The Size of My Life

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014) begins:

My life was the size of my life
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose. . . .

Some days, I look out from my body and forget it is the age it is. I forget the size of my life. That is until days like last Sunday when my five-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, and I were making funny faces at each other on FaceTime. Now FaceTime is great, but unfortunately a tiny square at the bottom of the screen shows you exactly how you look to the other person. So you see yourself talk at the same time you’re trying to focus on what the other person is saying. Very distracting. Lucia is much less critical of her image than I am of mine. I’m thinking: Who is that woman with several chins, lots of wrinkles, and big age spots? Lucia doesn’t care: she is busy looking at her own teeth, eyes, hair–all of which we talk about in great detail!  For a few minutes, my life is the size of a small square on the bottom of an i-Phone. And there, surrounding it, is the beautiful face of Lucia.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell and Andy; Central Park, January, 2014. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.)

Roger Angell in his wonderful essay, ”This Old Man”(The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014), begins with a detailed description of his body at age 93. “Check me out,” he says. He then describes his arthritic hands, trying to find just the right metaphor to help us see them: “The top two knuckles of my left hand. . . if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.”

He goes on to catalogue a long list of what it is like to live in his ninety-three-year-old body. Besides the residual effects of arthritis, he writes about shingles, macular degeneration, arterial stints, shaky knees, herniated discs–not to mention the loss of his daughter and wife and many friends. Still he brings us the news that “the pains and insults are bearable” and that at the end of life he still longs for touch and love. “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. “ Yes, to deep attachment and love. Good that the size of our souls still has room for these–no matter our age.

Mary Junge

Mary Junge (photo by Joey McLeister)

When Carol Roan and I put together our anthology When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, we were amazed at the stories we heard: so many of us out there writing and writing, about our bodies, our loves, our lives, our past and futures. We’re all on this march together, so hearing news of the terrain ahead is a good thing.

My friend Mary Junge recently sent me a poem she wrote in response to Jane Hirshfield’s poem. Thank you, Mary. (For more of Mary’s poems, click here to visit her website: birdloverpoet.com.)

My Life at Sixty

It looked foreign suddenly, and small, inconsequential.
Yet, it was all too familiar. It was surely mine.
As light as a wisp or shadow, an exhale.
The untied silk scarf that slips to the floor without notice.
I thought of my mother long ago, asking
How I’d spent the gone money. Now it was I who
Wanted an account of the gone dawns and sunsets,
The dreamless and dream-filled nights of slumber,
The days wasted in too much sadness or too much frivolity.
The meals carefully (or carelessly) prepared and eaten,
The love given and received generously (or begrudgingly).
Injuries to the body, kindness given and received—even the days of
Cruel insults I wanted back now.
Was it true? Had I spent it so soon?
I thought of my grandfather,
Illiterate, poor speaking German immigrant farmer,
Who hid his radio in the barn during WWII. After his passing,
The shy list of farm equipment, animals, and all grain on hand.
So I thought of the shy list that will follow my passing:
Quilts, poems, photo books, stories. Somehow I had expected more,
Yet there it was, the small life undeniably mine.

–Mary Junge

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Writing Idea:  How would you size up your life? Take a careful look at yourself at whatever age you are, in whatever place you occupy, in all shapes and sizes, on any given day, from any perspective. “My Life at Seventy-One” or “My Life on an Island” or “My Life as an Ant”  or “My Life on March 21.” Try it in several versions. Try it in prose and/or poetry. Enjoy looking around at your life!

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“It was clear when I left the party/ That although I was over eighty I still had/ A beautiful body. . . .” (“When I Turned a Hundred” by Mark Strand. For an outstanding essay about Mark Strand, see ”Mark Strand’s Luminous Nostalgia” by Willard Spiegelman, Kenyon Review, Winter 2014).

I Come From the Sea

Where do you come from? Our origins make all the difference in the stories we tell.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.

Thus begins Alice Munro’s story, ”Dear Life,” the title story from her most recent collection. This autobiographical story and the three others which conclude Dear Life map out the contours of Alice Munro’s origins in rural Ontario where she grew up.

Here are a few responses from writers in the Sanibel workshop who wrote about origins:

I come from the sea...

