Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Sorrow

A few months ago, I received from a mentor the advice to keep my opinions to myself for a while. It has been an interesting excercise at which I often fail.

Back in those innocent days of 2011, when we here in Madison thought that the sheer numbers of us showing our objection to the new regime in Wisconsin, when we thought our thoughtful protest, our seriousness, our dedication to our understanding of American idealism would win the day, I shared my opinions a lot. Today, I'm off most social media and mostly share poems and vacation pics.

Which is not to say that I am hopeless and unengaged.  Still, at times, there is great sorrow. And then, a precious friend will send you a Langston Hughes poem that makes all the difference.

ISLAND

Wave of sorrow,
Do not drown me now:
I see the island 
Still ahead somehow.
I see the island
And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow,
Take me there.

--Langston Hughes 


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Leaving the Cocoon

I started my morning reading Christine Blasey Ford's published statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like virtually all the women I know, I have been watching this story unfold because it feels personal to me, perhaps to all of us. I was never assaulted in the way she was, but like virtually every woman I know, I was at times intimidated by men who had power over me, groped in seemingly innocent ways at parties or wedding receptions. Too often to count -- especially as a teenager -- I received lurid stares or creepy comments about my body or sexual awareness. Until recently, my friends and I rarely spoke of these things.

It is so hard for women to feel safe to speak their truth in public, or to even let themselves be fully themselves, fully alive out there for everyone to see. Many years ago, I was grappling with these thoughts and the associated feelings for different reasons. I wrote a poem about that and when I went back to it today, it resonated. Leaving the cocoon -- whatever that is for each of us -- is not easy.  I wish Ms. Blasey Ford courage and luck today.



BUTTERFLY

Sometimes, when sunlight is slanting at just

the right angle I glimpse a corner of my own

wing glistening viridian, trimmed

in powders of copper and gold. My breath

catches still, every time, and it

seems an eternity before my heart

settles back to its customary

rhythm.



Still clutching the tattered remains

of my covering, my sweet

warm cocoon, I shiver. In dreams it is always

so simple: knees bend ever

so slightly, the gentlest push

from the balls of my feet and then woosh—I’m hanging

on air, wings moving more softly

than whispers, a breeze doing most

of the work.



Yet sometimes the sun

is a weight on my back, the wind

like a knife on my infant

skin. Exposed to the lingering stares

of admiration and envy, classified

and labeled by size, by color

and species, I ache for the damp

smell of earth, the silky

dark quiet of home.

--RZC

Monday, August 27, 2018

More Effing Growth Experiences

Some years ago I used to regularly attend a support group for the families and friends of alcoholics and addicts. In it we were encouraged to get the attention off our sick family member or friend and put it back on ourselves. The idea was to pay attention to our own response to life's difficulties, and  to grow in our own compassion, serenity and understanding.  Every once in a while, one of the old timers of the group would talk about a difficult situation they were dealing with, referring to it as an AFGE: Another F*&#ing Growth Experience. At the time I was attending these meetings, it seemed novel to look at my difficult people and the experiences they brought as opportunities for my own personal growth. I had been used to asking "Why me?" and feeling persecuted most of the time.

So now it is many years later and the last six months have been challenging for a whole variety of reasons. The past winter was a hard one, the summer brought a signifiant birthday -- one of those numbers that gives you pause and makes you ponder your own existence -- and the constant drumbeat of political and social instability in our country, if not the world, has left me feeling at times ungrounded. In other words, I've spent months in the midsts of a rather large AFGE.

I have been preoccupied, at a standstill creatively, and sometimes unbearably sad. And yet, as I've begun to find some new stability and understanding, I see how bracing and important it has been to take another period to re-evaluate my understanding of life and what it brings. I love being a part of this world, though it sometimes tries me. God help me, I do love it so. Here is a small poem I wrote about the big birthday.


THE POET AT 65



Clouds hurry across the sky

just as they did when I was a girl, only now

I don’t lie on my back in grass

to watch them.

I have too many doctor appointments and too few

glasses of wine.

I read fiction less, news more – Jane Austen

is still the queen.

I have little ambition except to be alive to myself

and the people I love.

I find I know my husband less now

than when we were both 21, arrived new

to each other from different worlds.

The lake is my anchor. I rest my eyes in its

blue-gray-green, those ripples of silver sunlight

as if a thousand dragonflies prepare to take flight.

I am less afraid and more afraid.

I had expected to be thinner by now but I care a lot less.

I grow weary of travel and yet still want to go live

somewhere else.

I wish I might have practiced another m├ętier – farmer, rancher,

chef de cuisine; I want also to live in the woods

as a hermit.

I don’t sing enough, don’t laugh enough, don’t scream enough

into the wind.

