She didn’t ask for much. A smile, a touch–a little love and tenderness to shift the close of a dirt and scrabble day.
First year married drifted by on a breeze of hope and expectation. There was work to be done. Hard work, but worth the blisters raised as they dug a life out of rough earth; grew the wheat to make the bread they hoped would sustain them.
Second and third years married passed in a flurry of motion building on the first. More earth to till, more grain, more sweat. An arch of eyebrow, a sigh. No babies planted, but years stretched out ahead of them. There was time yet for that.
The farm grew in acres. Middling trees marked the borders of all they owned. She made curtains from her bridal veil and hung them in the window of the room where a child would one day sleep.
Four years swept by, then five, six, seven. They bought a tractor when she wanted a crib.
The tenth year saw a drought.
It rained through much of the eleventh year. The silo was replaced.
Year fifteen a barren womb dried up and was removed. Hope shriveled to a useless thing.
The seventeenth year she set a potted plant out on the front porch and tried to put her faith in that.
Disappointment etched lines between her brows. She left the curtains hanging in the upstairs room. The lace had come all the way from France.
It would make a fine shroud–all she wished for now.
n.b. Writing prompt by Visual Verse. While my friends were dancing, I sat in a corner and came up with this. Don’t ask me why. Muses don’t have to have a reason.
I’m off on an adventure, but I’ll be back soon. You may wait in the heart of the Night-Light Forest while I’m away. It’s lovely here. If you squint your eyes, you can just make out the shadowy figures of creatures who are too shy to show themselves. They hum the same soft tune and sway to the music they make. The light show was created for them. They love the lights — O glorious light! Magnificent bursts of phosphorescence; the sky is awash with color.
If you chose to spend time here, be respectful. No hooting and hollering lest you disturb the serenity. Don’t trod on anyone’s feet. Feel free to hum along, though, once you’ve deciphered the tune. If you must snack, pick up after yourself. And if you happen to see Betsy, tell her the thing she most wants to know is skulking around here somewhere.
I’ll see you all when I return. If you’re good I may bring you a little something. Maybe chocolate, maybe not. It’s a surprise.
I start things, I don’t always finish them. At least in a timely manner. I have a lot of drafts in my WordPress folder. The way I work is, I get an idea, usually a sentence or a title, or I look at one of my photos and it spurs something. But, the two things — a few words and an image — always go together in my mind. That’s how I roll. Often I get several sentences down, maybe even a paragraph or two, before I leave it. That way I have something to pick up on when I come back.
You can imagine my confusion when I opened this draft and found the title with this particular photo and nothing else. Not one word. What does Vicodin have to do with a placid scene of two guys fishing from kayaks in a cove on Cape Cod? What WAS I thinking when I dropped this here? Anyone?
And before you ask, no I wasn’t on Vicodin when I began the piece. That was the point of the title. I do remember that. Because I had tried to have a prescription for it filled, along with an antibiotic after a grueling oral surgery last October. And an older woman who reminded me of my high school Math teacher, Mrs. Burns (a woman so terrifying that the French teacher across the hall once put a sign on his door that read: First Aid for Lethal Burns) looked at my prescriptions and then told me all the reasons why the Vicodin scrip couldn’t be filled. Something to do with changes in dosage — of the acetaminophen, not even the narcotic part of it — and my oral surgeon should have known that. No, I couldn’t just have his office call it in because it was a Class 3 drug, I would have to go back to the office, a 70-minute roundtrip drive away, and have the doctor write a new prescription. And my mouth was swollen and starting to hurt, and I was thinking, to hell with the Vicodin. Which completely makes sense now that I’ve explained it to you doesn’t it?
Except for the photograph.
Your guess is as good as mine. I welcome your suggestions.
A stupid place to put it, she says, winding into another rant
about a ceiling fan at the wrong end of the room.
She sits and twists the ring on her finger,
and wonders why she is here.
Because she used to have a house.
Now she has too much furniture,
and a life packed in cardboard boxes,
honey-combed walls wilted by
the heat of how many summers?
Moments flicker and play out
in silent testimony to what came before
this place, this stupid place.
At the window, a curtain lifts like an apparition
in a breeze too flabby to last.
She turns her head and waits for
the next riffle of wind,
for the days that gather and roll
like dust bunnies beneath her bed,
while she sits and twists the ring on her finger
and her mind meanders in a space
too narrow for contentment,
a labyrinth of thoughts
that twists and turns upon itself
crossing the same trail, the same words,
A stupid place to put it, she says. I don’t know why I’m here.
~~ Mary Pierce, 1995
The woman in the photo is my grandmother, Pearl Crawford Pierce. She was seventy when the photo was taken, her hair color still hers and not from a box. She cut her hair herself. My grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years by then. In those years, she had learned to drive a car and shop for herself, two things that my grandfather had always done. She also got a job at the local paper mill, worked for a while, retired, and found a sense of satisfaction selling Avon products because it got her out of her house. She had style and a snazzy Mustang by then.
