Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bravest Thing I've Ever Done

Getting sober is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. To look the world straight in the eye, without self-medicating first, requires this alcoholic to dig deep for the courage that many people seem to come by naturally. And she has to keep digging too, to keep up with the adventures of being human.

The artwork I’m using today is an illustration by Gustave DorĂ© in the 1866 version of John Milton's Paradise Lost. “Satan rises from the burning lake” illustrates what Milton calls Lucifer’s “courage never to submit or yield.” The piece also has been used in reference to one of my all-time favorite poems, “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which ends with these wonderful lines:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I memorized “Ulysses” for a college speech class, drawn to its celebration of the enduring adventuresome spirit. I never have read Paradise Lost, and I find the Satan connection a little icky. But the prompt for this week’s Poetry Jam asked poets to write something inspired by Paradise Lost, John Milton, or Gustave DorĂ©, and my research led me to my beloved “Ulysses” via the aforementioned Lucifer link.

Courage is the thing that gets me excited. I’ve had to find some. I’ve had to learn how to endure when life goes sideways. I’ve had to learn self-discipline, the courageous act of refusing to yield to my own wild impulses, which would have me flee from uncomfortable circumstances. I’ve had to plumb my inner resources when shit hit the fan, and when I came up empty, I’ve had to discover that God’s grace is sufficient on any given day.

All of which is a boatload of verbiage to introduce a very short poem ~ 160 characters, to be exact, counting the spaces. Visit other poets monkeying around with ultra-shorts at Monkey Man’s place here, or jamming with Milton here.

Here is my extremely short epic poem:

Without a shield, I face my fears
Weak, unarmed, I will not yield
As the smoke of battle clears
I’m still standing on the field
By your cheers my wounds are healed!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank God My Car Was Smashed, Not Me

A tank destroyed my rear end this week. I’m grateful that it was my automobile’s and not my own posterior.

I didn’t see that at first. My initial reaction was a lot of effin’ this ’n’ thatness when the young lady in the souped-up Suburban plowed into us at full street speed, having failed to notice the cars ahead were stopped at a pedestrian crosswalk. Her apologies seemed inadequate to my shocked and whiplashed self as I confronted our seriously wounded beautiful car.

Afterward the 12-Step training kicked into gear and waged a rousing battle with resentment, armed with those formidable “Thank God” weapons. It’s not a walk in the park to be grateful in the face of crap, but it’s doable. Thank God for insurance on both automobiles, for no serious injuries, for credit cards and car rentals and trustworthy auto-body specialists owned by AA friends.

We’re off now to spend Thanksgiving amid the blessings of family, friends, and our old AA home group. A study of gratitude made the news today, finding that gratitude is good for the brain and the body’s well-being. Alcoholics Anonymous has preached that for 75 years. May you swim in thanksgiving, no matter what adversity you face.

"Every decision I make is a choice between a grievance and a miracle. I relinquish all regrets, grievances and resentments, and I chose the miracle."
(Deepak Chopra, “The Soul of Healing Meditation”)

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Priceless Gift

The garden's last flowers
I received a precious gift on my birthday, making it the most beautiful of birthdays in a long time. It came from a beloved member of my family, who was given the great burden of a severe-early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, shortly after Mom died of that disease.

To understand the gift’s significance, you have to understand that severe Alzheimer’s steals not just memories, not just language in all its totality as the foundation of communicating between people. It steals the brain’s computer processor, so it can’t access stored information, filter data, recognize context, transfer essential messages, or discern logical pathways in the process of decision-making. Areas within itself are isolated from each other. The brain fights through this incredible interference to make sense of a whole world in incoherent motion, as it tries to serve its owner’s needs.

After months of withdrawal, as my loved one struggled in the aftermath that diagnosis, a birthday card arrived the day before my birthday. It was followed by a phone call on my birthday, opening with the birthday song, and then a long conversation, full of news and willingness to patiently work through spots where words would vanish, a strength of attention to hear my words. Love lived energetically in that phone call, a wonderful feat of reaching out.

At dinner with my husband later, I opened all my birthday cards, saving that special one for last. It was signed with a loving message, warm with recognition of our history together. At first I wept at the evidence of language difficulty, fleeing to the ladies room for another (brief) war with God over this. I washed my face, came back, and read the card again, this time thankful for the strength and love that glowed in its message. Sorrow can be blinding. When I wipe my eyes, I can see the tender mercies that always there.

It was a blessed birthday, rich with loving gifts from my family. I’m thankful to be part of the human experience, present and sober and wiser for the life given to me to live on this planet. May all our days be rich with reaching out, offering some simple blessing to someone else.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Learning Endurance

Photograph by Dorthea Lange, 1936

Great moments in history on this date: Goodbye, Ford Edsel; Hello again, Moon (second Apollo landing); and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
 "We can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. ... It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

I wonder if survivors of the Great Depression and the Midwest Dust Bowl bequeath a primal-memory gene to some of their kids… some inheritable, shady sense of having endured the catastrophic and standing ready to endure it again.