I think more often now about death, with less anxiety

and more curiosity. I have not stopped missing

the ones I’ve lost.

I am no longer sure what to pray for.

--RZC

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Everybody's Got A Book List

An old friend from college has been recovering from knee replacement surgery this summer. Between long and rigorous bouts of PT, he seems to be sitting in the recliner with his iPad, combing hundreds of online magazines and newspapers for interesting things to send out to his friends. It is an act of friendship, even a communal instinct for him, I guess, to send out articles that he thinks will appeal to his buddies far and wide, perhaps to tickle us with pleasure, to get a reaction or start a conversation.

To me he sends the book lists.

There are the obligatory lists that extol young persons to read these "essential" books lest your education be incomplete. So many of these books, unfortunately, are better digested with more maturity and life experience under one's belt.

Some lists are irritating, like this list from GQ that seems to assume we are all burdened by feelings of obligation to read certain literary classics, and that substituting other, even more excellent though less-read books will somehow relieve us of that. I mean, if you are one of those people who still, in this age of Trump and addictive social media, reads for pleasure, why not read both?

(I refer to another piece he recently sent with this unfortunate news from the Washington Post about the continued decline in American leisure reading.)

There are book writers out there like Thu-Huong Ha at Quartzy who offer well curated lists for those of us who want really good alternatives to the lists dominated by white males. You can sign up for her newsletter filled with book thoughts and reading suggestions you won't find most places online.


My favorite book list by far comes from brilliant actress and writer Sharon Horgan of Amazon Prime's Catastrophe. Her list is a wonderfully individual and eclectic blend of fictional works, poetry and non-fiction. Which is, in my opinion, the sort of list we should all be sharing:  the books that grab us and hold us, that end up shaping the way we think or feel about some aspect of life, or the ones that give us insight into our own existence that may not necessarily derive from the established literary canon. I would never discourage anyone from reading Shakespeare or Joyce, Dante or Cervantes, Austen or the Brontes. But it does seem essential in this age of Trump and addictive social media, to read, to search out the books that truly speak to us and then to savor them.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Our Noble Failures

It has been almost exactly a year since we were last on our English walking trip to the Cotswolds. As the air warms around here and the world greens, I catch myself lost for minutes at a time in remembering particular moments, places of beauty that have stayed strong in my mind. I have many drafts of poems that attempt to describe them, and I am satisfied with only a few. I'm not sure whether it is words that fail, or that it takes longer than one would expect to fully understand the thoughts beneath the thoughts that truly tell the story of why that moment, that particular shade of green, that particular confluence of nature and history was so arresting.

I share a poem today that I am more satisfied with than not, and yet. I am fine until I get to the barley at the end. I have struggled and struggled with the particular sheen and green of new barley, the way it waved in the wind on that particular day, that the wind was light enough to move the barley but not heavy enough to disturb the bees. So, I share a poem that feels mostly right and a little bit failed, and I've arrived to the place where I'm okay with that.


IN AN ENGLISH CHURCHYARD
                        St. Mary’s, Swinbrook, Oxfordshire

I could have sat longer
among the lichened headstones
listening to the hum of bees,
watching an old woman
make her inexorable way
to an unblemished grave.
She exchanged fresh flowers
for the wilted remains
of her last visit, a practiced
slow-motion ritual washed
of pity or sorrow, and in the near
field rows of new barley waved
so lithe and green in the wind.

--RZC

Monday, April 23, 2018

Things We Should Not Write Poems About



 One of the things a writer is often reminded is to put your work in a drawer for a month or two and see how you feel about it after giving it that rest. I wrote the poem below in February, put it in a drawer, and took it out today, after reading about the young man in Nashville who murdered four more people with an AR-15.

Looking at this poem today, I can say that I still stand by its message. It is not, however, prophetic in its prognostication about winter. Wisconsin had appeared to be warming up in February and then somehow got socked with two extra weeks of cold and snow in April. 

THINGS WE SHOULD NOT WRITE POEMS ABOUT

Start with the man, the teacher arrested
at your grandson’s school for raping
a seven-year-old boy in the bathroom,
and though your grandson – himself seven
years old – seems to have escaped
these attentions, you hear his mother, your own
baby’s voice crack as she speaks of  betrayal
and self-accusation – this man’s demons
were not on her radar, so another mother’s
baby has suffered. And the very next day
seventeen children murdered at school, another
sick kid with an AR-15 who may
or may not have been on anyone’s
radar. Our senators offer their thoughts
and prayers. So many meaningless thoughts
and prayers. And somehow today, as we decide
it is time to let go of our aged and incontinent
hound, faithful companion these last
seventeen years, bright cardinals
sing out from the cedars
at the back of our yard. Sun shines, snow
melts, as if the back of winter
may finally be broken.

--RZC