On Practice and Patience

For over a year now, I’ve been trying to learn Claude Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1.”

I took piano lessons from age ten into my teens and college years, and then off and on as an adult when my children were taking lessons. I can’t say that I have much natural musical talent, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of playing the piano. So for the last three years or more, I’ve been taking lessons again with a gifted and patient teacher, Matt Dorland. Little did I know that Mr. Debussy’s piece would take me so long to master—well, not really master, because that is a wishful dream. But at least I wanted to be able to play from the beginning to the final note without stopping, which, hallelujah, I managed to accomplish today.

I get nervous when someone is listening. Matt told me about another adult student who asked him to sit nearby and do something else, as if he weren’t really listening. So with Matt sitting on the couch looking at his phone, I played and, despite many mistakes, completed the piece without stopping to correct myself. I liked that Matt said nothing when I finished. He moved back to the chair by the piano. “Well, how did that feel?” he asked. “Scary,” I said, staring at the music. “I messed up the ending. And some of the usual spots too.”

There are several sections in the piece that I have trouble with and have practiced over and over again. Hands apart. Slowly. Try not to look at my hands. Just the music. Feel where my fingers should go. Keep the triplets smooth. Add the quarter notes in the left hand, so they work with the triplets. This last part, triplets in the right hand and quarter notes in the left, took me months to even begin to understand.

Why did I stick with this piece? There were many times when I wanted to quit. “I need a break from Mr. Debussy,” I would tell Matt. But the next week, I was back to the piece. Not able to let it go. Maybe I’m just stubborn. I had started it, and I would finish it.

This doesn’t always happen with writing. There are many unfinished writing projects buried in my computer. It does help to have to be accountable to someone, my piano teacher, every week. Without his patient guidance, I would have drifted away.

I remember talking with Matt one time about how writing a poem or a story differs from playing notes someone else has written. Which is more creative: writing or playing the piano?

“Well, no two people will ever play the piece the same,” he answered.

That is certainly true. My creative rendition of “Arabesque No. 1” doesn’t even come close to the ones I hear on You Tube. But it represents my own appreciation of the challenges presented by this incredibly beautiful piece of music–tonal shifts, difficult rhythms, key shifts, arpeggios.

Thank you, Mr. Debussy, for your genius.

Thank you, Mr. Dorland, for your acceptance, your talent, your insightful tips on how to learn a difficult piece—and most of all, for your patience.
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Writing Connection:

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says: “This is the practice school of writing. The more you do it, the better you get. . . . You practice whether you want to or not.” She compares writing to a run. “You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it.”  She says, “That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk.” So if your writing practice has lapsed, pull out your notebook and go. Write about anything.

Here’s a prompt to get you started:

Explore a challenge involving music. Or what do you have to say about patience? Go.  For ten minutes. Think of it as practice. Is there anyone listening, it doesn’t matter. Good. No one is listening. Not even Lucy,  _______________________________

“The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

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For the Love of Books

Sometimes I think that my love of books and reading can be a way to avoid writing. It’s so much easier to pick up a book and disappear into another world than it is to pick up my pen and create another world.

Every Sunday, The New York Times Book Review publishes a feature entitled “By the Book” where notable authors and other important people are asked several questions about their current reading. I enjoy the wide variety of answers to questions like “What books are on your nightstand right now?” and “What’s the last great book you read?” Sometimes I wonder how these authors find the time to read so widely and keep up their amazing writing lives at the same time. Maybe they don’t belong to three book groups!

I have to thank these book groups and my writer friends for inspiring me to read books I might not otherwise have chosen. There are also the books for upcoming trips (Hemingway’s A Movable Feast) and books by writers whose workshops I’ll be attending (Kate Moses’s Wintering), not to mention books written by friends (Marge Barrett’s Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun). I can hardly keep up.