A few years after this photo was taken she was mugged on her own front porch. She stopped selling Avon and was reluctant to go outside. A couple of years after that, in one of the infrequent times she did leave her house, her car skidded on an icy road and she hit a bank. The kind you keep your money in. She broke her jaw and her hip and cracked some ribs. Eventually, she healed. Physically.
By the time I wrote the poem, she had given up her house to a daughter and moved to a small one-bedroom apartment in a subsidized development. Her short-term memory had moved somewhere else. It clearly was no longer residing with her. I wrote the poem after a visit. That year I made many visits, driving from my home in Rhode Island to her stupid place in northern New York with a six-year-old in tow, trying desperately to find a way to keep her in her apartment and out of a nursing home. Physically, in spite of her run-in with the bank, she was strong and relatively healthy, the one glitch being that she had developed high enough blood pressure to necessitate her taking daily medication. Which, of course, she could never remember to do.
Twenty years and five months after the photo was taken Gram died in a nursing home after she fell out of bed in the middle of the night. Had she known what was happening, she would have laughed at what a ridiculous way to go that was. A few years before that, on one of my visits, she asked me to take her to the area she had been born. We ended up at the cemetery where her parents and her baby brother, Rosco were all buried. It was one of those lovely large cemeteries with mature trees and undulating hills, a place with a good view, she said. We didn’t make it to the Crawford family plot because in our traipsing about, she lost her balance on the spongy ground and rolled down a hill before I could grab her. When I caught up to her, she was unhurt and doubled over in laughter. “Well, if I died here, at least I wouldn’t have far to go,” she managed to choke out. And we both laughed like hell because the whole thing was hilarious, and what else was there to do? Life is hard. Sometimes, we end up in a stupid place.
I chart my grandmother’s journey in words and pictures because that is the best way I know to remember who she was. To me, at any rate. Others may remember someone else. Despite the poem, despite the place she ultimately found herself in, it wasn’t the whole story. I knew her as a woman of passion, of strength and the courage to guide me past a bear. (Yes, a real bear. A story for another time.) But, she was also something more. Scroll back up to that photo and you’ll see what I mean. It’s there in her eyes. Those are the eyes of someone who has always known how to dream. An asset, because dreams will get you where you need to go.
The two women on the left thought a small retreat for writers of Kid Lit would be a good idea. Laurie Smith Murphy in the foreground, and just behind her, Linda Crotta Brennan. We owe them BIG TIME for their genius.
You see those people talking? The woman laughing? The lamp-lit snow in the window behind her? Dim light and intimacy in a rustic setting; words shared in the middle of nowhere. This was opening night at the SCBWI Whispering Pines Writer’s Retreat last weekend, and I was there.
I have been lucky enough to have attended this event for thirteen years, the last four of which I had a hand in running with the amazing Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Five years ago I wrote here about the anticipation I felt beforehand. This year was even more special. It was both the 20th Anniversary of the retreat, and my last as acting Co-Director. There were more attendees than ever before, more mentors (three editors: Sylvie Frank, Kendra Levin, and Mallory Kass; three agents: John Cusick, Erin Murphy, Ammi-Joan Paquette), more words. More fun.
I wish though, I would have taken more photos. Talked to more people than I did. I wish it would not have gone by in such a blur — good things always happen that way. And, yet, when words abound and fill the space you occupy, when ideas flit like birds, some will linger long enough to feel true.
These were some of the words that spoke the loudest truth for me:
I will wear a vest (more likely a sweater) of invisibility when I leave my room momentarily so that my husband knows not to talk to me. I’m not actually in the kitchen pouring tea or water in my cup, I’m still at my desk. I’m still writing. He will know that my head is filled with all the words that fit. It cannot handle more at that time.
I will call my inner critic Velveeta. Because how can you listen to, or believe in a critic with a cheesy name like that?
Without motivation, there is no story.
Writing is good for the soul.
To that last I would add that writing retreats in general are also good for the soul. It takes me days to process what I learned, which in turn improves my writing. And it gladdens my heart to think of the kind and lovely people I have newly met and added to the list of names that I call friend.
It’s such a corny thing to say (Oh, shut up Velveeta I’m going to say it anyway), but I have drunk from the well of inspiration, and it was good.
It will sustain me for a while.
At this table more smiles and conversation. In the center, directly in front of the window, is my partner-in-crime, Lynda. She is the Energizer Bunny of organizing magic.
Sculpture by Anne Mimi Sammis. Located at Narragansett Beach, RI.
Lately, I’ve been working on HAPPY — that elusive state of being that people are always trying to achieve. Seems like a good summer project to me. I’ve been on antidepressants for fifteen years, and I recently decided to wean myself from them. I want to see what difference fifteen years of living and learning has done for me. So far, so good.
