Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A pain that leads

It is a pain that leads,
leads to acceptance,
leads to resignation,
to exhaustion. It cannot
be soothed, not now,
perhaps forever. From
a moment of breath,
everything changes,
nothing endures, it is
all different, alien and
cold until we find
the source of light
again, until we touch
the source of light
again, until we become
light again.

This poem is submitted for Open Link Night at dVerse Poets. The links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time today.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Poetry at Work: The Poetry of the Commute

With the exception of a very few months in 2000, when I worked from home, my working career has had the daily bookends of a commute. It was as short as a mile, when I had an office in the little downtown section of our St. Louis suburb, and as long as 15 miles, when we lived in Houston and commuted from a northwest suburb to our jobs in downtown.

A commute of a mile is like a haiku, short and over before it began. A commute of 15 miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Houston was like driving Homer’s Odyssey twice a day, complete with sirens, a Cyclops, and – once – a martial dispute that ended up as a shoot-out on the freeway. And like the Odyssey, we spent so much time and effort trying to find a way – any way – home.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by Scott Meltzer via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Creativity and the Woods

My childhood home was a relatively typical post-World War II American suburb of tract houses, the only difference being that it was suburban New Orleans, and the surnames occupying the tract houses were a dizzying array of English, Irish, Italian, French, Spanish, American South and American Yankee.

The neighborhood was living proof that there was an American Baby Boom. If you weren’t part of the Boom, or didn’t have a hand in creating it, you can’t imagine what Halloween was like – hundreds and hundreds of children pouring over the streets like an animated, costumed tidal wave. Or how crowded public and parochial schools could be.

Suffice it to say there was never a problem finding a friend to play with, or assembling more than enough players for two full sandlot baseball teams or street football teams.

Behind the houses across the street from ours was a remnant of what the entire area had once been – a low-lying forest on land just high enough to avoid the name “swamp forest.” For a few years, we called it simply “The woods” – until rumors came along of an even large tract several more blocks away. Then our tract became “The Little Woods,” differentiated from “The Big Woods.” Surrounding subdivisions, some older than World War II, provided something of a civilized buffer, but both wooded areas were places of magic and mystery.

Our parents didn’t seem to mind us playing there. All of the critters had departed, with the exception of squirrels, birds, lizards and occasional snakes. Nothing terrible had ever happened there; there were no stories of ghosts or someone’s body being found. So all we had to say to our mothers was “going to the woods with the kids” and they’d nod in understanding and acquiescence.

The woods, without old stories or rumors attached them, became a blank slate for scores of imaginations. They were the setting for countless games of hide and seek, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, war, and reenacting favorite movies and television shows (“What now, Kimosabe?”). We found mysteries to solve – who left that old jacket and baseball cap? Who built that campfire? Could someone be living in our woods? If we couldn’t solve the mystery, we’d invent a story and make up our own solution.

The woods, little and big, were a place for kids to be kids, to exercise imagination and creativity, to come up with nonsense, to climb trees and pretend they were lookout posts to watch for the enemy. We’d make camouflage blinds to hide in, and set traps for enemy soldiers.

Those woods, and the creativity they afforded, were a gift.

“Creativity is a gift from God to be submitted to Him,” says Ann Kroeker in Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families. “He can use it as a powerful tool for learning, growth, and understanding. Bright, inquisitive, childlike minds are so open to God’s revelation. He gives our children the ability to think, wonder, and question.”

Both tracts of woods are long gone, converted to yet more subdivisions. It’s inevitable, I suppose.

But what a blessing it was to have had them.

Over at The High Calling, we’ve been discussing Not So Fast. Today concludes the discussion, and you can see what people have to say about the book by visiting the site.

Photograph by David Wagner via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Therefore I am (not)

Knowing, and doing
is not the same
as believing. My mind,
my will, are not the same
as my heart. Do I wipe
with my hair? Do I kiss
the feet?