The books stacked beside me today have given me so much pleasure this summer. As much I love each of them, I’m going to try to put them back on the shelf and concentrate on writing—as soon as I return from my next trip, that is!IMG_0623

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A sampling of my favorites from this summer’s reading:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

Wonderful exploration of four plants (tulip, apple, marijuana, potato) chosen by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum garden book group led by Toni McNaron, one of my favorite teachers.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This novel led to one of the liveliest discussions about a book I’ve had in long time. Tears and cheers for chimps!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Oh, the wonders of reading Jane Austen! This novel gave me so many ideas for the work I need to do on the novel that I’m taking out of the drawer. “Yes, I am going to do that,” she says to herself.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Somewhere along the line I missed reading this classic, which took my breath away. An amazing work of art.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Fun to see what a writer like Anne Tyler does with the original “vinegar girl,” Katherina, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of Shrew.

Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun by Marge Barrett

Hats off to my friend, Marge Barrett, for her lovely memoir! So proud of you, my friend. You inspire me to sit down and write!

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In the I-love-to-hear-from-you department: How does your reading affect your writing life? What are you reading this summer?

If (like me) your writing has suffered this summer for whatever reason, try writing three pages a day for the next week in your writer’s notebook. Record your day, your doings, the way the moonlight looks on a July night, your garden as it becomes robust or not, the storm that left you without power for two days, your trip (real or imaginary) to Paris. Three pages and stop. That is enough.

In these stressful times, I hope each of you finds a few hours each week to nurture a rich, creative life—as you seek solace and joy in both your reading and your writing.

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For a taste of Stegner’s profoundly moving prose, here is his narrator Lyman Ward at the end of Angle of Repose:

” ‘What do you mean, ‘Angle of Repose?’ she [Lyman’s estranged wife] asked me [Lyman Ward] when I dreamed we were talking about Grandmother’s life, and I said it was the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down. I suppose it is; and yet it was not that I hoped to find when I began to pry around in Grandmother’s life. I thought when I began, and still think, that there was another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year for year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers. They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met. But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at that absolute vanishing point they did intersect. They had intersected for years, for more than he himself would ever admit.”

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Also the words on my cup (in the photo):

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”    (unknown)

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Never Too Late

This week I’m re-posting a recent blog entry by my fellow writer and editor, Carol Roan, from her site, The Stage Fright Whisperer. Carol and I collaborated on the creation of  When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50. Her essay, part of a series she is doing on creativity, is inspirational for me because, like the anthology, it celebrates the life and work of older writers. Some of us have just been so busy living our lives that we haven’t always had the time to write and publish our stories. Yet it’s never too late–as the life of Smith Hagaman reveals.People-are-capable

The Creative Experience Has No Age Limits

by Carol Roan

Smith Hagaman died last week. Unless you’re from North Carolina, or are one of the too few people who have read his books, the name will mean nothing to you. But Smith is an inspiration to me.

He began to write at the age of 86. He had a story in his head, and he decided, “If not now, when?” He was a reader; but, other than a letter-to-the-editor or two, he had never written. He knew nothing about the craft of writing, only that he wanted to tell a story. He sat down and wrote for six months. He said later that if he had worried about how he was writing, he would have given up.

But then he took the crucial next step: He learned the craft. He went to workshops and readings; he joined a critique group and a marketing group. He hired an editor. Me, as it turned out. And what a joy he was to work with. “Why?” That was always his question. When he understood why his first scene didn’t work and what the reader would expect from a first scene, he rewrote it in a week.

And he researched the details. He had been involved in a plane crash during World War II, so he already knew what that felt like. But if his fictional crash occurred in the Arctic Circle, what would the survivors find to eat? He consulted the foremost expert on the flora and fauna of that region. I had a problem with the scene in which an Irish priest comforts a dying Jewish man. Smith consulted a rabbi and found a prayer that I didn’t know existed, even though I’d sung in synagogues and been fascinated by Hebraic rituals for more than 30 years.

