Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Am All Feet

Of all the kooky things a person could start with on a Saturday morning, I started my day with a study of metric verse: ta TUM! It was an accident!

I just wanted to write a short poem in iambic pentameter for our Poetry Jam this week. For some reason, I unearthed my copy of “The Complete Rhyming Dictionary” from 1936 and promptly got caught up in rondelets and dactyls, tercets and feet. Its editor, Clement Wood, writes wonderful essays about everything you could ever want to know about rhyming poetry. Got so enchanted, I didn’t write my little poem until late in the evening.

It reminded me of the time I wanted to fact-check an interview I did with a WWII veteran, just to double-check my dates on the Allied march into Germany. I ended up reading about the Third Army under Gen. Patton for two whole days, fascinated. And I was on a deadline!

Anyway, the Poetry Jam assignment is to write a poem about being 67 years old. Hostess Dana had her reasons for this (find them here). She also said to write poetry outside of our standard operating procedure. So I chose a form foreign to me: the rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza out of the Middle Ages, used by Geoffrey Chaucer. I haven’t looked at his stuff since college. It might as well be Greek. It has five pairs of iambic feet: ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c.

Writing the poem was kind of like building a kite: It proved harder than I thought it would be. So I took a break or two and photographed the flowers I put on my desk Saturday morning. And here is my poetical account of being 67, in a stanza pattern way older than that:

The Next-Door Neighbor

We call her “She,” the woman living here.
We don’t know her past or age, let alone
her name, only that She’s terribly queer

about her garden, so much overgrown
She vanishes there. But with crooning tone

we can hear her chattering to her plants—
and they reply! With great exuberance!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hey! There's a World Out There!

I've had enough flowers to last me the rest of the month. It's Friday, time for a brief poem and a breath of fresh air: views of the countryside from a ride we took a while back. Above, the scene from the window space of an old garage we came across. Below, its workbench, looking nothing like mine at home. It's much cleaner than mine.

And the garage itself in situ:

Next, a weedy young vineyard marches up to a hill.

Now, a quick commercial break for a poem in exactly 55 words, including the title, so I take part in Mr. Knowitall's Friday Flash 55 festivities. I wrote it while taking a break on Tuesday from the slavery of all those flowers I've been drowning in the past two weeks (see posts below if you've missed the drama).

Cat, Lying on Hassock

Look, Mom, how I fit
between your legs, how
my front paws play
the piano of your toes
and the snake of my tail
flows slowly up your thigh.
Let me soothe your feet
with the rake of my teeth.
Let the work
go mind itself.
It only seems to call.

(This would be the cat in question, Kate, a lazy soul if ever I saw one:)

And finally, a parting shot of the western hills as we head home again.

So go visit Mr. Knowitall for more brief breaths of fresh air.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

That Jumping-Off Place

I’ve had three hours of sleep, and today I’m thinking about bliss. I even looked up the word to be sure I knew its correct definition: complete happiness or a state of spiritual joy, according to the dictionary that accompanies the Word program.

I’m thinking about “following your bliss,” a phrase coined by myth master Joseph Campbell as he discussed mythology and the hero’s journey with PBS journalist Bill Moyers in a series aired in the late 1980s. It means something like discovering you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be in this life, doing exactly the right thing for you to be doing, and finding fulfillment in it.

I’ve had about eight hours’ of sleep in three days; yesterday began for me at 6 a.m. and ended around 3 this morning. I was doing the work needed to compete in the final floral competition at our local fair. I signed up to do two separate, complete wedding flower displays. I don’t know what I was thinking. At 2:30 this morning, the work still wasn’t finished, but my body made me give up.

This morning I wrapped up the last bits at 7 a.m. and my husband helped me haul the pickup-load to the fair. I was content with the work I’d done and immensely grateful for many things. Friends let me harvest flowers from their gardens because my main bloom is still a few weeks off. The strength to work on my feet all day and all night was there. The inspiration was there, and the problems I encountered had simple solutions. Mostly, I was grateful to have found the desire to do a thing I love to do and follow it through all the friggin’ way, even when the work was hard.

Someone asked me at the flower building this morning if I would give her some tips on floral design. All of a sudden, the years fell away and I was 16 years old, living in a small desert town. My brief stint at McDonald’s hamburger joint had come to an ignominious end. My spirits couldn’t keep up with the busloads of tourists on their way to Las Vegas wanting burgers their way right now. I promptly went across the street to the town’s flower shop and offered to work for free if they would teach me how to arrange flowers. The owner looked at my little application, lifting her glasses off her face, and then she put them back on and looked at me. “Come back Monday morning,” she said. “We’ll pay you minimum wage to start.”

