Friday, July 31, 2009

Losing Papu: Allan Oliver Nelson (November 21, 1916-July 16, 2009)

I packed the chili, cornbread, and warm chocolate chip cookies my son had baked for great grandpa into the car. I loaded the three kids and we drove, scanning the roadside for my husband, who in his own manner of coping with our pending loss, was running from our home to the river house—all of us in our separate ways trying to help. Great grandpa (Papu)—home finally from an Easter fall and months of living at rehab--had stopped eating for several days.

He’s at his desk when we arrive, sorting through files. He tells me he’s come across some poems his mother had once recited to the accompaniment of a musician; he wants to send them to an archive in the Midwest.

“No thanks,” he says, to the offer of a cookie, “maybe later,” but gives a faint smile (winner of the 1938 Dipsea race, dubbed the “running diplomat” by the Finnish) when he hears Marko opted to run the twelve miles here.

Several days prior, our middle son said to me at bedtime, “I don’t want Papu to die until he’s 98. Daddy says he might die this week. I don’t want him to.”

“Well, when you see Papu at the river, be sure to tell him you love him. He can take your love with him in his heart.”

“No, I won’t tell him. He already knows that in his heart,” said my son. “But I don’t want him to die, Mom.”

“Maybe he’ll visit you in a dream.”

“He could come in my dream when he was 20,” my son said. “That way I would get to see him run.”

Ubeknownst to us, this Thursday is Papu’s last day on Earth. After spending the afternoon at the house, usually so careful about all saying goodbye, we find ourselves late for our daughter’s Aikido class. The youngest (without a stitch) is circling the property, Mark’s putting away the ladder he used when sanding down the house the last three hours. I’m upstairs with Papu, trying to decide which “Christmas” we should cut from a couple sentences in the manuscript Papu's finished (based on his mother’s diaries).

“See you soon,” I say, kissing him on the forehead. He nods, still bent over the pages spread out before him. Relieved two out of three of the kids are in the van, I neglect to send them back up to kiss Papu goodbye, barely managing to grab the littlest by his sand-crusted gut and plunk him into his car-seat.

I thought I’d be telling you how we talked our children through losing their great grandpa. But death made kids of my husband and I too (lost—could we have done more? a lot sad—we’ll never hear him say to our three year old, “Hey Nik-O, how you doing?” or see him swivel towards us from his grey chair by the desk). Nothing else to do--gripped so firmly by grief late at night--but wonder together about it all.

And survive the myriad things we bump into in a day that remind us of him (the wheel chair waiting to be returned at the top of the stairs, pink post-it notes with editing questions for him on my laptop, a Korbel champagne wire he twisted into a chair for the kids). My husband and I say the right things to strangers and friends, “No need for condolences. He was 92—long, happy life.” And walk away missing him, somewhat reassured by my son’s confidence that even though we didn’t say goodbye, Papu carries our love for him in his heart as we carry his in ours.

Further reading: The Nelson Brothers: Finnish-American Radicals from the Mendocino Coast by Allan Nelson, published by the Mendocino County Historical Society and Mendocino County Museum in association with the Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota (this book is based on letters between Allan’s father and Uncle Enoch who had moved to Russia).

The family is also in the process of preparing the completed manuscript, "Helmi’s Story”, (the tale of Papu’s mother’s life, based on her diary entries) for publication.

Bring Me the Rhinoceros And Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy, by Santa Rosa author John Tarrant (see the chapter “Life With and Without Your Cherished Beliefs”, especially pp. 116-122 in which the author describes “affection's twisting paths” and how to more gracefully accept the mucky process of witnessing, with other family members, a loved one crossing over.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cross-Pollination: Claudel, DeCamp, and Beattie

When I was seventeen, a postcard came in the mail (must have been early fall) of El Beso, by Rodin. I fell in love with the sound of the sculptor’s name. I wouldn’t end up in Paris for another 17 years, but when at last I stood in the glass-latticed house and looked at those white marble pairs of lovers held in the palm of the god who made them, I remembered my first encounter with El Beso.

Haunted by having seen the movie Camille Claudel (a version of Claudel’s struggle to master her own sculpture in the company of Rodin: his part in the tapestry of her successes, losses, her later failing mental health), I sought out her work in Rodin’s museum. In the room dedicated to her, I delighted in The Wave, a small study of three bathers frolicking in the water: sturdy-thighed women capable of a good snort when they laugh (1897, marble, onyx and bronze). Keenly aware of the energy emanating from our culture’s anorexic images (magazine covers, billboards, movies, etc), I found solace in those three strong life-like women.