Smith ended up with more than a good adventure story. Because he asked “why?” throughout his life, each of his characters is on some sort of quest. One of them—the Irish prist—questions his own faith. The laws of physics, engineering and mechanical problems, and an underlying spirituality all come into play. And he manages to engage the reader with the most unsympathetic character imaginable . . .Ah, I don’t want to give away the ending.

When Smith asked if I would write a blurb for the book and sent me the galleys, I truly could not put it down until 4:00 a.m. For a good read, do get hold of Off the Chart by Smith Hagaman.

A wannabe writer at 86, Smith published two books and was at work on a third when he died.

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About Carol: 

With graduate degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University and in business from Columbia University, Carol Roan has sung in the television premiere of a Ned Rorem opera and testified about esoteric gold trades before the CFTC. Her writing career began with the publication of her first nonfiction book at the age of 62. She has since authored two other nonfiction books and co-edited three anthologies, including When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50.

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For Writers or Aspiring Writers:

If you’ve been meaning to pick up a pen and write, well, pick up a pen and write–one memory, one letter, one observation from the day, one story. Today. It’s not too late to start or to start again. Just set aside ten minutes and write without judging yourself or what you write. Then try it again tomorrow–and the next. I’ll be doing that too. So you’re not alone.

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“Those who pass by us, do not go alone, and do not leave us alone; they leave a bit of themselves, and take a little of us.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Tiny Turtle, Giant Tortoise

Since our return from a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, where we swam with sea lions, watched the mating dance of the waved albatross, observed a frigate bird high above us show his red throat, and stood within a few feet of a giant land tortoise as she grazed on grass, I’ve come to realize how far I’ve traveled from those days in North Carolina when I was the proud owner of a green pet turtle that I cared for in a small plastic pool.Turtle12(1)

These tiny turtles could be purchased in the five-and-dime stores of my childhood. Such amazing stores for children! All laid out in rectangles of counter after counter: the perfume counter, the hosiery counter, the underwear counter.

Each counter was overseen by a single salesperson, complete with her own cash register. There was no central station to which you carried your merchandise, no credit cards for that matter. In fact it would have been unheard of to carry your merchandise from one place to another in the store. You chose whatever, paid for it with cash, and then moved to the next counter for your next purchase.

It was mid-July, 1950, I was almost eight years old, on the day my mother and I walked by the turtle counter. There they were, turtles. An entire section was devoted to these small green creatures, some swimming in their shallow tanks, others “sunning” on their plastic promenades. My mother, who was probably headed to the underwear counter, paused as I stood before the turtles. “No.” she said. “Absolutely not. No turtles.”

By my birthday in October, I had managed to convince her that a turtle was a small pet: one that would not track mud into the house, one that would be easy to take care of.IMG_8954 (4) copy

Fast forward to July, 2015, when our family of twelve visited the Galapagos Islands where we saw the giant tortoises made famous by Darwin on his visit aboard The Beagle in 1835. During Darwin’s time, these tortoises were captured and eaten by the inhabitants and visitors to the islands. Darwin writes: “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.” The giant tortoises were almost extinct until the islands became protected. Today we can stand by these large reptiles and watch them munch on grass unafraid like most all the animals, birds, fish, and reptiles in the Galapagos. It gives one hope.

From tiny turtles in a North Carolina five-and-dime store to giant tortoises in the Galapagos of Ecuador—from the 1950 to 2015—how far I’ve traveled. Yet these turtles and tortoises still tell me to slow down, to take my time. The turtle has become my totem creature. Can I slowly gain even a little wisdom? Can I carry my home wherever I go? Can I persist? Trust my path no matter what?

Oh yes, I’ve become a turtle. Wrinkled. Shell intact. Yet vulnerable. Like that tiny green turtle that sat in my hand so long ago. And even the large tortoises of the Galapagos. But, good news, turtles and tortoises live a long time. Lonesome George lived to the age of 102.  Plenty of time to do our work—slow but steady within shells/rooms/studies/homes. We write and read and move along.

