Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sleepwalking with Heidi

The house quiets. The children sleep, their anchors lifting out of me one by one. And my naked self, neither mother nor wife nor friend, floats downstairs for a cup of tea, the open space between the wooden slats of the stairs tainted gold by tree-light and the lit lamps of the xmas village resting in eternal snow.

Too thirsty to sleep, too tired to write in the journal; the steam jet from kettle’s end curls the kids’ drawings on the side of the fridge. The fire needs a log. The rain-wet deck beneath my bare feet, night’s frigid blue-black backwood’s dark tangible as an entity, and Emma, the outcast feral cat, perched on the railing. She flees. The other three ferals, though tolerant of her presence at feeding time, fight her out of the cat-bed under the house.

Mug’s heat singing knuckles, I’ll linger at the top of the stairs, standing, reading, in front of the bookshelf next to the bedroom that’s long needed a velvet chair and lamp to call its own. Johanna Spyri’s Heidi falls open to chapter 12, The Sesemman House is Haunted, in which Heidi’s sleepwalking earns her an interview with the good doctor, who asks, “…just tell me where you were going.”

To which she replies, “‘…every night I dream the same thing. I think I am with my grandfather, and I hear the wind in the pines, and the stars are shining in the sky. And I jump up quick, and open the door of the hut, and oh, it is so beautiful! But when I awake, I am always in Frankfort,’ And Heidi began to sob, and fight with the trouble that swelled her little throat almost to bursting (p. 162).”

I’m transported into the fierceness of Heidi’s longing for the taste of goat milk, the round window through which the moonlight of the Alps slips down over her sleeping face and the gruff peace she finds in her grandfather’s care. And recognize immediately this image of a self that might travel outside of itself at night in pursuit of what one’s day self might ignore or need to set aside.

Molly Peacock, in her dew drop of an essay on the allure of flowers, State of Grace, writes, “‘I had two selves, really: a robot self to dispense my obligations, and a true self that was dangerously buried or, as gardeners say, “caught in the bulb.” But in that garden, where I was able to act dreamy, my true self was released’” (p. 134). This image appeals equally: the state of resting, dormant, lingering before the inevitable ascension sunwards.

I’m careful, though, to love my current placement in incarnation and in time, thriving under the maelstrom of raising children and negotiating marriage, taking as a self-stated mentor Pattiann Rogers, who writes in her essay, Degree and Circumstance, “If, through caring for my children, I lost writing time, I gained by the expansion of vision and insight and compassion my experiences with them gave me…The writing I was able to do in those years is suffused with the energy my children radiated” (p. 161).

My preoccupation with the fracturing of the self comes after a return to teaching after ten years of raising my children at home; one side-effect: an armful of books from the school library including an anthology titled, Women on War, stumbled upon while in the stacks on my way to some other volume (as is often the case).

In a post-grading brain-fog, I’d opened Women on War to Isabelle Allende’s excerpt from House of Spirits: The Hour of Truth with its brutal depiction of a detained woman’s torture. I opened The Sweet Breathing of Plants to a similarly intense passage titled, Fate of the Wise Women by Jeanne Achterberg; the paragraph my eye fell on gave a graphic description of the ways a woman accused of witchcraft might be terminated in Germany in 1629 (involving ladders, alcohol, matches, ropes, hoistings, weights, and hour long intervals of waiting to for the torture to repeat if the accused lived through the first round). There’s a holographic quality to such reading experiences for me, the words goading a cellular memory of the layers of horror women have survived.

I’m aware that men have suffered their atrocities over the centuries too. But, given this lifetime’s gender, I’m thinking of all of this in the context of what Eckhart Tolle describes as “the female pain-body,” (The New Earth) which, named, acknowledged, has a chance to heal. It’ll take women and men--and who knows how many years--to fathom and heal such outrageous trespasses, such devastating twists of the human psyche’s past.

The careful words of the writers who have picked their way through the carnage and made a map of their understanding, as well as a map of what eluded them, places me at the very beginning of the labyrinth (ever-shifting as it is, concentric, multi-dimensional). I’m indebted to every writer I’ve discussed here, as well as many others, for the threshold I have the means to cross—if I can just get both the sleep-walker and the day-walker inside to arrive simultaneously.

Further reading:

Photo of Heidi and the moon, Heidi and her grandfather appear in Heidi by Johanna Spyri, translated by Louise Brooks, Illustrated by Roberta Macdonald, Children’s Classics Edition

The House of Spirits: The Hour of Truth by Isabelle Allende appears in Women on War: An International Anthology of Writings from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Daniela Gioseffi

Degree and Circumstance by Pattiann Rogers appears in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, Edited by Sharon Bryan

The State of Grace by Molly Peacock and Fate of the Wise Women by Jeanne Achterberg appear in The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women Writing on the Green World, an anthology edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson

Friday, December 10, 2010

5 Things I Learned About Writing in 2010

I pledge to return with renewed vigor in January 2011! I bow down, for now, before the altar of teaching (I returned this fall semester to teaching after a ten year hiatus from the formal classroom). I did manage to post, in response to She Writes co-founder Deborah Siegel’s prompt “5 Things I Learned About Writing in 2010,” to my She Writes blog.

Motherhood, Matrices, and Accountability can be read here:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ananda's Line Live at Connotation Press

Please celebrate with Robyn Beattie and I by stopping by to view the 5 poems and 5 photographs in honor of the late artist, writer, sculptress Ananda Beattie:

Guest Poetry Editor Nicelle Davis at Connotation Press was kind enough to also interview Robyn and I regarding our artistic process of collaborating on poems and photography.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tenth Stair and the Making of “Amelia”

Lately, I’m Owl in Arnold Lobel’s children’s story “Upstairs and Downstairs” from the collection, Owl at Home, in which Owl spends the evening rushing from his downstairs to his upstairs, calling, whenever he arrives in either location, “Owl, are you there?!” only to rush madly to the opposite spot to ask the same question of himself in the new spot. He never answers (how can he?) and finally, in exhaustion, sits on the middle stair, where he can best survey both destinations

The Tenth stair is not a bad location, and who wouldn’t want to live in any one of Lobel’s settings (given the sloping ceilings of Frog and Toad’s worlds, the moonlit path extending before solitary Grasshopper, the armchair and hot bowl of soup waiting—once Weasel’s outsmarted—for Mouse, arched neck of lamp with blossom shade warming head and book).

While the tenth stair’s a good metaphor for our psychic position, I have little desire to write about our family’s two-city dilemma nor the siphon of creative energy resulting from missed airplanes, trips to the ER, work obligations, the overlay of possible new grids and patterns to forge in a new city while still driving the old--you know, the human minutae song of what needs to be done, done better, now, while slicing cucumbers for lunches, peeling bandaids for skinned foreheads and vacuuming bobby pins up in the wake of the Sunbeam Fairy on her way to weekend Nutcracker practice.

I sequestered a day, though, to sit beside Robyn, my accomplice, so we could preview her images for the making of three new photo-poem montages.

And mercifully, within moments of sitting beside her with my double-bergamot Earl (tea housed in a substantial globe-bottomed Barbara Hoffman muted orange and grey gold petalled mug), I’m “home”—at peace, and the images for the poem “Amelia” take an order in my mind: here, opalescent mounds of buried pearls in an abalone shell will echo a line of cream buttons down the waist of a crepe dress will echo the silver rivets of an airplane’s wing.

Since the poem names its own set of images, it’s tricky which photos to choose…not overstate, not understate or compete with the words. What furthers the dream? Like here, these milk tendrils of brushed wool, so like incense rings, barely present enough to touch.

Because the poem isn’t about flying, or lovers, directly. But transport past thresholds alone. “And god approving” before the sun breaks through that sliver of sky-time, pre-dawn (finite! mercurial!) when hearing the sound of your own breath is enough.

Photo, abalone: Robyn Beattie

Link to our first photo montage:
at the Mom Egg.

To view more of Barbara Hoffman’s work:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Girl, Surfacing: Honoring Ananda Beattie

Forthcoming soon from Connotations Press: Ananda’s Line, a series of five poems inspired by the life of the late sculptor, artist, writer Ananda Beattie. Poems are paired with the photographs of Robyn Beattie; interviews with the poet and photographer will also be featured. Born in San Francisco on July 9, 1958, Ananda received her BA in art at Sonoma State University; she passed away on June 2, 2008.

“Sea Maiden" by Ananda Beattie (1995); acrylic on canvas, 18” x 24” in size.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Alice in Flames: Going Back to Work After 10 Years at Home

Now it is more possible for a woman writer to be seen as, well, just that: neither nun nor orgiastic priestess, neither more nor less than human. --Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
I’m living at the mercy of some kind of activity induced vertigo, experimenting with the chronic assumption I can do it all. One of the vertigo’s contradictory side-effects, along with inhibited memory, is that it strengthens my mind’s way of stumbling upon the most vibrant version of the past, or version of someone’s name, in this case, a writer I’d read about in a newsletter. Her actual name is Ingrid Hill, but for whatever reason, I started calling her Iris Hunt (after reading the alleged account, in Glimmer Train's Bulletin, of her dedication to writing while raising her 11 children, the husband who walked out for a number of reasons, among others, complications arising from her success as a writer competing with his writing career). When I Googled to find out more about her and her powerful writings and couldn’t find her, I had to recheck Glimmer Train’s bulletin for her actual name, Ingrid Hill. Who then is Iris Hunt?