I think, I act,
therefore I am.
I believe,
therefore I am

I love, I savor,
therefore I am
full, therefore I am
fulfilled, because
then I am not,

Photograph by Julie Gentry via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Saturday Good Reads: Sleepy Man Banjo Boys

It’s been a hard week at work. No, make that it’s been a hard two months. I can actually pinpoint when it started – Tuesday, February 19. It’s been non-stop, with occasional spikes of work erupting out of an already increased volume.

To break the pressure, I read poetry, the Bible, a mystery novel or two. I find a refuge over at The High Calling, and I go looking for beauty at TweetspeakPoetry.

And then I stumble on something like this, music I first heard in December 1972 when I saw the then-newly released movie Deliverance. I was a senior in college, recuperating from fairly serious surgery, and back at school during the break, to make up several incompletes in courses because of my surgery. One night, my former girlfriend called (we had broken up some time before), and she said “Let’s go see a movie, for old time’s sake.” So we did.

I got to pick the movie. There was nothing Freudian about the title. I think. But we saw it, and then had a soda afterward, and agreed that we should stay “broken up.”

But I loved the music of the movie. And I never thought that one day I would see three young brothers play it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pleasantly Disturbed Friday

It’s been a while since I posted a Pleasantly Disturbed Friday, or even had an update on my most favorite of subjects: The Grandsons!

Cameron has now turned three. A couple of weeks ago, while Janet was out of town visiting her mother, I went over to the son and daughter-in-law’s house for dinner. If I didn’t know it before, I know it now: Cameron owns his grandfather.

And then Caden, almost one, crawling, standing and climbing, watching everything with a slightly suspicious look (“Do I know you? Are you sure?”), following Cameron and his grandfather into Cameron’s bedroom – to fix the Brio toy set, play with stuffed animals, play hide and seek, whatever Cameron can come up with (and he comes up with a lot).

Caden startled his mother the other day when she found sitting on Cameron’s trampoline. And then on the fireplace hearth. It’s called batten-down-the-hatches time.

Since mid-February, work has been intense. I should write that in all capital letters. Crisis after crisis are blending together into a rather large ongoing crisis mishmash. One day I found myself tweeting about three different crises at the same time, and I had to focus to slowly check each tweet to make sure I was tweeting the right one at any given moment.

Factoid: I’ve now read 69 books on the Amazon Kindle.

The crises at work means I’m generally reading less, but I am still reading. Currently that means the World War II suspense novel Winner Lose All by William Brown; Poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge for the Tweetspeak Poetry book discussion; Not So Fast by Ann Kroeker for the High Calling book discussion; and The Grace of God by Andy Stanley for what I call the Jason-Sarah Wednesday book discussion.

Waiting patiently to be read are Lapse Americana: Poems by Benjamin Myers, which just arrived this week; Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca; and My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.

If the weather cooperates, I hope to get on the bike this weekend. Several people have asked me about my bike ride Wildlife Reports I post on Facebook after each ride. I list the numbers and kinds of wildlife I encounter while riding, in descending evolutionary order: horses, dogs, cats, birds, roller bladders, and bikers talking on their cell phones.

Factoid: Longest bike ride I’ve ever done: 93 miles, from Boonville, Missouri, to Hermann, Missouri, on the Katy Trail. Shortest bike ride I’ve ever done: three blocks from my house (my very first ride when I started biking; it was almost physical collapse).

I’m still working with my personal trainer. That means I’m still doing exercises with exotic names like cat’n’camel, bear crawl, scorpion, and dead bug. My un-favorite is the dead bug, epically when I have to put 10-pound weights on my ankles and lift a 10-pound medicine ball from my feet to my hands. And while I’m lying on the floor. They don’t call it Dead Bug for nothing.

Photographs of Cameron and Caden Young by their mother, Stephanie Young.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The boy: a story

People in White Cliff knew Sam Sanderson drove a white pickup truck, and they’d read about the restitution money the state had paid, almost $750,000 and based on a convoluted formula of what his income would have been had he not been in prison plus the going rate, not the prison rate, for the work he did at Pine Tree.

