An Unsilent Knight

The first snowfall of the season settles over the ground in the late November twilight. I stand at the window, dancing with the snowflakes and thinking about my mother, all those years ago pregnant with me, her due date passing as she, too, gazed out the window, wondering where my father was, if he still lived. World War II had ended, but danger continued to stalk the globe. Around her family’s store/home, winter promised to call, as it does today, and I, restless, waited until the third of December to venture into the storm.

It is impossible to escape the ubiquitous seasonal music, the barrage of advertisements urging us to spend, spend, spend, yet more important concerns intrude. At our borders, we witness the relentless assault on every value we pretend to espouse. Women and children are driven away from asylum, tear-gassed, vilified. In a season dedicated to peace, among people paying lip-service to a Savior, hate abounds.

History provides no solace, Through the ages, mankind has seen fit to use religion as a battering ram. Regardless of sect or creed, every doctrine has a story of destruction in its DNA. Tolerance dies when one group seeks to impose its beliefs on the ‘others.’ But somewhere, faint and far-off, a single voice whispers a silent night. Somewhere holiness takes root. One hand stretches toward another and we lift up our voices in chorus. The knights of harmony refuse to remain silent.

Will goodness and light ever triumph, or are we doomed to repeat again the deadly cycles? I believe it is only in remaining mute that evil wins. Each of us must walk a path of our own choosing. No one path serves all men and women, but there are signposts to guide us. Each great religion offers a roadmap, a way to be true to the best of our nature. You are free to select yours. I have made my choice — not to stand silent in the face of so much wrongness. That is the harness I will wear as 2018 fades to black and 2019 takes the stage. I will be an insolent knight, tilting those windmills and working for change. So, this holiday season — and it is a season as more than twenty-five individual holidays occur around the world during this six-week period, may you add your voice to those advocating reason and hope.

Although Dylan Thomas wrote his beautiful poem to his dying father, I often hear the refrain as a call to arms in every instance where reason and goodness are under attack. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Holidays! May you walk in light, lift your voice in the service of what is right, and be the change you want to see in the world.

Swimming Upstream

This is the time of year for it…the time when salmon, who spend their early lives in rivers before heading out to sea, return to those same rivers to spawn. Fueled by their ocean feedings, they are fortified for the arduous journey back to their birthplace to begin the cycle all over again. Driven by instinct, clear on where they belong, the fish fight currents, leap obstacles, evade bear claws and anglers as they stretch toward the goal. The marathon touches anyone lucky enough to observe it. There is such grace and strength in the run. Each salmon knows its purpose. Instinct compels them on. If you interviewed a sentient example of the species, asked it why it perseveres, I’m pretty sure the answer would be “because I have to.” The impulse hidden in the genetic makeup refuses to be ignored.

I think writers, indeed all artists, are the salmon equivalent of homo sapiens. We are driven to produce our art. Fueled by a desire often difficult to express, we endure long solo sessions typing or hand writing, pushing past the censor that shouts, ‘you’re no good’ or ‘you can’t write that.’ The interior command to ‘do it’ doesn’t come from a tennis shoe ad.Rather, like the salmon, the instructions are buried in our DNA. Ask a writer why she pursues this lonely, at times agonizing, at times subversive task, and the answer matches the salmon’s response: Because I have to.

The fall migration period of salmon roughly corresponds to the autumn calendar. From September through November, the rivers teem with fish determined to reach the headwaters, to grab the prize each seeks – the continuation of the species. For writers, the prize frequently equals publication. Nothing like seeing your work in print. Better yet, receiving payment for all those hours spent crafting a poem, an essay, a story worthy of replication in a journal, magazine, or book. But with NaNoWriMo, the annual write-a-fifty-thousand-word-novel in a month challenge, in full swing, other goals arise. The writer tests herself against the word count. Accepts the dare to finish or revise. Hopes for the chance to read in front of an audience. And more important for me, as a writer, I hope for the validation of my  peers, to be considered a good/great writer. In the end, through my words, I desire to touch a reader, to evoke emotion, to make him/her think more deeply about what it is to be human.

So here I am, sitting at my computer, banging out a blog post, thinking about a manuscript, outlining a new non-fiction piece. Sometimes I lose sight of the end game. Sometimes I tire of the rocky uphill climbs, listen to the boo bird on my shoulder. Once in a while I crash against the boulders of rejection. On occasion, the bear catches me. Still, as always, I insist on returning to the river where my ideas spawn, grateful for the chance to create again.

Happy Thanksgiving, writers and readers! I am grateful for your presence in my life.

Family Matters…

When we set off in early June on our Mediterranean adventure, I had plans to write about the sailing ship, the ports of call, the new experiences. But when we returned, I found myself once more embroiled in elder care issues. My mother, still the life of the party wherever she goes, has slipped deeper into the hallucinatory dementia that has made inroads in her always-fertile imagination. One day back from the trip, I got back on the road and made the drive to Pennsylvania to deal with the need for more care.