I come from the sea…

I come from the sea.

Born beside the Atlantic on the west coast of Scotland.
I search for the sea.
Born on January 23rd, in the sign of Aquarius,
I look for the water.
Sand in my shoes a constant.
Pebbles and shells in my pockets, reminders of where I’ve been.

-Brenda Hunt

I come from a tiny state, a big Italian family, and a kitchen with wonderful smells.                                             -Arlene MacDonald

My two sisters and I were born in a small city, Utica, known as the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Seems romantic enough I know, but in truth it was a town cobbled together by Italian immigrants who settled here after building the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s. Yes, the city’s future on the cusp of recession in 1929 probably still looked good to my father and twin brother, Canadians eager to leave behind the prospect of socialized medicine for the greener fields of the U.S.  Not that they were money grubbers–far from it. They were lucky to be able to get through the University of Toronto compliments of their missionary great aunt (another story to tell) who was left a decent sum of money by her lumberman brother killed in a hotel fire on one of his properties.                       -Jill Dillon

I like the way each of these writers launches into story, poem, or memoir with confidence. We are ready to follow these voices anywhere they will take us.

Mahmoud Darwish, often spoken of as the Palestinian national poet, writes of exile and loss and home in his poems.

I Come From There

Marmoud DarwishI come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

In contrast, listen to country singer Alan Jackson tell us of his origins:  ”…where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken.” Click here to hear him sing and see the lyrics:  Alan Jackson “Where I Come From.” 

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The prompt we used in the Sanibel workshop is  from Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, a book I recommend if you’re looking for “daily invitations to the writing life.”

Today write about your origins. Start with the phrase, “I come from.” Include words and sounds you remember hearing, smells, tastes, and sights. Write about all those things which, had you not known them, would have significantly altered who you are.

You could also adapt this prompt to apply to a fictional character you are creating in a novel or short story. Where do your characters come from and how does that shape their stories?

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“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Jumpstart, Anyone?

imgres It’s that time of year again when I begin my Sanibel writing workshop. I’ve been leading this workshop for several years now and call it “Jumpstart Your Writing.” It’s for writers, beginner to advanced, who need a jolt to rev up their writing lives, the way a car needs a jumpstart when the battery is weak. Actually for those of us who write or who aspire to write, the battery is never really dead; it just needs a little juice to get it going again.

 

jump´start`

v. t. 

To start (the engine of a motor vehicle) using a temporary connection to supply electrical power from another vehicle or another source of current; – an emergency procedure used when a vehicle’s own battery has insufficient power to start the vehicle normally.

2.

To provide a speedy start to (an activity) using the assistance of some external impetus; to re-energize (an activity proceeding sluggishly); – accomplished by application of a stimulus not normally used in the activity.

The word can be a noun or a verb, but it is the verb that I like best. I also like the idea that some “external impetus” is needed “to re-energize an activity proceeding sluggishly.” What that external impetus is will vary from writer to writer, but for me, one battery charger is the company of other writers–not just any writers, but writers who believe in “the practice school of writing.” (See Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Writing as Practice” in Writing Down the Bones.)

For several years now, I’ve been a part of a group of poets. We meet every Monday morning in the home of the gifted poet and teacher, Deborah Keenan. Without her gentle guidance, her selection of wonderful poems and poets and the writing suggestions she nudges out of the poems, as well as the inspiration of  the others in the group, I would have a very low writing battery. Bringing my poems to this group has nourished and enhanced my writing life, which was almost extinguished after the completion of my MFA. (That’s another story.)  I enjoy these opportunities to create and craft my poems. Somehow the ego washes away, and the little bubbles of writing that emerge in my notebooks become poems.

So as we start these next few weeks, here on Sanibel with this group of writers, I hope to re-create a little of the same spirit. We’ll use writing from others as models and inspiration and also create our own envelopes of writing jumpstarts. I’ll be bringing some of what we do to these blogs. So those of you not on Sanibel can take the workshop along with us.

There is always the question: Can writing be taught? Maybe, maybe not, but it can be practiced–the way one practices the piano or yoga.  And through practice in the company of others engaged in a similar practice, it is my hope that the writing becomes better–as the practice itself remains enjoyable and always challenging.