And they all knew that the lawsuits he’d filed were enough to bankrupt the county twice over. The litigation had become a gigantic black cloud over the town and the county, effectively chilling development and investment. Sam did all of his shopping in Bozeman or Billings; in fact, this appearance in her store was the first time Alice Willis had seen him up close since his return from Pine Tree, although she and many others had seen him jogging with the church pastor. The first time they’d jogged into town, jaws dropped at the sight of the slender Dennis Cannon and the more muscular Sam jogging side by side right down the state highway into the center of town and on to the track at the high school.

And there he was, sitting by himself near the store’s stove, sipping his coffee and facing the front window. She wanted to talk to him, to say she was sorry for what had happened. But she just didn’t know how to get the words out, or how to say them.

He wasn’t bad looking, she thought. But he still had that prison pallor, an almost yellowish tinge to his skin. He was average height at most, maybe 5 foot 9, and was on the stocky side, but muscular, all muscle. It was said that he’d installed a home gym in his house and did regular workouts. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, but somehow that enhanced his appearance.

Seeing him up close for the first time, Alice was both surprised and not surprised that his hair had turned completely gray. And he’s only 31. It was cut short, like a buzz.

He sat, not saying a word. The third time he looked at his watch made Alice realize why he was there. He’s waiting for the bus from Denver. The bus only stopped when there was a passenger to drop off or pick up. He’s waiting for someone or something on the bus. He doesn’t look like he’s going to Seattle. No suitcase or bag. And if he is, he better think twice about leaving that pickup of his out front.

Alice could see that he was tense. Whatever he’s waiting for, it’s making him real nervous.

They both heard the wheeze of the air brakes before they saw the bus. Sam stood up, and walked quickly outside. It was sunny but cold. Alice, unable to contain her curiosity, grabbed her coat and followed, standing a few feet away. If he asks, I’ll say I’m officially greeting the bus.

The bus stopped, and the driver walked around with the passenger Sam was waiting for. Alice nearly dropped her teeth.

It was a little boy. Dark curly hair, thin, a little on the scrawny side, dark eyes. He was holding on to a blanket that Alice could see had some kind of design on it.

Alice watched Sam and the boy stare at each other for a moment.

“I’m Rafe,” the boy said.

“Rafe, I’m Sam.”

Photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Words and Images: A Poemcrazy Collage

Over at Tweetspeak Poetry, we’ve been reading poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. The readings come with exercises. So far, I’ve made two stabs at communing with nature, one to name the plants and trees in our back yard and the other to have a conversation with a tree, but they didn’t work out so well. What worked better was to select a place of beauty or mystery and write about it.

This week, my choices for a practical exercise included listing where you need freedom in your life; seeking out children and jotting down what they say; interviewing a fellow discussion participant with questions like who were you in my dream (which sounds rather vaguely like a writing prompt for a poetry jam on Twitter); writing about the center of your childhood home; weeping in the grocery (the only thing that makes me weep in the grocery is the prices); assembling a collage of things around you; looking at what the “image angel” has placed in front of you; and making up a string of words because you like the sound of them (like “woozel” in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories; except A.A. Milne already made that up).

I decided to combine a couple (no, I did not go weep in the grocery). I looked at all of the words and images surrounding me in my office at work, and made a list.

Here are some of them: Emergency Procedures for the office; photo of a raindrop; a framed print of Stump Speaking by George Caleb Bingham; replicas of three “Lewis” chessmen found on an island off Scotland; the Gettysburg Address (framed); a replica of the Eiffel Tower made from chicken wire; a world atlas; An American Heritage Dictionary; a pen-and-pencil holder in the form of an LSU football helmet; red Arizona quartz stones two stone sculptures by Iowa artist Isabel Bloom; a Celtic cross; and pictures of grandchildren.

And books – some representative titles: 101 Things I Learned in Film School; Union of Words; Creating the Corporate Soul; Beyond Bullet Points; Writing Space; Electric Rhetoric; Lend Me Your Ears; First Break All the Rules; and Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement.

