Monday, February 27, 2017

The "High Road" to Taos

Note: My flash essay, "A Tip" was just published on The Burrows Review website  It's a totally different place and sentiment than what follows.

The High Road to Taos

“. . . the arrow went deep into the neck.”

In “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” N. Scott Momaday tells the story of his grandfather, Mammedaty, and a red horse. The book, originally published in 1976 by the University of New Mexico Press, is an interweaving of old story in the oral tradition of the Kiowa people, historical commentary, and Momaday’s personal remembrance. Nowadays, we would call it “mixed genre,” and each of the three voices has its own narrative within each chapter.  Maybe some of you remember it from back in the day, a time when the voices of Native Americans were beginning to be recognized in their own writing.

As Momaday tells it, “Little Red” was for many years in that corner of the Plains the fastest horse around; he never lost a race. “It was a small bay, nothing much to look at . . . White men and Indians alike came from far and near to match their best animals against it . . .” One day, when Mammedaty was trying to herd his horses, Little Red was acting up and wouldn’t go through the gate. He lost his patience and shot an arrow at the horse in anger and frustration. Instead, he missed him and the arrow went into the neck of the wrong horse: “. . . the arrow went deep into the neck.”

Years later, Momaday found Little Red’s bones in a box in Grandfather’s barn. Momaday comments: “I have often thought about that red horse. There have been times when I thought I understood how it was that a man might be moved to preserve the bones of a horse . . .” 

I’m traveling in New Mexico for a month and drove the “high road” through the mountains from Santa Fe to Taos in the northern part of the state where the Kiowa once roamed. I had been in Santa Fe for a three-day retreat at Upaya Zen Center for a program of “The Way of Haiku” with teachers Roshi Joan Halifax, Sensai Kaz Tanahashi, Charles Trumball, and Susan O’Leary. We read, talked, meditated in zazen, and wrote.

In Taos, I bought Momaday’s book at the op.cit bookstore, which has a wonderful selection of New Mexico-based books and local authors. When I read about the red horse, I thought of times I have shot the “wrong horse.” And then there are those times when I have preserved the bones of some memory and hid them in the back of the barn. Given my experiences of the past week, I wrote this in the tradition of the English-language haiku.

. . . "the arrow went deep
into the neck."    I have often
thought — that red horse, bones . . .

Sunday, February 19, 2017

After Richard Blanco's "El Florida Room"

After Richard Blanco’s “El Florida Room”

“Not a study or a den, but El Florida
as my mother called it, a pretty name
for the room with the prettiest view
of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up . . .”

Richard Blanco’s poem “El Florida Room” published in Looking for The Gulf Motel by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2012 reminds me that I, too, had a Florida Room growing up, although two decades earlier. In my day, Florida Rooms were that special feature of the cement block “ranch” houses springing up in developments across the state, a marketing advantage for attracting folks from up north. Long and low and walled by windows on three sides (“jalousies,” when I was young), it represented tropical living in an era before central air conditioning, catching those soft moist breezes. 

As Blanco says, the Florida Room was not a study or a den, though it would have been a den in other climes with fewer windows and heavy dark furniture, a crocheted throw over the back of Father’s chair and real paintings on the wall. I would have liked to have had a den like those I read about (much cozier), but what I really wanted was the kind of family who had a house with a study, sophisticated tall bookshelves lining the walls, a late afternoon sun shining through an equally tall window with many small panes. 
“Not a sunroom, but where the sun/ both rose and set,” Blanco says. Since our Florida Room was on the west side, it was particularly oppressive in the afternoon. We had a terrazzo floor, though, cool and smooth, and a matching rattan furniture set – couch, side chair, end tables, and coffee table although no one in my house drank coffee after breakfast. It was more likely to be Jim Beam on the rocks or Coca Cola in a pop-top can sweating on the surfaces.

Although the Florida room was “not a TV room” or a “family room,” it was still where the family gathered and watched together the black and white picture in the corner. I have an old photograph in my mind of my father during an “on the wagon” night at home lying on his side on the couch, my little brother in his cowboy outfit perched on my father’s hip, and me sitting at the end at his feet in a seersucker sunsuit. We were all looking in the same direction toward what was probably a Western on TV, just as in Blanco’s family.