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IMG_6241I like to re-read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones when I start a new workshop. Way back in 1985 or ’86, I took a workshop in Minnesota with Natalie. She had just sent the galleys of Writing Down the Bones back to her publisher. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration. “What are your deep dreams?” she asks in one chapter. This will be the way I’ll start the class on Monday.  ”What are your deep dreams?” One of mine was to write a novel. So maybe it is time to go back to it and see what I still have to say. It’s never too late.

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Writing Jumpstart:   What are your deep dreams? Go for ten minutes. What is that spark that ignited your desire to write? Ten more minutes.

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Happiness Floats

Thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye for this lovely poem–and to all of you who follow Turtle House Ink.

I so enjoy your comments and mail.

Best wishes during this holiday season and for the new year…and…

Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

 

“And Have No Fear”

In my last blog, I wrote about using prompts or ten-minute jumpstarts to fire up our writing. Yet are we just filling notebooks with exercises? What can come of these jottings?images-2

In a Paris Review interview, Amy Hempel talked about an assignment (prompt) from her teacher, Gordon Lish. She said:

The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, dismantles your own sense of yourself. And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was.

And what was her worst secret? “I failed my best friend when she was dying,” she said. It became the subject of the first story she ever wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” one of the most anthologized stories of all time.

Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life: A Memoir (winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award, 2011) was built around telling his worst secret. In the first sentence, he writes: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”

One day in his last year of high school when he was driving his father’s Oldsmobile, a girl on a bike swerved in front of the car. He was unable to avoid hitting her, and she died. The girl was a fellow classmate, Celine Zilkes. Strauss buried the secret for years, not telling anyone. Until the birth of his own twins, when he says he felt “with new force that I’d never be able to feel it all—never truly comprehend just how awful the Zilkes’ loss must have been. I wrote merely as a way to take hold of my thoughts about this.” (See his interview with Colum McCann.)

Here are two writers who have written successful artistic accounts of “worst secrets”: one fiction, one nonfiction. Which genre do we choose to explore a secret? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry? In his workshop at the 2013 Sanibel Writers Conference, Strauss (who writes mostly fiction) told us that he chose nonfiction for Half a Life because he wanted to get the facts right. It was his answer to the news articles that reported the accident. Amy Hempel chose fiction for her elliptical, poetic story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Lucille Clifton wrote poems such as “the lost baby poem.” So . . .

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.                                  ― W.B. Yeats

And have no fear. After all, to begin we need only a pen and notebook and ten minutes.

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For other writers who have written about “worst secrets,”  see work by Susan Cheever, Jeannette WallsKathryn Harrison,Pat Conroy, Sharon Olds, and Nora Ephron (who kept her own impending death a secret while planning her Exit.) Also Nabokov’s Lolita,Sophocles’ Oedipus, and St. Augustine’s Confessions come to mind. In the current issue of The Paris Review (“The Art of Nonfiction No. 5″), the French writer Emmanuel Carrére discusses (among other things) his telling of secrets in My Life as a Russian Novel. 

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Writing Jumpstart: Use Gordon Lish’s assignment above. Or write about why you could never tell your worst secret. Or find the humor in a secret–and write that story or poem (maybe like Billy Collins does in “Forgetfulness” or “Writing in the Afterlife“–not exactly about secrets but about where “assignments” might take us.) Or invent a secret for a character in your novel or story. There must be lots of power in that word “secret.” Give it whirl for ten minutes. And another ten. That’s something about secrets that might keep you going for longer.

We Have To Do What We Have To Do

I’ve been thinking about the prompts (jumpstarts) I’ve been adding to these blogs. They are meant to be little exercises for limbering up the writing muscles. If I can do one of these a day for ten minutes, then in one week I would have seven pages of a notebook and seven more observations or details than I would have if I ruminated about my writing and waited for an inspiring idea to float into my brain.

Yet I often hear myself saying: “But I don’t really want to write about parakeets (see the last post) or whatever the prompt might suggest.” A little moment of rebellion starts up in my brain. Some voice is asking, “How is this going to help you write what you really want to write? That novel, that short story, that great poem?” Another one says, “It’s too late.” Another one says, “You have too much to do.”

imagesRecently I started taking piano lessons again. When I said to Hannah, my new teacher, “I don’t think I can play that. Maybe when I was twelve and just learning, but now my brain feels like concrete.” She stopped me. “All you have to do is try the six things I write down in your book each week. It’s my job to take you to the new place,” she said.

