Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sweet Memory

I tried to tell you again last night, Lila. You were sitting in the blue chair by the fireplace. It wasn’t cold, but it was damp, and you insisted on the fire. I am used to it now, your tendency to be cold unless you’re soaked in the garden sun. With your head bent over your book and a loose strand of hair curled against your shoulder, I could see you as you used to be and it made me ache. I said your name, you smiled at me, and I remembered the first time I noticed you. You were across the room and I was riveted, like a scene in some ridiculous movie. You wore a gauzy pink dress and smiled at me with a fresh, dark-eyed loveliness. We didn’t exchange a word, but I dreamed about you every night that week.

I lay in bed awake for a long time this morning. I hardly sleep anymore. But you, you’ve always slept like a rock. I used to wake up hungry in the middle of the night when you first started staying with me. We sometimes forgot to eat dinner. When I returned to bed you were always awake, murmuring questions in your soft, quiet way. Today I slipped out of bed, trying hard not to wake you. Just as I stood, the sun peeked through the curtains. You opened your eyes and looked at me, your face still and calm. I thought I should tell you then, but instead I kissed you and went out to the kitchen to make you some tea.

We’re having a beautiful spring. Your daffodils bloom in our front yard, filling the slope with riotous color. The woodpeckers and cardinals flock to the feeder you hung in the blackjack oak and the little juncos gather on the ground below. Every year, I watch you delight in nature’s rebirth as a child does. I think I’d miss it all if not for you. I hope the hummingbirds return soon. I want you to tell me how the female builds her nest, no bigger than the bowl of a spoon, with moss and lichen and bits of spider web.

The spring always reminds me of that first year we spent together in this old house. It was high summer when we moved and it took us some time to get settled. The people who lived here before ripped out all the bushes and flowerbeds and never got around to replacing them. It was a hot summer, too hot to work in the yard, I said. You told me that was nonsense and proceeded to dig a curvy trench along the front of the house. You told me I didn’t need to help. I never met a more stubborn person in all of my life. The next morning and many mornings after, I followed you outside in the cool of the early dawn. We stripped turf, laid sand, and built a wall of stacked rock inside your curvy trench. It took three car trunks full of bagged dirt to fill up the bed. By the time we finished, the weather turned and we were afraid to plant much. You found mixed bulbs in big brown paper bags on sale at the garden center. Once you lined the bed, you started digging holes out on the slope. I was never so glad to see that first frost before. I love those daffodils.

I lived alone a long time before I met you. Even after your first husband died, you always lived with someone else. Your parents, a roommate, your children, then me. I used to wonder how you did it. After a while, I realized you could be alone in a room full of people. You seem to prefer a kind of companionable solitude. I noticed it today. While we lingered over our breakfast, you gazed out the window. I wondered what you were thinking. Maybe planning a trip or deciding what to plant where the old shed used to stand. It seemed like an offense to intrude on your thoughts.

My daughter visited this afternoon. I watched the two of you prepare dinner while I pretended to read. You talked so much it took twice as long as usual for you to make a salad. She told you about her new job, her old boyfriend, and the bed she bought for her guest room. You left mid-sentence to get her a quilt and some lace-trimmed pillowcases you made. For her, you said, but I know you made them for our bed. When I met your eyes and lifted my eyebrow, you blushed, and I let you get away with it. I wonder how long it will take you to make another set. While we eat dinner, I think about telling both of you but I don’t want to spoil her visit. It was such a good conversation.

After dinner, you pulled up your hair, poured a glass of wine, then went outside to fuss over your roses. I walked into our office to work. I spent most of my time watching you clip and prune the Blue Boy outside the window. Such a funny name for a rose that’s really more lavender colored. I can’t reliably remember my daughter’s birthday, but I always remember the name of that rosebush. It’s your favorite. You moved away from the window to another bush and I couldn’t watch you anymore. I decided to work. The desk we use is really a dining room table, old and large with lots of leaves and a sheet of glass over the top. My chair sits on one side and yours on the other. I think it’s my favorite room in the house. From where I am, I can see your books in the shelves by the window, arranged by author in alphabetical order. Mine are piled in the cabinet behind me in no order whatsoever. We tried to share our bookshelves once. It didn’t last long. After the most ridiculous fight of our lives, you very sensibly moved all my books into cabinets so you could close the doors. I swore I’d buy more bookshelves but I never got around to doing it. Secretly, it makes me smile every time I have to open a door to find one of my books.

I work and so do you but our lives are here in this house. I wander through the rooms and slowly realize you are everywhere. There are traces of me, sure, especially in the den. The movie collection you rarely touch over there by the television, the shelves of old vinyl records beside the stereo. My ratty bachelor sofa hidden under slipcovers you sewed because you couldn’t stand to part with the only good piece of furniture I owned. In the kitchen, there’s the table you painted and your mother’s china cabinet. Our guest room holds your grandfather’s bed covered with a chenille bedspread your mother bought you as a child. In the bedroom we share, the nightstand is the only way I can tell which side of the bed is mine. Your glasses lay neatly on top of the novel you’re reading and my table overflows with books and papers, my wallet and change, and the various items I collect in my pockets. The little living room that looks over the front yard is filled with the things you had when I met you. There’s a chaise longue—the most ridiculous piece of furniture I’ve ever seen—delicate, armless chairs and dark tables with curved feet and pie crust edges all sitting on an oriental rug. It’s a pretty, feminine room and it always smells like you.