Another image that lived in my home for several years quietly speaking to my subconscious was a painting titled The Rescue of Ophelia (by Christine DeCamp. A massive leaf borders the body of the floating Ophelia as she cradles in her arms an owl, Shakespeare’s last word trumped by DeCamp’s alternate reality. One day, at my desk, I found Ophelia—no longer mere victim, but a complicated woman with more than one possible past and future--had a thing or two to say. I fired the poem off to DeCamp who hung it on the wall with the original painting at one of her openings.

I live for such cross-pollinations. And for the inspiration which hidden worlds provide. Which leads me to the talented Beattie women, and the story of other images soaking into the ethers of my home. One is a photograph by Robyn Beattie of the swirling, scalloped ruffles of escargot begonias. Another is a photograph of a mermaid sculpture by Ananda Beattie (July 9, 1958-June 2, 2008). Ananda’s sea-girl gives me a dual sense of strength and vulnerability—thick ruts of clay hair stream down the mermaid’s back, her tail spooled thickly inward, chin thrust skyward, a maze of sea-salt across her chest. Sister Robyn took the photograph. Missing Ananda, we share a love of the image. And we play onward...from sculptor to photographer to poet...I’m back at my desk, urged there by other presences to record things left unsaid, with a new series underway, thanks to the manifest visions of Claudel, DeCamp and most recently, the Beattie sisters.

*******************************************************Robyn Beattie’s photography (Hidden worlds—A closer look at tiny treasures) will be featured in the show: “surface, detail LINE and rhythm” at the Graton Gallery 9048 Graton Road, Graton CA.

July 7-August 16, 2009
To view more of Robyn's photograpy:
To view The Wave as well as background information about Claudel’s other “sketches from nature” characterized on this Detroit Institute of Art web-site as “poems of intimacy”:

Christine DeCamp’s paintings can be found at .

Friday, July 3, 2009

Rejection, Rhino rear-ends, and Rapunzels

I’m still learning how to use rejection to drive my work to its best incarnation. I came across a few remarks that made laugh and stop taking for granted the privacy of my anonymity as a writer (respectively):

“...don’t let the judgment of any editor poison the intense, intimate, and necessary relationship that you have with your own work. Keep the two things scrupulously separate. The self that writes may need to be a delicate and protected creature, but the self that submits to magazines ought to be as tough as a rhino’s butt” (Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, in the article Bullseye, How to Submit to Poetry, Poets &Writers, May June 2009).

and from photographer Saul Leiter:

“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learned to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything” (as quoted by Jim Casper in the article Lensculture, Five Points: Vol 12. No. 3).

Of course, talking about rejection and surviving it are two different things. I can’t say enough about the beautiful braid of energy that has sustained me through rejection and life at large: other women, grappling with the dual demands of their muse and motherhood. We talk. Three Rapunzels are better than one, and so on. And the hair/rope, cast down—not for some guaranteed prince—at least, not as savior. Companion, father, helpmate, best friend even, but not savior. It is after all 2009.

Ten years ago in Iowa City, my friend Mary and I used to drive through the snow to New Melleray Abbey for weekend retreats, plunking down a duffle bag with clothes and a blank journal, each with our own narrow room, meeting to throw tarot cards on the thin brown bedspread in hushed whispers, waiting to be booted out like teenage girls. We’d separate eventually, pulling our doors shut behind us with that soft click, craving the cool quiet emanating from the corridors, the hooded monks, the stone courtyard, the falling snow, the owls, a certain hush even in the basement dining hall with its marvelous slabs of beef and tureens of gravy.

Without Mary or the time to throw cards, life’s images and happenings become the divination: the black and white king snake slithering across the road on my way home from teaching In the Company of Writers, the coyote in the apple orchard skirting Liz’s house, the sound of three tan oaks splintering to the ground on the untended acre across from our house in the night’s hot, still summer air. Last week it was writing about Rapunzel and having my husband’s grandmother walk in an hour later with an anniversary card for us with an image of Rapunzel outlined in silver, a skinny troubadour of a prince beginning his ascent at the base of her hair.

In the stolen moments of writing time, I can either dwell on rejection, or step over it and get to the writing at hand. And hope in those stolen moments to get the cream to rise to the top. I love whipping cream these days, despite the lack of my little nurser to share the calorie load. An outsider, analyzing might accuse me of trying to fill the lost sweetness (childhood’s? post teen’s?) with endless cups of tea, brown sugar and whipping cream. I would reply: you’re spot on. Should I stop, now that I know?