Maybe the self of mine rushing headlong away from the hole like Alice running against the backdrop of blue flame in Robyn’s photo. Foremost on my brain: how not to be a slip-shod sybil* under the demands of August. Which include: descending back into the realm of teaching freshman composition for the first time in ten years, one son changing schools, my overworked husband missing more flights than you can count on one hand, and the anxiety of living in two cities and hemorrhaging money while making money. *(I borrow the term from Germaine Greer, from her book by the same title--Slip-Shod Sybils—in which she “recount[s] the sad careers and frequently grim deaths of female poets from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries” pp. 88-89 Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing).

Here in present time my littlest son repeats for the fifth time, The one with the stinkiest tail gets the female, laughing infectiously with his brother, both sets of their bare feet skimming recklessly near the end of the couch in front of the hot woodburning stove, my husband maniacally filling the wheelbarrow outside with leftover clods of dirt and concrete from the deck extension construction we’re apparently undergoing (because why would you build a scaffold to stand on in order to shingle that side of the house when you could build a deck). Cheerful, busier than an ant colony, this family; I do best forgetting I’m a nun trapped in a mother’s life, since this life is the only life I can imagine having, or I’d have mapped it differently by now.

Much later in the night, near 10 p.m., after taming some misplaced feminist ire that rears up in me when I notice I’m still 90% on duty at my faculty BBQ watching the kids while my husband makes friends for us with my new colleagues (misplaced ire--because the moment I ask him to watch the kids, he does), there’s a timid knock on our front door. Against the pitch black sky stands a young terrified girl, shaking as I hand her a glass of water and my telephone. I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden I was in the ditch.
I make her a cup of tea, wrap a scarf around my neck, follow her out into the cold and dense tree-canopy dark, my Boy Scout son bursting out in front of us, his swiss-army knife flashlight illuminating the gravel, and 100 yards further, her car, one wheel lodged into the right bank. A series of long white scrapes flanks the passenger’s side door, the hood sheened dull green with pollen, dust, and a torn branch of maple leaves. We trace the maybe of her path: towards the right side of the road (with its twenty foot drop to the creekbed) followed by her overcorrection that sent her car scraping against the opposite bank of the road to land safely here.

I wait until her boyfriend’s lights rounded the hilltop above us, then leave them to the dark and their decisions. Back in our house, we’d just finished bedtime stories and turned out our lights when the second knock came. As I sat on the couch in my robe for the hour of phone calls to parents and insurance, I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter, the cars in her future, hoping that a stranger might make her tea, offer her help when she needed it.

I feel for the girl before me, head in her hands at my kitchen table, battling her fears about the fallout from her accident, how her peers and family will see her now. I remember a kid at school who crashed his car, how people talked about him. I don’t want to be that kid, she repeats. We talk long enough to discover she knows the grand-daughter of the man who built our house. When she stands up to go, she turns to me and says, I like the artwork in your house. And I like it that people know one another out here. Then thanks me for the use of the phone.

For the next 45 minutes, the dim red taillights of the boyfriend’s car winking against the ceiling, I can’t sleep. I hear the clanking of Triple A’s chains, the sound of the hydraulics it takes to maneuver her car onto the flatbed, the labored sound of the towtruck’s motor ascending the hill towards town. I realize, in the ensuing stillness, that I’m no longer at the mercy of the chaos and vertigo of the day’s responsibilities and sign off with God by giving thanks for the young woman returning to her mother unharmed, for the home we were able to invite her into (if only for an hour) and for the kind strangers of my daughter’s future.

Photo: Alice in blue flames by Robyn Beattie.

Interview with Ingrid Hill, featuring her book Urusla, Under at Bookslut:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Women’s Spiritual Archives, Nausicaa vs. Heavy Metal, Helen Luke & Eileen Myles

I think all of us need to be some kind of starfish to survive—have to be able to put our insides out and vice versa in order to keep our balance in the world…Eileen Myles, from "Survival of a Starfish"

The phrase “Women’s Spiritual Archives” floated through my head about two months ago one morning when I woke up, left over from the prior night’s dreamscape I could no longer haul up into memory. It continues to linger, for good reason, for while I am busy posing as the mother of three children, dutiful daughter-in-law, law-abiding citizen, PR person for my son’s Boyscout troop, aspiring poet, loving, faithful wife to Neptune- crazed cross-country coach by day/fitness instructor by night husband, etc, I’m really pretty much an astral traveler who wakes each morning surprised to have landed in the same body.

Having children means I spend more of my waking hours inhabiting that body, less time tuning in to all the extraneous layers of invisible hoo ha that can really keep a girl from having fun in the present moment.

But, I can’t help it, I’m attracted to the idea of scrolls and legends documenting the soul paths of renegade women warriors, I mean, who wouldn’t want to rummage around in the stacks of the women’s spiritual archive of all time? I suppose you’d have to cross water to get there, you’d arrive at some kind of jewel-studded temple, maybe you’d have auspiciously run into the right totem animal who gave you their tuft of fur, feather, or password…

Or…. Maybe the entrance to the archives would be disguised as Taco Bell and you’d have to go in the back where they dump out all the frying oil and hunt around for the secret door…(birthing kids did that to me--I’m jaded—I concede—our waking world is not in fact, flooded with angels, vestial virgins, and fairies alone).

I can easily trace this tangent to the book I’m reading by Robert Moss titled, The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead: A Soul Traveler’s Guide to Death, Dying, and The Other Side, in which he describes leading dream retreatants to a library on the astral. And I’ve had questions of female power on the brain lately—goaded by the trepidation I feel watching my little girl grow towards adolescence.

Remember the movie Heavy Metal? That scene of the young girl who wanders into the fields under the night stars only to be hunted, then overcome, by that menacing green glowing orb of light? I’d say kidnapped--spirited off--into the heart of evil, armed with nothing more than a sword, burgeoning breasts barely contained by her vest, and a pair of blood red boots bordering yards of naked thigh (and a valiant winged companion she rides). I remember watching that movie with mixed terror and fascination, a mythology any of us Earth girls recognize: ordinary girl self vs. the mythic star warrior one wishes to be, though here, depicted through a certain rampant slant of male lens of “woman warrior”…anorexic, busty, gorgeous but lethal, sex and death under one corset.

Around the same time in my adolescence, my brother began to draw; my parents found a drawing tutor for him named Ritchie, a thespian who traveled often with the Renaissance Fair. Ritchie brought humor and levity to our home. He came with a bevy of images for inspiration, including the work of Frazetta, with those muscled half-nude men and women, volcanoes expiring on the planetary horizon tilted beneath the wings of the alien birds the magnificent pairs usually rode. I don't deny the images themselves were compelling, or that the human body should be celebrated.

But as an antidote to the darker images I saw in our culture, like the HM girl, for some years I had a painting up on my wall of a string of vestial virgins gathering flowers on a mountain top, their bodies and radiant faces shrouded in white, an image that shepherded me through some years of soul tiredness when considering the issue of female power and how to proceed. A conversation I continually return to with my closest friends involves the question of imagery—where in our culture, where in myth do we see accurate reflections of what we survive as we try to raise our young, love the partners before us, reach our potential and attend to spiritual longing (with dignity).

A more recent antidote comes in the form of Hayao Miyazaki who has directed such sweet inspiring anime kid films (and I mean kid films in the highest sense--films I love to show my children and happen to enjoy myself) as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. Mihazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind proves to star a girl savior far more palatable and wholesome, voluptuousness present but not blindingly so as in the case of our Heavy Metal girl. Unlike the disturbing, instant, caustic catapulting of the HM girl into full woman/object/ hood, Nausicaa remains unmolested throughout the story, a girl who uses her intuition, compassion, and heart strength to save her people and respect nature without having to strut her bust. Her male companions respect and chaperone her spiritual gifts.

This version of woman warrior-hood is one I don’t mind sharing with my daughter, from ethereal opening scene of Nausicaa observing the falling spores--white as snow--for a long meditative moment to Miyazaki's signature core dream resonances spiralling up out of the plot, supporting a vision of the essential goodness to be found in the pure impulses of childhood and the necessity of remembering one's most innocent roots for their healing potential.

In the absence of healthy role models of female power lurks despair, depression. In the kinship of other women, both living and dead, I’ve found stepping stones to peace. One such kin thinker for me is Helen Luke, who writes in her essay, The Perennial Feminine; “If we are to stop the wreckage caused by the disorientation of women, by their loss of identity under the stresses of the new way, then the numinous meaning of the great challenge they face must break through from the unconscious; for no amount of rational analysis can bring healing. Only so can the images of the masculine and feminine, which have become more and more dangerously mixed in our society, be discriminated once more, so that they may come to a new synthesis in both woman and man.” (p. 13, Kaleidoscope, the Way of Woman and Other Essays).