That was my first "jumping-off place." For the next five years I worked for her after school and during summers while in college, learning how to arrange flowers for every occasion. I went to college in the first place to study floral design and horticulture, which I promptly abandoned after the first semester to become an English Lit. major. English Lit. gave me a wonderful career in magazines, but I worked in flower shops off and on over the years between jobs. What’s not to love about working with flowers?

I’ve been blessed over and over throughout this summer’s floral competition by the awareness that I’m exactly where I should be, at this stage in my life. I’ve received bountiful gifts from my Higher Power, in the form of joy, ideas, flowers, weather, prizes, love, and memories. It’s been a spiritual experience, leading me to the discovery that joy has returned. Another "jumping-off place" has happened.

This is what Joseph Campbell says about bliss: “I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat-Chit-Ananda. The word ‘Sat’ means being. ‘Chit’ means consciousness. "Ananda’ means bliss or rapture. I thought, ‘I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.’ I think it worked.

“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

The judges liked my wedding work, pictured here. Now I’m going to enjoy the refreshment of a nap and say another prayer of thanks.

Several hours later….

Couldn’t sleep, so I got up and cruised around on low speed, cleaning up here and there after the explosion of floral detritus over the past 10 days. My house looks like a tired flower shop on Mother’s Day: stems, leaves, vases and buckets of aging greenery and unused flowers everywhere. I even swiped the vase that normally sits on the corner of my desk with something in it all seasons, and the blank hole there bugs me. So I arranged yet another vase of flowers, which I later took to an AA meeting tonight and gave to my sponsor in thanks for letting me have trimmings from her redwood, eucalyptus, Japanese maple and pine trees for my greenery. Can’t bring myself to put another vase together tonight. A nice chore to look forward to in the morning.

The AA meeting got me thinking about the tie between a couple of my life’s jumping-off places and being sober. “We stood at the turning point,” the Alcoholics Anonymous text says of that moment when a person is suddenly driven to ask for help with her drinking problem. There’s a willingness at that moment to surrender to anything that promises an iota of relief from the misery of drinking oneself to death.

I drank to change how I felt, to feel more of something, to feel less of something. I did that from the time I had my first drink. When alcohol hit my bloodstream, something inside said, “Oh, yes!” It never stopped saying yes with an exclamation point. I couldn’t picture my life without it. But some mysterious awareness had bloomed in my brain, which told me that alcohol might be the source of my misery instead of being the solution for it. I discovered I wanted to live, and I found myself seeking out Alcoholics Anonymous and teetering on the brink. I can’t live with booze, and I can’t live without it, I metaphorically said. The people in the AA meetings said, “We know how you feel and we have a solution that allows us to live sober, happy lives.”

I took that leap of hope. Today I can do all the things I thought I’d never be able to do without at least a little buzz. AA saved my life and gave me a life, as I’ve heard said in meetings, a gift I didn’t foresee when I stood at that jumping-off place in the doorway of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in May 1990.

And I’ve found that it’s true what I heard said in those early meetings: You walk in the door with a little list of hopes—just to stop drinking yourself into misery, stop being so very ill from alcohol poisoning, stop losing parts of your life like your job, your spouse, your self-respect. You think that’s all you want. But you’d shortchange yourself if you settled just for that little list, because sobriety brings with it an enormous list of miracles. People are reborn.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Flower Power

Have you ever dreamed up something that doesn’t exist and then made it exist?

What causes that creative inspiration? Where does the idea come from? What part of the brain can picture something it’s not seen before, let alone then figure out how to make it happen?

I was talking with my husband about the creative act. He doesn’t have a brain that makes things up. He won the top baking prize at our regional fair last week, the “Best of Show,” for a lemon tart that tastes like heaven. Joe follows a recipe when he makes it, the same recipe he was given by the chef at the culinary school where Joe trained and now volunteers every day. He gives that recipe to other people, who make the tart but it doesn’t turn out as well as Joe’s rendition of that tart. So Joe has a special touch as he cooks the juice and blends the curd and then the crust and then bakes the tart. He makes a beautiful, unbelievably delicious tart, but he doesn’t invent anything.

I invent things, and he thinks that’s amazing. I can’t make that tart, but tell me to make a flower arrangement that represents a famous writer of my choice, and I’ll picture a full-blown floral design that illustrates not just the writer’s specialty, but uses components of his style and references to specific works. I’ll see it all in my head. How does that work? Why does that happen? I love that it happens, but it’s so curious.