I saw the common themes almost immediately. I have surrounded myself in my office with words and memory, including books about words and even images about words.  

And while it looked simple at first glance, I wondered how I was going to distill a poem form all that – a poem that made sense. Or didn’t make sense in a sensical kind of way. I think I know what I mean.

Words and Images: Old and New

Words old and new swirl
with images old and new
surrounding my mind
old and new, words and
images of a hundred speeches
old and new, led in procession
by Lincoln at Gettysburg,
old yet still new, red rocks
old in age, new in possession,
my Lewis chessmen, old
in memory, new in replica,
dictionary and atlas new
at the end of old evolution,
a cross old and new each day,
words, always words,
surrounded with words,
always old, always new.

To see what others in the discussion are writing about, please visit Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph: My three replicas of Lewis chessmen, purchased from the British Museum, September 2012.

Grace is Downright Un-American

I’m reading Andy Stanley’s The Grace of God, and a thought keeps forcing its way into my mind,  or perhaps it’s rising from somewhere within my mind.

Stanley puts grace in its proper context, and that’s the context of creation and the fall. Without understand the place of grace in both, and especially the fall, we inevitably all into the “mean God” of the Old Testament versus the “loving God” of the New Testament trap (and it is a trap). The fall changed everything, as Stanley points out, and with it came shame, impaired judgment, pain, sin – and our tendency to blame God for our troubles..

The thought that keeps recurring is how un-American this all is.

“In American culture,” Stanley writes, “we’ve substituted the term mistake for the terms wrong and sin. We aren’t sinners; we are really just mistakers…A mistake is something you make while balancing your checkbook. A mistake is an accident.

People who make mistakes in American public life often say they misspoke, if it is something they said. Or public figures (including celebrities and movie stars) will start a public apology with the word if: “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry.”

Any apology that begins with the word if is not an apology. That two-letter word is a statement: “I’m saying this because my press agent says I have to, but I didn’t really do anything wrong.”

We Americans have this philosophy. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We work hard and get ahead. We are special, and we are exceptional.

You can see where sin and wrong fit into that philosophy. They don’t. And if they don’t, then the concept of grace doesn’t either.

We Americans don’t get things unless we deserve them. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. We work hard and do right and by golly we’re going to do well and get to heaven one day.

It’s easy for Christians to conflate Christianity and patriotism. Evangelicals, rightly and wrongly, became famous for it in the last two decades.

This idea of grace – that we receive something simply because of the generous outpouring of God – is not an American idea, although our history is chock full of examples of it. It is a Biblical idea, and has been with us since creation.

And all we have to do is receive it.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading The Grace of God. To see more posts on chapter 1, “In the beginning, grace,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.  

Photograph by Julie Gentry via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Poetry at Work: The Poetry of the Organization Chart

I’m likely to date myself here, but when I first worked for a large organization, one of the most important documents one could be given was the organization chart.

The chart made sense of the organization, in this case a large corporation. It demonstrated order, logic, rationality, and control. It provided a compass or map, allowing an employee to navigate the organizational terrain. And it also showed you where you belonged; your box on the chart, and how your group’s chart rolled up the larger chart, signified your place and how you were part of a much larger whole.

How the boxes were positioned on the chart was also important. The higher the box, the higher or more important you were in the organization. A chart, done properly, let everyone in the team group, division and organization know who fell where. Similar titles could be differentiated by slight differences on the chart (some of this was rather, bizarre, I know). The chart was the physical manifestation of the political pecking order.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Traditions: More than Holidays

From the time I was six or seven until well into high school, my family’s home was where most of my mother’s family gathered for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. It wasn’t that we had the largest house to accommodate assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, girlfriends and my grandmother. But our house had the largest space available for the tables – a large screened porch which was eventually enclosed to become a den. (Even in New Orleans, Christmas could be on the cool side.)

For a time, one very long table was sufficient to handle the family. Then a card table was added to handle the growing children. And then another. Eventually, two long tables were needed.

My parents prepared most of the food, and I think this was the cause of the demise of the gatherings. As they got older, it became too much work, and the gatherings had ended by the time I had graduated from high school.