The “new way” Luke refers to here points to the downside of feminism, how it contributed to some stunting of our power in surprising ways (and causing some destructive, extreme polarization for both men and women). I’d have to quote her essay in entirety to do her justice; I hope you’ll pursue her writings to see what I mean.

In my conversations with my friends, we talk about how to unearth those new ways of being, those new images. Luke, writing near the turn of the century, speaks to the need for myths to constantly be revisited from the reality of each particular time we inhabit.

I hold out hope for the arts--the anime form mentioned above, painting, sculpture, etc, and of course, my first love--writing--to inevitably unearth such imagery--inspired imagery--healing for women as well as men. I came across this tidbit from Eileen Myles Survival of a Starfish (in the anthology Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation, James L. Harmon). Myles encourages us, “in our time we have to write those books and pass on this message of the great vast female inside, the mind inside the mysterious female body, the dreaming female consciousness that is trying to wake up; we should pass that message on…We have to get our inside out. And women can take that in. Later on I would like to help men. But women first.” (p. 127). Amen, Myles. (And I hope you’ll read the rest of Myles’ bright, cheeky, splash-of-cold-water-in-the-face essay, which explores, among other topics, the question of who's in charge when beer or masturbation are involved.)

And here's a closing image from Robert Moss, which speaks directly to that astral double of mine I started this whole rumination with. Moss writes, “The sarcophagi of Egypt that have been found empty by archeologists were constructed as incubation and holding chambers for the living (not the dead) bodies of royal star travelers (p.8).” That’ll rewrite some history, inspire a few narratives, a screenplay or two (if it hasn’t already).

Maybe I’m just a star traveler light years from home. Or maybe I’m exactly where I'm supposed to be, just a mother of three children, balsa wood gliders now pinging off my cabin door signalling the end of my writing day. Here they are: my girl and her brothers, flouncing across the threshold, wrestling across my futon, spiraling to the floor in beautiful disarray the 90 poems I’ve given up on ordering for now.

Tonight, it’s back to the dream-lab, only this time I’ll try to get the shutter reflex going on my third eye so I can draw you a map to those girly archives I can’t get out of my brain.

Active Dream Workshops with Robert Moss:

Blue tornadoe by Robyn Beattie:

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Thief, The Fishbowl, and The Bank of America

The thief left a size 13 footprint on the chair he’d used to get from our window ledge onto the carpet, taking my laptop, the sword my husband wore for our Renaissance wedding, and a pair of abalone-shaped gold earrings.

My six-month old son on my shoulder, I listened to my husband place the 911 call, visions of CSI in my head, imagining the suspect as good as caught. The Sebastopol sheriff came by long enough to reassure us we’d never see the goods again and to chuckle about the footprint. “Nah,” he said, “we can’t do nothing with that.”

Which set the tone for the landlord’s visit.

“Anything you need to feel safer,” he’d said while drinking coffee at our kitchen table as he told us how violated he felt the time his home had been robbed years ago. I asked for motion lights and a taller fence to replace the two-foot white pickets. “Well, no, see,” he said, pulling on the visor of his cap. “This is the country…fences wreck the view. You’re in the fishbowl. People drive by and see the orchard, horses, your little family. I can’t agree to a fence.” And he went on his way.

So did we, shortly, to buy our own house. My husband built a deck around one of the redwoods adjacent to the east wall and added a couple cabins. He single-handedly took a pick-axe to the hill to make a yard for our three kids, then to the perimeter of the hill, lining the trail with abalone shells. We breathed out into the quiet acre, the only voyeurs the deer browsing through to eat Spanish moss off the downed oaks, the red-hooded woodpeckers knocking holes into the firs, the rains at night on the skylights. At last, no longer renters: this acre and all we’d do to it, ours for the duration.

A stripe of sun crosses the deck once a day, so the kids plant basil in pots. Each seedling gets no more than a foot tall before molding at the stalks; the deer eat my hydrangeas, coming up near the house to strip the few rosebuds off my bushes. Our first three years we chart the course of the sun across the land, dreaming our garden dreams (on the roof? a trellis up the side of the house aligned with that stripe of sun?) for the years to come.

Or, maybe just for this one last year. No thief to blame, nor footprint, for this turn in our luck--just the spiraled out economy, an interest rate on our home loan we can’t afford, the inability to refinance, eleven months of the bank losing our letters asking for
help. When a job for my husband surfaces ten hours away in San Diego, we take it, ignoring the toll it’ll take--his paying for a home he’ll live in solely on the weekends while I’ll raise our children during the week without him. Our son begins to draw black crayon helicopters labeled “Navy”, and says, “Yes, sir,” and “Aye, Captain” so many times his Waldorf teacher makes note of his comments on her mid-year report.

I was ll ½ when I left Illinois in a wooden camper my father built by hand. He moored it to the bed of a maroon 57 Chevy, painting the words “The Piano Doctor” in an arc above the plexi-glass windows. I loved our Illinois farmhouse: the rusted red pump by the juniper bush, the way the sky tinged green before the tornado, the root cellar with its hinged doors where we’d descend to sit out the storm. I’d run my hands over the jars of beets and carrots, sprigs of dill and capers floating between pale lime spears of cucumbers. Someday I would have such a cellar, my garden waiting in winter for my family to eat. We drove off that early morning towards California, my mother fretting about a pair of tablecloths still tumbling in the dryer she wanted to set out for the next tenant.

Spring break. After five months of straddling two cities, my husband drove us the ten hours to San Diego. Half way down, our acre’s grip began to loosen, for the ocean is the ocean all the way down the coast. We stopped in Shell Beach to visit my son’s godparents and headed for the dunes. The vast blue sky against the white backdrop of the sheer sand cliffs cleared my head. The children’s bodies, clothed in primary clothes, were as visible 1000 yards away as at 250.

The next day I sat on a bench outside the Navy Lodge, North Island, Coronado. Three helicopters circled in front of us. The kids abandoned their drip castles to watch the men dropping into the ocean and ascending in pairs slowly back up on invisible cable, as the questions flitted through my mind: Who will live in our house if we leave it behind? Who might we meet here? Who will we love? Who will we lose? The helicopters hovered side by side, then made their loops, all afternoon.

Later in the hotel room, I read about Tiny Broadwick, first woman to jump with a parachute out of an airplane in this area (on the airstrip behind us on base). How Charles Lindbergh started his infamous flight from New York to Paris from this runway. Between the beds on the floor, my son drew a picture for his father.

“Dad,” he says, “Check it out.”

I stole a glance at the red and blue helicopter, the obvious sun penciled in, a rainbow streaming from the other side. I didn’t take it as the burning bush anointing San Diego over our acre in the redwoods, but I couldn’t miss the simple truth that my son needs his father. Wether he’s a homeowner or a renter. Short fence or tall. In the fishbowl or out.

Photo by Robyn Beattie:

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Cat, My Familiar: Manifesting Totems

In dreams begin responsibility, said a poet. In dreams, in imagination, we begin to be one another. I am thou. The barriers go down.--Ursula K. Le Guin, the wave in the mind

Iowa City. Summer in the heartland, years before manifesting the husband and the family. As I scanned my intuitions, consulting oracles to join a divided self--one lover states away and another before me in my room--I placed a tarot card (Crowley’s two of disks) on the floor on a silk cloth. The card depicted a crowned snake, in the position of a figure eight, its tail held in its own jaws.

I’d been working with a counselor who taught me to turn and confront the rapist in the series of chased-by-a-rapist dreams I was having. Astonishing things happened then in the dreams: the rapist morphed into a boat with wings, a butterfly. I could fly higher and faster. The ticker tape of past lives, that ran like wine at Blacks’ Gaslight village (where I woke often like a child with a dress on inside out), slowed some and I slept occasionally without the exhaustion of dreams dumping out their vessels into my memory.

Several days later my silver tabby, through the window, dragged in the snake he’d hunted, and laid it directly across the tarot card I’d left out. I wondered if I’d reversed my days and dreams. By the time I reached the snake, it was dead. I rinsed the blood off the card, gathered up the snake and found ground soft enough to dig apart, shooed aside my cat, buried the snake.

Mythical characters appealed during that time with their black and white pasts, their traumas clearly delineated. Take Batman: his parents were shot down on the street in front of him. A clear wound, a clear obstacle to heal. Much less murky than being taken advantage of when you’re drunk as a kid. I mean, did Batman, when working through his “issues” years later, trouble his psyche with questions of blame? Ever once think, my parents were shot because I wore such-n-such outfit? Or because I had that drink?

That summer in a movie theater, I watched Val Kilmer, blonde, adept, muscular; listened to singer Seal’s gravelly voice singing Kissed by a Rose. Nicole Kidman, red swath of cloth circling our from her shoulders in desire for what she couldn’t have (Batman) and elsewhere couldn’t recognize at home (lowly reporter), reminded me simply of how split we are in our attractions and desires. How we fail to recognize the depth of beauty in who or what we have right before us in present time.