I owe my life to the Depression and the Dust Bowl (proof I should remember next time I question whether ill winds really do blow in some good). On both sides, my parents’ families were migrant workers in the 1930s, one from Oklahoma, one from Montana, who came together in a small California town, eventually creating me. It’s my birthday this week, and I’m pondering my beginnings.

The photo I’m using with this post was taken by Dorthea Lange in 1936 just down the road from where I was born. It shows a woman named Florence Thompson with three of her seven children, at a migrant camp near the pea fields (which still are grown there). Lange easily could have photographed one of my grandmothers with my father or mother in tow, heading for their rendezvous with destiny (sorry).

Besides my own family history (discussed around dining tables all my life), I’ve also interviewed many Great Depression and WWII survivors in my magazine work… so maybe it’s just familiarity with their generations that gives me a sense of kinship, rather than some unconscious primal memory of endurance as a way of life. What I know deep in my bones, whether it has come via genetic code or education, is that human beings are capable of suffering great loss and misery with dignity, without complaint, and with a majestic patience. That character is something I want in my life.

Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is the poetry prompt this week at Poetry Jam, where you’ll find other interpretations of that great photo. Here’s mine.

Good Norwegian Stock

My grandfather’s ways sprout from my fingers
like seeds lifting their round heads
out of black earth under a broad blue sky.
Skydotter, he called me, with mirth in his eye:
the Norwegian name for rain-laden clouds.
And daughter I am, a loaded ship of cloud
in an ocean of sky, sailing the big Plain
sowing grain in my wake.

In his time,
Grandfather paused to tip back his hat
and watch the wild geese vee southward
as clouds lowered for winter’s long march.
Eyes watering with Montana cold,
well-worn flannel warming his neck,
he spared a moment in endless treks
from house to barn to fields and back
to honor the enduring geometry of geese.

The time came
when he bowed his head before dry fields
that refused the seed and sealed the land
against the grain. He surrendered
the farm to the drought-battered Plain
and turned westward, where his hands
skilled in the nurture of growing things
became carpenter’s hands, sawing trees
into usefulness as cupboards and houses,
though he preferred them wild.

he dug his hands in the unfriendly dirt
behind the small place in the new country,
with aging patience coaxing from it
fields of freesias and clouds of lilac,
roses bowing heads heavy with buds
above a sea of tulips. Tomatoes marched
through rainless summers in his garden
guarded with small offerings of water
and waves of corn ripened by the fence.

I grew up in a field of plenty, cultivated
by a grandfather still wearing the old felt hat.
I, his sky daughter, wore his hat with pride
the day I stood as the heavy sky burst,
my dirty hands outstretched to catch the rain
falling, falling, on the young strong grain.

Dorthea Lange’s photo is reproduced from The Commons on Flickr, an awesome site of worldwide photography in the public domain, with use restricted to personal, educational or research purposes.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lightness of Being

each day
you wage a thousand wars
to preserve the nation of yourself

to defend your freedom
to lie down in your bed

you are a good country
responsible, alert
so you

marshal your resources
govern your thoughts
safeguard your borders
discipline your troops

you exercise vigilance
moment by moment
in every transaction
every choice, every plan
no wonder you’re weary
of fighting the war

stop now
and rest
notice light plays
in a window
it wanders
and dances
through wars
without ceasing

Prompted by the Poetry Jam, "Photograph a still life and write about it."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Gimme an Asteroid, Sunny-side Up

Weird stuff to ponder on a weekend morning: What plans should we make for our appointment with an asteroid Tuesday afternoon?

I have a freelance writing deadline that day: Will it matter if I make it? The looming asteroid stimulates Hamlet questions. Is it nobler to spend the weekend nose-to-grindstone, honoring my commitment in hopes of a future? Or should I shine it on? Shall I take arms against a sea of oppressors and their outrageous fortunes, go Occupy somewhere, or should I go to the movies?

Seriously, folks, I’m going to see Puss In Boots before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Now, after that peek through a window in my silly mind, here’s another, hot off the press. It was provoked by this week’s Poetry Jam prompt (more sneak peeks here).


What hides from the outside world
behind her face festooned with flowers
might be the prick of the poisoned rose
or worse
the clatter of cloven hooves
as her demons cook their dinner
with this day’s torments

You never know
what gingham curtains veil
what beast exhales
behind that convivial cloak
willing you to leave
frightened by the light
you stand in so bravely

Albert Einstein Quotes