As an exercise in mindfulness (or as mindful as my over-active brain will allow), I’ve started making a list of the things that bring me joy. Sometimes, I surprise myself.
(By the way, my list is not numbered. If you want to know why, it’s because I hate numbers. They are so often used to measure worth, as in too old/too young/too fat/too thin/too short/too tall. They grade and degrade you. Numbers do not make me happy. Ever. If I were a mathematician I would probably feel differently. But, I am not.)
MY HAPPY LIST
Always put butter on your bread when making sandwiches. Because who really wants dry bread?
Stand up straight. Your spine will thank you. When I was in my early twenties I took beginning ballet lessons for a couple of months. It was hard, but exhilarating. I know what a plié is. The ballet teacher taught us to picture a puppet string sprouting from the top of our head pulling us upright. I still imagine this.
Swim in creative waters every day. See a rose in the dandelion; a butterfly in the wasp. Paint a word picture. Sing a story. Make some noise and call it a song.
If you are lucky enough to have stairs in your home, run up them whenever possible. Taking them two at a time is even better. Move your body. Shake it, wiggle it. Dance your feet off. Promote yourself to the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Take time to daydream. Revel in it. If someone says you’re a dreamer, say — Thank you. If they point out that your head is in the clouds, tell them — Yes, I know. (I’ve had this whole daydreaming thing pretty well mastered since about second grade.)
Always taste the ice cream as soon as you get it home. The amount of pleasure you get is commensurate with the meltiness at the top of the container.
Be satisfied. If you can’t be that, be patient. (I’m holding out hope that eventually I will own a car with four doors instead of two. It doesn’t have to be brand new.) Stuff has a shelf life. Memories last a lifetime.
Embrace your fear. I am afraid of heights. This does not bother me. I don’t believe I am missing out by not conquering this fear. I have no need to climb mountains, parachute from planes, or bungee jump from insanely high bridges. If anything, I’m increasing my chances of avoiding serious injury or premature death.
Laugh. Because, endorphins or something. It’s easier on your shins than running, and doesn’t make you sweat.
Be kind. Because, duh. Kindness is as simple as smiling at a stranger. It reverberates through the universe.
Read out loud, even if it’s only to yourself. If you have them, read aloud to kids. The happiness quotient raises exponentially with the number of kids.
Also, just read. Read for the words. Roll around in them. They are lovely. Read for the story; the escape; the characters. Read for the child you used to be who got scolded for reading at inappropriate times. You are an adult now. You can read any damn time you want. (Whoa . . . just writing that last sentence released a whole swirling cloud of endorphins. I can tell.)
There. Wasn’t that fun? Now you do it, go out and create your own list. What makes me happy is not a panacea. Happiness isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Keep adding to the list. That’s what I’ll be doing. And if you’ve a mind to, feel free to share the things that make you happy, too.
A night in the life of us. Kathy says she wants credit for the title. Okay I say. I am easy. Tommy has always been easy or so he thinks. I think we are all too fragile for real life.
Several days ago my husband discovered a nest containing newly hatched baby robins in our rhododendron bush. I took a photo with my phone. I keep looking at the picture, amazed that such tiny creatures are able to survive at all. How is that even possible? I mean, look at them. They have scant feathers and see-through skin. Their spines are a yellow dotted line down their backs. They cannot hold their heads upright.
Something in the fragility of these babies made me think of a night long ago. My sister was visiting from Virgina, about to move to California. My brother was still alive. I convinced them to go with me to see the movie, Cinema Paradiso — a magical film about childhood and how it shapes who we become. Afterwards, we went to a bar where we drank wine and wrote poetry on paper napkins. Then we sat in a park, talking into the night until one of us was sober enough to drive home. I kept all of my napkin poems from that night twenty-four years ago. Dated and numbered, yellowing and stained; seven of them in all. I don’t know if my sister still has hers. I wish I had my brother’s.
I don’t remember what started it, the writing poetry on napkins. Most likely the wine and the movie, the looking backwards to the past. Wondering how any of us survive the chaos that comes with growing up? We were so fragile then, our dreams as transparent as glass. Our poetry so self-confessional.
But survive, we do, for a time. Some of us longer than others.
The baby robins are thriving. Which is a miracle to me. In five days they have doubled in size. Their feathers are coming in and there are the shadowy buds of wings that will eventually lift them from their nest.
I actually ventured outside while it was snowing for this shot. Taken with my iPhone using the Hipstamatic app with Diego lens & Dixie film.
It begins as a whisper.