I woke in the morning, opening my eyes to a dark shape inches from my head: a tiny bat my silver king had snagged, killed, and delivered to my pillow. Not batman, I took it he was saying to me. You don’t need batman the savior, but here, look at the real thing.

So I gathered the warm, still, creature into the palm of my hand, mind flipping from last night’s Hollywood image of Batman to this delicate mouse of an animal with webbed wings that Batman stood for. Thought about what bats do…how they send out a signal that bounces back when it comes up against something either to eat or to navigate away from, and saw the metaphor: my own radar disabled as a kid.

But on the mend, and not without kinship, my animal familiar, listening ever so carefully to the past I brooded on in my thoughts so loud he couldn’t help but hear it, offering what evidence he could that I was in fact, stepping carefully towards wholeness.

Once, before the birth of my first child, I saw my cat in a lucid dream, his own silver cord extending for miles below, flying beside me, my own cord beside his, proving irreconcilably what I already knew: he accompanied me even into sleep, as I struggled to face the night’s marauder-filled dreams.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The 4th by Zodiac

Under the weight of my husband’s body, the back end of the tiny zodiac dips nearly even with the water’s surface as he uses his arms to paddle the boat back towards the shore so he can retrieve me from the river house where ten minutes earlier he and the kids had effectively ditched me to “check on the fireworks.” After 11 years of marriage, my husband aspires to keep me in the loop, so he kindly thought to call me on his cell while he and the kids were drifting towards the Monte Rio bridge.

“Could you come back for me?!” I’d said, washing the last of our dinner dishes with great grandma and grandma flanking me in the one-derriere kitchen. I in turn ditched the women, mumbling an apology, running full tilt past the sauna in the dark and down the patio steps, first the sand and then the obsidian river cool on my bare feet. From here, I can hear the voice of the announcer from the loudspeaker a quarter mile away on the beach, see the purple chem lights wreathing the heads of the crowd waiting for the night’s float parade contest.

“I don’t have the paddle,” my husband informs me as I step over his crotch to scoop up the four year old, sanding off the top layer of my skin against my daughter’s mud coated legs while she and her brother continue fighting in the prow. “Relax,” my husband’s already admonishing me, as we wend towards the carousing voices of a group of ten or so men sitting in lawn chairs on a dock below the Highland Dell.

In the dark, I feel cloaked but barely anonymous, and definitely not interested in accidentally entering the float’s line-up and the floodlights, which is exactly what my husband has in mind until I kill the fun, my sense of humor siphoned off under the four year old’s complaints about his life-vest, foam fronds stiffly pushing his thighs down and his chin skyward. “Relax,” my husband repeats from his full body sprawl behind me, his legs running down the length of the boat. My tailbone’s balanced on the back rind of the wooden seat and the din in the prow has not let up under the octopus of legs the five of us make. If I give in and lean back on my husband’s chest, we’ll be sitting in water, so I hover in place.

The voice at the mic is none other than the woman who certified us for lifesaving back when we were kids, my husband and I. The fire department’s curtain of water descends, and as usual, she’s announcing a last minute problem with the projector, and even when it is righted, the American flag displays backwards. “Honey,” I say to my husband, and mean it, “you’re the best Monte Rio has to offer.”

And with that, he obliges me, keeping us out in the very middle of the river. I’ve got my hands over my little son’s hands cupping his ears, and by the grand finale, the beauty of the nested, descending blooms of light silences us all, even the pair in the prow.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sons and Guns

Why we didn’t think to turn and follow the boy running at full speed past us down the lane of chest-high weeds to the pond’s edge I don’t know, except that summer in the heartland sheens one’s arms with sweat and dulls the mind; we’d driven for twenty minutes with the windows rolled down, the inrushing air retaining all of its heat and sting. Skirting the cornfields, we arrived at the farmhouse we’d been asked to babysit for the weekend. Feed the guinea pig, water the plants, no need to stay overnight, other folks, possibly the farmer coming and going.

Sun stupid, we stepped out of the car and heard first the odd sound of huffs of breath punctuated by the dull thud of boots, then the muscled torso of an average farmer’s son absolutely focused as he rushed by. He did not see us.

Just as we never noticed the broken front door pane glass, nor drops of blood scattered across the kitchen floor we crossed, unaware the sirens we’d hear in five minutes of our meandering over to the guinea pig’s dish had been called from a house up the road when the boy had been unable to find the phone here. We pet the caramel guinea, stroking the white patches along his knobby head, the tubby bloat of his stomach as he chirped and sidestepped our pats.

We left. But as we drove towards the main road, we could see the dirt plume from an oncoming sheriff’s car and a quarter mile back a thicket of red flashing lights. And shortly, stopping us with the flick of her hand, a woman deputy standing in the middle of the road. She pushed her thick blonde braid back over her shoulder as she approached our car, asking us if we were the property owners; a call of distress had been placed, a possible hunting accident.

As the fire engine bore down, we explained we were merely the house-sitters. She thanked us and waved us on, leaving us to slip back to the before: the smell of the sun warm furniture in the house, the sound of the young boy’s breaths, the what ifs we tried to puzzle together.

We’d learn the next day the boy who passed us was rushing back to the body of the cousin he’d accidentally shot and killed moments before we’d arrived.

Something about the three colors of the ocean waves today brings up this memory from over ten years ago. Strange to think the ocean makes me think of fields of corn, but the reverse was true in Iowa City for me when I lived there, falling asleep once on a retreat in a clearing, waking to watch the wind pass through the corn. Not wavelike, nor tidelike, but the scale of blues in the ocean and the way they refract back light akin to the greens of acres of corn waiting, sated with sun, for harvest.

I still ask how we walked into that farmhouse without picking up on the boy’s charged, residual field of absolute panic. Back then, I had no reference for the burden of sons—what they might or might not do by accident. Today in the camel-bending heat rising off the sand beside the ocean, I thought of those cousins, and the boy who lived, having to face two mothers—his own, and that of his cousin’s; though I can’t imagine how one would go about reckoning with such a leviathan tragedy, I pray he’s forgiven himself.
Photos by Robyn Beattie:

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Summer Solstice Promise

I bark the admonition about non-retrievable body parts to my son for the third time as we course in a four-door car over the blue bridge into Coronado, his elbow and hand buffeted by the air current inches from the concrete dividers. I’m thinking about an article I read on the airplane the day before about some kind soul in China employed solely to out-sprint prospective suicides as they scale a bridge probably about this height. No sentry guards this California bridge, but suicide counseling signs--bearing an 800 number--flank north and southbound traffic on-ramps.

The look on my son’s face (his fun so wrecked, his experiment in partial flying so hammered) pulls me out of my free association. While I feel in the right as a parent, I see evidence of a self better shed, like the rich merchant in Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and The Corpse who refuses to give up a pair of battered slippers. The merchant, though he can certainly afford a new pair of slippers, focuses his attention instead on greater and greater money making schemes. At length, he accidentally dons a pair of fine slippers that do not belong to him. Then his misfortunes begin as his original slippers refuse to be buried, forgotten, and left behind much to the merchant’s dismay and eventual ruin.

Zimmer’s analysis of the tale equates the slippers with an aspect of the self the merchant did not heed letting go of at the appropriate time: “He [the merchant] is one of those who will not let themselves pass with the passing of time; but clutch themselves to themselves to their own bosom and hoard the self which they themselves have made. They shudder at the thought of the consecutive, periodic deaths that open out, threshold after threshold, as one passes through the rooms of life, and which are life’s secret (p. 17) ."

That’s kind of a lofty comparison to make with my hyper vigilant parenting skills, but I’m thinking I’d have more fun if I could, say, act like my husband does in the pre-boarding area at the airport. In his defense, he was not on his cell phone updating his profile on Facebook while my two sons, standing side by side on padded seats, left palm, nose, and most of their cheeks’ prints to the windows as the airplanes landed (to the heavy machine gun fire emitting from their thumb and finger guns)--no, he was making reservations for us so when we landed we’d have a place to stay.

As my blood pressure rose (flight delayed) and I failed to get my sons to sit next to us for the extra 45 minutes, I continued to marvel at how calm my husband remained. You’d never have guessed he had kids, not until he struck up a conversation with one of the stewardesses about smuggling in his sons early using his A pass. Or as he sprinted later that night across two lanes of traffic to hold the shuttle for us, one son following blindly into the intersection, the other teetering at the edge of the down escalator as I shrieked for him to wait for me (think background images from Denise Duhamel’s collection Ka-Ching! in which she graphically describes an escalator accident involving more than a dozen people, including her parents--backs of heads, hair in machine parts, etc). I reached my 4 year old just as we hit the bottom escalator stair, grabbed the scruff of his t-shirt as he turned to go back up the down-grinding stairs with its stoic and grumpy row of men (with their neat black bags on wheels) advancing.

