Summer walk

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German shepherd stops

to cool her heaving belly

on the neighbor’s lawn

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Finding my voice

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Bob Page took a stand against Amendment One here in North Carolina. He spoke out. Loudly. And now, according to an article in the N&O, his business is feeling a backlash from customers who disagreed with him.

Bob has a great company, which he founded in 1981: Replacements, Ltd. It helps “[connect] our customers with their most cherished memories” by providing replacement china, silver and crystal pieces. You know that set of Grandma’s china that you lug from house to house and during one move you accidentally broke a bunch of salad plates? His company helps you find replacements, even when the pattern may be discontinued. (It’s a fascinating showroom, including a museum of rare pieces. I highly recommend a visit.)

Bob’s company took a clear stand against Amendment One when many other businesses wouldn’t. Most businesses stayed neutral, with the majority of anti-Amendment One comments coming from business people as individuals, not as representatives of their companies.

One of my affirmations this year has been “I have a voice that others need to hear.” Today I realized it’s not just my thinking or essays or poetry they need to hear. They need to hear my support when they are going through a tough time, my encouragement when they do something difficult, my reinforcement when they take a stand on a sticky topic.

When I told my husband that I was going to write Bob Page a note, he looked at me bemused. I could read the question in his eyes: “What in the world are you doing that for?”

Why? Because I have a voice that others need to hear. Today I have a feeling Mr. Page might need to hear it.

Flying Over Arlington

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out the window front of the wing
our soldiers have no rank
no cross or star or pentacle
no separate identity

drum and bugle corps
uniformity fashions
one synchronized
anonymous pattern

precision performance

the song they play never ends
rat-a-tat-tat of the snares
ticking time to the whump of the bass
brass blasting their cry
sun brilliant on bells

endless practice
perfecting their steps
expanding the band
the breadth of design

lively stepping
lines pivot and merge
never tripping
or bumping

or falling

When to trim and when to chop

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Am I the only one who grew up in a household where holidays meant extra house projects?

Our yard work has continued through this 3-day weekend, primarily in the form of hacking at bushes. My husband hesitated at first, timidly shearing the azaleas, then realizing the futility. The azaleas put on a spectacular show this spring, perhaps due to the gentle hand-clipper trimming last year, but now they had taken over the front yard.

“Are you sure you want me to chop them?” he asked. “I don’t think you’ll like how they’ll look.”

“Do it! Chop away! They need it!”

He hacked mercilessly and now they are indeed quite hideous, half the size and scraggly if not downright naked. Not to worry—they will grow back in a flash. (This is, after all, North Carolina—land of humidity and heat. Plants love it.)

Likewise, the privet hedge in the back yard shrank by half if not two-thirds. It had grown to the unmanageable height where the trimmers had to be held overhead. (The last time we tried that, someone ended up in the ER with a chopped finger.)

The privets look even worse than the azaleas. Spindly sticks with a few scraggly leaves. Like a bad comb-over. But at the same time—much much better.

So when to trim and when to chop? Well, as the non-plant-scientist in the family, my answer is this: when something is out of control, no longer serves its purpose, or requires a new form, hack away mercilessly. If it’s well-behaved, a trim will suffice.

When I write, I’ve learned that I do better when I generate more words rather than less so I can hack away—not indiscriminately, but unflinchingly—to find the right ones. I’ve learned that sometimes a trim is just fine. And I’ve learned that sometimes you have to hack away until the result is naked and ugly, but the space has been made for new words to grow.

American Sentences

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A writing exercise (from Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius): Instead of writing a haiku (5-7-5 syllables), write a 17-syllable “American sentence” à la Allen Ginsberg. One of his (you can Google more):

Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.

This is a great warm-up exercise and worth the attempt. It can be quite challenging to come up with 17 syllables that say something pithy, meaningful, melodic, compelling, vivid.

My three best attempts (of many) this evening…

We worry so much what others think, we forget others worry, too.

Two octogenarians squabble over chicken and apple pie.

The orchid spray frames my penholder, a delicate shield from ink thieves.

Even if your American Sentence isn’t of Ginsbergian genius (as mine clearly are not), it may springboard you to something else. An American Sentence I wrote a couple weeks ago turned into what I consider a quite nice poem a few days later. I might need to write these more often…

Keeping Life Fresh

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I bought flowers today, as I do many Fridays, taking advantage of the neighborhood florist’s TGIF half-price sale. I usually get two bouquets, one for the living room and one for the dining room. Today, instead of filling two vases, I decided to make one big arrangement. Hmmm. What made me do that? Hey, it looks good!

Then it struck me that I have been doing a lot of little things—very little things—differently lately.

I bought a new kind of sandwich bread this week. (Remember, I did say very little things.) Not the Oat-Nut-Multigrain-Whole-Wheat-Wheat-Berry brown bread I usually get. Oatmeal bread—whiter and softer than what I’m used to. Hey, it tastes good!

And…I bought a new salad dressing. And new mustard. (What can I say? I’m living on the edge.)

And…last weekend my husband and I walked to the art festival downtown—we didn’t drive or take the bus; we walked the 1.5 miles each way. It was a beautiful day.

And…on the way back from the art festival, we stopped at the new wine shop and bought bottle of wine—just to sit and sip on the porch that evening. Aahhh. It was a beautiful evening.