A few tiny flakes whirling and twirling. The Boy and I (back when he was a little-B boy) called them snow fairies. I don’t mind this kind of snow. The light hangs like a pale scrim softening the sky. Eventally, the snow fairies become a pageant, the twirling, whirling becomes more boisterous, like happy children dancing, their wild hearts aflutter, while bubbles of laughter cling to their lips.
It is a glorious music, like the joyful tinkle of piano keys.
But it doesn’t last. The cloud cover chases the scant light away. Burlier snowflakes barge in like tipsy uncles with round cheeks tottering through a party. They stumble and fall one on top of the other at a steady tick, blustering protest. They are the noisy jokers who must be heard. Splop. Plop. “Out of the way.” “Move aside.” They shout at one another, still clumsy, falling this way and that. Piling up. Piling up.
And then, nothing. They are asleep in their piles, dreaming, quietly breathing, dampening the sound of passing cars with their plump presence.
I have been watching the performance, and listening, trying to find something new, something a little creative in yet another bit of polar vortex melodrama. A meager attempt to bolster my already tenuous hold on sanity. It’s kind of soothing to look at a snow storm this way.
Until it begins to rain.
P.S. I did get some lovely pictures and a bit of fresh air, so there’s that.
This is not an ordinary Christmas tree. This tree (though you may not be able to tell at first glance) is perfect. It is our tree, the one that grew to just the right size and then waited for us to find it. Every year there is one and only one tree for us, and we always find it, we always do. And it is perfect. Every year.
See those little red bows, like the notes of a perfect song, scattered over the branches? Those bows are from our first Christmas spent in this house, which was newly built with purpose and unfailing energy, and mostly by our own hands. I made those bows from a fat spool of ribbon and some gold thread that I bought at the Christmas Tree Shops for practically nothing, because we had so little money that year (the house had eaten most of what we had). And though, they’re hard to pick out in the photo, there are the wicker ornaments, swirled in strands of red and green thread, that we got on our belated Mexican honeymoon just weeks before.
Our life together hangs on that tree. The Boy’s first dough ornaments; the clay ornaments I made; favorite friends Pikachu and Woody (who still swings his lariat from one of the branches); tiny lockets that hold our Boy’s sweet face with forever smiles at ages two, and five, and seven. The places we’ve been and the things we’ve seen. All of them carried home to remember the fun: The Pinocchio and nutcrackers with movable legs; the crowns and the stars and the snowy white owl; a streetcar emblazoned with the year we saw San Francisco. A clown on a unicycle found in a shop that we’d stepped into to escape the frigid Montreal air.
Our family and our friends, the ones still living, and those who have gone, are there. In ornaments hand made and store bought, given in love and accepted with gratitude.
Our tree is perfect because it reminds us of what we have and what we’ve shared. When the Boy was small, the bedtime ritual once the tree went up, was to turn off all the lights, save the ones on the tree, and then the three of us sat together and admired the tree. My husband and I still do this some nights, though the Boy is gone to a place of his own. We sit sometimes, in the glow of the lights, nostalgic as parents of grown children often are. And, even in that there is perfection.
Observing, collecting details as “glimmers of a beginning.” A way of finding a story to tell. That was the challenge this week.
Somewhere outside my window a machine hums incessantly for the second day in a row. Its motor drones, the constant whirring sound punctuated by louder grinding noises. Like a monster being fed, its appetite is ravenous. It will not be sated. My husband would be at the window checking to see where the sound is coming from, which neighbor has wood to chip this time of year. But my husband is at work. And I am too lazy, too disinterested to check out where Smaug is being used. It doesn’t really matter in whose yard the machine/monster feeds. Noise is noise.
Our yard has lots of trees and an overabundance of bittersweet. The vine sidles up alongside the trees, curling a sinuous path out along limbs, growing thick and woody until it has strangled the life from the tree. In the green of spring and summer it’s harder to notice the bittersweet in its sneaky trail below a layer of dirt, pushing through shrubs and other plantings. We hack at it and pull it up, but it is incessant and wears us out. Now, in the bleak midwinter, it is easy to see. The vine coils around some of the trees, already thick as rope.
It’s the chill this time of year that I mistrust. The trees stand like stark centurions behind the house, the only time I can see a sliver of the lake that lay beyond them. The sky cracks like a sheet of glass. Fingers feel fat and numb in no time in weather like this. Why would anyone stand outside and feed wood to a machine? I imagine how easily a monster like that could steal a finger or two. There are no do-overs then.
A lawyer I know once defended a man who disposed of his wife with a wood chipper. The lawyer is a kind man, softly rumpled, with hair just long enough to show a tendency to wave. He wears sports coats and carries a leather brief case that looks like it was a gift when he graduated law school. He has a fondness for Mark Twain, and reminds me of Atticus Finch. I wonder what Atticus would make of a man who rid himself of his wife by such ugly means. There is no nobility in defending such a person. I expect the lawyer had his reasons. He enjoys reading Twain, after all.