Once I quelled the hysteria about the 7 year old crossing the intersection alone, silhouette visible against the bank of headlights (taxis and air porters halting for his dash), and muscled the rest of us up onto the shuttle, I glared at my husband. We’d spent the prior weekend, our first 3 days and nights in a row in 10 years away from the kids, so the contrast from the selves we resurrected as lovers and equals took a hard left turn back into the familiar--siblings at best, co-parenting rivals. My fallback, in almost all situations involving my children in public, entails either catastrophizing about potential dangers or dwelling in a perpetual state of embarrassment regarding the amount of noise we make and the lack of control we exercise.

Clearly hyper-vigilance, then, isn’t sustainable over the long haul. I’m no longer interested in being right, or in the hair color drain and toll on the adrenals. But how about spending more of my life’s hours in simple states of joy? New mothers need that vigilance when their babies are crawling towards light sockets or edges of decks. But my youngest is four now; aside from the occasional escalator to spar with, he’s pretty much launched.

Next day, sitting on the North Island Breakers Beach, kids cavorting at water’s edge twenty yards away, I made a solstice promise to try on my husband’s air of detachment.

First chance: the Museum of Air and Space, where, behind us my husband lingered alone near the entrance on his cell and both sons skirted the astronaut suit in glass case, tripping over electrical wires and velvet ropes to escape into the Alien’s Exhibit you needed special tickets to enter. I just smiled at the two docents in red jackets blocking me, and said, “But you see I think you want me to retrieve my boys.“ “Boys," I called once, then sauntered to the outdoor atrium where the helicopter and biplanes hung, without even worrying if they’d follow or whether or not my husband would find us.

How peaceful. No adrenaline zing, no harsh words for the husband when he caught up to us 3 minutes later, no one electrocuted. I took my time, lingered over what mattered to me: a case containing a scarf and shirt worn by Amelia Earhart. Did they really need to put her clothing on display? A little grim--but better: propped up beside the scarf: her book, For the Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation , which she wrote about the compulsion to fly, why it mattered to try.

I lagged behind to watch some footage of Amelia arriving in the states after crashing one of her airplanes, affirming to the waiting press her commitment to persevere with dreams of further, greater flights. Then I moseyed with my daughter through the stewardesses of time exhibit, with its 8 or so mannequins sporting each decade’s garb. I fired a photo off to a friend, who responded wryly, “Thank god we don’t have to dress like that in order to be a real woman.”

But I didn’t even try to talk my daughter out of her favorite stewardess--the one in the fitted jacket, matching orange, red and pink miniskirt, so much visible thigh above a pair of knee-high red boots. I had to admit I kind of liked the boots myself.

Photos: Taken at The Museum of Air and Space, San Diego, CA

Friday, June 11, 2010

Horses, Motorcycles, and Lemons

I can’t stop being attracted to horses so maybe I should just ride one; is it spring, or the astral maneuverings of my daughter’s obsession with horses surfacing as if I’d thought of it myself.

Like the woman with grey eyes and coral mouth preparing to mount her motorcycle in front of Howard’s Station over the weekend, sheathed in her leathers, something about the loose black hood framing her silver hair that made her appear as a nun as she tilted her head to slide on her helmet. We exchange a few words on Ninjas and I consider briefly, riding one again, almost not afraid of dying again, my daughter standing quietly at my side.

Not since the screaming descent, before children, on the carbon-fiber frame of a bicycle, my husband’s helmet glinting far below through the sun/shadow spattered curves I had yet to navigate, have I used that full-body lean and swerve to sweep the curves for the joy of it—with that unhesitating precision you need on a motorcycle. And without that god-commanded umbilical restraint hardwired into mothers that keeps them within a two foot radius of their children at all times.

The rider waves, snakes smoothly out of the parking lot. I take my daughter’s hand, steer us and the conversation towards breakfast and the rest of the week’s lessons in gravity and heat. One of my sons will fall out of a lemon tree; one of my sons will mist water from a spray bottle onto a light-bulb. Rinds of glass will continue to appear over the course of the week in the toy boxes under the stairs.

The sound of the shattering glass takes me instantly back to childhood, Illinois, my brother’s lemon meringue filling on the ceiling, thick shards of pie glass exploding into the corners of the kitchen and under the refrigerator the instant my mother took the pie out of the oven and set it on the cold counter.

Here, in San Francisco, the pupil’s of my son’s eyes shutter appropriately tight; talk of a concussion recedes and by afternoon’s end he’s selling the lemons he harvested for fifty cents apiece.

And in the last two miles before our house on the drive home, the wild turkeys with their boy-sock tan necks, black-ringed, jolt and tag raggedly along the edges of the horse pasture…my husband murmuring something about what how much horses weigh, how much damage a fall at full gallop can do, and why isn’t ballet good enough for our daughter. If horses are meant to be in her life, they’ll find her, I think to myself, knowing better than to share the insight aloud.

It’s not that I find my disinterest in danger waning, but a desire to inhabit the body returning as the kids individuate and release back to me parts of my psyche, incrementally, with highs and lows erratic as the tides. The body follows suit, with time on its hands again, wanting to wrap its arms around the neck of a horse.

Not necessarily to ride it, but just to stand there with my cheek against its hot and muscled neck, its whiskered muzzle and freckled lips so close but occupied, dusky pink nostrils flaring and breathing, taking in the afternoon sun side by side.

Photo: Robyn Beattie:

Friday, June 4, 2010

DreamSpeaker Honoree Penina Ava Taesali

On Wednesday, May 26th 2010, 5 women were honored at a DreamSpeaker event in San Francisco, hosted by the Purple Moon Dance Project and Jill Togawa, Artistic Director, in association with the National Queer Arts Festival, advertised as a “celebration, honoring the lives and contributions of lesbian and women of color artists whose work has inspired social change, peace, and healing in our community.” The five DreamSpeaker Honorees were Avoteja, Brenda Wong Aoki, Stephanie Anne Johnson, Judith Smith and a poet I’ve known for over twenty years: Penina Ava Taesali.

The women were honored with a weave of spoken word, music, and dance performances by others. At the end, each DreamSpeaker was invited to speak for several moments (since our hosts meant to give the honorees the experience of being in the audience, simply receiving after so many years of giving). Our hosts spoke of the importance of women’s spaces; in that spirit, I hounded Penina Ava Taesali for her extended thoughts about how she came to be a Dream Speaker.

I want to preface her interview with the bio that appeared in the DreamSpeaker program:

Penina Ava Taesali is a poet, writer, activist, teacher, and community organizer. Of Samoan and German working-class descent, Penina’s commitment to social change and the arts is rooted in her own personal history, identity, and intercultural complexity. Penina bore the vision of sustaining the arts in Oakland as a vehicle for working class, immigrant, and minority communities to confront the challenges of economic deprivation, violence, and criminalization. Penina served as Artistic Director and founder of one of Oakland’s groundbreaking community arts collaborative the AYPAL TRAC (Asian Pacific Islander youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership—Talking Roots Art Collective) for nine years.

Penina recruited local, national, and international artists to bring 10-14 arts programs annually to underserved high school and middle school students, including cultural and modern dance, hip hop, popular theater, shadow light puppet theater, creative writing, music and mural projects. Penina also founded and was managing director of the Pacific Islander Kie Association (PIKA), providing services to 60 Pacific Island youth and parents each year. Her interest in poetry inspired other projects, including “Poetry in the Kitchen,” an intergenerational program she co-founded with beloved oral historian and poet Al Robles. She received the “Best Spoken Word Performance of the Millennium” Award from KPFA FM. Presently she works to bring underrepresented families into school councils in the Oakland Unified Schools District.

Can you talk about what it means to you, the term DreamSpeaker?

I’ve been thinking about those two words and how Purple Moon Theater wanted to honor women using these two words. Dream is the ability to see something not yet manifested and when we speak we give form to the dream through the breath, through the language, and maybe language and action.

To work for change you have to have that ability to dream BIG, to see past the obstacles real or imagined, to not be in denial about the obstacles or challenges but to see the sun of the potential and possibility taking form, taking space, letting things work out and not lose focus when the work gets hard and tiring. But most of all be brave and nurture that small seed of the dream; when the magic happens, you can become proud and humble as you nurture that dream (with a little help from your friends) into reality.

A DreamSpeaker is a person who fights and speaks for someone who may not be allowed to have big dreams, like some of the youth who have been sheltered in strict families (perhaps their parents have already chosen who they will be and where they will be in their future). Dreamers in my eyes are the countless heroines and heroes known and unknown that make life worth living (poets and artists, community activists like MLK Jr., Cesar Chavez and Ida B. Wells to name a very few).

Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you to have been chosen for this award?

Since peers nominate for this award, I felt that my peers think my work is important, that it speaks for itself, even if the management or leadership in an organization doesn’t feel it important to celebrate accomplishments. So I am grateful that my peers nominated my work.

My friends and family seemed more excited than I was when I sent the e-mail notice about this award; it began then to mean much more to me than I thought it would. Being recognized encourages me to keep dreaming BIG. There is a sense of justice at play here. Honoring me is really honoring the work and people who love and care about me.

