is I really should have gotten him something better, not just this white elephant prize, orb spinning in its own excrement, all of its beautiful forests doomed, and now he's shouting "Hurry! Get it open!" and the paper tears wide and he leaps across the room, lands with his palms spread flat against the blank white wall.

Share Related Posts with Thumbnails