In his El Florida, Blanco’s mother taught herself to dance and it was where her son learned to salsa. For a brief period, I used ours to give ballet/tap/jazz classes for a quarter to the little girls on the street whose parents couldn’t afford dance classes three times a week like mine could. And there on Albatross Drive in Satellite Beach, we also had a view from the Florida Room of lipstick-red hibiscus just as Blanco did in Miami. So you can see, Richard Blanco and I have a lot in common even though I am a white, post-middle-age heterosexual woman and he is none of those.

But really, we do share a lot. We both lived sticky, sweaty childhoods under that incomparable, constantly changing Florida sky, accompanied by the swish-swashing of palms. We each sat alone for hours in our Florida Rooms doing many of the same kinds of playtime activities. I didn’t do much coloring, and I never thought to ask for glitter, but imagination played contently with solitude. It seems that the salty humidity provided something of a blanket for certain kinds of children who sat twenty years apart, not in a living room, but “in the light/ of El Florida, as quiet and necessary/ as any star shining above it.”

Friday, February 17, 2017

UPCOMING CLASSES: Writing Nature and a Sense of Place

I will be offering this popular class in various locations over the next year. Each workshop will be different based on the location. These are what are scheduled so far.  (Register via the organization sponsoring the workshop. If you want more info about the class, email me at )

Writing Place: Landscape, People and the Natural World

Writing about place involves working with the elements that make a specific place unique. This may include the layers of history, natural history, human culture, and the built environment across time to bring us to the present moment. Writers might be advocates, critics, or lovers of a place but any way, a sense of place helps us ground our writing on any topic.

By developing the craft of writing about place, participants will discover more about their subjects, allowing them to better understand and present their world and experiences. The workshop is open to writers of all levels and suitable for writers of both poetry and prose.

·       Through writing exercises and prompts, participants will work to develop skills from the “writer’s toolkit” of image, voice, language, structure, and more.
·       We will look at the work of other authors for inspiration and modeling.
·       As weather allows, participants will write outside for some of the exercises.
·       The workshop will maintain a safe, supportive environment that recognizes there is no such thing as a mistake in writing, just the next draft.

Saturday, March 25, 10:30 - 2:30, Bangor Public Library:
Sponsored by Maine Writers and Publishers AllianceBring a bag lunch.

 August 17 - 20, 2017: Whitehead Island Maine
Sponsored by Whitehead Light Station. This three-night program will be held on an island off the coast of Spruce Head with accommodations in the lightkeeper's house and all wonderful meals included. Definitely a special experience.

October TDA: Midcoast Conservancy, Wiscasset,  Maine

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Wise Women

“The island floating ahead of me like a moon, tugging me
forward. Whatever it has in store.
 . . .  there it was, pulling and me already going its way.”
Those are the words of Canadian poet John Steffler in his book, “The Grey Islands” re-issued by Brick Books in 2015. The narrator in this montage of story, poetry, and character monologues is a man undergoing something of a mid-life crisis. He leaves Ontario for Newfoundland, and  after a year or so, he leaves that part of the Province for an abandoned island offshore. He was already going its way.
The man is planning a year alone in one of the left-behind houses, and he is very alone except for the occasional stop of the mail boat with supplies or fishermen from other outports who sometimes come into the cove following fish or shooting ducks. They tell him stories of those who used to live on his island, the ghosts that haunt its landscapes, the predictable craziness of the weather. It’s these stories and his own regrets that keep him company when the winter ice moves in and isolates him completely.
I was fortunate this past summer to spend three weeks on Newfoundland. It was my fourth trip there, and the pull of the island for me is like, well, like the tide. Here’s a short essay of mine from that time.