I think we are in a time when we crave ceremony and want to support one another through prayer, ceremony and ritual. I think people are hungry to reflect and celebrate and those venues are far and few between. We celebrate birthdays once a year, Oscar parties, Grammy and the like. One of the things I loved about working with the young people in the arts is that we had many recitals that led up to the annual arts festival. Having those recitals with parents and friends in the audience cheering for the youth validated the youth’s efforts and accomplishments. It was an awesome exchange.

What brought you here, to the stage, tonight?

I believe in the healing power of storytelling on the stage, in film, or in a book; people transform when witnessing the transformation. I believe the stage should be considered a temple. It is a place where magic happens, where community becomes community, where those who thought they could never relate to the actor, poet or dancer become connected. It is one of the great mysteries: how the arts and storytelling heal.

Both personally and professionally I believe that the arts make life worth living, for the arts teach us how to become human beings. I have experienced this first hand in my own healing. I found spiritual proprieties in dance and for many years I considered myself a spiritual dancer and was very enthusiastic about dance as a medium for healing.

Reading literature has a similar though less dramatic degree on me than live theater but I believe literature teaches us how to become human as well. Also the act of writing and reflection has been a great counselor to me; I have found through the act of recording dreams what the dream is trying to tell me.

In your work with students, would you be willing to share with us a few stories of how you came to realize how deeply you affected others with your teachings/offerings/programs you offered?

First, I have to say that working with teenagers was easy for me and the staff. We were absolutely crazy about the youth. And the youth knew it. They could feel that we had their backs and we followed through. So the youth would open up and they shared their stories, broke silences, shattered cultural taboos, broke generational gaps and were able to deeply express who they were and what they wanted for themselves and their families.

There are so many stories, but the one that comes to mind happened in our Poetry in the Kitchen class with student Cheo Satern. Cheo didn’t know she was a poet/writer/ spoken word performer until she found her voice in the workshops. She blossomed from a shy young female into the most requested poet to perform at major public venues in Oakland and the SF bay area.

Cheo inspired her other youth that may have been taught that young Mien females shouldn’t raise their voices and never take on feminist issues. Here she was: this young person who had so much fire and she just blew folks away. She told me she had some idea that maybe she was a poet because she loved music and poetry and had always written but never shared her writing. She thanked me for the class and took the workshop the next year.

There are many stories I can share but I think the under-story for me is how easy and natural it is for me to work with young people. They would just give me the world: their beauty and love unconditionally. I think it's very sad that our society may fear urban youth. It’s really tragic.

Did you face certain turning points in your life that caused you to commit even more deeply to your vision?

It took a lot out of me working on the frontlines for the youth and the artists. Our hearts were broken many times because we were gentrified out of the cultural center – we fought hard to save our space but lost it. Then bigger issues hurt our communities like Prop 21 and Prop 209. The zero tolerance climate high school students were up against during their public education would break anyone’s heart. For me it was the conditions that the youth were living under that kept my vision strong. We wanted to change those conditions. This was a youth organizing and arts education program, so we did have lots of victories as well as losses.

One victory would be the AYPAL youth who started the program back in 1998-2000 who successfully planned the AYPAL 8th reunion event in 2007. Those youth--now college students or working--kept true to a desire to help their communities. It was phenomenal to come to a planning meeting for the reunion and see 12 youth that had become young men and young women planning a huge event for AYPAL youth. They hadn’t changed much--they still had that burning desire/dream of justice.

I think it was the young people who would visit me and the staff, who kept in touch over the years, that strengthened my vision. It was truly a relationship and community development magic that I haven’t seen any place else.

When we were gentrified out of the cultural center my father encouraged me to go back to school, but I would stay another 5 years keeping the arts and the Pacific Island site going. I am glad I did because some of the arts programs have expanded and the Pacific Islander site is thriving.

What is your vision?

I have a vision all about the young people demanding their human rights: education, health care, and employment. I do believe the political leaders in Oakland have failed the young people. It should be a crime to fail the children. They give you everything and they are the future. The leadership in Oakland is a crying shame.

My vision has to do with young people learning the core values of brotherhood and sisterhood. That they make unity a groovy trend and reject American values such as having money and things. I came of age during the 60s and the 70s and there was a tangible, concrete sense that people cared about me and my family. That the educational institution made it possible for poor folks to get a higher education. My vision is for the young people to enjoy what I had as a teenager – education, trees, the fist of justice working for them.

But they have to do it now themselves. I see the young people rejecting the American values system as it is today. I hope the youth could also reject their I-pods and I-phones and texting all the time, for they need to reconnect with each other in a real grass-roots way. They need to learn how to be in relationship and communicate with voice and art. I think the technology advances in the past 10 years keep us isolated.

Who are the DreamSpeakers you have been inspired by in your lifetime?

The reason I am still standing and fighting for the community through the arts is because of my father, Iopu Taesali. My father encouraged me to dream and to make the dream happen. I guess my father was a dreamer as well. He was also a man of faith. He echoed many times when the doubt would sneak into my thoughts: “Daughter, you’re on your way.”

He would speak to me in metaphors when I would question my future as a writer or as the Artistic Director for AYPAL. “The pen cannot stand up alone.” “I was at Safeway today and I picked-up one bunch of bananas – they were heavy and I looked at the bananas but there were two bunches…solid gold.” Then he’d laugh and laugh. He’d share passages from the Bible too when I’d call him with some petty issue I was having (biblical passages I’d not really heard interpreted quite the way my father does). I really am a good listener – I think that is why AYPAL and PIKA were able to really flourish and expand.

My dear friend Sister Barbara is an amazing poet and DreamSpeaker I met years ago at a poetry reading. I’ve never met anyone like her. She trained men during World War II to skydive, to land on a tiny island in the Pacific, Mop, bringing medicine supplies for the people. She meets up with her other parachute buddies once a year and still sky dives. I could write so many Sister Barbara stories--she is my cheerleader and spiritual mother, coaching me never to give up. She plays this role for many women in her life.

There are so many DreamSpeakers that strengthen and inspired my values and passion working in Oakland with the young people. I became fast friends with Alicia Yang, Alan Laird, Jason Jong, Gina Hotta, Ellen Beep, Kallan Nishimoto, Dan Chumley, Al Robles, Bill Sorro, Julio Magana and Kawal Ulanday; they are like these gigantic gallant galaxies for all aspiring DreamSpeakers. My sister Eloise Taesali who is a DreamSpeaker Womanista who is now living her dreams as an artist.

And then there are the writers and poets, DreamSpeakers that have deeply impacted my desire to break the silences and write - -- Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Wright, Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder, David Robertson, and so many of the youth poets I was privileged to work for and with.

What is your vision for the women artists/writers, for them to build community and succeed?

My vision is that the funders start funding the arts, public space for the arts and the program staff to keep the arts going strong.

What would you say to a young woman starting out? What will she face, how should she stay strong?

I hope the young men could step up in this work too.

But I’d tell the young women to be flexible and not compromise the vision. Stick with it. Maybe they’d have to fake a smile and nod from time to time, but do your thing at all costs. I’d tell them: Stay true to their vision and surround yourself with like-minded spirits who believe in your work. There will be what the youth call “haters’”--those who want to see you and your work crash and burn because they have that human feeling of jealousy--but don’t take them seriously. There will be more people on your side if your vision is true to yourself.

And remember that people who want to make it happen somehow--one way or another--fall out of the sky from heaven and show up strong and willing to help. Accept this help, don’t question and analyze, for there are so many people who have the desire for Reverence and Justice. I’d also say take care of the self--including eating 3 healthy meals a day, exercising and paying your bills on time.

What is your next step?

My vision for myself is to live a healthy and creative life. I need to take care of my debts and my physical health. I am grateful that I get a second chance to put myself ahead of the community. I see myself easing up a bit on my high expectations. I need some serious R&R.

Any specific writing projects in the works (besides attending graduate school in creative writing at Mills this fall)?

I hope to write many essays, poems, novels and screenplays. I want to be the bridge for my relatives that were denied voice in Samoa, Portugal, Germany and here in America. I want to hear their stories desperately, so I have to make room in my mind and my heart to let them breathe because I know many folks will be able to relate to these stories.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Excerpts from the Life of a Heavy Bleeder, or “…candy creates obedience,

because the sugar opens your opiate receptors, which often feels like love” (Jackson Bliss, Spring 2010 Zyzzyva, p. 94)…a perfect line for this wickedly cold late May spring day, portable heater melting the top layer of skin off my ankles as I pop chocolate covered almonds into my mouth in my cabin in what must be a fit of p.m.s.

I come from a family of heavy bleeders. There’s a story of my mother, in the years before her hysterectomy, missing the curb and falling, one of her pumps flying into the street to land in front of a station wagon. Unbeknownst to her, menstrual blood had gushed down along the inside of her nylons, saturating the inside of the shoe.

When the driver of the station wagon got out to help, the race to the shoe was on. He beat her to it and she had a good deal of trouble convincing him she wasn’t injured, truly, she just needed to get to a bathroom.