As the oldest of seven children, my role has always been well-defined and set in blood. I am expected to make things happen. While the family dynamic revolves around discussion, a tactic my father encouraged and enabled, this does not always lead to resolution. Thus, I bring the hammer, corralling the varied opinions into cohesive action. My resolutions are not always greeted with cheers. Despite the disagreements, need outweighs dithering. ‘Git ‘er done’ is not just a southern rallying cry. It is also the basis for our family matters.

Case in point: When Mom decided she could no longer take care of the large house on Euclid Avenue in Sharon, the process stuttered along until I showed up with phone numbers of electricians, plumbers, and realtors. Five days later the repairs were mostly done and the house listed for sale. To be fair, several of my brothers helped out as much as they could with moving, but the impetus to make it happen came from me. I have accepted this role, settled in to the inevitable second-guessing that occurs after the fact. Like Caesar, I show up, I see what has to be done, and then I do it.

But at some point, I need to return to my life, to those chores and passions that lie on my path. I refuse to feel guilty about this. One does her best, than moves on. I do worry about the brother who has taken on the bulk of my mother’s care. With several siblings unwilling or unable to lend a hand, he bears the burden and the stress. While others may walk away, he has chosen not to do so.

Family matters. Despite the challenges, I continue to love, to care for and about, to worry over, and to encourage. The matters that arose as we grew out of that nuclear home and into the wider world complicate our attempts to provide for the mother who bore us. What bothers me most is how, as Yeats predicted, the center does not hold. No amount of love can offset the pull of illness, economics, distance, personality. Of course, for a writer, this is the stuff and substance of plot, theme, and character development. But it makes for some uneasy family gatherings.

My mother once told me a story about her childhood with the admonition, accompanied by serious finger pointing, that I couldn’t write about it until she passed. Well, at age 94, she is close to the end stage of this worldly journey. Hallucinations rule her mind, providing endless fodder for head-shaking and laughter. She is, she informs us one day, in love again…with a Scotsman. The next day he is displaced by a handsome Hungarian living in Poland. Her birth family members all turn into eight-inch fairies who boarded a plane and flew away. There are moths living in her mouth. The tales, as real to her as they are not to us, fascinate, but they also make us despair. Try as we might, we cannot return her to reality. Nor can we abandon her to the encroaching darkness. So, we argue, wring our hands, discuss ad nauseam the options ahead. And we pray…for guidance, for inspiration, for courage. When it comes to all these difficult times, family matters.

A Discourse On Loss

“No man is an island.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

As 2017 closes out its run, I struggle through the immensity of unmooring that the year has brought.  My bubble life of structure and belief in the common decency of man has suffered a knock-out punch. As a child of the sixties, I am no stranger to turmoil. However, the bouts of political insanity that rock the country strain my belief that goodness will triumph. A minority should never determine the course of the ship of state, yet this is exactly what has occurred. The loudest voice, the vilest attacks, have set adrift the progress of our nation. I am no quitter, but I despair. Even the best of fighters hangs up the gloves eventually. That sick feeling in my stomach caused by tremors beneath the bedrock of our democracy lingers. Despite the efforts to raise my voice  – the phone calls made, the petitions signed, the marches joined – those in power are not listening. I am not an island. Connected by history and inclination to the best that we can be, I mourn for us.

“Grief is a plastic surgeon.” Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

This old year passing has brought personal loss that I did not anticipated. Two dear friends and kindred souls passed away in the fall within a month of each other. The grief rises with me each day, rides my shoulder as I clean and bake and pray. It does, as Alexie suggests, carve new patterns in the grain of life. What once was treasured together-time has morphed into pictures in an album and memories already slipping through time’s erosive hand. Although I did not take for granted the road trips, critique sessions and working lunches, I see now how fleeting those moments were.

“Sorrow floats.”  John  Irving, Hotel New Hampshire

The last twelve months have required more patience than I ever imagined I had. My mother-in-law, 96 on the cusp of 97, and my mother, 94 this coming March, suffer the ravages of physical and mental ailments. I juggle visits to the nursing home with power-of-attorney requirements and long-distance discussions with trips to the emergency room. Each day brings a new challenge, not the least of which is the knowledge and expectation that this, too, shall pass as they do. Grief isn’t finished with me yet.

I know I am not alone. The world suffers. Death visits us all. How do we find strength, hope, and grace amid the emotional debris? One source for me is books. Reading the words of others who have entered this arena gives me courage. Recognizing the vast sweep of human emotion assists in placing my own grief in perspective. Although my post this month is grim, the promise of peace rises, like Picasso’s flower in the painting “Guernica,” from the wounded heart.

A child laughs. A woman decides to run for office…and wins. The dough rises in the pan, spreading the yeasty smell of home and hearth and hospitality. Words cover the page, sometimes in abundance, but more often in quiet runs.