I realized today how infrequently I divert from my routine. I make the grocery list and follow it. I don’t like to grocery shop, so I want to get in and out. Efficient. Easier to stick with the tried and true bread, turkey, apples.

I wondered why I was noticing this very small shift recently. I wondered if maybe possibly perhaps it was related to writing every day in May, forcing myself to come up with something to post, looking at the world (sometimes frantically) to find something new to write about. I wondered if this shift started when I first sat in the bedroom chair—rather than the office chair or the living room chair—to read and write in my journal.

Perhaps letting go of routine and efficiency creates space for a little more playfulness. Perhaps it relieves the tedium of routine. Perhaps the tiny little changes keep life fresh.

So. How else can I keep things fresh? Hmmm. Maybe it’s time for different annuals in front of the house…vinca are so last year and the year before and the year before…

Mountain Appeal

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Past the bodies of the dead when we come down,

eyes frozen open

or frozen shut.  Did they struggle or

sleep to death?

 

Past the near-dead calling in muted tongues,

holding out waxy hands,

reaching for mercy

not given.

 

They knew the risk.  They made

the granular calculations balancing air

and weight and time, sitting

on the thread between majesty

and despair.  They knew the price of failure—

wandering in the breathless cold,

drained in the middle of the death zone,

like opening a vein, fading out

before their lives were

whole.

 

Holy Mother, hear our prayer.

Transcendence

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When I don’t know what to write I turn to poetry exercises. A defined poetic form such as ­a ghazal or pantoum or sonnet, a set of random words required to be used, or a series of instructions about simile, meter, number of words, etc. I tend to use writing books to find exercises, but if you don’t have one to hand, you can simply make up your own constraints.

I think I am drawn to writing exercises for the same reason I am drawn to ballet. The rules exist to give shape and form, and they are not to be ignored or avoided; but they are meant to be transcended. Follow the rules, but go beyond the rules. Make the rules invisible.

Most audience members don’t know all the rules of ballet—they just know when it looks good, great or amazing. Only the most sophisticated realize that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th are not just positions for practice at the barre—they are required positions for the ballerina’s feet to pass through between each particular step. They are some of the constraints within which the dancers must work. When they transcend those constraints, they soar.

One risk of doing a writing exercise is that you may not get anything “good.” But even when that occurs, a “good” idea frequently manifests later as a result of the exercise.

And occasionally you find an exercise leads you to something amazing and unexpected. Occasionally you achieve transcendence and you, too, soar.

Small actions

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After Sunday’s weeding of the vegetable garden, my husband and I scheduled more weeding projects throughout the week. Monday was the strawberry bed. Today was the flower garden along the front and driveway. After weeding comes trimming the bushes in the backyard, trimming the bushes in the front yard, then replacing the languishing pansies with vinca for the summer. Small 1- to 2-hour projects that we can complete in an evening without feeling overtaxed.

All the small efforts throughout the week lead to a well-tended, pleasant outdoor environment. And over the the weekend, we’ll do a goodly amount of front-porch sittin’—while admiring our handiwork.

I realized again how small actions add up as I’ve been compiling my poetry into some semblance of a book. I’ve written sporadically over the years—with an apparent gap of nearly a decade between any serious volume of writing if my computer Save dates are to be trusted. But I wrote. A poem a year, a quarter, a month, or even four in one week—huge variation. But small actions add up like compound interest.

As I’ve weeded through my poetry portfolio I’ve come to the conclusion I am quite well “diversified.” In fact I’m so well diversified that I’m not sure the collection as it stands hangs together as a complete whole. The upside? I now have a better sense of where to focus my writing to create that wholeness.

Bit by bit, small action by small action, poem by poem, I will get there.

Setting a beautiful table

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We weeded the garden yesterday after more or less neglecting it since it was planted. The weeds had grown so tall I could hardly distinguish them from the young vegetables (I exaggerate, husband).

I like weeding. It has a soothing quality, similar to finishing the laundry, folding it and putting it away (I do not exaggerate, husband—try it!). A task completed, chaos held at bay, one little corner of the world returned to order.

But not only does weeding benefit the plants by virtue of reducing competition for nutrients, it provides aesthetic nourishment for surrounding humans. Beauty consorts with production.

As we finished clearing one section and started moving to the next, a robin appeared and sat on the concrete that wraps the plot. My husband said, “Wait—he’ll start going for the worms and insects in the soil. They do that when I’m tilling, too.”

Sure enough, Mr. Robin eyed us for a few moments to reassure himself that we were fully occupied with our own task, then hopped onto the soil and began pecking at bugs. Within minutes a second robin appeared. As we worked our way from one end of the garden to the other, the birds continued kissing the soil, gaining comfort and moving closer to us. Familiarity bred fearlessness.

By the time we finished weeding, swept up the dirt, and put away the tools, the birds had a beautifully set table upon which to feast. Bon appétit!

(Incidentally, I have to admit I have no idea if the robins were he’s or she’s or one of each. Apparently, the male of the species has a brighter orange breast and a blacker head, while the female has a duller orange breast and greyer head. Want to learn more? Try this article. I’ll report back if I’m able to distinguish robin sexes next time I’m feeding them dinner. :-))