The second floral competition of the fair required floral designers to do table settings for 1) a famous person associated with mountains and 2) a favorite writer. I chose Ansel Adams and John Muir.

I used Adams’ unbelievably beautiful shot of Yosemite Valley as my inspiration, those incredible textures and lines of that monochrome shot. With angular black and red Asian tableware and vases on a white cloth, I used red dahlias, red miniature roses, black eucalyptus and highly textured white-green foliage for two floral designs.

It was stark, monochromatic, and totally true in structure to an Ansel Adams composition. I loved it. I didn’t shoot a very good photo of it, but here it is:

John Muir’s design got redwood foliage in homage to the redwood forest state park named after him here in California. I used wood tones in vases and tableware, and combined small curving branches with lavender Echinacea coneflowers and golden yarrow in simple, woodsy arrangements.

The judge gave the Muir setting a thumb’s up, with a first place ribbon and the Judge’s Award. He or she was not overly impressed with the Ansel Adams work, giving it a third place. I usually agree with the judges in the floral design competitions, but when I saw the first and second place settings in the same class as Adams, I got myself an attitude. I saw blue ribbons on my four other pieces illustrating winter….



and summer…..which I forgot to take a photo of…. and laughed at myself and at my Higher Power, who listened to me asking please, may I have a couple of special ribbons for my work, and who generously saw to it that I got blue ribbons for everything (except Ansel Adams) plus a big fat “Judges Award” plus a big fat “Best of the Day” award for a lovely little flower called a peacock orchid that I had entered in the show’s cut-flower divisions, which I found in my garden this week after having totally forgotten I had planted it years ago and so I did nothing to make it grow and it grew only because of God’s sun, rain, and fine weather.

So I was given the couple of special ribbons I asked for, plus more besides, and who do I think I am to whine about anything, I ask you? I am so blessed to get to work with lovely flowers and make things that I picture in my head. Now I’m going to rest up like a happy camper until Monday, when work on the third and final flower show begins.

(The photo at the top is the exhibit I made on the first day of the fair illustrating the fair's mountain theme. I speak of it in the post below.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Glad Tidings of Great Joy I Bring

The state fair has opened here and the tidings were good for the first group of competitions I entered. The rusty iron garden marker I made garnered a blue ribbon, and so did my kite (see post below). My floral arrangements did well, and I was happy to see firsts on six out of ten, including the one above, representing “On Golden Pond”…

and this one, representing “Indian Summer”…

But it was my big fair-theme exhibit, illustrating “Mountains of Fun,” that really knocked me sideways. Using things passed down to me by my mother, I made a “mountain” camping scenario with flower arrangements in her cast-iron frying pan, her Dutch oven, her old coffee pot, and her old gray-wool blanket. I found it covered with big ribbon rosettes: First Place, Best Fair Theme Award, Judges Award… I don’t have a photo of the whole exhibit because I constructed it there at the fairgrounds, but here’s the frying pan with its batch of “eggs”…

I sat on a bench and wept for the resilience of the human spirit. For the grace and mercy of God, who brings healing after a long season of sorrow. For the great blessing of my parents, who, in spite of their imperfections and the tragedies of their deaths, helped make me the person I am today. For the tenacity I’ve learned in Alcoholics Anonymous, to discover myself by simply being willing to put one foot in front of the other in pursuit of dreams. The ribbons meant more than just a prize; they represented rebirth. They proved to me that you can accomplish meaningful things if you're willing to just make a beginning. And everything that happens in your life, both the miseries and the untold many ordinary events, combine to enrich you and bring you joy if you make the smallest attempt to view life with eyes of hope.

Epiphany after Winning a “Best of Show” Ribbon at the State Fair

I was taking a piss in a bathroom stall
at the fairgrounds when everything changed
between God and me.
Dad, I said,
inexplicably since
I was raised with Almighty God
on the Judgment Seat,
Dad, I said, you’ve been good to me.
I’m a sinner and a cheat but you don’t knock me
upside the head & say, To hell with you!
You say, Here, sweet thing,
is food & water
& more than you have wished for.
I have a drug addict heart but you see
the thing in me you made on a good day
when your creative juices
were pumping up a storm.
You see me with love that says,
You are really something,
my blue-ribbon child.
I left that toilet a woman changed
just because
for reasons I don’t understand
I called him Dad.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Insomnia is one of the loneliest disorders. At 3 a.m., it’s just you and your head while the world seems peacefully sleeping, your sleeplessness an affront to the natural order. It might be nice if somewhere in my little berg there were a 3 a.m. insomniac support group, with low lighting and hot milky chai, water fountain, futon sofas, soft music, dark rooms down the hall with futons to lie down on should sleep seem possible.