You finally came back in. It’s too dark to work outside now and you’re drawing a bath. I heard you pour another glass of wine and turn on some old Fiona Apple. The day’s nearly gone and a new week starts tomorrow. Still, I haven’t found the words to tell you we need to begin to say our goodbyes.

I got lost on my way home from work again last week. I need to remember to use the GPS. One day last month, I drove across town to see my mother. I didn’t remember she had died until I turned off my car. I sat in some stranger’s driveway and cried. I’ve been losing things for months and I forget words, ordinary words like the names of objects, all the time. There’s a fog in my brain some days and other times I’m fine. But I know it’s coming. I knew before the doctor told me. I don’t want to forget, Lila. I’ll keep writing, keep reading, try hard to keep you in my mind a little longer. I know I should tell you. Every once in a while, I catch you looking at me with a strange expression on your face. I wonder if you're worried. You deserve to know. But it makes me so sad, and if I tell you, it will be real. Maybe I’ll find the words tomorrow.

The beautiful art on this post courtesy of Julian Merrow-Smith. See more of his work at Postcard from Provence.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Visiting Jim Morrison on Throwback Thursday

One of my favorite memories of traveling to Paris with my lovely (now grown) daughter.

Pére Lachaise

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Memory Palace

Early on in The Memory Palace, Mira Bartók describes her own life as a palimpsest, a tablet or parchment used again and again after earlier writing has been erased.  Following a life-altering brain injury, Bartók leaves messages for herself on what she calls her memory table, working hard to appear healthy and articulate, a process she describes as second nature.  “We children of schizophrenics are the great secret-keepers, the ones who don’t want you to think anything is wrong.”  It is clear from the beginning of this touching, evocative memoir that the life related by Bartók is anything but right.
Bartók recounts a stark, excruciating childhood, filled with countless incidents of uncertainty, embarrassment, and downright abuse.  Her beautiful, brilliant, musical mother is gravely mentally ill; her father, a writer, deserted his wife and two daughters, leaving behind only a collection of lovely books.  The two little girls regularly run to their grandparents’ house nearby for meals, but the situation there is scarcely better.  Their grandmother feeds them, but also burdens them with talk of their mother, Norma’s, illness at quite tender ages.  Their grandfather’s abusive tendencies are arguably worse than their mother’s neglect.  Bartók recalls having the story of Medusa read to her at the age of five or six.  She casts her mother in the role of Medusa, seeing herself as Pegasus.  “For years I dreamed I was a winged horse, watching, from the sky, my mother’s serpentine head float away from her body.”  Medusa’s children sprang from the blood of her severed head.  Norma lost her mind in pieces after her children arrived.
After graduating high school, Bartók leaves Cleveland, Ohio, for two years of college in Michigan followed by art school in Chicago.  Her art and her jobs, working in education and in a museum, give Bartók a sense of purpose and stability.  Her mother’s behavior continues to deteriorate, punctuated by increasingly strange and distressing phone calls day and night.  There’s what seems to be an accidental overdose and an incident involving her mother brandishing a knife at an airport.  Worst of all, Bartók receives a surprising interruption at work.  Her mother shows up unannounced at the museum, harried, haggard, and demanding her daughter go home to Cleveland.  At this point, the sisters decide they must take desperate measures to survive.
The young women change their names and go into hiding.  Her sister, Natalia, cuts off all contact with their mother, but Bartók keeps post office boxes through friends and writes to her mother, giving her vague details about her travels to Italy, Norway and Israel, never providing enough detail to reveal her location.  She sends her mother presents:  postcards from museums, calendars, art supplies, warm clothes, paintings, a red sweater.  By this time, their mother is sleeping in hotels, shelters, airports, bus stations, and eventually, park benches.  Schizophrenic.  Homeless.  Alone.  Of essentially abandoning her mother, Bartók says, “If I am to be really truthful, there is something in my nature as well, something that, like Natalia, and even our mother, made me choose my freedom and creative life above all else.”
Seventeen years pass this way.  Soon after Bartók’s car accident and resulting brain injury, her mother becomes seriously ill.  Social workers contact Bartók at one of the post office boxes she’s kept through a friend.  Upon hearing the news, the sisters decide to go to their mother, eighty years old now and dying of stomach cancer.  While caring for her in the hospital and arranging her transfer to a nursing home, the sisters discover their mother’s life:  two big garbage bags full of belongings, family keepsakes kept in a U-Haul storage unit, a women’s shelter full of caring friends, a bank account, a safety deposit box.  As her mother slips away, Bartók finds her mother’s journals.  In reading them, she rediscovers her mother and realizes that her damaged brain works in similar ways to her mother’s schizophrenic one.
Melancholy, regret and loss permeate this beautifully crafted memoir.  Throughout the story, whether she is in Europe, Israel or America, Bartók clearly shows her continuing love and concern for her mother.  At the same time, she maintains the emotional as well as the physical distance necessary for her own well being, harboring guilt every step of the way.  Bartók gracefully and deftly illuminates the complexity of familial love and its unusual capacity for healing and forgiveness.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Ride a trail of vermilion flake
Blaze your path across sooty skies
Leave smoldering ash in your wake
Streak torrid blue and flame bright