A new year walks beside me, buoyant and full of expectation. I must make it count.

A December Manifesto: 2017

One.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

As a human being, as a citizen, as a child of the Creator, I must use that voice to speak out for good.

Evil cannot be ignored or excused.

Not for political gain. Not for corporate greed. Not out of apathy.

In this season of peace, when all religions share hope, I must nourish the flame of that hope.

More alike than we are different,  a cut bleeds red on all our skins.

A light illuminates the deepest shadow.

If I shine my light, I illuminate a circle in the dark.

Two.

If you join me…

Two together  can enlarge the circle.

Two together can dispel those shadows.

Ghandi said be the change you wish to see in the world.

Martin Luther King called us to lift every voice to the mountaintop.

Change I must be. No excuse to pass the torch, to wait for another to do the work.

I am only one. If you hold my hand, we become two, then four, then ten and a thousand.

If I carry my candle to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to stand in silent vigil, will you join me?

No protests. No violence. Only silence and light and a voice raised in thanks and blessing, in concern and caring.

We will sing together. We will carry all our children on our shoulders and in our hearts.

Together, we will brave the perils of the journey.

Each of us is one, but merged we become a force for change.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

Stand with me. You, too, are only one, with a voice that can move the world.

Let us raise those voices together.

Allelujah…

October…a prose poem in three stanzas

If April is ‘the cruelest month,’ October is the most seductive. I am thrice bitten…by the whisper and crunch of fallen leaves, the distant call of migrating geese, the yawning fields and garden beds settling into slumber. October crooks a finger and I lean into the wind, eager to grow hobbit feet and slip off among the trees, to follow streams and trails, to sleuth the beauty hiding beyond the next turn. The seasonal sights of orange lanterns strung beneath black spiderwebs, the excited squeals of children anticipating the candy feast to come, the pop-up costume stores enticing me to become someone else, if only for one night — all underwrite  the ancient appeal of the mystical and the magical. So, yes, I am seduced by the round-eyed, plump, hip-swishing month of October.

My writing revels in the same roly-poly autumnal slide. Each manuscript exudes an Octoberish magic. After much planting and weeding and harvesting, the stories I have incubated over the summer now breathe on their own. I am Victor Frankenstein strapping the monster to a table, primed for the lightning. I am Dracula outside the window waiting for an invitation to crawl into the story. These characters, once only shadow, now appear fleshed out and sassy. I am the Wolfman howling under a fat Octoberine moon as my plot runs before me. My stories, crafted from musing and imagination, insist on breaking free, following their own unexpected course. I am my own childhood self, ringing doorbells, shouting trick or treat, anticipating the unexpected as it pops out from page, daring me to stand firm.

Among the last of the wildflowers, bushy heights of Michaelmas daisies, I lift my face to the breeze, inhale the wood tang from the fire pit and let the harvest chant of dying crickets settle on my shoulders. October sends an embrace, a love letter written in clear, star-stressed skies and coyote howls echoing from the wood. Indoors, in the author’s den, worlds brim with chaos and anarchy, but I wield the final penstroke. I get the last word, laugh the last laugh, can be the Poe or Shelley of my October days. Write on, the ghost of summer whispers, and fall holds its breath.

Saving Space For Sorrow…

When I’m immersed in a plot, one of my favorite lines to ponder is a quote from a John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, I believe: “Sorrow floats.” Of course, in the novel, Sorrow is a stuffed dog, but in my experience, personal now as well as professional, sorrow is that emotion that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, scares the shit out of you and then begs for attention. There isn’t a doggy treat in the world that will satisfy the chap.

I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of books this summer: dystopian, paranormal, fantasy, literary, non-fiction. The one thing they all have in common is an inordinate amount of inexpressible sorrow. Art imitating life. And, reading the news from around the world,  that truth continues to batter into us. Many mornings I wake up with a fair amount of  dysfunctional anxiety, courtesy of our current government and society in general. No wonder old-timers refer, with profound sadness, to the “good old days.”  Maybe they weren’t so good, but they didn’t seem to harbor the precise amount of terror that we face today. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking and faulty memory.

See, sorrow is that visitor who usually arrives unannounced, although there are times when we can anticipate that arrival. Which is worse? The sorrow you see coming or the one that blindsides you? Is there any way to prepare for that crush of loss, that unfair tumble into the dark side? If you could tell the future, would you really want to know?

Where am I going with all of this? Well, my two current manuscripts both deal with sorrow in different ways, so I suppose this is a plea for a philosophical outburst of comprehension and acceptance. We anticipate joy, plan for pain, pursue happiness, accept suffering. But we put sorrow in a box and stuff it under a cushion, unaware of its longevity, oblivious to its nuanced intrusion into our lives. If we set aside a space and a place for it, would we deal better with the aftereffects?