So where is that writing teacher who will take me to the next place? Right here, inside of my own head. There is another voice that says: “Tell me everything you have to say. I want to hear it. And by the way, hurry up! The clock is ticking.” That voice also says: “Once you get some words on paper we’ll work on it and get it to be that novel, that short story, that great poem.” That voice keeps saying, “You know you told me you want to do this. Let’s go.” (Maybe it’s my dad’s voice. He used to stand in the dining room listening to me practice the piano and then clap like crazy after each song.)

If we can listen to the voice that questions why we would write for ten minutes every day about some topic, then why can’t we believe in some of those other voices (like Hannah’s) that say, “Just do this. I’ll help you get to the next place.” All I have to do is try a prompt or jumpstart and write for ten minutes. It adds up.

It’s like practicing the piano, who knows where I will be able to go?  Maybe I can play “To a Wild Rose” for my brother by the holidays.

Wait! I can hear him groaning in the background. He had to hear me practice that piece for months for my first recital. I won’t let that stop me. It’ll be fun to torment him again like when I was twelve, and he was eight. Sorry, Glenn, we have to do what we have to do!

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If you’ve forgotten how “To a Wild Rose” goes, here’s a version played by someone who can really play.  (Just click on the highlighted song title.)

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Writing Jumpstart: For ten minutes, write down what all those voices are saying about how you shouldn’t be writing. Then rip up the page or mark through the words or simply turn to a new page. Now write down all those other voices that are saying, “Go for it.” Listen to them and write what they are saying, for another ten minutes.

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dirtylove_coverP. S. Also if you don’t really want to write, then go do what you really want to do. I had a chance to speak with Andre Dubus III at the Sanibel Writers Conference last year. When I told him that sometimes I’d rather just go watch the sunset on the beach and not write, ever, he said, “Well, do that. Forget about writing, if you can.” That last phrase says it all.

(Andre Dubus most recent book is on my list of books to read. Great reviews!)

The Parakeet Craze

Not long ago, my brother, Glenn, and I got to talking about parakeets and that time in the fifties when everyone had a parakeet. It was the rage.Unknown

Our Aunt Clarissa and Uncle Stamper had a blue one named Snookie. Since they never had children, they treated Snookie like their child. His home was an elaborate cage full of mirrors and every parakeet toy imaginable: little seesaws and bells and plastic balls to push around. He could whistle and say a few words like “Pretty Boy” and “Hello.”  Aunt Clarissa would let him sit on her head and preen her hair or on her shoulder where she would turn her head and allow him to kiss her, which all seems a little disgusting now that parakeets aren’t so much the rage.  But it was awful when he died, and they were not able to have another parakeet after Snookie.free vintage printable_parakeets and children

After I begged for weeks, my mother let me pick out a parakeet at the dime store. I  chose a green one and named him Petie, but he was not half as smart as Snookie.  His only claim to fame was his demonstrative shows of affection for his reflection in the mirror that charmed him and his ability to make an incredible mess in the bottom of his cage.

My brother remembered that back during the parakeet rage, our Uncle Hughie heard that parakeets would be a good business venture, so he decided to raise them. He had a little house full of parakeets who laid tiny eggs in nests. I don’t remember how well Uncle Hughie did at the business, but I never saw any baby birds in the nests.Unknown-1

Glenn told about how every now and then someone’s parakeet in our neighborhood would escape, and you’d see that person standing under a telephone line with the cage and the door open. There, balanced on the wire, would be a row of sparrows; and right in the middle, a bright green parakeet. The owner stood down below pointing to the open door of the wire cage, saying: “Here pretty boy, here, pretty boy.” He was attempting to lure the bird with a tantalizing cuttlebone. The bird, on the other hand, seemed happy enough trying to blend in with the sparrows.