But, for the child that was me, the gatherings were great fun and eagerly anticipated – noise, laughter, the occasional argument, the food and desserts, playing with my cousins. It was a tradition even before I knew what that meant. (A related one was the gathering of family and friends at my father’s business in downtown New Orleans on Mardi Gras day – a place to escape the crowds and find a bathroom.)

We grew up; the family scattered in various places around the South; one of us moved way up north to St. Louis. The tradition of the big gatherings at holiday times fractured into small fathers celebrating with themselves.

For a time, my wife and I spent long hours in the car, going back and forth to Shreveport or New Orleans for holidays, until we decided we had to have our own traditions for our two boys.

One tradition started in December, 1985: the baking of the Christmas bread. A local grocery store had a monthly magazine about food and recipes, and that year had a recipe for Christmas Wreath Bread. I was in the bread-baking habit back then, and so I decided to make it. It was a hit with the family – most likely because of the filling: chopped cranberries, pecans, butter, sugar, and spices, which any of us would be glad to eat straight without the bread.

I’ve made the bread every Christmas since then, with the exception of 2006, when we spent the holiday with my oldest son in Phoenix (and met the future daughter-in-law). But 27 years and only one excused miss counts as a tradition, I think.

In Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families, Ann Kroeker argues for the observance of family traditions, and more than traditions at only the major holidays. Traditions like family board game night, or the birthday honoree getting to choose the menu for all meals for the day, or annual vacations with family to the same place. These are the things that not only glue families together; these are the things which come to express the meaning of family.

Consider your family when you were growing up, and your family now. What traditions can you remember, and what traditions are important?

Over at The HighCalling during April, we’re discussing Not So Fast. To see where this week’s discussion is, and what others are posting about, please visit The HighCalling.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday in the Quarter

The bacchanals of the night before
consigned to memory, someone else’s,
and it is sufficient to walk the streets
from Canal to Esplanade,
from Rampart to Decatur,
imagining, as I do, if I might meet
Faulkner as he leaves his apartment
on Pirate’s Alley, or Dreiser emerging
from a nearby alleyway, or Tennessee
with eyes older than his years walking
to his place on Dumaine. Perhaps
I should let some grizzled artist pay me
ten dollars to draw my picture, or sit
with the lady at the card table
with her Tarot cards as people stream
from the 11 a.m. mass at the cathedral.
Instead, it is sufficient to walk the streets
from Decatur to Rampart,
from Esplanade to Canal,
and catch the streetcar for home.

Photograph taken by Janet Young, October 2010.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

City of Exile

You listen to a sermon, you take a few notes, and then you begin to see something else. In this case, a poem. That’s the origin of a poem I recently wrote entitled “City of Exile,” and it’s featured today for National Poetry Month over at Robbie Pruitt’s place.

I “met” Robbie through The High Calling, and I’ve enjoyed his poetry and his prose posts. And it’s a blessing for me to be featured on his blog. Please visit and let us both know what you think.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday Good Reads: The School of the Transfer of Energy

A few miles southeast of Wichita, Kansas, lies the town of Rose Hill, and it is there you will find The School of the Transfer of Energy. The “head” of the school is a painter, carpenter, printmaker, sculptor, farmer named Jack Baumgartner. Oh, he’s a puppeteer, too.

I can’t remember how I happened upon his web site, but one day I landed there, and found it to be a remarkable place indeed. He describes it as a studio-workshop-farm, and it is all of these but something more, too.

Part of the wonder is how he documents what he’s doing – primarily by photography. The photographs themselves – working at red cedar, drawing, sawing, details of prints – are works of art in themselves. They remind me of the mystery, or almost-mystery that you find in Ann Voskamp’s photos at A Holy Experience. Or is it wonder?

Baumgartner creates objects of art large, small and in-between. He creates furniture and wooden sculpture, decorative items using a deer skull, carved goblets and plates. And the prints, oh, yes, the prints, things of beauty and intrigue, pulling you in to study them closely to see all of what’s there – and you keep finding new things.

