Thursday, February 26, 2009

February means skirting the flooded S’s of Green Valley Road...

on the way to Howard’s Station in Occidental for Eggs Benedict and banter with the wait staff we’ve come to love. It means checking on the river house, running down past the sauna to view the muddy swath of racing water, the feeder creek a white froth. Then sitting in Great Grandpa’s chair while the kids color on the floor in front of the fireplace, and the husband reads The Persuader (Lee Child, Reacher in trouble again), all five of us content to play house to the drumming of raindrops on the flat roof, the occasional sharp ping of a redwood frond hitting the skylights.

And....cruising Great Grandpa’s library: The English Years of Robert Frost, Into My Own, by John Evangelist Walsh, where I skim details from the time period when Frost moved in to the London suburb of Beaconsfield. Frost blames himself for some of the toll the move takes on his family (though don’t life’s difficulties beset everyone, writer or not?) And were any of us, in our later years, to put in one sentence the trajectory of our lives, it might sound as harsh. Walsh notes, of a trip Frost makes to visit the bungalow years later: The painful contrast between his lonely present, though filled with honors, and those far-off days when he had lived in obscurity on this quiet street with a happy growing family may well have been too stark for him to face. By 1957, of the five who had shared the bungalow with him, three were long dead—his wife from a heart attack, his daughter Marjorie in childbirth, and his son Carol by suicide—and a fourth, his daughter Irma, was confined in a mental institution. It was also in the bungalow, with his family, that Frost wrote both “Birches” and “Mending Wall” (in addition to others). These details, put forth in the prologue, remind me the life of the writer is one animal, and the work he or she writes is another.

But then I come across Sampo, The Magic Mill: A Collection of Finnish-American Writing, edited by Aili Jarvenpa and Michael G. Karni. (The title alludes to the Finnish epic creation myth/poem the Kalevala; the mill is one of its images). I breathe into these beautiful memoirs and poems—the descriptions of berry picking escapades in the woods, bears dwelling within reach (Jane Piirto, Blueberry Season), a story of a mother who couldn’t stop knitting (even while milking cows) and thus fell down a well with the needles and sock she was working on (Unto Seppanen, The Knitting, translated by Reino Virtanen). In Eeva Kilpi’s Excerpts from A Woman’s Diary (translated by Inkeri Vaananen-Jensen), I find a more accurate mirror of my experience of what it means to be a writer...and a mother, and how the two braid together, and are in fact, one noisy animal.

Kilpi recounts how an editor once called and asked her to write about how she would live the last day of her life: I would make notes all the time...I would clean at least one closet...I would go to visit my parents....[and] eat food that my mother prepared (perhaps it would be herring baked in cream, good, strong smelling food, food familiar from my childhood). ... I would prepare a good meal for my children...turnip pie, Karelian rice pastries, lingonberries, and pickled cucumbers...I would no longer grieve that many books would be left unwritten but regret that so many books would be left unread. ...I would look at trees. There is something universal in their shape and reach; they resemble nerves... (p.220)

which in turn was a seed, Eeva, for a lucid dream several nights ago: falling, hands outstretched, on my back, some 3 or 4 thousand feet from the very top of a redwood grove. My first impulse, fear. But when I looked up at the familiar green canopy and watched the thick red rivulets of trunk bark hurtling by, I relaxed. And noticed as well, each to their own foot-wide ledges at varying heights along the trunks, women in green tunics. How could one not be at peace in the company of another writer, the trees, and their silent emissaries.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Do you inform the sensei your two-year-old son...

...just peed on the futon in the back of the classroom or do you march all three kids out without her noticing? Do you tell her before you finish filling out the parental waiver, or after you buy your daughter’s Aikido outfit? As you sit facing the altar where the kids bow before stepping on the mat, the spiritual pressure overwhelms you and you blurt out, “Go ahead, fire us before we even start. Can I unzip that cover and wash it for you?” She’s tall, much taller than you, and halts mid-step, spins around, and says quietly...”Did it go through?” You want to die. But you swab off the cover, and find to your delight it didn’t permeate the futon. Mildly, she says, “I”ll wash it, but thanks for offering.”

What the heck, you’ll stay for the first part of class, as long you can still get to the post office by five. Somehow you manage a wave to your daughter, who looks impressive in her whites, and corral the sons on to the post office for the National Poetry Series postmark you need for your manuscript (where the boys swing in tandem from the velvet rope long enough to pull both metal columns down on the stone floor).

I’m thinking of The Fire Cat, by Esther Averill, when Mrs. Goodkind with her mannish smile decides to give Pickles the cat a chance: Pickles, you are not a bad cat. You are not a good cat. You are good and bad. And bad and good. You are a mixed-up cat. What you need is a good home. Then you will be good. Or the Bizarro comic strip depicting Frankenstein waiting outside the pearly gates. The angel says to him: Parts of you get into Heaven, parts of you don’t. How do you want to handle this? Both examples apply to how I feel both about my kids’ behavior and about my parenting abilities. Constantly thwarted, requiring constant assessment. Just like writing, facing that blank page again.

“Nobody under the age of 30 has anything to say,” I remember my undergraduate fiction teacher, Jack Hicks, telling me. Then he handed us a syllabus of assignments, for which we would be trying to disprove his theory. I came to his office hours one day, and he asked, “What are you reading?” To which I naively responded, “If I read, then I won’t come up with something original. I want the ideas to be mine, not someone else’s.” He was patient enough to point out the same stories are told over and over again, but it is your voice, your take, that will differ.

Writer Margaux Fragoso, in her well-written article Two Worlds: Depersonalization, Reassembly, and the Poetic Imagination looks intensely at the concept of “how an artist is forced to live twice”—once living an experience, and than again in the remaking of it in art. (Margie, Strong Rx Medicine, American Journal of Poetry, Vol.7 2008). “Not only does the poet, or artist, rend the world apart by isolating it into its disparate elements, she rends her own self by doing so” (p. 153). In that context, Fragoso asks “...would any mother wish upon her child the uncertain life of the artist: the pain of standing at the cliff-edge of poetic labor each day, to face the unfathomable darkness that leers in the gray space between the blueprints of a poem or story and its actual composition?”

I’d have to say yes, for I grew up listening to my father’s piano lullabies at night: Brahms, Bach, Beethoven. And later as a teen, listening to the syncopated rhythms of Bela Bartok: father's kitchen a constantly morphing shrine of anything we kids (his three) made—from my brother’s thumb-sized demon sculptures of grey potter’s clay to my sister’s colored pencil drawings of roses to a dreadful digital device I’d made one high school summer as an intern at Hewlett Packard (back when I thought I wanted to be an engineer) with its wires askew, counting randomly from 1 to ten. For better or for worse, I could see wishing the life of an artist on my children, as long as it gives them joy. Wether it be a life of music or words or the ability to drop, roll, and land back on their feet like cats.