Lonesome George (1910 to June 24, 2012)

Lonesome George
(1910 ?  to June 24, 2012)

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Writing Idea:  Pets–write about your first pet. Or your “totem animal.”  Is there some living creature to which you feel a special bond or identify? Or try to connect a small memory (those little turtles) to a more recent one (Galapagos tortoises). How do animals (birds, reptiles, fish) enter into your writing?

“Having the turtle as totem means that you have an affinity with the ancient wisdom of the earth. You are naturally tuned into the elements, land, plants, people and animals. You carry your home on your back figuratively speaking and feel at ease wherever you are.”   —-Elena Harris from “Turtle Spirit Animal”

“In modern China, turtle is one of the four divine animals along with dragon, phoenix, and chimera.” Turtle Symbolism 

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“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise -”
“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

 

 

Confessions of a Workshop Junkie

In a few days, I’m taking the boat to Key West to attend “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit,” the 2015 Key West Literary Seminar. I’m looking forward to sitting at the feet of some great writers, a privilege no matter what my age. There is so much to learn about writing, our world, and the life of the spirit from reading and hanging out with writers, so I’ll settle back in the red velvet seats of the San Carlos Center on Duval Street and listen to Coleman Barks, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Pico Iyer, Wally Lamb, Barry Lopez, Robert Richardson, Marilynne Robinson, and Steve Stern.kw_beach

“Our hope,” writes program co-chair Pico Iyer about the 2015 seminar, “is to talk about essentials—what lasts and what is at the heart of us—through poetry, essay, fiction, and even silence; to push words as far as they can go and then to respect what remains when they give out.”

These Key West seminars are immensely popular and sell out right away. In fact, the 2016 seminar (“Shorts: Stories, Essays, and Other Briefs”) is already sold out with a waiting list. So I’m must not be the only one who enjoys the literary treat of listening to writers, who have worked hard at their craft.

Following the seminar, my friend Mary and I will participate in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry workshop. Jane is a rock star in the poetry world and someone whose work I have admired for a long time, so again I’m so happy to have this opportunity to stretch my poetry wings in new directions, as I get to know Jane.

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan

Last summer, Mary and I signed up for Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction workshop offered by Hamline University on the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield, Minnesota. Again what a pleasure to absorb what Rebecca had to say and to try my hand at many of her writing challenges.

Besides my poetry, I’m attempting to write a family memoir. “Now why I can’t I just sit at my desk and write the dang thing,” I ask myself. “Why am I always going off to hang out with these other writers in workshops?”

My mother was a good role model for me in this department. She continued to study art and learn from other artists right into her nineties. It kept her going. Art was her passion. So I’ve made writing mine. These other writers inspire me and give me great pleasure. They send me back to my desk with new ideas and with writing that I would never have done without them.

As I prepare to teach my own workshops here on Sanibel in late January, I hope that I can bring some of the same inspiration that these writers have given to me. We’re all great writers, each in our own way. The words we put upon the paper express our deepest desires, our unique histories and experiences, our longings, our loves and our losses. They record a moment in time that comes along only once.

Our words connect us to each other—the famous and the not-so-famous—we’re in this game together. So onward to the next workshop!

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Writing Challenge: One of Rebecca McClanahan’s writing challenges for those of us writing nonfiction is to “create a self on the page.” She says, “Part of what draws a reader into a nonfiction work–in particular a memoir or personal essay–is the sense that a flesh-and-blood character stands behind the words. Use the first person “I” to introduce and describe the person behind the words. To do this, you’ll need to acquire enough distance so that you can present yourself as a character on the page.”

Give this a spin to get yourself into your 2015 writing chair.You can refer to yourself as “he” or “she” and describe yourself as if you were a character in a story. A good experiment in humility–not a bad way to start the year.

P. S. See my earlier post, “The Size of My Life,” for a wonderful poem, “My Life at Sixty,” by Mary Junge, in which she creates “a self on the page.”