Pay Jack a visit, and see some of the beauty that’s there. Be forewarned – you can spend a lot of time in The School of the Transfer of Energy.

Illustration: the Archway by Jack Baumgartner (detail).

Friday, April 19, 2013

It’s just a song

I’m listening to a Michael W. Smith CD Wonder, and the last song is “Take Me Over.” Most of it is like a contemporary worship song, until the 3:15 mark or so, and it moves into something almost classical, a building and swelling theme that peaks and then subsides, followed by a final chorus.

I play the song again, keying on that section again. And again.

I listen to the music, and images begin to form. The more I listen to the song, the clearer the images become. And then at some point, usually days later, the story begins to emerge.

Two people, a man and a woman. They’re young. She’s walking with her mother on the lawn behind a large house (similar to what’s pictured above, but not as big). He comes down the steps from the house. He’s limping, and using a cane. He begins a running hobble toward the two women on the lawn. The older woman puts her hand on the younger woman’s arm. The young woman sees the hobbling figure. She begins to walk fast, and then breaks into a run towards the young man.

That’s the central image, framed by the music. I begin to build out from there. How did they meet? At the theater. She was on stage, in a play. There’s something slightly scandalous at the idea of her being in a play. He’s not limping when they first meet, so where does the limp come from? And who is he? He’s in a kind of exile, something of a black sheep. Why? He gave a speech, telling the truth.

Still, where does the limp come from? I play the song again, and the answer becomes clearer. An explosion. On a road. He’s in a jeep with three others, sitting in the back. No one realizes the road is mined. The jeep hits a land mine and is capsized in the explosion. Stories filter back, but communications are difficult – all phone and internet service has been taken down, and most cellular towers disabled.

For three months, they will not be able to communicate with each other. She will hear rumors but nothing can be confirmed. She’s in London, out of harm’s way. And where is he? I listen to two more songs on Wonder, and then return to “Take Me Over.” And the rest of the story falls into place.

I didn’t expect this when I listened to the CD. In fact, “Take Me Over” was not my favorite song (it still isn't; there's another one I like more). I’d often finish listening to the song before it and switch to something else. Until the day I let the CD play through, and found that wonderful two minutes of music.

My novels Dancing Priest and A Light Shining originated in a song, heard on an in-flight program while I was flying to San Francisco. I worked the story in my head for three years before I began to write it down. I’m still working this story in my head, and I know who the characters are but I’m not ready to write the story down. Not just yet.

I play the song again, and listen.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wendy Guerra’s “Everyone Leaves”

How does art survive a hostile social and political environment? Can it survive? How does an artist flourish, or even muddle through, when the inspiration and sources for one’s art gradually leave, one after another, eventually leaving the artist alone?

These are the questions behind Everyone Leaves, Cuban writer Wendy Guerra’s semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, translated by Achy Obejas. It tells the story of Nieve (“Snow”) Guerra, who watches her family and those of her friends fracture and fall apart under the weight of a deadening communist regime. Most eventually leave the country for Miami or Europe (everyone leaves, she keeps reminding herself); some “leave” or disappear within the country.

Nieve is an artist who gradually stops painting. She is also a survivor, due in no small part to the diary she begins to keep as a young child and maintains through adolescence and into young adulthood. The journal entries, in fact, are the structure of the book, beginning as brief if pointed and intelligent observations and continuing as longer entries as Nieve grows older. And there are gaps, which we can fill based on what we know and what we will know.

Through her diary, we follow Nieve from the small city of Cienfuegos to the mountains and finally to Havana. We watch her experience her parents’ separation, their custody battle over her, her life with a brutal, alcoholic father, and finally a reunion with her mother. We see her grow as a young artist, and we watch as she continues to behave very much the independent in a society that demands conformity and acquiescence. We observe her friends gradually leave, and her acceptance of her isolation.

The diaries are important. It is through her written (if hidden from others) words that Nieve finds personal survival, the only place she can be herself. She understands the dangers, but the worse danger will be not writing at all.