One of my complaints about having insomnia is the ever-present sense of hope that sleep lies around the next bend of the clock. That hope prevents me from saying screw it, turning on lights, electronic entertainment devices, writing the next great American poem. Instead I hopefully practice “good sleep hygiene,” foregoing the blue computer screen, the blue television light, both known to stimulate the brain. The only light I turn on in desperation for the company at least of a rather boring book is the lamp by a chair.

I can’t take prescription drugs for sleep or the anxiety produced by not sleeping, because my body recognizes the drug and wants more of it, not a good situation for someone who cherishes her sobriety. For years I used tryptophan, a reliable friend until it was removed from the market early in the ’90s. Then it was Tylenol PM, until it stopped working. Then the psychiatrists introduced me to Seroquel, an anti-psychotic and powerful sleep-inducer. It added 50 pounds to my small frame and raised my cholesterol sky-high, and after five years, I severed my ties to it. From January to April this year, I hardly slept at night despite a pharmacopeia of herbs promising slumber. It was a very hard season.

Finally, after lots of research on the web and consultation with my psychiatrist, we changed my depression medication and I started taking mirtazapine, a tetracyclic anti-depressant with few health-threatening side effects. It’s taken almost three months to adjust to its soporific effects. I felt like sleeping all the time, and often simply did. At last, now I can stay awake all day and do the things that a normal person does, and usually I can sleep at night. In my gratitude journal, begun a few months ago at the suggestion of a new AA sponsor, there are lots of references to the joy of sleep, even for an abundance of it.

This week’s Poetry Jam has us humming the tune of insomnia (or, alternatively, odd modes of dress [hm]). Poets have produced lots of good work about insomnia, which is the companion of many people with fine minds. I have a number of poems referring to sleeplessness myself. But here’s a new one.

Night Sight

The moon is a white eye
in a broad blue face
and it peers over the humpbacked hill,
over the giant supine silhouette
of some black, some dozing beast.

I stare right back at it, fierce
as an itch that won’t be quelled.
My house is full of people
tucked in dark rooms.
No one knows
I crouch here on the couch
eyeballing the moon.

Everyone sleeps, safe, secure
like they were last summer
while our old mother and I
fought for her death,
three nights and days that bled
into each other. Tonight
I learn how much I gave her
simply being
awake. The moon must know.

Black and blue, the bruised sky
hours later cracks open
slowly for the sun, still
just a thought, or a memory below
that humpbacked hill, coming to heal
those bruises.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

But Can They Fly?

This winged wonder is the kite I've made to enter in the Mid-State Fair coming to my area this week. It's a triangular box kite variation on a conyne design, using vinyl shelf liner and photos by Ansel Adams from last year's calendar. Will it fly? Hell if I know. The fair's handmade kite competition doesn't require a flight.

The fair always comes up with some theme each year, and in the floral design competitions we'll have to find ways to illustrate the theme in flower arrangements. This year's doozy is "Mountains of Fun" and I nearly scratched from the kite business because of it. Easily overwhelmed, poor me.

But I'm a member in good standing of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the program does NOT advocate giving up when the going gets tough. I did what a good AA ought to do when she has signed up to make a kite and now thinks it will be too hard: call on her sponsor. Sponsors handle all kinds of odd problems.

I was reminded of that ever-so-helpful Chinese proverb: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What's the first indicated thing to do? Prayer is usually a smart idea.

Now, God is probably very busy with serious issues. But in AA I'm allowed to access a Higher Power of my own understanding. While the God of my fathers is far too tied up with enormous global and individual crises to care about kite anxiety, my own Higher Power has wiggle room to handle challenges of every sort. So I dialed my spiritual hotline. Next thing I know, that old Ansel Adams calendar comes to mind, with its beatiful black and white photos of mountains. Ha! It happened on the 101 freeway heading for an AA meeting. If anyone tries to argue me out of believing in my Higher Power, I will show them this kite. And I know it will fly even though it doesn't have to.