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I hope 2015 yields much good writing for you! Or I should say just “writing”—don’t worry about the “good” part. Put some words on paper—and feel good about that. Or take a class; attend a workshop. Try sitting at the feet of those writers who have honed their craft and gained some recognition in the process. Remember they got there from time spent at their desks, laying words on paper, like bricks in a wall. It’s never too late. Forget the fame part. Listen. Learn. And write. That’s my intention.

Happy New Year!

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“Our task as writers is not only to pay attention to our world but also to use the materials of the world in extraordinary ways. To do this, we must uncover the subtle design, the “figure in the carpet” that is woven into even the most everyday events. Often we must proceed without knowing what form the work will finally take. We write our way into the question, into the mystery. Writing begets more writing; meaning grows on the page.”   Rebecca McClanahan  (from her website).

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My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats

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I had not heard from Mr. Yeats in years. He was buried in my bookshelf with other old friends, tucked away in closed pages, long gone. Or so I thought–until this past October when I visited Ireland, a country in love with writing and with its writers–especially with William Butler Yeats.

In the interest of compression, the story goes like this: My husband and I were leaving the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Cashel Man preserved in the Irish peat bogs. He was buried during the early Bronze Age, 2,000 BC, making him 4,000 years old!  (They had bogs; we have blogs.)

"The Lake Isle of Innistree"As we left,  we saw a notice for a Yeats exhibit next door at the  Irish National Library. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “we  have to go in.”  And there, as if Yeats too had emerged from the bogs of my memory, I found him still alive.  I heard his sonorous voice reading  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” His words were music. The images of Innisfree were projected onto transparent screens:  the bees, the clover, the land. I listened as  other Irish poets read more of his poems. I was transfixed. One of my favorite poets, the complicated William Butler Yeats, whose poems sent me spiraling as a college student, was here alive and well. For the next hour, we made our way around the exhibit, visiting smaller rooms with multiple inter-active exhibits that captured his loves, his marriage, his politics, his interest in the occult, his writing, and finally his death and re-burial in Ireland. As we left, I knew that my love for Yeats had never really been lost.

If you won’t be making a trip to Ireland anytime soon, you can visit the Irish National Library exhibit and take a virtual tour. Go to The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.

A few weeks after we returned from Ireland,  I opened my e-mail to find  that Yeats was still speaking to me. There in my mailbox was his poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets). Go to a Video Homage to “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for a lovely reading of this poem.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve met many times with my friend, W. B. Yeats, reading his poems and biography and tracking him down on the internet.  I discovered a favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” one of his best-loved poems, written when he was quite young. As an extra bonus, I found a wonderful love story related to “When You Are Old”  from the Favorite Poem Project (founded by former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky) about a young woman, her grandfather, and her husband-to-be. The lovely video shows how one poem can connect several people and give meaning to each of their lives. Click here to watch it:  “Yeats, When You Are Old,”  Favorite Poem Project.

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When You Are Old

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 

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Writing Ideas: Take the phrase “My Love Affair with _________.” Try out different words to fill in the blank: “My Love Affair with the Ocean,”  “My Love Affair with My ’62 White Buick Convertible,” “My Love Affair with Chopin or Elvis.” Don’t think too much about it. Just write for at least ten minutes. There’s passion there–and longing. I know.

Or take the lines: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” There’s plenty there to fill a few pages of your writer’s notebook. Go.images-9

What the Leaves Believe

I was going to write about my rekindled love affair with William Butler Yeats, but he will have to wait. Because today all I can think about are the leaves and Lucille Clifton. I have to start by saying I cannot describe the brilliance of the trees today.the leaves today

We’re lucky to live in a small stand of maples on Gleason Lake about fifteen minutes west of downtown Minneapolis.  I enjoy these trees in the spring when the shadowy green of their leaves emerges after the long winter and, of course, in the summer when they reach their deep glory to cover our lane allowing only a few rays of sun, yet it is now in October when they tell the real story. The trees scream out: “See it only gets better because we will soon do it all over again.”