“”Because of what I write,” she says, “I hide my Diaries in the loft at home, under the boards. The humidity destroys them, but I copy over the letters with blue ink and I don’t write everyday in the new notebooks so they’ll last a while…My Diary is a luxury; it’s my medicine, what keeps me standing. Without it, I wouldn’t live to see twenty. I’m it, it’s me. We’re both wary.”

The words are stark and spare, heightening Nieve’s description of isolation and abandonment. There is much she comes to accept, only because she can live in the words of her diary. Everyone Leaves is a moving and often disturbing book, written with a sense of detachment, the detachment one needs to survive in a society that flattens individual expression.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Back to Nature?

Our back and side yards look fairly typical for suburban St. Louis. Our lot is about one fourth of an acre, and the house and driveway take up a good chunk of that. But the yard is manageable, and we have flower beds, trees, plants – what you’d expect. Well, almost. We do have a lot of plants. The trees are mostly in the backyard, along the fence – an ornamental cherry, hollies, river birches, and two magnolias.

On Sunday, I wandered outside ostensibly to pick up small branches after a recent storm, pull up grass growing where it’s not supposed to, picking up leaves and the long brown pods from that wretched catalpa tree across the street that sends every loose pod straight into out yard. I say “ostensibly,” because I had a secret mission.

I was really there to commune with nature, and do the field work for this week’s assignment from Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s poemcrazy: freeing your life with words. (Yes, the title is supposed to be in lower case; the author has an e.e. cummings fetish.) We’ve been discussing poemcrazy this month over at Tweetspeak Poetry, and I’ve already learned to be wary to some of the assignments, like giving names to your plants.

Outside, I first look to see if any of the adjacent neighbors are in their yards. They aren’t; everything is quiet. I’m careful because of what the assignment is: I’m supposed to find a tree and start talking with it, using the familiar “thou” instead of you. Of course, had I been completely diligent in the first assignment, I would have given the trees their own names, and wouldn’t have to worry about “you” and “thou.”

Goldsmith suggests an oak tree, but we had two of them cut down. There’s one on the neighbor’s property that still isn’t speaking to me several years after we had its sisters cut down and hauled away. But the electric company had already butchered them because they grew through the wires (and the street department required the trees to be planted there in the first place).

So I finally decided on one of the magnolias. I’m supposed to tap its wisdom, asking questions like, “Tree, what can thou tell me about roots and leaves?” I’m supposed to wait and listen how thou responds.

I could be here a long time.

So I have my yard waste bag and will do a little weeding, cleaning and general sprucing up while Maggie (the magnolia) comes up with an answer.

Except she’s not in a particularly talkative mood. To be honest, I can’t say she’s ever been in a talkative mood. Maggie is more the strong, stoic type, and she’s not known for being much of a conversationalist. But Susan Wooldridge says she will eventually answer.

I keep up the conversation my end, asking her about a few new branches I see, telling her how pretty her flowers are, removing small river birch branches from Maggie’s branches. I’m chattering away, as difficult as that is (ask my wife how much of a chatterer I am), when I think I hear her respond.

“Hey, Young, whatcha doing?”

I shudder. No, it’s not Maggie. It’s my neighbor.

“I’m talking with Maggie,” I say.

“Maggie?” He asks, looking around.

“The magnolia,” I say, pointing to her. “I’m asking her to tell me something about her leaves and roots.”

My neighbor stares for a moment, then finally speaks.

“Weren’t you talking with a dandelion a couple of weeks back? You named her Irma?”

I nod, with a sinking feeling that this is not going to end well.

“Is work getting to you? Maybe you should go in and lie down.”

No, this isn’t going to end well.

“I’m doing an assignment,” I say. “I’m supposed to talk with a tree, and listen to what it tells me.”

My neighbor makes a gurgling noise as he turns red and his shoulders begin to shake.

No, this is not going to end well.

We’re discussing poemcrazy over at Tweetspeak Poetry. Visit the site to find out if anyone else has been talking with trees.