And here's a photo just for fun of my newest garden acquisition. The 30-inch curving top piece, headed with an iron butterfly on one end and an iron weight on the other, is simply balanced on the stand of stones on a quarter-inch ball welded to the top piece. The large butterfly and a smaller one partway down the backside catch the breeze, and the whole things turns gently on the stand. I wonder what would happen to the betterflies in a gale. Would they fly?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Busy Hands Are Happy Hands

If it’s true that busy hands are happy hands, my hands are rolling in ecstasy.

The skeleton of a Conyne-style box kite is drying on the floor of my office. Drying on trays in the guest room are five kinds of herbs. The dining-room table is covered with flower vases and ikebana practice arrangements in the moribana and nageire styles. In the garage are three large silk-flower arrangements ready to be delivered. Out on the patio is my version of a Picasso face made of rusted iron hinges and bits of machinery.

The regional state fair begins next week, and I signed up for competitions in kite making, flower growing, dried and fresh herbs, vegetables, garden signs, and floral designs. All I do all day long is make things and do the prep work to make more things during the 10-day run of the fair.

The weather is glorious and I make mad forays out into the garden to keep things groomed and growing out there. The triple-digit heat vanished, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. The tomatoes aren’t ripening, and the sunflowers haven’t even set buds yet. The dahlias are dallying, which means I have almost no flowers to work with right now. There’s only a week before the flower competition begins. I got the bug infestation under control, but only God can make flowers bloom, so I’m starting to sweat a little.

In getting my work space prepared, I went through some boxes of my mother’s things, shoved into the garage willy-nilly last August when she died. It was an occasion for gratitude. I read her little scribbled notes, marveling at her valiant attempts to cope with her dying brain. I found the last little bits of quilting she was able to do before the skill of sewing left her. I read the random newspaper articles that she cut out of the paper, wondering why those particular subjects caught her attention. It all made me realize how much healing has taken place in the past year. Handling her things gave me pleasure and I felt joy again. Her idiosyncratic habits made me smile. I’m thankful for my mother and for what I learned during that painful last year of her life. I love you, Mom.

I dug out some photos of my floral work from two years ago to inspire me as I do prep work this week. This piece won “Best of the Day.”

This piece won “Best of Show” among both amateur (my class) and professional work.

This bride’s bouquet took a first.

This is a cake made of flowers.

The "Purple Tiger" rose at the top of this post is faithfully blooming and has taken blue ribbons in the floribunda rose class. And here is my entry in the garden sign category. It resembles how I look after all the work this week.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Dark Side of Flowers

I have forgotten how to be hot. A high-pressure system parked itself nearby and we’re having triple-digit temperatures day after day. It has been so long since we had 105-degree afternoons that I don’t know what to do with myself. My office isn’t air-conditioned. I find myself looking around the house, wondering what to do. Do what you’ve done before, I tell myself. But last year’s summer is a terrible smear of memories of my mother’s slide into death, and I don’t know what I did.

One major accomplishment this past week is a new manuscript of my poetry. I submitted the previous manuscript to a few competitions and it didn’t make the cut, so I’ve shelved it. June 30 was the deadline for two competitions hosted by small presses, so I cranked, with the help of my daughter Milo, who sorted through stacks of poems for me with wonderful ruthlessness.

Letters from a Distant God, I titled it. I arranged it in a loosely chronological order so that it tells the tale of struggling to come to terms with a long sense of disconnection with God. It begins with a frightened childhood and an alienated adulthood, then plummets into depression and hospitalization, struggles through my mother’s ballet with Alzheimer’s, and finally arrives in my scarred but hopeful midlife, grateful to the God who has been sometimes so very hard to trust but who has blessed me.

One of the poems I originally included, but later cut from the final draft, is suitable for a place in this week’s Poetry Jam. Jam maestro Poetikat requires dark poetry with a floral theme. I’ve been carefully tending my dahlias for months so they’ll make a good showing in the regional fair's flower competition in a few weeks. The original version of this poem was composed while on a similar mission two years ago.

I Thought I Was the Breath of Life

Planting in my garden
I had thoughts of myself.
I am the breath of life, I thought.
I speak into the soil
and flowers bloom.

Like God I touch the earth
and living things spring up.
I plunge dark matter into the dirt,
and beauty sprouts there.

Blood drips from my hands
and sweat blinds my eyes.
This living sacrifice
calls forth the dahlias
and they rise from the dead!

When the gopher
burrowed into my yard
I became the whore of Babylon
hell-bent on destruction.

I thrust poison into the soil,
my precious soil.
I pumped gas, planted bombs,
baited pincher traps.
Screw nature.
I throbbed with blood lust.

Until I found
that soft brown body
terminally squeezed,
I never knew death
could be so hilarious.