I don’t know what happened to the parakeet craze, but I do remember our son, Mike, asking for a bird for Christmas when he was in the second grade. That was all he wanted. So we got him a parakeet. The birds must have evolved, or de-volved, from the time of the Snookies, or maybe we owners just weren’t willing to work with them the way Aunt Clarissa did. Our bird, Barney, was a mess. He never could get used to being out of his cage, so we could tame him. He would fly in big arching circles all over the house, and then cling, in desperation, to a curtain while our dog Max looked up at him hungrily.

Barney did have one major talent. He couldn’t seem to die. He lived on and on until we finally gave him to our daughter, who was living in an apartment. One day she came home to find him on the bottom of the cage, his two little feet sticking up into the air.

And that was the end of the parakeet craze, at least for us.

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Writing Jumpstart: Think about some “craze” that has come and gone, at least for you. See how many stories you can string together. Go for ten minutes. Then another ten minutes until you have at least three stories to tell.

Deb Shelton and the Goodreads Poetry Contest

I hardly ever send my poems out, but one day recently while looking at the Goodreads site, I saw an announcement for a monthly poetry contest. So I sent one of my poems: “The Space between the Words.”

I wrote this poem some years ago (June 2004) in honor of my good friend, Deb Shelton, who died at age 58, from breast cancer. On the day of her funeral, the words came to me as I searched for the answer to the question: Where are you, dear friend? Where have you gone?

DEBDeb was so full of life and laughter and love that it seemed impossible that we could ever lose her, but we did. We used to talk a mile a minute and ride bikes around the lake and go on about our children (our sons were about the same age.) So the poem lives on now as a reminder of Deb and how she came to occupy “the space between the words” in my heart.

This morning when I opened my e-mail, I found that the poem was one of the six finalists for the month of November. I am honored, but the poem is not about me. It’s about a good friend–and all those we love and lose–those we are honored to have as part of our lives.

If you want to read the six poems, here’s the link:

http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1552505-please-vote-for-the-november-2013-goodreads-newsletter-finalists

I think you’ll enjoy all of them. And of course, you can vote for your favorite! (But you have to do it today.)

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Writing Jumpstart:  Take ten minutes today to write about someone who isn’t here anymore. Go.

No Time to Write?

by Arlene Mandell

Guest Author

You want to write. You love to write. BUT you’re too busy to write right now. And when you finally clear a space, you find yourself staring at a blank screen with nothing urgent to say.

Here are ten ways to keep creative ideas flourishing:

Arlene Mandell

Arlene Mandell

1. When you don’t have time to write a “proper” journal entry, jot down a description, for example, of the tiny fawn faltering as she tries to cross the road. Use an index card or a sticky note. Date it and toss it into a shoe box reserved for that purpose.

2. Grab a book from your stack of unread books. Open to the first page; read the first sentence. For example, from the introduction to Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach: “I write this sitting in my cozy kitchen on a wintry morning, my old cat dozing beside me on the warm, hissing radiator.”

3. Pick a quotation at random from Bartlett’s or another anthology. Here’s one of my favorites from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poetry As Insurgent Art: “Poetry is the truth that reveals all lies, the face without mascara.”

4. Visit an art museum on-line and wander through a current exhibit. As a former New Yorker, I often drop in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the U.S. I select the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, one of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography, and learn that she was forty-eight when she received her first camera.

imgres-15. Copy this quote by poet Ellen Bass and pin it to your bulletin board: “You should know something at the end of the piece that you didn’t know at the beginning.” When you have a moment, read the last line of your latest poem, story, or essay.

6. Even if you’re wearing baggy jeans and a faded sweatshirt, wrap yourself in the glamorous shawl that’s too good to use. Add a squirt of French perfume. Dream of faraway places . . . then write a few lines from Tangiers or Tahiti. Time to pick up the children from school? Toss your notes into your shoe box.

7. Open any book of poems. Riffle through the pages till you come upon one you like and read it aloud. Here’s Mary Oliver from “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy.” Read it aloud, then repeat the last stanza: “For often I see his shape in the clouds and this is a continual blessing.” Let the words and sentiment linger.

8. Visit your local bookstore. Yes, this can prove expensive, so set a limit, say $20
and buy one new thing, a book (obviously) or a scented candle or a box of beautiful note cards. If the store has a café, sip a cappuccino and write a note to yourself from a beloved teacher or a boyfriend from long ago.