Call it female virility, if you will—my family measures said virility by how much damage you manage to inflict during your period. I didn’t enter the fray with a story of my own until I’d left home for college (and thus it was cool again to talk to Mom).

That Thanksgiving, as we stuffed the turkey, I told my Mom about sitting in a lecture hall taking an English midterm, identifying passages from Paradise Lost, and having to raise my hand to get the TA to take my exam so I wouldn’t have to walk in front of 100 students to turn it in. Then I asked the girl next to me for a piece of paper to cover the grapefruit-sized stain on my seat (this in the era before pads with wings).

“Atta girl,” my mother laughed, and poured me a glass of wine.

By Christmas, as we wrapped gifts, I told her about the boyfriend who refused to go camping with me during my cycle. “He says the bucks, during rutting season, have been known to—like, mount a girl on her period,” I said, wrapping a pair of slippers for him.

“Horse pucky,” my Mom said. “I think you better save the tag on those. This guy’s not gonna last, is he?!”

She was right. We didn’t even make it to summer, he and I, parting ways after an argument over a comment made by my women’s studies professor (I’d asked her if she’d ever heard the “randy buck” theory). She had laughed and suggested menstrual blood could be dripped along the perimeter of one’s garden to ward off the deer; I guess that would be the does, if the boyfriend was correct, and hopefully the bucks would come looking for me, but leave the tomatoes.

Three years ago, when my youngest was one, my husband and I headed to Canada to attend the wedding of one of my husband’s high school buddies. Poorly timed, as I was mid-cycle, bleeding heartily. After several wrong turns down verdant highways laden with maple leaf insignias and waterfalls (half-hour detours each), and I’d reminded my husband for the 3rd time I needed to stop and use the bathroom, I felt that familiar rush and realized it was futile.

A vibrant blood bloom greeted us from my seat in the rental car when we finally stopped. I began to giggle, resorting to the old trick: donning my husband’s sweatshirt around my waist, I charged for the bathroom. On the way back, I stopped and bought a handful of cookies from the vets manning the rest stop in at attempt to appease my husband, then rustled up the wet wipes from the trunk. Not so much to soak the blood up, but to soak it down into the cushions, another trick learned during the college days, desperately trying to clean blood out of the boyfriend’s bed before he woke.

Back at home, I stood in the doorway, watching my six-year-old daughter as she slept: golden curve of her tiny summer tummy housing ovaries packed with eggs waiting to be doled out over her lifetime, and sent heaven thanks that she has another six years, maybe five, if she starts menstruating like I did at 11. Will she, like me, bleed for seven days straight? Fill her shoes with blood like Grandma? Atta girl!?

Drifting off to sleep next to my exhausted husband that night, I pictured the couple who rented the car after us. Maybe on their way to Vancouver, stopping at an overlook, the wife leaving the back car door ajar in her haste to get the perfect photo of the sunset. Both of them at the black formica rental-car desk, trying to explain the damage, turning their miniscule digital camera screen to the agent to show him the photos of the buck--with a full rack of antlers--tearing at the back seat with his sharp hooves in some kind of maniacal trance.

Photo credit: Robyn Beattie,

Friday, May 21, 2010

Signs of Life: Gator Lizards and Baby Rabbits

I’m just…a bridge between here and there, the world that is seen and the world that is unseen...Jo Kyung Ran from Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers

Through the glass paneled kitchen door, I spy my son, boots first, then grass-stained knees, then one outstretched wrist from which something dangles, then the rest of him sidling down the steep hill above our house, where, during autumn, pie-sized fallen maple leaves, numinous tan and plastered wetly to the bank, bring light into the house.

I step out on the deck and ask, with that casual voice critical to adopt with small children carrying potentially dead or potentially still-living but damaged reptiles, “What have you got there?”

“I saw the cat chewing on this…” he says. “It is totally dead, though,” he adds, holding it out to me. I’m not convinced, so when he flops it flat on the deck railing and goes in search of his camera, I lean down even with the lizard’s blue-green body, which though entirely intact, sports a disturbing rumple just after its neck. Its two front forelegs are laying underneath him as if he’s gliding along in water. I blow gently on the side of his head, and sure enough, he closes his eyelid ever so slowly.

When my son returns, we discuss, in the light of this new evidence: Should we let the cats finish him off? Leave him on the railing to die in peace? Which choice the most humane? Each question punctuated by the lizard’s three or four tiny displays of life, well—pain--as he opens his jaws wide, limps out his tongue, then hinges incrementally back up.

“Well,” my son says, “I guess I’ll bury him.” “Well,” I answer, “let’s leave him a bit longer.” Leaving out the rest of the sentence--though I think it—let’s not bury him alive. In the absence of finding his camera, my son goes in the house, takes a sheet of paper out of my computer tray, and asks, “How do you spell Gator Lizard?” He records the date and the time, and goes outside with the measuring tape, careful not to touch the lizard as he stretches out the ruler. When he’s finished recording its length, he draws a line on the page and disappears back up the hill in search of other creatures.

I remember too, my parent’s indulgence, allowing me one summer in Illinois to eye-dropper feed one surviving baby rabbit from a litter damaged by the farmer’s mower. Mom and Dad must have known (as I did with my son’s lizard) that there was little chance it would live, but they let me believe.

I remember the snow silver of its fur, brown underneath, each tuft of fur finer than my little sister’s hair, the pale pink petal folds of its twin ears, the liquid rind of its eyes looking at me as the drops of milk slid along the dropper against the shut seam of its mouth.

And just before I left to brush my teeth, the little rabbit hopped furiously around and around the border of the cardboard box. “Look, Dad,” I said, convinced all was well, the rabbit on the mend. So when morning came, and with it, no motion from the box, I didn’t understand.

But I remember gradually settling on this: sometimes signs of life are in actuality, signs of leaving. And it helped, walking out across the field with my Dad and a shovel, to go dig a hole, the cold metal of the shovel handle a good distraction from the longing for the rabbit to not have gotten separated from its mother in the first place.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Crows bordered the seams of your leaving" Poems Live Today

at The Blood Orange Review:

The editors at Blood Orange Review are looking in particular for artists to feature in upcoming issues, so please consider submitting your words and/or your art to them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Photo Poem Montage She Dressed in a Hurry, for Lady Di Live at The Mom Egg

I’m really proud of this latest venture in technology (set to music--my father Stephen Pryputniewicz on piano, playing the music of Scriabin, and Robyn Beattie behind the lens for over 30 gorgeous photos). The poem, She Dressed in a Hurry, for Lady Di originally appeared at Salome Magazin. For text only visit:

For the Photo Poem Montage, visit: the Mom Egg, where it is due to be posted on Mother's Day:

Our first recording attempt was conducted at my father’s house, where we spent half an hour moving the computer with an attached microphone we’d borrowed from my brother back and forth on a stool in the hallway…trying to get the right balance of piano to voice. Then we discovered we were picking up the hum of the heater in the hallway, and tried sticking the computer in the bathroom, closing the door, where the voice took on a sharp tile echo and Dad had to count seconds and guess when to start the piano to time it with the poetry. We had some eerie moments when the wire of the mic became somehow attenuated (overheated?) during the recording of a second poem (Nefertiti on the Astral) and in playback we heard a long drawn out garbled voice, as if we were channeling The Queen of Egypt direct. Once the hairs aligned in their usual horizontal positions along the backs of our necks and arms, we decided to call it a day and consider the recordings working drafts

Fortunately, during one of those fortuitous family, kids, and technology woe swapping lunch visits, my friend Lori offered her husband’s recording studio services, and with his excellent mixing skills, my brother’s help transferring the file to its final form for viewing, we came up with a much stronger version. I hope you enjoy this bouquet of sorts…for Mother’s Day, for mother’s everywhere.

Thanks to The Mom Egg for hosting the montage, Salome Magazine for originally publishing the text of the poem, and Michael and Lori for the studio opportunity. And of course, my co-collaborators Stephen Pryputniewicz and Robyn Beattie (

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mothers and Daughters: A Bird’s Eye View

This is dawn./Believe me/This is your season, little daughter./
The moment daisies open,/The hour mercurial rainwater/
Makes a mirror for sparrows./ Its time we drowned our sorrows.
--From Dawn by Eavan Boland

I must have been six or seven. We’d just moved from upstate New York to an Illinois farmhouse. Early spring, the cold air evident on the palm of my hand pressed to the window, eclipsed for the moment by the sun’s heat, its blinding swath across the pages on my lap. I pored over page after page of muted watercolor paintings of mothers in long flowing gowns with their hair pinned up, escaped tendrils curling about the throat and pearl earrings as they leaned over the child on their lap.

Other images: mother and child kneeling side by side along the cream border of sand by the sea, the pastel ribbons of their hats streaming behind them as they gazed at sea stars. Or sitting nestled against tree trunks, oblivious to the wind rustling the marsh flowers and weeping willows framing their togetherness. Who were these soft, sweet pairs? And so awoke in me a longing for symbiotic, sacred quiet.

