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

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.

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.)

Mingus and Matthews: A Moment in Time

Since April is National Poetry Month, I want to honor poets and poetry. Particularly poets like William Matthews, who may have slipped from our memory.

2013 National Poetry Month Poster

2013 National Poetry Month
Poster

Matthews would have been my age had he not died of  a fatal heart attack at age 55 just one year after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection of poetry, Time & Money, in 1996.

Why does April (“the cruelest month”) bring us face to face with our own mortality? Perhaps because everything around us is so full of life, we are reminded of the brevity of it all. Poetry because of its brevity seems especially good at capturing those moments that pass by so quickly.

In “Mingus at the Showplace,” Matthews harkens back to that time in 1960 when he was age seventeen. He was listening to the music of double bassist and jazz composer, Charles Mingus, at The Showplace in New York City. At that point in his life, Mingus was 48 years old and at the height of his career. He, himself, would be gone in 1979 at age 57.

William Matthews

William Matthews

So I’m struck by the perfection of this moment in time when young poet and gifted musician come together. I’m also struck by how generous Mingus was to the young poet. “There’s a lot of that going around,” he says to the young Matthews about the poem Matthews has asked him to read.  Mingus certainly has standards because later that night Mingus, who was known for his temper, fired his pianist. Yet he is kind to the poet and continues to live in this poem.  “…and the band played on.”

Listen  (To hear the poem, click on this “listen” button.)

Mingus at the Showplace

BY WILLIAM MATTHEWS
I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat
literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,
casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.
And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.
So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,
and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn’t look as if he thought
bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot
to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children.   Of course later
that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.
“We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,”
he explained, and the band played on.
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William Matthews, “Mingus at the Showplace” from Time and Money: New Poems. Copyright © 1995 by William Matthews. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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You can order the free poster above by going to: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/98
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Writing Jumpstart: A brush with someone of genius. Or a time when you were young, and you had a chance to rub shoulders with someone like Mingus.  Go for ten minutes.

 

The Lost Umbrellas

Martha Varzaly
Guest Author

It was pouring raining when I came home from school, and neither Truman, my pug/cairn, nor I cared to walk.  It was still raining in the morning, but Truman’s urgent bark sounds like “Up!”  I’m not sure where he learned that sound but it surely wakes me up.  This time I knew that going out was essential.

Truman with Martha’s Umbrella

I pulled on yesterday’s dirty clothes and reached for the flowered umbrella that wasn’t in the umbrella stand.  It wasn’t in the hall closet.  It wasn’t in the garage.  Nor was it in the car.  How can one lose a wet umbrella in a condo?  Surely other umbrellas were in the back of the hall closet . . . the big black one that can cover three people, another flowered one that I bought in Target during a thunderstorm, a red one that I’ve had for years, and a sky blue one that collapses. All the while Truman demanded that we go naked in the rain   By the time we’d chased the water down the street gutters, waited for Truman to sniff every bush and peed on most of them.  Eventually we meandered home, and I dried him off before he shook the water on the carpet.  Exchanging my soaking clothes and grabbing a cup of hot coffee helped my mood.

Losing umbrellas is not the only lost thing in my life. My life seems confused like my condo . . . junk mail has spilled from the file cabinet to floor.  One day, I’ll write an article about the unwanted stuff that fills my mail box.  The clock over my desk needs a battery.  I got it off the wall, but haven’t gotten the kitchen stool so I can put it back nor can I find a battery. I must have at least half-dozen pairs of cheap reading glasses, yet there’s never a pair to be found when I’m in a hurry. There are always dishes in the sink; although, I’m sure I cleaned the kitchen last night.

It’s even worse.  I can never remember whom I have told someone something.  It may be just a joke or something important.  My children give me that look that says, “Mom, you’ve told me that already.”  Isolation and silence seems the best since I can’t upset others by repetition. I help shuttle the grandchildren to and from all sorts of activities, and my daughter sends me a weekly calendar.  For her calendar, I am grateful.  Otherwise I never know where and when I am supposed to be.

A year ago when I went to the doctor looking for a solution to my losing memory, I saw my primary care physician and a neurologist.  I took all their tests and nothing showed up – or at least nothing bad showed up.  There was no indication of memory lost, but I couldn’t remember things. Last semester I had trouble remembering my students’ name. Now walking into classroom is frightening.  The doctors will most likely blame my confusion because my husband died this spring.

But this year, I’ve done my homework. I will fight to awaken my brain and find those umbrellas!

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About Martha Varzaly: “I teach Composition at Johnson County Community College, am a prose editor for Kansas City Voices, and have recently found a new voice for me – writing with a chuckle about serious things such as cataract surgery, encounter with a skunk, and memory loss. I wrote as stringer for the Lynchburg News in Virginia (and I got paid by the inch) when I was 16; and 50 years later, I’m having a ball. Just call me ‘Grandma Martha.'”