Trace the path you will take
Before providence calls
Soothes your hot ache
And reclaims your translucent dust

Monday, January 20, 2014

On Richard Sherman, Tommy Tomlinson, and Sportsmanship

I love football. I grew up watching the sport with my father, going to local games, and once I entered high school, I traveled with the sports teams as a cheerleader or a member of the marching band. Much of the social scene in my hometown revolved around the Ironmen. After all, I grew up in small-town Oklahoma and we are serious about our sports, especially football. 

I watched both of yesterday's games. I am delighted with the outcome of the early game, primarily because someone defeated the Patriots. I am equally disappointed with the outcome of the late game. I am a Kaepernick* fan, not necessarily a Niners fan. But my disappointment stems from more than just the loss to Seattle. What a brutal, nasty game. The refs officiated the game poorly which contributed to the heightened emotion and violence on the field. Both teams are physical, fierce competitors. It's a rough game. Oh, my, the injuries.

Anyone who watched most likely caught the Richard Sherman interview immediately after the game. I'm not sure anyone seemed more shocked than reporter Erin Andrews. She handled Sherman like the professional she is, and the camera cut away quickly. Instantaneously, chatter appeared all over the internet about Sherman's so-called rant. Many condemned his behavior, including myself. Name-calling ensued. Peopled bemoaned the state of the game. One online writer compared Sherman to Muhammad Ali.

 I awoke this morning to a friend's link to Tommy Tomlinson's 22 Brief Thoughts About That Richard Sherman Interview. Huh. A defense of Sherman's antics. His final point? "It seems to me the only proper response to something like that [game] is to holler like a crazy person."

What I gleaned from the article is that Sherman was excited, he's a smart guy, and football players are not fit to communicate publicly until they simmer down. 

I find much of what Mr. Tomlinson wrote disingenuous. Some of his points seem trite and cliched to me:  fans want a violent, exciting game filled with some big personalities but are quick to criticize when the behavior gets out of hand; put a microphone in a guy's face directly after he's made a game-winning play and he's liable to be a bit punchy. Yadda, yadda, yadda. The bit that actually bothered me the most, though, lies in what I consider to be Tomlinson's hypocrisy. He defends Sherman by pointing out his intellect, his high school class standing, and his prestigious college. The next point, I must quote.

"His degree from Stanford was in communications...which might explain why, while he seemed to be hollering like a crazy person, he didn't curse and looked into the camera the whole time."

Tomlinson goes on to compare the interview to an audition for the WWE.

Here's the rub--Tomlinson contradicts his own conclusion when he insinuates that Sherman acted with full understanding of his actions during that on-camera rant. Either Sherman behaved like a "crazy person" or he controlled his language and his gaze while saying exactly what he meant to say. Sorry, Mr. Tomlinson, you can't have it both ways.

Do I think Richard Sherman's behavior offensive? Yeah, I do. On field after the big play and on camera afterward. Sherman behaves like a bully. That handshake proffered to Michael Crabtree was nothing more than an Eddie Haskell-style taunt. Calling Crabtree "mediocre" on national television reveals an utter lack of respect for other players, not to mention a total lack of class. I really don't care what history they might have. Sherman's self assessment of his abilities is probably not far off. He's an excellent player and fierce competitor, but I simply cannot stomach that kind of arrogance. I am fairly sure Sherman doesn't give a whit what I think.

 I'm not a Broncos fan, but I hope they crush the Seahawks on February 2.

* I mean, really. Look at him. And he can play the game, too. Of course I'm a fan.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


His betrayal divulged
Naked, exposed,
Enraged by his misbehaving
Words of clemency die on my tongue.
Deceived, I no longer seek
Shelter in saccharine whispers.

Your soft breath and sighs
Advancing, receding,
Endowed with the gift of believing
Embed faith into my icy heart.
Cherished, I no longer wander
Forsaken in treacherous visions.

My slumbering soul
Awakened, released,
Washed by a flood of revealing
Devotion dwells in your eyes.
Changed, I no longer chase a
Life only lived in my dreams.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Ordinary Life

I cannot know
the purpose of life
but I think it must be
a lingering search
for elusive faith

I cannot know
whether God exists
my only evidence lies
in the peace I find
under the gaze of your eyes

I cannot know
if there is any beyond
but until we die
we have an endless supply
of ordinary nights