Back to reality: Dad in the pantry grinding up soybeans for pancakes in the silver flute of the meat grinder, my brother shrieking, “Batman” from the top of the cellar stairs before launching his way to a broken ankle. The kittens--unbelievably adorable by day--attacking our ankles with miniscule razor claws in the tangle of blankets at the foot of our beds at night. The goldfish--so vibrant an orange his one day of glory, found floating eye to eye with the lid of his world—for my little sister to bury.

Time for breakfast around the spool table my father scored from his job at GE, the many melted candles forming a lava mound centerpiece. Then a game of hide and seek, my mother in the kitchen washing dishes at the sink, stopping to whisper places for me to hide.

Now, forty years later, I stand in the electrified field of my own kitchen: raising a daughter. She stomps before me, enraged with me for saying no to an overnight with a family I have only just recently come to know. I could easily spend her childhood lamenting how odd to find her so deeply wrapped around my heart, embedded in my subconscious, how uncomfortable to feel her groping around in there for the edges of her own self, unable to accept the simple yes or no answers my sons tend to accept.

I’m not alone—other mothers too talk about their daughters’ relentless hunt for full attention: daughters engage until they get your anger, or your apathy, or the pushing away when they won’t accept no. I’m guessing because we arrive here more than not lately (my daughter and I), she must be honing a skill she needs. So many buttons get pushed, it takes Herculean effort to remain patient--a lifetime effort: getting a better grip on how I respond. One friend, speaking on her own relationship with her daughter and the exhausting go-arounds said wryly, “Oh my God, is this the kind of garbage we [women] drag men through?!”

And now as I muck through the day, and pray for a tiny pocket of sacred time with each kid, I realize it is what it is….My daughter hunts me down tonight in the bathtub, where I’ve managed to submerge myself, half-clothed, in order to lure in the 4 year old son (mollified, or shocked I’ve plopped in, finally submitting to the “tick check” after the hour of scrambling through downed trees and brush). She stands in the doorway, tucking her violin under her chin. One string mercilessly tuned an octave low, she perseveres to show me the first bar of “Ruben and Rachel”. She’ll wait til the boys are asleep to fill me in on her heart-life. Phew…at nine, she still cares to talk to me.

When she finally drifts off to sleep, I think about all the mothers and daughters I know. I have friends still angry at their mothers, friends abandoned by their mothers at birth, friends who ignore their mothers, friends who crave more time with their mothers, friends writing letters to their mothers who have since passed on. None of us can be where we are not…I know mending the hurts of a lifetime has its’ own timeline. But I do wish for reconciliation where possible for my friends and their mothers.

And maybe that shared symbiotic quiet I experienced as a kid, looking with longing at those perfect images of perfect mothers and daughters had more to do with a craving for god/source/connection, which I mistook to be my mother. But not really—I wasn’t mistaken—for she housed my first experiences of love. And was as busy as I now find myself to be, and yet took the time to whisper “hide behind the water heater” to me before my brother belted out, “Ready or not, here I come,” read countless bedtime stories, put on countless band-aids, listened to countless complaints and continues to surround not only me, but my children with love.

Thank you, Mom.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Post by Lisa Rivero: My Homeschooling Education

I am very excited to embark upon the first of what I hope will be many fertile blog cross-pollinations inspired by a “blog-swapping” thread posted earlier this month at She Writes (

It is an honor to introduce to you writer and teacher Lisa Rivero, and to host her post today. Rivero’s blog Everyday Intensity ( is a daily discussion of lifelong learning, living with intensity, creativity, and personal growth. She is the author of four books: The Smart Teens’ Guide to Living with Intensity (2010), A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Teens (2010), The Homeschooling Option (2008) and Creative Home Schooling (2002). Photo: Lisa Rivero, first day of school.

My Homeschooling Education

This week I was returning home from a walk in our neighborhood when I met another mother whose daughter, a college freshman, is the same age as our son. We hadn't seen each other in awhile, so we had the usual awkward but not entirely unpleasant experience of catching up on our families’ changes and growth, much too much information to fit in a five-minute conversation.

An added awkwardness is that, for the last ten years of our son’s elementary and high school education, our family homeschooled, so when my neighbor talked about how our local public high school did such a good job of preparing her daughters for college, I struggled, just for a moment, not to assume that she was making a broader point. However, something I’ve learned from homeschooling is not only to refrain from taking things personally, but also, and, in keeping with another of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements, not to make assumptions, especially about what kind of education is a good fit for a child or family.

Perhaps you have considered homeschooling. Or maybe the idea puzzles you. Do you wonder what it looks like? Do you ever wonder if you could do it?

I want to share here a bit about why we homeschooled, how we homeschooled, and some things that homeschooling taught me.

Why We Homeschooled

When we started homeschooling at the end of our son’s second grade year, I had no plans to do so long term. All we knew was that our son, though very bright and doing fine academically in the classroom, was not thriving emotionally or socially. At the time, I didn’t know what the problem was; I only knew he was extremely unhappy at school, and he was beginning to shut down at home as well. The spark was going out.

In hindsight, I understand better why a full-time classroom—even a small one—was not the best fit for him. First, he is an introverted learner. My favorite pithy description of introverts comes from Jonathan Rauch: “introverts are people who find other people tiring.” Introverts don’t dislike other people, and they don’t necessarily lack friends. However, a full day of intense interaction with other students—especially other intense students such as the ones at the school for highly gifted learners our son attended—is simply too much.

Another lack of fit was that our son’s intellectual needs were varied and did not fit neatly into a single grade level. I’m not sure if any child’s learning needs are best met by a single-grade curriculum, but, for gifted learners, who may be extremely advanced in some subjects and closer to grade level in others, or who may have unusual interests that are not part of regular a scope and sequence, the rigidity of a day of third grade math followed by third grade reading then third grade science will inevitably lead to boredom or frustration.

When we decided to homeschool, however, all I knew is that what we had been doing wasn’t working and that we would try learning at home for a year while we researched other schools, as a way to buy some time.

Ten years later, our son “graduated” from homeschooling and was headed to college. We may have begun homeschooling as a way to fix a problem, but we continued because we couldn’t imagine anything that would work better or that we would enjoy more.

How We Homeschooled

One reason I hadn’t considered homeschooling sooner than I did was that I had bought into the usual stereotypes about homeschooling: that families who homeschooled all did so for religious reasons, or that homeschoolers were unsocialized, or that homeschooled children would lack the necessary academic skills and credentials to go to college and succeed.

What I learned is that homeschooling families can truly create an educational approach that fits their individual needs, personalities, and values.

In our case, that meant focusing on self-directed learning, creative thinking, and multi-disciplinary study as much as, if not more than, a more traditional approach to curriculum. We often followed our son’s interests in-depth, staying with one or two subjects for days or weeks, until they had run their course, rather than always fit in five or more subjects a day.

We also did not follow the usual academic calendar. We usually homeschooled through the summer, not in order to get ahead, but simply because that’s what our son wanted to do. Homeschooling and regular life were not that much different from each other. This flexibility of scheduling allowed him to be involved in figure skating for several years and to accept roles in local theater productions, without sacrificing sleep or study or peace of mind.

We took advantage of homeschooling groups and found one that was a good fit for us: a mixture of families of different religious backgrounds (including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists) and who had different approaches to education. What united us was that we all saw the value that homeschooling has for strengthening the family, especially the relationship between parent and child.

When the high school years came, our son considered going to the local public or a private high school, but decided to continue at home. He took the SAT once—early—which allowed him to enroll part time in college during his sophomore high school year. He made the decision on his own not to take the SAT again just to improve his score, and to bypass the college preparation frenzy he watched many of his schooled friends go through. Instead, he used his high school years to continue to take advantage of time for hours of leisure reading, study of subjects that were outside of most high school curricula, and even daydreaming.

What Homeschooling Has Taught Me

Now that our son is nearing the end of his freshman year in a college honors program, I find myself looking back, not on what he learned from homeschooling, but what I did:

I learned that it’s okay to go against the grain, and that other people can make assumptions about me and my family without the world’s coming to a stop. A big question among homeschoolers is how to deal with the inevitable assumptions about why we homeschool or whether we even should. Having to face these assumptions has led to much personal growth for me, finally allowing me to begin to face and overcome a lifetime of people pleasing. Now I allow others their assumptions. In fact, I listen gladly to them without the need to be defensive. Homeschooling has helped to make this possible.

I learned that there are more “good fits” in education than we realize. Every child and family have unique needs that require unique solutions. Sometimes a school is a good fit, whether public or private or a hybrid. Sometimes learning at home is. Sometimes it’s a combination, or even another option we haven’t yet considered. We might not know what works until we try it.

I learned that there are many ways to approach education that work well, such as doing away completely with grading, allowing students a true choice is what they study and when they study it, and even taking time off from subjects when roadblocks occur.

Finally, homeschooling rekindled my own love of learning. I remember very clearly my own first day of school and the excitement of finally being able to learn everything the world had to offer. As with so many of us, somewhere along the line, I lost that feeling, and began to approach learning as a chore rather than a passion.

My spark is back.