Yesterday in our poetry class, Deborah Keenan brought in this poem by Lucille Clifton:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leavesIMG_7612

A few years ago when I was under the spell of Lucille Clifton, I wrote a poem inspired by her. I bring this poem to you because not only did Lucille Clifton lead the way and help me see the leaves and state my credo, but also because the poem shows how what others write can lead us to what we can write. Without Lucille Clifton, I could never have written this poem. I owe her gratitude–and the leaves too for all their lessons. _______________________________________

What the Leaves Believe

After Lucille Clifton

that they will fall
and wither on the ground

that they will have gone to
all that trouble

to make abundance
to make glory

all that trouble every spring
to fill those branches

so full that a bird is lost
in their midst

and then gone
leaving the bare bones

the bare black bones of branches
what the leaves believe

is what I believe

––Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea:  What do you have to say about this time of year? about the leaves? Seasons appear in all genres, so if you’re writing memoir, go in your memory bank to fall. Try picking one fall: the fall when you went to junior high, the fall you learned to drive, the fall your father died. Fall on the east coast of North Carolina is not like fall in Minnesota. Give us your fall. Go for ten minutes–just write it out without over-thinking. Smells, colors, sounds, feelings, the light. That kind of thing.

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Next blog, I promise: “My Love Affair with William Butler Yeats” (R rated)

Time and Hallelujah

Where did the time go? I sometimes ask at the end of a day as I pour myself my inch of brandy and settle into my chair to read another chapter of Middlemarch. (See last blog entry. Yes, I’m only half-way through and the book group meets in less than a week!)

Reading in the Courtyard

Reading in the Courtyard

And then I think of the beautiful day I had last Friday with two of our four granddaughters. First we found a garage sale where we nosed around the left-overs of old computers, shoes, baby clothes, books, CDs, and dirty garden equipment to find treasures: two flowerpots, a spiked-fur cat, and a penguin with sequin-covered flippers who went to lunch with us.  We also visited the library, checked out a million books, and then read them in the library flower garden–followed by a granddaughter gymnastics show of cartwheels and somersaults and backbends.

As I pulled into the garage later that day, I experienced one of those driveway radio moments: Renee Fleming’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I could not move. And as I sat there, time elongated itself. Dissolved. I have plenty of time, I thought. More than enough. Music and a day with your granddaughters can do that.

I’ve started piano lessons here in Minnesota. I stumble along on the piano. Yet every now and then, what I’m doing actually sounds like music. My fingers forget they are attached to my hands and somehow link directly to some other melodious place that is still controlled by time, the beat. I can keep the time and be out of time at the same time. If only for a moment.

But back to Middlemarch, this novel has placed me in another time, the 1820s. George Eliot is writing about this period in England from fifty years later, the 1870s. So I am in three times: the present (my chair), George Eliot’s time (she enters the story to comment and guide us), and the actual time of the novel–when people rode horses and carts to get places, when there were no televisions, computers, and cell phones.

So what I’m trying to say is that time is not something I can find more of or even lose–although it is true that things can become lost in time if not recycled in garage sales.The clock and the calendar are helpful for telling time and making appointments, but not so much for dreaming. Time is the steady beat of my metronome, back and forth, keeping time. Time is the ticktock of my heart. A living beat. That beat is within music and poetry and Middlemarch. Hallelujah–repeated and repeated.

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“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. ” 
― George Eliot

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Writing Idea/Prompt:  The subject of time–how do we write about such an abstraction? Give it the old one-two (start with this minute) and see what you come up with in ten minutes. Or use George Eliot’s quote and go for ten minutes. Or listen to Renee Fleming or Leonard Cohen, himself, sing “Hallelujah” and see if the lyrics inspire you. (Click here for Leonard’s version of “Hallelujah” with lyrics.) The best version of “Hallelujah” is kd lang’s. Now she really sings it!