II. Wise Women
            Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland

We couldn’t find the path, the trail through the barrens around the headland, the “official” trail. We followed narrow ones instead thinking, perhaps this will be it. But each only led to another made by the unseen—deer, berry-pickers, other wildlife we hoped to see, maybe even ghosts.
            We had been promised an official trail, though, and after twisting and turning and twisting, we were frustrated and grumpy. We cast about for explanation: How could experienced hikers like us go so wrong? Why didn’t they make it more clear? Where was the signage?
We eventually stopped as if to turn back—a waste of a trip. The rocks stood silent. The wind off the Labrador Sea blew into our collars. The cloud blanket held onto rain. The lichen never moved.
            Then the spirit of the place grabbed us and we said, Let’s keep on. We’re in it now. We’ll cross-country to the trail. We can’t get lost. We were reassured by the long view across the barrens showing a thin line of official trail along the bay in the distance.
            But we forgot about the many secrets of barrens and the melding of space and time among rocks that move imperceptibly over eons -- and sometimes over late summer afternoons. We should have know how the “next rise” isn’t necessarily the next rise at all, how there could be hidden bogs to go around and deep tangles of sharp spruce scrub taking you into another direction. We didn’t remember how climbing a stand-out rock for a better view forward can deliver the “wrong” view, the one you didn’t imagine, the uncertainty of your own certainty.
We didn’t care. We laughed. It was fun. It was freeing. The blueberries were ripe. We imagined others who had gone before, pack baskets against their bent backs. We embraced the day.
Until we realized how far away everything really was. The official trail wasn’t getting any larger (when we could glimpse it). We could see how high we had climbed and how down down down we would have to go, and could we even again find the way back from which we came? We remembered our sixth-decade bodies.
We came to an edge, a cliff. Not a terrible cliff.  Only a tiny stream trickled on one side, otherwise good-looking dirt. We could do this, we said. We would get there. We started down, picking our way. Rolling pebbles and gravel accompanied us. Roots offered handholds. The streambed sucked at our shoes. A wide meadow waited at the bottom and beyond that the bay. We were wise women that day, abroad in the country, knowing, after all these years the certainty of this life’s uncertainty.
I’ll come back to Newfoundland in upcoming segments. For now, I’ll close with John Steffler:
“not man’s time here.
sun’s time.
rock’s time.
I begin to feel it.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A New Year, A New Start

With the New Year (plus one month), I'm re-re-branding my blog, formerly know as "Hullabaloo." I'll be posting on Sunday nights, or more, my new literary column, "Field Notes: A Journal of Story, Place & Ideas." In the not too distant future, there will be an audio version, too. So stay tuned. 

“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

That quote is from Matsuo Basho in Sam Hamill’s translation of “A Narrow Road to the Interior” published by Shambhala Books in 1991. Basho is one of my role models – a wandering poet in 17th century Japan. Basho’s practice at the end of every day was to make note of what he saw and heard, who he met, gossip, weather, and landscape. He used these observations to write his poems.

Basho was continuing a tradition from the 11th century maintained primarily by Japanese women—the nikki, or “day book.” Contemporary poet Andrew Schelling calls this practice a “peerless literary tradition based on the diary form.” Into it went observations of events, people, places visited, conversations overheard as well as natural history and local news.

Schelling writes that this tradition is being continued by Joanne Kyger, one of the early West Coast “Beat” poets. Kyger was the first wife of Gary Snyder and traveled with him and Allen Ginsberg to Japan and India. She has spent significant time in Mexico and calls her writing journal her “casa,” her little home when she’s on the road.

All of this will be familiar to naturalists, journalists, and anthropologists who write up their field notes ate the end of the day. Sailors keep logs as do lab scientists. And lots of writers and visual artists do their own versions.

That’s why I’m calling this column “Field Notes: A Journal of Story, Place and Ideas.” I’ll be bringing reports of my own as well as those of other writers. We’ll hear about Portugal, Newfoundland, Mexico, Sears Island and Satellite Beach. We won’t just be looking at visits to far-flung places, though, or even our own backyards. “Field Notes” will be about journeying through our days and paying attention to what we find along the way. After all, Basho said, “Every day is a journey.”

Here is a poem of mine that began its life as field notes.
            Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Now that I’m here again, I remember the bees.
Thirty years ago, I was at this place and I remember
the bees, intense even then with their noisy work, swarming
us, making a life from this dry landscape: the moment
of flowering theirs.

A mere 2500 years earlier, humans built here to worship
over a wide ocean of bare mountains, leaving what we call ruins,
gods forgotten yet deeply remembered.

But the bees -
how many years for them the sweet nectar of their praisemaking?
And before that,
                        the hard-packed earth singing.

I’ll be coming back to Mexico, and Beat poets, and maybe bees in future columns, among other things. Today I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Joanne Kyger’s chapbook “Patzcuaro” published in 1999 by Blue Millennium. Patzcuaro is a mountain town in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
“Could be    anywhere
on Earth    and Time    focused completely
focused on chopping
the tomatoes, chilies, and onions.”