Or like my dear adopted friend Jerilynn, who dreamed of being at a stream and finding the most lovely round stones imaginable, the very heft of them in her palms filling an insatiable need. “I took stone after stone,” she said, “it felt unbearably good and I couldn’t stop myself.” Then she added, ashamed, “I’m so careful about not taking things from nature, in real life, but in the dream I couldn’t help myself.”

“I wish you’d taken more!” I cried. What motherless child wouldn’t want to fill her arms with those cool perfect stones of the Earth?! “Were we to take the characters in a dream as separated powers of the soul, for example, then a gift given in a dream might serve the soul’s integration” writes Lewis Hyde, in The Gift, p. 74 (I’m still making my way through its thick field of thinking). Wouldn’t a gift taken in a dream too, serve the soul’s integration? I think so.

Us Rapunzels talk our way into the present, hoping our daily living delineates a path our daughters (and sons) would want to inherit. I remember looking at my mother’s life and wanting mine to look nothing like it. Only after giving birth to my first child did I call her with a blanket apology for anything I ever did or said that might have upset her, the helpless love affair with my daughter less than twenty-four hours old, the gravity/ferocity/joy of the years to come just dawning.

In the graphic novel, The Plain Janes, the main character survives a random street bombing. In the PTSD aftermath, relocated to a new city and new high school, Jane turns a critical eye on her mother: “I remember when my mom and I would lie on the ground in the park in Metro City and stare up at the clouds. We’d find all kinds of animals, castles, and magical things up there.”

The mother says, “Does that cloud look strange to you?"

The daughter: "No, it looks normal."

The mother: "It looks strange to me, sinister."

The daughter: “I want her to stop worrying and love the world again...Because if she can, then I can.”

(This passage comes roughly ¼ of the way through the unnumbered book by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg). Love the world my mother did, and she passed that on to me. I came across a letter she sent me when I was auditing a class taught by Patricia Hampl. We were preparing to do a writing exercise using a photograph as a starting point. I wrote to my mother and asked her for her reflections on a photograph of her choice, and asked my grandmother as well. I have both letters still—my grandmother chose to write about her Confirmation photo, and my mother about a photo of three children in the woods. When I gain control over my scanner, I’ll post the photo, but for now, here is my mother’s letter:

It is funny to be 47 years old. I feel like I am finally stable and happy. As the years go by, age and experience do count for something. You can only learn the life of game by playing, and playing it I have.

I came across this photo when I was looking through the old family albums. It is one of my favorites, even though it is posed. It reminds me of the times when days were carefree and my best friends were Mike and Rose. The three of us are 18 months apart and were the last of six other children to go to school, so we spent the five years before school in each other’s company.

This picture was taken by Dad. I’m sure he took it since he was the one who understood cameras and took all our family pictures. He worked for a company that had a darkroom and he developed his own pictures. This was taken in the backyard. We lived on a large lot with a huge backyard. There was a vegetable garden and flower garden that my grandfather kept. It was always beautifully blooming. There were at least a dozen fruit trees, apple, pear, and plums so that we always had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat.

I remember the dress I am wearing because I wore it for a long time. Clothes were few and far between, so I became very attached to clothes, especially dresses, since having six older brothers I was always getting boys clothes to wear. Even the shoes I was wearing were Buster Browns because they could be worn by both boys and girls, and I’m sure Mike got these shoes when I was done with them.

There were lots of children in the neighborhood because it was an Irish Catholic town, so just on our small block there were 10 children in our family, six in the Kelly’s across the street, five in the Clark’s, eight in the Jenny’s and three in the Keating's. Everyone watched out for everyone else, and everyone knew each other. We lived on the edge of town, with a dairy farm just across the street. The traffic on the street was so slight. I remember falling asleep at night and hearing the whistle of the train in the distance. I am still close to Mike and Rose. This picture really brings back the bond that we shared then and now.

Write and let me know how spring break went. I am very much looking forward to the family reunion this summer.--Mary Ann Doherty, 1994

And lest I forget the supporting male thread that also braids itself into my life and my writing (a subject that deserves a future post or two of its own), I type this in to the mingling voices of my two sons, flying their paper airplanes in the driveway with my father (retriever of lost paper stealth planes, kisser of filthy scraped knees, patient chaser of the occasional phantom rhino in the woods).