9. Before chopping vegetables for dinner, dig through your CDs for something you haven’t heard in a long, long time. Put down the knife, close your eyes and remember.

10. Find your oldest journal. Turn the pages till something explodes and demands an immediate update.

* * *

I could go on and on, but by now you should have enough material to get you through some rainy days and dark nights. When you’ve completed all your grownup chores and double-locked the doors, take pen in hand. . . .

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Arlene L. Mandell, a retired English professor who lives in Santa Rosa, CA, was formerly on the staff of Good Housekeeping magazine. She has published more than 500 poems, essays and short stories in newspapers and literary journals, and in 24 anthologies.. Her echapbook, Scenes from My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, is available free at  http://www.echapbook.com/memoir/mandell.
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Going Home and Leonard Cohen

Last week our family, all twelve of us, returned to my home in southeastern North Carolina. We stayed at Wrightsville Beach, one of my favorite places in all the world. I grew up in Wilmington, N. C., only a few miles from this beach. So this would be a time to come together with family to celebrate my mother’s life and to scatter her ashes in the ocean.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

She used to fish in the surf next to the house we would be renting. It turned out to be a beautiful, hurricane-free week. Yet as much as I wanted it to be the same beach, the same place–it all had changed. Now my mother was gone, and I had become the matriarch. I missed sitting around our dining room table eating her home-cooked food. I missed the house I always returned to when I came to visit.  I missed that sense of life going on forever in a certain way. Not to say, that we didn’t have a great time. We walked the beach, swam, laughed, and enjoyed a great week. But I had lost my anchor to this place I loved so much.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

In his song/poem “Going Home,” Leonard Cohen lends his distinctive voice and intellect to the idea of home. Cohen, our Renaissance man, is still writing and singing at age 79. In this poem, another voice enters:  ”I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” In the song, Leonard becomes a conduit for this greater voice of wisdom that says: “Going home/Without my burden/Going home behind the curtain/Without the costume/That I wore.” This voice takes the idea of “going home” and lifts it out of a literal place and out of real time. It made me think about how my mother’s ashes looked when we tossed them in the surf on a moonlit night. It made me think of home in a different way.

Here is Leonard Cohen’s poem as it appeared in The New Yorker (1/23/12):

Going Home

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

–Leonard Cohen

Listen to  Cohen sing/speak “Going Home” in his inimitable way. (Click highlight.)

 
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I wrote the following poem before my mother died. It is about an earlier visit home when she sat beside me at the same beach and sketched. I remember her saying that she needed an eraser. Even then I was feeling “erased” from this landscape that had been home to me as a child.
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Erased

“By now, I think I have been entirely erased.”
–Henri Cole, “The Erasers”

Time was when this piece of an island
(the blues of rolling surf,
the whites of shifting sand
its language with words like in the beginning
and holy, holy, holy
that stopped at that ridge of sand dunes)
owned me;
and I, it.

Today the dunes are feathered
with sea oats waiting
for the summer sun to fan their seed pods.
I smell fried chicken cooking for Sunday dinner
and hear Southern voices
and the birds—yes the birds.

I have forgotten this language, their language,
while these flitting, floating birds continue to speak
in the same codes—a genetic path that I cannot seem to find again.

I have been erased—the she who spoke this way
disguised now under a blue hat behind purple sunglasses.
I wear turquoise—only turquoise.

My mother starts her sketches in pencil
I need a good eraser, she says today.

And I am the one erased from this landscape
(the child running through the surf,
the young girl in love,
the good daughter,
who knew the language of wind
and of hurricanes and these birds.)

–Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Jumpstart: As you go about your life today, notice all the ways you see “home.” Then sit down for ten minutes and write as fast as you can using “home” or “going home” as your base. Try not to analyze or to write something “good,” just write first thoughts and observations. Leonard had to let another voice speak. It said, “He doesn’t need a vision.” Go.

Note about Jumpstarts: The idea grew out of my Sanibel writing classes: “Jumpstart Your Writing.” They are a way to stay in touch with your writing self. All you need is a notebook and a pen. Or use them as part of some writing project you’re working on. (For example, if you’re writing fiction, you could riff on a character who is going home or a character’s home.)