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News: After sending out poems last February to over seventy publications, I was pleased that “The Remorse of Herod” was chosen by “Forge” journal. Why this one? Random. Someone was looking for a poem about Herod–maybe? Click here to read it. Also these editors were great to work with, so give them a try.  They adjusted the lines in the print version–which loses the idea of John the Baptist’s head being chopped off, but looks better on the printed page.

Also Redbird Chapbooks (Minneapolis) is going to publish my chapbook, What Can Be Saved: Poems. Yay!

Let me know if you have any publication news. I always enjoy hearing from you!

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Spell “World” Backwards

Okay, everyone out there. You had better start practicing.  Someday in your distant, or not so distant, future, someone is going to ask you questions like this: “Spell world.”  That’s easy. “Now spell world backwards.” Don’t worry. They are just checking to see if you have dementia.

Can it be that we will live into our nineties only to be asked to spell world backwards? That’s all they want to know?lesleystahl-300x219

On a recent 60 Minutes show, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” Lesley Stahl interviewed Dr. Claudia Kawas and several of the oldest of the old. It seems that Dr. Kawas discovered a gold mine for her study on aging. In 1981, fourteen thousand people in a retirement community south of L. A., once known as Leisure World now as Laguna Woods, filled out extensive health and lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kawas was able to find 1,800 of these same folks, now in their nineties, still living in Laguna Woods–a perfect group of nonagenarians to study. Many also agreed to have their brains analyzed after death.

These men and women were gracious and willing to answer Lesley Stahl’s questions, as well as the standard ones for assessing the on-set of dementia. The ones without dementia laughed with her about being old.

There was a certain aren’t-they-cute-and-amazing tone to the episode–as if these people were a group of pandas or some adorable pilgrims sending messages back to those who haven’t reached the land of the old.

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

I realize that all these studies of the oldest of the old are meant to help us understand the nature of dementia, but the program seemed self-serving and somehow reductive. When complicated individuals are reduced to objects of study, the world turns backwards.

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Nonagenarians’ Lament

” …and pilgrimes were they alle, /That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”
–Chaucer

We were children once.
Our mothers took us shopping for spring outfits,
and we showed up at church
dressed in miniature suits,
white shirts with clip-on neckties.
Our sisters wore dotted swiss dresses
and patent shoes with buckles.

We were children who played roller bat
in the street and croquet and kick the can.
The girls liked jacks and jumping rope.
We learned the alphabet and sang it too
and made words from the letters in our soup.

Our hands curved around a pencil,
and we formed A’s and L’s with big looping arcs.
The Palmer method,
remember that?

We were children who fell asleep
hearing our parents laugh at oyster roasts in the yard
and rode home without seatbelts
curled up in the back seat of the old Mercury.

We knew our geography and the capitals
of all the states and the names of rivers too.
We studied chemistry and memorized
the bones in the body.

Ruth, in her 20's

Ruth, in her 20’s

We could recite in Middle English
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
We sang in the choir.
We fell in love.
We taught school, wired houses,
became lawyers, waited tables.

Now we practice yoga, write,
eat fish and chocolate, shovel snow,
go to concerts, nap,
play the piano, walk,
paint the sunset
and palm trees in oils.

They seem surprised.
They study us.
They ask: Who is the President?
What is today’s date?
They say: Remember three words.
How did you live so long?
What did you eat for breakfast?
Blood pressure?
Did you smoke? Drink wine?
Did you enjoy sex?
If so, for how long?

As if what mattered could be
quantified, replicated,
extended, amended,
comprehended,
once we are suspended.

They study us.
And after we die,
they dissect our brains.

–Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea/Jumpstart: What do you have to say about “the oldest of the old”? Or have you heard something in the news, on television, or in a recent conversation that caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, or prickle, at least? If so, write it down. It’s good to put some words on paper since I doubt our ideas, stories, bits of insight will show up under the microscope when our brains are dissected.

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Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.

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P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.

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Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    — Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist